They stared into their drinks. Eventually James put down the beer coaster, sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Two hundred and forty million quid,” he said, “if our numbers come up tomorrow I’m never coming back here. This place depresses me.”
Sat across the leatherette booth was another man. His name was John. John didn’t look up from his beer.
“Your numbers come up tomorrow James, and you can do whatever you want.”
“Yeah,” said James, “god. I’d be free.” He swilled the beer around inside his glass until it foamed. “Shame to have to split it four ways though. Imagine knowing you could have won it all.”
“You know the odds mate. Together your little syndicate’s are much better.”
James drained his glass, leaving behind a coating of foam.
“Still,” he said, putting the glass down with a clunk, “seven rollovers. That’s a lot of wonga to give up three-quarters of.”
“Well that’s your lot mate, unless you’re going to bump off Liz and whoever else is in bed with you,” said John, finishing his drink as well. “Pint?”
“There’s a thought, though.”
“What, you thinking cider for a change?”
“What if one of us was, you know? Unable to collect their winnings. The rest’d get their money.”
John snorted at him.
“What, like they might have too much on to be able to collect sixty million quid? They might not have a window in their schedule?”
“Eighty million,” said James.
“Eighty million, if it was a three-way split.”
John snorted again.
“Course it would mate.”
“One fewer syndicate member, twenty million more quid in my pocket on Sunday morning.”
“Yeah I forgot, you’re a right gangster aren’t you. Two secs.” John unfolded himself from the booth and headed to the lavatories. “Scratchings yeah?” James nodded.
He wasn’t a gangster. But he’d known John a while, and was pretty sure his friend was a bona fide underworld fixer. Sure enough to wonder if it had been a good idea to start bringing John down his local in the first place. John was always in here, now. A few short weeks and all the bar staff knew his order already.
Taking a four-way split down to three ways would up his share by a third. A third of peanuts is still peanuts. But a jackpot win tomorrow and it’d look very different.
James watched the streaks of foam retreat down his glass. How much does it cost to do a murder? A few grand? His eyes followed the sticky tide mark around his glass. How fast can it be done? You’d need to know you’d won then get the deed done before anyone realised what was happening.
James looked over at the TV above the bar. The laggy typo-ridden subtitles on the news spelled it out: £240 million (to hundred and four tea million pounds) hung on the screen in pixellated yellow-on-black over the newsreader’s moving lips. He drew circles on the table with the heel of his glass. The syndicate all signed non-disclosures, to dodge the bloody begging letters, so that’d give a bit of room. But who would he get rid of, anyway?
Liz and her family always watched the draw live so there was no chance of getting to her before anyone else knew. Plus they were friends.
James didn’t know enough about Joe, the third syndicate member. Joe had never come down the pub much, even back in the day. He didn’t really know anything about him beyond his love for Tottenham Hotspur and lager. Hadn’t seen him in months.
That left Jack, the wheezy old bastard. Jack looked about a hundred, which James chalked up to his apparently doing nothing but smoke and drink all day, in a worn corridor between his rancid council flat and this bar. No family to care for him either, as he would often tell anyone that strayed too near when he wasn’t berating the immigrants and the gays. And that cough! Emphysema apparently, although he cursed all doctors as charlatans. Jack hadn’t always been that way, James could remember.
The syndicate had even been Jack’s idea, all those years ago. There had been more of them, then. He’d recruited James as the tenth member. But he’d lost some members, and then he’d lost track of the contracts and the bank account until he gave it all to James to run. He had never got involved again after that. Jack was the last founder member of the syndicate still in it. James has been in for a while, Liz and Joe had been recruited over the last couple of years, but Jack’s standing order had been going into the syndicate pot since day one.
It would be Jack. It could be done so that it looked natural, so that no one would question it. No one would miss him. No one would care. Did anyone else even know he was in the syndicate?
Two pints later John sat back into the booth seat and looked hard at James.
“You wouldn’t be able to undo it, you know. Once I make that call I can’t unmake it. You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”
“It’s a good plan though, isn’t it. You said it yourself.”
“Aye it is, I’ll give you that. No way it’d ever come back to you. But that’s not really what I mean, mate. You’re not a villain. Is it worth it?”
James nodded towards a dim corner of the room.
“Look at him.” They made no show of looking at Jack, who was nursing a warm beer in the corner, alone, lips moving. “He’s at death’s door. I’d just be ringing the doorbell. It’d almost be a kindness.”
