Sitting in the waiting room, Harrison reluctantly put up with the faint stinks that seemed to float through the walls. Traces of perspiration formed under his arms. Still, he would not loosen his tie nor unbutton his dark blue blazer He preferred moist discomfort to sartorial disarray. If I don't get out of here soon, my shirt will be soaked. What am I doing here?
The room was comfortably lit, but the shadows seemed deeper than they should be; he thought he could sense movement out of the corner of his eye.... God, I'm edgy.... It's absurd that I should be sitting here waiting to see... a magian, whatever the hell that is!
He remembered their laughter, aware it was too intimate; the joke that energized them was nothing he could share. What had started out as a casual introduction turned into something with feelings. That his friend's casual flirting made an impression on her burned Harrison deeply. He had not bargained on that; hated the idea. She belonged to him! But her face glowed with a lovely energy that had never focused on him. Oh, yes, she had noticed him, sometimes warmly, but now her hazel eyes said, "Yes, I'm really interested in you, Charley." Those full lips had never smiled at Harrison with such delight. It seemed to him that they subtly pursed with desire not yet conscious. And Charley--yes, his friend Charley--had that damned look in his eye. It was still just below the surface, but Harrison could see that with more of her smiles, Charley would forget who brought her.
"Hey, Tanya," Harrison called out, as if nothing significant were happening, "let's get going. I don't want to miss the movie." He saw a slight flicker of annoyance shadow Charley's face.
Tanya turned to Harrison and smiled, but there was only a trace left of the warmth that had suffused her face. "I suppose you're right," she said. She looked back at Charley, her slight shrug apologetic but filled with promise. Charley smiled his own promise back.
Harrison's gut contracted--with fear or rage, he couldn't tell which.
The stinks in the waiting room became stronger, a mixture of swamp water, dead animals, and cinnamon, not yet strong enough to be seriously uncomfortable, but enough to reinforce his desire not to be there.
Harrison looked at his watch. I'll give the bitch exactly one minute, then I'm gone. He watched the second hand march around the dial.
At exactly 59 seconds the inner door opened. A cool breeze flowed across his face, washing the smells away. A woman's voice, deep, well modulated, invited him in. He had a sense that with greater intensity that voice could rattle windows.
Where the waiting room had been tiny, particularly spartan, the office was cavernous, filled with bric-a-brac, knickknacks, and gewgaws of such glittering magnificence that each beguiled his curiosity. He could not focus on one without being diverted to another. The desk was large enough, it seemed to Harrison, to have cost the world a giant sequoia.
Overwhelmed by the profusion of objects, daunted by the gigantic desk, he averted his gaze to the floor for relief. The purple carpeting had scarlet weavings through it, almost like words in some arcane language.
"How can I be of assistance?"
He forced himself to look up. The person sitting behind the desk, a woman of magnificent proportions in a flowing silver gown that outshone the glitter in the room, smiled at him such a benign smile that Harrison's disquietude dissolved. Her voice vibrated through him, strumming, it seemed, each molecule of his body, creating vaguely sexual reverberations.
She understands my needs. He almost, almost forgot his purpose.
"I was told . . .," he started, but his voice trailed off.
She nodded her encouragement.
"Have you potions?" It was almost a mumble, but the absurdity of the question totally escaped him, so lost was he in his hostess's benevolence. She seemed so . . . kind.
"Pray tell me, a potion for what purpose?"
Harrison sighed with the pleasure of her deep rumble.
"There are so many different kinds," she continued. "Would you have all the wisdom of the universe? Perhaps you desire to be the NFL player of the year. Or, do you yearn fame as the definitive Otello, or perhaps the primary contractor to Saudi Arabia? Or . . . but I should not ramble on. What is your desire?"
For a moment, he savored the vibrato of her voice. The silent clocks were less disturbing. When his internal shimmerings dissolved, Harrison said with little conviction, "A love potion."
His hostess grimaced. "Pfagh. I thought I should make a substantial profit today, but a love potion? Mundane and cheap. You seemed to me to have truly great aspirations." She leaned forward. "Can you not imagine yourself king of a mittle European country, or the astronaut who discovers the remnants of a Martian civilization?" Then, with a mocking look of insight, she whispered, "Ah, I have it, you prefer the sequestered life of a capo de capos, so high a Mafioso that no one dare be in your presence, your orders transmitted to the president by fax machine." She stared straight at Harrison. "Surely sir, there is more to you than love."
In a shaky voice, but firmly enough, he croaked, "If you have a love potion, I'll have it, though whether it will do any good, I doubt very much." He became stronger as his skepticism took center stage. "I'm only here because like the drowning man, I grasp at straws. How much will it be? "
"Yes, you are right. My disappointment should not interfere with business. I am here but to serve." To Harrison, she was now just a large, obese woman in a tawdry gown with over-red lipstick and too much dark mascara. She could never work at his bank.
