Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
Have you ever heard the legend of Stingy Jack? No? Well, no matter. I’d never heard of him either, not until I had the misfortune of meeting the shifty bastard face-to-face. I encountered Jack, not realising who or what he was, and my ignorance almost cost me my life…Not just my life actually, but also my immortal soul.
Now, before I tell you my wee story, I might as well admit that I enjoy my drink. I know, an Irish man with a fondness for the booze. Big surprise, eh? Well, perhaps I am a walking cliché, but I’m comfortable with who I am. The truth is, I feel most at home holding court at the bar, and I can’t see that changing any time soon.
To be fair, I’ve eased up over the last few years, as I approach by big 40. I can’t party like I did back in my 20’s. My days of weekend long benders have (mostly) come to an end, and I’ve morphed into a semi-responsible adult, or at least a close approximation of one.
Anyway, that’s enough about me. I’m not here to tell my life story. What I will tell you about is what happened to me ten years ago in the back country of County Donegal. My experience that night was…terrifying. I’d challenge anyone to come through a meeting with Jack without shitting their pants.
Still, I’ll admit to being pretty proud of my achievement on that fateful night. They say you should never try to trick a trickster, and this may be good advice for most. But I took on the man who fooled the Devil himself, beating him in a game of chance and banishing the sly bastard right back where he came from.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning. It was the summer of 2010 and I was over on the west coast of Donegal for a music festival. I’d traveled down with a few mates and basically it was just an excuse to get pissed and party hard.
The weekend passed by in a drunken haze and – if truth be told – I remember very little about the festival. I do vaguely recall doing a pub crawl in the local village and downing numerous pints of Guinness and shots of Jamieson. We ended back in our rented cottage and continued to party throughout the night.
Now, I can’t really remember this, but apparently I made a drunken pass at my mate’s girlfriend at some point during the evening. I have no recollection of this event, but to be fair, it does sound like the kind of thing I would do. In any event, my lewd behaviour didn’t go down too well with either party and resulted in some…unpleasantness.
I woke up the next morning in a trashed cottage with a stinking hangover and a black eye. My friends were somewhat disgusted by my bad behaviour and so had left without me. I can’t really say I blamed them. But the upshot was that I was stranded in rural Donegal and somehow needed to make my way back to Belfast.
There was a coach that went through the village each afternoon, and so I bought a ticket. Then I made the perhaps unwise decision to return to the local pub for a ‘hair of the dog’, while I waited for the bus. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake.
I barely made the bus and didn’t stay on it for very long. Again, I don’t recall exactly what I did on the coach. I tend to have blank spots when it comes to my drunken misdemeanors. I may have puked on the floor, made lewd comments towards a female passenger, or thrown a punch at the driver. Or perhaps it was all three.
I guess it doesn’t matter much now. What I do clearly remember is being thrown off the bus along a lonely rural road, abandoned in the middle of nowhere. My phone was dead (surprise, surprise – I’d forgotten to charge the battery), and so I was forced to start walking.
Now, many people will tell you how beautiful the Donegal countryside is, and I suppose it is in a brutal and austere sort of way. Still, I’m not one for the outdoors at the best of times, and certainly not when I’ve been thrown off a bus in the middle of an empty land full of rolling hills and watery bogs.
My head was throbbing and my whole body ached, but I had no choice but to suck it up and start walking. I noticed the ominous grey clouds in the sky above me and – sure enough – it started pissing it down about 5 minutes into my walk. I didn’t have a coat with me and so I was soon drenched through to the skin, which only added to my misery.
I’d been marching along the lonely country road in the pouring rain for close to two hours by the time I finally reached civilisation, if indeed it could be described as such. I was rather perplexed when I trudged into the small village set alongside the lonely country road. I held no recollection of coming through this hamlet while on the coach, although granted I hadn’t been paying too much attention.
Villages in the west of County Donegal tend to have a rustic feel to them, with most looking like a throwback to a previous era. Nevertheless, there are usually some signs of the modern world to be found – such as petrol stations, electricity pylons, an ATM, or a shop or post office with modern signage. But not here.
