“King of the World” by David Webb

king-of-the-world

The people not cool enough for nightclubs meet in pubs and bars where their voices compete with, and are lost in, a pulsating mixture of feel-good music and big screen sports. They shriek at one another clutching over-priced drinks, strike poses, and adopt exaggerated expressions in order to be understood. They flit from venue to venue, never settling, searching for something that lies forever just outside their grasp, and most of them go home alone.

Tony was exactly like that. If you’d seen him standing at a bar, trying to get served by waving a twenty pound note at passing bar staff, you’d have looked right through him like the bar staff did. Like his boss did. Like Nicola did. You wouldn’t have thought anything of it, either, because there wasn’t anything about Tony that stood out; not the skinny khaki chinos, not the deck shoes, not the beard. Not a thing.

Nicola, though. Nicola stood out to Tony. Orbiting in connected social systems, they’d met briefly once and Tony had been as captivated as if he’d been drawn into her gravity. Everything about her, from her petite dancer’s body to her sudden and filthy laugh could have been designed to register on Tony’s personal radar. He immediately became very mildly obsessed with her in that way guys sometimes get, the way you don’t really want to know too much about. The way that makes women think twice about putting a certain kind of holiday snap on Facebook.

They met in pubs, usually with groups of intersecting friends, and there would be a moment of “hello, familiar face” and not much else. Except once. One entirely ordinary night. Comets failed to cross the sky that night. Signs and omens were absent entirely from the gaze of the wise. It was a Tuesday, just after work, and Tony had stopped in to the bar across the road from work to have a drink because several other people had said they would but then not shown up. He was at the bar, wondering whether to just call it a night and if he’d look like a total loser drinking another pint on his own when Nicola bounced up to him.

“I’ve got tickets to Damien Wendigo this Friday!” she bubbled, all white-toothed enthusiasm. “But I can’t go alone! Want to come with?”

It took Tony’s brain a few seconds to parse the news. Fortunately, his mouth knew exactly what to say.

“Damien Wendigo?! No way! I’d LOVE to go with!”

“Brilliant!” squeaked Nicola. There was more enthusing, her deep brown eyes shining with happiness and excitement, but Tony was still catching up.

“Have you got time for a drink?” he asked.

“I can’t right now, I just saw you and took the chance that you’d want to go. I’m due at the gym for an Insanity workout. But I’ll see you Friday, right? Meet at the Dog and Bone for six?”

Tony nodded, and Nicola all but danced out of his evening. He failed to attract a barman’s attention for another couple of minutes and went home. On the way, he googled Damien Wendigo.

The googling turned into a night of YouTube, watching clips of Wendigo’s TV shows. It turned out that Wendigo was a mentalist, a manipulator of facts who created effects without even so much as pulling a rabbit from a hat to relieve the boredom. Tony watched because he was aware he’d need to talk about it with convincing enthusiasm later. A little research now would surely be rewarded. On Friday, he was meeting Nicola. On Friday, he had a date.

“This isn’t a date,” said Nicola when they met in the pub.

Tony said something foolish like,“Oh, of course not, who would ever think such a thing,” but it was drowned out by the spotlight glare of her smile.

“At least, not yet,” she said, “but if the evening goes well, I might let you take me to dinner.”

Tony had chuckled at his, sure that the evening would go well, and they’d gone to the venue to queue early because Nicola wanted to “as part of the experience”.

Damien Wendigo scowled at them from a promotional poster, the high widow’s peak of his hair and his Mephistophelean goatee combining nicely with the retro elegance of a tail coat and a mesmeric pose to promise wonders. Tony doubted Wendigo could deliver them, hoped that Nicola might. Nicola talked about Wendigo. Endlessly. The line moved slowly but steadily and Tony was briefly distracted by the interior of the theatre; restored to former glory, it was a riot in red, velvet and gold decorative plaster work. The seats were also original, and apparently stuffed with either horsehair or actual horses because it took a mere fifteen minutes for Tony to lose sensation in his buttocks. If it hadn’t been for the necessity of keeping up the appearance of enthusiasm, he would have drifted into an uncomfortable sleep. He kept himself awake by planning his gradual waning of enthusiasm for Damien Wendigo throughout the relationship that would surely follow.

The show ended; the posturing and verbally sesquipedalian Wendigo took a curtain call, and then another, but eventually Nicola – who was glowing as if lit from within – agreed that it was time to go. She enthused her way out of the theatre and then, on the street just outside the doors, she slipped a soft and warm hand into his, looked up at him and took a deep breath.

