Frank Rawley hurried down the city street with his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his tweed coat, squinting against the harsh cut of the wind against his face. It was an overcast day, and it threatened rain; still, Frank was too distracted to notice. The deep expression of discomfort and disquiet that furrowed his brow made him look much older than his twenty-two years. He was clearly about to do something that he did not at all want to do. But he was going to do it anyway.
When he reached a smudged, dirty door wedged between a haberdashery and a deli, Frank paused, looked around to verify that no one was paying attention to him, and then quickly opened the door—it creaked, a horrible sound which seemed like the loudest in the world to him—and slipped inside.
Up the narrow staircase and down the hall he went. He stopped at the door adorned with a crooked number "7", covered in cracked gold paint. Three times he knocked: short, sharp raps.
Frank heard much fumbling, crashing, and cursing from inside the apartment as its occupant evidently attempted to reach the door through a mass of clutter. Finally the unknown person reached the door and cracked it open—but not far enough open to reveal their face.
"Yeeeeessssss?" came the wheezing, drawn-out voice of an old man.
Frank cleared his throat. "I've come to request your services."
The door opened a little further and a half-closed eye peered out. "You? Again? Boy, you know you'll ruin your life if you see me often enough."
Frank scowled. "Please just let me through."
With a cough, the man opened the door just wide enough for Frank to squeeze into the apartment. Inside, the floor was filled with clutter—boxes stacked upon boxes, books stacked upon books, all manner of desks with all manner of strange test tubes filled with strange colors strewn atop them. The man hurried to and fro for a minute, going nowhere in particular. He was clearly very elderly, wore shabby, oversized clothing and looked distinctly poor, but he also wore well-made silver glasses that were clearly an expensive pair. Frank remained standing by the door, seeming uncomfortable, while the old man busily made his way through the apartment and to the kitchen.
"Would you like some tea?" came the old man's warbling voice from the small kitchenette.
"No, thank you," called Frank.
For a few minutes the only sound in the apartment was that of the clinking of cups, the running of water, and the boiling of a teapot. Finally the old man emerged from the kitchenette clutching in both hands a cup of tea that looked like dirty dishwater. He hobbled toward an ugly green chair and sat down heavily, took a long sip of tea, then asked, "What seems to be the trouble this time, Frankie boy?"
Frank burst out, "It's that girl. That Coolidge girl. I can't take my mind off her."
"Aurora Coolidge? The movie star?" inquired the old man.
"No, no," snapped Frank in frustration. "She goes to Princeton. She's in some of my classes. Her name is Jane." He said the name not with the caress of voice that belongs to someone in love, but with a deep-seated frustration and longing that belongs to something entirely different.
Memory sparked in the old man's eyes. "Ah, yes. You've told me about her before, I remember now," said he. "Jane Coolidge. And what's the problem with her this time?"
"I followed all your advice," said Frank. "It didn't work, didn't work at all. The subliminal hand gestures, blinking my eyes five times every few seconds, all of it is absolute poppycock."
"See here now," cried the old man, leaning forward in his chair. "I can't have you spreading the word that my methods don't work! They do work. You must have been using them improperly."
"Yes, well, either way they didn't succeed," said Frank in annoyance. "Jane is just as dismissive of me as before. She pays hardly any attention to me at all."
"Well, that's unfortunate," said the old man.
"It is," muttered Frank. "And I do wish I could forget about her—put her out of my mind—but I just can't. She's in my head, in my dreams when I sleep. She's like a witch, Maurice. A siren. And I would demand my money back from you if I thought it would make any difference, but it won't." He hesitated, exhaled, then said, "I want something stronger instead."
Interest lit the eyes of Maurice into lanterns. "Something stronger?" he inquired. "You mean, the likes of a potion?"
"Yes. If that's what it takes."
"Well, my boy, you do know that that will be very expensive?"
"I don't care. I don't care. I'll pay whatever you want. Just give me something that works, and quickly. I've heard that Jane's planning to continue her studies elsewhere, and I don't want to lose her."
Immediately, Maurice stood up and began rummaging among boxes and bookshelves, and all the clutter and mess upon the floor. Finally he found what he was looking for buried underneath a pile of dirty clothing, and held it up to the light, staring at it reverently.
Then, he handed the item to Frank; the pink liquid inside the small vial, which was corked with what looked like an oddly shaped rock, fizzed slightly when Frank took the vial in his hands. He looked at it in confusion. "What is this?"
"A potion, a potion, you daft daft boy!" Maurice shook his head. "Young people these days—heads full of air! Just feed some of this to this girl, this June. Slip it into her tea or something."
Maurice waved his hand irritably in the air. "Whatever her name might be. Just give her this. A few drops ought to be fine for your purposes. More would kill her; so I'd advise you to be careful."
