The wipers screeched on the windshield and Conrad slammed them off.
‘I’ll stay out a bit longer, I want to get another fifty quid before I stop.’
‘What about your dinner? I’m about to put something on,’ his wife Janine’s voice boomed out of the hands-free speaker. ‘I don’t want you wasting money.’
‘I’ll get a sandwich or something,’ he lied.
‘Make sure it’s not McDonalds, alright.’
‘No! Speak to you later,’ he said, and jabbed at the red button. He thought about the Big Mac and fries he would have just to spite her. Who the hell was she to tell him what to eat?
He turned the cab around and headed towards the drive-in on Edgware Road. It was quiet for a Saturday night. The busy hour was imminent so it made sense to take a break now.
Conrad spotted her before she even gestured. Stood at the kerb, dressed in an elegant, black-lace dress, watching him approach. When he was close, she barely raised a hand. He would have missed it if he hadn’t been watching her.
‘Where to?’ he asked as he pulled up.
‘Hilton, Park Lane.’ She stepped in, filling the cab with sensuous perfume. The Hilton was barely five hundred metres away, but at least it would pay for his burger.
The full moon shone through the black trees of Hyde Park, illuminating the vast open space, and Conrad observed his beautiful passenger in the rear view mirror. She seemed captivated by the landscape.
They arrived within minutes and he pulled up to the entrance.
‘Actually, it’s not here, it’s just over there.’
She pointed across the street to a large, corner townhouse with immaculate black brickwork and white window sills. It towered two storeys higher than the rest of the terrace.
Conrad pulled up outside the house and a doorman opened the passenger door. She walked around to the driver’s window and bent down so that they were just a few inches apart.
‘That’s… £5.50 please.’
‘Listen,’ she said huskily. He couldn’t help but be captivated by her beauty. ‘I have a spare ticket for an event here tonight. They’re very expensive, but my guest didn’t show up, so I can either pay you the fare, or give you the ticket. The food is superb.’
Conrad was taken aback. ‘I..’
‘Whichever you prefer.’ Her smile was perfect.
‘Sounds great, and I’m starving, but I’m not really dressed for it,’ he said, looking down at his navy tracksuit.
‘Nobody cares what you’re wearing; it’s not that kind of event,’ she said, opening her purse and pulling out a black card. ‘See you inside.’
She handed the ticket to him and walked towards the house, having made his mind up for him.
He examined the matt black piece of card but it was just blank; no discernible features or writing on either side. But as he turned it and the light caught it at a particular angle, he could just make out the number 13, barely legible. He sat there a moment, unsure what to do, twiddling the card.
‘Sir?’ the doorman said. ‘I’ll park your car for you if you’d like to make your way inside.’
‘Oh, sure.’ Conrad got out and the doorman took his seat.
‘Your name, sir?’
‘Have a lovely evening Conrad,’ the doorman said, before driving off. A second doorman stood at the glossy black door and gestured inside. ‘Welcome, sir.’
Conrad stepped inside where a young lady greeted him.
‘Good evening, sir, do you have your invitation?’
He handed her the black card and with the slightest glance at it she said, ‘Ah, yes, you’re Lilith’s guest. Do you have anything you’d like to leave in the cloakroom?’
Conrad tried to remember what T-shirt he had on beneath the tracksuit top and bum-bag, sagging with coins, hung at his hip.
‘I’m OK,’ he said.
‘Of course, sir. Please make your way into the dining room. The buffet has started, and the bar is to the left. If you need anything else please come and find me. The entertainment will be starting in about an hour.’
‘Oh, I’ll have to leave after the buffet,’ Conrad mumbled.
‘That’s fine,’ she said, smiling sweetly.
Conrad stepped to one side, taking in the opulence of the interior. A sweeping staircase dominated the entrance lobby and the walls were filled with a variety of old portraits and landscapes, golden wallpaper showing between each one. At the base of the stairs was a white, marble statue. A nude, one arm held across her breasts, her head turned at an angle to see who was approaching.
The staircase curled around and he could see several doors leading off the first floor landing. The lobby smelled of incense but delicious food smells were wafting in from the dining room. Two couples entered the lobby from the dining room, both elegantly dressed.
