Edmund Stublaski had been called a fair share of terrible names throughout his gradual rise to wealth. Some he heard gossiped about, some he heard shouted from beaten, red-faced enemies, and a few he heard whispered under breath when turning away from him. He always smiled at them, thick lips curling upward, thoroughly amused.
Edmund had the face of a pudgy man and the figure of an athlete; as if he’d been genetically destined for obesity but through sheer force of will chose to avoid it. Bucking expected trends had become part of his trade. His grandmother had told him once he had wonderful deeds in his future. Edmund had been a boy quick to save any mouse from a cat’s jaws, any ant from the unknowing foot, every badge imaginable pinned to his vest in boy scouts. Such wonderfully, noble deeds, his smiling grandmother would say.
By the age of eighteen that smiling woman had spit on him and screamed that she never wished to see him again, hoped he died with his growing wealth crammed down his throat. Called him no better than his worthless brother. No, even worse than that lout. This Edmund could agree with.
Gordon Stublaski lacked Edmund’s finesse, inclined to rob a business at gunpoint, rather than buy out the business and send the owners into poverty. Gordon merely wanted the money. Edmund took joy in the misery his actions caused.
But, as Edmund begrudgingly accepted, even within the world of business, a ceiling was often reached, and for a man who couldn’t muster up even the image of good cheer, he found men above him taking joy in watching Edmund twist beneath their much larger heel.
Something deep within Edmund longed for more, so he sought it out through other, more creative avenues and researches.
He picked the back room of his penthouse to lie out the various exotic ingredients his studies had led him to. Edmund admitted to himself a pronounced disappointment that no violence had been required to gain them, no virgins sacrificed or animals splayed out above an alter. For conjuring up such dark forces, the whole process felt unnecessarily tame.
He drew his glyphs and passages from dead languages on the floor. He used only a giant candle for his light, face alit with the flickering glow as he put each object in its proper place and started chanting. Halfway through the first verse the voice spoke from behind him, and brought Edmund quickly to his feet.
“What do you need?”
A face stretch out of the wood grain on the door, the shape of three fingered hands starting to form directly beneath it. Edmund smiled at the creature.
“I’d like power.”
“And the payment?”
An entire torso had pulled forward made of wood, and on the deformed, brown face a smile pulled upward, followed by a short laugh. “You don’t have one to sell.”
Edmund blinked at the creature. “What are you talking about? I did thorough research before summoning you here. I know a person’s actions have no impact on the value of their souls.”
The creature pulled fully from the door, a hint of light flesh stretching over the wooden body. It leaned back against the door, arms folded across its chest. “Well, I wouldn’t say a person’s virtue doesn’t affect the soul’s worth, but you are right that the payment is normally adequate no matter how vile the individual. You, however, don’t seem to grasp the situation. You quite literally have no soul to sell.”
“But,” Edmund sputtered, tried to conjure some response, but fell silent instead, pacing the room in front of the bemused creature. “How is that possible?”
It let out a sigh, frowning. “I’d really like to get back if you wouldn’t mind.”
“No.” Edmund stared directly into the red vortexes deep within the demon’s hollowed eye sockets. “I want answers.”
The demon shook its head, muttered, and for just a second the wooden form began to melt back into the door, stiff and lifeless. Almost half the body had vanished when it jerked awake and pulled forward, the light returned to its wooden skull. “Why would you even waste my time with this,” the demon said, annoyed. “You should know full well what happened. You sold it already twenty-three years ago.”
“Twenty-three years?” Edmund scratched his head and did his best to send his mind back in time. “I was only nine-years old.”
This detail made the demon pause, suddenly cautious. “Does seem young, but I’ve seen it before.”
No, Edmund thought, the demon hadn’t seen it before, the lie obvious, flesh suddenly retreating from the wood body, face hardening rather than risk an expression giving even more of the lie away. “I want you tell me right now what happened. I summoned you. I deserve that much.”