“It’s not me you have to convince, mate. It’s bollocks, anyway. You’ve got more chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery tomorrow.”
“But the syndicate stands on a hundred hilltops in the storm, John. And lightning only has to strike once.”
The next evening, nobody but James paid attention to the bad subtitles on the TV as they rattled along. Green on black now.
And the bone us ball, number seven.
His gut turned to liquid and rolled.
Early indications are vat one lucky winner stands to collect the record roll over Jack pot of two hundred and for tee million pounds.
His head swam. He made his choice.
The next day passed without much incident, apart from receiving riches beyond reason.
He met a woman from the lottery who explained how it would all work, tax responsibilities, payment options, the lot.
The syndicate’s existing nondisclosure contracts meant the rest was simple enough. Their identities would be kept secret and they wouldn’t talk about it to anyone, ever. Huge lottery wins had ruined enough lives for them to have procedures. Robust procedures.
The day after, sixty million pounds dropped into James’ HSBC personal account. The huge number looked surreal in his browser window.
Sixty million. James shut his laptop after a while, and went down the pub to find John.
Liz was at the pub when James got there. He bought her a drink and they shared a moment of dramatic irony amongst the same old drinkers. They said nothing.
Liz drew £60m! in beer on the bar with her finger, and grinned as she smeared it away again with a sticky bar cloth. James grinned back.
John was in the usual booth.
“Says on the news that some lucky bastard won that giant rollover last night,” said John as James walked over. “What a world, eh?”
“What a world. I came back one last time,” James said, “to finish our business. It didn’t work, you know.”
John shrugged and finished his beer.
“I read the small print,” James continued. “Turns out the lottery people have all sorts of failsafes. It’ll go into probate. Pretty obvious, really.”
“You’re probably not the first to try it mate, to be fair. Worth a punt though, eh. My payment done?”
“Yeah, fifty bags of sand. Done.”
“We’re square then. You’re safe. I managed the situation. No loose ends.” Fifty grand, James suspected, bought a deluxe murder. “We ought to avoid each other for a while, be cautious,” said John, standing up. “And never speak of this again. One last pint?” He beckoned for James to cough up for the round with a smile. James paid, of course.
Oh well, he thought as John went to the bar. He’d just have to manage with fifty-nine million, nine hundred and fifty thousand quid.
John returned from the bar with the drinks and his phone went.
“Alright love,” he answered, “Oh. Sorry. Yeah. Alright. I’ll come back now. No. In the pub. Ok. Alright, I’ll wait here. Christ. See you in a sec.” He pocketed his phone and sat down heavily, grimacing. “The Mrs is on the way. Says the old man’s died. Didn’t want to be at home. Sounded upset.”
“I’ll give you some space,” said James as he got up to leave.
“Stay put? It’ll help to have you around,” said John.
James sat back. He started thinking about what he was going to do with sixty million pounds. Shame it wasn’t eighty. Could do a lot with twenty million. This could be the last time he ever came here too, he thought.
As James sat in his reverie, Joe came in through the side door, saw James and came over.
“Bloody hell, it’s Joe. Been a while! But I thought you might show up tonight,” said James with a grin as he sprang up to shake his hand. But Joe plonked himself straight down on the leatherette booth, and into John, and started crying.
“Alright love, alright,” said John quietly. He stroked the back of Joe’s hair. “It’s alright.”
“He’s dead,” Joe choked, “he’s finally dead.”
“Alright,” cooed John in his ear, “I’m sorry.”
“They made me identify the body. I never said goodbye. I’ve got appointments in the morning. The bank keeps leaving messages on my phone. I’m not bloody answering, not today. The will? What’s the bloody point? He didn’t have anything, we never did. No house, no money. Just a sideboard of medicine he’ll never need and a thousand cigarettes. And a yard-long tab for the piss they call beer in this dump.” Joe suddenly addressed James. “And what are you looking at?”
James realised he was gawping.
“I’m sorry Joe. I – I was expecting you to say something else, is all.”
“What else would I possibly have to say today? My dad’s gone.”
“My condolences. Were you very close?”
“Hated the old bastard,” said Joe, wiping his face, “and he hated me. Hadn’t spoken in years. He wouldn’t even acknowledge me.” He took John’s hand and cried. “Not after our wedding.”
James looked into John’s eyes and saw nothing.
“Come on,” said John softly, “let’s go. I don’t mind coming with you while they sort out the will in the morning.”
They left James in the pub.