Story by T.R. North
Illustration by Tim Soekkha
“Val, I apologize if this seems rude, but it’s a business concern, you understand. Due diligence, that sort of thing. Are you drunk?” Bob asked the question without judgment and almost without curiosity.
Valentino Green, who’d insisted Bob call him Val within ten seconds of meeting him, tugged at the collar of his A-shirt and tried to smile. The jacuzzi attached to the pool to their left burbled, and Bob adjusted his grip on the glass of ice water Val had given him when he’d first arrived. The glass was sweating almost as much as he was. Meteorologists had stopped talking about a heatwave and just acknowledged that it was damn hot and was going to stay damn hot.
“It’s five o’clock somewhere, right, Mr. Vega?”
“I just need to know,” Bob told him, not acknowledging the weak upturn of Val’s lips. “It’s a hundred bucks just to come out here, so.” His shoulders rose fractionally. “You’re welcome to waste your money, but I do need to know.”
“Your ad said you could help.” Val hugged an arm to his chest and rubbed his chin, smearing sweat and grease even deeper into his thick stubble. He dropped both hands and wiped his palms self-consciously on his shorts. He hadn’t sat down when he’d invited Bob to take a seat, something which hadn’t bothered Bob in years. It was a rare client who called him in anything other than distress, and he’d learned to treat those cases like ticking packages with too much postage and no return address.
“What am I helping with?” Bob asked, regarding Val coolly over his sunglasses. He was mildly grateful that Val was drunk; Bob’s last client had been a church-lady with a mysteriously keen nose for scotch on a person’s breath. The kicker was that drunk people tended not to explain the situation terribly well, which could lead to… mistakes. They were usually at least worth the story to tell, but one more incident and his bond was liable to get revoked.
“You’d be drunk too, you know,” Val said. “Every time I lose my concentration, I accidentally turn everything in the house into wine. It’s just—” He gestured uselessly. “It’s why I called. I’m gonna get fired. And I can’t afford to keep taking a cab to the grocery store.”
“Everything’s turning into wine,” Bob repeated, eyebrows rising. Never a dull moment in this line of work. Not since the eclipse, anyway.
“No, it doesn’t just turn into wine,” Val corrected, scowling. “I turn it into wine. Otherwise, I could just, you know, go stay with friends or whatever. It, like, follows me around.”
“When did this start?” Bob asked, pretending not to know the answer. The sun had gone out for a few minutes, and every idiot from Walla Walla to Key West had spent the time either blistering their retinas staring directly at it or awakening some latent bit of inconvenient magery. The whole month running up to it had been nothing but warnings advising everybody not to do some stripe of precisely what Val had done, and still, here they were.
Bob couldn’t complain too much. He’d been able to pay off his mortgage on the backs of people who just had to spend the eclipse in the local museum’s antiquities wing reciting Lord Byron or screwing on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave or—his personal favorite so far—fighting an ex-coworker in the parking lot of a dollar theater.
“The eclipse,” Val said it like he knew how it sounded. “It’s not like that, though. I forgot what time it was. And the guy on the news, the dramaturgy guy, he said just don’t do anything weird.”
“Thaumaturgy,” Bob said reflexively. “What not-weird thing were you doing?”
“I was just eating a sandwich,” Val grumbled, plucking his glass from the glass table between them. The liquid inside bloomed a deep red, almost black. Bob regarded the corresponding change in his own water, then took a sip. When in Rome.
The wine wasn’t half bad.
“You got this out of a sandwich?” Bob prompted. He supposed it could happen like that if somebody had a strong enough gift or a deep enough channel. But usually, those types manifested early and hard, got packed off to boarding schools a healthy distance from population centers and infrastructure to get themselves sorted, or else had such an unhealthy aversion to their talents that the whole thing was buried deeper than a politician’s conscience. Val didn’t read like a man crawling out of his own skin from bald evidence of his own magic. He barely tipped the scales at petulant, and even that Bob was willing to chalk up to him being drunk.
“I forgot when the eclipse was happening, and I made myself a grilled cheesus, and then I just.” Val waved his hand at his glass, and himself, and finally slumped helplessly into a plastic chair. “All this.”
“Wait, wait.” Bob sat back. “What’s a grilled cheesus?”
