A Matter of Money
"Run, ye fool! The beast is almost upon us!"
Glogarn didn't bother to reply; all his energy was going into his short, scaly legs. He knew that they could not hope to outrun a werewolf, but in this unholy place of smooth walls and bright lights, they had no choice.
Triph rounded a corner just ahead, his claws skittering on the floor as he tried not to slip on the damnably slick surface. Thank Beelzebub the stuff only looked like marble; it was soft enough for claw-tips to find purchase.
Glogarn followed -- and collided with Triph, who had come to an abrupt halt.
"Dead end!" Triph hissed. "Two doors, both with tricksy locks we can't magic in time, and the only other holes out of reach!"
Glogarn looked frantically around, but knew that Triph was right. They might be able to skitter up the walls to reach the vent -- that was the humans' word for those holes they used to bring air into their houses of false stone -- but they would never get the cover off before their pursuer caught up with them. And as high as the vent might be for a gremlin, it was an easy jump for --
The beast stalked around the corner on stiffened legs, ears back, grey-and-white fur bristling. A low growl emerging from a mouth that had far too many gleaming white fangs, bared now and dripping saliva.
"'Come to America, Glogarn,'" Glogarn muttered. "'They're backward there in the ways of magic; we'll have a free hand to do our mischief.' Well, Triph, it's yon beast that'll have our free hands, and our feet, livers and lights for dessert!" He curled himself into the tightest ball he could manage and waited for the end.
"Gentlemen, there'll be no devouring here today," a gravelly voice said.
For a moment, Glogarn let hope rise in his gnarled and scabrous chest. Then he peered out through the hands he had clapped over this face so he would not have to see his own favourite body parts swallowed whole, and hope sprang a leak and sank -- much like that boat he and the boys had visited near a century back -- Titanic, was it?
"Just when ye think things can't get worse," he grumbled. "Demons and werewolves together? Was there to be an apocalypse, and mere gremlins not invited?"
The werewolf whined and rolled its eyes. The demon -- as grey and scaly as Triph and Glogarn, but probably twenty times their size -- reached down and plucked a small, shiny object from somewhere on the beast's neck.
The beast whimpered, its body contorting as the spine shortened, fore- and hind-limbs became human arms and legs, and fur retracted like grass growing in reverse. The demon licked the shiny object clean -- a dart of some kind, it looked like -- and handed it to the naked man, who placed it carefully in a small leather pouch around his neck. Then the demon handed the man a bundle of clothes, which the man donned with the dexterity of long practice.
"I thought I'd seen everything," Triph said, "but that's a new one. A werewolf with a demon servant --"
"Actually, I work for him," the man said. "At least, I work for Majius Magical Services, and he's a Vice President."
"Githros na' edran," the demon said. "Your formerly-furry pursuer is Billy Taylor. He's our lawyer."
"I'd of thought a werewolf would never bite a lawyer," Glogarn said. "You know, out of --"
"-- Professional courtesy," Billy said. "I've heard that one a lot, although usually it's sharks, not werewolves."
"So -- we're not to be eaten, then," Triph said. "May I be so bold as to ask what is to become of us? And why this Majius Magical Services has two monstrous representatives chasing two innocent -- er, harmless -- er, two gremlins who were merely doing what the Creator intended them to do?"
"You were screwing up the operations of this factory," Githros said. "Once the owners figured out what was happening -- you're right, gremlins were the last thing they thought of -- they called us."
"It's a toy factory!" Triph protested. "And nothing we did would bring real harm to anyone -- not like the days when we'd make airplanes fall out of the sky --"
"Actually, I heard just last week that cousin Jorneth fiddled with something on that flight out of --"
Triph jammed his fist into Glogarn's mouth. "He's joking, of course. Harmless, really, the lot of us!"
Billy grinned. "Well, you may not have caused any physical harm with your tricks here, but -- let me quote from a letter the owners received." He pulled an envelope from a pocket on the baggy pants the demon had provided, extracted a sheet of paper, and read:
"To whom it may concern, Stupendo Toy Company:
We recently purchased one of your company's 'More Real Than Real' dolls for our five-year-old daughter, Pomegranate --"
Demon, man, and gremlins all winced. "Terrible thing to do to a child, sticking her with a moniker like that," Glogarn said, having forced Triph to remove his hand by biting down until he drew blood.
"-- And she was delighted, as were we, until the doll said, and I quote --"
Billy recited a string of obscenities and insults that made even Githros blush (or at least change colour, from grey to blue-green).
"Some of our best work," Glogarn said, and Triph thrust his other fist down Glogarn's throat.
"But wait, there's more," Billy said. "The letter goes on to describe a few things the doll did. Apparently, its behaviour -- or perhaps I should say its biological functions -- were even more realistic than advertised. And being a baby doll --"
"-- It wasn't toilet trained? That's disgusting." Githros said.