“Tony, it’s been wonderful so far. Can we do something I’ve always wanted to do?”

Whatever fantasies he’d entertained up to that moment died with her next words, which were “autographs at the stage door”.

Standing in a dark and damp alleyway between two buildings by a shabby green door lit by a small sign that said “Stage”, Tony began to wonder whether it was possible for the night to get worse. Nicola seemed incapable of talking about anything other than Damien Wendigo and how amazing the show had been, how it compared to seeing it on the TV, how clever Wendigo must be. Tony did a lot of nodding and smiling. As Nicola’s conversation began to show signs of faltering (and the cold fingers of apprehension began to arpeggio over his spine, because what could he talk to her about?) the stage door opened revealing a mildly surprised Damien Wendigo. He’d changed, of course. He was wearing a suit in something like dove grey. He had a cane – dark wood shod and topped in polished brass – and he was about to don a hat when he noticed Nicola and, belatedly, Tony. Wendigo’s face went from confusion to a sudden and very warm smile.

“Well how absolutely charming of you both to be waiting here” gushed Wendigo, his voice both more rounded and deeper than it had been on stage “I haven’t been asked for autographs in forever!”

The sudden personal recognition refired Nicola’s enthusiasm and she bounced with excitement, which elicited a broader smile from Wendigo.

“Aren’t you just adorable,” he said and then drew an antique pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket, checking it briefly. “I’ve got some spare time tonight, you both simply must come for drink to warm you up after being out here so long. There’s a little club I know not far from here, private members and all that…let’s go and have a brandy.” Wendigo insisted, and Tony found himself trailing after the starstruck Nicola and the affable Wendigo as they stepped out onto a now largely empty street. Tony revised his estimate. The night had got worse.

The club turned out to be a back street basement. Stepping out of the night air and onto the staircase that went down into the club, Tony could smell old beer and the ghost of cigarettes long past. The stair carpet pulled a little at his shoes each time he lifted a foot and from the foot of the staircase came the low hubbub of chatter. Stepping into the bar itself, Tony had a moment’s disorientation. The long wood panelled room seemed to close in, the walls – covered in framed photographs of famous or noteworthy patrons – seemed to bow and bend. He leaned against the bar. A woman at the end of the bar, blond hair piled on top of her head in relaxed curls like the evidence of a confectioner’s mental breakdown, eyed him through purple eyeshadow and mascara like tarmac. She shifted her weight on her barstool and her magenta miniskirt scintillated as it rode up enough to reveal a stocking top.

“It’s the heat” she said, in a true East End drawl, “it takes people like that. Get a drink in ‘im, Rex, ‘fore ‘ee goes over.”

Tony blinked at her, trying to focus. The makeup made her look hollow, like she was being worn by a smaller person inside her. Nicola gave him an irritated glance as she and Wendigo helped him to one of the tables.

“Drinks are a good idea. Brandy all round, I think, and a double for Tony. I’m buying!” Wendigo went to the bar, Nicola sighed at Tony and looked away from him.

The conversation turned, eventually, away from the career of Damien Wendigo who, it turned out, was really called Rex.

“That’s a dog’s name,” said Tony, over a third brandy, but no one paid his comment any attention. Nicola excused herself and went to find the bathroom. Rex turned his attention to Tony.

“Nicola came to see the show, and to find out about the act,” said Rex. “It’s obvious what she wants. What about you, Tony?”

Tony stared into his glass.

“I just wanted to get lucky,” he said, and then gulped because he hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

“Luck’s a funny thing,” said Rex. “It doesn’t really exist. You have to make it yourself.”

“How?”

“That’s the first intelligent question you’ve asked all night,” said Rex. “So I’ll tell you. It works like this: be open. Be open to snap decisions, changes of heart, changes of mind. Say ‘yes’ to things that you’d usually say ‘no’ to. Recognise an opportunity when you see it. Take chances. You’ll find that when you say ‘yes’ to the world, it says ‘yes’ to you.”

“Does that really work?”

Rex smiled.

“My alter-ego is a result of me accepting new possibilities, Tony, allowing me to parlay my extensive knowledge of the human mind into a very successful and lucrative career. I know it works.”

“Then why are you telling me?”

