Risky Magic

Part One: The Accident

It smelled of cinnamon and smoke. The cinnamon came from the scented candles. The smoke from everything else.

“And the fireball came through that window over there?”

A. Haverford Gibbons, sinewy dark hair thinning by the minute, gestured at a gash in the side of the brick-and-mortar walls of the candle factory wide enough to wrangle cattle through. The minefield of twisted glass knots below suggested that there used to be a window there.

“Yessah. The first fireball, anyway. A couple others came through the roof.” The gruff, overalled factory owner waggled a fat finger at the gaping skylight above, through which a roasting summer sun poured down. “And then the one with the moustache, the Count, he raised Rog, my foreman, from the dead and Rog started disassembling some of the machinery into a weapon.”

“And did Rog do any damage?” Hav asked.

“Not really. He was very polite about it, like he felt all guilty about being a zombie, y’know. Even swept up the spare parts into a trashcan, which was a little hard, cause the fireball had taken his arm, ya see,” the owner pantomimed sweeping with one arm, and then shuffling a dustpan, and then sweeping again. “But then he got hit by a second fireball.”

Haverford—Hav for short—sighed, readjusting the thin, wire-rimmed glasses that hooked his ears. He took precise, clean notes in his pressed black notebook. Precision was important in this job. It was the details that ensured solvency.

He counted the figures internally. This would be expensive. The machinery could be replaced easily enough. But the structural integrity of the building seemed jeopardized. A probing finger tested one of the support beams, which wobbled like gelatin. Both he and the factory owner shared an eyebrows-at-the-roof-of-their-foreheads stare as they waited to see if the wobble would collapse the entire frame.

Death by rubble would at least have been a relief from his financial troubles. They would have to raze the building from the ground and begin anew. And then there was the liability for the zombie. The lucky cremation would cut down on funeral costs, but he had a widow. The whole ordeal would easily burst through the policy ceiling.

“Would you like some coffee?” The owner asked.

Hav nodded. “With a pinch of sugar and a dash of whiskey if you have it.”

The man laughed. “Just the sugar, I think.” He stepped carefully over with a tin cup, brimming with rich brown, smelling faintly of burning. Or maybe that was just the innards of the building, deformed and cooked. Hav hated that smell, couldn’t separate it from the memories that it carried. Why did it always have to be fire?

Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic had only moved to Huddleton six months ago but the damage toll he had racked up had been substantial. Sure, it was nice that the necromancers and warlocks and blood demons that used to occasionally pop up and possess or sacrifice or torture their poor denizens were being rounded up and set ablaze. But did the Archwizard need to level a city block to do it? Was it worth trading the occasional ghoul attack for this constant rain of fire?

And why did they keep having to be his buildings. Why couldn’t the good Archwizard explode a factory insured by the white-heeled toffs over at Zane, Zephyr, and Zotts? Even their slogan was aggravating—We Don’t Sleep at Night, So You Can. But no, it seemed every crime the damned wizard managed to foil happened to be inside of, or adjacent to, or within the vicinity of a property covered by his policies. And Frizzell Fantastic had to set them alight to stop it.

Hav closed his little, black book of figures and sipped the coffee again. It tasted strong and sour, just like he enjoyed it, just like Margery used to make it.

Part Two: The Numbers

“Insurance isn’t very sexy.”

Those were the first words his wife had ever spoken to him. They met at one of those rapid dating events where fifteen men and fifteen women rotated table-to-table, like the oily gears of a watch. He had been clutching, as a life preserver, a highball glass slushed with ice and clear liquid, scared to drink it too quickly for fear someone might take it away once he emptied it. She had been his third rotation, easy with green eyes and sipping a cold beer straight from the bottle.

She had been right of course. She had always been right.

Insurance isn’t sexy. But attendees at early middle age singles mixers are not looking for sexy. They’ve either already had their fill or have given up on trying to find it, probably for the better. Instead, they’re searching for security. For somebody to make small talk with about their jobs and wisecrack about the local theatre troupes and try restaurants with those spicy dishes she liked that always gave him indigestion, and to be there, when something gave, in the organs or the bones or the blood, so that he wouldn’t die alone on his kitchen floor and not be found for days, until his neighbor picked up the stench. That had been the plan, at least.

Insurance is security.

“A total burnout over at the candlemaker’s place, huh?” Sue said.

