Katherine had been looking for a cure for the curse since Chicago. Everywhere she went, she was told she needed to find “the man in the gray suit.”
The first time Katherine heard about this man was when she met with a soothsayer in Calgary, a strange shriveled fellow in a majestic throne in the back of a laundromat. Katherine had heard the throne had once belonged to Cassius the Seer, an ancient Roman oracle. Its latest occupant said there was a man in a gray suit who wore a purple tie and a silver ring. The man in the gray suit knew more about curses than anyone else in the world and might be her only hope.
Katherine searched for the man for weeks. She found a seer, a violet-eyed, white-haired witch in Budapest named Eszter, who told her of an impeccably dressed man, again, always wearing a gray suit, who held some great but vague power. “He was one of the few who could do that which you needed to be done,” the witch said.
Five countries, thousands of dollars, and a dozen clandestine meetings later, Katherine sat in a beautiful bar in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, holding a crisp white business card with a few simple but elegant lines of text. The name of the mysterious gray-suited man she was told to find.
The card read, “Henry Dufraisne, Order of the Key & the Ring. NYC, Paris, the Underworld.”
On the other side of the card were a phone number, an email address, and two strange symbols, unlike any language she had ever seen.
Katherine nervously looked around the bar for the gray-suited man. She didn’t know much else about him. She had heard he wore glasses. It had been rumored he carried a cane. His age had never been confirmed.
The bar was very old and very clean, with a floor of tiny black and white checkered tiles and a ceiling of stamped copper. It smelled antiseptic clean, with only the faintest undertones of stale beer. The only person in the place was the bartender, who has been rubbing the same glass with a rag since she’d entered.
Per Dufraisne’s instructions, she had gotten to the bar at eight and given the bartender an envelope with $4,000 cash. He took it without saying a word.
The twisted smile of the old bartender was unsettling. He wore a white dress shirt with a black vest and slacks. He had a black tie tucked into his shirt at the third button. His white beard was yellowed around the corners of his mouth. His teeth looked like cracked ivory. His eyes were watery blue circled with red. His muscular arms were covered in faded tattoos of anchors and mermaids and profanity.
She was watching him so intently, she didn’t notice the door open. She turned as she saw a splash of purple and a man in a gray glen plaid suit walk to the bar. She knew instantly he was the one she had been searching for.
He wasn’t very tall, though he had a somewhat large frame. He was chubby, with a soft face and a bit of belly, though he looked spry enough. His suit was impeccably cut, and he wore silver rings on both of his ring fingers. He looked perhaps thirty.
“Argen, you brought me all the way back to New York? You know I am in the middle of some very tricky business right now,” the man said with a disappointed sigh.
He had the slight accent of someone from Manhattan or some other large city.
The bartender held up his hand, showing a ring similar to the one on the man’s right hand.
“Yes, yes, it is your right, just make it quick. And give me the Glenfarclas,” he said, leaning against the bar.
Argen retrieved a dusty bottle from behind the bar and poured them each two fingers.
“What do we do?” the bartender croaked in some formal tone.
The other man smelled the whiskey and contemplated the question.
“We bargain,” he replied, taking a sip and savoring it.
The bartender nodded over to Katherine.
“What does she have to offer?” the man asked the bartender.
The bartender went back to cleaning the glass and shrugged.
“She has a curse,” the bartender whispered.
Katherine stood and went over to them.
“Mr. Dufraisne?” she said, clutching her purse and shaking a bit.
He looked at her for a moment, then looked back at the bartender.
“That’s not something I want. What does she have to offer?” he said again to the bartender.
“Money?” the bartender offered.
“She is very beautiful,” the bartender said with a crude smile.
Henry rolled his eyes.
“I’m standing right here,” Katherine said, weary eyes regarding the man she had searched so hard for.
Henry turned to her, and the bartender walked to the other end of the bar.