“Well, it’s. Ah.” He wrinkled his nose. “You’re not like, crazy-religious or anything, are you?”
“Did I roll in here with an old priest and a young priest?” Bob retorted. Magic was drifting closer to a soft science than art these days, with useful precepts and principles and reasonably reliable outcomes for consistently performed castings. Religion was more a game of three-card Monte, with the reveal coming too late for anyone to revise their methods for better results. Bob had never been one for bad bets.
“Okay, okay. So, you know how every so often, somebody’ll get on the news because the Virgin Mary shows up in their toast or the frost on their window or wherever?”
“And you know how you can buy panini presses and griddles that’ll do fancy patterns in the bread or the batter, like dinosaurs or smiley faces?”
“You’ve got a panini press that burns the face of Jesus into your sandwiches.”
“I bought it because it was hilarious, but it makes grilled cheese exactly the way I like it,” Val said defensively. “Just, perfect grilled cheese.”
“And you ate a Jesus-face grilled cheese during the eclipse.”
“It really doesn’t seem like it should be such a big deal?” Val said. “Like, where would the entire species have gotten if we messed ourselves up like this every time there was an eclipse or something?”
Eclipses, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, lightning strikes, the eyes of tornadoes and hurricanes; the list ticked off automatically in the back of Bob’s mind. It seemed strange now that there had ever been a time when he’d been a scrawny, acne-riddled kid fumbling over flashcards with awakening-capable events written on them, always forgetting something the way normal people left off one of the seven dwarfs or a deadly sin.
“Keeping in mind that most of human history’s been spent trying to save ourselves when something weird happens,” Bob sighed, “you’d hardly have considered this a problem, back in the day. You’d have set up a stall in the market square, charged people a buck a pop, and been set for life.”
Bob suspected it was hardly a problem now, given that Val had waited almost a month to call him. He’d been on the case within twenty-four hours with the wedding party whose bride and groom had decided it would be romantic to exchange vows during totality, and the police had been the ones calling him for the woman who’d ‘accidentally’ turned herself into Ramses II.
Val scratched the back of his neck and made a face. “It’s been pretty great at parties. Free sangria, literal bottomless nachos. But.” He tugged at the terrycloth bathrobe he had draped over his clothes. “I don’t know where this came from. And this proto beard? I shaved this morning. If I don’t shave tonight, it’ll be an honest-to-god beard by tomorrow afternoon. Same thing with my hair. I had a crew cut the day of the eclipse, and no matter how much I cut it, it’s back down to my shoulders within a day or two. I mean, I’m already a postcard Jesus, and I don’t really know where it’s going to end. And I definitely don’t want to get like, executed over tax evasion.”
“Pretty sure that’s not why they killed Jesus, but I sympathize.” Bob finally gave Val what he’d been looking for, a reassuring smile. Val was one of the 75-percenters, the people who splashed around in the shallow edges of their magic for a little bit, then decided they wanted out of the pool. It was a vacation that was still going on in spite of everybody being hungover and sunburnt and broke and vaguely embarrassed at what they could remember of the previous week, and now he wanted a ticket home. Luckily for him, that was exactly what Bob could give him, provided he could pony up the fee.
“I know I should be grateful,” Val said after a moment. “I know there’s people out there that got it way worse than me, like that park mime who was just doing his job and now he’s a juggalo. But still, this is messing up my life. Can you get rid of it?”
“Of course.” Bob smiled again, wider this time. He appreciated Val’s performative self-deprecation, like a middle-manager with anxiety reassuring his therapist that he knew he didn’t really have anything to complain about, not like the people who’d been abused as kids or lost loved ones in horrible ways or gotten saddled with disease right out of the gate. It was a socially acceptable way to tell people that he had a sense of perspective about it, but he’d still like to pay a stranger to make it go away. “Your case sounds relatively simple, though there’s always the possibility of a curve-ball. There’s just the small matter of the price?”
“Your website was pretty clear about your rates.” Val pulled out his wallet and tossed his credit card onto the table. “Render unto Visa, right?”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Gotta hand it to you, Vega, you always did find the nicest rat-holes to crawl into.” Detective Ivey twisted his hat in his hands, and Bob stifled a groan.
