Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2009: One Hand Washes The Other

One Hand Washes The Other

by Fraser Sherman

 

“What would I want for saving your beloved’s life, Ryan?” Sitting at his coffee table, the redheaded wizard’s cheeks dimpled. “How about … the memory of your happiest summer day?”

“No.” Ryan said it instantly, well-manicured hands tightening around his red silk tie. He had no idea which day she meant, but he knew it would be a bad deal. “I’m not foolish enough to let you mess around in my head, not even to save Annie.”

“Hmm, if I were you, what would I be willing to part with in return for a cancer cure?” She stared out at the Atlanta skyline over the rim of her cup. Five minutes before, the adorably freckled redhead been a gawky Latina—but even when her eyes changed color, something hard and ancient inside them remained the same. “How about love? I know it hurts that she loves that redneck instead of you—wouldn’t it be easier if you stopped loving her?”

“She doesn’t love Farnum. And if she lives, she’ll realize that.” He’d thought of that in the long minutes after he discovered the wizard’s card sitting in his rolodex. “I’ll make sure she does.”

“Still, wouldn’t things be easier if you didn’t love her? Even if she comes back to you.”

“Life would be a lot more manageable, sure.” He’d always understood that, which was why he’d put marriage in the life plan, but not love. “But it’s … Love’s important to Annie. She wouldn’t stay if I didn’t love her.”

“Gets in the way, though, doesn’t it? If you stopped loving her, you could be screwing that blonde who gave you her digits this afternoon, instead of bartering with me for a miracle.”

“How’d you know about that?”

“Huge tits, great weed, just the two of you, don’t pretend you didn’t think about it.” The wizard smirked mockingly. “You’re thirty-five, the time when you can still get a big-breasted twenty-three-year old is running out … So, your love for Annie?”

“Forget it.” To buy himself a second, Ryan took a deep swallow of coffee and tried not to worry he might be steering himself straight off the rails. “Like I said, I’m going to win her back. When I see something I want, I always get it.”

“Seems like she’s the one getting what she wants, Ryan. You even took her to chemo, that week Farnum had to be up in St. Paul, burying his mother.” The witch chuckled. “She didn’t even have to ask. Not even sleeping with her anymore, and you’re still whipped.”

“How the hell do you know any of this?”

“Being such a swell pal hasn’t changed her feelings so far, has it?”

“I haven’t been trying.” Though he had hoped. “First we find her a cure, then it’s full court press until she’s back in my arms. And this time I won’t wait to put a ring on her finger.

“So tell me, is there some way we can tell her—prove to her—that I’m the one who cured her? Without making it sound selfish.”

“I’ll throw that in free—if we can agree on the price for the cure. If not love or a memory, what? What will you give me to save your true love’s life?”

The way she said it made the whole idea suddenly more real. It drove home that Ryan was bargaining with a wizard, an honest-to-God wizard. And for what? Annie’s life? Even though she broke up with me?

Stupid is what it is. When it’s over, it’s over, no looking back, no let’s-stay-friends. It’s the only sensible approach, that’s why I wrote it into the plan.

But five months after the breakup, thoughts of Annie still twined around his mind like kudzu. And the thought of the cancer eating her away … “I’m sorry, Ryan, do you need a few minutes?”

“No.” He noticed the witch’s cup was full, even though she’d just drained it completely. “Love is a biochemical reaction, that’s all. You say the right things, you have the right-shaped face, it triggers something. I just can’t turn off my trigger.”

“Well, that being the case, what can you suggest for a price—”

“Enough bullshit.” He set his mug down on the morning’s newspaper. “You came to me, remember? I didn’t go looking for a miracle cure, I your card just turned up in my office right after Annie called to tell me Dr. Norwick couldn’t—” For a second, he felt like crying. It passed. “I figure you have a price in mind, so what is it?”

“My price.” The redhead pursed her full lips; if not for the eyes, he’d have enjoyed looking at her. “You think you’re smart enough to figure me out?”

“I didn’t get this place by being stupid.” Ryan gestured at the 55-inch TV, the art deco prints on the condo wall, the well-stocked wet bar.

“Youngest partner at the firm ever, that is pretty impressive.” She’d done her research—or maybe she’d just looked into a crystal ball. “And the political connections, the favor bank you’re building up, the way you convinced Norwick to take Annie as a patient—”

“He’s the best.” It had been a big marker, a valuable marker; Ryan still couldn’t believe he’d redeemed it without a second thought. “With a two percent chance, I figured we needed to play cancer hardball.”

