Heads, tails, heads, tails.
It was an ordinary coin. Worth ten ordinary British pence. Enough for half a phone call. Enough for a peppermint patty or two, a finger of fudge.
The two men watching it spin through the air knew better than this. The value of this particular monetary unit was more than anyone at the Royal Mint could have imagined. The difference between heads and tails . . . well, it was a lot.
The first man flipped the coin expertly onto his right wrist, burying it under a sweaty left hand. A passerby, hearing the audible click of metal against wedding ring, shot them a glance over her glasses and was gone. She had been to the deli on the corner, the men noticed. The bulge in the side of her shoulder bag suggested she had bought a baguette to eat for lunch. The take-out coffee she was holding was from a different chain store, however, and this led them both to deduce that she was a very picky consumer who was prepared to shop around.
The two men regarded each other for a second. Behind them, London's rush hour ritual evolved. Buses belched past, motors churning, exhausts disgorging into the chill evening air. Commuters sighed back into stations.
Collars were up and mouths blew vapor trails, the cold draining all color from their faces.
All of them unaware of the coin.
All uninformed of its importance.
All unconcerned that whatever the result, heads or tails, one of these men was going to die.
All that mattered now was who.
"Good luck," said the first man.
"And you," replied the second, who wasn't wearing a ring. But a closer look would have shown a faint scar on the finger that could have worn one.
The men smiled briefly and turned their eyes downward. Queen Elizabeth the Second flicked a sidelong glance back up at them. Scarfinger nodded and unconsciously began cracking his knuckles.
"Right, then," he muttered, venturing a thin smile. But when he tried to swallow he found his throat was dry.
"Sorry," said Wedding Ring.
Scarfinger shrugged, feigning the diffidence of a Parisian waiter. Don't worry about it, he seemed to be saying. People die every day.
The phone booth was innocuous enough. Dirty, rusting, sulking in the center of a deserted square. As Wedding Ring lifted the receiver and began dialing the number that would change everything, he found himself having a thought, an unconnected conceit that had shoved its way to the front of his brain and demanded he deal with it.
You'd enjoyed that thriller, the thought was saying to him, the one you'd read recently. It was really good.
He kept dialing the number, but the thought would not go away.
Strangely reassuring, the thought continued. Because despite all the unknowables, all the twists and turns, all the while there was always the absolute certainty that you could skip ahead a few pages just to see how everything turned out.
The number connected. A small conversation ensued, nothing fancy, a functional exchange, a curt verbal handshake. A voice told him to stay on the line. So he did.
Another noise soon distracted him. A Yamaha motorcycle roared out of a nearby alleyway. Two seconds later its wheels were smoking in a half-turn. A second after that, it hoved broadside alongside the booth. At that point, the thought, which had previously left the building, was back.
Very different from now, it went. Because now, anything is possible, this is real life, and when you're dangling from the cliff, there's no skipping ahead. The only way you'll know how it all turns out is by going through it alone, one second at a time.
The motorcyclist pulled the portable rocket launcher from his side bag, shouldering it quickly in one smooth move.
What a tragedy, went the thought in finale, to feel there's a final twist needed in your life. And it never comes.
The rocket grenade hissssssssssssssed angrily from the gaping mouth of the barrel, the impact flashing white hot and hellfire, incinerating the booth, smelting the coin slots, liquefying the pavement down to the sewage pipes and mushrooming a plume of flame and smoke high into the London sky.
By the time the dust had settled, there was nothing on the street but rubble. Tears. The distant sound of sirens.
Excerpted from GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS © Copyright 2003 by David Wolstencroft. Reprinted with permission by Onyx Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.