Triph looked confused. "Now wait a minute," he said. "We're gremlins. We mess about with the way machines work -- simple levers and valves in the old days, now electronics. Making the doll swear like a drunken barbarian was a little thing, a shuffling of electrowhatsits. Making a pile of plastic produce real -- er, baby droppings -- goes beyond anything we could have done."
He pulled his fist out of Glogarn's mouth, and said, "Back me up on this, Glo'."
Glogarn gave him a dirty look, said, "You should wash your hands more often," then shrugged. "It's true. Even if we'd thought of doing that, we haven't the power or the skill. You, Mr. Githros -- you know that, don't you?"
Githros frowned. "Yeah. I hadn't heard the part about the -- baby droppings --"
"I read the whole letter in the staff meeting," Billy said.
"Fine. I heard it, but I wasn't paying attention," Githros said. "But looks like Stupendo Toys has more problems than a couple of gremlins."
After banishing the gremlins to another realm, Billy and Githros returned to the Majius Magical Services office.
"Back already?" Janine Majius said. "I knew they couldn't hide from Billy's nose!" She looked ready to jump up and execute one of the cheerleading routines that had helped earn her the Homecoming Queen crown three years in a row.
Billy bowed. "A pleasure, cousin. Of course, I will be charging Al my usual legal consultation fees."
Githros grunted. "We got rid of the gremlin problem, but we didn't get paid. The client says he's not convinced that the trouble is over."
"Let me talk to him," Janine said. The Homecoming Queen face vanished -- Githros thought Janine's hair actually darkened a shade or two. "Nobody is stiffing this company while I'm handling the business side of things --"
Billy raised his hands "Hang on, Janine. He's not stiffing us, exactly. According to Mr. Stupendo -- I didn't believe that was his name either, but he had a driver's license -- they received hundreds of complaints about the dolls swearing, but only one that mentioned the -- er, solid waste problem."
"Which suggests that the letter-writer was the target of that particular curse, not the toy company," Janine said. "In which case Mr. Stupendo should pay up."
"Gotta prove it to him, to be fair," Billy said. "At this point, we can't be sure that there wouldn't have been more, er, crappy dolls if we hadn't interfered."
A pop like the bursting of a large but underinflated balloon announced the arrival of the President of the company, Al Majius, Level Six Wizard. His thinning hair and thickening waist made him look more like a middle-aged accountant than a powerful wizard, but he had earned a much taller and better-looking reputation in recent months.
"Hi, guys, Janine. Sorry I'm late. The meeting about you-know-whom ran a little long --"
"Know any spells that could make a doll produce real poop?" Billy asked.
Al squinted. "Uh, can't say that I do. Why would I want to know a spell like that?"
Billy quickly outlined the situation, protesting again when Al claimed to have heard nothing about the doll excrement problem.
"Sorry, Billy. It's just that you usually talk about details of contracts that we -- except maybe Janine -- don't understand. So we --"
"Don't pay much attention. Great. I get it. Fortunately, I'm billing by the hour, here, so I actually like to repeat myself."
"He's billing by the hour?" Al asked.
Janine rolled her eyes. "He doesn't work for us full time -- he'd starve if he did. So yes, we pay him a retainer, and he bills us by the hour at a reduced rate when he is working for us."
"Another detail you didn't pay attention to," Billy said. "Anyway -- what's your take on the situation, Mr. Almost-a-Master-Wizard?"
Al frowned. "I'm with Janine -- sounds like the excrement thing is a separate curse aimed at the one family that complained about it. I don't know of any specific spells that would have that effect, but I can think of a few that could be modified. Then there's demonic possession --"
Githros shrugged. "Can't think of any demons that would do something quite that goofy on its own, but a wizard with a grudge could have Bound one to the doll."
"Nothing to be done but to visit the family, then," Al said. "Billy -- consider yourself off the clock, please. Githros, you're with me -- but you'd better downsize. If a doll that swears and soils itself freaks these people out, a seven-foot tall demon isn't going to calm 'em down."
Githros placed one huge, taloned hand on Al's shoulder, then shrank to the size of a flea so quickly that Al's ears popped from the drop in air pressure. A slight tickling sensation told Al that Githros had scurried up Al's neck and into his left ear, his usual low-profile hideout.
"To the Parisi house, James," Githros said.
"Now I remember why I don't miss the days when you always rode in there," Al groused. "Give me the address, if I'm playing chauffeur here."
The Parisi house was only slightly larger than the low-rise building where Majius Magical Services had its offices. It was, however, considerably more ornate.
"This looks like Stately Somebody-or-other Manor," Al said. "The elevator to the secret superhero lair is probably behind that Venus de Milo copy, if it is a copy."
"May I help you?"