‘Good evening,’ one of the ladies said, ‘you must be Lilith’s friend, Conrad.’
‘Uh, sort of,’ Conrad answered, unsure how to react and a little surprised that they had already been made aware of his name.
‘Would you like me to find her for you?’
‘Oh no, that’s fine, thank you. I’m just going to get something to eat.’
‘You must try the tartare, it’s divine,’ the lady replied.
‘My favourite,’ Conrad said, as he watched the two couples ascend the stairs and enter one of the rooms, closing the door behind them. He felt slightly more at ease now, but wondered what the hell tartare was.
In the dining room he felt very self-conscious. The men were dressed in tuxedos and all the ladies had fine dresses, but everyone who passed greeted him with a ‘good evening,’ treating him the same as everyone else.
The room was large and Conrad estimated that maybe sixty or so people were stood around talking and eating.
A lady approached him and offered her hand. ‘Good evening, Conrad, I’m Alice.’
‘Hello, Alice, I’m Conrad.’
As soon as he said it, he felt himself slowly dying inside. ‘Sorry, I’m a little nervous.’
‘Nervous? Why? It’s just a little fun. Have you eaten yet?’
‘No, I was just about to.’
‘Let me show you what there is.’
She took his hand and led him through the crowd. He walked slightly behind, giving him the opportunity to admire her. He had no idea how he had ended up in this situation, but he was struggling with the decision of whether to tell Janine or not. He knew it would just lead to complications so decided it would probably be best not to say anything.
‘So do you like fish, meat, or … maybe you just like vegetables?’ She handed him a plate, smiling. ‘Please enjoy, it’s all excellent.’
She turned and left before he could reply.
There were a few others at the buffet table, perusing the dishes. Conrad had never seen anything like it. Delicacies beautifully arranged on silver and crystal platters; shellfish and crab on a mound of crushed ice and what looked like a whole pig on a spit, with a chef standing behind, waiting to carve.
Conrad walked alongside the table, overwhelmed by it all.
‘I recommend the tartare.’ The chef pointed to what looked, to Conrad, like a plate of raw mincemeat topped with a raw egg.
‘Mmm, no thank you, I think I’ll have the ..’ Conrad pointed to the pig.
‘The suckling pig? Good choice, sir.’
He carved off a few slices and placed them on Conrad’s plate. Conrad added all manner of delicious-looking food until he could fit no more on without it becoming embarrassing. At the All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet he and Janine often frequented, he had mastered the art of loading a single plate with a three course meal, but he thought it best just to come back for seconds in the current environment.
He found a quiet corner to eat, but first he had to take the obligatory photo of his plate. He patted his pockets and realised he had left his phone in the cab in the confusion. Probably for the best, he thought; the less evidence the better.
The food was incredible. The juicy pork melted in his mouth; the prawns, subtly spiced, had a delicate crunch. Even the salad that he’d taken out of politeness was exquisite.
As he was nearly finished and deciding whether it would be appropriate to return for more, a man walked into the middle of the room and rang a hand bell.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, the entertainment will start very shortly in the drawing room.’
A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd and they started moving towards the door. Within a few moments, just a few groups of two or three remained, talking and finishing their drinks, so Conrad took the opportunity to refill his plate. He wondered if he might be able to load a serviette up to have as a snack later, but decided against it.
A waitress passed nearby collecting glasses and Conrad caught her eye.
‘Excuse me, what is this tonight?’
‘It’s Third Saturday. Is it your first time?’
‘Yes. But who are they?’
‘Oh, it’s all the members. They all come together once a month. It’s going to be great fun.’ She wandered off leaving him none the wiser.
Conrad finished his plate and looked up. He was now the only person left in the room.
Nodding to the chef who was still at the buffet table straightening the remaining food, Conrad made his way back to the entrance lobby.
‘Are you leaving us already? The night is young,’ the receptionist asked him.
‘Unfortunately I have to get back to work.’
‘Oh, what a shame. It’s going to be such fun,’ she said.
‘Yes, so I hear. Thanks so much.’
The young lady opened the door for Conrad and Lilith stood outside, on the step, smoking.