Sue was his receptionist. Not his wife. She was a round woman, with fluffy brown hair, of indeterminate age, somewhere past motherhood but not quite at grandmotherhood. Of course, not all women had children. But all women like Sue did. Hav did not know—and much preferred it that way—exactly what Sue thought was sexy. If he had to guess it would have been cats or crocheting. He would’ve been wrong, though. Hav was never much for reading women. The answer was Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic. Whether it was spells or unfair fortune, he was dreamy.

Sue scratched her way through a crossword at her desk and barely looked up when he entered. Along the wall near her head a shingle read, “Gibbons & Gibbons, Risk Management.” There wasn’t a second Gibbons, his father had been lout and a gambler, not an insurance man, those binges being one of the nudging reasons he’d gone into a profession built on managing risk. But two names sounded better than one. It signaled longevity, permanence even.

Their offices were shelved up a twisty set of warped stairs, in the drafty attic over one of those small, atrociously named pubs that six days a week served as desperately barren repositories of human shame but that on the seventh acted, like an earthly temple, as a gathering beacon for the brief, crushing optimism that preceded a sporting match. The space was both cramped and airy, with narrow walls but high ceilings trellised with support beams.

“Place looked like a warzone,” Hav said.

“But that Count Malaveaux sure got what was comin’ to him,” Sue said.

Sue believed firmly in a logic to the world that dictated that people always, eventually, got what was comin’ to them. The Count got what was comin’ to him when the Archwizard set him on fire and the foreign devils got what was comin’ to them when they were invaded and her neighbor Maude got what was comin’ to her when her petunias died in the late frost. Hav had suspected that, with regard to that last act of karmic justice, Sue had been her own agent of change. Justice often selects the crudest of instruments.

“Did he though? The Count was seventy-four. Hadn’t done a virgin sacrifice in two decades. I heard he mostly played chess in the park nowadays.”

“Still, a man can’t outrun his destiny,” Sue said, resolutely.

“Yea, but that was the arthritis, I think,” Hav said. He fell into the back of his desk chair, hidden behind a fortified wall of policy binders and correspondence.

Sue ignored the jibe. “Shame it was our building again, though. Care for some pie? It’s blueberry season.”

He shook his head at his receptionist and slipped a ledger from underneath his tilting tower of receipts, careful not to disturb its precise balance. He had already done the math in his head—he was an insurer after all—but vain optimism (it must have filtered up through the floorboards) made him want to check the numbers against the books. They only confirmed what he already knew. Forecasting out current trends—and Hav was nothing if not meticulous about forecasting—he would be out of business by the holidays.

“How’s it lookin?” Sue brought a piece of unasked for pie over and set it down with cool, whipped cream spooned on the crust.

“Not good,” Hav said. He rubbed his temples and forked a bite of the pie into his mouth.

“We need help. Or we’re both going to need to start looking for other jobs.”

“From who, the wizard? He does seem awfully nice. He’s a real hero—”

“No! Not that damned wizard. The police constable! The law! Somebody! This is destruction of property.”

“Oh,” Sue said. “If you think that’s best. I bet everyone always gets what they’re looking for from the police.”

Part 3: Trial & Error

“I want you to arrest Archwizard Fantastic.”

The stout police constable with a hairbrush mustache stared at him, one eye half-cocked, over a piece of Sue’s blueberry pie. He was heavyset with the neatly shorn head of a man devoted to authority.

“He sleep with your wife too?”

“What? No.”

“Oh. We’ve just gotten a lot of those complaints recently. What’d he do?”

“He’s blowing up buildings! The candle factory! The department store on 5th. The curry joint on Riverton.”

“That curry place always gave me indigestion.”

“Yes! But that doesn’t mean he gets to destroy it!”

“Didn’t say it did. Didn’t say it did,” the constable stroked his chin and leaned back into the rivets of his chair. He tapped his thumbs on his chest, deep in thought. “All the same, maybe we should consider all the circumstances before arresting folks.”

Hav became exasperated. “He killed the foreman!”

“Yeah, but I heard he was a zombie at the time.”

“Do they not have rights?”

The constable looked worried. “I don’t know, do they?”

Sweat started to form under Hav’s collar. He’d done everything he was supposed to do. He’d saved his money. He’d built up his business. Against all odds, he’d even married well. It wasn’t supposed to all fall apart, not like this, not to conscientious folks like him.

“It’s criminal!” Hav said, finally, as if that should have settled the issue.