“I’m Katherine Tanco,” she said, trying to stay forceful but losing steam as she was confronted with the wry smile of the well-dressed man.
He leaned against the bar and took a sip of his whiskey. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
“So you are,” he said before he opened his eyes.
“I have, I mean, I’ve been told I have a curse. I was–”
He cut her off with a raised hand. “Let’s not start on the wrong foot. I don’t want my thoughts biased by someone else’s opinions. I’ll see what you have, and then we can see if it is something I might be interested in providing my services for.”
He motioned for her to sit back down, then followed her to the table and sat across from her.
He held himself somewhat like a stage magician. He had a flourish to his gesticulations. He finished his drink just as the bartender came to the table with a black satin bag.
From the bag, the man in the gray suit pulled out a mirror the size and shape of a dinner plate. He placed it on the table with the mirror facing up, and then reached into his jacket and pulled a knife out of some little leather holster he had around his shoulder. The knife was silver and ornate, like something one might find in a museum.
“I need to prick your finger—a drop of blood. Will you give me that of your free will?” His tone was formal and serious, but Katherine couldn’t help but feel as though he were bored.
She wanted to laugh a little, make a joke, but instead, she nodded.
“Please respond verbally,” he specified.
“Yes. You may have a drop of my blood,” she choked out.
She gave him her hand. He took it almost tenderly. The point of the blade flashed as he touched it to her thumb. A little prick, less than even a needle’s pinch, then a fat red drop of blood formed on her skin.
He turned her hand, and the blood dripped onto the mirror with a splatter.
He cleaned the blade with a handkerchief he took from his jacket, and then he raised his hand over the mirror and spread his fingers wide.
Something happened. It was like the lights dimmed for a moment or a cloud passed over the sun, or her heart stopped for a second.
The man in the suit, Henry Dufraisne, dragged his knife along the surface of the mirror. He used the knife like a fountain pen and made a little symbol with her blood. As she watched, the blood seemed to disappear, absorbed into the mirror.
Henry let out a deep sigh and then, “Hm.”
After a moment, he said, “You made a relatively benign demon very angry.” HIs bored voice now sounded as though it had been infused with the tiniest spark of interest.
“I don’t believe–” she started, but he glared at her.
“If you want to rattle off the things that you don’t believe exist, you can do so while exiting this establishment. I find closed minds quite dull. I’m sure you didn’t believe in curses until you received one. That tends to be how these things work.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but said nothing. He looked at her and with a frown, as though he were contemplating her very existence.
He took from his jacket a vial made of yellow glass. He popped the cork and poured the contents onto the mirror. It smelled of honey and cloves and something peppery. Like the blood, he made symbols with the liquid, and then it vanished.
“You took possession of a building, a home, a brownstone. You found some kind of altar in the basement. It disturbed you. You had bad dreams. You had a construction crew gut the basement. You wouldn’t even destroy the thing yourself. This altar had a long and complicated history, but suffice to say, its destruction caused a great deal of turmoil,” he said, his eyes a bit unfocused as he looked vaguely into the mirror.
“The entity that dwelled in the altar took vengeance. Since it no longer had a home, neither would you.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. She let it fall from her face before she spoke.“If I sleep anywhere for more than one night, bad things happen. There was a fire. The roof collapsed at a hotel. Horrible things. Rats. Insects. It’s always something different. So, I keep moving. I can’t sleep in the same place twice.”
“I have, well, I had a lot of money. Both of my parents died and left me a great deal, then I sold a business, and flipped buildings. Life was going so well. Now I’m burning through a fortune, traveling the world. Going from hotel to hotel. Talking to scientists first, then shrinks, then witch doctors, and who knows what. They led me to you.”
Henry nodded again. He cleaned off his knife and the mirror. He put the mirror back in the bag.
“Where is this brownstone?”
She swallowed. Her eyes seemed hopeful.
“Brooklyn. Park Slope. I was going to fix it up and then sell it.”
“Do you own it outright?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Do you own other property in the city?”
