M ia sipped her caramel latte and stared longingly at the packet of Rothmans on the table. Coffee and cigarettes went together like fish and chips, and coffee never tasted right if she wasn’t smoking. She looked out through the window at the three metal tables and chairs that had been set up on the pavement. She desperately wanted a cigarette but it was freezing cold outside and the weather forecast had been for snow. She hated winter, especially an English winter. She shivered and looked over at the customers queuing up to buy coffee. The door opened and as a cold wind blew into the shop a man joined the end of the queue. He was in his early thirties, maybe five years older than her, tall with jet-black hair and pale white skin. He was wearing a long overcoat that looked like cashmere and a bright red scarf around his neck.
She stared out of the window again for a while, and when she looked back at the queue the man had gone. She twisted around the other way and saw him sitting in an armchair by the toilets. He caught her look and smiled. She flashed him a tight smile and looked away. She picked up her pack of cigarettes and toyed with it. A grey-haired old woman sitting at the next table glared at her with open hostility as if she was daring Mia to light up. Mia scowled at her.
There was a mirror on one wall and she could see the man’s reflection. As she watched, he took a coin from his pocket, flipped it into the air and caught it. He slapped it down onto the back of his left hand, and then grinned as he looked at it. He put the coin back in his pocket, picked up his coffee mug, and walked over. Mia pretended not to see him.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. She turned to look at him. ‘I just had to come over and say hello.’
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘Fate,’ he said. ‘My name is Chance.’
‘As in Chance would be a fine thing. May I join you?’
For a moment she thought of saying no, but then he smiled and she waved at the chair on the opposite side of the table. ‘It’s a free country,’ she said.
‘Well, it used to be,’ he said, and sat down, carefully adjusting the crease of his trousers. ‘I didn’t get your name.’
‘Mia,’ she said. ‘Is Chance your real name?’
‘It’s the name I answer to,’ he said. He had the most amazingly blue eyes. The blue of the sky on a crisp autumn morning, Mia thought.
‘So it’s like a nickname?’
‘Sort of,’ he said.
She sipped her coffee and watched him over the rim of her mug. He had the chiselled good looks of a TV soap star. A doctor in Holby City , maybe. She put her mug back down on the table. ‘What was that thing you did, with the coin?’
He shrugged as if he didn’t know what she was referring to.
‘Come on, you know what I mean,’ she said. ‘You were looking at me and then you tossed a coin and then you came over.’
‘And what do you think happened?’
She giggled. ‘I think you weren’t sure whether or not you wanted to talk to me so you tossed a coin to decide. Am I right?’
He shrugged carelessly. ‘Sort of,’ he said. ‘I’d already decided that I wanted to talk to you, but I let the coin choose whether or not to follow through on what I wanted.’
She frowned. ‘That’s the same, right?’
‘As near as makes no odds,’ he said.
‘And you do that a lot?’ she asked. ‘Toss a coin to decide what to do?’
‘Not a lot,’ he said. ‘Always. And not just any old coin.’ He put his hand in his pocket and took out a fifty-pence piece. ‘This one.’
She held out her hand and he gave it to her. She examined both sides but she couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. ‘It’s just fifty pence,’ she said.
He took it back, made a fist of his hand and kissed the knuckles before putting the coin back in his pocket.
‘Are you serious?’ she said. ‘You let the coin make all your decisions?’
He shrugged again. ‘It’s more complicated than that, Mia,’ he said. ‘I give it choices, and it decides whether or not I proceed. That way fate takes responsibility for my actions.’
‘So you toss a coin to see if you’ll order a latte or a cappuccino?’
‘Not a coin. The coin. And no, I only ask it to decide on the important things.’
‘Like whether or not to talk to me?’
‘Sure,’ he said. He clinked his coffee mug against hers. ‘That was one of the big decisions of my life.’
She laughed and put her hand up to cover her mouth. Her fingernails were painted the same garish pink as her lips. ‘You could have just come over,’ she said. ‘I would have talked to you anyway.’
‘You’re missing the point,’ he said. ‘If I’d just walked over, everything that happened would have been my responsibility. But doing it this way, the coin is responsible. Do you see?’
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘But what’s special about it? It’s just a fifty-pence piece.’
‘It’s not special,’ he said. ‘It’s just that it has to be consistent. It has to be the same coin every time or it won’t work.’
‘What won’t work?’
Chance sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his neck. ‘If I used different coins that would be just luck. What I do has nothing to do with luck, it’s all about fate.’ He winked. ‘So do you live near here, Mia?’
‘Just down the road,’ she said. ‘I always have a coffee here on the way back from Tesco.’ She pointed at the supermarket carrier bags at her feet.
He removed his hands from behind his neck and fished the coin out of his pocket. He held it in the flat of his right hand and smiled at her.
‘What?’ she said.
He flipped the coin, caught it deftly in his right hand and slapped it down onto the back of his left.
‘Heads,’ she said.
Chance shook his head. ‘It’s not your call,’ he said. He removed his hand. The coin had landed heads side up.
‘I was right,’ she said, jiggling her shoulders from side to side like an excited child.
Chance smiled and put away the coin. ‘Mia, why don’t I help you carry your bags home?’
‘You want to come home with me?’
‘Sure.’ He drained his coffee and got to his feet.
‘Is that why you tossed the coin? To see whether or not you wanted to go home with me?’
Chance reached down and picked up her bags. ‘That’s right.’
She laughed and again her hand flew up to cover her mouth. ‘You’re crazy,’ she said.
He grinned. ‘Mia, you don’t know the half of it,’ he said.
