It had taken a long time to work it out, but yes, she knew she’d won the round with ‘Zeb.
From now on, because she had purchased the winning ticket, technically, the win was hers. Because she gave the ticket to Joe and allowed him to take the win made no difference to the contract. She paid the third that she owed ‘Zeb and after that, every gift Joe bought for her would be purchased out of the winning lottery money – therefore, it wouldn’t be classed as a gift from anyone outside the contract.
Sondra sat back in her chair and grinned. She’d found a loophole and she meant to exploit it.
Joe gave up his job and they bought a new house. The portrait came with them of course, but she no longer wanted to see it every time she went upstairs.
The house they bought couldn’t be classed as a mansion by any means, but it gave the happy couple a warm feeling whenever they caught a glimpse of it.
Sooty seemed more settled too. She lost the nervousness she’d developed over the previous year, but Sondra noticed she kept well away from the room where the portrait hung. Sondra noticed something else, she kept away from the portrait as much as she could too.
Unpacking and arranging furniture, buying new things for the house and settling in took time and it seemed to be taking its toll on Sondra’s health. A cold progressed to flu and lingered for a month or more. An achy feeling and her general malaise had Joe worried. Sondra didn’t want to think about it. Dreams made sleep something that she avoided rather than welcomed, and eventually, she realised that she had to face up to her fears.
The room where the portrait hung had been neglected in the move. Things they could put off ‘til later were dumped there and forgotten.
Sondra wandered in to fetch something. She opened the door and took a step back in alarm. The room stank. It reeked of disease; rotting, decaying filth. The room smelled how Sondra’s dreams felt. She backed out of the room and went to find Joe.
“I’ve changed my mind about the portrait, can we have it in the drawing room please?”
Joe looked up from the box of books he was sorting through. “Now?” he said.
Sondra gave him her cheeriest smile and nodded with an enthusiasm she didn’t feel.
The portrait hung in the drawing room. A prominent position where Sondra could see it every day. It hung higher than it had back at her other house and it dominated the room. Rather than loving the picture as she had, she began to loathe the sight of it, but she realised if she wanted to stay in good health, then she had to stay connected to it. Sooty wasn’t allowed in the drawing room because she sharpened her claws on everything.
Joe gave Sondra a box. A large but ordinary cardboard box. “Open it,” he said.
Sondra opened it and a fluffy cat peered up at her. Sondra picked her up and the cat purred instantly – love at first sight.
“She’s a pedigree, I thought you could show her or something?” Joe said.
She was also pregnant. A week after her arrival, Princess gave birth to three tiny, slick, blind kittens.
“I assume you got a good deal on the price?” Sondra laughed as Joe looked at the unexpected bundles. Princess looked up at them both and slow-blinked her contentment.
“I did wonder why the breeder didn’t quibble when I haggled on the price.” He laughed too. “Looks like they’re a gift from the gods,” he said.
Sondra’s attention snapped from the kittens to Joe. “What did you say?” she whispered.
“What? What did I say?” Joe said in a panic.
Sondra shook her head and went straight to the office, started up her computer and checked her emails.
There it was, an email from ‘Zeb. The first in months.
Hi there, I’ve missed you.
I’m glad you’re feeling better and I suppose you’ve realised the connection between you and the portrait? I’ll spell it out for you. If you disassociate yourself from the portrait, your health will suffer. You will not only forego any good fortune you may have benefitted from, you will also grow weak, sickly and who knows… one day you may just contract some deadly, wasting disease. The best way to avoid all that nastiness is to keep the portrait close and to keep emailing me. Just one or two emails a month, I’m not greedy. I like to hear from you every now and then, make sure you’re still happy with our deal.
Ciao for now,
PS I want a third of those kittens. They were an unexpected bonus on the purchase and I call that good fortune.
Sondra read the email again. It sounded like ‘Zeb was gloating.
She replied to the email:
You’re right of course. I’ve been ill, but now I’ve discovered the cause, I can avoid it. Where can I send the kitten? I assume you’ll wait until it’s old enough to leave its mother?
The message came back immediately. ‘Zeb hadn’t had time to compose the email, surely?
I’ll take it now, thanks.
A screeching, yowling, terrible noise emanated from the kitchen where Princess had given birth. Sondra tipped the chair over in her hurry to get there.
She entered the kitchen as Joe entered from outside.
They were just in time to see a mangy, scabby, rat-like animal running across the kitchen floor with one of Princess’s mewling babies in its mouth.
“Oh my god! What the hell is that?” Sondra screeched. She couldn’t move.
The creature turned to look at her and she saw a glint in its eye. It changed direction and ran straight for her. It approached her at speed but in her mind’s eye every action slowed down. She took stock of the rat-like creature. Its fur-less skin was mottled with scabs, and she recalled pictures of dogs with mange – it looked just like those; raw, pink, wrinkled and inflamed skin. One eye missing, gouged out and weeping pus. The claws were the only shiny thing on the animal, they were sharp and deadly and clattered across the tiled floor as it ran.