He nodded again. He tapped the table with his ring and seemed to consider all the facts. Then he took a deep breath, and with formality in his voice, he said, “I will help you escape this curse, and you will sell me the house for one dollar. That is my offer.”
She was confused. She looked, for some reason, at the bartender.
“It’s…I mean, it’s worth millions of dollars. It was left to me, and I was going to renovate it and–”
“If I don’t release you from this curse, you don’t give me anything,” he added, staring at her. “Unless you like hotels and travel. Perhaps it might not be that bad. Have you tried camping?”
She looked down at the table, sighing deeply. She nodded slowly.
“You will need to reply verbally. I’m a bit of a stickler about the rules.”
“Yes. I agree. If you cure me of this curse, I will sell you the brownstone for one dollar.”
Henry smiled for the first time and knocked on the table once, startling Katherine.
“So mote it be,” he said, almost under his breath.
From behind them, the bartender echoed Henry’s words, knocking on the bar once.
Henry looked at his pocket watch and seemed to weigh options.
“It’s not terribly late. Let’s take a look at where the altar was, shall we?”
She nodded, unsure but glad to be doing something that might end her pain.
She stood, and Henry nodded to the bartender then let Katherine out into the street.
Henry’s pace was brisk. Considering Katherine was taller with longer legs, it seemed odd that she had to rush to keep up. He knew the city well and turned corners without looking at the street signs.
“Are we going to the subway?” she asked hesitantly.
They turned another corner, and she saw the familiar streets near NYU, where she had spent much of her early twenties. She held back her questions, sure that she wouldn’t get many answers. She focused on keeping pace.
They came to Washington Square Park, and he smiled.
“What’s going to happen next is going to be–” he considered his next word, “odd.”
Katherine didn’t know what to say.
“It’s important that you act natural. I assure you no one will notice anything strange unless you act strangely.”
He smiled and took her arm, the way her father would guide her grandmother when they went out on the town.
They walked to the Washington Square Arch, the iconic structure based on the Arc de Triomphe, which she had marveled at when she visited Paris as a teen. Henry’s grip tightened on her arm, and she felt anxiety well up inside of her, though she wasn’t sure why.
The air went out of her suddenly, and the world went dark for a moment. Where there had been tourists and street musicians, there was suddenly green grass and three statues and a fountain.
She held onto Henry’s arm and tried not to pass out.
“Time is of the essence, and I don’t care to be underground unless I have to,” he explained.
They were in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, walking through the Soldiers and Sailors Arch.
And with that, she knew there was real magic in the world. The curse was one thing, but somehow everything that happened with it could have had some explanation. What happened when she walked through that arch proved without a shadow of a doubt that she wasn’t crazy. She knew the curse was real, and she had found someone who might actually be able to do something about it. As they walked, tears streamed down the sides of her face.
Henry handed her a handkerchief. It smelled of some expensive, complex cologne that Katherine found strangely arousing, an emotion that was quite unwelcome in the moment.
They walked the quarter-mile to her old house, the place where all of her troubles had begun.
“After I started construction in the basement, there was a small fire. I stayed in a hotel and then my hotel room flooded. I didn’t connect things, not for a while. I went back and tried to sleep in the house again, and that’s when the–” She shivered. “That’s when the insects came.”
Henry nodded, looking around. “How long ago was that?”
She thought about it. “Maybe ten months.”
The brownstone was on a quaint street near Prospect Park. The street was tree-lined, remarkably clean, and each brownstone on the block had its own character. Katherine’s was, perhaps, the most elegant of them all. Three stories, light gray stone with darker stone around the windows and small gargoyles at each corner.
Henry stood out front and looked up at the building for a moment. He nodded.
“That’s fine,” he said, and then walked up the stairs to the front door.
