Time Lag

by Cyril Bracegirdle

(I don't have an email address for Cyril at the moment, but I'll pass on any feedback that is emailed to me.)

Suppose you could press a button and kill a man, a total stranger, thousands of miles away, and receive in return half a million pounds. Would you do it?

That was what they offered. They approached him one night in a quiet country pub where he was drinking heavily. Two of them, dressed in black, carrying the little black box with its lethal red button. You need never know who he was, they said. Just one little candle in all earth's six billion snuffed out painlessly far away.

He was tempted. He was sinking deep into a swamp of debt; they would not have come to him otherwise. British Telecom had cut off his phone. The Council Tax office seemed to be unhappy. His bank manager kept sending letters which he had given up opening. Yes, he was tempted. But what about the catch? It sounded like selling your soul to the devil. A good time now but the reckoning later.

Well, yes, they admitted. There was a catch. A small one.

He waited for it.

The family of the person whom he destroyed would be given a similar black box and by pressing their button they could eliminate him in return, but not immediately. There was, they assured him a time lag of just twenty years. The other family's box would not function until then.

Emotions, they said, would often have subsided after such a length of time, the desire for vengeance lessened. Some people just did not care any more.

He asked: "Would they get money if they did press their button?"

No, he was told, only satisfaction.

It was a chilling word. But, of course, they must be right. Twenty years was a long time to nurse strong feelings. Well, wasn't it? "Will they know who I am?" he asked.

The answer was that when the twenty years elapsed the surv­iving next of kin of the person eliminated would be told who he was. “Sometimes people liked to get in touch, just to find out what you are like, what you felt about doing it."

It was a peculiar moment when he pressed the button. He felt nothing. He supposed it was like that for a man in a bomber, pressing a button that killed hundreds in a city thousands of feet below. So remote. It was his forty-fifth birthday when he did it.

The following day the money was paid into his account. It was a pleasure to see the manager grovel. "A little busin­ess deal I pulled off," he said airily.

He did not waste the money. Some he invested, then he bought a thriving antiques shop in a seaside resort. He'd always wanted to deal in antiques and live by the sea.

Winters were quiet, but then he spent much time away on foreign holidays, staying in first-class hotels. In summer the shop thrived on the tourist trade.

When he felt inclined he would go to London for a few days, do some bidding at Sotheby's or Christie's, make a round of theatres and concerts. He was not the type to go night clubbing or gambling, and now drank only in moderation.

After five years he married, having met Judith on a Caribbean cruise. She was good looking, shared many of his interests. Thirty years of age, she was reasonably well off with a regular income from a legacy.

She joined him enthusiastically in running the shop, and they settled to an enjoyable life. Only occasionally did he think of the time lag. But after the fifteenth year the nagging edge of worry began to intrude. Not much, at first, but more as one year slipped by and then another. He couldn't hide the fact that somewhere in the world there was a black box and a button, and people who would be given his name, and, very likely, his address.

"Really," said Judith, as his sixty-fifth birthday approached, "you mustn't be so gloomy about being sixty five. It's not the end of life, you know."

He shivered at her choice of words. "I'm not gloomy," he protested. "It's just that, well, it is a bit of a watershed."

She tried to cheer him, pointing out how fit he was, with his golf and the hiking they did together.

He went to bed on his sixty-fifth birthday wondering if he would wake up. Rather to his surprise, he did wake up. It was just another day. So was the next one. The days went by and became weeks, then months. Tension lessened. Of course, twenty years was a long time. Maybe the unknown victim had not had any family to mourn anyway.

He celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday with more pleasure, and his sixty-seventh. Only rarely now did he think of the black box.

It was three months after his sixty-seventh that the letter came. It bore an Indian postmark of an obscure town in what turned out to be, when he looked it up on the map, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He turned the envelope over in his hands. He knew nobody in India, and, somehow, it gave him a feeling of unease.

He sliced it open. The paper was perfumed, the handwriting neat, feminine.

"Dear Esteemed Sir,

I have the misfortune to have to write to you in this disgraceful and regrettable circumstance. Permit me to have the honour to represent myself, I am the daughter of the highly respected and much remembered gentleman whom you, honoured sir, were instrument in destroying so many years gone by."

He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and sat down shakily to read on.

"I do not personally experience any anger, sir, although it is true that at the time of aforementioned incident there was reputed to be one hell of a situation within this humble household, including great rage towards unknown person concerned. I say reputed because I was but small child, being now twenty-one years with age. We were presented with black box of evil nature, and had it been possible my people would have wiped yourself out long ago, but this was prohibited for twenty years. We did not take any action on the aforesaid expiry of time because our feelings had calmed. Time heals all wounds, as has been so wonderfully written by American poetess Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whose works I am having the honour to study for my degree in Eng. Lit."

His hand trembled as he held the paper and he felt sick, but thankful that Judith was out. He read on.

