I own a lot of books. I also own a lot of books I haven’t read yet. Whenever there are books for sale nearby I’m trying to find excuses not to buy more books. It was in this mindset that I was browsing through a stall when I opened up the flyleaf of a small hardback and read the following extract:
During this day of April 15, three pennies will find their way into the pockets of this city. On each penny there will be a well-defined mark. One is a square; one is a circle; and one is a cross. These three pennies will change hands often, as do all coins, and on the seventh day after this announcement (April 21) the possessor of each marked penny will receive a gift.
To the first: $100,000 in cash.
To the second: A trip around the world.
To the third: Death.
Excuses be damned; I added it to my collection.
The quote appears on the first page of the story, the start of a message that had been pasted overnight on every tree, lamp-post and shop window in the city. The rest of the message does not reveal anything more, it just closes off some loopholes (such as recording the dates on the pennies to prevent someone marking their own coins). By the end of the day everybody knows about the offer and is checking their spare change with all the fervor of an amateur numismatist.
The focus of the story hops between the holders of the pennies. Most people, finding the penny in their grasp, are initially elated at the potential of the holiday or the cash (especially at 1934 value). But that one-third probability of death just nags and nags at them until they ultimately give the coin to someone else.
Some people try to figure out how the markings on the pennies relate to the prizes; the circle may seem to represent to the round-the-world trip, but is death marked by the gravestone-like cross or the square coffin? Even those who convince themselves of their interpretations may be thwarted by their families and persuaded to give their coin up anyway. One man holds onto his coin for six whole days before his nerve breaks in the last few hours, and he hurriedly slips it to someone else.
All this is enjoyably tense as a range of characters weigh up the potential prizes and either accept the odds or decline. And while the promise of death seems to be plain enough, it doesn’t mean the other two prizes won’t have macabre twists to them.
The Three Marked Pennies by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
Word count: 3,200
First published: Weird Tales, Aug 1934
Where to find it: Half in Shadow, collection, 1978, Arkham House
100 Tiny Tales of Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, 1996, Barnes & Noble Books
The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Garyn G. Roberts, 2003, Prentice-Hall
Womanthology, edited by Pam Keesey & Forrest J. Ackerman, 2003, Sense of Wonder Press