The Onus Construct - Part I
It all started on a dreary Friday afternoon. It had been over a month since my last case, and twice as long since I’d heard from Magnus. They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop; if that’s true, my devil was either on vacation or one lazy son of a bitch. I must have looked a sorry sight–a lone, courageous dribble of saliva fought its way through five days worth of stubble on its way down my chin as I leaned back in my chair, feet up on the desk, with a fat stogie in one hand and a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the other. The rain crashed in hypnotic waves against the rickety window at my back. I’d been drifting in and out of sleep all afternoon–dreaming that I was on the deck of some ancient wooden barge, swaying back and forth on its creaky deck, staring out at an endless dark ocean. The clock on the wall was broken, but the dimness of the sun fighting its way through the rain clouds told me it was about time to quit drinking at the office and pick it back up at my apartment. I deposited my long-since expired cigar into my ash tray and placed the bottle of scotch next to it. The scattered envelopes, unpaid bills, and old case files that littered my desk were marred by stains. Magnus used to joke that my desk aged like a tree–you could tell how long it’d been since our last case by counting the overlapping rings of spilt booze and coffee. I glanced sidelong at his abandoned desk next to mine, glistening and pristine as always. The only thing on it was the plastic tray at its corner where he kept active case files–it was empty except for the handful of envelopes that had arrived for him in the weeks since his disappearance. I’d wrestled with the idea of opening them, curious if any bore some clue to his whereabouts, but thought better of it. His last words to me, spoken in hushed tones over the phone, were that he needed to lay low for a while and I should make no attempt to find or contact him. I had reluctantly agreed, and though I may not be much else, I am at least a man of my word. As I stood, bracing myself against the desk while grasping at booze-hazy memories of how my legs worked, I heard the front door in the lobby burst open. The wild hissing sound of the rainstorm flooded my office for a moment before the door slammed shut, drowning it out again. I collapsed back in my chair, leaning forward with my eyes fixed on the frosted glass window that looked out on the hallway from the lobby. Magnus always boasted that he could predict everything he needed to know about a case from the client’s silhouette as they passed by that window. He made a game of it–whispering his prognosis for each new client as they walked past. “Bad luck,” he’d say; “Memory loss;” Or, one of his favorites, “unwanted impure thoughts.” He was wrong more often than right, but every now and then he’d get lucky–the client would finish explaining and Magnus would catch my eye and give a self-satisfied nod. It usually irritated me, but now that he was gone it surprised me how much I missed that little ritual. In Magnus’s absence I was left to formulate my own preconceptions about this new potential client. From the shape of the silhouette and the sound of the heeled footsteps clicking across the hallway, the best I could come up with was “probably female.” As to the nature of her visit, I didn’t venture a guess. Nothing I could have imagined, naive as I was at the time, could have landed even remotely near the mark. The silhouette rounded the corner, confirming my initial impressions. The woman stood tall in the office doorway, wearing a dark blue trench coat with the collar pulled up and a matching wide-brimmed hat. Remnants of the storm dripped steadily onto the hardwood floor at her feet. The woman’s face was pale and gaunt, looking almost skeletal in the dim light. She glanced around the room and spotted the coat rack in the corner, then walked to it and hung her hat, revealing her shoulder-length black hair. After she hung her coat, I could tell her body was as lean as her face. The white buttoned shirt and blue jeans she wore should have been form-fitting on a woman as tall as she was, but on her they hung loose, like a deflated parachute. She turned toward me, continuing to look around the room as she approached. The woman paused when she saw the bottle on my desk. She looked at me with an expression of distaste. “Are you Magnus Vitale?” she asked. I shook my head. “Magnus is… indisposed, presently. I’m his partner, Sylvester Bullet.” I gestured toward one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs pushed up against my desk. “How can I help you, Mrs…” The woman remained silent for a moment. She looked down at the battered chair I had offered, then back at me. She let out a resigned sigh as she pulled the chair out and sat down delicately, placing a small black purse on her lap. “Miss Tanaka,” the woman said. “Chinami Tanaka. I need help tracking someone down.” “This someone, you suspect they hexed you?” I asked. Miss Tanaka nodded. “I assure you it’s more than a suspicion, Mr. Bullet.” My brain kicked into autopilot and I launched into the spiel that I regurgitated every time someone new walked in off the street. “These things aren’t always clear cut,” I explained. “You’d be surprised at how often people come to us, swearing up and down that they’ve been hexed, only to discover…” “May I?” Miss. Tanaka interrupted. She pointed at the bottle of Johnnie Walker between us. Her interjection startled me, despite the politeness with which she delivered it. I shrugged and slid the bottle toward her, wondering why she suddenly desired the thing that had clearly repulsed her when she first noticed it. She tossed her head back and, without touching her lips to the bottle, poured its contents into her mouth. She shook out the last few drops before delicately placing the empty bottle back on