This tiny hamlet consisted of a few small stone walled cottages with traditional thatched roofs and chimneys churning out black smoke from turf fires. There were about a dozen cottages in total, all of a similar size and design. There were no signs of life inside any of the cottages, with each house having their curtains drawn and with no lights or sounds coming from within.
There were no shops in the small hamlet, and not even a parish church. In fact, there was only one business of note which appeared to be the hub of this tiny community – a public house. From the outside, the pub appeared old fashioned and run down. The sign above the door was worn out and jaded, bearing a crudely painted motif. The pub was simply called ‘Jack’s Place’, which I assumed was a reference to the licensee. Most of the pubs in rural Ireland are family owned and run.
There were few signs of life to the place, but the front door was left slightly ajar and I could see a dim light emanating from the inside, presumably indicating that the bar was open for business. By this point, I was tired and fed up, not to mention drenched through to the bone.
What’s more, it was late in the day and would be getting dark soon. I didn’t have a clue where I was or how far it would be to walk to the next village or town. I reckoned I could at least go inside to dry myself off and use their phone to call for a taxi.
I thought perhaps they could rustle me up something to eat, and I might calm my nerves with a drink or two. Yes, I know…too much drink had gotten me into this mess in the first place, but I’d had a rough day and so I reckoned I deserved at least a couple of pints after all I’d been through.
I crossed the road and slowly pushed open the thick oak door of the public house. I didn’t know why at the time, but I recall feeling a sense of trepidation just before I entered the pub, a kind of primal instinct that screamed inside my head, telling me to walk away and get the hell out of this place. I fought back this irrational feeling and told myself it made no sense, and I forced myself to proceed.
The first thing that hit me when I stepped inside was the wall of smoke, so dense and repugnant that it made me cough as I struggled to regain my breath. Now, the Republic of Ireland was one of the first countries in Europe to bring in a smoking ban in pubs and bars, and by 2010 this law had already been in place for several years. Therefore, I was surprised to find the rules being so blatantly ignored in this establishment. My guess was that the guards and health inspectors rarely came out to this remote location, and so the patrons felt they were safe enough continuing to smoke indoors.
I wasn’t overly concerned in any case, since I was a social smoker myself and had a fairly bohemian view when it came to laws such as this. It took a moment for the smoke to clear, allowing me to adjust my eyes to my surroundings. The pub was – as expected – a dump.
Its interior was dank and dreary, and the decor looked like it hadn’t been updated for about a century. Now, regular pub patrons will know that many modern establishments go for the retro look; stocking bookshelves with old hard backs and filling their walls with antique memorabilia and the like. This wasn’t one of those places.
It was what younger patrons might describe as an ‘old man’s pub’, where any changes or updates would surely result in grumbles from the old school regulars who didn’t like change. My memory of the surroundings isn’t the best, but let’s see if I can describe it. The wood floor underneath my feet was sticky and – I suspected – not often cleaned. In addition to the plumes of tobacco smoke, my nostrils also picked up the familiar stench of spilt alcohol and stale urine.
The bar, which was unmanned when I first walked in, looked filthy, with its wooden top stained and cracked. I saw a number of unlabelled spirit bottles displayed on shelves above the bar, some containing brown spirits (presumably whiskey), while others held a clear liquid, which I guessed could be illicitly brewed poteen, common enough in these parts.
The walls of the pub were adorned by a number of old black and white photographs, most of them stained yellow by years’ worth of tobacco smoke, and several had cracked or broken frames. The pictures were all local scenes, many being of farming families clad in Victorian era clothing. Their grim and austere facial expressions told a story, that of a harsh life etched out upon an unforgiving and barren landscape.
There was something rather eerie and unsettling about those old photographs, and I found I couldn’t look at any one of them for too long. It was almost as if their eyes were following me as I sheepishly moved through the bar. Somehow, I felt as if they were judging me, although of course this was impossible.