She showed him around. There was still a faint trace of the smell of smoke. Finally, Katherine led him down to the basement. A sturdy slatted wood staircase led to a large square room with concrete walls and a floor. In one corner was what looked like the beginning of some construction. The floor was torn up, some markers spray-painted on the perimeter, and some tools left by the hole.
Henry took off his coat and hung it on the stairway’s simple railing. He rolled up his sleeves and went over to the construction site. He picked up a rock and moved it to a little pile. With a grunt, he picked up another. As he continued, he looked over to Katherine.
“The thing about demons is there are actually a lot of them, and their whole thing is being tricky. The first thing you must do in any interaction is figure out which demon you are dealing with. If you know their name, you have a lot more power in any negotiation,” Henry explained, huffing and puffing between words as he lifted stones and bricks and various bits of debris.
“Negotiate?” she croaked. “How, I mean, why would we negotiate? It cursed me. I thought you would like, kill it or something.”
Henry stood up and laughed. She was a little confused by that because the laugh seemed to break his unflappable demeanor.
“Killing a demon is a wildly complicated thing with a remarkable number of ramifications. All you did was destroy an altar and look how much pain you’ve been dealt. No, negotiation is the key to dealing with demons. With most supernatural beings, actually. Demons, like angels, are bound by the contracts they make in this world.”
Katherine leaned against the wall, wide-eyed, wrestling with what he had just said as he went on moving bricks.
“Ah, here is something,” he said, dusting off a large flat stone. “This was the base of the altar. It was set into the foundation of the house, so it couldn’t be destroyed, just built over,” he explained, while rummaging through a large leather satchel.
“Where did you get that bag?” Katherine said, jumping back in surprise. She was sure he didn’t have it when they had met.
Henry didn’t answer, he just sort of rolled his eyes and kept looking. He took out a book, a large ancient-looking book bound in black leather with metal hinges and a lock.
Opening the book, he paged through, humming a little and mouthing some passages.
“Ah, right, I should have known—this part of Brooklyn, a nice house, sure. Chax,” he said, the name sounding odd on his tongue. Katherine was immediately uncomfortable.
Henry looked at her. “So, what do you have to offer? What bargain can be made?” he asked her.
She was tired and confused. “I-I am giving you a house. That’s millions of dollars. What more could you want?”
Henry laughed. “That was your deal with me. Not your deal with the demon. I’m going to summon Chax, and he is going to be quite angry, I assume. He will want remuneration. He will want blood or acts of submission or even acts of violence. What will you offer him?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t slept well in almost a year. My life is turning to ashes. What do I have that he could possibly want?”
Henry looked at the stone once more, then back to his book.
“Well, first, you apologize—a good, heartfelt apology. Apologize for destroying his profane and glorious site and then say you will rebuild his altar. Not here, obviously, because this will be my house, but somewhere. And give a time frame. Say, in one month. I can help you source the materials. Do you have a place where you might be able to do that?”
She lowered her red eyes to the dirty concrete ground. “Yes, I suppose, I have a place in the Upper East Side that is, well, legally mine. I may have to kick someone out.”
“Is it the kind of place you could build a stone altar?”
She let out a snort. The ridiculousness of the situation wasn’t lost on her. “Well, it’s a classic six, so there is a servant’s quarters in the back. We use it as a laundry room.”
“Best not mention the servant part, but certainly that should do. So, offer him that. And then, I’m sorry, but this may take some effort on your part, you will need to offer him worship.”
“Someone built this shrine and knelt at it every few days. They probably poured honey in a little bowl and told this arrogant little marquis of hell that he is strong and brilliant and so on. And who knows, after he has forgiven you, he might grant you favors.”
She let out a little sob.
“I have to worship a demon?”
Henry’s face hardened.
“You don’t have to do anything. You have an option you didn’t have yesterday. You can go on never sleeping in the same bed twice until you die, or you can build an altar and spend fifteen minutes saying nice things to a weird creature that looks like a flaming stork and have a happy life. It’s up to you.”
She nodded. “Do you think that would work?”