“And the life plan, it’s not only ambitious, it’s organized.” A thin, black-lipsticked smile split her pallid Goth face, which now sprouted a dozen piercings. “Every detail worked out, every contingency considered—only of course, you were supposed to land the trophy wife two years ago.”

“I’m selective. Finding an A-lister took longer than I—”

“And you’re one year behind on the kids. And by the time you get Annie back, the timeline’s going to be crap.”

“I don’t see that—Even Annie doesn’t know any details about the plan. How?”

“Think for a second, it’ll come to you.”

“Magic. Okay, I get it.” He swallowed. “And I admit that in this case, my being smart and successful doesn’t matter shit. Miracles are a seller’s market, so what’s your price?”

“Well, when you put it like that …” She pursed her lips thoughtfully, but Ryan would bet she’d decided before she rung his bell. “One favor, whatever I ask, whenever I ask.”

Fuck. Ryan knew that was the kind of deal he’d warn his clients to stay a mile away from.

But he knew how to read people, even one whose face changed at will. This was a rock-bottom offer. But that doesn’t mean I can’t negotiate.

“I won’t kill for you.” To his relief, she nodded. “And I won’t—” He racked his brains. “I won’t torture. Or betray.” Was there anything else?

“Didn’t you sleep with Sully’s wife three months back? He seemed to think that was a backstab of the worst order.”

“That was a—a drunken mistake. Betraying someone deliberately, no way.”

And if she says no?

“Fair enough, Ryan.” He exhaled a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “One favor, exempting those three things, and Annie’s tumor disappears tonight. And assuming the favor is carried out, never returns. Deal?”

Ryan tried to think of any other worst-case scenarios, then sighed and shrugged. “Deal.”

“Then your ex lives.”

“Not my ex. My future. So, the favor?”

“Abracadabra.” A quick twist of the Goth’s plump fingers and another business card materialized between them. “Smooth, huh? I practice stage magic to de-stress from work.”

“Uh—yeah, smooth.” He plucked the card; saw it located a real-estate office in Quiet Cove, a bedroom community just north of the city. “So?”

“Show up there tomorrow, by 3:45 p.m. Blow off clients, whatever else you have to, just be there.”

“And what if I—” He stopped himself. “Sorry. Pushing the boundaries is a reflex.”

“Apology accepted. I know you understand what the ‘or else’ is in this.” The wizard rose, then reached down and tapped one finger on Ryan’s mug. It was instantly full to the brim with what smelled like an excellent hazelnut roast. “Have a drink on me. I put a little whisky in it.

“Don’t be late tomorrow. We both know the life plan doesn’t need any more delays.”

 

#

Ryan arrived in Quiet Cove at 2:40 p.m., which gave him time to wander around and think how much he hated the place.

Quiet Cove was a community of modern houses done in what the developer claimed was “classic, nineteenth century Georgia cracker style.” Even if it was true (and you discounted the wireless Internet, the a/c. and the satellite dishes), what was the point? What was so great about the past? It’s never as good as what we have today.

Okay, maybe five months past. Before Farnum. When the life plan was on track.

When he’d met Annie, being behind on the marriage-and-family timeline suddenly hadn’t seemed so bad. She’d been a better candidate than he could have hoped for: Cultured, intelligent, sweet, and good-looking enough to display on his arm as he moved up in the firm, then headed into Georgia politics. Loving her wasn’t essential for the plan, but it had seemed like a nice bonus.

Bonus my ass. The breakup had been the worst thing that ever happened to him, worse than not being accepted at Harvard Law—until Annie’s mother had told him about the cancer. I was so sure I was over her; I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t move on … Now I know. I’m not over her because we’re not over, that’s what this is about.

She’d called that morning to say the tumor had vanished. It had felt like the highpoint of Ryan’s life. But it’s nothing compared to what life’s going to be like once she’s back in my bed.

Maybe those Arabs have the right idea, lock the women up, don’t let them see other men. Not that I’d do that to Annie but ….

But as soon as he finished the witch’s errand, he’d make sure Annie knew what he’d risked to save her. Farnum would never be able to top this.

