Night had fallen with a vengeance by the time Elaine stepped off the train at Queenborough Station. As she stood watching the last of the carriages roll past, she repositioned the bag on her shoulder. It was heavy and uncomfortable. The money had filled it to the point of bursting, there hadn't even been room for her book. She clutched that now in her hand.
She didn't relish the thought of the long walk home, all the way to the bottom of Rushenden Road; to make matters worse it had started to spit and spot with rain.
Get a taxi then.
Huh. She wished she could, but she didn't get paid until Friday, and that was still two days away...
She stopped. Of course she could get a taxi.
She had all the money in the world.
There was one lone taxi cab in the ranks just beyond the station. As Elaine approached, the driver, a fat balding man with a handlebar moustache and a roll-up cigarette dripping tobacco clamped between his lips, wound down the driver's side window and popped out his head. "Need a ride love?"
"Hop in then."
She grimaced to herself in the dark; gone were the days when the driver got out to open the door for his fare then. She started to walk round the car to reach the passenger side, then stopped. she glanced at the driver. He was bent forward, head down, fiddling with something at the dashboard. Quickly, Elaine placed her book on the ground, slipped the bag from her shoulder and unfastened the zip. She reached in, drew out a ten pound note and stuffed it into her coat pocket, re-shouldered the bag and retrieved her book. The driver was none the wiser. She got in the car with a grin, set the bag at her feet, and put on the seat belt.
"Where to love?"
"Bottom of Rushenden Road please. By the shops."
"Right you are."
The drive took literally five minutes, if that. The taxi driver talked non-stop all the way, the cigarette between his lips bounced merrily up and down all the while, accompanying his words. Tobacco rained down on his lap. After the first few seconds Elaine tuned him out.
"'Ere we are then love. That'll be two squid fifty please."
Elaine frowned. "Is that all?"
The driver laughed a laugh throaty with nicotine. The tip of his roll-up winked in the dark. "I can make it more if you want."
Elaine drew the ten pound note out of her pocket and handed it over. "Keep the change."
"You sure love? Seven fifty's one hell of a tip - although I can't believe I've actually just said that."
"I want you to have it." Elaine wrapped her slim cool hand for a moment around the driver's big meaty one. "Keep it. It's fine. Really."
"Bless you love. Take care now - it's a nasty night out there."
She opened the door and got out, then quickly side-stepped as a young lad on a bike zipped passed on her left, narrowly missing getting swiped by the opening door.
"Bloody hooligan," said the driver. "Look at him - hasn't even got any poxy lights on that thing. Frigging pratt. Oops - sorry love."
Elaine grinned and retrieved her bag. "That's okay. Night."
Elaine waited until the taxi cab had pulled away, then turned and headed towards the welcoming lights of Prabu's Paper Shop. She needed a pint of milk, and she might as well pick up the evening paper while she was about it.
She was halfway across the forecourt when the sound of screeching brakes rent the air, followed by the loud scrunch of crashing metal and the tinkle of breaking glass.
Elaine turned, her heart in her throat.
The taxi had mounted the pavement and smashed into a lampost, one of the old-fashioned concrete kinds. In the sickly yellow light spilling down, Elaine could plainly see inside the car.
The taxi-driver was slumped, unmoving, over the steering wheel. Thick blood, inky in the darkness, was seeping from a gash on his forehead. His cigarette, unbelievingly, was still balanced on his bottom lip. Above him the windscreen was dented and frosted from the impact with his skull.
Beneath the front bumper of the taxi, mangled beyond recognition, was the same bike that had whizzed passed Elaine just moments earlier. One wheel still lazily turned; clicking eerily in the silence.
The only sign of the boy was the steadily growing pool of blood beneath the taxi's crumpled bonnet.
Elaine jumped as a hand fell onto her shoulder. It was Prabu. The small Pakistani
had been drawn out of his shop by the sound of the collision. The whites of his eyes glistened moist in the half-light. "What's happened Missis Elaine?"
But she couldn't speak. Couldn't drag her gaze away from the taxi cab.
I was in that, she thought. I was in that. I was in that. The words circled crazily round and around inside her head.
Already people were running towards the scene. She recognized old Mrs Mackenzie wrapped in her dressing gown; curlers in her hair. Mr Evans was standing by his garden gate, talking on his mobile phone. His shadow stretched before him, long and thin in the lamplight.
"Come Missis Elaine. Come into my shop. Away from this catastrophes."
"It's okay. I'm fine. Really. I just need to go home. It's been a long day." She started to walk away, back towards the street. Then stopped.
Milk. she needed milk.
She paused only once on her way back across the forecourt. Just long enough to pull a five pound note out of her bag.
The sirens woke her up.
She felt confused, disoriented; at first thinking the mournful wailing must be linked with the earlier accident. Then her mind cohered, and she remembered that all the signs of the wreckage had been cleared away hours ago.
This was something new then.
She lay where she was, loath to move, the comforting weight of Bocelli on her feet, the blue light of the (ambulance?...fire-engine?...police car?) pulsing against her bedroom walls, until curiosity got the better of her for the second time that day. She swept the bedcovers aside.
She padded barefooted to the window and draw back the curtains.
Prabu's Paper Shop was on fire. The whole sky glowed orange from the blaze. Without giving herself time to think, Elaine grabbed up her robe and ran from the house.
They had all been killed. Prabu, his wife, and their two young children. Asphyxiated in their sleep, said the fireman. Burnt to death in their beds.
Elaine sat at her kitchen table, an untouched mug of coffee beside her, the environmentally-friendly Accessorize bag before her; money spilling from its guts.
She had been sitting in the same position for over an hour, clenched fists supporting her chin, sooty shadows beneath her (haunted?) eyes, staring at the money. And she had come to a conclusion.
The money was evil. Cursed.
That was why the man on the train had wanted rid of it.
She had paid the taxi-driver with it, and the taxi driver - and the boy, don't forget the boy - had died.
She had paid Prabu with it, and Prabu - and his family - had died.
She sat for another half an hour before rising to her feet, opening her cutlery drawer and taking out the scissors.
Elaine Randolf sat back down at her kitchen table and began to cut the money up into tiny pieces.
Excerpt from The Daily News dated 22.11.2008:
Terry Woodley from Sheppey had an early Christmas present this year. The thirty-seven year old refuse collector from Kent discovered a black bin liner stuffed with cut up five and ten pound notes while emptying the skips in his local area. The police have confirmed that the money is neither fake or stolen. They have also confirmed that if Mr Woodley can piece the money back together, the Bank of England will exchange it for pristine notes.
Mr Woodley is said to be considering this option.