Henry rocked his head side to side a little. “I’d say 75%, yes.”
“What would be the other 25%?”
“He will ask you to do all of that and to kill someone.”
She looked into his eyes, searching for humor, but didn’t find any.
“Do it,” she said, before taking a deep breath.
“We will need whiskey,” Henry said with a smile.
“Fuck yeah, we will.”
Henry went out and bought two fat pastrami sandwiches and a few bottles of Scotch. He also had a large bag from an art store and a few pages of handwritten notes.
After they ate, Katherine painted a circle on the ground in the basement the way Henry had instructed. She had a few pieces of looseleaf paper with notes in front of her, and her knees ached as she worked on the various lines and patterns.
She also watched Henry. He was one of the strangest men she had ever met. He stood with rolled up sleeves, drawing various symbols and wards on the walls around them. On his vest was a broach, a small golden hand pointing up with one finger. Then there was the gold chain that held his pocket watch. His buttons shined like rubies. He just seemed to have so many little delicate details.
They worked until late into the night.
As she washed chalk and paint off her hands, Henry typed on his phone.
“We have a bed for you for the night. An AirBNB that’s only a few blocks away. You can walk,” he said, showing her his phone and writing down the address and information.
“Go in the side door. There will be a door code you can type in. You won’t be bothered.”
She looked at the information and then looked at him, confused.
“Are you– I mean, will we–” she started, but he put his hand up to stop her.
“I’m sleeping here. I have some more work to do. Can you meet me at the cafe across the street at eight tomorrow?”
She frowned, suddenly fearful of being out of his sight. It had been months since she had been back in Brooklyn, back to where it all started.
She looked at Henry and nodded.
The next morning, she was red-eyed and fragile. She sat in the café waiting, and at eight on the nose, Henry walked in, wearing a slightly different gray suit and a wide smile.
“Coffee and breakfast will be to go. We have to take a quick ride,” he said, walking to the counter and ordering.
“W-where are we going?” she whispered as they waited.
“Yonkers,” he said. There was a mysterious glint in his eye.
They got croissants and coffee and were met by a sleek black Town Car with a young woman as the driver. She was short and trim, with slicked-back blonde hair. She wore a classic chauffeur uniform, complete with leather driving gloves and hat. She looked in her early twenties. She opened the door for Henry and glared at Katherine.
“This is my apprentice, Aleph. Don’t mind her glower. She doesn’t like other humans,” Henry explained.
Katherine met the woman’s eyes in the rearview mirror for a moment and saw some flare of hatred.
Henry murmured something in some language Katherine didn’t recognize, and Aleph looked forward and started the engine.
In the comfort of the soft leather seats, Henry sighed and tore a piece of his croissant off, nibbling it greedily.
“Not bad. Not Paris, by a long shot, but better than most you get in London,” he said with a chuckle.
“Why are we going to Yonkers at eight in the morning?” Katherine asked, sitting nervously at the edge of her seat, her breakfast untouched.
Henry sighed. “Well, the thing about summoning, especially a demon, is that it is dirty work. You need blood, and you need a reason, if you want to do it right. We have a pretty good reason, so we are set there. You seem to me like the squeamish sort, so I didn’t mention the blood at first.”
“Are we… I mean, are you talking about killing someone?” She felt lightheaded.
He laughed again, nibbling some more pastry.
“No, no, no, a goat. Nothing more than a goat. Nothing less either, I suspect,” he said rather thoughtfully.
Katherine was both horrified and somehow relieved. She sat back and looked out the window as Henry fished out a second croissant. The scenery went by in a blur, with Brooklyn turning into Queens, then the Bronx, then going green as they left the city.
The farm was small and pretty. A little stand by the fence sold jams, fruit, and vegetables. Katherine stayed in the car while Henry and his chauffeur/student walked up the muddy path to the farmhouse.
