The music was too loud, too garish. The bass pounded in Jack’s head, like being hit with a gong. Jack, draped across a bar stool, motioned for the bartender.
Jack didn’t have to say anything; he came here too often. Wordlessly the bartender handed Jack a shot of bourbon.
The smell of smoke was overwhelming. Sharp and acrid, the smell of a thousand and one cigarettes blended with the odor of fermentation and misery. To Jack’s nostrils, the potent combination was intoxicating.
Jack downed the bourbon and set the glass on the bar with the trembly caution of the very old or very drunk.
Someone in a leather trench coat leaned up against the bar next to Jack. “Give me a Coors. Nice mood tonight, eh? Jukebox is really smoking.”
The realization that the man was talking to Jack slowly filtered through Jack’s clouded mind. He turned and looked at the newcomer blearily. “Smokin’ is what it should be doin’,” Jack slurred. “Screamin’ is what it is doin’.”
The man laughed, as if Jack had said something witty. “Hey, another drink for my friend here.”
Jack managed a wobbly smile that felt like it might fall off his face and onto the dirty floor at any moment.
The man clapped Jack on the shoulder. Jack suddenly realized what cold blue eyes the stranger had, frozen eyes set in a pale face.
“How’s the family?” the man asked.
Jack stiffened. “Get lost.”
“How’s Izie doing? And your wife—Lydia, right?”
Jack stumbled to his feet. He could feel the drunkenness oozing out of his pores and dribbling onto the floor. “Who are you?”
“I’m Fate,” the blue-eyed man said. “Your Fate.” His eyes panned across the small bar, a condescending sneer curling his lip. “You’re not supposed to be here, Jack. You’re better than this.” The man, Fate, pulled a coin from his coat pocket and twirled it between his fingers. “I had such plans for you. I can make all this–” He snapped his finger and the coin vanished “–go away. So how about it, pal?”
“You’d better start talking sense, and you had better do it now.”
Fate slapped his palms on the bar. “All right. Nice and simple. You, sir, are a pitiful wreck of a man.” He grinned as he spoke, as if he were telling a terrific joke. “You’re a failure, you’ve ruined what every man ought to protect. Want to go back?”
“Go back,” Jack repeated. “To Izie, you mean?”
Fate nodded once, firmly. “To Izie. Before Lydia left. I can take you back, but at a price. A life for a life.”
“Mine for Izie’s you mean?” Jack asked.
Fate narrowed his eyes.
“Yes, okay. Take me back,” Jack said. “Please, just take me back.”
“Fine. Follow me.” Fate turned abruptly, his half-drunk can of Coors in his hand. Jack scrambled after him. Fate pushed the door open and stepped outside, into warmth and sunshine. Jack started.
When he had entered the bar scant hours before, puddles dripped and collected everywhere and and the sky had been the sort of swollen gray that heralded even more rain. Now the sky was pale blue and the ground was dry.
Jack looked at Fate sharply. “What is this?”
“What you asked for. ‘Back.’”
Jack looked around, eyes wide.
“I shouldn’t putter around, if I were you,” Fate said, calmly, glancing down at his watch. “It’s three in the afternoon, May second, year two thousand and six. You’ll have to jog to get there in time as it is.”
Jack took off at a sprint. Century and Twenty-Second was five blocks down. This afternoon, five years ago, a double-decker bus, one of those bright red monstrosities full of tourists, had trundled to the corner of Century and Twenty-Second. The fool of a driver hadn’t seen the child dash away from his father and dart into the street after a dropped action figure. The bus hadn’t even slowed down, not until some passengers who had seen what had happened alerted the driver.
Well, by then it was too late, of course. Izie’s tiny body was crushed and his soul had flown. He had been six years old.
Jack rounded the corner and suddenly he could see two figures up ahead, one tall and lanky, the other a little butterball. Jack ran toward them. “Hey! Izie! Isaac!”
“They can’t hear you of course,” Fate informed him, standing on the sidewalk next to him, one hand plunged in his coat pocket, the other cradling his still-frosty Coors.
Of course not. Jack came up alongside the pair and looked at them. Izie was all smiles, as always, shrugging his little Yoda backpack up and down on his shoulders, clutching a plastic Anakin Skywalker in one hand and one of those massive swirly lollipops sold on every Downtown corner in the other. His eyes were so bright and so green. Jack had forgotten how green.
“This is cherry, Daddy,” Izie said, and Jack hurt when Izie said that word and looked away from him at someone else. At the other Jack.
Jack followed Izie’s gaze to his own younger face. The younger Jack’s eyes twinkled and his face was chiseled rather than ragged and gaunt. Had Jack ever looked that carefree and unburdened? He didn’t remember.
“Is it, Izie?” the young Jack said. “And the white, is that vanilla?”
Izie shook his head and chuckled. “No, Daddy, I think it’s happy flavor.”
Jack mouthed the words along with his son, tears burning his eyes.
The young Jack laughed and tousled Izie’s hair. “Is it? Happy flavor’s definitely worth the exorbitant three fifty that guy charged me for it.”
