As warlocks go, Harald was a failure. Even though his curses were vigorously evil, and his pitches quite logical, he almost always lost the business. Harald partly blamed his sex. Most internet advertising for spells and curses came from witches. Those seeking vengeance or unfair advantage picked the repugnant hags rather than Harald, who was merely homely and middle-aged. Harald had given himself mental hernias trying to increase sales.
Fifteen years an apprentice and sorcerer, he thought, and nothing to show for it. Washed out priests and ministers become counselors or teachers, but who’s willing to pay tuition to learn the uses of bloodwort?
Harald had joined Wizards Anonymous, but the other members only talked about their mushroom dependencies. Needing money to live on, he took a job with a livery service, driving pampered executives to and from New York airports. It was several months of traffic jams before Harald realized what a premium resource he had at his disposal. He practiced the phrasing of his questions.
“Mr. Mephiston, I wonder if I could ask your advice with a problem I’m having.” That should get him going. All these nabobs pride themselves on being incomparable problem solvers.
Mephiston pulled his thoughts from an electronic tablet and back into the four lanes of traffic creeping toward JFK airport. He put down the tablet as if it were a bishop’s miter. “Good advice is never really free, Harald, but perhaps I can help. What’s the problem?”
“I run a, um, consulting service. The solutions I provide are proven, and I’m price competitive, but I can’t convince the prospects to try me out. My interview questions are thorough and my proposal the most beneficial or malignant. It should be clear to an idiot that I provide the best service available, but I’m consistently turned down. There’s also sexual discrimination.”
Mephiston chortled unpleasantly. “Harald, you’ve heard about building a better mouse trap and having the world flock to your door? It’s bullshit. Humans aren’t economic animals. They’re driven by fear, greed, and lust. You’re a failure because you pitch logical solutions. Learn what each person’s worst instincts are and pander to them. If you can become baser than the broads, you’ll make a fortune.”
Harald dropped Mephiston off and picked up another client returning home to Darien, Connecticut. Along the way, he realized that Mephiston had been right, that his rational business model sucked. And then he had the witchcraft version of an epiphany. Harald dropped off his fare and detoured to an exotic pet store before returning home.
He walked into the house carrying a breadbox-sized cage. “Here Suferti,” he called out.
Suferti padded slowly into the room. It had been Harald’s familiar since his training in theurgy. Suferti currently lodged in an eleven-year-old male dog with bad vision and arthritis. He couldn’t speak, of course, but could telepath concepts and emotions.
Smell something reptile in cage. Think bad idea coming.
“Not a problem, Suferti, our solution. And you’re going to be able to participate.”
Suferti next want another dog or maybe cat.
“Nonsense, Sufi. You were a toad for a while, and this is much nicer: a chameleon.”
Still have to eat bugs. Chameleon only live five-six years. Better for you dog or cat.
“Your current body’s going to die in a year or so, and what I have planned will get you out of the house.”
Suferti foresee maiming and unplanned body death.
Harald brought the cage closer so Suferti could see the lizard. “See how it’s changed its colors to suit the inside of the cage? That’s all you’d be doing, that and listening to people think.”
If scaly body killed with no ceremony, you lose me for week, maybe two. Worse, Limbo very painful for Suferti.
“This isn’t about what you want, Suferti, it’s about what I need.”
That night Harald burned incense, uttered several incantations, and slit the dog’s throat. Suferti shifted into the chameleon’s body as the blood drained out from the dog. Harald stuffed the canine body into a trash bag, dragged the bag into the back yard, and buried it alongside other animal remains. After washing his hands, he freed Suferti from the lizard cage.
Suferti flicked the lizard tongue in and out, checking its range and speed. Creature breath infernal foul. Legs like crab. Get stepped on and crushed before first day is over.
“That’s why you have to camouflage yourself in an out-of-the-way place. Get some rest. We’re going out on an appointment tomorrow morning.”
The chameleon crabbled to the middle of the coffee table and defecated. Sorry. Take few days to get body control.
“Don’t be spiteful, Suferti. Who knows, you may enjoy exploring all these people’s thoughts.”
Human thoughts like bad food, cause mind diarrhea.
The next morning Harald picked up the lizard and set it in a briefcase. “Remember, Suferti, that when I’m walking, this case will be on end and you’ll be turned sideways. I’ll jiggle it each time so you can get ready.”
Suffocate in here, then you sorry.
“I’ll crack it open every so often so you get fresh air. The lining is genuine pigskin. You should like that.”
The Henningtons lived in egregious ostentation. The five-car garage stuck out from the left side of a house that looked to be over twenty thousand square feet. The rumps of expensive cars flashed in each garage stall.
