I originally wrote this piece for Piffle, UniSFA‘s club magazine. Only the first half was complete at the time of publication. Eventually, 7 years or so later I finished it for inclusion in Mitch’s “Tarts of the New Millennium” (available from Slow Glass Books).
There was, as usual, too much mail in Ron’s mailbox when he arrived home. Too little mail would mean some old friend had remembered that he was still alive and kicking, but too much mail meant that the phone company, the electricity supplier, and the water and gas people had ganged up on him all at once.
This time it was worse than that. His credit card bills had made their appearance at the same time. He slammed the pile of mail down on the table as he dropped his battered briefcase to the floor. He dragged a chair over and sat down, with the result that the piles of loose printouts on the chair plummeted onto the grey carpet.
There was a sharp click as the main cutting blade of his Swiss Army knife came into position, and he began to open the envelopes in disbelief.
A letter from mother. She still wondered why he hadn’t found a nice girl and made her his wife. Probably because nice girls are as scarce out there as hens’ teeth. And besides that, who the hell would want to marry a programmer? Besides a computer of course…..
Bloody hell, what did I buy all that garbage? Have to watch that for next time.
This was the one he really didn’t mind paying. Who would have thought that magic still worked? And even then, who on earth would have thought of being able to put it on a credit card?
He pulled his wallet out, and looked at the card’s black surface, across which the golden ‘Magic Express’ logo was emblazoned. At the bottom of the card was his name, embossed in the same gold ink. On the back was the contact number for an emergency, and a magnetic strip for use in the automatic spellers.
He looked at the bill.
He looked at the bill again.
He stood up, and picked up the bill.
At the bottom of the last page of the bill was a total amount owing. From what he could gather, it was larger than the national debt.
Even further down the page was the statement ‘payment must be made 14 days after receipt of this statement’.
He struggled to comprehend the enormity of it. There were 347 major miracles on the itemised statement, 901 averted catastrophes, and a large number of minor wishes.
The number on his card against the number on his bill. Damn. It was his bill alright. Just what he needed. Computer error on a grand scale.
He picked up the phone, and dialled their office.
“Please wait for your call to be processed.”
The industrial strength muzak hurtled down the line and assaulted his ears.
“Please hold while your call is being processed.”
He began to wonder why he bothered with the thing anyhow. He only used it to buy pitiful things like class one illusions which he could use to flirt with interesting girls.
There had been that beautiful woman at the restaurant. Drinking a cup of tea from the fine white china, her eyes alive with light. He looked over at her.
She looked over at him.
He winked at her.
She kissed her index finger, and blew the kiss towards him.
As he felt it impact on his cheek, he activated his illusion.
She smiled, and nearly broke out laughing as the halo had appeared briefly in the air above his head.
He walked over to join her at her table.
He regretted it.
She must have been saving up for a few months, or maybe even a year for this illusion. Or she was horribly rich.
But she certainly was horribly ugly.
He could feel the magic at work, creating that beautiful fa?ade. Underneath it was someone who couldn’t appear in public without magical support.
It was too late now. He was at her table.
Lunch went from being short and pleasant to long and painful.
“Hello. Please state the nature of your problem.”
“I’m sorry. My account has been incorrectly charged.”
“Your number please?”
He recited a string of digits into the mouthpiece.
“Please wait while I authenticate your number.”
There was a pause during which the dulled thudding of keys on a computer could be heard.
“Thankyou. What is the nature of your problem.”
“Your damn computer has charged my account with so many spells that the number on the bill is bigger than the number on my card.”
The hold music burst forth in its sonic glory.
He began to feel nauseous.
“Thankyou. We will rectify the problem, and get a new bill out to you in the mail. Your business is important to us.”
He slammed the receiver down.
The bill arrived alright.
And was the same as before, except for an added 10% interest, which given the size of the bill was fairly formidable.
It was time to seek professional help.
No beheaded sheep, burning candles, or chickens dead or otherwise. Just airconditioning, piped music, and the usual tinted glass hiding the innards of the corporate universe.
The room was devoid of anything vaguely associated with the mysterious arts. It would be easy to mistake it for a lawyer’s office, except for the lack of human sacrifices.
“So, Magex have dumped on you in a big way?” the magician asked.
“About as big as the way your creditors dumped on you before I did that wipe”.
The magician smiled.
“Aren’t you meant to have a pointed hat or something?”
“I only wear it at parties”.
“So, how do you think I ran up that tab with Magex?”
“Fast living? No, not you. If it was Amex I’d suspect you’d been buying the latest gee-whiz computer or geek toys. But with the size of your bill, it must have been something reasonably big. I could probably run my business for a few months, using just these spells alone. You haven’t made any enemies recently, or antagonised some old ones?”
“Not that I know of”.
“Ex-girlfriends with axes to grind?”
“You haven’t used it to do any spells over the internet?”
“No, I’m not into that sort of thing. Can you do anything about the bill?”