Joe ran after it, still holding a rake he’d picked up when he heard the commotion.
The creature leaped into the air toward Sondra. She dodged out of its trajectory and it sailed over her shoulder and landed on the floor halfway into the hall.
It skidded to a halt and turned to look back at Sondra. She heard a low, menacing growl and realised Sooty had spotted it.
The creature heard her too and scrambled to do an about-turn. It ran back toward Joe. He swung the rake at it and caught it across its back legs, sending it skidding out of control, across the floor. Joe swung the rake again but missed and the creature dropped the kitten and made its escape through the open door.
Joe picked up the kitten but it hung lifeless in his hand.
Princess yowled and Sondra realised the cat had been silent all through the attack, only making a sound once the evil rat-thing escaped.
Sooty went up to the box where Princess sat despondent. She nuzzled the pedigree queen and Princess stopped her yowling. Sondra and Joe stood transfixed at the sight of the two cats, one obviously consoling the other.
“What shall I do with this?” Joe asked, turning away from the cats as though trying to shield Princess from the tiny corpse.
“Poor little thing,” Sondra said. She looked up at Joe as she realised what she must do. “You’ll have to burn it. That rat-thing looked diseased, we don’t want the others to catch anything.”
Joe nodded and took the kitten outside.
Sondra closed the kitchen door behind him, washed her hands thoroughly and went to check on the mother and her babies.
“Poor Princess, that was horrible, I’m so sorry,” she said, stroking the cat. “You’re my hero, Sooty. What would we have done without you?”
Once the cats were settled and Princess and her babies were safely ensconced in the bathroom where Sondra could keep a better eye on them, she went to her computer and opened the emails.
She wanted to send a message to ‘Zeb, lambasting him, but it seemed ridiculous, a tragic coincidence. Even though she knew it was nothing of the sort.
A message arrived and against her better judgement, she opened it.
A wink? Sondra closed the computer down and went to bed early.
Whether the shock of the rat-thing’s attack unnerved her or other things were playing on her mind, she couldn’t say, but the dream she had woke her up before Joe settled down to sleep. She hadn’t stirred when he came into the bedroom, got undressed and got in bed, but he almost leaped out of his skin as she screeched in her sleep.
Joe shook her awake and held her as she sobbed into his chest.
Sondra fell back to sleep, whimpering, but Joe stayed awake, not through choice or any sense of protection for his fiancée, but because adrenalin still coursed through his veins and every sound woke him with a start again. He listened to Sondra’s disturbed sleep and understood why she felt tired all the time.
In the morning, Joe suggested a visit to the doctor.
“Yes, I’m thinking of going on the pill actually, I think I need peace of mind that I’m not going to get pregnant.”
“You don’t want a baby?” Joe asked.
“No. In fact, I might ask about sterilisation,” she said, not grasping Joe’s concern.
“You don’t ever want a baby? I think we should talk about this, I always wanted kids,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
“Oh? Is that all you have to say? Oh?”
Sondra stared at Joe. She couldn’t tell him about the dreams she’d been having lately. They involved their baby, a beautiful child, perfect in every way, destined to inherit their fortunes and have the best childhood imaginable. Happiness stretched out in their future, except it couldn’t because of the looming shadow of her contract with ‘Zeb.
How could she have a child when she knew she’d have to give up a third of it to the holder of her contract?
Sondra thought all day about the predicament and finally came to the conclusion that she’d have to try to give everything back in order to save her relationship.
I need to ask about getting out of this contract. Is there any way I can buy my way out? If I promise to give everything we’ve won to you; to leave us penniless if need be, and walk away with nothing but the clothes on our backs. I promise I’ll keep nothing, I’ll even sell the house I started out in and start all over, I just need to get out of it. Please.
She sent the email and didn’t have long to wait for a reply.
A deal is a deal. I asked you to make certain this was what you wanted. You were certain. There is no ‘get out’ clause. You didn’t negotiate for one and I wouldn’t have agreed to it.
This isn’t a game, there are no “I didn’t think it would go this far, so can we stop playing now?” pleas. Let’s continue and see how far we can go, shall we?
Sondra didn’t hesitate, she made an appointment with the doctor.
The next morning, she went out, armed with her first pee of the day in a bottle.
The appointment went well, the doctor examined her and asked the usual questions. She was fit and healthy and suitable for the contraception pill but he didn’t think sterilisation was possible, she was too young to be considered.
“I’ll write a prescription for you tomorrow when your test results come back,” he said.
“What are the tests for?”
“The usual, pregnancy, uterine disease, other complications that we can treat before you go on the pill,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice.
