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fiction: Quid Pro Quo: The Fool's Bargain

QUID PRO QUO: THE FOOL'S BARGAIN

Written for the 50originals fic challenge.
Title: Quid Pro Quo: The Fool's Bargain
Prompt: horror #07 Bind
Rated: T
Summary: Something all gamblers know but conveniently forget: the house always wins.
A/N: Inspired by this creepy ass writing prompt: http://www.writing-prompts-and-story-starters.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/writing-prompt-story-starter-40.html
Words: 2,672

The gates opened at eleven past midnight.

On any other night, this was an abandoned packing warehouse twenty miles outside of St Louis that saw less visitors than the South Pole. The night would pass in still, silent darkness, broken only by the creaking of old boards and rusted metal. Teenagers occasionally crept through the decayed hollow of a building in search for ghostly thrills or to leave their mark of bravery for having been there via spray paint.

Tonight, the warehouse was transformed. Brilliant, colored lights spilled out of the high windows -- brightest where the glass had been long smashed through, and murkier where dusty panes remained intact -- and the tinkling sounds of laughter and music drifted along the air. As the gates pulled back, Dave could see a dozen or so caravans set up as bazaar stalls around a central tent draped in glittering, velvet finery.

But this was no ordinary bazaar. It was not a place someone could stumble upon unless they were looking for it. And Dave had been looking for it.

--o--

He had looked high and low for nearly three months for a way, a cure. Anything. He was running out of time and grasping at straws. When the homeopathic healer he consulted gave him the phone number, he had been skeptical. Hell, he was skeptical enough of the new age 'healer' herself, with her incense and spirit stones and all-round kooky shop. But he'd dialed the number, nonetheless; he had nothing to lose. All he got was an automated message that the line was disconnected. He didn't give it any further thought until later that night, while about to go to bed, when his phone rang. That same disconnected number was lighting up the screen.

With a niggling feeling at the back of his mind that it was an elaborate prank, he answered.

There was so much static on the line that at first, he could barely hear the voice on the other side. It sounded female, light and airy. "Whatever you seek will be yours at the Fairground."

"Uh... who is this?"

"You contacted us, did you not?"

"I, um, I think so, but I don't really know what you do, exactly."

"You will see." The voice continued to crackle with interference, warping momentarily.

"I was told you offer medical treatment...?"

"The bargain can only be determined at the Fairground."

Dave was starting to think, with delayed realization, how odd the whole phone call was and what kind of medical organization called itself the Fairground, when the static suddenly cleared up.

"We will expect you shortly." The line went dead.

--o--

As though carried by a compelling breeze, Dave found himself walking into the wide maw of the warehouse. Or Fairground, he should call it. The marketplace was buzzing with activity, although he couldn't see any other customers -- only vendors.

An elderly gypsy woman smiled at him from behind a stall, selling blank-faced pretty young women standing upright in gift-wrapped cardboard boxes with clear panes. A couple of them looked not much older than his own daughter. He stared, uncertain if they were real people or life-like dolls. Then one of them blinked at him.

He shivered.

The next stall had signage proclaiming itself to be the 'Magical Menagerie' and featured cages stacked upon cages, large and small. The first thing he spotted was a miniature dragon curled in a corner, watching him back balefully with eyes like hot coals. It was so realistic: the way it moved, the way its iridescent scales rippled and reflected the colorful lights of the bazaar, and tendrils of smoke piped from its nostrils when it hissed. Could an artificial construct accomplish such a thing?

Rattling from another cage stole his attention as Dave found himself eye to eye with a two-headed dwarf. Scars and bruises littered the landscape of its skin: a rough, greyish brown terrain. It had shackles around both of its necks, and twin faces peered up at him despairingly.

"Save us, please! Free us from this place," the head on the right pleaded.

"You should leave," the one on the left whispered. "Nothing good will come from here."

Startled, Dave didn't know what to say. He never expected them to talk. Instead, the stall owner who noticed the exchange poked a sharpened rod through the metal bars.

"Quiet, you," the shriveled owner rasped at the cowering dwarf. "Earned yourself a good whippin' for that." Turning to Dave, he squinted up as he appraised his potential buyer. He had a face like a walnut shell, heavily lined and brown; Dave could tell the man was old, but couldn't place his age. He looked like he could be fifty, or ninety. "What're you after, boy?"