"The cost," she continued, "depends on the intensity desired. Do you want her to be mildly interested? That is a hard one to prepare; each ingredient must be delicately mixed in with a hummingbird's wing so that the final amalgam is in perfect balance. A more intense response requires less effort. The potion that produces," here she scowled, "undying love is a harum-scarum affair that our youngest apprentices can slop together in a moment." She brusquely shuffled through some papers on her desk, like a bored CEO ready to get one with another task. "What is your pleasure?"
Harrison, without a moment's hesitation said, "She must be totally mine. Give me the most intense one you can make."
Now grinning like a used car dealer about to sell a disaster to a nun, she pulled open a desk drawer and withdrew a translucent plastic container, much like a toothpaste tube, filled with some blue substance. She casually tossed it to him. "This is what you want. Your check for fifty dollars will be fine." She sighed. "What a disappointment." Her voice was now only deep, the earlier tonalities changed so that it grated.
"Only fifty dollars? That can't be right. If this is the real thing, surely it's worth much more than that." I'm being conned. What a fake she is. Then he grinned. It was worth the fifty dollars; the story would enchant his friends. With the tube in hand, he made to rise.
"Wait," she said, "you need instructions."
"How to use it? Of course, pardon me for forgetting that." Harrison's grin said, I know you're conning me, but tell me more. You only increase the absurdity of the situation and add to the pleasure of telling it.
"Smear it on some bread or crackers and eat it," she said. "Make sure you eat every bit."
His eyes went wide. He had imagine rubbing a bit on his target. Ingesting it never seemed to be part of the deal. In spite of himself he looked at the container. The blue had streaks of a thicker, greenish-yellow substance running through it. Harrison suppressed the ugly associations that trembled at the brink of his consciousness. The thought of eating that putrid-looking paste made his stomach lurch. He feebly shook his head.
"If you want it to work, you must eat it." She simpered. "What, isn't a little nausea worth it for love?"
He now only wanted to conclude this ugly business and get away.
Disregarding his distress, she said, "Eat it, then wait a half-hour. From that moment, you will be suffused with the stuff that makes untold numbers of hearts flutter and lubricates other parts of the body. You will have a five-minute window during which to touch her--I assume it is a woman you have in mind. Just the slightest touch will do. But be careful. Too soon, and there is not enough diffusion through your body. Too late, and it is metabolized to the point of homeopathic fantasy."
Harrison paid and fled.
That evening, Tanya broke their date. She had a bad headache and another early morning, she explained. She knew how disappointed he would be but surely he didn't want her looking like a hag.
The excuse had a tired ring to it. It was clear to Harrison she was sleeping with Charley. He imagined their naked limbs entwined, her smooth legs encompassing his hairy body. Rage blossomed in his chest. He barely kept himself from snarling at her perfidy. The potion loomed large in his brain. He would do it. Anything was better than accepting the knowledge that Charley and she were....
If the potion didn't work, he would have to kill them.
Some days later, the three of them sat at a quiet table in a nightclub. Harrison had suggested-- urged--that they all go out together. The band played soft music. Tanya sat between the two men, a bit closer to Charley. When she danced with Harrison, the distance between them was like the Grand Canyon, but with Charley, there was no distance at all.
Harrison said in a forced jolly tone, "We three are becoming such good friends, it'd be a pleasure just to hang around together and have a few drinks." I'll get you, you bitch. "Besides, there's something important I want to share with you both." What he wanted was for Tanya to become suddenly madly and irrevocably in love with him in Charley's presence--Charley, who would suffer bewilderment and disappointment and, Harrison hoped, despair.
He couldn't eat the noxious-smelling love potion stuff except by holding his nose and forcing it down. He did it in the men's room so his gagging wouldn't disturb anyone. Carefully noting the time, Harrison returned to find Tanya and Charley dancing. It looks like they're screwing, the way they're grinding into each other. He had to wait until the music stopped.
"You look so tense," Tanya said to Harrison. "What's on your mind? You did promise something special tonight, but.... Charley and I have something to tell you also."
She gave Charley her special look, the one that Harrison had longed for but never received. He cringed, then glanced at his watch. What am I doing? So they both betrayed me. That happens all the time. This is madness. If I just sit here and wait, the potion will have no potency and life will go on. There are surely other women, and what will her love be worth if it's compelled by magic. There was plenty of time. "Tell me," he said.
Charley, good pal Charley, good old trustworthy Charley, put his arm around Tanya. "I'm sure sorry, old buddy, I'm really sorry, but Tanya and I, well, we're sort of...."