The pub’s interior was dark, and I soon realised why. There were no electrical lights anywhere inside of the building, with the only illumination coming from a number of lit candles placed on the tables and bar top, and a turf fire burning in an old-fashioned fireplace at the far end of the room.
I glanced across at the booths facing the bar, noticing there were currently a grand total of three patrons drinking and smoking, but otherwise not interacting with each other in any manner. At the first table sat two older men, both of whom I reckoned were in their late 60’s or early 70’s. Both had weathered faces and thinning grey hair and they both wore tweed jackets, shirts and ties, looking as if they’d come straight from evening mass.
The men were nursing pints of stout in old-fashioned glasses and smoking from their pipes. Both looked up at me with hostile suspicion in their eyes, as if I was an alien invader who’d suddenly stepped into their world uninvited. I nodded to the men and said hello, hoping to defuse some of the tension. But neither responded to my greeting. Instead, they continued to glare accusingly at me, making me feel extremely uncomfortable.
I lowered my head and walked on. The lone occupant of the next booth along was a middle-aged woman dressed entirely in black, her eyes cast down to an empty whiskey glass sitting on the table in front of her, as she took long drags from a cigarette and sobbed softly.
She looked up as I passed, her eyes filled with tears and her cheeks puffed up and red. I saw her upper lip tremble and thought she was going to speak, but instead she lowered her head, once again hiding her tear-filled face. Clearly the woman was upset, and I wondered if I should say something. But I never was too good at that emotional crap and – frankly – it wasn’t my problem, so I moved on.
I stood in front of the fireplace, enjoying the heat from the flames and hoping to dry off my wet clothes after hours spent trudging through the heavy rain. As I warmed myself, I looked over at the unattended bar and called out, saying – “Any chance of some service out here?”
There followed a moment of awkward silence, before a girl emerged from a back door behind the bar. The barmaid was a young woman, perhaps in her early to mid-twenties. She was of slight build and medium height, with her long brunette hair tied back in a bun. I would have described her as attractive, but her choice of clothing didn’t exactly highlight her best features.
She wore a conservative Victorian style long dress which fully covered her cleavage. And, like the sobbing woman in the booth, I noticed how the barmaid was also clad all in black, like she’d just come from a wake or funeral. She wore no make up on her face and her complexion was pale, although I did notice her natural ruby red lips and expressive green eyes.
She didn’t look in great form however, glaring at me suspiciously as she walked to her station, considering me more as an inconvenience or annoyance rather than a valued customer waiting to be served. This wasn’t exactly the warm welcome I would have liked, but I’ve always considered myself as something of a smooth-talker, and so I reckoned I could win her over.
“Evening love, I thought I was going to die of thirst out here. Still, I can see you’re run off your feet…”
I shot her a cheeky smile and a wink, but I didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for. The barmaid frowned, looking me over with contempt, like I was something unpleasant she’d stepped in.
“You look like a drowned rat.” she said dismissively.
I laughed nervously before replying. “Yeah well…I’ll admit I’m not looking my best right now. I’ve had a rough day and was hoping for some traditional Donegal hospitality…”
Her ice-cold demeanor didn’t thaw, as she abruptly asked – “What do you want?”
“Well, I’ll start with a pint and whiskey chaser.” I replied with a smile. “I could use a drink while I dry off.” I paused for a moment before asking my next question. “I don’t suppose you have a phone I could use?” I enquired.
She looked back at me with an expression of confusion evident on her face, pausing for a moment before responding with a definite – “No.”
“Of course you don’t.” I muttered in frustration, as I moved away from the fireplace and parked myself on a stool facing the bar.
I watched as the barmaid poured me a shot of whiskey straight from the bottle and then proceeded to pour a pint of frothy black stout using an old-fashioned and hand operated pump. All very old school.
She placed the drinks in front of me without ceremony, spilling some of the contents of the pint whilst doing so. She didn’t tell me the cost or ring up the till. In fact, the bar didn’t even seem to have a till. I dug into my pocket and pulled out a five euro note, placing it upon the bar. She stared at it in confusion for several seconds, looking as if it wasn’t the type of payment she’d expected. Finally, after a tense delay, she lifted the paper note and took it with her as she retreated into the backroom.