 

#

“Ryan Henderson?” The silver blonde wore a tailored blue blazer. She shook Ryan’s hand with a firm, carefully calibrated not-too-butch or too-girly grip. “Jackie Saxon. We met at Rotarians a couple of months back?” Ryan nodded. “So, you’re wanting a house in Quiet Cove?”

“Don’t these cost—” Ryan stopped, swallowed. “If that’s the deal, and you have a lender in mind, let’s go for it.”

“Just joking man.” Jackie sat in her overstuffed chair, gestured for Ryan to take the other one. “Guess this is your first favor for her, huh?”

“So you’ve done more than one? What can I expect? And what did you get for it?” Ryan glanced around the office. “No, I think I can figure that out.”

“Buddy, I was a million-dollar seller before I ever met her. No, my first favor was to kick the cocaine habit I got from my shitbag first husband. Then smoking, which I’d been doing since I was 13.”

“And in return?”

“She ain’t gonna ask for anything you can’t do, that’s all I’ll say.” Meaning Jackie’s favor had been something worse than admitting to a coke habit? “Steering you over to her cottage is just a little favor, in return for her steering a couple of friends my way.”

“You’re networking with a wizard?”

“Everybody networks; guy like you ought to know that.” Jackie’s smug I’m-in-the-know-and-you’re-not look rankled Ryan, but he kept his mouth shut as she tossed him a key. “496 Briar Rose Lane. Her place.”

“Why didn’t she just send me there?”

“I’m gonna size you up for her and tell you just what I think.” Jackie smiled. “I’m a real good judge of people, it’s one reason I’m a success.”

“And what are you going to say?”

“She said you’d ask, and I wasn’t to tell.” Jackie leaned forward, elbows on her desk. “Believe me, Ryan, I know what it feels like to think someone like her has you by the short hairs. But she deals fair, by her lights.”

“And what is fair by her lights?”

“All you really need to know—” Jackie leaned back again. “Is that you’re to sit in the house until you hear from her. Pig out on the food, watch the TV—big-screen, digital cable, it’s mighty nice.”

“And wait? How long am I supposed to sit there?”

“How long you willing to keep your friend alive?”

Ryan took the key.

 

#

Despite the folksy, faux rustic look, Ryan was impressed with the wizard’s house.

The wizard had a bigger plasma TV than his, her refrigerator was stuffed with upscale vegetarian food and salmon, the shelves of one room were lined with DVDs and an immense tallboy of sex toys stood open near the bedroom. Half the items Ryan reluctantly admitted he didn’t recognize but given they shared closet space with vibrators, handcuffs and a big paddle, he was pretty sure of their purpose.

Does she want me to service her or something? Might be okay, depending on what face she wore … And I’ve never had any problems delivering on promises in that department, have I?

Only thinking of sex made him think of Annie, and he had one of those horrible moments where it felt as if something physical had run through his chest. What the hell went so wrong? I made sure you came, I bought you gifts … and I loved you. I totally, utterly loved you.

Why aren’t I with you tonight instead of Farnum?

But I will be, Annie. I’m better for you than he could ever be. Hell, if that Saxon woman does regular business with the wizard, maybe I can too, a love potion or something that would get our lives back on track if curing you doesn’t do it.

“Yeah, in the long-run, the cancer could be the best—” No. No fucking way were the last three months the best anything.

Ryan went to the bar, found the most expensive vodka he could, mixed it with some OJ and drank. He poured himself a second, the most he could handle without impairing his judgment. Which would be a bad idea.

“I’m getting her back. Marriage, kids, it’s only a few years behind schedule. And love. We’re going to make you love me Annie, I promise.”

But she didn’t yet, which thrust the stabbing pain through his heart again.

He called Annie’s mother to reassure himself the cancer was really gone, made up a bullshit excuse for not talking to Annie herself, hung up. And settled down to wait.

He was channel surfing at 11:58 p.m. when his Razr rang with Chopin’s funeral march. It wasn’t one of his ring tones, and the display didn’t show a number, just hieroglyphs. “I presume that’s you? Why have I been sitting around here all day?”

“Does it matter? If I told you to stay here forever, that would be one favor, wouldn’t it?” Ryan opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of an answer. “Today was a test; I wanted to see if you’d freak, run, whatever. The favor kicks off at midnight.”

“Why? Just because some guy in 10,000 BC or whenever decided that’s when the new day starts, why should that matter to you?”