‘Hello, Conrad. So sorry we didn’t get the chance to speak earlier, I was so busy catching up with everyone.’
‘That’s fine. I had a lovely meal.’
‘Yes, Jaques is a miracle worker. Are you leaving?’
‘Yes, I have to work.’
‘That’s so sad. I can’t convince you to stay? The fun is just about to start.’
Conrad looked into her eyes and was smitten. He couldn’t believe that she was taking the time to even talk with him.
‘I really can’t,’ he said.
‘I understand. Goodnight.’ She held out her hand and he took it in his. He stood there mesmerised as she tossed her cigarette into the street and walked inside.
‘Shall I fetch your car, sir?’ the doorman asked.
‘Yes please. It’s in the name Conrad.’
‘I know, sir. Won’t be a moment,’ he replied, and walked around the corner.
Conrad stood alone on the steps. It had probably been the most bizarre thing that had happened to him as a taxi driver, and he relished the thought of sharing the story with his fellow cabbies in the tea hut. They always had great ‘you’ll never guess who I had in the back of my cab’ stories to tell, and now finally he had one to match, even trump, their best.
Across the road, another grand Mayfair townhouse was lit throughout and Conrad could see straight inside. On the first floor, a large chandelier hung from the ceiling, and on the wall was something very familiar to Conrad. The same Blue Lady painting that had always been, and still was, a permanent fixture on the wall of his mother’s council flat. As a child he had been fascinated by the bizarre portrait of the oriental lady, and even now the sight of it recalled the taste of custard creams that he always had when he visited his mother.
Feeling voyeuristic, he watched as a group of people entered the room with glasses in hand, talking and laughing, and just for a brief moment Conrad felt a connection to this world, a world in which he was normally a ghost. For once, he had a sense of belonging.
The familiar rattle of his black cab roused him from his thoughts and signalled the end of his eventful night.
The driver pulled up by Conrad and held the door open for him.
‘Uh, you know what,’ Conrad said, ‘I think I’ll just pop back inside for five minutes. Is that Okay?’
‘Certainly, sir. I’ll leave the car here. It’ll be fine at this time of night.’
Conrad had surprised himself with his sudden change of mind. He didn’t want his brief sojourn into this strange world to end quite so soon.
He walked sheepishly back inside, but the receptionist didn’t seem at all surprised when he passed through.
‘The drawing room is just to the right,’ she said.
The same people stood around the lavishly decorated drawing room, drinks in hand, but Conrad sensed the chatter was much more excited, even though the entertainment evidently hadn’t started yet.
A man approached him and offered his hand.
‘Hello, Conrad, I’m Jacob.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Jacob.’
‘What do you do?’ Jacob asked.
‘I’m a cab driver.’
‘Oh, I didn’t mean as a job, but that sounds like fun. Do you know what you’ll do next?’
‘Next?’ Conrad asked.
‘When you’re bored of driving a car.’
‘No, I’ve never really considered it.’
‘No, I don’t suppose many people do,’ Jacob said.
‘What do you do?’ Conrad asked.
‘Work wise? I go to an office, read some emails, write some emails, occasionally talk to people. I’m boring myself just talking about it.’
A waiter passed with a tray of filled wine glasses and Jacob tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Could you bring me a scotch please, dash of water, make it a large one.’
‘So Conrad, have you ever considered changing everything?’
‘Do you mean my job?’
‘Job. Home. Wife, or husband. Name even.’
Conrad laughed, confused by the question.
‘No, can’t say I have.’
‘Why not? If you could start your life all over again, would you do it all the same?’
‘No, I guess not,’ Conrad replied.
‘Then why settle for it now? Money?’
‘Partially I guess.’
The waiter returned with Jacob’s scotch and Conrad noticed Jacob slipping a tip into his jacket pocket. He was sure he saw the purple of a twenty pound note.
‘What is this place? Who are these people?’ Conrad asked.
‘Just friends. Are you a gambling man Conrad?’
‘I like an occasional dabble on the gee-gees.’
‘Lovely. Would you like to try?’ Jacob asked, pointing behind Conrad.
