“I never understood how someone with your particular talents can live so poorly, Jaime,” the Marquis said, then cast me a sideways glance. “That is the name you use these days, yes? Jaime?”
He did not wait for a response. Instead, he pulled a 1976 Riesling from his bag. “Damn the Germans, but they can make a delicious white wine. Of course, if there’s one thing they know, it’s how to elevate a white.”
“That’s in poor taste,” I said with a shudder of perfect revulsion, and though I wanted to chase him away for his callous quip, he did bring the best wines. Instead of chiding, I got glasses and a new pang of self-loathing.
“Perhaps it was,” he sighed, “but this wine is not.”
“Let me guess,” I asked. “A hundred bucks a bottle?”
“Upper threes,” he said. “But worth every penny, I assure you, and damn the uncultured savages who have their unwashed protests in the street because I spend that sort of money on a bottle of wine. Let them earn their own money and do as they please with it.”
“You always were a devout capitalist,” I said.
“Not true. I’ve always been a devotee to power, not money. It just so happens one often follows the other like some infatuated school girl. When we met in France those centuries ago, I thought my title and power came from God, and so I was a devout Catholic. Then you and your upstart revolutionary friends showed me that divine right was a fallacy. Oh how you showed me the error of my beliefs, and I amended my ways. You convinced me to become a devout capitalist, admittedly at gunpoint, but at the time, I believed you were right. Most anyone can be bought, as you showed me quite clearly. Some people say money is power, but they are wrong. Money is money. A bit of paper, a clink of metal, or ones and zeroes in a computer. Money is nothing when not put to use. So I decided that the wise use of money is power. Then the Communists came, and they tried to tell people that we didn’t need money, and yet they were corrupted just like the rest of us, because though they lacked money, they had the will of the people. Right now it appears people are power. But that’s all changing. Francis Bacon was ahead of his time. Knowledge is power, so these days, I am a devout believer in the power of knowledge, particularly secret knowledge. Gold is still useful, and God and people and knowledge. But these are my congregation, not my faith. Power is my deity.”
I nodded. That definitely sounded like the charismatic aristocrat I met over two centuries past.
“You can understand then why I find your accommodations so unfathomable. You have such natural powers as I could only dream of. You are immortal. You can change faces at will. You have such potential, old friend. It pains me to see you live so low. I wish you would let me raise you to my level.”
He opened the bottle, poured a couple of glasses, and set them on a side table to breathe while he tossed me the cork. It reeked of petroleum, and my stomach turned at the smell. “Never mind about the wine,” I said through curled lips. “I’m not that thirsty.”
“Is it the gôut de pétrole?”
“I don’t know,” I asked. “Is that what makes it smell like it was aged in a gas tank?”
“You know, among connoisseurs, it is an integral part of its bouquet. That and a good noble rot.”
“Noble rot and gas smells. I think I’ll leave the Riesling to those with a more sophisticated palette.”
“You’re a Philistine.”
“Once,” I said with a wry grin, “but that was a long, long time ago. Also, their wine wasn’t awful.”
The Marquis let out a pained sigh. “I figured you would be unable to appreciate so exquisite a vintage, which is why I brought along this 2010 Shiraz just for you.”
With the grace of a panther, he reached into his bag, drew out yet another bottle, and held it out, but otherwise made no effort to get it to me.
That had always been his way. He would sit there, all airs and smiles, in some ensemble that just oozed class. Even now, he wore a white dinner jacket and bowtie so nice that it may have been stolen straight from Humphrey Bogart on the set of Casablanca. I can’t speak for the Marquis’s whereabouts in the early 1940s, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that was where he’d gotten the garment. He kept his arms wide across the armrests of my second-hand easy chair, and he crossed his legs like the sort of dandy you wouldn’t dare tease. Sleek dark hair flecked with the first touches of silver came to a point that added just a touch of chilling menace to his powerful face. His expression as still as the Sargasso Sea, he offered the wine, and powerful as a king, he made me get it myself. He was the most beautiful predator I had ever seen. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to rip his clothes off of him and forget the wine. Not that I’m his type. Not these days and not in this body. Still, he would probably oblige, just so he could lord it over me later, the bastard. My beautiful monster.
I scowled, rose from my ratty couch, and snatched the Shiraz from his outstretched hand before I lost my resolve to hate him. “Give me that fucking wine.”