Walter Hennington led Harald into a six-hundred-square-foot study, presumably one of the smaller rooms in the house. “What’s this about your having to make two visits? The witches who were here before you listened and gave me an immediate quote.”
“One visit is okay if you’re willing to settle for a cheesy, off-the-shelf solution, but to do it properly requires fact finding, then researching forbidden texts to find your optimal spell, then a second visit to explain the solution to you. Both visits are brief and there’s no charge for a second house call.”
Hennington waved a hand impatiently. “All right, all right. Sit down.”
Harald held the briefcase vertically on his lap, shook it slightly, and turned it on its side. He snapped the latches, then asked, “Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” Hennington scowled, but spun around and left the room.
Wait—he hiding in doorway to check on you. Okay, now he gone.
Harald grabbed Suferti from the briefcase and gently lobbed him toward the nearest curtain. “Quick! Hide!”
How can do this? Leave me to be found and executed. After all I do you.
“Just hide. Oh, Mr. Hennington, that was quick.”
“Were you actually talking to yourself?”
“Just humming a song. So tell me about your problem.”
Hennington sat in an overstuffed chair covered in elephant hide and crossed his legs. There appeared to be gold threads in his stockings.
“One of the businesses I own is a partnership. My partner, a woman named Helen, has objected to some business practices I’ve implemented. I’ve offered to buy her out, but she claims she’s the founder of the business and says she’ll never leave. I need her out of the management, but without any repercussions to me. Killing her complicates the business ownership, so I need a nice, severe affliction that would prevent her from focusing on the business. What can you do?”
Harald began asking questions: how old was the woman, did she have any vices, and so forth. He could see Suferti climbing up the side of an ornately carved breakfront and was sure that the lizard was sticking out its tongue at him as it rose.
Hennington noticed Harald staring over his shoulder and turned his head, but by then Suferti had clambered onto the top of the piece and was crouched behind its raised, top edge.
Suferti not moving until you come tomorrow. You be magus, but you also idiot.
Harald ran out of questions after another ten minutes and confirmed the appointment for the same time the next day. As he left, Suferti began operating like an open mike, passing along Hennington’s thoughts with occasional comments. The man’s thoughts weren’t pleasant.
(What a bloated little cockroach this Harald Bunner is. Can’t believe he’ll do any better than those two old bitches. Call him now, tell him he didn’t get the job, cancel the appointment. But what if the slug actually has a good idea? Wait until tomorrow. If the idea’s really good, maybe steal it.)
Hennington’s thoughts began to be fuzzed by the thoughts of a woman and two children, Henninton’s family. Storm surges of hate roiled the thoughts, and Harald realized that the kindest thing the Hennington family members did for one another was to ignore each other’s presence.
“Suferti, take out the thoughts of the other three.”
Can’t. Suferti basked in the hate as if he were under a sun lamp. Suferti only provide what heard, no blocking.
Harald was pretty sure his familiar was lying, but tuned his inner ear to pick out Hennington’s thoughts. They were viler by far. How I’d like to make Hennington the victim, Harald thought.
(Give Helen a nice bleeding ulcer, maybe shingles. Or maybe sign over my two brats and watch her try and deal with their drug use. Get that cow wife of mine to go as well.)
Man like his evil. Too bad not magician, I go free agent and switch masters, Suferi said.
(Helen is too close to figuring out what I did with last quarter’s profits. Maybe just kill her after all. Don’t need some old hag for that, just a thug.)
When he slept, Hennington’s dreams were riddled with fear: fear of being maimed, fear of being shunned, fear of sexual inadequacy, fear that his own family would kill him. Harald sensed how hard it was for Hennington to maintain a lordly pose.
The non-stop abominations kept interrupting Harald’s sleep. By daybreak he was supersaturated with fear and loathing. “Shut him down, Suferti, I know what we need to do.”
Suferti had been gleefully wallowing in the rank fester of Harrington’s mind. No control, master. You must absorb until you remove me from house.
“Careful, lizard, or I’ll feed you bugs doused with insecticide.”
Harald showed up promptly at 10:00 and was ushered back into the study.
“Sit down, Harald. I’m afraid I can only give you fifteen minutes. I’ve had a glass of water set next to your chair.”
Doubly screwed, Harald thought. The short meeting confirms he’s already made up his mind to pick one of the crones. And I’ve got to distract him so I can get Suferti back into the briefcase.
“Mr. Harrington, I’m sure my competitors presented their cases well, and offered plausible solutions. But what you need is an ongoing infirmity that isn’t suspected of being a hex. So no garden-variety shingles or gout.