“Come on, don’t be like that. Just ’cuz you’re here for a favor doesn’t mean you can’t behave like a reasonable person, Paul.” Bob’s condo wasn’t anything to crow about, but it was at least air-conditioned.
“What makes you think I’m here for a favor?”
“You’ve got that face like you just bit into an expired twinkie, you’re twitchy as a meth addict two days out of pocket, and you keep fiddling with your hat,” Bob said. He spread his hands and smiled as Paul scowled. “Don’t. I’m not saying it to wind you up. Just tell me what you want, and we’ll work it out, okay? It’s been a long day, let’s not do this.”
“You think you’re so goddamned smart, don’t you? Smug prick.” Paul was going to dent his hat if he kept clenching it in his fingers like that, but Bob didn’t think it was a particularly good idea to point it out just then.
“I said I wasn’t trying to wind you up,” Bob sighed. “I meant it. You come here for a favor, and you start insulting me, insulting my rat-hole. Next, you’ll be insulting my business.”
“What business? You’re a leech.”
“I’m a leech whose rat-hole is free and clear, who provides a necessary service to society for reasonable rates. You know what that makes me? A responsible leech. A tax-paying, law-abiding citizen leech. Just out of curiosity, how many civilians your department pop this year?” Bob’s smile never slipped. Normally he didn’t mind Paul, but the man didn’t like asking for favors. It made Paul puff up like an angry porcupine and Bob wish he’d ask somebody else for them. “Of course, if I’m wrong, and you don’t want anything, there’s the door.”
Paul’s mouth hung open just enough for Bob to get a look at his teeth, and Bob wondered if it was because he’d never spoken to Paul like that before. He’d never cared much about whatever little digs the detective felt the need to get in about how Bob earned his money, but the way Val Green had dithered at the last minute about pulling the plug on the whole messiah thing he had going on had left Bob with a giant headache, a correspondingly low supply of patience, and the lingering urge to take both of them out on somebody.
“So, what’s it gonna be?” Bob asked, patting his pocket absently. He wanted a cigarette. He hadn’t had one in years, hadn’t thought about having one in months, but something about the bumper-to-bumper traffic back from Val’s place made him crave a long drag and a quick burst of energy. His hands were looking for the lighter he didn’t carry anymore, and his lips were pursing around a phantom filter. Bob poured himself a beer instead, raised his eyebrows at Paul in silent question.
Paul gave in like a bridge collapsing, grudgingly and bit by bit, settling onto a stool at the hightop Bob used as a dining room table and tossing his hat onto the sofa. Bob poured another beer and set it in front of him.
“Got a hell of a call this morning. Real hard-luck case. Some girl technically made a voodoo doll.”
“So, some girl technically committed a felony.” Paul wasn’t usually so understanding. “Who’s your vic?”
“No vic. Not so’s anybody’d call her a vic, anyway.” Paul shot him a look like a cornered animal. “You ever hear of anybody making a voodoo doll to make somebody better?”
“I’ve heard jokes about it.” Bob searched his memory, his fingers tracing idle paths through the condensation on his glass. “Can’t recall any reports of somebody actually doing it, no. Seems like it’d be dicey as hell. What’d she have against doing it the old-fashioned way?”
“Money. Her sister needed some fancy pants surgery, and the insurance company was dragging its heels on the coverage, hoping to run out the clock.” Paul shrugged like he was ashamed of his own empathy. “You can see why this one might get a pass.”
“It work?” Bob asked around his glass.
“Sister was bedridden with six months to live. A week later, she’s back to work.” Paul shook his head. “Clean bill of health.”
Bob nodded to himself. Worth the effort it took to make a doll, then.
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I got the distinct sense that she’d like to stop having a dolly tied directly to her sister’s life force on her hands,” Paul said flatly. “She needs to get clear of it, but whatever grimoire scans she found on the internet didn’t exactly include instructions on how to dispose of the thing.” He half-drained his beer. “Figured you could use a break from playing overpaid janitor to do some pro-bono work, maybe balance your karma a little.”
“Last thing I need’s balanced karma,” Bob told him. “Civilization doesn’t get very far without janitors.” He caught Paul’s expression. “Look, you want me to talk to this girl, I’ll talk to this girl. But here’s the thing about every functional voodoo doll I’ve ever heard of: you break the doll; you break the spell. So, don’t let her get her hopes up like I can do something for her. She may just have to lump it unless she wants her sister back on her deathbed.”