Conrad turned, and on a table was a wheel of fortune. A woman stood next to it looking directly at him. The wheel was mounted on a spindle and was divided into twenty numbered segments. One to nineteen in red, and twenty, black.
‘One in twenty,’ Jacob said.
‘How does it work?’ Conrad asked, intrigued.
‘Very simple. You spin the wheel. If it lands on red, you win, black you lose. You have a 95% chance of success.’
‘What do I win?’
‘Well, we’ll have to see.’
Conrad noticed for the first time that the entire room had fallen silent, all eyes were on him.
‘Who’ll start the bidding?’ Jacob called out. ‘Shall we start at two?’
‘2 million!’ somebody in the crowd shouted.
The shouts coming from the crowd stopped. Complete silence.
‘Any more?’ Jacob asked, scanning the crowd.
There was a single unified gasp from the crowd.
Jacob held three fingers in the air, lowered one after a few seconds, then a second, and finally took down his hand.
‘There you are then. Land on red, you get five million pounds.’
Conrad laughed, he really couldn’t tell if they were being serious.
‘And if it lands on black?’
Jacob pointed to the winning bidder.
Roger walked to the front of the crowd. Immaculately dressed in his tuxedo, bow tie, and mirror shine shoes.
‘Well, I know it’s a cliché, a bit cringy, but I can’t help myself. You know me, Jacob.’
Roger turned to Conrad, ‘It’s going to have to be your soul.’
‘What does that mean?’ Conrad asked, a sense of nervousness encroaching.
‘Roger collects souls. He has a thing for them,’ Jacob explained.
‘Yes, but what does that mean?’ Conrad persisted.
‘He will take your soul, and use it as he sees fit.’
‘And what will happen to me?’ Jacob was now feeling a sense of panic.
‘Well, you are your soul. Your body won’t exist anymore if that’s what you mean.’
‘You’ll kill me?’ Conrad exclaimed.
‘Well, that’s rather crudely put.’
‘Are you insane?’ Conrad took a step back from Jacob.
‘It’s just a bit of fun, no compulsion.’
‘Fun? You’re talking about killing me.’
‘You have a 5% chance of passing on a few years earlier than you normally would.’
‘Well, it’s all relative,’ Jacob explained. ‘How old are you now? Late 40s? You can walk out of here now and continue driving your cab until you eventually die of illness or old age or whatever. Or play, take that 95% chance of becoming rich, a fresh start, really enjoying your life. We will teach you things you could barely imagine.’
Conrad was stunned, thoughts raced through his head. The crowd had moved closer so that he was penned in; he wouldn’t make the door if he had to fight for it. Plus he recalled that the two doormen were heavily built.
‘You have to weigh everything up, Conrad. What are the chances of you dying on your way home tonight, or by next week? No one here gets out alive as the song so rightly reminds us.’
Conrad surveyed the crowd, all eyes were on him.
Lilith stood at the front and smiled at him as their eyes met. ‘Look around you, Conrad.’ she said, ‘Everyone here is a winner. Why not join us?’
‘I’d just need you to read and sign this form.’ Jacob had produced what looked like a contract and Roger was already leaning over the table signing away, a black American Express card in his hand at the ready.
‘And I just need to make you aware we’ve had twelve straight winners. I assume that’s why Roger bid a record high.’
‘You’re all fucking mad,’ Conrad whispered.
‘It’s just a bit of fun,’ Jacob replied. ‘Four years ago I was working in a chicken factory in Essex when I was given my chance.’
Conrad took one step towards the crowd and they parted like the red sea, opening a path to the door. He slowly backed his way through them until he reached the lobby. He turned and clenched his fist in readiness in case the doorman tried to stop him, but instead he greeted him with a cheerful ‘Goodnight, sir,’ and handed him his car keys.
Conrad got in the cab as quickly as he could and sped off.
He picked up his phone. Seven missed calls, all Janine. As he looked at the screen, a message popped up. ‘Where the fuck are you?’
He had driven maybe fifty metres and pulled over to the kerb. In his rear view mirror he could still make out the doorman. He sat for a moment in silence before performing the infamous cabbie U-turn and headed back to the house.