"But things have changed, honoured sir. It is with deepest regret I have to announce the passing of my elder brother Narayan, he into whose hands the safekeeping of our small family was given on the demise of our beloved father. My esteemed brother was taken from us when at the wheel of our very aged car and after having consumed too many millilitres of alcoholic beverage known as rot-the-gut. Further­more, to our eternal disgrace, it was subsequently discovered that my beloved brother, the head of our household and keeper of our hearth, had left no money, he having been much addicted to the horses, most especially the ones that were often slow, and we are therefore much destitute, India being a poor country which does not have the National Security which keeps everyone in comfort in England as is well known. My poor mother does not have the money to buy the medicines for her many complaints and for the tobacco which is a pleasure to her in her years of decline. My young brother and sister need food, and this very humble writer must continue to college. Very soon I shall be advanced from Miss Wilcox to the study of the very revered bard of the Avon, and you will understand that education is a very fine thing and costs much money. My mother is very much in fury with your esteemed self whom she blames for our misfortune.

"Sir, if you had not taken our beloved father we would now be very fine situate and possibly rolling wealthy, since our father was going to be successful businessman with many stalls in bazaar. My mother insists that I press fateful button now, but I say that you should have time to compose with yourself, to make peace with whatever gods you have and write out wills for loved ones. I do, therefore, very respectfully, allow fourteen days to pass before fatality.

Your most Obedient Servant, Sirana Masoori, Miss.”

He helped himself to a large brandy from the Queen Anne cabinet which they had converted to hold drinks, and tried to stem the rising tide of panic. Blackmail, that's what it obviously was. They'd settle for money. That was why the infernal girl was giving him time. He sat down at his type­writer and rattled away hastily.

"Dear Miss Masoori, I have received your letter and I beg of you not to do anything rash. I am sure we can come to some agreement. I am indeed sorry about your brother and the unfortunate situation you are all in and I would like to help, but of course, if you press the button I will not be able to do so. I do not have a lot of capital, having lost a lot through unwise investments, but I could send you something every month. Shall we say £500? This would come out of the profits from my very small shop and would surely relieve yourself and your family of financial anxiety. I do understand how your mother feels and I am terribly sorry about your father. I have worried about it and deeply regretted my action all these years. It was very bad of me and I have prayed often to be forgiven. Please believe me and do let me hear from you quickly by air mail. I enclose reply postal coupons."

He hurried out to the Post Office, stuffed half a dozen coupons into the air mail envelope and pushed it into the box. Clever that, he thought, offering monthly payments. If he suggested a lump sum they could take it and wipe him out any time. He had to give them a reason for keeping him alive.

He tried not to let Judith see that he was agitated in the days that followed. He had enquired about delivery of air mail and been told that the letter would take about five days. He was so jittery on the seventh day that he had to pretend that he had a cold and went to bed in the afternoon. He took the brandy bottle with him. At least he supposed he wouldn't know if it happened.

On the 12th day the reply came.

"Esteemed and honourable sir,

“It is not enough! My mother is in such fury I have had to hide the box. Our needs are very great. I wish to come to England first class to finish my studies and to marry an Englishman. Please send £2000 every month.

“Your Admirable Servant, Sirana Masoori.

“Post Scriptum: when I come to England I will stay in your house and you will introduce me to many gentlemen. With your great wealth I will have very suitable dowry. Do you know any person of the blood royal?"

Mercenary bitch! Two thousand a month in a crummy town in the Himalayas would probably put them in the millionaire class. Even if he sold the business he still wouldn't have enough to pay that much for very long. He couldn't ask Judith for help, either. She wouldn't believe his story about the black box. She would probably think it was a plot to get her money, cooked up with some strange girl, or at best she would haul him off to a psychiatrist. Anyway, she had told him long ago that under the terms of her legacy she could never touch the capital, only receive her regular income from it.

Offer £1000 a month. He could just manage that. They would surely settle for something reasonable. There was no typing paper in his desk, damn it. He went upstairs to see if Judith had left any lying about in the workroom, but she hadn't. He did not expect to get inside her bureau because she always kept it locked. In fact she had done so ever since they married so that never once had he seen inside it. A little pecul­iarity of hers. But this time he was lucky. Judith had gone out in a hurry before the shops closed for lunch and for once she had forgotten to lock it. He pushed up the roll top. There was a pile of typing paper and he picked up a sheet, and then froze in sudden shock. There, in a corner of the bureau, was an all too familiar black box with its red button!

For a long moment he stood there, his brain frozen, and then the wheels began to spin. Now he knew the source of Judith's income. He had always realised that there was a certain ruthless streak in his wife's character. He recalled an occasion, discussing a blackmail case in the news. She had commented that if she needed money and knew someone who had a guilty secret, she would not hesitate to blackmail them. Somewhere in the world, some unfortunate soul like himself was shelling out money every month, living in fear of Judith's black box.

He walked slowly downstairs. He felt bitter, and now he just didn't care any more. He put the paper in the machine and typed:

"Miss Masoori, Go to hell! I will pay you nothing. Absolutely nothing! You can press the button. Since you are fond of quotations I will give you one from well known English writer Charles Dickens. 'It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.'"

He did not see why Judith should have everything. She would get the shop when he was gone, anyway. So, before posting the letter he returned upstairs and pressed the button on her box.

Five days later, far away in the shadow of the Himalayas, a slim, jewelled hand pressed downwards in fury.