The Key by Ian Whates [sci fi]
It’s amazing what a bunch of keys can say about a person. Keyrings and their contents hold hidden depths, or so Carl had always maintained.
Take his wife’s, for example: keys for the front door, car, garage, and a Yale for her mother’s place… plus various superfluous attachments: a pink-plastic pig, a Perspex heart displaying the pseudo-word ‘whateva’ and a smiley-emblazoned disc designed to impersonate a coin when liberating supermarket trolleys.
His own set was far more practical. Keys for car and home, one for a suitcase and another for a young lady’s flat which he trusted his wife would never notice or question. Two add-ons: a worn leather fob from his very first jalopy and a pizzel-shaped plait of woven leather which he’d been assured was a fertility symbol but probably wasn’t.
Then there was the set he had recently ‘acquired’. Six keys plus three attachments: a circular Mercedes emblem, matching one of the keys, a tiny plastic-encased photo of a girl’s face—presumably the owner’s daughter—and a small, squat figurine with blood-red crystal eyes. The latter vaguely resembled an owl and gave Carl the creeps. Quite what it said about the owner he preferred not to dwell on.
It was the keys that intrigued him: two differently-cut front door keys, suggesting two homes, Merc and Land Rover keys—a car for each dwelling—and two others that were tougher to identify.
Sammy-the-Locksmith’s considered opinion proved as much use as a chocolate teapot. “One’s for a cabinet and the other a safety-deposit box.”
“Any way of telling where the box is?”
He wouldn’t have cared, except for the small matter of the reward. A ridiculous sum, offered for the keys’ return with no mention of the Gucci wallet lifted at the same time, nor of the cash and credit cards contained there-in. One of these keys was important to someone and Carl reckoned he knew which one. The key remained useless to him, however, unless he could figure out what it opened. To his growing frustration, unlocking that particular enigma was proving beyond him.
“Mightn’t even be in this country,” Sammy, his best and final hope had concluded with a shrug.
Reluctantly, Carl accepted that he would have to settle for second best—the reward rather than whatever treasure the key led to. He set up a meeting, at a time and place of his choosing, in a bar where he was known. His recent victim and prospective benefactor awaited—a tall, muscle-broad individual who, even in Armani suit, failed to look entirely polished or civilised. The rugged edges were still there; an uncut gem in a presentation box.
Carl would have preferred a dead-drop, an exchange without ever meeting face-to-face, but the other would have none of it. Nervously, he watched the man arrive from across the street, alert for any hint of police or other presence. Seeing none, he followed, glancing at the barman for reassurance, but finding none.
He took a deep breath and, uttering a silent prayer to a god he didn’t believe in, committed himself by sitting down. Their eyes locked across the table. Carl saw unwavering self-confidence and steely strength couched within grey-blue irises; this was not a man to trifle with.
“You have the keys?” The voice was relaxed and casual to the point of being unnerving.
“You got the money?”
An envelope, produced from a pocket and then slid across the table. A fat envelope.
Carl reached out but the other’s hand clung to its far-edge. “The keys first.”
“Not until I’ve counted it.”
A frozen tableau that persisted for time-stretching seconds until the man abruptly let go. Carl opened the envelope and flicked through the wad of fifties, not counting with any accuracy, just checking.
Satisfied, he nodded to the barman, who left his station and came across with the keys.
To his credit, the stranger guffawed and nodded appreciation at the barman’s complicity. “You’re careful. I like that.”
He looked the keys over once before pocketing them and rising to his feet. There he paused, fixing Carl with a glare—the first suggestion of either anger or menace.
“Don’t cross my path again.”
“Just a minute,” Carl blurted out as the man turned to leave. “You’ve got them now, so you can tell me, why are they so important?”
The man smiled—an expression that lacked any hint of humour. “Do you really imagine I’m going to tell you?”
Carl watched the retreating back until the man was out the door and away. Despite earning far more than anticipated from this episode he still felt cheated, as if opportunity had somehow slipped through his grasp. What wealth or secrets had the key represented? Too late now. He would never know.
‘Never’ lasted a month.
Carl was watching the news. He remained sceptical and unmoved by the inescapable buzz about the first proof of alien life, scoffing at the media frenzy and avoiding television’s blanket-coverage… until now. He stared in disbelief at the image of what was allegedly an alien artefact. Set against a neutral background, the picture provided no sense of proportion, but Carl knew at once that it was small: a tiny, squat, owl-like effigy with blood-red eyes.
The reporter—all blonde hair, glossy lipstick and gushing exuberance—was explaining how the artefact’s eccentric owner and discoverer had little faith in conventional secure repositories, so had kept this priceless item on his keyring while awaiting the vital test results; results that had confirmed its non-Terrestrial origin. Getting into her stride now, she waxed-lyrical about the artefact’s potential for unlocking new worlds, labelling it ‘the Key to the Future’.
Carl switched off the TV. For long minutes he sat there, simply staring at the empty screen.
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