The constable’s too-small eyes rolled together into focus, setting pointedly over his too-small nose under his too-small forehead. “Is it? Feels a bit like of justice to me. He’s wrangling up all sorts of vile folk. Even if there is a bit o’ collateral damage.”

The color slipped from Hav’s face, slowly and then all-at-once, like water circling down a recently unclogged drain. He stepped up and stormed out of the station. He’d have to find another means of stopping the damn wizard.

“Thanks for the pie though!” The constable called after him.

There was no name on the Necromancer’s Den. It did not need one. Those who chose to frequent the tavern already knew where it was and those who didn’t—well they weren’t coming back for a second round. Maybe because they’d been turned into ghouls or maybe because they’d been charged a hefty price for a lukewarm pint that tasted like eye of newt.

Hav entered with the certainty of a toddler attempting to walk, which is to say full of fear and ready to give up at any second because really, crawling isn’t so bad and people will pick you up and carry you if they think you can’t move in a bipedal fashion. A few heads turned although he could not make out their faces. The only light in the entire place seemed to be a couple of sconces on the far wall.

Hav rapped on the scraped, black lacquered wood of the bar. A bartender turned at the sound, a slender figure in tight black jeans with a white shirt cut-off at her midriff, bright and inviting as a fresh coat of snow in winter. Hav was so taken with her that he almost didn’t notice the hole in her left cheek that offered a window into her jaw or that her skin shone an unnatural, decaying grey. Almost. She raised a single eyebrow, as if to say, what do you want?

“Holy shit,” Hav said.

“You’re the third guy to look at me like that and say that this week. They had more blood on them, though.”

“Are you—are you a zombie?”

“You should be careful asking questions like that in a place like this,” she said, batting her wild green eyes. And in a manner that Hav probably should have read as threatening but didn’t, added “Someone might mistake you for a snack.”

Hav thought about poor Rog the foreman. “How do you like being a—well, you know, a zombie?”

She shrugged her pair of beautiful shoulders. “For me, it was a fresh start. Others sometimes don’t have the appetite for it. What’ll you be having?”

A fresh start. That’s what he needed. “Do you have beer?” She shrugged but didn’t say no. “And—” Hav leaned in conspiratorially, lowering his voice to a whisper. She reciprocated, either because everyone likes secrets or because she wanted to smell his skin. “I’d like to hire a warlock for a—sensitive assignment.”

She didn’t blink. Maybe because she didn’t have eyelids. Instead, she poured a brown soupy liquid into a mug that smelled as if it had last been used to preserve organs and pointed to the darkest and most shrouded spot in the Den, its fifth corner, which of course shouldn’t have been possible, because from all outward evidence the bar appeared rather rectangular.

“We take payment in coin or flesh,” she said, licking her cold blue lips, and briefly Hav considered his options before reminding himself of his purpose. He emptied his wallet out onto the counter and hurried over to the gestured table, before he might change his mind, where two men, hooded in black, sat comfortably, nursing green drinks that gurgled when touched. A single, stumpy candle struggled mightily next to them.

“So, you’re lookin’ for some dark magic?” the shorter one spoke.

“Yes—err—well I suppose so,” Hav said, taking an uneasy seat.

“Want to kill your wife, is it?”

“No of course not—”

“Get her to nag you less?”

“No,” Hav repeated, firmer this time. “I want to hire you to kill the Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic.”

The men considered this. “Did he sleep with your wife, then?” The taller one said.

“Why do people keep asking that? No, I just want him gone.” The two men leaned forward into the light of the candle, their faces pale as a winter moon. The taller of the two had a hooked nose and eyes that bore a pitiless black. The shorter one had a surprisingly genial face, like a balding librarian.

“The thing about magic, ‘son, is that it’s expensive to use,” the shorter one spoke, finally. His voice was salted with hunger, or at least intrigue. “’Especially that kind o’magic.”

“It’s even costlier to clean up,” Hav said, “Trust me. I’ll pay. Even if it’s my last nickel.”

“So that’s his arm, then?” A thin, blackened bone jutted out from the twisted rubble of what used to be Housers, a quaint little tavern plopped on the edge of the river and haunted exclusively by luckless drunks.

“We think so, hard to tell with the scorch marks,” the round-faced constable grunted through his mustache. “’An’ the fact that it’s not, y’know, attached.”