But the wood once again began absorbing back into the door starting at the legs, the arms, only a head remaining when it spoke for the last time. “Without a form of payment you don’t deserve anything. I’ve got enough issues without digging into anyone else’s mistakes. Let’s just say we don’t make deals without someone on your end initiating things.”
The head shrunk to nothing, leaving Edmund surrounded by useless artifacts, smudged chalk beneath his feet, and a lone candle trickling wax to the floor.
“Gordon,” he whispered, and kicked the candle out.
Edmund had never liked his older brother, and Gordon absolutely despised Edmund. The first time Gordon came looking for money had been one of the greatest days in Edmund’s life. He’d had two men literally throw Gordon out into the snow, petty revenge, Edmund understood, for the years of taunting and abuse he’d suffered at his older brother’s hands when growing up.
Jail had been his brother’s home off and on over the years, more often on than off, and where Edmund found Gordon. This time the crime had been rape along with theft, granting Gordon a longer period with a roof over his head then he was probably used to. Though it angered him to do so, Edmund took up his seat in front of the plastic window surrounded by filth and decay, his suit certainly already destined for the trash after having touched the seat he was forced to take.
Not many others felt like visiting this horrid place, giving Edmund some appreciated privacy with the brute carried into the room on the other side of the wall.
Gordon looked very much a part of his surroundings, arms a mess of obscene tattoos and muscles, hair overgrown and unkempt, even his shirt partially unbuttoned to reveal even more tattoos and a tangle of oily hair. A smile of confusion parted Gordon’s lips to show darkened teeth, a canine tooth visibly missing.
Edmund put on a glove before grabbing the phone. The action seemed to amuse his brother to no end.
“Holy hell,” Gordon laughed. “What a sight.”
“I have to ask which you prefer more, giving or receiving,” Edmund sneered. “Has prison turned you into the kind of fag you used to beat in high school?”
Though Gordon only laughed, Edmund smirked at the hand tightening on the phone, the twitch in the right eye. That one had hit home. The pleasantries were over.
“Why are you here.”
“If I’m correct, then I find you to be even more puzzling of a man than I’d ever thought possible. Did you honestly figure out how to summon the very demons of hell, only to end up here, a petty criminal?”
Gordon’s laughter roared through the phone, drew a stiff glance from the guard by the door. The fit lasted a good minute before Gordon leaned in close; smile so wide Edmund realized his brother had three gaps in his teeth. “Found out I sold it, did ya?”
Edmund’s teeth ground audibly together. “How is it possible?”
Gordon leaned back, still smiling, and a look of true pleasure on his face. How long had it been since he’d last had the upper hand on Edmund? “Let me see. Knowing you, I bet you flew all around the world finding this weird shit and had all these notes prepared and who the hell knows what else planned out to bring those big bad demons to you. Am I right?”
Gordon chuckled. “Oh yeah, you did.” He pulled forward again, face practically up against the plastic. “Look, who the hell you think is going to try selling their souls the most? Rich guys like you or punks like me? You really think the powers that be would make it all complicated? Hell, I just pissed in some holy water when I was fourteen and I had one of them laughing by my side telling me I could have a lot for my worthless soul. The other shit? That’s just to screw with guys like you. Gives them quite a kick, I’ve been told.”
Edmund couldn’t fully express his anger over the concept that such powerful entities would prefer Gordon’s company to Edmund’s, but what was the point in arguing it with a fool like his brother? “So what happened?”
“I sold him my soul.”
Edmund paused, nonplussed. “The Thunderbird?”
“Hell yeah the T-bird. I loved that car.”
“I thought you stole it.”
“Nah. Didn’t know shit about hotwiring back then.”
“So you sold your soul away for a car?”
“I was fourteen. What the hell you expect?”
“But what about mine?”
“Well, I had the car and all, and it ran like a beaut, but when Nonny Stublaski started forcing us to church that summer when I turned seventeen, I started thinking I’d gotten the raw deal. Figured a car wasn’t worth as much as I thought it’d been. Sure, I loved that car, but my soul seemed worth a lot more. Did all sorts of shit to summon up that demon again, stuff like pissing in the water, bashing up that Jesus statue around the back of the building, turning crucifixes upside down. Took awhile before he came back to me. Told him I wanted more, that he’d ripped me off, but he laughed, said I couldn’t do shit.