“Human belief shapes the world as surely as globalism and greenhouse gas emissions—” Ryan heard the wizard click her tongue. “Arguing with my mother this morning. She’s become so damn Republican. Anyway, by dawn, if everything goes well, you can wash your hands of me.”

“Maybe not, I’d like to talk about—” The tolling of a deep, dark bell drowned out his words; he waited until the twelfth had died away before going on. “Okay, midnight. What now?”

“Go into the kitchen, pull up the trapdoor—”

“I’ve been in the kitchen. No trapdoor.”

“—go down the steps until you get to the bottom. Once you start, don’t stop walking, no matter what.”

“Or the cancer comes back, I suppose?”

“Annie’s cancer will be the least of your problems if you don’t make it to the foot of the stairs. Trust me on this, Ryan, and do what I say.”

“Is it okay to do what you say if I don’t trust you?”

“You’re so funny, I’m amazed you didn’t go into standup. And no, you’re not required to trust me. But you are required to do it. Move your ass.”

“And that’s the favor you want?”

“Damn straight, now move!”

Ryan went back into the kitchen. A wooden trapdoor that would have done credit to one of those old black-and-white horror films sat incongruously in the center of the polished, granite-tiled floor. It wasn’t there before, I’d have seen it.

Which part of “wizard” didn’t you understand?

Grabbing the rusty metal ring in the center of the trapdoor, Ryan lifted it up. A stone staircase descended into darkness; Ryan couldn’t see or hear anything below.

He stood there, trying to convince himself to set foot on the first step, then remembered the flashlight plugged into a wall outlet near the kitchen door. He brought it to the opening and flashed the beam down the stairs.

At the far end of the light, he made out more steps, going further down than anybody could dig in Quiet Cove’s sandy soil. He flashed the beam to the left of the stairs … nothing at all within range of the light. She’d have had to dig it out under every house on this cul-de-sac … I knew she was a wizard, but …

Cancer went away even without magic, sometimes. This, though…. Ryan stood listening, trying to fathom what might be out there in the darkness, what could come flying up at him, or reach out with a tentacle … If I die down there, Annie’ll never know.

Well, dipshit, you’d better stay alive, then. With a grimace, Ryan set foot on the first roughhewn stone step. You’re this close to getting her back, you can’t give up now!

Remembering the witch’s warning, Ryan set foot on the second step at once, then the next. He thought of the infinite darkness falling away on either side and had a sudden impulse to drop and crawl safely down the center of the stairs. He kept moving steadily until the trapdoor slammed shut overhead.

Shit. He reminded himself that it didn’t make a difference; he had to reach the bottom anyway, for Annie, maybe for his own protection.

He still wanted to run up and pound on the trapdoor.

Instead, he kept moving, flashing the light down what looked like a mile of steps ahead. Maybe that stuff about not stopping is her idea of a motivational speech. Maybe nothing’ll happen if I take a break and think.

Ryan began turning the flashlight to check out the dark beside him, to see if anything really was there. Then he considered what he might see, and kept the beam pointed straight in front of him.

 

#

By the time Ryan saw the flagstone floor at the end of the staircase, his legs were close to cramping and he was cursing a blue streak, as quietly as possible.

Five minutes later, he stood on the floor of … wherever he was. No sound, no sign of life; trying not to shake, he raised the flashlight and turned in a slow circle.

The basement stretched away beyond the limits of the beam, with huge pillars standing in the light, stretching up into darkness. Ryan stared around the vast emptiness, then Chopin rang on his phone again. He flipped it open with relief, noting with surprise that it wasn’t roaming. “What am I doing down here?”

“If you walk a few miles, you’ll find a pool of black water—”

“Which direction?”

“Whichever one you go, you’ll find the pool.”

“O-kay … but what if I don’t? You told me going down here was the favor, remember? Doesn’t that mean I’m off the hook?”

“Flash that beam behind you, Ryan.” He did; it looked the same as in every other direction. Then it hit him. “Bingo! Unless you can fly, you have only one way out. And if you could fly … so can other things.”

“Should have known there was fine print.”

“I think that’s the pot calling the kettle black. Didn’t you worry you were putting Annie at risk?”

“I’ve seen these deal with the devil things on TV. You can’t break your end of the bargain if I honor the letter of mine.”

“You mean you gambled Annie’s life on what, memories of Fantasy Island?”

“You’re forgetting the ‘you’ factor.” This felt good; negotiating was something he understood. “You want something from me, and you’re not going to end our deal as long as it’s possible to get it.”