“Because I also know which one of us is sleeping with Nicola tonight,” said Rex, with a sad smile. He slid a fifty pound note over the table to Tony. “You’ll have a much better time if you take this to any other bar. You’ll enjoy your night, and you can feel good that you had this experience. You can certainly have a few more drinks, and you’ll feel good about talking to other people. Do as I have done,” said Rex, “and you’ll end up like me. King of the world, Tony. Now…off you pop before the young lady comes back and makes the goodbyes awkward.”

Tony took the money, slipped it into his pocket and made his way out of the bar. As he reached the top of the stairs the cool night air surrounded him and filled his lungs with a blessed clearness. He found a cab, and another bar with a different crowd where he lost himself in the mass of people not cool enough for nightclubs, armed with money and the urge to say yes.

Dawn rose, and shortly after so did Tony. It was Dawn’s bed, and he didn’t think she’d appreciate it if he outstayed his welcome. In the too-clear light of day they drank coffee, got a good look at one another and said slightly awkward goodbyes. Tony made his way to a bus stop, rooting through his pockets for change. Buses accepted exact change only. He examined the collection of items in his hand, discovering his smallest denomination of money was a ten pound note. He looked at the other occupants of the bus stop.

“Can anyone break a tenner?” he asked. The elderly lady next to him glared straight ahead, her white wool knitted hat the tip of an indignant iceberg. The young man in the grocery store uniform shrugged his shoulders. Tony nodded and looked around him. Across the street stood a cafe, and suddenly the urge to eat a bacon sandwich seemed overwhelming. Tea and a bacon sarnie, and then a bit of a think before home. Plan. He turned to check the road. He could see the bus, but he crossed anyway. There would be another later and he could at least wait in the warm with food. He jogged across the street, pushing open the cafe door and stepping into the steamy fug of fried food and boiling water, eyes already on the menu. From somewhere outside and behind him there was a metallic scream and a thunderous crash. The man behind the cafe counter dropped the two mugs he was holding, vaulted the counter and shouted, “Someone call an ambulance!”

The police officer closed his notebook.

“Lucky escape for you there, sir. If you’d resisted that bacon sandwich for a minute or two longer…”

The bus had failed to stop, ploughed through the bus stop and embedded itself in the storefront behind. Tony had watched the emergency service arrive and, while waiting to talk to the Police, had tried hard not to watch the cleanup. Dazed passengers and the walking wounded were sitting at some of the cafe tables.

“How did it happen?”

“Heart attack at the wheel, probably.” The policeman looked back at the bus. “Nasty,” he said, with no particular feeling in his voice.

“C-can I go?”

“We’ve got your statement, address and contact details, so yes sir. We’ll be in touch as and when we need you.”

“Thanks,” said Tony and he slipped out of the cafe and into the morning.

He walked. Partly to clear his head, mostly to not think about buses. He felt like someone had taken his senses and wrapped them tightly in cotton wool. The day seemed to be taking place millimetres away from his fingertips and yet the space between him and normality at that moment seemed a fathomless chasm and Tony was standing, heedless, on the very edge of a precipice. He found a bench and sat, staring at his feet waiting for the horror to start, for the terrible metallic roar of the bus to echo through his head again, for there to be a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach, for something to happen. Anything.

Ten minutes went by. Nothing changed. Tony got up, looked around and walked to a newsagent where he bought himself a coke and a snickers bar. He reasoned, fuzzily, that his sense of dislocation might only be low blood sugar. He paid, casting an eye over the panoply of newspapers, magazines and snacks available. At the end of the counter sat a Lottery display. Tony frowned at it. Buying a lottery ticket was a thing he never did, much like having a one night stand. He spent a moment reading the types of ticket.

“Uhhh…these and a Euromillions ticket,” he said, putting the can and the Snickers bar down.

“Good choice,” said the bored young man behind the counter. “Triple rollover innit. Bare money, bruv.”

Tony nodded.

“Bare money,” he repeated, filling out his choice of numbers and handing over both ticket and money. He tucked the returned ticket somewhere safe, opened the coke and stepped outside where he drained the can in one long series of hungry gulps. The Snickers bar disappeared in similarly quick time, leaving him with the long walk home. Tony went through his pocket change and signed. Instead of a ten pound note, he now had a five and change, but not enough for a bus ticket.

“Seriously,” he said to himself, pantomiming a shrug, “what have I got to do to get a ride home?”

Something cold stung his right hand, and he closed it reflexively wincing at the sharp pain. Whatever was in his hand was metal, cool and angular.