Without taking my eyes off of him, I pried out the cork and began to drink straight from the bottle. It was a decent brand, one of those eighteen dollar affairs I could only justify on particularly special occasions. It was meant to be an insult, but I wouldn’t dignify it by taking any offence. Besides, I didn’t have time to be upset. I was too busy drinking middle shelf wine that I could rarely afford on my own.
After putting away half the bottle, I decided to let the wine breathe so that I could do the same. The Shiraz burned more than I expected, but that probably had a lot to do with the speed with which I put it away. All the while, he kept that smug, self-satisfied look on his face.
“I thought you weren’t thirsty,” he said.
“I thought you had something important to talk about. Instead it’s been gas wine and condescension.”
The Marquis put down his glass and pressed his fingertips against each other. “Do you enjoy living like this?”
He gave my apartment a sweeping, dismissive gesture. Apparently, my Salvation Army furnishings, including a hide-a-bed that almost didn’t smell like cat anymore and a twenty inch TV whose picture had only a slightly purple tint didn’t meet his lofty standards. “What? You mean Chez Merde? Oh, why would I ever want to give all this up?”
“I have a proposition for you. It won’t take much of your time, and I assure you, it has the potential to be quite lucrative for you.”
“Is this an indecent proposal?” I asked, only half joking. “Are you going to pay me a million dollars for one night? Because if you are, I demand a million dollars and dinner.”
He smiled perhaps the warmest smile he had given me all dacade. “Not while you still have a penis.”
“I’m beginning to think you liked me more back in France.”
“Of course I did,” he said. “You were a woman then.”
“We’ll always have Paris,” I said, raising my bottle. I took another swig of my Shiraz and savored the burn. “So what did you have in mind?”
“Were you aware that the world is full of terrible people?” he asked, so casually patronizing that I almost didn’t catch it.
I stared at him hard, daring him to ask what I was thinking.
“And were you aware that the world is full of wealthy people?” he asked again, the sarcasm more pointed.
“And were you aware,” I said, “that if we were to make a Venn diagram of those two groups, there would be a large overlapping area with you squarely in the middle?”
“I am, and today, my mercenary nature works to your advantage.” His pride radiated from him like a spotlight that somehow managed to shine back on itself. “I have a rich friend who thinks one of those terrible people out and about in the world may have an eye toward killing him.”
“I’ve done bodyguard work before,” I said. “It doesn’t pan out as well for me as you might think. I get killed, so nobody pays me because who pays the dead guy, and then because people know I’m dead, I have to create a new identity, which by the way, is getting harder and harder every year.”
“I can imagine,” he said and took a sip of his petrol wine. Somehow, he managed to enjoy it. “No, what I’m thinking pays extra if you die.”
“I’m listening.” I leaned in closer, careful to support myself on my armrests. The wine had begun to hit me and I had become a little wobbly and warm. I undid a couple of buttons to keep from burning up.
“Do you know why medicine is so profitable?”
“Because it’s a captive market, and people will pay anything to live a little longer?”
“Precisely,” he said, apparently quite pleased that I understood at least a little about profiting off the misery of others. “Enter my friend, stage left. Someone wants him dead. He does not wish to die. He has vast stores of money he would gladly pay to someone who could save his life.”
“I’m not a superhero,” I said, and leaned back into my chair for fear of falling over. The Shiraz was kicking my ass. Eighteen dollars well spent.
“Hence the paycheck. No one is asking you to be altruistic.”
“I mean, I can’t save anybody. Shooting guns, chasing off bad guys? That’s not something I do.”
“No one said anything about chasing off the bad guy,” he said and sipped his Riesling. “Mmmm, you really are missing out. But no, you will die for him.”
“We’ve been through this. New identities are hard. It’s not enough just to move and make up a new name anymore.”
“I’m afraid I misspoke. You will not die for him as you are imagining it. You will die as him. You will die in his place. You do your magic that lets you turn into him, you masquerade as him until someone kills you, and you rise from the dead to collect your paycheck. He lives, you live, and the killer halts the hunt.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. For thousands of years, I haven’t been able to stay dead. Stab me, shoot me, cut off my head, burn me to cinders and scatter the ashes, and I’ll still come back. I don’t know why, and I’ve given up trying to figure it out. Some people have told me it’s God working in mysterious ways, but it’s hard to believe in Heaven when this is my afterlife.
