In an apartment near New York’s Central Park, Carl Durkin sits in his study, oblivious to the street below.
At first sight, he has a tanned, healthy complexion. Up close, his skin is damaged, pockmarked. Despite the portentous financial news scrolling across his TV, he is relaxed.
During a lull in the broadcast, he is joined by a visitor. Someone who generates his own gravity, Klaus Morax wears a slate suit that fits perfectly. His eyes—dark brown irises framed by pure white arcs—protrude below sloping eyebrows. His skin resembles Durkin’s.
“Morax! I wish you wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere like that. And it’s too soon. There’s a month to go.”
“I’m glad you recall so well, Durkin. You’d be surprised how many of my clients pretend to suffer from amnesia. What you say is true. You’ll have your month. But I like to see contracts through to their safe conclusion.”
“What do you mean by safe?”
“I think you know very well. First, I must conduct a thorough scan.”
He fixes Durkin with a relentless stare, repeating a solemn, rhythmic phrase, “In Nomine Dei Nostri Satanas.”
Durkin’s eyelids droop and close.
For several minutes, Morax studies the shelves, which hold rare art objects and first editions of books on the occult. He makes occasional notes in a pocketbook, until Durkin wakes.
“The ache will pass. I must say, my journey through your memory centers was delightful. The creative pleasures you have tasted I could envy myself. As for blood, it must be as familiar to your hands as water.”
“I won’t deny anything. I always knew my parents’ timid, God-fearing life was not for me. I would do it all again.”
“Does that include signing our contract?”
“Yes, I’ve no regrets. When we met in that Vegas bar, back in the day, I was at my lowest point, without a friend in the world. Stealing to get by, I was foolish enough to think the answer lay at the roulette table. You showed me how my life could be. Barriers I thought insurmountable crumbled into dust. A year later that casino was mine, and much more was to follow. Whenever an enemy threatened, they never stood a chance.”
“Indeed, but put your affairs in order, as that life must end. So, until we meet again…”
Morax utters another chant and vanishes from Durkin’s sight.
At sunset on his final day, Durkin sits alone, as if waiting to hear the result of a biopsy.
His eyes survey the framed photos on his shelves. Former glories now look impersonal, even pointless. Not a friend in the world? Nothing had changed. Each time there had been a chance for love, it had gone the way of all the other decent impulses that withered in his heart.
He stubs out a cigar.
When Morax reappears, he is carrying a roll of parchment, tied with black string.
“There’s no need for that, Morax. I’ve complied with every clause. Your Master will have my soul.”
“It’s as proper to bring the contract, as it is pleasing to find it unneeded. I trust you’re ready?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
On either side of Durkin’s desk, Morax places a ceramic bowl filled with dried plant fibers and sets them alight. Luminous flames burn low and steady. As a yellow-green haze rises, he turns Durkin’s chair and stands before him.
“Relax. Look deep into my eyes. Focus on my voice. You are passing into the next realm. He is waiting.”
For Durkin, everything in the room dissolves, except for Morax’s burning, triumphant eyes.
A murky corridor stretches ahead, in which he is being pulled forward, he knows not how. Every nerve ending stings like acid.
The corridor opens into a huge, high ceiling vault, where the air is dank and heavy. Arranged in a line of alcoves, he sees machines bearing bodies, some so misshapen they are barely recognizable as human. Accompanied by a rising cacophony of wailing voices, a faceless attendant raises an arm and beckons him toward a vacant machine. At last, numbness gives way to terror. Durkin tries to summon up some inner strength, to retreat, to protest. As his consciousness fades, he loses the battle.
A smile contorts Morax’s lips as he taps his phone, silencing the gothic requiem which has served him so well. He places a lid on each bowl to extinguish the flames.
Without further ado, he admits his associate, the sallow and bespectacled Dr. Zheng.
The doctor injects a solution into Durkin’s arm, then folds his lifeless fingers around the syringe.
“Another tragic suicide, they’ll say. The high-pressure world of big business. What’s the state of play on this one, boss?”
“I expect an excellent yield, Zheng. Thanks to our success in crushing all his personal connections, his entire estate will pass to my Foundation. That will sustain us until the next contract’s due.”
“Excellent. My only fear is that we aren’t finding many new clients. In this cynical age, should we lower our sights, maybe start selling life insurance?”
Morax cackles as he pours two tumblers of whisky from a decanter.
“No, you’ll never need to return to general practice, nor will I need to perform magic for gullible fools. It’s true, we’ve always relied on deeply held beliefs, yet I see many opportunities ahead. We’ve adapted before, and we will again. If we no longer have to deal with last minute repentances, that will be a bonus. There’s one eternal truth in which we may put our faith—the lure of temptation.”
They clink glasses.