Tanya burst in. "We're in love." Charley kissed her on the neck, then grinned at Harrison. Tanya giggled.
Any reluctance to proceed melted in Harrison's passion for revenge and triumph. He looked at his watch. There were still a few minutes.
Harrison forced a smile. "Oh, I sort of figured something was going on between the two of you." He looked at his watch. In love, are they? And snickering at me? "If that's the way it is, I'll not stand in your way. Let's have a toast." He saw that their glasses were empty. "Waiter," he called out across the room, "more bubbly for us."
Harrison beamed at them, looked at his watch, beamed at them some more, and grinned.
Charley gave him an indulgent look. Tanya smiled as if to say, "What a goof."
Finally Harrison looked up from his watch. "Now," he said, "now for my surprise. Tanya, please, give me your hand."
She smiled uncertainly, glanced quickly at Charley, whose face said, I don't know what the poor simp has got on his mind. Indulge him.
"Come on, Tanya, just let me hold your hand for a moment, and then my surprise."
She tentatively moved her hand toward him. Triumphantly, Harrison reached for it. As he did so there was a clatter behind him, someone shouted, "Look out," and a body stumbled into him. It was the waiter. Reflexively, Harrison grasped him. Too late, he realized what he had done.
"Sir, sir, I am most sorry, most apologetic for my clumsiness," the waiter said, then looked Harrison straight in the face. He stopped short, stared for a moment and said in a strained, hoarse voice, "Oh my God, you're beyond handsome."
Harrison frantically confronted the magian in her glittering office. "Is there any way to reverse the effects of the potion? The man comes up to me on the street and grabs my hand. Once he knelt in front of me with a bouquet of flowers and told me he was my slave! People snickered and gave me I-know-what-you-are looks. And the midnight calls! Somehow, whenever I get a new unlisted number, he manages to get it and leaves messages of undying love on my machine. I need help!"
The magian sighed. "I told you that it was a dangerous business and to be careful. There is no antidote. Only your death ends the passion. At your request, the potion was designed to produce everlasting love. You have ruined that man's life."
She glanced sideways at Harrison; her face lit up. "Of course, all would be well if you took a sexual orientation conversion potion.... Ah, I see by your expression you will not do it."
"The hell with him." Harrison snarled. "Sell me another. Tanya and Charley are headed for marriage, and I'll wind up a 'friend of the family,' an 'uncle' to their children. Oh, no, not for me. I want her madly in love with me--then I'll spurn her." His face contorted. "Damn her. She has to burn with love for me for the rest of her life, and I'll toy with her, sometimes smiling at her and deigning to touch her cheek; and sometimes I'll flaunt other women in her face, giving them caresses I know she would die for, and if Charley kills himself over it, all the better."
"One thousand dollars, please," said the magian.
"What's that? A thousand dollars?" Harrison fumed. She told him about the increased cost of the materials, how the love-essence garnerers had just unionized, and about how inflation was eating into her profits. He paid.
He took a circuitous route home to avoid the love-maddened waiter. That poor slob will have to just put up with not having me. What bad luck that he stumbled into me just then. Damn, I was a fraction of an inch away from her. It serves him right for being such a klutz. Too bad there's no antidote, but who says that life is fair. Hell, maybe he'll write the world's greatest love poems, outdoing even Shakespeare. And I know I'll get Tanya. She's going to come after me like the waiter. What fun to watch them fight over me.
At three o'clock in the morning he sat slumped over in his car, in front of Tanya's apartment house. It's time. Trembling with anticipation, he approached the doorman of her apartment building. "Here's a hundred bucks. Look at my ID. If I'm some sort of a criminal, I'm sure guaranteeing that I'll be caught. I'm going to propose to her in a way that we'll both remember for the rest of our lives."
The doorman said, "I'm gonna quit this lousy job anyway," and put out his hand. "Five hundred."
Harrison didn't balk. In a few minutes the elevator deposited him on her floor. Accepting the taste of the love-stuff, he gobbled down the crackers smeared with the potion, waited twenty-five minutes, then pounded on her door.
After a few moments, her indignant voice demanded "Who the hell is there? "If you're a robber...." There was a ferocious bark. "That's my Doberman, he's a real mean son-of-a-bitch. Who the hell is it?"
"Tanya," he gasped in simulated distress, "it's me, Harrison. For God's sake, let me in. Something's wrong. Please help me."
The door opened a crack. "It's really you?" she said, voice incredulous.
I've got her. There's no way she can escape me now.
Time rushed by. There were only a few minutes left. "Yes, hurry, let me in. I need your help."
She undid the safety latch and stepped back so he could enter. "How did you get past the doorman? He's not supposed to...."
With a triumphant shout of "I gotcha!" Harrison lunged for her.