"Nothing, sorry." He ducked his eyes from the man's glare and willed his legs to move as fast as they could.

He walked onward past another stall, tended to by a heavy-set bearded man. Dave thought his butcher's shop looked decidedly mundane next to the stalls selling girls and mythical creatures, until his eyes landed on a still beating human heart on display.

"You like?" the bearded man rasped, seeing how Dave had reeled back in astonishment. "You want, you have new heart today," he brandished a scalpel and waved a hand back to his caravan where he would presumably carry out the operation.

"No, no -- I'm not..." Dave stuttered almost fearfully at the large man who looked like he would be more at home on the high seas with a keg of rum than performing surgery. But his eyes were drawn down to the display and he could scarcely believe what he was seeing was real. The heart was beating, living, and completely detached from anything else. Bloodless. To the left of it he identified kidneys and livers, amongst other organs that were foreign to his untrained eye. And to the right was a pulsing pair of lungs.

They were smooth, pinkish red, clean. Veins branched off the central stem, inking through the tissue like a mosaic. They looked larger than he expected.

"Ah, it is lungs you want." The bearded man's voice cut through his thoughts, and Dave caught himself staring at the healthy set of lungs longer than he should have been. He had let himself imagine -- hope -- this could be the solution.

He shook his head, backing away. "Sorry." The realist in him knew he was looking at a pipe dream. It wasn't just the lungs he would need replaced.

"You want more? You go inside," the bearded man pointed to the tent in the middle of the hall.

Dubious as to what more this strange place could offer him, Dave looked over his shoulder at the tent.

--o--

In the days following that phone call, nothing unusual happened. At least, nothing that he was aware of.

Dave had quit work since he was diagnosed, with little more than a year to live. He had more free time now than he knew how to spend it. His wife increased her hours to full-time while he looked after their thirteen-year-old daughter. While she was at school, he potted around the house for most of the morning which left him drained. His initial bouts of chemo hadn't helped, and in the end, he gave them up for his final days to be in peace, not tortured.

He took brief afternoon strolls to the park and tried to enjoy the calm of nature, when weather permitted. And when it didn't, he kept indoors with a good book or movie. On one of those afternoons, he was just on his way back from the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee, when he thought he saw a shadow passing outside the front door.

Odd. The light rain outside was likely to keep away any doorknockers or kids throwing pranks, but he felt certain he saw something beyond the frosted glass paneling.

He nearly spilled his coffee when a plain white card slipped in under the door by his feet.

Ignoring the card for the time being, Dave hurriedly set down his mug and pulled open the door to see who came calling, only to find it empty outside. His head stuck out of the door frame and swiveled to both sides. From the lawn to the streets, there was nothing. No sign of anyone having passed through. There was only a smell like ozone lingering in the air as he picked up the card.

It was plain on the back, but the flip side had a picture of a carnival and curlicue writing 'Come see the Fool at the Fairground' in advertisement.

There was an address and a time. One night only.

--o--

Once inside, he was struck by how enormous the tent was -- seemingly endless, and much bigger than the warehouse it was set up in. What also surprised him was how it was mostly empty, in contrast to the cramped quarters outside. He didn't spend long dwelling on the arrangement as for the first time that night, he saw he was not the sole customer visiting.

There was another man standing in the middle of the room, with his back to Dave. He was talking with someone seated on a throne -- what amounted to a relatively ornate dining chair on a wooden platform -- but Dave couldn't hear what they were saying from his distance. He did notice, however, that the person on the throne was dressed like a jester or buffoon out of a Renaissance fair, complete with painted face, smiling widely and nodding at various points of the conversation.

After hanging about the entrance for about a minute, unsure whether to step forward or keep waiting, Dave saw the jester stand up and bow to the other man. The man shuffled backwards, mumbling, then turned around to leave.

He carried a glass bowl in his hands, not unlike a fish bowl, and inside was a human head. A baby's head.

Dave's jaw dropped.

The man paused in front of Dave when he got close enough. He looked extremely pleased, and there was a light in his eyes as though he'd witnessed something miraculous. Maniacal.

"You won't believe what you can get here," he said. "You can buy anything."