“Great.” I muttered sarcastically. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get any help from this moody cow. I took a big gulp from my pint glass and followed up with a sip of hard whiskey, savouring the warmth of the strong liquor as it made its way down my throat. Then, I pondered what I would do next.
For whatever reason, the barmaid had been less than helpful, and the handful of patrons present were dead to the world, but surely there was someone in this dump who could call me a cab. So, I decided to bide my time and finish my drinks in the hope that someone a bit more amenable would turn up. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for long.
The enigmatic figure appeared as if from nowhere, stepping out from the shadows and confidently marching across the bar-room floor. I hadn’t spotted him standing in the corner of the room, which was surprising given that he was hard to miss.
The newcomer was a large man, plump to the point of being obese. The clothes he wore were old-fashioned and scruffy, consisting of a worn-out tweed jacket, a shirt and bow tie, and a brown waistcoat that barely contained his ample belly. His trousers were covered in dry mud and his old boots had holes in the leather.
Given his unkempt appearance, this man could easily have been mistaken for a tramp. The smell didn’t help either, as he stank from a putrid mix of alcohol, cigarette smoke, and body odour. It was hard to guess his age, although I reckoned the fellow was in his 50’s or 60’s. His face was fat and as red a beetroot, likely the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.
Nevertheless, the drunkard appeared relatively sober and amicable. He staggered towards me, shooting a broad grin that exposed broken yellow teeth. I might have assumed he was harmless, but when I looked into his dark brown eyes, I saw a sly cunning that put me on my guard. The man spoke first, his voice deep and croaky.
“Good evening young man.” he said with a smile, “My name is Stingy Jack, and this here is my establishment.”
He held out his hand, which I reluctantly took. His skin was ice cold, his shake firm. “Pleased to meet you Jack.” I answered without much enthusiasm.
I didn’t think much of ‘Stingy Jack’ or his decrepit old pub, but at least he was more friendly than the barmaid. “You’re a stranger to these parts.” Jack added, “Then again, most folk are. I trust you’re being treated well?”
I scoffed, thinking of the cold reception from the young barmaid. However, when I turned back towards the bar, I saw her standing there, staring down at me accusingly. For some reason I couldn’t explain, I felt rather intimidated by the young woman, and so I replied meekly, saying – “Yes, I have no complaints.”
Jack surprised me with his reaction. Suddenly, he bellowed loudly, his raucous laughter filling the room. He nodded towards the silent barmaid, meeting her eye.
“Well, Molly here has worked for the family over many years. She isn’t always the most courteous, but I can assure you she is reliable.”
I nodded my head, not knowing how to respond. Instead, I turned and looked upon the trio of patrons, noting with some concern that we were being watched. The two old men and the sobbing widow had all turned to face us, glaring upon me and Jack with barely disguised hostility in their eyes.
I suddenly felt quite uncomfortable, turning back towards Jack to seek some reassurance. Jack laughed once more, patting me hard on the shoulder with his ice-cold hand as he did so.
“Don’t worry about that lot.” he proclaimed amicably, “My regulars are the parochial type. Me on the other hand, I always welcome new custom.”
I feigned a smile as I glanced up at Jack’s broken smile, before lowering my head and taking another drink. I hoped he would leave me be, at least for the time being. But no such luck.
“Let me ask you a question young man.” Jack added in a thoughtful tone, “I notice you said nothing when I introduced myself…Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of me? Have you never heard the story of Stingy Jack?”
I looked up to meet his gaze, noting the twinkle in this eye. Stingy Jack. The name did ring a bell in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t quite place it. Had this old drunkard once been a minor celebrity or local politician? I didn’t necessarily want to offend the man, but my mind was drawing a blank.
“Sorry mate,” I replied sheepishly, “I can’t say that I have.”