“I’d love to be able to help you out, but magical security is much tighter and more dangerous than any computer security. And I’m not very good at that sort of thing anyway, I’d be more likely to get you into even more trouble! Your best alternatives are either pay up in real money, which I doubt you’ve got the funds to do, or else Magex will just curse you for an amount equivalent to your debt. Probably only for a couple of years in your case. If I were you, I’d pay up”.
“But where am I meant to get the money from?”
“Don’t ask me, if I knew that I would be off pulling dacquiris out of a hat on a tropical beach somewhere.”
The knocking at the door woke him at the ungodly hour of 8 in the morning. He threw on his dressing gown and peered through the peephole to see two large suits obscuring most of the view. Probably the usual Atlantians wondering if he’d like to make a donation to help rebuild their lost city.
“Good morning, Mr Lerner I believe?
“We represent the interests of Magic Express Incorporated.”
He grabbed at the doorframe to keep himself upright.
“We’re here regarding your recent Magex account statement, and how you intend to pay it.”
He glanced at the two of them. Clean shaven. Close-cropped hair. Both wearing tailored suits, nothing else would have fit their hulking frames. The taller, silent one was wearing dark sunglasses, which seemed a bit out of place in the poorly lit hallway.
“Our credit check revealed that you’re unlikely to be able to repay the debts you’ve incurred, so I’m afraid that we don’t have any choice really.”
“It is traditional in these matters, that if you are unable to repay your debts by more conventional means then we may seek an alternate means of reimbursement. Whilst it is as unpleasant for us as it will be for you, it is unfortunately company policy, and you have previously agreed to this by accepting the terms and conditions of use of the Magex card”
“I didn’t use any of those spells!”
“Any complaints you may have about your credit statement can be taken up with our accounting department. Have a nice day sir.”
Just before they turned away to leave, Ron could swear he saw the silent man’s eyes glowing behind the sunglasses.
The alarm went off at 4am, startling him awake. As he reached out to silence it, he knocked over his bedside table, breaking a glass of water, and spilling it into the clock radio. There was a sizzling sound and then the power went out.
Ron climbed out of bed, putting his foot down squarely on a broken shard of glass. He sat back down on the bed to remove it and missed the edge of the bed. On the way to the bathroom he stubbed his the toes on his other foot on the doorframe.
Looking in the mirror, he saw that his face looked as if he had not slept for weeks. Dark shadows ringed his eyes, and his usually healthy complexion now looked as if it would look more at home in a morticians.
He sighed as he sat down on the edge of the bathtub to bandage his foot.
The curse had begun.
It was much darker, quieter and less painful way back in his usual booth at the restaurant, where he was trying to avoid any more accidents that might befall him. Fortunately such curses weren’t allowed to cause any permanent damage, disfigurement or death, lest Magex be held liable.
Public embarrassment was a different matter however.
Already today he’d been zapped by his electric toothbrush, spilt milk all over the kitchen, burnt the toast, and watched helplessly as his computer’s power supply emitted a column of smoke. He’d eventually made it out of the house, only to find (while attempting to board the bus) that he’d forgotten his cash, locked his keys in the house, and had walked the rest of the way to work with his fly open, only to find that his work computer had suffered the same fate as his computer at home, and all the urgent jobs had found their way onto his desk.
Having narrowly survived the day at work without being driven insane, he sought solace in the depths of a drink.
Lifting his head up from where he had been cradling it in his hands, he saw someone sit down in the same booth as him.
“Tough day huh?”
The woman must have looked about 50, had long grey hair, and looked like she was suffering from some exotic skin disease.
“Mind if I join you? I feel like you look, and you look like you need another drink”
“Sounds good to me”
“What’re you having?”
“A Blue Lagoon, I think.”
She summoned the waitress over to them and ordered.
“I’m Lil by the way, you’re…?”
“So Ron, why are you hiding back here?”
“Everything has gone wrong today, I thought I’d just find somewhere quiet I could stay out of trouble for a while. I’m cursed”
She smiled at him. Her teeth were stained yellow. She looked almost as unattractive as Ron felt…
“Well, things haven’t been going well for me either. My cat has disappeared, the water pipe in my apartment broke. To top it all off, my car got a flat tyre just around the corner from here, and the spare is flat too!”
The waitress put their drinks on the table.
Ron watch the glass tumble over almost as if it was in slow motion.
Lil jumped up as the drink left a large blue stain down the front of her dress.
“I don’t believe it! I’ll just go and wash this off…”
The waitress was very apologetic for the accident and went off to get a replacement drink. Ron sipped slowly and carefully at his drink, trying not to think about anything that could go wrong on the way home this afternoon.
Eventually Lil returned from the ladies room. Ron looked up from his drink and saw that she was drenched from head to foot.
“You really don’t want to know.”
“You probably need to go and find some dry clothes. How about we go and see about that flat tyre of yours?”
They got up to leave.
“You know, I’m sorry about your dress”
She said “That’s ok, some curses you just have to learn to live with.”