“Car keys,” said Tony. He opened his hand. They were car keys. Tony looked up, seeing only the apartments above the shops. One had an open window. A head of dark hair poked out of the window, looking around.

“Seen a bunch of keys, mate?” called the head.

“Caught a bunch of keys,” said Tony, holding them up as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“You legend!” said the man in the window. “Down in a minute, don’t go anywhere.”

True to his word, a minute later Tony was handing the keys over to a young, handsome man in dark suit.

“Bit of a morning,” said the suit wearer, sticking his hand out. “Call me Zander.”

“Tony,” said Tony, shaking the offered hand.

A female head appeared at the window. Zander looked at the pavement, then away.

“Oh, now we’re in trouble” he said as the woman in the window started a stream of inventive invective that detailed her opinion on Zander’s shortcomings as a man, a human being and a lover. Zander dangled his keys.

“Time I wasn’t here,” he said. “Drop you anywhere?”

“Sure!” said Tony.

As they drove, they talked. Zander, short for Alexander, was educated and successful. A solicitor with a prestige law practice who had a thing for what he described as “trashy takeaway, and women of a similar calibre”. Tony recognized the easy bonhomie of the Officer classes and resolved to keep his own humble origins quiet, but very quickly realised that Zander liked to talk about himself and was content to do so. As they parted, Zander handed him a business card.

“If you ever need representation, chum, call. The firm handles all sorts of arrangements for all sorts of people.”

Tony tucked the card away somewhere safe, with the lottery ticket.

Later, in the dark of his tiny apartment, he stared at the lottery numbers on the screen and then very carefully compared them to the numbers on the ticket. He closed his eyes, slowed his breathing. Did it again. One number at a time. When he was sure, he picked up his phone and called the number on the ticket.

“Hello? Euromillions? I think I’ve won your jackpot.”

They sent someone to explain what happened when you won the jackpot. He waited until his housemates had gone to work, having called in sick himself, at the lottery company’s suggestion. In the background, the TV talked about the result of the American election and the effect this was having on the dollar. Maureen, the lady from Euromillions, sat with Tony and they both sipped tea. Tony was grey, eyes sunken, lost. Maureen wore a sober trouser suit and restrained jewelry, because you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself or winners.

“What do I do, Maureen?” Tony’s voice came from very far away. This was familiar ground, though, and she launched into her prepared routine.

“First thing you do is go on holiday. Get away from home and friends and family for a week. Switch your phone off and don’t go on the internet. Sit in a hotel somewhere, or a nice little cottage, and look at the view and think about what you want to do. What you don’t do is tell anyone. Not family, not anyone. When you come back, we will arrange for you to meet a finance panel who can help you deal with the money, but if you want my advice hire a bloody good legal representative first and make sure you have a complete shark in your corner, because once word gets out you’ve won a hundred and ninety million Euros, they’ll all want a piece.”

“Who will?”

“Everyone, love. Everyone.”

“Tony!” The cheery voice on the other end of the phone sounded a little too amused to hear him and Tony was instantly wary. “What can I do you for?” The standard ‘funny’ query made the subsequent bombshell much more fun to drop.

It was a very different Zander who accompanied Tony to the financial panel meeting, sat Tony down in a very expensive restaurant and bought the newly minted multi-millionaire lunch. The now serious man in a pinstripe suit, who called Tony “Mr. Smith” to preserve his anonymity and who helped him fortify his new wealth against all comers, and ended the meeting with the advice that Tony should go somewhere new, somewhere he could start over and leave the old him behind.

The Realtor smiled. She had worked hard on the smile, as had her dentist, and in turn it worked hard for her. Tony smiled back uncertainly. He’d been in America a little over a day, still dizzy with jet lag and the monstrous itinerary his concierge service had assembled for him.

“It’s a super-rare property,” she said, leading him into a confection of angled stone and glass that she insisted was a house, “designed and built by the original owner. The unique site is surrounded by six acres of fenced land, and I’m sure you saw the access gate and the guard building on the way in?”

“I did,” said Tony.

She showed him the master bedroom, the decadent master bathroom with the wonderful shower, the living space, the pool, the wine cellar, the parking and finally, “…the bomb shelter” she said, watching as the feet-thick steel door swung lazily open. “Of course, calling this a bomb shelter would be a little like calling Disney World a jungle gym.” Tony thought, privately, that being thirty feet underground made something a bomb shelter. But it had every facility of the house above, and more.