"And," said Frank delicately, "what does it do? Is it a… is it a love potion?"
"Well, not so much love as infatuation." The old man grinned conspiratorially—a rather odd look for such a withered, wizened face. "Obsession. Just feed her that potion and the girl will believe you're the center of her universe. Of course, it only works if she's truly the object of your affections, so you must be certain of what you plan to do."
"I am," said Frank.
"Yes, yes. And you must take care. The effects only last a few months, so you've got to marry her quickly and get her tied to you. That is, if you really want the potion to mean anything, you see."
Frank's face turned to an expression of reverence as he gazed upon the powerful pink potion in his hand. He seemed to have just realized the gravity of what he was about to do. And then the look on his face turned to something of harsh determination.
"It will mean something," he said. "I'll make sure of it this time."
"Good, good. Now there's the matter of payment, my boy." Maurice coughed. "Eighteen hundred."
"Eighteen hundred? See here, old man, that's more than my tuition!"
"Well, then, you can reject my offer if you wish. And watch Janet slip—"
"Whatever her name is!" Maurice's voice took on a grimly mocking tone. "You are free to reject my offer and watch your beloved, the object of your desires and affections, your hopes and dreams, slip through your fingers like sand in an hourglass." The old man smiled toothily. "It's a free country."
The effect of these words was immediate upon Frank, whose face paled like the man on the moon. "No," he said. "No, I'll pay it. I'll pay it. You've just got to give me some time. I can't just conjure eighteen hundred dollars up out of nowhere."
"Yes, yes." Maurice regarded Frank with owl-like eyes. "You know, boy, if lack of funds is an issue, there are other methods of payment. Other than money, I mean."
"Oh? Like what?"
"Well… there's a certain ingredient I need in order to make a certain potion I brew once every few decades. Very specialty, very expensive, in high demand. Once I sell one, it pays my rent for a year. But this ingredient is very hard to come across, seeing as there's an understandable lack of willing volunteers."
"And… what's the ingredient?" Frank hesitantly asked.
The old man's eyes were luminous in the dimming light. "Nothing much, really," he said. "Just a soul."
Frank sputtered. "My God, man! A soul? A human soul? Why, just what kind of witchcraft are you doing in this godforsaken apartment, anyway?"
"I didn't see you hesitating to take that potion I gave you," said Maurice coldly. "And you know very well what goes into that."
"No, I most certainly do not know what goes into it. And I'm afraid I don't want to know."
"Can't you guess?"
"Well, I imagine it's a human heart, or sixteen pints of human blood, or something. I don't care. I'll buy it anyway. I've got to get out of here before I change my mind."
"You're not wrong," said the old man quietly, conspiratorially.
Pretending he hadn't heard, Frank pushed on. "Just whose soul do you want? It can't be mine or Jane's. I won't do anything of the kind."
"The soul of your firstborn child will do," said Maurice.
Frank waited for a smile to break like dawn on Maurice's face, to indicate that he was joking. When no such thing happened, Frank scowled. "No," he said.
"Firstborn grandchild, then?"
"No! See here, it simply can't be anyone from my family." Frank was silent for a moment, broodingly; then he peered at Maurice in confusion. "Wait a moment, what exactly could you want with my grandchildren, anyway? You'll be long dead before any grandchild of mine is born. Why, you've got to be eighty years old."
"Not exactly." Maurice gave a toothy grin.
"What's that supposed to mean? Oh—never mind. The more questions I ask around here, the more questions I end up with. I don't even know how to go about getting you a soul, anyhow."
"It's easy," said Maurice. "You just have to get the person in question to this apartment. I'll take care of it from there. Don't fret over it—whoever you choose won't feel any pain. It'll be over in a split second."
Frank shuffled uncomfortably. "Look, I want Jane—but I don't want her that badly. Badly enough to help you commit murder, that is."
"It's not murder," said Maurice. "You could never understand the complexities of it. But trust me when I say, it's very different from murder. It's better than murder—and worse."
"Oh, fine. Fine. I'll get you a soul. I'll get you some drink-addled bum off the street or something. But I don't see why you need me to get someone for you."
Maurice shrugged. "It saves me a lot of work. Let's get back on subject. I'll accept one hundred dollars cash payment from you. Other than that, the soul will suffice."
"Fine." Frank dug in his pocket, produced a shiny—yet cheap—leather wallet, and fussed with the bills inside for a moment. Then he produced several bills and handed them to Maurice. "One hundred dollars, and I'll get a soul to you as soon as possible," he said.
Maurice stuffed the money in one of his many pockets. "Take your time, my boy. No rush," he said. "I'll be here for longer than you think."
Potion in hand, Frank left the apartment silently as a ghost, only quite a bit less substantial.