Where was that bus? Jack turned as the thought went through his mind, and there it was. Swaying up the street coming toward them, full of clueless tourists with cameras dangling around their necks.
Jack looked from the bus back to Izie. Now how did this work? He would push Izie out of the way, and what, be run over himself? A life for a life.
Jack turned to ask Fate, but the man wasn’t there.
The bus was nearly upon them now, smoking and chugging up the street. Izie tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and fell forward with a cry. The younger Jack jerked forward and grabbed Izie’s arm before the boy hit the pavement. The lollipop fell to the ground and lay melting to the sidewalk. The Anakin figure rolled into the street.
“Daddy!” Izie shouted and pulled away from the younger Jack. He darted toward the toy. Jack lunged forward and grabbed him. To his horror, his hands went through Izie’s arms and closed on nothing. Izie plunged into the street.
“Isaac!” both Jacks cried at the same moment. The bus bore down upon the boy. Jack threw himself into the street, desperate to push Izie to safety. This time, there was none of this ghost business. Izie was whole and solid, and Jack shoved him out into the middle of the street, out from under the bus. There was thunder, and exhaust, and heat. And then nothing.
Jack lay on the street, panting. A horn blared. Izie sobbed. That brought Jack to his feet. He grabbed Izie’s hand and gestured at the honking car, thanking the guy for having the decency to stop and honk instead of mowing over his little boy.
On the sidewalk, Jack squashed Izie in his arms and cried.
“Sir, are you all right?” someone asked. Jack looked up. A pedestrian with a chihuahua looked down at them, eyes wide. “I saw what happened. Is he okay, should I call 9-1-1?”
Jack looked down at Izie. “You okay, bud?”
Izie sniffed and nodded, eyes red and watery. “I’m okay, Daddy.”
“We’re fine, thanks,” Jack told the dog-walker. The man nodded and moved on.
It occurred to Jack that he was alive. Here was Izie, alive and well, and so was he. They both were alive. He noticed that his younger self was gone. He glanced around to be sure. Yes, the young Jack, the achingly cheerful one, had vanished.
“You stepped into his life when you kept Izie from dying,” Fate said, suddenly standing over Jack’s shoulder. “Do you think the world needs two Jack Shaffords at once? Don’t be conceited.”
“So just like that?” Jack asked. “And we go home now and relive the past five years?”
“No,” Fate said cheerfully. “You’re a cursed little cheat.”
Jack looked down at Izie in his arms. “What?”
“Daddy, who’s that man?” Izie asked.
“You can see him?” Jack asked.
“Of course he can,” Fate said, “if I want him to. And if I don’t, he might not be seeing anything ever again. Especially with his twisted cad of a father.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Jack protested.
Fate’s blue eyes turned to chips of ice. “You should have died under the wheels of the bus. I said a life for a life, Jack. Someone has to die.”
Jack got to his feet, standing between Fate and Izie. “Fine. That’s what we agreed. So kill me.”
“Daddy?” Izie asked.
Fate chugged a mouthful of beer then rolled the can of Coors between his palms. “I don’t think I want to now. No, you should have been killed by the bus. Come along, Izie.” He held out his hand.
Izie shrank back against Jack’s leg. “Daddy, make that man go away.”
Jack put his arm around Izie. “Leave Izie alone. You can’t take him.”
“Oh but I can. Our agreement, remember? A life for a life. A life saved, a life lost. You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain.”
Jack held up his hands placatingly. “Wait, wait. You’re Fate, right?”
Fate stared at him, impassive.
“So give us a sporting chance? If I lose, you can—you can take Izie. But if I win, you have to leave us both alone, forever.”
Fate took another sip of his Coors. “Fine. I choose the game. And you both play.”
Jack looked down at Izie and sighed. “Fine.”
“Follow me.” Fate swiveled on his heel and strode off. Jack picked up Izie and followed. What kind of nightmare had he fallen into?
Fate led them down an alley Jack had never seen before. For some reason, he doubted its existence. Or least, its existence in this time. Graffiti covered the walls of the buildings. Garbage lined the street.
Finally Fate stopped and turned to face them. “Well then? All ready?” He didn’t bother to wait for a response. “I ask you five questions. If you get all the questions right, you’re free to go.”
“And if I miss one?” Jack asked.
Fate considered this for a moment. “I’m a nice guy, Jack. If you miss one, Izie can try to answer it. If he gets it right, the game continues. If he gets it wrong, he gets torn apart by wild dogs instead of smothered.”
The urge to break Fate’s jaw was almost overwhelming. Jack had to stuff his fists in his pockets to keep from attacking the man.
“First question,” Fate said, rolling his frosty can between his hands again. “Remember the captivating Vera Croft? Tell me, how many months did your affair with her last?”
Jack stared at him, color draining from his face. “What?” he asked hoarsely.
“I don’t think I need to repeat myself,” Fate said.
Izie pulled on Jack’s sleeve. “Daddy, what’s an affair?”