But at his sudden movement, the Doberman leaped for his throat. Harrison fell backwards from the force of the animal's attack. For a moment he was close to death.
Suddenly the animal began licking his face and humping against him. He tried to get to his feet, but the animal's growls dissuaded him. No, not the dog, please, not the dog! Finally, accompanied by a series of high-pitched whines, he managed to sit up. Pushing the beast off him, Harrison staggered to his feet. Tanya stared wildly at him. There was nothing he could do but stagger away. Ignoring Tanya's calls, the dog went with him.
Harrison sat in the magian's office, the Doberman on his lap. The seventy-pound animal would not be denied. But the magian was not there. An assistant sat in her place, a thin, scowling, bookish sort of fellow with sparse hair and a no-nonsense attitude. "Another love potion? You understand the dangers...?"
"Your boss told me all about it. Don't waste my time. Just tell me what it costs and let me get out of here." The Doberman, responding to the tone of his voice, growled at the assistant. Harrison felt the dog's body tense; it was preparing to leap. "Calm down, you damned monster," he said, and clumsily patted its head. The creature whined. "What does it cost?"
The man gestured vaguely. "For the third one? I think it's free. My mistress has no desire to take advantage of the doomed."
Harrison grabbed the tube and lurched out of the room, hardly attending to the last words. They made no difference to him. Tanya was on his mind. She would be his.
The waiter, clothes torn, wearing a bandage on his throat, waited for him, a safe twenty feet away. Harrison would have killed the dog except that it served to keep the love-crazed maniac at bay.
"For God's sake, Harrison," the waiter called out, "just once a week. Once a month. Please, I beg of you, give me a crumb of your magnificent self." He stepped forward. The dog growled; he stepped back. Harrison ignored him. Once I get Tanya, the dog's history, and that pathetic nut will just have to put up with life without me. I suppose he could kill himself. Who gives a damn. There's only one way to get this done.
Tanya stepped out of her apartment building into heavy rain. "Can you get me a cab?" she asked the new doorman.
Before he could blow his whistle, Harrison stepped forward, offered her his umbrella. "Going my way?"
"You!" she gasped. "What are you doing coming around? You're a maniac. And where's my dog?"
"He's in the car. Come on." He grasped her elbow and propelled her. With some reluctance she allowed him to thrust her into the vehicle, and he got in and drove off.
Tanya stared at him. "Harrison, what's gotten into you lately? You've been acting like a madman." She turned to the dog in the back seat. "Hello, Englebert, baby, I've missed you so much." She reached out to scratch his ears. The dog growled at her and bared its teeth. She jerked her hand away and demanded, "What have you done to Englebert? He used to love me."
Harrison ignored her.
"Where are you going?" cried Tanya. "You're going the wrong way. Stop! Let me out!"
Without responding, Harrison showed her the pistol. "Shut up."
She stared at the weapon. The dog growled in her ear.
After a long drive out of the city and down isolated country roads, Harrison found a deserted farm house. "We're here. Get into the house. I'll be there in a minute." Tanya hesitated, looked around as if for help, then walked into the building. Harrison locked the dog in the car and followed her.
"Don't be afraid," he said to her angry face, "in a little while you'll find this all rather pleasant." He squeezed the tube directly into his mouth. The love-stuff had a pleasant taste. They must have improved the formula.
Tears streamed down Tanya's face. "Harrison, what in God's name is going on? I know you love me, but this is crazy. Please take me back. I promise I won't say anything about this to anyone."
Harrison ignored her. He busied himself making sure the door was locked and the windows all closed. Nothing could get in to interrupt his plans. She would be his.
"Harrison, are you going to rape me? Oh God." Her voice had a thin edge of hysteria. "Why do you keep looking at your watch? What's going to happen? Please Harrison, let me go." She tentatively started toward the door. He casually waved his pistol at her. She trembled, but did not stop.
Harrison said, "If need be I'll shoot you in the leg. You'll forgive me later, but it would be messy." To emphasize his resolve, he fired into the ceiling.
Tanya collapsed in an old chair. Rage now blanketed her fear. "You better kill me," she snarled.
He laughed. "My dear, I promise you that's the last thing that'll be on your mind." He looked at his watch. "It's time. In a moment you'll have a totally different attitude toward me."
He reached for her.
A bee that had flown into the house with them, perhaps attracted by Harrison's cologne, dove at him. Without thinking, he swatted it, knocking it a few feet away. It returned and flew in frenzied circles around his head.
With terrified awareness Harrison understood his error. He ran for the protection of his car, but as he fumbled for his keys, the entire hive, aroused by the bee's passionate buzzings, descended on him. His terrified thrashings aroused them to fury. They did not stop stinging him until he was dead.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.