“Damn.” Paul rubbed his face and looked about as tired as Bob felt.
Bob held up his hands. “I’ll do what I can, but like I said. Don’t let her get her hopes up. Besides, it ain’t like it’s the worst thing in the world. You forget you ever heard her name; she gives her sister the doll. It’s as happy an ending as most people can expect.”
“You don’t think it’s a little bit of a problem, running around with that kind of Achilles heel out in the world?” Paul asked.
“If she came by it honestly? Yeah, of course.” Bob shrugged. “But you have to look at it in terms of a medical catastrophe, Paul. Certain kinds of heart problems, they fix ‘em by giving you a battery pack. You get disconnected or it goes dead, it’s game over. But when you’re on borrowed time anyway? Better than being dead from day one.”
Paul drained his beer and glowered at him.
“You’re a real pragmatist sometimes, you know that?”
“In this business, you have to be.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Bob wasn’t prepared for the leggy, foul-tempered knockout who walked into his office the next morning. Pamela Jameson was the sort of pretty that almost let him ignore the glare that could strip paint at twenty paces. His sympathy for her predicament was tempered by the likelihood that she’d be focusing her frustrations on him before long.
“Detective Ivey said you could help me,” she said, by way of introduction.
“He say anything else?” Bob asked sourly. The one thing he’d made clear, and of course Paul had blown him off. It wouldn’t be Paul’s hide the woman was after if Bob couldn’t deliver.
“He said you were the best in the business.”
Bob fought to keep his expression neutral at that. Paul Ivey finally had a good word to say about him, and he had to say it to someone he was supposed to lowball. Not that it was a lie, necessarily; it was just that Bob was more or less the only one in the business, which made it difficult not to default his way to head of the class. Pamela didn’t look like she was exactly sold on it, though.
“What’s the hardest case you ever had?”
“Somebody decided to try the Sleep of Siloam in the eye of a category five hurricane,” Bob said immediately. It was the ugliest thing he’d ever gotten called in on, and he still wasn’t sure what box they’d been trying to check by flying him out.
“You solve it?” she demanded.
“Nothing to solve, except whether to put hubris or stupidity on the death certificate,” he said. “It was a category five hurricane. Hundred percent fatality rate, same as the poor schmucks who couldn’t get out of the way.”
The only contribution he’d made had been to confirm the ritual they’d been trying to perform and agree that it definitely hadn’t been worth it.
“That’s not—” She stopped herself, obviously frustrated, and Bob held up his hand before she could start over.
“Look, Ivey gave me the rundown on what happened. He tell you what I told him?”
Pamela’s lips thinned, and she folded herself stiffly into the chair opposite him. “You think I should just leave it be.”
“It’s your best bet,” Bob said gently. He’d spent the last night chewing on the problem, turning over longshots and outside chances and racking his brains for any overlooked creative solutions. It would have been one thing if the doll had been an attempt to solve a minor problem, a home remedy for something annoying but livable. He hadn’t been able to move the needle on his original conclusion: If unworking it was a one-way non-stop to premature death, it was a sucker’s game to tamper with it.
“You don’t understand,” Pamela said, lowering her eyes. “My sister and I, we don’t get along. I didn’t… I didn’t tell her I was doing this. She’d hate it if she found out. I can’t just give her the doll, and I don’t want to be responsible for taking care of it for the rest of my life. Not to mention there’s no statute of limitations on practicing without a license. I don’t want to go to prison if she takes it the wrong way.”
Bob tapped his pocket, wishing he’d broken down and bought a pack from the corner store on the way to the office. He took a moment to be grateful that at least she hadn’t made the damn manikin during the eclipse.
“Miss Jameson, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but magic isn’t like ordering a Big Mac. You can’t just complain to the cashier because it wasn’t what you wanted and get a new one. You’ve been unbelievably fortunate so far. The dolly worked, which is farther than most people get, and more to the point, you got it to do something that it wasn’t designed for. Perfectly. My advice would be to thank your lucky stars, try to mend fences with your sister, and tell her when it’ll do some good.”