Fate crouched in front of Izie. The image of a massive vulture entered Jack’s head.
“An affair,” Fate said to Izie pleasantly, “is when—”
“Shut up,” Jack said coldly.
“Then answer the question. You’re terribly close to forfeiting.”
“Three months, two weeks.”
Fate stared at Jack.
“Four days,” Jack added.
“Freebie,” Fate said, smiling. “Question two: I almost had Izie the morning of his second birthday. What happened?”
“I’m getting tired of hearing that, Jack.”
Jack thought desperately. Izie’s second birthday? Nothing had happened. Jack and Lydia had been busy preparing for Izie’s birthday party the following day. Nothing at all stood out from that morning. A huge blank filled Jack’s mind. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
Fate looked delighted. “You don’t know? Your son almost died and you didn’t even realize? You’re a worse parent than I thought. No wonder you let him get tenderized by a bus.”
“I choked,” Izie said.
“What?” Fate snapped at him.
“You said I could answer if Daddy didn’t know,” Izie said in a small voice. “I put a whole grape in my mouth and I choked. But someone helped me cough it up.”
Fate stopped rolling the Coors between his palms. “How could you possibly remember that?” he asked.
“Who helped you cough it up?” Jack asked.
Izie shrugged. “A man.”
“Question three,” Fate announced, squeezing the can between his fingers. “How often do I claim a child from malaria?”
Jack stared him. “These questions are impossible. How could I know that?”
“You would know if you cared about anyone but yourself. I know, and all I do is kill people.”
“Two for every minute,” Izie said.
Fate’s nostrils flared. “I wouldn’t keep opening my yap if I were you, Isaac. Are you trying to get eaten by dogs?”
Izie shook his head. “I want to stay with Daddy.”
“How did you know that?” Jack asked his son.
Izie frowned. “He told me.” He pointed in the direction of Fate.
Jack was flabbergasted. “Fate told you? He didn’t even say anything.”
“Question four: the family who used to live in your house had a child who died. What was his name?”
“I never knew the family who used to live there.”
“Joey Docker,” Izie said.
Jack looked down at him. “How did you know that?”
“He told me.” Izie pointed again. This time Fate turned and looked over his shoulder. He let out a shriek. The sound grated in Jack’s bones. It was like a thousand bats being roasted alive. Izie clapped his hands over his ears.
Jack also looked over Fate’s shoulder. All he saw was an empty alley with a stray newspaper blowing across it. Fate and Izie were seeing something else, something veiled to him.
Fate turned back to Jack and Izie. His face was even paler than before. Jack imagined all his blood had been drained by Dracula; the result would probably have been much the same.
Fate pronounced a single obscenity, slowly and distinctly, hurling the full force of it against Jack. Jack was horribly aware that Fate would like nothing better than to see him damned for eternity.
“Question five,” Fate said, sounding as if he was grinding gravel between his teeth. “How many children do parents give me, legally, in the good old U.S. of A every year?”
Jack took a deep breath and looked over Fate’s shoulder. “Please show yourself,” he mouthed. “Help me.”
Jack blinked and saw a man standing behind Fate, watching the proceedings intently. The man’s eyes met Jack’s and he gave an encouraging smile.
“You—you told Izie the answers?”
The man nodded.
“And–” Jack paused. “You saved him, didn’t you? When he choked?”
The man nodded again. “And other times.”
Jack pressed his lips together. “Then why didn’t you save him from the bus?”
“It wasn’t permitted,” the man said. “If I had, you would never have ended up here?”
“And ending up here’s a good thing?”
The man gave a quick shrug. “You were going down the wrong path. Now you have a chance to correct it.”
“I only started down that path after Izie—died.”
“Even before that you weren’t on the right path.”
Jack thought about that for a moment. He thought about Vera. “Point taken. This question, you know the answer, don’t you?”
The man nodded. “More than a million. One point three million, in fact.”
“One of them was Vera’s,” the man said. “And yours.”
“I know,” Jack said quietly. “I know.”
Jack looked over to Fate and realized that his conversation seemed to have taken no time at all. Fate stood in precisely the same position he had before, face still deathly white.
“One point three million,” Jack said. “That’s how many.”
Fate turned even whiter. His face looked unreal now, like someone in a Tim Burton’s flick. He made a gagging sound and put his hands up to throat, his Coors tumbling to the street and rolling, spilling a stream of beer.
He turned and fled, trench coat flapping behind him. The other man stepped neatly to one side to let him pass. He turned and winked at Jack. “I’ll be seeing you around, Jack.”
“And me too?” Izie asked.
The man grinned. “Of course I’ll see you, Izie. All the time.” He gave Izie a thumbs up.
Izie smiled at him and returned the gesture. The man walked off down the alley. As he walked, his grew fainter and more shadowy until he vanished altogether.
The Coors can had come to rest against Jack’s shoe. Jack lifted his foot and crushed the can beneath the pavement. Then he took Izie by the hand and walked away, leaving Fate’s alley behind.