Jack laughed and once again slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it son. You’re a hot-blooded young lad and no doubt have no time for old wives’ tales. I guess I’m not as famous as I used to be, back in the day. But lucky for you, Molly knows my life story better than anybody. She could recite it in her sleep, no doubt. Now then Molly, would you care to enlighten our uninformed young friend?”
Jack looked at the barmaid expectantly, as did I. Jack’s banter had drawn me in, and I went against my better judgement and listened intently. Molly sighed loudly, rolling her eyes before she began her unenthusiastically told account. She nodded towards her gregarious boss before speaking.
“This gentleman here is the famous Stingy Jack, the man who fooled the Devil. Once upon a time, Jack was known throughout the land as a deceiver and manipulator. In time, the Devil overheard the tales of Jack’s silver tongue and wicked deeds, and one night he sought Jack out, wishing to discover whether he lived up to his notorious reputation.
On that fateful night, Jack here was drunk and wandering through the countryside when he came across a body lying in his path. The unscrupulous Jack tried to rob the stricken man, only to discover he was the Devil in disguise.
Realising this was surely the end for him, Jack made a last request of the Devil, asking to enjoy one final ale before he was taken to Hell. Upon quenching his thirst in a local bar, Jack confessed that he was an unable to pay his tab. Chancing his arm, Jack asked the Devil to transform himself into a silver coin which he could use to pay the bartender.
The Devil was impressed by Jack’s nefarious cunning and therefore agreed to his unorthodox request. However, Jack tricked the Devil by dropping the transmogrified coin into his jacket pocket, which also contained a crucifix. The presence of this holy symbol prevented the Devil from escaping his form, and so he was left at Jack’s mercy.”
She sighed deeply before continuing. “The ever-cunning Jack agreed to release the Devil, but on the condition that his soul would never be taken into the depths of Hell.”
The barmaid paused once again, and I was sure I could see a slight glint in her eye as she spoke her next words. “Jack’s immortal soul was safe from the Devil’s clutches. But his physical body was ravaged by years of drinking and debauchery, and eventually he died. Jack’s soul made its way to the Gates of St Peter, but God would not allow him entry into Heaven, citing his sinful and deceitful lifestyle.
Thus banned from both Heaven and Hell, Stingy Jack’s immortal soul was doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, for all eternity. And so, here he is…”
She nodded towards the man who stood before me. I looked back towards my host in bafflement, noting how he retained his smile but now had a look of sadness and regret etched across his weathered face. Needless to say, I was quite taken aback by this bizarre tale and I instantly wondered what kind of scam these yokels were trying to pull on me.
Did they really expect me to believe this rubbish? Either Jack and his barmaid were playing a joke on me, or they were both totally nuts. Either way, I desperately wanted this uncomfortable conversation to end, but Jack wasn’t having it.
“So, what do you make of my sorrowful tale young man?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, trying to think of an answer that wouldn’t push this potentially crazy person over the edge.
“Well Jack, the Devil in that story sounds like a fucking eejit!”
I looked up at Jack with a smile on my face, hoping my joke would defuse the tension. Thankfully my ploy worked, as Jack bellowed out laughter and spoke in agreement.
“Too true, young man. Too true. But you’re forgetting just how persuasive old Stingy Jack can be. I’m the type who could sell snow to the eskimos.”
He laughed again, as I took another swig from my drink, draining my pint glass and downing what remained of my whiskey. Jack noticed how my glasses were now empty and motioned to his barmaid, saying – “Our new friend needs another round.”
I shook my head and waved in the negative, trying to be polite but firm as I replied. “No honestly Jack, I really shouldn’t.”
Jack did appear somewhat put out. He frowned, and his smile faltered ever so slightly as he spoke.
“You don’t seem like the type to turn down a drink. What is it that you want son?”
I thought about this for a moment and considered regaling Jack with the tale of my misfortunes during the course of the weekend, but in the end my answer was a simple one.
“I just want to get home Jack.” I said softly.
Jack’s grin widened once again, and he nodded his head in the affirmative, acting as if he’d expected me to give this answer all along.
“Of course!” he bellowed, “You want to get home. And who can blame you? Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day? To have a place to return to…a place where we belong and feel safe.”