the desk. A scowl crossed her face, and her eyes met mine as she forcefully swallowed. We stared at each other in silence for a moment, then Miss Tanaka slid the bottle back toward me. I looked down at it. It wasn’t empty. In fact it still contained the exact amount of scotch it had before Miss Tanaka drank it. I furrowed my brow in confusion and glanced back up at her. Was she playing a joke on me? Some kind of illusion, or parlor trick? “I didn’t always look like this,” said Miss Tanaka. “Less than a year ago you might even have considered me overweight–an unkind observation, perhaps, but not an inaccurate one.” It was hard to picture the slender woman across from me as anything but severely underweight, but I didn’t comment. My eyes wandered back down to the perplexing bottle. I concentrated, trying to determine exactly how drunk I was. I had a nice buzz going on, sure, but not near enough that I had any doubts about what I’d just seen. She had emptied the bottle–I watched her choke it down. And yet somehow she hadn’t. “I am not completely starved,” Miss Tanaka continued. “The hex seems to prevent excess. If I eat more than the bare minimum required to keep my body alive, I find it returned to my plate as though I had never eaten it at all. Foods I once derived great pleasure from now have no taste, or, worse, present an altogether offensive palate. I am losing weight rapidly, Mr. Bullet. If it keeps pace, I fear that my life may be in grave danger very soon.” At that point in my life, I had believed myself to be something of an expert on magic. Magnus and I had been in the business of tracking down totems and dispelling hexes for over twenty years. In all that time I thought I had seen everything magic was capable of, and I had never seen anything to indicate that it could do what Miss Tanaka had just demonstrated. Hexes simply didn’t work like that–they acted subtly, influencing the victim’s life and thoughts in almost imperceptible ways. Sure, they could be life-threatening, but they killed you through the manipulation of circumstance. Maybe you get distracted and miss a stop sign; maybe you get the surgeon who, having just found out his wife is cheating on him, distractedly botches your operation; maybe you absentmindedly store the leaky box of rat poison above your open box of cereal in the pantry. The idea that magic could “un-eat” a person’s food–could actually manipulate physical objects in any way–was preposterous. I became convinced that I was being deceived. That Miss Tanaka’s demonstration was the lead-in to some kind of scam or practical joke. But I was intrigued–enough to continue playing along despite my suspicions. I nodded at Miss Tanaka gravely, trying my best to hide my incredulity. “You know who the caster is?” I asked. “Yes,” replied Miss Tanaka. “Harold and I were… We were…” She hesitated, averting her eyes from mine. “Lovers?” She shook her head. “No. Friends. At least I thought we were friends. Harold, he wanted more.” “I see,” I said. This part of the story, at least, was credible. I’d seen it shake out a thousand times. “So Harold professed his love, you turned him down, and shortly thereafter your food stops being so cooperative about being eaten.” Miss Tanaka nodded. “After I rejected him, Harold told me that I would soon know what it was to be deprived of something so essential to me as I was to him. After I realized what was happening to me, I attempted my own means of locating him. Finding people is a task for which I normally have a…” she paused, apparently searching for the right word. “A penchant. My attempts have been in vain. I suspect my inability to find Harold may be somehow related to the hex, but that is pure conjecture on my part. It is why I am here, Mr. Bullet. I was told that when it came to hexes, Mr. Vitale was the man to seek for help. But seeing as how he is not here and you are, and I am nearing my wit’s end, I shall ask you instead. Can you help me?” I studied Miss Tanaka where she sat across from me. She stared back at me with an intensity and fire in her eyes that belied her frail countenance. But her expression betrayed a quiet desperation. She looked so thin and vulnerable and pathetic in the dim light. The office was quiet except for the rain and the gentle squeaking of the ceiling fan rocking back and forth as it spun above our heads. My eyes wandered to Magnus’s vacant desk. I’d bet he would have jumped all over that case, unfazed by its apparent absurdity. I could picture him, sitting on the edge of his desk, holding Miss Tanaka’s hands in his and reassuring her that everything would be okay. He was a sucker for the romantic cases. Scorned lovers, jealous exes, cheating spouses–he drank them up like I drank Johnnie Walker. But Magnus wasn’t there, and I had no idea when he was coming back. My emotional state at the time ranged somewhere between fascinated and horrified. Maybe it was the booze, or maybe it was Miss Tanaka’s gently pleading eyes, but I found myself considering the notion that the starvation hex could be real. The implications chilled me to my bones. If all my preconceptions about magic were wrong and a hex like this was possible, what kind of monster would actually cast it? And what else was that person capable of? Taking this case on, especially without Magnus, seemed unthinkably dangerous. “Miss Tanaka,” I started. My mind raced, trying to formulate a diplomatic way to make her understand. “My last case,” I said, “was a girl who thought her father put a hex on her love life–a boy she liked, who had previously been hot to trot, suddenly lost interest.” Miss Tanaka looked at me, unblinking. “Turned out it wasn’t the father, but another girl. Did it out of jealousy. She used a few of my client’s hairs to construct the totem. It was the first time she had ever cast a hex.” Miss Tanaka opened her mouth to speak, but I raised my hand to stop her. “Bear with me,” I