“And they were warlocks, you say?” Hav gulped, the tension hopefully not evident in the sweating creases of his forehead. Behind them, the bursting, orange-yellow sun was setting, and the crowds had started to clear. It was just the constable and him now, and of course, the newspaper interview of the arsonist-wizard being conducted behind them.

“Yeah, there were two of them. The other we think is that sooty outline, over there,” Hav rearranged his glasses to follow the constable’s outstretched arm toward a point in the distance where a blackened mark that vaguely resembled a human form had been burned. “They just attacked the Archwizard as he was signing autographs in the back.”

Hav sighed and made a few more marks on the crispy parchment of his pressed black notebook. The idiots not only failed, but they had to have picked the fight in another one of his insureds’ buildings.

“And the wizard?’ He bit off the word in his mouth.

“Apparently the two men just jumped him. A strange decision, I’d say. But I guess he’s really eating into their business, y’know. And Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic, he put on a real show this time. Bolted up through the roof to avoid the ambush, and then hurtled back down from the clouds, tumbling like a giant—

“Fireball?” Hav said, dryly.

“I was going to say meteor. But fireball works. Took out half the building right just with his re-entrance.”

“And the other half?”

“Well he’s a firethrower, ain’t he? Not the most precise form of magic. I suppose he tried his best to hit the perpetrators, but y’know, sometimes it takes more than one shot.”

Looking around, it had taken much more than one shot.

“But once he had cleared out the walls and most of the roof, the warlocks were there for the ‘picken,” the constable added cheerfully.

Hav’s eyes darted back over the grimy outline of warlock number two. He guessed it was the shorter, genial looking one. That one had the look of someone who wouldn’t be quick enough to dodge a fireball.

“And do we know their identities? Or their motive?” Hav ventured, still on edge.

The constable shook his head. “No, don’t think we’ll be finding their identifications, neither.”

Hav sighed in relief and tucked his pencil back into his pocket, behind his stringy dark hair. Not that it was much relief. Another rebuild. Not to mention the liability claims.

“Thanks for your help. I think I have enough,” Hav said. The truth was that even if he didn’t, he could not handle standing here much longer—not surrounded by charred bodies, not inhaling that stench of ash and smoke that seemed to follow him everywhere, from his buildings to his nightmares.

They shook hands and Hav picked his way out of the wreckage. A few steps away his foot caught on a stray piece of what might have once been a stool, or part of the wall maybe, or a table, or gods forbid, the tall warlock’s leg, sending him to his knees.

“Damnit.” As he dusted off his pants, a sparkle caught his eye. It was a small, glass globe that, as he blew off the ash that coated it, glowed an ethereal, mesmerizing green. Not only that, but it had a heft to it. Despite being little larger than a marble, it weighed like a stone. He moved to put it back and then—at the last moment—decided against it. There could be an insurance claim about this globe, and if so, he’d want to preserve it.

As he pocketed it, he heard the interview conclude behind him. Archwizard Fantastic, his golden locks flowing over a resplendent, purple cloak sewn with streaming stars, was patting the slim newspaper man on the back. Hav had to admit the man was committed to the part. Could he not be troubled to wear a pair of pants, at least?

“The only tragedy here is that I couldn’t do more to save the criminals’ lives, too. But when you live by the fire—” the Archwizard said.

“You die by the fire,” the newspaper man finished chummily.

Frizzell’s lively blue eyes winked with delight and his teeth flashed a dazzling white smile. Hav shook his head and pushed on. The warlock’s deaths had been the one small mercy. They couldn’t rat him out. And the dead don’t have medical bills that need to be paid.

“So, can we sue him?” Hav said.

A slender man with a mane of luxurious silver-grey hair paced behind a lake of a desk in a three-pieced, slick brown suit at the offices of Fickler & Urk. The office sparkled with rich wood and smelled distinctly of shoe polish. The man, Francis Fickler, paused to consider the question, the well-worn leather of his face pursing just slightly, as if there had even been the possibility of more than one answer. They said he was the best. Hav wasn’t sure, but he was at least expensive. The offices were in one of those proper neighborhoods where all the shops had four walls and roofs and even hand-painted signs.

“The Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic?” Francis Fickler said, the deep, somber tones of his voice just washing over the room with intoxicating certainty.

“Yes,” Hav said. He’d gone to the warlocks first because it had seemed so much more civilized than litigation. Warlocks just killed you. And they might even bring you back. Lawyers, on the other hand, ruined lives, and they did so in painstakingly slow fashion. But now he had little choice. “He’s burned down four different buildings I insure. Surely, I can recover some costs from him?”