He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful as he considered his next words. “I’ll tell you what son. What would you say if I could give you what you want? I can help you get home…and I’ll even throw in a large whiskey, on the house. A stiff one for the road, as they say. What do you reckon, young man?”
He placed this cold hand on my shoulder, causing me to wince ever so slightly. Jack’s offer sounded great on the surface, but I didn’t trust the man, and the whole situation felt off.
I answered shrewdly, saying – “That’s very generous of you Jack. But I can’t help but feel there’s a catch involved…”
For a fleeting moment I worried I’d gone too far, and so I was almost relieved when Jack laughed aloud and slapped me on the back once again.
“There’s no flies on you son, is there?” he acknowledged, whilst raising his hands in a mocking defensive gesture. “Well, you’ve heard my story and probably guessed I’m not the altruistic type. That said, I’ve always enjoyed a good old wager. Are you a gambling man yourself son?”
I shrugged my shoulders before replying. “I have the odd flutter.”
Jack laughed once again. “Sure you do young man! I bet you’ve got quite the poker face too! I’d love to play cards with you sometime, but alas I don’t have the time…”
I’ll confess that I was intrigued by this point. Despite his shabby appearance, Jack was charismatic and was successful in drawing me in.
“Well, if not cards, what do you have in mind?” I enquired.
I saw a mischievous twinkle in Jack’s eye, a sly cunning that should have raised alarm bells, but didn’t.
“A coin toss. Best of three. Dead simple.” Jack confirmed.
I scoffed at the suggestion. “There’s no skill in that.” I replied.
“Perhaps not. But it all depends on whether you’re feeling lucky.” Jack replied slyly. “And don’t forget – if you win, it’s a free drink and you get to go home.”
“And what happens if you win?” I asked suspiciously, “What do I stand to lose?”
“Oh, nothing much.” said Jack, with a cheeky grin on his lips. “Just your immortal soul.”
This time it was my turn to laugh. I’ll confess, this was the last thing I’d expected to hear.
“My soul!” I exclaimed, “Are you serious mate? I’m sorry to tell you Jack, but I’m afraid you’re a bit too late for that!”
Now, at that stage in my life I was a confirmed atheist. I didn’t believe in God, the afterlife, or any of that, and I certainly didn’t believe I had a soul. As far as I was concerned, life was for living, and I was determined to cram in as much hedonistic pleasure as I could before my body became old and tired. Obviously, what happened that night changed my perspective somewhat, but in that moment, I was totally confident in my lack of belief. But unwittingly I played right into Jack’s hands.
“Well then,” he said coyly, “you’ve got nothing to lose then, have you?”
By this point the exchange had become a battle of wits. Jack waited for my answer, and I felt the eyes of the patrons and the barmaid on me. In retrospect I should have realised something was very wrong with this situation and made for the door right there and then, but I was so arrogant that I didn’t recognise the danger. And so, I accepted the wager.
“You’re on.” I answered, with a nod of my head.
I rummaged through my pocket but was unable to find what I was looking for.
“I don’t have a spare coin.” I confirmed.
“Don’t worry son,” said Jack, with a sly grin and a wink. “I’ve got my own right here.”
He removed the item from his jacket pocket and tossed it onto the bar top. I reacted quickly, stopping the coin under my right hand, feeling the cold metal against my palm. I slowly lifted my hand to reveal the silver coin underneath. The coin was one I’d never seen before in my whole life. It wasn’t sterling, euro, or even an old punt. It appeared shiny and new, like it had just been minted, but there was no indication I could see of its actual value.
The imprints on the coin were bizarre and rather unsettling. On one side was the head profile of a sinister and demonic figure with horns, and on the other side was a coiled snake, its mouth attempting to swallow its own tail. The words engraved on both sides were in Latin and read – ‘Mors vincit omnia.’
I stared at it blankly for a moment before suddenly realising the significance.
“Ah, I see!” I added with a sarcastic laugh. “This is the ‘Devil’, is it? Transformed into a coin?”