“So I mentioned you. He told me it wasn’t really how things are done. Can’t sell someone else’s soul, but enough convincing finally got him to agree otherwise. Was real nervous when he did it, but I got a cool million from your soul.”
Edmund’s hands shook, face slick, vein pulsing on his neck. “Only a million? You’re the biggest fool I’ve ever met,” Edmund whispered.
“Didn’t you ever wonder why you went from all goody two shoes and all to getting expelled for making death threats against your teachers? See, that’s why he took it, too. Said your soul was pristine, and he couldn’t help himself. Said it’d make him look pretty damn good in front of his bosses if he strutted around with a soul like yours attached to his name.”
Edmund leaned towards the window, placed a hand against it as if he might pushed through it. “Know this: you aren’t going to live through the week. I will hire someone in this prison to kill you, brother.”
And he could see the understanding in Gordon’s eyes, the fear he’d seen on the day he’d had his men throw Gordon to the streets. Were the feelings of helplessness and impotence magnified by the knowledge that Gordon himself had created this monster sentencing him to death? Edmund prayed so.
Gordon leaned in as well, all good humor gone. “Look, I can still help you with this.”
Edmund smiled, doubtful. “How?”
“See, the second time I talked to it, we got to talking more, and it took me to this empty apartment. It said it was linked there. All demons working the mortal world have sort of, like, offices, I guess, we just can’t see it. Told me most ran off calling the apartment haunted. Said most haunted places are just offices the demons don’t like having disturbed. Thing of it, he was real nervous about the whole deal, like I said before, so maybe if you go there you might be able to do something about it.”
Edmund offered his brother a reserved stare as he pulled out a notepad and pen. “Tell it to me.”
“121 Oak Ridge Lane, apartment C6. Wasn’t far from where we-”
“I remember. Is there anything else?”
“N-no, but like I said, if you go there, and-”
Edmund put away his notepad and stood up. His brother began to say something else. Edmund hung up the phone before the words were started. He left his brother without a glance back.
In his car he put in a phone call. Edmund had gathered a wide variety of contacts over the course of his years doing shady business. “I know a few people in that prison, sure,” his contact said.
“I’d like him killed in the most brutal way possible. I want the other prisoners to have nightmares about what was done to this man.”
Edmund heard a chuckle on the other end. “You got it.”
It only took a hundred dollars for the owner of the apartment complex to let Edmund have some time alone in number C6. He stepped into the empty, one-bedroom apartment, the pale carpet frayed and coming loose from the floor, walls decorated in plaid wall paper, and dark rust stains around the sink.
He felt what others must’ve, the mark of a haunting, he supposed. The air felt oddly cold and stale, creeping over the flesh, making all hairs stand on end. He found it amusing.
“Are you there, demon?” he called out in the middle of the living room. “I was sent by someone who did business with you once. We have matters to discuss.”
A small wave rolled through the carpet, circling around the room, drawing a tighter and tighter circle around Edmund. He stared at the sight with an un-amused frown. The creature noticed as well, abruptly rising from the carpet itself, his body comprised of thin fabric that ripped open near the end to form a mouth and eyes, nothing visible within them.
“What, looking for a refund?” the demon laughed.
“Not quite.” Edmund stepped directly in front of the demon, even leaning in closer, able to see now the blood and organs coming into existence within the carpet body. “I haven’t any idea how good your memory is, but you did business with my brother twenty three years ago. Gordon Stublaski.”
A laugh rippled through the carpet. “I’ve only been here twenty-two years, and yes, I remember every name I’ve dealt with. You’re in the wrong place.”
“Then who was here? I want to speak to him.”
Another laugh, the fabric soaking red now, dripping blood down the form. “I’m afraid he’s moved up since then, beyond the whims of mere humans like you.”
Now Edmund got to smile. What a find his soul had been, Gordon had said, and what places a being could go with that success handed to them. “Let me guess, he somehow managed to acquire an unusually pure soul and got promoted?”