In the car, Katherine felt cold and hollow. Her world had been shaken up and turned around. What would it mean if the whole thing worked? What would it mean if it didn’t work? She had no recourse. She had no advocate. She was in a world of magic and demons, and it all still seemed completely unbelievable.
What wasn’t unbelievable was the curse. She remembered all the times in the beginning when she thought it was all just chance. The fire in the brownstone, even the insects, the break-in at the hotel, the flood in the motel. Always on the second night. Always just as she fell asleep.
She shivered and then looked up to see Henry carrying something in a sheet. Something moving.
Aleph opened the back door, and Henry pushed the thing into the back seat next to Katherine and then sat down himself.
“Katherine, this is Bonkers,” Henry said in a soothing voice, pulling back the sheet to show a gray goat. It bleated unenthusiastically.
“Bonkers is usually a boisterous kid, but the good farmer Haskins gave him a large cannabis biscuit, so he is feeling calm and happy this morning,”
Henry turned to his apprentice. “Aleph, Park Slope,” he commanded, and they were off.
For lunch, Henry prepared Parisian ham and some kind of fancy butter on baguettes. Katherine watched him in her old kitchen. He seemed to take the same pride and interest in food and drink as he did his magical workings. The sandwiches were cut in perfect 45-degree slices and were served with cold brew coffee so strong it made Katherine feel like she was vibrating.
The dark work was to begin at sundown.
Katherine rested on the couch, but Henry shook her before she fell asleep.
“I’m afraid you can’t nap in the house. We best take a walk or listen to some nice music.”
She agreed and kept busy for the hour left before the sun went down.
In the basement, the circles and symbols were complete. Candles lined the basement, and in the center of the room was the goat, still stoned out of his mind.
“I bleed this gift of cloven hoof and call the corners and kneel. I honor the promises made and the ways of the fallen ones. I call into the darkness. I call the marquis. I call he who rules over seven legions of demons. I call forth the fallen one, the marquis Chax.”
What came next sounded to Katherine like a poem in another language, a strange language, unlike any she had heard. The words seemed to crawl inside of her head and lay there.
Then sound seemed to stop. The light faded from the candles before flaring suddenly. The smell of woodsmoke and meat filled the room.
There was a rush of air, something coming fast, like a rock song when they step on the guitar pedal, and it goes from sweet to hard.
The candles’ flames tripled in size, and the shadows grew and moved. One shadow spoke.
“Speak your damned words, dealmaker. We know your fucking ways,” hissed the shadows.
One shadow whispered, “Give us the book,” and then it was drowned out by the guttural chorus.
Henry seemed unimpressed. He cleared his throat.
“A deal you want, a deal you will have,” he started, standing up straight.
“A great misdeed was wrought here in this dark and tainted place. The altar of the fallen was disturbed-“
“Destroyed!” corrected a shadow voice in a raspy scream.
“Indeed, destroyed. And so it shall be rebuilt. Rebuilt by she who caused its destruction,” he continued.
“It is not so easy to satisfy us!” cried the shadows.
“Of course. Only the beginning. She shall rebuild your shrine on more fertile ground. Across the river. Where the shadows are many. In Manhattan, she will build a new shrine, and she herself will kneel before it.”
There was laughter.
“She’s been on her knees before, the slut. Look at her. We know. Her sins are great. We have seen it. Whore. Sodomite. Temptress. I can smell her from here. From the shadows, her wet–“
“Who better to serve your dark needs?” Henry said, his voice raised above their bickering curses and filth.
“For one year,” Henry said simply.
“At least once a fortnight. On her knees. Gifts of wine and blood and honey. For you. To honor you,” Henry said with a smile.
Katherine looked at him then. A year? She imagined longer. He made it seem like perhaps forever. She could kneel on some altar for a year.
“Skyclad with her legs open to us. A knife wet with her blood. Richest honey, darkest wine,” one voice said over the others. That voice made fear creep up Katherine’s spine.