“I’m not pregnant,” she said.
“No, I understand, but it would be remiss of me to ignore protocol and then find out I’d missed something. Don’t worry, you can call and pick up the prescription at 10am tomorrow. No need to make an appointment.”
Sondra worried all day, slept hardly at all that night and her nerves were in tatters the next morning.
Joe avoided speaking to her once she’d snapped his head off the first time.
She went back to the doctor’s office and asked for her prescription. “Oh yes, just a second,” the receptionist said and left her desk.
The doctor popped his head around the corner. “Ah, Sondra, come into my office a moment, please?”
“Is something wrong?” she said, a feeling of dark despair settling on her shoulders.
“No, nothing wrong, but while you’re here…” he said.
She followed him into his office and sat down.
“I can’t prescribe the pill for you today,” he said.
“Is there something wrong? Have you run out of supplies?” the joke sounded desperate to her ears and she winced.
“I know we discussed it, but there’s no chance I can prescribe the contraceptive pill. You’re about four months pregnant.”
“I’m what?” Sondra stood up but dizziness swamped her senses and she had to take her seat again. She lowered her head, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning her head on her hands. “How can this have happened? I’ve been having periods… regular periods.”
“That sometimes happens. It’s a guestimate on our part of course, the hormone level is on a par with four months’ gestation, but we could be wrong. I’ll send you for a scan and we’ll get confirmation.”
Sondra went home in a daze. She sat in the car and phoned the hospital to book an appointment for a scan. Good fortune smiled on her again and she didn’t miss the irony. There was a cancellation appointment in half an hour. Sondra started the car and drove off. Joe stood in the drawing room and watched her leave, a frown on his face.
“What the hell is going on here lately?” he said out loud. If he had turned around to look at the portrait of his fiancée, he’d have run from the house there and then. The portrait’s features twisted into a sneer of deepest contempt and slid back in an instant.
Sondra lay on the bed and the consultant smeared gel over her stomach. Sondra gaped at the size of her belly. It hadn’t been that big an hour ago.
The machine beeped as the consultant clicked the mouse and measured.
“Oh, that’s unusual,” she said.
“What? What’s unusual?” Sondra asked.
The consultant looked at Sondra, a frown on her face. “Nothing bad, please don’t worry. It’s just that… well, do multiple births run in your family?”
“My aunt had twins, why?”
“Well, I think, by the looks of this scan, that you’re going to beat your aunt’s record. I can see three babies in there. You’ve done really well,”
“Three? Of course, three…” Sondra whispered.
“Well, I’m delighted to say they all look healthy and normal for five month foetuses, keep up the good work. I’ll send a report to your doctor. Congratulations. You can get dressed now.”
“Five months did you say?”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure they’re about that,” the consultant said with a tentative smile. Something seemed off with her patient but she didn’t know quite what it was.
“Too late to get an abortion?” Sondra’s voice reached a panicked pitch and the consultant looked at the door, perhaps gauging if she could get out before the woman got too deranged.
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s too late at this stage. Wait here, I’ll get a counsellor to speak to you,” she said and exited the room in a rush that she didn’t attempt to disguise.
Sondra didn’t wait. She dried her belly, slipped her clothes back on and fled the hospital.
“Joe, can you come and check this email I sent please?” she called.
“What is it?” he said.
“Nothing much, if you go back through the whole sequence of messages to and from ‘Zeb on my computer, it will explain a lot.”
Sondra went out of the office and looked back at Joe as he sat down on her chair. “I love you, Joe,” she whispered.
On her computer, the last email she sent read:
I assume your full name is something like Beelzebub. Well, whether it is or it isn’t, I can’t go through this any more.
Please consider our contract terminated forthwith.
Joe heard a noise downstairs in the drawing room where the portrait hung. He looked back to the computer, then it seemed that a thought occurred to him and he leaped from the chair and ran out of the room, down the stairs. He ran across the hall to the drawing room where Sondra stood in front of the portrait.
The portrait dripped with red paint. From halfway down the whole picture, red paint smeared across the beautiful image. Joe stood before it, beside Sondra, astonished. Mouth open, eyes wide and one hand clasped to his mouth.
“Where did you find the red paint?” he asked.
Joe turned to her and caught her as she swayed on her feet.
“Not red paint,” she muttered.
She had a knife in one hand, the other clasped her gashed throat.
Blood ran down the front of her dress, just as the red paint ran down the front of her image. Joe looked to the portrait, its face ashen, dark circles under its eyes. He thought he saw one hand fluttering as though it too tried to stem the flow of blood from its throat.
As his fiancée sighed her last breath, the portrait dropped from the wall and landed on the ornamental back of one of the dining chairs beneath it. The canvas split and he heard a choked screech of fury from outside.
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