“He’s quite popular, you know,” Mr. Fickler continued. “A jury might have trouble holding him responsible.” His eyes appraised the rows of embossed, leather books that climbed behind the desk. They looked so unused, or at least, so evenly ordered, that Hav would have wagered that at least half of them were painted carboard.

“But surely the townspeople are getting tired of rebuilding a city block every month.”

Fickler circled his storming, grey eyes back toward Hav. “No, I doubt that. You see, the townspeople all have insurance.” His tanned skin broke into a wide, plastic smile, the type of smile he’d probably given a thousand times in business conferences and to opposing counsel, and of course to his wife. It was a practiced smile and it said, you seem nice, but I truly have better things to do than continue this meeting. “Why don’t you just write an exclusion into the policy, for wizard crimes?”

Hav frowned. Like he hadn’t thought of that. Instinctively, he squeezed the green orb that was still in his pocket. It seemed to calm him, to touch it, to feel its coolness. “I have. Going forward, for new clients. But what about all my old clients on old policies? We never used to have a wizard problem in this town. We had very little magic at all. And then we started getting the occasional necromancer, which was fine, they don’t do explosions, but now we have a goddamn fire wizard.”

“Yes, yes. Times are changing. And we must change with them. Now if he kills a bystander, my colleague Mr. Urk may be able to help.” His partner, the troll, Mr. Urk, handled mostly criminal matters. Mr. Fickler had explained that it was a more rough-and-tumble world, criminal law, one attuned to Mr. Urk’s more direct methodology.

Mr. Fickler ushered Hav towards the door with a wave. “Thank you for coming in to see me though, and good luck, Mr. Givens.”

“Gibbons,” Hav whispered, standing up, his feet sinking into plush carpeting that deep enough to cover whatever bodies had been buried in the floorboards. ‘So, you’re not going to take the case?”

“The last lawyer who sued a wizard was turned into a pig,” Mr. Fickler said, dryly. “No. That was a joke. Get it, because lawyers are pigs? But really his house was burned down and he was run out of town.”

Part 4: Bargaining

Hav labored up the reedy stairs to the offices of Gibbons & Gibbons, his shoulders slouched, his shirt wrinkled with wear and sweat, and his eyes sinking lower and lower into the folds of his cheeks. It wasn’t a Saturday, so the building wasn’t shaking, at least.

“Hi Sue,” he said, voice failing as he forced the door open.

“He wouldn’t take the case, huh?” she said. The only parts of her that looked up from her newspaper were her thick brown eyebrows, which did a small, emotional dance that seemed to evoke pity. “There’s a fresh pot of coffee on.”

“Thanks,” Hav poured himself a mug before collapsing into the nearest desk chair with the whomp of a lead brick launched off of a rooftop. “I don’t know what to do, Sue. The constable won’t arrest him. The lawyers won’t sue him. And the warlocks couldn’t kill him.”

“Warlocks?” Sue said, interested. The term warlocks got actual eye contact. The thing about Sue was—well, maybe it was the thing about everyone, come to think of it. Damned magic got their curiosity up. They liked to gossip about it in that tittering fashion. To romance about it without considering all the niceties, like how it had blown up a few city blocks in the last few months and caused horrific injuries. Magic sounds exciting until you remember poor Rog, from the candle factory, who was incinerated, turned into a zombie, and incinerated again.

“Yeah—apparently,” he added, probably a little too thickly. “A couple of them attacked the Archwizard at Housers.”

“Oh, I read about that in the evening edition,” Sue held up her half-finished crossword. “It didn’t mention they were warlocks. How exciting.”

“Yeah well,” Hav ran his hand through his hair. “They aren’t anymore.”

Hav pulled up his general ledger and started to add up the most recent figures, accounting for the estimates to repair Housers to his growing stack of payables.

It was truly over. He’d file for bankruptcy in the morning. Francis Fickler had been more than willing to handle that matter. They’d strip down his office for parts. Every last thing he had would be sold to cover his losses, or Fickler’s fees—all physical evidence he had left of Margery. From the coffee pot she had gifted him on their first anniversary, to the blue, receptionist chair that squeaked whenever she had stood up to welcome new clients.