“This woman Helen would suspect you and sue on grounds of infernal interference. And even if she believes the infirmity is natural, someone like Helen, with a strong will, could still get enough medical help to remain an obstacle. No, my proposal is mental illness, dementia so damaging that even if she threatens you, the court will assume it’s part of her insanity and discount her allegations. Inflicting dementia without death requires precise sorcery that your average nose-picking witch doesn’t have. Keeping her mad will require periodic reinforcement, the fees for which are shown in my quotation. If you like, I can temporarily afflict a family member to demonstrate the effect.”
Hennington’s expression and body language gave away nothing, but Suferti conveyed his delight at being able to inflict torment on a family member. “Are you saying that you could cause this to happen to my wife or child?”
“Precisely. I’d limit the effect to a few minutes. You could perhaps tell your wife or child it’s an example of what you could do to them if they disobey you.”
“It’s a damned shame that both children are at school, but my wife needs some disciplining.”
“All I need to do is shake her hand. Did you want to go and get her?”
“You bet your ass. It’ll just be a minute.”
The backside of Hennington’s vicuna wool trousers had barely cleared the doorway when Harald jumped up, grabbed a table chair and ran over to the armoire. He clambered up the chair and grabbed Suferti around the belly. If squeeze harder, Suferti piss on carpet. Suferti skin dried out and dusty from master’s abandonment. Not proper performance of evil. Suferti deserve respect…
“Oh, shut up, Suferti.” Harald grabbed the chair with his free hand and dropped it back into place. Then he popped open the briefcase latches, dropped Suferti abruptly onto the pigskin, and closed the case. He snapped the case shut and had just resettled his backside into his own chair when Hennington returned with a woman.
His wife was a paragon of chemical and surgical embellishment. Whatever heredity had provided to her had been altered or removed. Harald could only guess at the original face, hair color, breast size, and fanny fat. Hennington kept a hard grip on her left arm.
“This is my wife, Henrietta. Shake hands with the man, dear.”
Her thoughts, passed along by the reptile, were brush fires of hatred and fear, swirling so ferociously that she could barely think. She knew, without doubt, that whatever Hennington was dragging her into would yet again hurt and humiliate her.
Hennington’s tone hardened. “Shake hands. Now.”
“How are you Mrs. Hennington?” Harald extended his right hand.
The required manners took hold. “I’m fine, thank you,” she said, gingerly reaching out her own hand.
The spell, primed for immediate discharge, arced like electricity into Henrietta’s hand. She dropped to the floor, drool immediately sliding down from her mouth.
“Wake her up, please, Mr. Hennington, and ask her a few questions. It’s okay. Once I release her, she won’t remember anything about the incident.”
Hennington stepped over and kicked Henrietta in the thigh. “Get up, you saggy slut.”
She propped herself against a coffee table and staggered up. “Everything is nothing. I am transformed in change. I am unknowing and coming into the unknown…”
“Henrietta, who am I?”
“The what of your who is unpleasant, and unworthy of my focus. You are my providing torment.”
“Stupid cow, what are your children’s names?”
“The fruit of my loins is rotten. I must wait for their seed to sprout.”
Hennington turned to Harald. “Can I keep her this way?”
“It’d be twice the price, and you’d have to hire staff to keep her clean and fed.”
“Hell. All right, get her out of it.”
Harald sidled behind Henrietta and cupped his hands on her temples. There was a popping noise and she dropped back onto the carpet, then jumped up screaming.
“You assholes! What’d you do to me? How’d I get on the floor? Assholes!” she screamed again, and quick-marched out of the room.
“All right, Bunner, you’ve got the business. Payment on results.”
“Afraid not, Mr. Hennington, half now, half on Helen’s derangement. Then a small monthly stipend to maintain the affliction. Cash, of course.”
Four days later Harald waited in the lobby of a high-rise office building until Helen emerged, flanked by two staffers. He sidestepped around the streaming bodies and slithered past an aide, brushing Helen as he continued on. She fell down and began writhing while Harald walked on out through a side exit.
He called Hennington the next day. “Satisfactory, I presume?”
“So far. How do I know it’ll continue?”
“Give it another day or two to confirm that she’s bonkers, then I’ll require the second half. If not received, she reverts to sanity and will be pretty testy.”
Hennington paid, and Harald settled most of his outstanding debts. Other business began to trickle in, then gushed.
Why you getting these jobs? You not that good.
“Ah, Suferti, I relied on Hennington’s venality. He lives on favors, giving and receiving. He tells those close to him about me and then asks for something in return. He’s a vicious but effective referral service.”
Rich man, wonderful untarnished evil. He screw you soon.
“I figure him to try. Got a couple contingency plans.”
House too clean.
“I beg your pardon?”
Not enough bugs. Suferti must hunt no stopping, still starving. Bad master.
“All right, all right. I’ll build a plastic box with a flap opening for you. I’ll vent it to the outside like a fly trap, and toss in some rancid meat. That should bring you buffet lunches.”