For the most part, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Usually by the time I come back, the coroner has already passed on word to Uncle Sam that I had shuffled off this mortal coil and then it’s canceled credit cards and goodbye apartment lease. It would be nice to have it work for me instead of against me. Long ago, I learned a spell, the only spell I ever learned, which allows me to turn into someone else. All I need is a fresh blood sample. Once upon a time it was quite useful. Someone panics because I’ve risen from the dead? I can just turn into someone else and start again far away. These days, though, that just led to different questions, like why do I have someone else’s fingerprints and DNA, and how did I change, and how did I come back to life after you shot me for impersonating someone, and I had no fondness for the way people got their answers.
The Marquis must have sensed me mulling over his proposition because he pressed his pitch. “Picture this. Ten thousand dollars per week just to pretend to be someone, to give them some peace of mind that no one is going to kill them. If it so happens that you do die, it’s an additional five thousand dollar fee, plus one thousand dollars per day that it takes you to revive.”
“Can I charge extra for torture?” I asked, warming to the idea.
“It’s your business. I know a great many rich men, and they make a great many enemies. Think of all the clients I could pass your way.”
“What do you get out of it? Are you like my agent, skimming ten percent off the top?” I crossed my arms, then stopped when the extra body heat on my chest made me sweat. What was in this wine?
“Not at all,” the Marquis said, and to his credit, he seemed genuinely offended. “Why would I want to squabble for your pennies? No, my motives are entirely selfish, but not financial. The truth, Jaime or whatever you choose to call yourself these days, is that you’re an embarrassment. You live in this shabby place, you wear those cheap clothes…”
I took a moment to consider what I wore. Jeans I bought new, a t-shirt with an inauthentic tribal design on it, and a bowling shirt I picked up from a thrift store for fifty cents. They were clean with no holes, no stains. These were, without a doubt, some of the nicest clothes I owned. I had several days’ worth of stubble, shaggy brown hair. I could see his point.
“I can’t take you anywhere. You’re my oldest friend, but if anyone sees me with you in public, my stock portfolio literally drops two percent.”
That sounded more like the Marquis I knew.
“What do you say, old friend?”
He was right. I had become so overwhelmed with the twentieth century that I had given up on keeping current with the changes and had fallen behind. Convinced I no longer had what it took to succeed through hard work, I had allowed myself to stare at the metaphorical tree waiting for a rabbit to run into it and die rather than exhausting myself catching the thing on my own. I couldn’t learn all of this new-fangled computer stuff, so why bother trying? But even in this age of scientific and technological scrutiny, I still had my powers I could fall back on.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me to do something like this before. Soldiering didn’t pay me enough to die over and over, side-show work led to scientists, and crime was not nearly the easy money TV made it out to be. This, however, dying for rich people, or if they were just paranoid and no one was out to get them, getting paid to lounge about in their mansions until they felt safe enough to go home? That was right up my alley. And who would they tell afterward? People would think them crazy, and that could cost them millions. My secret would be safe. This could work. I could do this.
“I say bring on the rich targets!” I barely got the words out without slurring.
“Excellent,” said the Marquis as he rose from my secondhand recliner. He brushed at his suit anywhere the chair touched him. “Because he’s had his driver circling the block. He’s been waiting for me to call him up.”
He walked to the door and pulled out his cellphone, his fingers flying across the screen. I marveled at how well he had taken to this new technology. It changed so quickly that I was amazed anyone could keep up, let alone someone who remembered the invention of the gas light. I struggled with it daily. Moments later there was a knock on my door. I moved to open it when the Marquis stopped me and reached into his pocket. “You’ll need these,” he said, and thrust a stack of business cards and a simple, no frills cell phone into my hands. “It’s a disposable phone.”
“Like on The Wire?” I asked.
He nodded. I put the phone in my pocket and examined the rest of his gifts. The business cards were white with a target, a phone number, and nothing else. “It makes me look like a hitman,” I said.
“It’s a first draft,” replied the Marquis and hurriedly opened the door.
An older fellow stood before me in a simple suit, the sort I might be able to afford if I could afford a suit. His face exuded a warmth and friendliness that I struggled to imagine the Marquis’s ever could. He was balding, his hair graying, his belly a touch round, but in a folksy, homespun sort of way, like a doddering grandfather that people actually liked visiting. The kind who offered you ribbon candy and sagely, if outdated advice. I always wanted a grandfather like that. It’s a shame endless resurrection didn’t come with family. He glanced uncertainly back and forth between me and the Marquis before thrusting his hand out to me, which I took and shook graciously.
“Bill,” he said, stammering a little. “Bill Thompson.”