She’d never come to believe that insurance was sexy, but she’d always found him sexy enough, and had come to accept insurance as part of the package deal. And, in the end, she had at least appreciated what Hav had always seen in it: insurance was helping people.

She had died three years ago. He’d come home to find her in their burned-out house, a twisting ruin of smoke and ash, her body only recognizable by location. It had to be fire. That smell, of char, of crisped ends, was one he’d never been able to escape since. She’d been sleeping, an afternoon nap, in the bed. She’d left the wood burning under the oven, making his favorite, a Hunter’s Stew, and dozed off for a little too long. Everything had started to fall apart then—the appearance of Archwizard Fantastic, two and a half years later, only sealed an already foretold deal.

“I think this is the end,” he said, finally. “I hope you have some money saved up.”

Sue stood up, folded her paper into her armpit, walked over and hugged him. It was a gentle hug, more of a squeeze really, the type given to reassure children who’ve had a fright, but it helped all the same.

He’d hired Sue shortly after his wife died. He’d needed someone to help with the paperwork. Margery had taken care of that for so many years he’d nearly forgotten how. But especially in those first few months, he’d also needed someone to stave off the loneliness. Presence is under appreciated until one lives absence.

“Maybe you should go talk to him—to Frizzell the Fantastic,” she said, a little too dreamily for Hav’s tastes. “When my Aunt Belinda tried to disinvite me from the family Solstice party, well, I just marched right over there while she was gardening one day, my heels sinkin’ into her marigolds, and told her how I felt to her face.”

“And did it work?”

“Not exactly,” Sue said. “But Belinda fell down the stairs a few weeks later so it all worked itself out anyway. Like I say, they always get what’s coming to them.”

You might question Sue’s methods, but you had to respect her results. Hav glanced up at her and noticed, for the first time, a brief announcement in the Huddleton Times that was folded in her arms. It said “REWARD: Orb of the Undead. A small green marble. Lost near Housers. Return to Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic. DO NOT EAT. CURSED. WILL TURN YOU UNDEAD.”

Hav’s hand reached, instinctively, for the green orb in his pocket. As it always did, it felt weirdly cool to the touch, and a tad too heavy for its bulk. It reminded him of the glowing jade eyes of the bartender from the Necromancer’s Den. He couldn’t stop thinking about her frigid blue lips and how he wanted to taste them.

“Sue, I have an idea.”

“An idea?” she said, looking up. “Is it a good idea or is it a stupid idea?”

“I’m going to go talk to the Archwizard.”

She harumphed. “That was my idea, Hav.”

“And you’re going to go to Zane, Zephyr & Zotts today, and take out the largest life insurance policy they will sell you.”

“On who?”

“On me.”

Sue blinked a couple of times. “Ah. So it’s one good idea and one stupid idea.”

He walked through pelting, shrapnel rain to the address listed in the newspaper, a small cottage squatting on a hill near the River District. He knocked twice on a solid, wood door, which echoed, and then opened of its own accord a few moments later.

The humble exterior of the cottage concealed a vast, elaborate interior. The threshold led into a stretching ballroom bathed in airy blue and green light that poured down from a constellation of orbiting chandeliers above. A knot of staircases ascended from the atrium at jaunty angles, in four or five different directions. They appeared to be both of haphazard construction and free-standing so that they could only be held up by, what Hav assumed, was magic. The Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic descended from one of those staircases in a flowing, purple cloak.

“Have you come about the orb?” Archwizard Fantastic said. His voice boomed like a whale probing the vast distances of the sea.

“No, sir—I am A. Haverford Gibbons. I’m an insurance agent.”

“Are you sure?”

Hav considered this. “Yes, pretty sure. That’s my name.”

“No—Are you sure that you haven’t come about the orb? I had a premonition that I would soon be getting a visitor who knew the orb’s location.”

Hav resisted the urge to finger the small marble in his pocket. “And what orb is that?” he asked.

“The Orb of the Undead, of course. One of the warlocks was carrying it,” he said. His blue eyes appraised Hav up and down, as if searching him for secrets. “It was in the paper.”

“What does it do?” Hav asked, as innocently as he could.

“If eaten, it gives the consumer the terrible powers of a dark wizard,” the Archwizard said. “But at a terrible price, of course. You become cursed to turn into a zombie, for eternity, they say.”

“Ah,” Hav said. “Well, I’m here on another matter. You see, I am the insurer for a number of the buildings that you have—err—recently razed. Housers, for one. And the candle shop. And of course, the department store. And the curry joint.”