“She stole my husband,” Pamela said, crossing her arms.
“Try thinking of it as her doing you a favor,” Bob suggested. “You really want to be married to the kind of louse who’d leave you for your own sister? She took a bullet for you, there.”
Pamela’s eyes narrowed, then the fight went out of her. “There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all? Money’s—it’s not no object, or I wouldn’t be in this mess, but we raised a bit when we were still trying to get her surgery funded. If you can fix it so she stays well and doesn’t need the doll anymore, it’s yours. I know it sounds like I want a miracle, but—”
She twisted her hands in her lap, and her lower lip quivered, the fear and worry fueling her anger finally making it to the surface.
“Please,” she said finally. “If there’s anything you can do. Please.”
Bob paused, reviewing her words. There was something there, something catching at the edges of his subconscious, something he’d missed before.
I know it sounds like I want a miracle.
Bob took a breath and held it, turning the answer over in his mind. Maybe. Best not to make any promises. He wrote down a number on a piece of paper and held it up.
“Is this a doable figure?” he asked. She looked from the paper to him and back to the paper, swallowing. After a moment, she nodded. “I might have something. If it works out, that’s what I’m gonna need for it. No guarantees. I’ll text you a time and address later. I need you and your sister to meet me there.”
Pamela’s lips parted, and Bob shushed her quickly.
“It won’t work without her. Might not work at all, but it definitely won’t work without her. You’re going to have to tell her either the truth or one hell of a lie.”
“I see.” She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Just make sure the check clears,” Bob said.
He showed her out of his office and chewed his lip, weighing the phone in his hand as if it could tell him something. After a long moment, he dialed the number.
“Val, hi, this is Bob Vega. Yeah, yeah, I remember what you said. Here’s the thing, though—I’ve got a favor to ask, and you’re the only one who can do it.” Bob paused, listening to Val sputter. He sounded half in the bag already, no surprise there. “No, of course, I don’t expect a better deal than I gave you. You do this, and not only do you get a full refund of what you’ve already paid me, but it’ll be on the house if you ever decide one way or another on getting yourself sorted. Like I said, I’m asking a favor.”
Bob closed his eyes and listened to the grudging silence on the other end of the line.
“What kind of a favor?” Val asked finally.
“Only kind I deal in, Mr. Green,” Bob said, grinning. “A big one.”
The next day rolled out clear and crisp and hot as blazes, and Bob couldn’t have picked a more appropriate tableau for doing something as dumb as they were about to. It was barely noon, and the mercury had already broken ninety. He was sweating in his Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt, and Val had managed to shed his robe in favor of a tank top and cutoffs.
Pamela clasped her purse in front of her and regarded Val with a level of trepidation Bob pretended not to notice. Her sister was en-route and had been informed that she was meeting a faith healer.
“It’s not entirely a lie,” Pamela said, protesting to an indifferent audience. “I said our mother set it up. She’s religious, but not churchy. You know.”
Bob was aware of the type; some of his best repeat clients had a try-anything-once take on faith that made for an interesting sort of life.
“I thought your sister was fine?” Val asked, swirling his glass idly. The sports drink inside it changed from neon green to a fine green-tinted white, and Pamela watched, openly impressed.
“Mom’s thorough. Sending somebody to get a second opinion’s the sort of thing she’d do.”
“You’ve got the doll?” Bob asked. Pamela waved her purse, then opened it and handed the manikin over.
Bob turned it in his hands and gave a low whistle, appreciative in spite of himself. It was textbook, with excellent craftsmanship on top of perfect construction. Pamela clearly hadn’t been taking any chances. She could do some real damage with something like that.
“This is damn good, kid,” he said, shaking his head.
“Shame the effects aren’t permanent,” she sighed, tucking it carefully back into her purse.
“Well. Given what most people use ‘em for, I’d say the balance of history favors them being reversible. How’re you feeling on this, Val? Good?”
Val sipped his wine and shot Pamela a beatific smile. Bob watched her relax and give him a cautious smile back, then shook his head. If they invited him to the wedding, he was retiring.
“This is new territory, obviously,” Val said. “But I feel great. The lame shall walk, and the blind shall see.”
“Settle down, Cheesus,” Bob grunted. He lifted his water bottle to his lips and made a face. “Pinot? In this weather.”
