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The Game They Played
by Stuart Falconer
This was the first story I submitted to a session of the Milford conference, in 1997.

Fantasy, 14 pages.
Originally Published in Interzone, 2000

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[Preview]

There were six of us that day in our little corner of the park. Mac was sitting in his usual place on the bench, the stranger, the new guy, in front of him half crouching, half kneeling, giving him most of his attention. The rest of us stood around, watching, waiting for something to happen.

The stranger had a particular way of shaking the dice, the way he always looked straight at you. It was like he wanted to watch you, see the look in your eyes, watch you sweat in case they came up badly for you. Those bony hands of his, they looked like the middle of a big walnut, when he clasped them together. And always there was that faint smile in the corner of his mouth, as if he already knew how the dice would roll, as if he had already decided.

When he tipped them out, that was the time for surprises. While he was shaking them, their clicking, rattling, it got on your nerves if he did it too long, which is why he always spun it out. So then when he finally rolled them you were expecting something better than thin air. The first time, I thought it was going to be like one of those stage conjurers — the sharp tuxedo, the clever smile, the bit where he pulls something out from behind your ear, or it turns into a pigeon and everybody laughs.

Nobody laughed. We just watched him and waited for him to laugh, to let us know it was his way of joking. I remember he was looking at Mac, and Mac looked at the ground and the absence of dice, then back at the stranger.

“Five.” The stranger made it sound obvious.

Mac started to smile.

“Show me that again,” he said quietly.

“It won’t be the same if I do it again,” said the stranger, still with that flicker of a smile, the keen, half mocking look in his eyes. “Probably get different numbers.”

“Just show me,” said Mac. “I want to see it properly.”

Mac is not famous for having a big sense of humour. He can laugh at a joke, as long as it’s not on him, but now he was thinking maybe that’s exactly the way it was.

Some of us were looking round, to see if there was anybody else who was part of this. We were at the quiet end of the park, nearer the waterfront than the road. Let’s face it; it’s the scruffy end, where nobody goes much, unless they prefer to keep out of the way of ordinary people, clean people, people who can live out in the open. What was on most of our minds, except perhaps Mac, was that this was some kind of set piece, the sort of thing where there would be others who would slip in quietly, where there would be trouble. We all kept our eyes open, except Mac, who was concentrating on the game.

The stranger made as if he was picking the dice up, rolling them in his hands so we could hear them rattling. He never took his eyes off Mac, and Mac watched those gnarled hands as if he was ten years old and waiting for an overdue birthday present.

“Six.”

The stranger’s hands were open and he was still looking straight at Mac, who was looking more and more wound up, like a big clock spring.

“Six, you say?” I’ve seen Mac look like this before and it usually ends in trouble. “It was five last time, and now it’s six. This is what people like me, people with a bit of education, what we call inflation.”

“Six.” I couldn’t tell if the stranger was laughing at Mac quietly, behind his eyes, or if he was just waiting for him to join in the joke.

“Show me!”

The stranger pointed at the ground in front of him. There was a piece of old spat-out gum, a dead leaf, a couple of twigs, a small shiny green insect and a spot of bird shit. There were other things, naturally, but those were the six he pointed to.

Mac moved his hand quickly, a flicking kind of movement. The stranger didn’t even blink, but the insect flew away.

“Down to five now,” said Mac. You want to count them again?”

The stranger held his hands together and shook them slightly. We all heard the rattle of dice. Mac looked at the ground and shook his head. I heard him chuckling. He was smiling when he looked up again.

“All right. I’ll buy it. So what kind of game?”

“Game?” The stranger looked mock-offended. “No kind of game, this. Serious stuff.” Then he laughed. Mac grinned too.

“Right. Serious. Whatever you say. So how do I do it?”

“It’s all about being able to predict the future.”

“The future? I’ll be able to tell what’s going to win the three-thirty. That kind of predicting?”

“Not yet. Just tell me what number I’m going to throw.”

Mac thought about this for a while. He looked around the rest of us, slightly sheepish for a second, as if he was embarrassed to be seen fooling around like this.

“Seven.”

“Nice easy one to get into the way of it?” The stranger did the shaking business, perfectly straight-faced. “Seven, you think?”

“Seven.”

Mac watched carefully as the “dice” were rolled, almost as if he could see the -- [End of Preview.]