Archwizard Frizzell the Fantastic ran a hand through his locks of golden hair. “Yes, I do believe I saved lives at each of those places. I apologize if a few beams or windows got dented in the process.”

Hav wiped a film of sweat off his brow. “Well, they were a little more than dented…”

“A small price to pay for human life, no?” Frizzell Fantastic said. He waved his hand at the far wall, where a wash of certificates and awards and banners appeared—a letter from the mayor naming a Frizzell the Fantastic day, the key to the city, and row and row of glowing headlines in the Huddleton Times. “The rest of the city seems to see it that way.”

“That’s because they haven’t had to pay for it yet,” Hav said. “Listen, I’m not saying stop saving people. I’m just saying, maybe we could cut a deal?”

“A deal?” Archwizard Fantastic tapped his nose with intrigue.

“If I could find your green orb for you, would you agree not to you know—blow up any more of the buildings I insure? I can give you a map of places to stay away from.”

“Ah, Mr. Gibbons, I wish I could strike that deal,” he said. “But unfortunately, the gentlemen from Zane, Zephyr, and Zotts were here a couple of months ago, and offered me quite a large sum of money for a similar deal, and I needed capital, you see—it’s not cheap being a wizard, especially if you’re going to do it in style.”

The Archwizard was on the payroll of his competitors? Hav turned red at the thought. “What sort of deal?”

“Well, for a monthly fee, I agree to, you know, avoid certain places in town.”

Hav’s jaw clenched. “Well, I can pay, too. Can’t we make the same deal?”

The Archwizard shook his head. “I wish we could. Truly, I wish we could. But at that point, too much of the city would be off limits. Who would I be able to help? You can’t be a hero, Mr. Gibbons, if you don’t have people to save.”

Hav’s shoulders fell. He stared at his feet for a moment. Another idea suggested itself. “What if, instead, you could just magic the buildings you destroyed back the way they were? Fix them?” He asked quietly. “That would be a huge help alone—”

The Archwizard folded his eyebrows in disappointment. “It always ends the in the same place, doesn’t it? You cannot do it yourself and so you want it for free. Well magic isn’t free, Mr. Gibbons. There are not handouts. There are not entitlements. You have to make your own way in this world.”

“I just want you to put things back together—”

“That’s how it starts, yes. But then folks become dependent. They want their food summoned and their healthcare spelled for them. It’s no good I tell you,” the Archwizard tut-tutted Hav toward the door. “But if you do see that green orb, please send it my way. It would be rather terribly dangerous if a devious sort of person found it first.”

Part 5: Acceptance

Everybody is broken. Some people just haven’t been pressed hard enough for their fissures to show. Hav sat back in his darkened office, fingering the mysterious green orb, rolling it along the top of his desk, flicking it into various stacks of paper aimlessly, for the better part of an hour. Eventually, after his back started to swell from bending over to pick it from the floor one too many times, he said, screw it, and popped it in his mouth. What did he have to lose, he had thought, to which the answer is always something.

It tasted metallic and gushy and just a bit like the underside of a shoe that had spent the night tap dancing on a sticky barroom floor. But the taste was the least of his concerns. A bright green flash exploded upon swallowing, from everywhere and nowhere at once, followed by a deafening sound of the building imploding in on itself, and after that, the distinct sensation of falling. The last thought Hav managed before he was knocked entirely unconscious by his forehead connecting with the tile floors of the bar below was—oh great, another policy claim.

He awoke hours later in bleary confusion. At first, he thought he was dead. But then he saw Sue. Surely, she wasn’t dead. And if she were, they probably wouldn’t have ended up in the same afterlife. Finally, he saw Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic.

“You’re alive!” Sue exclaimed. Her wavy brown hair bounced with delight. They had stretchered his body away from the pile of rubble whose twisted signage advertised that it used to house the offices of Gibbons & Gibbons.

Hav rubbed his neck. “What is he doing here?” He pointed his finger furiously toward the Archwizard.

Sue blushed. “Well—I found the building like this—so I sent a pigeon to the Archwizard. I figured he could help. And he fished you out.”

“You’re most welcome, Mr. Gibbons.” The Archwizard bowed low, so his golden hair drooped over his face. “It is a great pleasure to be able to serve the citizens of Huddleton in such—”

Hav still glared at Sue. He thought he should be more hurt—or at least sore—but he felt strong, invigorated, and, most surprisingly, entirely in one piece without so much as a broken bone. “Not him. Anyone but him. He’s ruined me, don’t you see? He’s evil.”