“A calculated risk … and well-calculated too. Since you blew it, you gonna play ball now?’

“Tell me what I have to do to get out of here.” He’d figured it was a long shot, but it had been worth playing.

“Like I said, walk until you find a black pool with a rim of gold. Swimming on the pool, there’s a duck. Catch the duck, reach inside it—”

“Reach down a duck’s throat?”

“Egg canal, idiot, it’s in the back, under the butt. Pull out a gold egg, then smash the egg on the stones. Got me?”

“Stick my hand up a duck’s ass? You—no, wait, there’s got to be more to it than that, right?” Ryan sent the beam probing in all directions. “What’s out there? Vampires? Zombies? Dragons?”

“If you run into any, find a way past them or die. Or give up and wander down here until you die of hunger.”

“Thirst kills you faster.” He’d read that often enough, but he’d never thought he’d be in a position where it mattered. “If I die, does Annie—”

“Does the life plan really cover this? I mean working this hard for one girl, come on!”

“Wandering through this place to rape a duck is a damn sight easier than losing Annie.” That was too sappy, time to change the subject. “So why an egg?”

“As they say in the movies, that’s on a need to know basis. You don’t.” The wizard hung up.

Ryan began walking.

In the dark and the silence, he couldn’t stop himself thinking. Inevitably, about Annie. The way she kissed, screwed, laughed, smelled.

He should have had faith it would work out, that he’d find a way to win her back. Failure wasn’t in the life plan.

 

#

When the flashlight beam glinted back from something in the distance that wasn’t stone, Ryan couldn’t keep down a sob of relief. It had been forty minutes since he’d started walking, and his legs hurt like hell.

A few minutes later, as he drew closer, he saw a black duck paddling into the flashlight beam, then out into the dark.

But there’re no dragons. No vampires. Nothing. So why am I down here instead of her? Ryan studied the eerie hall, looking for—what? The magic equivalent of those electric eye alarms in the movies? Statues that come to life?

“Ah, screw it.” The sooner I get this over with, the less likely I am to die, right? He advanced toward the pool, checking to either side with his flashlight, then, when he thought about it, up overhead. Nothing appeared to challenge him as he reached the rim of the pool, glinting gold in the beam.

Now all I gotta do is grab the damn duck. He started to step into the pool, glanced down at the inky water and reconsidered. Maybe that’s where the monster is … “Uh, here ducky? Ducky, ducky, ducky?”

Didn’t help. But the duck, circling the far side of the pool, was slowly paddling toward him anyway. He glanced back; had something moved in the shadows? Had he heard a sound?

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” A plump, jovial man, like Santa in a monk’s robe, stood on the far side of the pool. “You can’t imagine how much trouble you’ll be in.”

“Who are you, the Duck Police?”

“I’m potentially a very good friend.” The man made no attempt to draw closer, but if he was some sort of wizard or demon, Ryan thought, maybe he didn’t have to. “I want that egg to stay in the duck.”

“So?” The duck was paddling too damn slow; plenty of time for the man to stop Ryan if he had a balrog whip or something.

“So you should too. Because if you break the egg, you die.” Ryan stared at him. “No bullshit, Ryan.”

“She said—” Ryan paused, considering.

“Clothilde doesn’t lie, so I’m sure she didn’t say anything about you surviving, am I right?” Ryan stared at the duck as it came close. “Leave the duck alone, you live and I show you to the staircase.”

“And Annie?” The duck swum right up to Ryan’s hand. He lifted it out of the water, surprised to find it unresisting. He faced the smiling man without doing anything more. “Clothilde, what sort of name is that?”

“At one time, it was considered rather sexy.” The man was still smiling, but Ryan could see his body had tensed. “You said it yourself; you’ve honored the letter of the deal already. Even if you don’t break the egg, she can’t put the cancer back.”

“You sure?” I know I tried the same line, but …

“Being a deal-breaker isn’t a rep anyone in our line of work can live with.” Ryan probed, found the egg canal, thrust his hand upward and inward. “And I’d owe you a favor.”

“Really?” Ryan’s fingers encountered something hard and smooth. He twisted inside the complacent duck for a better grip. “What the hell can you do for me?”

“Do you really think Clothilde recounting your heroic exploits will win Annie back?” Ryan’s fingers grasped the egg, but he didn’t pull it out. “I can make her love you.”