I grinned knowingly at Jack, but this time he didn’t share in my amusement, instead lowering his head before answering in a wistful tone.
“No son, this is just an ordinary coin. A replica, if you will. I released Lucifer from this form many years ago. But there is still a price to pay. He’ll never leave me be, and I must give him what he wants…” He paused briefly, lifting his head and grinning once again, as he re-established his cheerful persona. “But that’s not your problem, is It young man? And I do believe we have a game to play.”
He leaned in to pick up the coin from the bar top, carefully balancing it on his thumb.
“Head or tails? Your call.”
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Why would I risk my fate on something as arbitrary and unpredictable as the toss of a coin? Well, at that point I reckoned ‘Stingy Jack’ was either a drunken crackpot or – at worst – some kind of conman. Either way, I reckoned I was savvy enough to deal with him, and I thought playing his silly little game might be my best chance of getting out of this dump.
I didn’t think I was in any real danger and certainly didn’t believe I was risking my ‘soul’. And so, I nodded in agreement and answered – “Heads.”
Jack’s smile widened, and I saw a wicked glint in his eye that made me feel uneasy. In that moment, Jack reminded me of a spider with a fly caught in its web, and I was the fly! But I reckoned it was too late to back out now. I just had to hope for the best.
The tension inside of that small barroom suddenly become unbearable. Molly the barmaid and the three odd patrons were all watching intently, as if there was nothing else in their little world other than Jack, me, and the coin.
I held my breath as Jack casually flipped the coin, and I watched in fearful anticipation as it spun in the air. It seemed to take an age to come down, falling into Jack’s waiting hand. He looked down, his eyes widening in excitement as he revealed the coin to me – Tails. The Serpent.
“One nil to me.” Jack proclaimed gleefully.
My heart sank. I felt I had made a terrible mistake and it was going to cost me dearly. It seemed like all my bad life choices had finally caught up with me. I thought I was going to be sick as I helplessly watched Jack toss the coin for the second time, knowing that the outcome could well doom me for all eternity.
Jack caught the coin, frowning in disappointment as he looked upon it. I glanced down and – to my great relief – saw the Devil’s head staring back at me. Thank God, I thought but did not say. One all. I was still in it, but everything would come down to this final toss. Jack looked down upon me. His grin and cheerful demeanour had gone, replaced by a look that was deadly serious.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked me.
I nodded my head meekly. I certainly wasn’t ready, but I wanted this to be over, one way or another. I saw Jack flipping the coin, my head spinning as I watched it fall. My heart almost stopped as I forced myself to look into Jack’s open palm…
What I saw was the Devil’s head staring back up at me. Heads! Were my eyes deceiving me? No. There was no doubt. Two heads against one tails. I was victorious!
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed in a burst of excitement. “I did it! I won!”
I glanced up at Jack, expecting him to be gracious in defeat, but he was anything but. His face betrayed his barely contained rage, his eyes screwed up and cheeks burning a bright red. He didn’t speak to me directly but instead snarled through clenched teeth, conveying an order to his barmaid Molly.
“Get this bastard his whiskey.” he growled, “He can drink it and then get the hell out.”
I was angered by his remark. I’d won his stupid little game fair and square. What right did Jack have to treat me like this? Without thinking, I opened my mouth to challenge him.
“Jesus, you’re a bloody sore loser Jack! What the hell’s your problem old man?”
I regretted my ill-considered words as soon as I’d spoken them. To say Jack didn’t react well would be a vast understatement. He came in close to me, his eyes filled with an unholy fury. The words he spat at me were full of raw hatred, as if I’d suddenly become his worst enemy.
“You fucking arsehole! You little shite!” he growled, “You think you’re so damn clever, don’t you? Well, let me tell you something scumbag! Never try to trick a trickster. I eat the likes of you for breakfast! You’re nothing to me. Just another dumb mark! Oh, you may have won this round, but I’ll get you in the end! Mark my words you fucker…Stingy Jack always gets his man!”