The butler, or whatever he was, was nearly as tall as Githros in his unshrunken form, and had a similar greenish-grey complexion, but lacked the horns, spikes, and other pointy things that (according to Githros) signified power and rank in Pandemonium.
"My name is Al Majius, with Majius Magical Services. Stupendo Toys hired my company to look into the problems the family has had with its "More Real Than Real" doll."
Tall, grey and ugly sniffed as if dismayed at the presence of tradespeople in the main foyer, but said, "Very good, sir. Please wait here and I will fetch Mr. or Mrs. Parisi."
After the servant had departed, Al whispered, "Was that guy a demon of some kind? I couldn't quite tell if he had the right vibes."
"Dunno, Al," Githros said. "Could be a zombie, although he smelled pretty fresh if he was. A half-breed, maybe?"
"Not a plain-vanilla human, anyway," Al said. "Which means the Parisis aren't strangers to magic and magical creatures."
The servant returned, followed closely by an attractive young couple and an adorable little girl.
"Mr. Majius? I am Steven Parisi. This is my wife, Guinevere, and our daughter, Pomegranate."
Al managed to suppress the urge to choke when he heard the little girl's name. The girl, however, seemed to notice his reaction, and stuck out her tongue at him.
Al blinked. For a second there, the little girl's tongue had looked black, and -- forked.
"Um, we're here to tell you that we have found and dealt with the cause of the doll's inappropriate language," he said. He slid one hand inside his jacket, selecting a special-purpose wand.
"That's all very well and good, Mr. Majius," Guinevere said. "But that was the least of our complaints."
"Mommy, make the man go away. He has something nasty in his ear!"
"I resemble that remark," Githros hissed, softly enough that only Al heard him.
This time, Al saw a flash of red-orange light in Pomegranate's eyes. She was either possessed by a demon, or --
Al extracted the wand from his pocket, flipped the business end toward Pomegranate Parisi, and shouted "Shamat tselel!"
Pomegranate shrieked and folded in on herself, twisting and changing, until she became a black thing resembling a small monkey moulded from tar, struggling to free itself from the folds of the little girl's dress.
There were, of course, hysterics, and a moment when Githros had to emerge from his hiding place to prevent the servant from pummelling Al. But Al managed to defuse the situation when he caused the misbehaving doll to appear, and used the same spell to transform it from plastic into flesh -- the real Pomegranate Parisi.
"What -- what --"
"What you thought was your daughter was a changeling," Al explained. "But instead of having your real daughter spirited away, this one managed to piggy-back another spell onto the doll, hiding the real Pomegranate inside. Pomegranate couldn't talk -- when she tried, the hexed speech chips drowned her out. But the food and water the changeling was feeding her to keep her alive had to come out eventually..."
"But who would do such a thing to us?" Guinevere asked. "Why?"
Al looked carefully at Steven Parisi. The man's patrician features looked a bit pinched and a hint of red was showing through the carefully-maintained tan.
"Mr. Parisi -- would you like to explain? I'm guessing that some of your magical dealings haven't gone well lately."
Steven Parisi studied the floor at his feet. "It's true. I've -- some of the creatures I've been dealing with have been demanding payments that I can't meet. I thought I'd convinced them to give me more time, but --"
"A matter of money, then," Al said. "Money to pay wizards, or to buy things that demons would value. I guess the thought of a juicy settlement from Stupendo Toys seemed like a blessing -- one that made it easier to ignore any odd behaviour on Pomegranate's part."
Guinevere Parisi picked up her daughter and held her close. "We will discuss this later, Steven. Mr. Majius, Mr. -- er --"
"Githros, Ma'am," Githros said.
"Mr. Githros, thank you for clearing up this matter. You may assure the Stupendo Company that we will ask for nothing more than a replacement for the defective doll; what you have done for us is more than ample compensation for any distress the doll's speech may have caused."
Al nodded, and apported Githros, the changeling, and himself away.
"Stupendo paid up yet?" Al asked.
"The check cleared today," Janine said. "Of course, after covering Billy's invoice, we didn't make that much on the deal."
"I really have to start paying attention when your cousin talks," Al said.
"Don't look at me," Githros said. "Not my department."
© 2006 by Robert Moriyama
Bio: Robert Moriyama works as an analyst in the Planning Department of Canada's largest airport. He has been Aphelion Short Story Editor since February 2005, and abuses his Editorial Powers at every opportunity (as this month's authors will attest). He is one of Jeff Williams's Nightwatch galley slaves, has garnered Honorable Mention 'B' (i.e., 5th place) in two ralan.com Spectravaganza contests, and has written assorted fantasy and science fiction stories, including a number of Al Majius stories, all of which have appeared in Aphelion. The most recent Al Majius story, A Matter of Honor, appeared in March, 2006.
E-mail: Robert Moriyama
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