“I don’t need you to do that.”

“Hey, it’s just us guys down here, Ryan, no need to play macho. You and I both know Farnum’s the love of her life, the cream in her coffee, etcetera, etcetera. And if you tell her what you’ve done to save her, she’ll have the same look she had when she dumped you, because she’s going to break your heart again and—”

“You’re full of shit!” The pain thrust through Ryan’s chest again. “You don’t know her, you asshole!”

“You do. Ask yourself, am I right, or am I right?”

“So what can you do about it?”

“One word whispered by me and she’ll forget Farnum exists.” Ryan’s heart skipped a beat. “Two words and she’ll be at your feet, begging you to let her back into your life. No more being whipped—wouldn’t it be nice to have her be the one who needs you for a change?”

“You can do that?”

“If you play ball with me, I’ll have her back in your bed—” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”

“Like that.” Judas Priest, to finally get this over with, to stop hurting, Everything the way it was supposed to be, the plan back on track… “But what would you have to do to her?”

“It’s sorcery, not brain surgery. I say the magic words—literally, two words—and she’ll change. She’ll be the woman you want her to be, you’ll finally be able to scratch that itch.”

“What the hell is this egg to you anyway?” Ryan felt the duck start to wriggle, pulled the egg out before the bird scrambled back into the water. The shell gleamed gold, but it didn’t have a solid-gold weight.

“As long as the egg remains unbroken, I have a certain—power over Clothilde. So drop it gently in the water, and we have a deal. Otherwise, you’ll die screaming in pain while Annie marries Farnum and once in a while wonders whatever happened to you.”

“All’s fair in love and war, right?” He thought of Annie’s laugh, thought of the look he’d seen her give Farnum the first time they met. She never looked at me like that. Not once. Not even on the best day.

Ryan smashed the egg to the flagstones and prepared to die.

“Way to go, Ryan!” The wizard—Clothilde—stood a few feet away, now a half-and-half with a well-groomed Afro. She pointed at the gold fragments—there’d been nothing inside the shell—with a smile. “See, Mikula, I told you he wouldn’t screw Annie over.

“And now I’m free.”

“So you are.” Mikula reached out for her hand, withdrew it at her murderous glare. “Come on, we had some good times together.”

“No. We didn’t.” Clothilde turned back to Ryan. “Thank you. I’m really sorry about what happens next.”

“You mean dying?” Ryan sat on the rim of the pool, strangely calm. No worries about the life plan, Annie, anything. “Clothilde, will you tell Annie something? I don’t know what, she can’t know how I—”

“You could have had her, you shit-head!” Mikula’s face was sour as a lemon. “If you’d preserved the egg, you could have been screwing that little piece of—”

“She’s not a piece, dickhead!” Ryan sprang up, ignoring how much his legs hurt and grabbed Mikula by the collar of his robe. “You wanna kill me, fine, but leave Annie out of this!”

“You called it, baby.” Mikula turned to Clothilde, nodding, as if Ryan weren’t looming over him. “A romantic. An idealist. He just doesn’t know it.”

“I’m not your baby, Mikula. I never was.”

“Would you tell me what’s going on?” Ryan let go Mikula and confronted Clothilde, deliberately stepping inside her personal space. “The dying in pain was a bluff, right? So what does happen next? More fine print?”

“You’re very clever, Ryan.” The wizard gave a small, apologetic shrug. “After what you just did for me, I’m really sorry I can’t send you home again—but not sorry enough.”

Next second, there was empty air where she’d been standing.

“I could have killed you, you know.” Mikula said. “But she and I had a deal: If I couldn’t talk you out of breaking the egg, I wouldn’t stop you by force. And it cost me the best tail I’ve had in five centuries.

“On the plus side, having you down here will settle one very awkward debt for me.” Mikula clapped his hands. “The boy is ready.”

He vanished too—but someone else had appeared, Ryan felt it instantly. He flashed the light around, didn’t see anything, but he knew something stood a few feet away, a presence that chilled him to the bone. “Who—who’s there?’

You will do what I want, or you will never return home. It wasn’t a voice or a mental message, it just … was.

“What do you want?” And why was everyone so keen on making deals involving him?

The voice/mentality/presence hissed. You will do what I want, or you will never return home.