Suferti believe when sated.
Two months later, Hennington called.
“You’re stringing me along, Bunner, really just blackmailing me. My people tell me you haven’t been anywhere near Helen. She’s permanently wacko, and I’m not paying your blood money any more. You’ve gouged me enough.” Then he hung up on Harald.
Now you screwed. Hennington right. Spell permanent until removal. You screwed.
“Shut up, Suferti. Hennington’s already served my purpose in getting the business going. Now I just have to make sure he doesn’t bad mouth me.”
Harald waited one day for Hennington to change his mind, then used two quick spells to gain entry into the asylum where Helen Stalker was confined. Three weeks later, she was pronounced sane and resumed making life miserable for Hennington. He screamed at Harald when he telephoned.
“You scum bag charlatan, you broke our deal.”
“No, I tried to warn you that without my ministration she would revert. If you’ve called, I guess she has? We can’t talk about this on the phone. I’ll come by tomorrow morning.”
The next morning Harald put on a new, tailor-made suit from the same designer that Hennington used. He turned to Suferti. “Think I look better than that pompous ass. Get in the briefcase.”
Suferti’s body not survive in leather coffin. Master know current body need gentle care. Suferti stay home.
“Bullshit.” Harald scooped up the lizard and pitched it into the briefcase.
Suferti file grievance. Master must provide suitable transportation.
“Don’t crap in the case again or no centipedes for dinner.” Harald snapped the briefcase shut and drove over to Hennington’s mansion.
Hennington’s face had the color and flab of a rotten tomato. “Bunner, you lying son of a bitch, I’m sending someone to bust you up!”
“Mr. Hennington, nice to see you again as well. You broke the agreement and are facing the consequences, but I think I have a solution for you. May I come in?”
Harald extended his hand, but Hennington stumbled backward. “I’ve not touching you! Whatever you have to say you can tell me without touching. Come in.”
They sat in the same chairs as before, Suferti conveying the raw fear under Hennington’s bluster. “Before we start, Mr. Hennington, could I trouble you for a glass of water? I’m too dry right now to talk much.”
Hennington scowled, but got up and returned a few moments later with a full water tumbler. He cautiously set it on a service table that stood between the two men’s chairs, then returned to his seat.
“Thank you, Mr. Hennington. Harald stood up, took a step over to the table, picked up the water glass, and in a smooth arc tossed the water onto Hennington’s shirt. The water arc crackled as the curse flowed through hand-stitched silk. Hennington dropped to the floor, screaming loudly.
A few seconds later, the artificial woman came into the doorway. “What the hell’s going on?” She saw Hennington on the floor and a smile cracked across her surgically designed face.
“Ah, Mrs. Hennington, I’m afraid your husband has had a terrible accident. But I think he can talk. Ask him a question.”
“Bartholomew, get off the damn floor before I have to call 911.”
“Synthetic harpy, hovering before inflicting pain. Control, without control in vat of hate…”
Harald interrupted. “We have very little time Mrs. Harrington. This is what he made me do to you. I can make his condition permanent if you like, and give you your life back.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Money of course. You’ll need a day or two to get the cash. If you change your mind, Bartholomew returns to torment you.”
A real smile spread entirely across her face, giving Harald a hint of what the raw material must have looked like. “How delicious. Of course I’ll do it. You’re sure he can never regain his sanity?”
Harald made arrangements and drove off. Suferti, released from the briefcase, explored the floor mats for dead flies. Master surprisingly clever. Helen pay after release to put Hennington in torment. Henrietta pay for same thing. Double pay. Devilish good.
“Thanks, Suferti, I think I’m getting good at this.”
“Speak of devil. Hearing words from entity named Mephisto. Say you owe him. Say he hungry, want soul food.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty-six years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had forty-one stories accepted thus far, including two at Silver Pen publications.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH CAVEAT EMPTOR / CAVEAT VENDITOR:
Few readers would argue that a recipe for a great story begins with great characters. Stir them into an imaginative fantasy, sprinkle with humor, season to perfection, and cook until tender and juicy. That’s exactly what Edward Ahern did, and he served up a tasty delight.
Fantasy pieces can be either a hit or a miss for us. Edward Ahern’s delightful story was an instant hit that we accepted a mere three days after receiving it. We loved the delightful Suferti, whose character provided an excellent foil for Harald as Sancho Panza was for Don Quixote in that literary classic, or as Draco Malfoy was to Harry Potter in more recent literature.
Caveat Emptor / Caveat Venditor brings us a new twist on dealing with the Devil. Author Edward Ahern also reminds us that when it comes to evil schemes the seller–not just the buyer–should beware.