Too shocked for speech, Dave just stared at the head in the bowl. Its eyes were wide open, tear glazed, and its mouth was wanting to cry or scream but no sound came out since the head had no vocal cords.

Even as the man walked past him, the chilling image stayed with him like a retina burn.

"Welcome!" the jester called, raising his arms into the air. His booming voice seemed to command Dave from within his skull, and Dave found himself walking towards the throne. "Welcome, my friend, to the Fairground, where all that you dream may come true. Come share with us your wishes, so that we can be of service to you." At the end of his rhyme, the jester made a flourishing gesture of lacing his fingers under his chin in an 'attentive listener' pose, with that inane smile pasted on his face.

"What was -- what was that?" Dave was still trying to come to grips with what he just saw.

"Another happy customer!" the jester nodded his head theatrically so as to make the bells on his hat jingle. "Now it is your turn."

"I, uh, I'm not sure if --"

You've come this far, a voice whispered in his mind. He couldn't tell if it was his own or not.

You can buy anything.

"I want my cancer to go away." Before he knew it, he'd spoken the words. It was out there. A weight lifted from his shoulders.

The jester nodded again, slightly more somber as if adjusting his tone to the scenario. "A very reasonable request."

"So, you can help me?"

"Of course. Anything is possible if you are willing to bargain."

"What's the catch, then? I have to sell my soul or something?"

The jester laughed, and it was the ugliest thing Dave had ever seen. The clown face twisted in a way that no face should in a laugh; jaw hinging too wide, cheekbones protruding too sharply, and the gaping hole of its mouth too dark. "We have no use for souls, but we do trade in suffering."

"Suffering?" In that instant, the surrealism of the whole night dropped away and Dave was faced with the very real prospect of making a deal with a dark power, if not the proverbial Devil. This was happening. He was going to get rid of his cancer. All that mattered now, was the cost.

"Your cancer will be gone, and in return, you will know suffering. Those are the terms."

"What kind of suffering?"

The jester's grin showed more teeth than humanly possible. "The most exquisite kind."

Dave considered it. He had endured the extremes of pain and suffering in his battle with lung cancer -- had looked imminent death in the eye, had ravaged his frail body with relentless poison in the name of medical treatment, and the irony of it all was that he had never smoked in his life. The world found a way to mock his existence.

But he didn't want to die. Not like this.

Could he go through all that pain again, day after day, to know that he would still live at the end? It seemed a fairer exchange than suffering in order to die.

"But I will stay healthy, right? No surprise remissions, no getting hit by a bus?"

"I assure you, you will remain in good health and live a long, natural life. Do you accept the offer?"

He didn't know how much trust he could place in a being like this -- a liar, a trickster, for all he knew -- but then he thought back to the man who was in here earlier. He seemed to have gotten what he wanted. But what could he have wished for?

Anything is possible if you are willing.

"Yes."

--o--

They called it god's will, but of course, Dave knew better. The doctors were baffled, the local priest was smug as if he had anything to do with it, and his family was overjoyed that the cancer had receded. He was even famous for a little while, in the news as the man who conquered cancer against all odds.

When journalists asked him what his secret was, he smiled, shook his head, and shrugged. "Nothing special. I tried everything. I just... just really want to live, you know?"

They called him courageous, resilient, strong. Blessed.

He felt like pinching himself some days, as though the past couple of months had been the dreams of a decaying man. The days ticked on, and he grew a little concerned that he hadn't been asked to pay up his end yet. But surely it would come. He knew this going in; he knew what he was in for. He should enjoy this brief fortune while he could.

It was now winter, and the lifeless trees outside were scraping at his window with their clawing branches. Maybe they knew what he'd done. Dave dismissed the thought, and picked up the bowl of chicken soup he'd prepared for his daughter. She'd been ill for a few days, as a nasty flu bug was going around the neighborhood. He could hear her coughing in her bedroom. It had gotten worse, despite the antibiotics and other medicine she'd been taking.

The closer he got to her room, the more he could hear how bad the cough was -- an extended, wheezing wet cough that sucked the breath right out of her and renewed itself with every fresh intake of air. A familiar cough.

An inkling of dread started to creep up on him as he realized he was not prepared for this bargain at all.



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this is not an exit

There is an idea of a carnageincminor; some kind of an abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory.

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