“Maybe I’ll just walk until I find the stairs.” Ryan waited expectantly, but there was no response; how do you tell if you’ve successfully bluffed something that isn’t there? “Okay … no killing, no betraying, no torturing. Same deal as I gave the wizard. Clothilde, I mean.”

You will do what I want, or you will never return home.

“Then I never go home.” If it had a chest, Ryan would have thrust his finger into it. “Don’t give me ultimatums.”

You will do what I want, or you will never return home.

“Shit, I heard you! But I’m not kidding.” Something popped into his head from Sunday School. “What profit me to go home if I lose my soul, right?”

The voice was silent for a few seconds. Clothilde said you were honorable. Honorable enough to die for love.

“That’s not honor, that’s—” Wait. Why was he arguing? “Okay, so?

Mikula promised me your service if I met his terms.

“So Clothilde goes free, Mikula gets to pimp me to pay off his debt to you—” And what sort of debt would that be? Do I even want to know? “Why the hell am I so important?”

I want your service. It has been promised.

“You can have it if you meet mine. Clothilde negotiated, why won’t you?”

Negotiate. The word echoed through Ryan’s body. I never…

Betray, kill, torture. But anything else? Ryan nodded. So be it.

And Ryan found himself back in his bedroom. With a letter in Gothic script pinned to the wall, giving instructions.

Crap, crap, you have got to be fucking kidding me! He glanced at his watch, saw it was only 12:15 a.m. So maybe he had enough time before dawn.

He stood up, felt his legs cry out in protest, decided he’d have to make time to stop and buy some ibuprofen.

 

#

“I should have thrown in ‘steal,’” Ryan groaned as he waded through the park fountain, gathering up the coins from the basin. “I really should have. I mean, if I get caught, goodbye 90 percent of the life plan.” Big theft, I could work around, but stealing pennies from a wishing fountain? No law firm wants a cheap crook.

So Ryan dredged up the pennies, leaving the nickels and the dimes, glancing around every five seconds to see if anyone had spotted him. If I hadn’t stuck my neck out and called Clothilde…

Annie’s alive, isn’t she?

And she’s never going to be mine again. Ever. Wasn’t that what all this was about?

“I guess not.” But then why? He’d almost gotten himself killed, screwed up the life plan … By the time I’m ready to look for another girl … shit, I’ll probably be ninety by the time I’m over her.

The chest-stab hit him again. The funny thing was, even as he started crying, he was sure—well, mostly sure—that if he went back in time, he’d have done it all over again. Which made no sense, but felt … good. Damn good.

The strange, warm feeling stayed, even when he had to dive down into the fountain and hold his breath to hide from the cops driving by.

 

#

The dawn light struck the pennies on Ryan’s coffee table. Before his eyes, they converted to wisps of mist, disappearing one by one. He held his breath until they’d completely dissipated.

“It’s not poison gas, you know.” Clothilde, now a plump Thai woman, sat next to him on the leather couch, sipping from a Starbuck’s cup. “The mist doesn’t have any physical properties, I don’t think, it’s just transitioning to the Formless One’s realm.”

“What the hell are you doing here? Nobody else I know is dying of cancer so fu—” Ryan caught himself. “Sorry. You kept the letter of the deal, and Annie’s okay. We’re good.” He shifted his heating pad to another part of his legs. “What does this Formless One want with the pennies, anyway? Was that what this was all about?’

“For me, what this was about—” Another cup of coffee appeared in her hand; she offered it to Ryan. After a second, he accepted. “—was finally getting free of Mikula. For him, it was tormenting me with a chance at freedom—of course, he backed the wrong horse on that one—and being able to cut his ties to the Formless One. For the Formless One … where he comes from, pennies sacrificed for wishes are more powerful than you can imagine.”

“Jackie Saxon was right.” Ryan took a sip of the coffee—and almost immediately the ache in his legs eased. “Even you guys have to network and deal, huh?”

“Damn straight.” The wizard leaned closer. “People—beings—such as ourselves can’t risk using force against each other, or reneging on deals. The consequences if we fell to open warfare would be horrifying, for us and for the world.”

“Wasn’t Mikula forcing you to—uh, well, you know?”

“No, that was a bargain where I didn’t read the fine print.” She cocked her head. “Why didn’t you cut a deal with Mikula? You could have had Annie, you chose death instead—or so you thought.”

“A woman who’d only be with me under hypnosis? Who wants that?” Clothilde said nothing. “Fine. I wanted to win her love. Not … whatever he was offering, that wasn’t love.”