“…the previous owner left an extensive collection of wines and spirits, enough media to last twenty five years of continuous viewing…” and there was a water supply, a food store packed with enough carefully prepared food to last years, an assortment of communications gear “…and even a seismograph!” announced the Realtor happily.

“Why?” asked Tony, staring at the little room full of measuring equipment.

“So you know when it’s safe to come out,” she beamed. Then she had to take a call, and stepped out. The door closed behind her.

Hours later, he read the message she’d left in front of a CCTV camera. That it was a one in a million fault, that the door company would have someone out in a day or so. He should make himself at home. He turned on the TV, found a news channel and watched as the American President chose to double down on a foolish remark, then follow it with a threat, and then double down on that. The 24 hour news cycle followed the first teetering steps on the slippery slope to the end with an air of “We told you so”. Eventually, Tony went to watch the seismograph. With every jump of the needle he wondered which city was now a crater.

There wasn’t anyone else. The shortwave stations he’d found went off air one by one. He loaded a single round into the revolver – something else left by the original owner, a silvered .357 Colt Python with pearl inlay on the grip. He’d practised pulling the trigger until he could do it reliably. He eased the bullet into place, put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell. Nothing happened. It failed to happen with all six bullets. He searched the gun case for more bullets, found the little note that said “for display purposes only” and wept. He put the gun down and listened to the static from the radio.

“King of the world” said Tony.

 

 

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David Webb, who prefers to be called Dave, and prefers that sentence to start, “Would you like a cup of tea,” is a Brit.  He lives in Leicester (pronounced “Less-tah”), where his day job constantly gets in the way of writing, but he’s willing to live with that since it means not being homeless.  When not writing, he reads.  When doing neither of those he can be found on twitter as @dococcupant.  He has a fiction blog on that Internet thing, which you should absolutely read and tell your friends about.

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4 Comments

  1. This is…I don’t know what this is. Maybe a riff on the Time Enough at Last mold of story with a dash of the genie taking the wish really literally? It’s beautifully written. Tony feels like a real guy. Not a nice guy, but the kind of guy who convinces himself he’s nice while he goes through life interested in nothing and no one but himself. And in the end he gets his wish. He’s rich, he’s successful, and he’s the king of the world. What I didn’t completely buy is his turn to suicide at the end. I needed a little more selling on the idea that he’s so quickly disillusioned with living in a world where he is the most important person, and consequently it doesn’t strike me as a particularly bad end for him. But everything else was brilliantly done, with some absolutely brilliant turns of phrase driving a story that felt believably unreal. Mr. Webb has turned in another triumph of a story.

  2. This is very good. One of the fun things about knowing Dave’s various ventures, I can hear him narrating this story in his rich voice.

    Wendigo’s talk with Tony seems to me to be a pep talk on positive thinking. It’s odd to me that it has such a spectacular effect. And the ending with his “lucky” ability to win at Russian roulette seems to come rather fast for me. The Tony at the end doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Tony at the beginning of the story, though that may just be my reading.

    The prose is beautiful. I’m just not sure I see the character arc as clearly as I want to…

  3. The writing is gorgeous and clever and Tony comes across as very real, if not very likeable. The ebb and flow of Tony’s state of mind is paralleled well in the use of the sharp/clear/cold/awake versus soft/hazy/warm/sleepy surroundings and details. I find his progression believable. From the very beginning of the story Tony is presented as an unremarkable and selfish person, and I can see how he could be easily swayed into doing things by the charismatic Wendigo. Tony’s attempted suicide at the end seems true to his character in part because, after escaping death and winning the lottery, he no doubt found contentment in comparing himself to others and feeling superior for the first time in his life. When there was no one left to compare himself to, he couldn’t feel superior anymore. The gun and bullets being for “display purposes only” is one last masterful and wry parallel to Tony, who, in the end, was also for display purposes only. Without being able to display his luck–his superiority–there was no point to his existence. A very well-written story, Dave!

  4. It’s always odd to read a story where your name is the same as the protagonist. I’ll take my winning Euromillions ticket though.

    I don’t know what I expected from this story, but it was fascinating. I made the art thinking it was going to be in a different time period. It took a moment to settle in but it felt very real to me. The struggle with the mundane was relatable too.

    The ending did seem rather abrupt to me. He’s a millionare who is king of a hole in the ground as the world turns into a festering sunburn. I suppose it could be worse for him.

    Thankfully, we’ll know tomorrow if we need to invest in more bomb shelters.

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