said. “I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. The case prior to that was a shop owner who found his clientele suddenly lacking compared to that of a rival shop in a less desirable location. The other shop’s owner used a coffee cup from my client’s trash for his totem. It was also his first hex.” “Mr. Bullet I’ve already said I want to hire you,” Miss Tanaka interjected. “You needn’t continue this ill-conceived attempt to impress me with your work history.” “Prior to that,” I continued, ignoring the interruption, “there was a man hexed by a scorned lover to lose all sexual desire for any woman but her. Before that was a competitive swimmer hexed with a fear of water. A mother hexed by her son to stop preparing vegetables for dinner. A farmer whose cows…” “Your point, please, Mr. Bullet!” Miss Tanaka said, more forcefully this time. “The point is, I’ve only ever dealt with normal, run-of-the-mill magic. The casters are inexperienced and the hexes are inconvenient and annoying to their victims at worst–like tiny buzzing gnats that you know are there but can’t see. Your hex isn’t a gnat, Miss Tanaka. It’s an army of fucking steamrollers. It’s so far above anything I’ve ever heard of or even knew was possible that I can’t begin to fathom what kind of power your Harold wields, or how dangerous he might be.” Miss Tanaka nodded. I could tell she wasn’t grasping my intention to turn her away. She reached into the purse on her lap and pulled out a rolled up wad of cash. It was thicker around than my arm. She placed it on my desk, next to an old coffee-stained bill with the words “Final Notice” stamped across it in red. I could sense she had looked up at me, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the money. “I am perfectly capable and willing to compensate you to a level commensurate with the challenge I may present,” said Miss Tanaka. “As I said, I am nearing my wit’s end. I was told Mr. Vitale was the best. I would hope that–despite appearances to the contrary–his partner would be competent at least, if not one of the best himself. I am desperate, and afraid for my life. I need to find Harold so that I may entreat him to undo what he has done.” Leaning back, but not taking my eyes off the money, I considered how nice it might be to buy groceries and restock the liquor cabinet without having to count nickels for once. With that much cash I could probably pay off all my bills, maybe even buy new chairs for the office to boot. How surprised would Magnus be if he got back to discover I’d redecorated the place? “You understand that there are no refunds,” I explained slowly to Miss Tanaka. “The totem he used must be incredibly powerful–if I’m unable to destroy it, and if he doesn’t revoke the hex willingly, there’s not much else I can do. The only other way to break the hex would be to…” “Don’t worry, Mr. Bullet. I did not come here to enlist a hired assassin,” Miss Tanaka reassured me. “If you can locate Howard I have no doubt that, if the feelings he confessed to me were true, he will see what his hex has done to me and perform the revocation. He has his share of negative qualities, but being overly vindictive and cold-hearted is not among them. I suspect he cast the hex in anger and frustration, then secluded himself somewhere away from me, unaware of just how powerful his spell had been or how much it has cost me.” I took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly as I glared at the comically large roll of green paper shining like beacon among the trash on my desk. I looked up at Miss Tanaka. The fire in her eyes still shone brightly. She exuded the energy of an impassioned, headstrong young woman; but her body was that of a frail, old lady. Her face and hands looked like bones with thin tissue paper wrapped around them for skin, and her mouth quivered at the edges, probably from the exertion it required to mask her weariness. If I were a less honest man, I’d probably say some part of me recognized at that moment what a remarkable woman she was, and that realization is what made up my mind. In reality, it was the money. I sighed heavily and shook my head. Miss Tanaka sucked in a short breath. “Miss Tanaka, I accept your case,” I said. Though she did her best to hide it, I saw the relief flood over her. Her shoulders loosened and the grimace on her face relaxed into what almost looked like a smile… Almost. She nodded curtly at me. “Very well, Mr. Bullet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had a tiring day. I must rest and take what sustenance the hex will allow. I shall return early tomorrow to discuss the particulars.” I nodded slowly and watched Miss Tanaka rise. At that point, if Magnus were there he would have leapt to her aid–helping her on with her coat, taking her elbow, walking her through the lobby. That wasn’t my style, and I think if I had tried anything like that–lumbering toward her on my drunk legs, smelling of booze, cigars, and sweat and groping at her clothes on the coat rack–she probably would have decked me with her purse and called the cops. Instead, I watched her gather her belongings and leave the way she had come without another word. After she’d gone, leaving me alone with my conflicted thoughts, I felt my resolve begin to crumble. What had I just gotten myself into? I tentatively reached out, intending to touch the roll of bills Miss Tanaka left on my desk, but at the last second my hand swerved to the Johnnie Walker instead. I grasped the bottle and held it up, close to my eyes. The amber liquid sloshed hypnotically from side to side, much like the surface of the dark ocean I had been dreaming of all day. I put the bottle to my lips and drained it, then tossed it in the trash behind me. The empty bottle clinked against its likewise discarded brethren and remained there, empty, as I gathered my things and stepped out into the cold, wet streets that would take me home.