“He wouldn’t know love if it bit his ass. Huge woman issues.

“So why didn’t you marry before you met Annie, Ryan? Cheyenne, Angelica, Miriam, they’d have fit the life plan perfectly.”

“What, do you people data mine or something?” Ryan stared at her. “You got files on everyone, or just me?”

“You met almost every goal in the life plan up until then, from being valedictorian to the size of your 401K. Why balk at marriage?”

“I wondered the same thing.” Ryan glanced at his laptop, thought of all the effort he’d put into working on his goals. “Guess I knew even before Annie that the plan needed revision, but … Clothilde, did I blow it? What if Annie was it? The one? And I lost her?”

“You have a lot of potential, you know that.” Ryan blinked in surprise; was she hitting on him? “You’re smart, you’re careful about deals, you can negotiate—and you’re a good guy.”

“You don’t know how close I came to giving Mikula the egg.”

“But you didn’t.”

“So?”

“Ryan …” Clothilde sipped coffee for a minute or two. Ryan refused to break the silence first. “Maybe it’s time you began those revisions.”

“What, you’re a career coach now?”

“I told you, we have to maintain an inviolate favor bank in my circle—and sometimes the favors we need require a mortal. Any of us picking up those coins would have tainted the magic in them.” Ryan drank, affecting lack of interest. “The mortal has to be honorable. He has to have … a good heart.”

“You don’t think that lets me out? Come on, you know everything about me, I’m—”

“You’re an ambitious, hard-driving man, but you’ve never broken your word.”

“Good business sense. Don’t forget, I slept with Sully’s girlfriend—”

“I know how drunk you were that night. You’re no saint, but you’re not as self-centered as you keep telling yourself.”

“You don’t get ahead in this world by being a nice guy. They really do finish last.”

“Too bad for you, since last night proved you are one. Willing to sacrifice your life for Annie, knowing she’d still love Farnum even if—”

“What sort of crap would I wind up doing?” He said it fast, before any more tears could come. “Helping things like that Formless One—”

“The Formless One isn’t evil, simply—weird. Even by my standards. I could guarantee nothing you do ends up on the evil side of the balance.” In the blink of an eye, she’d become a blonde, heroin-chic thin with a buzz cut. Her unchanging eyes, though, didn’t seem as cold as they had at first. “You sketched out a smart, sensible, pragmatic plan, but you’re not really pragmatic. With me you could make a difference, do things that would help people.”

“You must have me confused with Captain America. I helped Annie because she’s Annie, that’s all.”

“Did any of those goals you’ve checked off feel as good as saving Annie’s life?” Ryan didn’t answer. “Ryan, you could be the Archie to my Nero Wolfe—”

“Huh?”

“Nobody reads anymore.” Clothilde rolled her eyes. “And it’s not like you have to be completely selfless: You’ll be putting yourself in the favor bank, and that could pay off big. Money in offshore accounts, a rainmaker at your firm, a new girlfriend—”

“I’ll find my own. Eventually.” Ryan walked to the window, watched the sun inching above the condo tower across the street. “Wizards would honor favors to me? Even things like that thing? The Formless One, I mean.”

“Absolutely. We treat obligations much in the same way the Bushmen—but you don’t want me to regurgitate comparative anthropology, I’m sure.”

“I’d much rather you not.” Ryan stared into her eyes, wondering what he could do with connections like that. What would I want to do? If the old plan doesn’t do it for me anymore, what would?

“I can see the wheels turning. Good.” Clothilde threw something that flashed in the sunlight; he caught it, found it was a car key. “Want to take my Porsche for a spin? We can talk as you drive—and maybe visit someone who really, really needs a favor.”

Ryan thought of the endless darkness below Clothilde’s house. He thought of Annie, alive. He thought of how dull the thought of going to the office seemed just then.

“A Porsche.” The life plan says you never turn down an offer without at least hearing it out … “In that case—why not?”

 


Fraser Sherman lives a life of excitement by day reporting on city budgets, road projects and growth management for The Destin Log in northwest Florida. By night, he freelances, and has sold stories to Realms of Fantasy, Allegory E-zine, Tales of the Talisman, and Residential Aliens. He’s the author of the film reference books Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, and The Wizard of Oz Catalog. For more information visit www.myspace.com/fraser_sherman.


 

Story © 2009 Fraser Sherman. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 





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