“She will begin before the moon is dark,” Henry added, his voice calm and even taking on a seductive tone. “And how could she not be naked before you? Legs parted, wet as her knife,” Henry added with a single dark chuckle.
“By your word?” the shadow asked.
Henry laughed. It was a real laugh, loud and abrupt. It worried Katherine.
“By her word and her blood alone. I am a dealmaker, not an oathmaker.”
The darkness laughed again, crackling like a fire.
“Then make the slut say the fucking words,” it growled.
Henry turned to Katherine and looked in her eyes. His own were a gray-blue, looking silver and incandescent in the light.
“Do you, Katherine Tanco, swear this oath, to build an altar to the fallen lord, Chax, on the island of Manhattan, before the new moon?”
She swallowed and nodded, then remembering what he had said before, she cleared her throat.
“I swear it.”
“And at that altar, you shall kneel, legs open to him, skyclad, with gifts of wine and honey, and worship, once a fortnight?”
She honestly didn’t understand all of what he said, but she swore to it.
“And you shall do this for one year from when the altar is built?”
“I swear it.”
Henry faced the shadows and took a deep breath.
“Chax, I call upon you,” he said in a loud, clear voice.
The shadows buzzed and murmured.
“Do you now?” said one voice. It was the voice that had made Katherine’s head ache.
“Do you accept this bargain?” Henry asked.
The darkness seemed to think about it.
“Does she have anything else to say?” the darkness asked.
Henry looked at her expectantly.
“M-mighty Chax, marquis of hell, I am humbled before you. I did not know it was your shrine, and I apologize for disturbing your–” She faltered, trying to remember the words. “I apologize for disturbing your profane altar.”
The darkness swelled, and the candles flickered.
“If you swear to do these things, I will lift my curse. And if you break this blood pact,” the shadows said, voices building, “your soul is forfeit.”
And she knew it to be true.
“So mote it be,” said Henry.
“So mote it be,” said Katherine.
After a long pause that made Katherine’s heart pound in her chest, the shadows whispered, “So mote it be.”
The air seemed to go out of the room. The candles were snuffed out, and there was the sound of a chair falling to the ground, of glass breaking, of their ears popping. Then there was the strange cold light in a single beam coming from Henry’s phone.
“Ah, always very dramatic these demons,” he said as he looked around.
Katherine shook with fear as she watched the light bob as Henry walked to the wall and found the switch. The overhead bulb was harsh and startling.
She looked at Henry, two black smudges on the knees of his gray slacks. His hair was mussed, and his face sweaty.
“And so I’ve done my part. It’s up to you now,” he said somberly.
She felt tears welling up.
“Will I be able to sleep here tonight?” she asked.
“The bargain has been made, the curse is lifted. I’ll stay here tonight to make sure, but what you’ve offered is pleasing to a demon such as Chax. A pact is a pact. They do not break them easily.”
She felt faint. She walked to Henry and leaned against the wall.
“Traditionally, after this sort of work, pizza is in order,” he said with a wry smile.
She tried to swallow tears and let out a weak laugh.
“Can you magic one up super fast? I’m starving,” she said, turning to the stairs.
His smile was mischievous, and they heard the doorbell.
Her eyes opened wide in awe.
“I ordered ahead online,” he said with a smirk.
An hour later, she sat, immobile, on her couch and considered a fourth slice. Henry had gotten two spectacular pies, piled with rich dried meats and mushrooms. She watched as he savored each bite, sipping a red wine he had brought in his mysterious leather satchel.
“So, what now?” Katherine asked, looking at her strange companion in his more casual outfit consisting of dark gray herringbone slacks, a lilac dress shirt, and a purple argyle sweater vest.
Henry raised an eyebrow. “Well, I think we’ve laid out quite specifically what your next steps are. I’ll put together a little folder for you. Specifications for the altar. It’s simple, I’ll give you the number for a stonemason who can sell you the piece. It’s basically just a gravestone. I’ll also give you a little rundown of what an appropriate prayer would be. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour. Every two weeks. It’s vitally important that you remember.”