He had the attention he wanted. More than just interest, Edmund had been in enough business ventures to see true opportunity lighting up within the dripping red sockets of the demon’s eyes. It leaned in closer as well.
“What are you getting at?”
“Look into your records, or whatever kind of records you keep, on the name Stublaski. I think you’ll find Gordon sold his soul around 1984, and then his brother, only nine years old, sells a much purer soul in 1987, yet the money is given to Gordon.”
The carpet began to sag downward as the demon left to whatever reality it existed in. Edmund watched the bloody mound of carpet for over five minutes before the demon entered back into its body, the smile much wider than before.
It reached out a sopping wet cloth hand, grabbed hold of Edmund’s own hand before he could pull away. “I’d like to thank you,” the demon said.
“What about my soul?” Edmund said.
“Oh, it’ll be given back to you.”
“Then I’d like to make your day even better, because I want to sell.”
It patted Edmund on the shoulder, sent streams of blood running down his expensive coat jacket. “Nah, that’s okay.”
“You don’t seem to grasp what’s about to happen. You’ll learn.”
The carpet deflated again, leaving Edmund furiously grasping at it, ignoring the blood splattering across his clothing as he did.
On his knees, his hands deep within the mound of carpet, the sensation raced through him, cleared away his mind. It nagged at his stomach, at the back of his thoughts, tears streaming down his cheeks at the horrors he had committed and the lives he’d destroyed. He brought red stained hands to his face and he wept uncontrollably.
He grasped frantically for his cell phone, fingers shaking as he dialed. “Yeah?” his contact said.
“Did you call up your men yet in the prison?”
“Was planning to tomorrow.”
“Don’t do it. I’ve…changed my mind.”
“You sure? You sound strange.”
“I’m fine. Just, don’t do it.”
“If that’s what you want.”
He hung up and breathed a sigh of relief, his back against the wall, staring at the dust motes floating through the air.
After six hours of charitable donations, heartfelt amends, and the dispersion of a massive network of unseemly contacts, Edmund drifted off to sleep in his bed and dreamt for the first time since he was nine-years old.
He awoke, disoriented, at four in the morning. The presence at the foot of his bed caught his attention, jerked him upright to stare at the dark figure leaning in. The lamp beside his bed revealed to him a demon without anything disguising its appearance.
Both the eyes and the mouth looked like they’d been cut out of a smooth face, fleshy protrusions spread all over its nude, muscular form. Veins throbbed large and rhythmically everywhere, one long, boney leg up on the edge of the bed as the rest of the form leaned in closer. Bulging, insect like eyes fixed on Edmund.
It jerked out its hand, tossed a wet flap of skin onto the bed in front of Edmund. He stared down at his brother’s severed face.
“I’ve lost everything because of you,” it growled.
“My brother,” Edmund whispered, tears beading at the corners of his eyes. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Oh, I would if that were possible, if I could touch someone with a soul as noble as yours. Think you’re so smart, do you, working the system like that, getting your revenge.”
“I didn’t mean to harm anyone,” Edmund pleaded, upset with himself for having brought pain upon anything, even a creature as grotesque as this one.
The demon began to say more, but before it could a wind gusted through the sealed room, snapped its head towards the ceiling. “Yeah, okay I’m going,” it said without looking at Edmund.
It pulled away from the bed, a look of disgust on its warped face, hands clenched into fists at its side. “Guess I have a job to get back to.”
Edmund watched it walk through the wall, meld into the wall itself, the wind dying with the demon’s departure, leaving Edmund alone with only the skin from his brother’s face for company.
He held up the flesh. “I never did like you,” he whispered, “but you didn’t deserve this.”
As much as he wanted to believe that, something deep within him, far back buried under everything else, was smiling. Maybe his brother had deserved it, just as the demon had deserved whatever punishment had been handed to it. That was the price for crossing Edmund Stublaski.
He managed to beat the thoughts back into remission, but he couldn’t actually make the smile on his face go away.