I was left gobsmacked by Jack’s sudden change and stung by his angry tirade. I recoiled on my bar stool, raising my hands defensively. I felt sure he would strike me, but he didn’t. Instead, Jack took hold of the silver coin and furiously threw it into the open fireplace.
What happened next defied any logical explanation. Suddenly, the flames spread rapidly, quickly engulfing the fireplace before expanding to consume the entire back wall of the barroom, fiercely burning through everything that stood in its path.
I felt the heat from the flames burning my skin, and I kicked back my bar stool, retreating from the rapidly growing inferno. Inexplicably, Jack did not retreat from the flames. Instead, he walked straight towards them, showing no indication of discomfort or fear.
I felt sure that the whole place would go up in smoke in a matter of minutes, and so I knew I had to get out of there. At that moment, I glanced across at the three patrons – the old men and the widow, and then across to ‘Molly’, the barmaid. What I saw was…horrifying.
All four stood facing me, completely ignoring the fire raging behind them. Their faces were now a ghostly pale, and their eyes had turned jet black. Every one of the four had their mouths open so wide that it seemed like their jaws had been dislocated. And then, they all started to scream.
The unholy sound these ghouls emitted was horrific; piercing and high-pitched and unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life. Their cries were otherworldly, so sorrowful and full of pain. I covered my ears but could not drown out the terrible sound.
Meanwhile, the fire raged on, the smoke stinging my eyes and filling my lungs. I struggled to see Jack through the smoke. By now, he was fully engulfed by the flames, and yet the fire did him no physical harm. He didn’t burn but merely melted into the inferno.
But before he left this world, he turned his head and offered me some sinister parting words, saying – “We will meet again.”
I’d seen enough by that point, and so I charged for the door, shoving it open and sprinting out onto the street as the fire burnt fiercely behind me. I fell to my knees and coughed frantically as a result of the smoke inhalation, and briefly closed my eyes as I attempted to regain my senses. When I reopened them, everything had inexplicably changed.
The fire was gone. I don’t mean it had burnt itself out. It had literally disappeared, with not even a burning ember left behind. The ‘pub’ had also vanished, replaced by ruins that had clearly been abandoned for decades. There was nothing there except for bare stone foundations, weathered after years of exposure to the elements.
I frantically looked around and discovered the entire village had also mysteriously vanished, with nothing left but long abandoned ruins. There was no sign of Jack, Molly, the patrons, or anyone else for that matter. I was all alone, with nothing but the night sky and stars above me.
That was ten years ago now. Evidently, I survived my encounter with Stingy Jack, making my way home and attempting to put the bizarre and inexplicable event behind me. I’d like to say that night was a life changing event, but alas it was not.
To be fair, I did try to turn my life around, but I soon fell back into my old bad habits. A leopard can’t change its spots, and I’ve long accepted that I’ll never be a ‘good’ person. What can I say? I get bored too easily.
I never told anyone what happened that night, not until now. So, why have I broken my silence? Well, its because of what happened to me a fortnight ago.
I was having a quiet pint in my local, sipping on my beer as I half watched a football match on the big screen. It was a normal night with nothing out of the ordinary. That is until I spotted a solitary silver coin resting on the bar top.
I reached out for it, my hand shaking as my heart beat faster in nervous anticipation. As you’ve probably already guessed, it was Jack’s coin – complete with the Devil’s head, snake, and the Latin words, which I now know translate as ‘Death conquers all’.
I know what this means. Jack told me we’d meet again, and I know he’s coming back for me. I don’t know where or when but have no doubt he will find me soon enough. But I’m not afraid. This time I’ll come prepared with knowledge. When he challenges me, I’ll choose the game, and make sure it’s something I’m good at.
And I won’t just ask for a drink and safe passage home this time. When I win, I’ll demand a real prize…Immense wealth, fame, women, or perhaps the chance to relive my youth. The possibilities are limitless.
I will beat Stingy Jack again, and I’ll get everything I ever wanted in return. So, wish me luck…not that I’ll need it. I’ll see you all on the other side!
Credit : Finn MacCool
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