“He save you, Hav, out of the collapsed building,” Sue assured him. She reached to pat him on the back but Hav recoiled. “He’s just trying to help.”

“No. What he does is not helping. What we do is helping, Sue. We make families whole. That is our job. The world has broken them in some way—taken something from them, be it their possessions, or their health, or their homes—and we put it back together as best we can. That is what insurance is.”

Hav’s voice rose in his throat, his fists shook with rage. He thought of his wife, burned up in the oven fire, unsaved. He thought of Rog, the foreman who died as a zombie. He thought of soot outline after soot outline of petty thieves left by the Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic.

“Settle down, Hav,” Sue said. She backed away from him. “You’ve been through a lot tonight.”

But Hav did not settle down. He could feel it flow through him. Power or agency or just anger. His vision flashed in vibrant green and electric sparks of neon shot from his hands. “Him—Them. The wizards and the warlocks, the whole lot of magic, they just destroy. That’s all they are. All we want to do is fix things, and all they want to do is break them.”

The Archwizard’s normally pristine face frowned at this. “Mr. Gibbons, you found the Orb, didn’t you?”

“You’re goddamn right I did,” Hav shouted, intense energy seeping through his pores, filtering through his skin. His entire body started to glow in the same wispy green light as the orb.

“You should not have eaten it,” the Archwizard said, folding his hands together and snapping his knuckles.

A knock rang on the door and Sue waved the visitor into her small cottage outside of town. He was a thin man with fraying hair in a pair of rectangle glasses. He wore plaid suspenders and carried a portfolio of papers underneath his left arm.

“Are you Ms. Susan Britton?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I am Howard Zotts from Zane, Zephyr, and Zotts. You took out a rather large life insurance policy on Mr. A Haverford Gibbons last week?”

“I did.”

“You have just lovely petunias, if I do so say myself.”

Sue brimmed at the comment and ushered the gentleman inside. It had not been a long battle. Or even much of a battle, at all. It turned out that it took a bit of learning to get the hang of magic, and the Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic had not given Hav the time. Like a blind man given the gift of sight and then entered in a reading competition.

Never had a chance, really.

But shockingly, Hav hadn’t seemed the least disappointed in his fate. Not the first time he had died (by impaling) or the subsequent three times (by fire, by drowning, and by being flung off a cliff). Each instance he had bounced back—the Orb was indeed cursed—slightly more undead than before, maybe missing an appendage, but just chipper (a term Sue and never used to describe Hav before), and smiling, even after he lost a few of his teeth. Eventually, that resiliency had worn on the Archwizard, who, after the better part of the day, had shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into the sky, muttering something about being good enough for government work.

“Excellent. If you’ll just sign a few of these papers here, we can cut you the check this afternoon,” Mr. Zotts said. He handed her a small stack of parchment. “I apologize that it took a few days. There was some dispute over whether becoming undead qualified under the policy’s terms. But your lawyer—Mr. Urk was it? He proved—well, quite persuasive.”

Mr. Zotts rubbed his shoulders as he spoke.

“Real long arm of the law, that one,” Sue said admiringly. Mr. Urk, it turned out, shared similar views to Sue about individuals and getting what was comin’ to them.

“Real shame about Hav, though,” Mr. Zotts said, and, raising one eyebrow curiously, added: “Any idea how he’s coping? Is he going to re-start Gibbons & Gibbons, now that, you know, he’s a zombie.”

But Sue shook her head. “He seems okay. He’s a little sore about only having one ear but he got a job sweeping the floors at the Necromancer’s Den. I think a fresh start will be good for him. Said he even has a date next weekend. Another zombie, I think.”

Mr. Zotts took back his sheaf of papers from her and tucked them into his portfolio. “Necromancer’s Den,” he said dismissively. “Kids these days, they think magic can fix everything. It’s irresponsible. It’s fantasy. Poor Hav. But for those of us who live in the real world, though, our only recourse is to prepare for life’s troubles, not run away from them. And like you did, to buy insurance.”

Ross MacDonald is a practicing attorney (we all make regrettable life choices) who won awards for short fiction in college and has had his non-fiction legal writing published in the Texas Law Review. He lives in Houston with his wife and dog Riley, who is a very good boy.

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