“Verde,” Val corrected. “Or at least, that’s what I was trying for. I’m getting better at it, though. Turns out wine’s complicated. I’ve always been more of a beer guy, myself.”
“Shame you haven’t been able to turn anything into beer,” Pamela said.
Val opened his mouth, then closed it again and puffed out his cheeks. “God damn it.”
“Experiment later,” Bob advised. “For now, I need you to focus.”
Bob went over the plan one more time, flipping through the medical files Pamela had brought. The physical changes, short of death, were tied to the dolly; they papered over the target’s natural condition rather than changing it. If Val could heal the underlying problem, Bob could unmake the doll with no one the wiser. Pamela listened intently even though it was the third time she’d heard it, shooting nervous, hopeful looks at Val the entire time. Val nodded and smiled with a glazed look on his face, which would have put Bob more on edge if it wasn’t the fourth run-through with him. He was reasonably sure Val hadn’t been that drunk during the previous session.
By the time Pamela’s sister arrived, Val was misquoting scripture and explaining the panini-press incident, Pamela was telling him why she’d felt driven to make the doll, and Bob was on his second water bottle full of wine. The two of them were already mirroring each other’s movements and clucking in sympathy at the appropriate moments, and Bob felt it was all a bit much.
Val greeting his patient with a Jim-Bakker-worthy “Be healed!” and a solid palm-strike to the forehead was the icing on the cake.
“What the hell, Pam?” she demanded, rubbing her forehead and glaring up at them from the floor.
Bob and Pamela turned to Val.
“Did it work?”
“I have the power!” Val pumped his fist and spun around.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Bob said. He extended a hand and pulled the young woman to her feet. “Sorry, Miss Jameson, he’s very demonstrative.”
“What sect did you say you guys were with?”
“First Reform Revival Baptists,” Bob said easily.
“They do their baptisms in the jacuzzi,” Pamela added.
“Your mother was very interested in our comprehensive psycho-spiritual health package,” Val chimed in.
“Nice to meet you. I’m leaving. Now. We’ll talk about this later, Pam.”
Bob watched her stalk back down the driveway, one hand on her forehead and the other lifting her cell to her ear and climb into a cherry red convertible.
“She seemed nice,” Val said, running his fingers through his shoulder-length hair. “Hey, you guys want to stay for lunch. I’m ordering a pizza, but, you know, I can turn it into however many pizzas we need.”
Pamela lit up like he’d just asked her to prom, and Bob mopped the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief.
“You sure you healed her, Val?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Val told him, nodding. “It was weird, I really could feel it like, flowing into her body.”
“Then I think I’ve got work to do that doesn’t involve undermining a restaurant’s business model,” Bob said, holding out his hand. Pamela stared at him blankly for a second, then straightened.
“Right, of course. The doll.” She flushed and dug it back out, handing it over like a kid caught shoplifting. “You’re sure it’s safe? You can take it apart without hurting her?”
“It’s what I do,” he assured her, “and in this case, it’ll be done by end of business today. You’ve got my number if you notice anything off, and I’m sure Val here’d, be happy to give you his in case you need to talk to him about anything.”
Val grinned and winked. “Absolutely. Anything you need, day or night, rain or shine.”
“That’s really sweet of you to offer,” Pamela said, licking her lips. Bob looked from one to the other and shook his head.
“You two enjoy your lunch,” he told them, grimacing. He felt like he was fleeing the scene of an accident. “I’ll see myself out.”
Bob favored the doll with a long look before buckling it into the passenger seat of his car. A guy who’d failed his way into powers of Biblical proportions, a lady who’d seen a voodoo doll as a reasonable alternative to prying pre-approval out of an insurance company, and both halfway drunk already. Bob started the car and put Val’s house in his rearview. At least if anything too bad came of it, he could always pin it on Ivey.
— ♦♦♦ —
Picking up on the fifteenth ring, ‘Who’s this?’ Breathing on the other end of the line. “I’m dressed as the Easter Bunny.’ A man, mid-thirties.
I slammed the phone back in its cradle and took another swig. Christ on his cross. The phone began to ring again. No waiting; snatched it up.
‘She’s dead.’ The same voice. Not desperate. Sad with a confusion chaser.