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Even through the smoky haze of the cheap restaurant, there was no mistaking that he was handsome. The dim lighting only highlighted his profile: slightly upturned nose, high cheekbones, blue eyes, long lashes- the kind of face any girl would gladly sell her soul for. Probably too young for her, of course, but still, handsome. The vinyl was sticky against her bare legs. Why was Bill late? She should have known better than to make reservations at six on a night he had to work. She felt as though everyone in the room was looking as she squirmed in her seat. The young man stopped, asked the bartender a question, and the old man shook his head. Then, he seemed to have an idea, and pointed towards her table. The young man made his way over to her table and politely inquired if the seat was taken. Not wanting to seem rude, she told him that it wasn’t. He asked her if she wanted a drink. She declined. He insisted. This went on until finally, the waiter came to take their orders. “I haven’t seen you here before, Miss. This one here’s a regular, though.” He winked knowingly at the young man, who countered with an unnervingly brilliant smile. The waiter left, chuckling fondly as he went. The young man said nothing more, but pulled out a small leather notebook and began writing notes in the margins. When he finally disengaged himself from the task, he seemed ready to make polite small talk.
“You were meeting your husband here for dinner tonight, weren’t you?”
“I was. I, mean, I still am. He’s probably just stuck in traffic. How did you know that, anyway?”
“Well, I saw your ring, and I assumed that you weren’t just sitting alone at a table for two.” He went back to his notebook.
Several long minutes passed before he looked up again. “Do you love him?”
“Of course I do. Why would you ask something like that? I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
“Defensive. So, you two are having problems? Is it money?”
“I never said that!”
“It’s money. What else could it be?”
“What do you want most? It’s alright; you don’t have to tell me. Just think about it.”
An image came into her mind, unbidden. She tried not to think about it. It was a simple enough daydream, the kind most people had from time to time, but it still felt a little bit shameful. It was just an ordinary check, filled out to Isabelle Ross, representing a modest sum of money, enough to set her family up comfortably and still have some left over. She shouldn’t be greedy. It was a sin, at least that’s what the Bible said. Anyway, why was he even asking her this? It was a very odd question. Maybe he was some sort of religious fanatic, trying to save her soul. In any case, she wasn’t about to share her private thoughts with a total stranger. While she thought, the young man had been staring intently at her, as if trying to memorize her face. Now, as she she looked up, and his penetrating blue eyes seemed to gleam with triumph.
“All right, then. That’s easy enough.”
“What are you talking about?”
He just smiled mysteriously and handed her his pen.
“You know what I mean.”
He turned to a blank page in his notebook. No. She didn’t want this. She knew better. This was how people ended up getting mugged, shot and dumped in the river in the middle of the night. They signed a piece of paper offering a deal too good to be true. She wouldn’t. But what about her mother’s chemotherapy? Her sister, pregnant and out of a job? Her husband, working day in and day out for barely enough to afford rent on their apartment? As she agonized, the young man with the ice-cold eyes began to laugh. Before she realized what had happened, he had snatched the notebook away. He showed it to her. There, in dull red ink, letters were appearing, curling across the page like flames. She grabbed the book. There it was. If she didn’t know better, she’d say that it was her own signature. This wasn’t possible. She hadn’t agreed, had she? She had just been considering the possibilities. That was all. She felt hot, then cold. The room began to spin around her. As he put out a hand to catch herself, she heard the young man explaining that she had had too much to drink. “No!”, she wanted to shout. “He cheated me! I didn’t want this!” But she couldn’t seem to find any of these words. The young man just smiled at her. He tipped his hat to the bartender, left a generous tip for the waiter, opened the door, and seemed to evaporate into the winter night in a small hiss of steam.