She nodded. “And, um, skyclad means naked, I assume?”
“Yes. Completely. Don’t forget your socks and underthings. Legs open. There will be a diagram with the paperwork,” he said with a chuckle, picking a piece of prosciutto off one of the remaining slices.
Katherine watched him. He was such an odd man. Certainly not her type. She liked men tall and fit, but there was something strangely charming about it.
He looked back at her and seemed to read her mind. He didn’t seem particularly interested. He stood and wiped his hands on a napkin.
“Well, I saw there was a guest bedroom, so I’ll be off. If anything does happen in the night, I’ll be nearby, so just scream or something.”
“Henry, um, thank you. It’s like a huge weight has lifted off me. I feel like I might be able to put my life back together because of you,” she said, standing, unsure if hugging him would be appropriate.
He gave her a tight-lipped smile.
“Katherine, I’m glad. I’ll also have a lawyer get in touch with a sales contract. I assume you have a lawyer?”
She frowned and nodded.
“Yes, I’ll give you her card in the morning.”
“Excellent! Here’s to a good night’s sleep!” he said, and then drained his wine glass.
And with that, Katherine retired to her own bed and, finally, drifted off to sleep in a comfort that made her weep.
Weeks later, in her apartment in Manhattan, Katherine steadied herself before opening the door to what had been the small servant’s bedroom in the space behind the kitchen. She wondered what it was like for Esmerelda, the nanny who had helped raise her, who slept there, next to the washer and dryer.
Those feelings of guilt mingled with the fear that always came when she saw the little altar. A two-foot by three-foot slab of granite was obviously just a tombstone with a smaller block on top and a circle of marble on top of that. The marble was covered in dried candle wax, and a few symbols were etched deep into the stone and filled with ash, as had been instructed.
As was the bargain, she slipped off the t-shirt she had worn to bed. She glanced at the small window, making sure the curtain was drawn.
The apartment was her parents’, and it had been bequeathed to her, but she had been letting her cousin and her family stay there. The whole thing had blown up a bit when Katherine kicked them out. She gave them some money to rent a place, but her lack of explanation had made everyone in the family confused and angry. They had already thought she was crazy, traveling the world and blowing through her inheritance the year before.
Still, all of that was dulled by her joy at the simplicity of sleeping in the same bed at night. That and her new hobbies. Her new work. Her exposure to Henry Dufraisne and his world had made it impossible to go back to thinking the world was just computer startups and the occasional gala.
Standing nude in front of the altar, she lit the candles and filled the little copper bowls with wine and honey. The wine was one she preferred with steak, a big Tuscan, juicy and rich. The honey was a rare, dark wildflower from upstate.
She pricked her finger with the little tool diabetics used to test their blood sugar. She hardly felt it, and it gave her a nice drop of blood on her thumb she could anoint the altar with.
She knelt on the pillow she kept in front of the altar. It was made of red silk and overstuffed.
As was her bargain, she opened her legs. Henry had sent her some rather graphic photos of women in the “Nadu,” or slave position.
Sitting in front of the altar was a strange thing. She was alone, but she felt watched. She felt exposed, and even a little leered at. It set in motion a cycle of complicated feelings involving shame and even something like lust.
She looked at the clock she had put up near the door, took a deep breath, and went through the prayer. Having seen some shadow of the entity she was now worshiping made the endeavor different from her nightly childhood Lord’s Prayer and Hail Marys. As was knowing that some aspect of the demon looked upon her naked body.
So, she closed her eyes and recited the words Henry had given her. Darkness, as soft and smooth as satin, caressed her body.
When she opened her eyes, she saw new words on the stone, formed in ash and wax.
“For such a pretty thing, there are more bargains to be had. You need only ask.”
Fear and greed warred in her mind as she wondered what she had to offer and what she might have to gain.