‘What if it had landed tails?’
‘Then I’d have finished my coffee and left.’
She stood up and linked her arm through his. ‘It’s my lucky day,’ she said.
Mia lived in a mansion block in a quiet street ten minutes’ walk from the coffee shop. Chance carried her bags of shopping for her and made small talk as they walked, asking about her family, what she liked to watch on television, and where she liked to go of an evening. He listened intently and agreed with everything she said, which Mia took as a good sign. He was different from the type of men who generally tried to chat her up. He was good-looking and well dressed and he seemed genuinely interested in what she thought. It was only when she put the key into the lock of the door to the block that she realised she had spent the entire walk talking about herself. Other than that his name was Chance and he liked to toss a coin, she knew nothing about him. She looked over at him and he flashed her a movie-star smile.
‘Okay?’ he asked, as if sensing her momentary unease.
She smiled back. ‘You’re not a serial killer, are you?’ she asked.
He nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I am.’ His face broke into a grin. ‘Mia, you’re crazy.’
‘I think you’re right,’ she said. ‘It’s just that you’re too good to be true. I don’t know when the last time was that a man offered to carry my bags.’
‘It’s a pleasure,’ he said. ‘And you don’t have to invite me in. I can take a rain check.’
She opened the door but kept her hand on the key. He was right. She wasn’t under any pressure. It was totally her choice and whatever happened was her decision. She didn’t usually take strange men back to her home. But then most of the men who approached her were pigs, out for only one thing. Chance was different; there was no doubt about that. He was better looking, better dressed, and was obviously way smarter than anyone she knew. She smiled at him again and he flashed his movie-star smile back at her. Something her mother always said sprang into her mind. Opportunity knocks only once. If she turned him down now, she might never see him again. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘I’ve got wine in the fridge. You can help me drink it.’
She walked into the hallway and up the stairs to her first-floor flat. He followed her and waited while she unlocked the door. ‘Home sweet home,’ she said.
She showed him where the kitchen was and he put the carrier bags on the counter. She got a bottle of Frascati from the fridge and picked up two glasses. ‘White okay?’ she asked.
‘Great,’ he said, taking off his overcoat and scarf and draping them over the back of a chair. ‘Why don’t I open that for you?’
She gave him the bottle and he picked up a corkscrew then followed her through into the sitting room. There was an LCD television and a leather sofa and an armchair. All the furniture had come with the flat. Chance sat down on the sofa and opened the wine. ‘So, what do you do, Mia?’ he asked.
She frowned, not understanding the question. ‘Do?’ she repeated.
‘Your job,’ he said, stretching out his long legs. ‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m on the social,’ she said.
Chance nodded approvingly. ‘And you can afford this? It’s a nice place.’
‘It’s covered by housing benefit,’ she said. ‘The neighbours aren’t happy because they have to pay for theirs but I’m entitled, so screw them.’
‘Exactly,’ he said.
‘It’s because of the economy, innit?’ she said. ‘The landlord couldn’t find any tenants so he kept cutting the rent, and then it got so cheap the council said they could cover it with housing benefit, so here I am.’
‘You get income support?’ he asked as he poured wine into the two glasses.
She nodded. ‘Disability because of my nerves. A hundred and sixty a week, which isn’t bad. Plus another seventy for mobility.’
‘And it beats working,’ he said. ‘You should have kids. You’d get more money and the council will find you a bigger place.’
‘I thought of that,’ she said, lighting a cigarette. She offered him the pack but he shook his head.
‘I bet you did,’ he said. He pushed one of the glasses towards her.
She smiled coyly. ‘Are you putting yourself forward for the job?’ she asked.
‘I might just do that,’ he said, and flashed her his movie-star smile.
She sipped her wine. ‘That coin thing – you’re serious?’
He nodded. ‘It’s not a thing, it’s my life.’
‘Why? Why do you do it?’
‘I told you. So that the coin makes decisions for me. Because if I don’t make decisions myself then it all comes down to fate. I believe that everything is pre-ordained and there’s no such thing as free will.’
She frowned, unable to follow his train of thought.
‘It’s only by throwing in an element of randomness that you can gain control of your life,’ he continued. ‘Everybody should do it. They’d find themselves truly free.’ He raised his glass to her. ‘Here’s to you, Mia. And here’s to the coin. Because if it wasn’t for the coin, I wouldn’t be here with you now.’
‘That’s true,’ she said. She reached over and clinked her glass against his.
They both drank, then Chance stood up and walked over to the window. The street below was lined with cars but there were few pedestrians. He reached for the strings that controlled the blinds and gently closed them. ‘I always prefer blinds to curtains, don’t you?’ he asked.
‘I guess so,’ she said, flicking ash into a ceramic ashtray in the shape of a lucky clover. She patted the sofa. ‘Come and sit down,’ she said.
He put his hand into his pocket and took out the fifty-pence coin. He tossed it. And smiled to himself when he saw the way it had landed. He looked up and grinned at her as he put away the coin.
‘What?’ she said. ‘What did you decide?’
He walked towards her. ‘It’s a secret,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘You’re terrible,’ she said. ‘You can’t let a coin rule your life.’
‘Oh yes, I can,’ he said. He bent down and kissed her on the top of her head.
‘At least give me a hint,’ she said. She stubbed out her cigarette and then sat back and held out her hands.
He chuckled as he reached into his pocket. ‘Let’s just say that it’s not your lucky day, darling.’ His hand reappeared, holding a cut-throat razor. She opened her mouth to scream but before she had even taken a breath he had slashed the blade across her throat and arterial blood sprayed over the wall.