“Of the Vermont Thompsons?” I asked. I had no idea if he had any relation to any Thompsons in Vermont. I didn’t even know if there was a fancy Thompson family anywhere near New England. The phrase was just one of those things old money Americans always said to each other, at least in movies and plays, to show they knew how old and prestigious their friends were. In hindsight, it was probably a stupid thing to say, but it certainly wasn’t the most foolish thing a bottle of wine had ever convinced me to utter.
“Nope, of the nobody-ever-heard-of-us Omaha Thompsons,” he said with a grin and a little more vigor in his shake.
I couldn’t help but grin myself. I liked the guy. Some part of me grew all warm and fuzzy knowing I got to make sure someone didn’t kill him. I moved to welcome him into my apartment, but stumbled a bit. Whatever brand that Shiraz was, I would have to make note to pick some up later. A little went a long way, and a lot… well, I wouldn’t put away half a bottle in five minutes again.
I led him, with the Marquis’s help, to the couch of my studio apartment and offered him a seat. “Sorry it smells funny,” I said, struggling to put two thoughts together. “It… um…”
“It’s a safe house,” the Marquis said. “My associate usually stocks them in a rather Spartan fashion. They tend to be disposable. Apologies.”
“I’ve seen worse,” said Bill. “Shoot, when I was a kid, I slept on worse.”
I nodded. Finally, one of the Marquis’s friends I could relate to. I leaned toward him, propping myself up on my knees both to appear interested and to keep from toppling over. “So what makes you think someone wants you dead?” I asked. It took so much effort to keep my words coherent, I imagine I sounded like I was doing an Emo Philips impression.
He gave me a square, appraising look, then turned to the Marquis, asking things with his eyebrows I was too intoxicated to interpret. The Marquis gave him a nod that must have reassured him, because he turned back to me and answered my question.
“Well, there’s this guy. He’s been following me everywhere. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed him if I hadn’t had a problem with an angry husband following me around last year, convinced I slept with his wife.”
“Did you?” I asked.
“Not intentionally,” he said. “I mean, yes, intentionally. The sex wasn’t accidental, but I had no idea she was married.”
“What did he do?” the Marquis asked.
“Just cornered me in a bar once. We talked. I made a generous and sincere apology. Told him to take her on a nice second honeymoon, the one they wished they could have taken when they first got married, and really re-open those lines of communication. Marriage is a special thing.”
“But he never…,” I paused for a moment to catch my swimming thoughts. “This guy never hurt you in any way?”
“Well, he threatened me at first,” said Bill, “but he calmed down. Sent me a thank you card a few months later.”
“You slept with a man’s wife and received a thank you card?” said the Marquis. “I respect your style, Bill.”
“The point is, before you ask, I don’t think it was him, but it did make me paranoid. What if the next woman’s guy isn’t so understanding?”
“So back ta’ this followin’-you guy. Wha’s he look like?” I struggled to get the words out at all, let alone clearly. I wondered how the Marquis could claim to want to help me out and then sabotage me with half a bottle of potent wine, even if it was self-administered.
“Middle-aged. Thinning hair. Just a little round in the middle. Totally unremarkable. Like I said, I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if I weren’t already paranoid.”
“Did he look angry or violent in any way?” asked the Marquis.
“No, just keenly interested in me, but I doubt he was a private eye. I never really saw him take any pictures.”
“An’ ya’ think he wanna kill you ‘cuz why?” I asked.
“Just a hunch I can’t seem to shake.”
Without thinking, I pulled off my shirt. I’m sure it made a poor impression, but it had suddenly become unreasonably hot. “Anyone else burnin’ up in here?” I asked.
Bill shook his head, and the Marquis just smiled.
“Wha’s innis wine?” I said, trying to get my thoughts out.
“Poison,” said the Marquis.
“Why’dya…?” but the rest of the words refused to come out. Halfway up, they got caught in my throat, along with my breath. My esophagus seized like I had been attacked by an anaconda. Bill began to scream. I don’t know for how long though, because I died seconds later.
I remember darkness and the searing pain of flames consuming my body, the same agony I feel every time I die.
Bill, stood over me, panicking, shouting about how he was a good guy and how dare the Marquis involve him in a murder and what was he going to do, and what was this, some sort of blackmail scheme?
“Have faith,” the Marquis said. “See? He comes around even as we speak.”
Bill looked on in astonishment, pinching at me, checking my reflexes, and babbling some incoherent disbelief. I groaned and rubbed at my body, trying to chase away the last of the burning from my face and limbs. “What the hell, Mar-“
The Marquis shot me a stern glance.
“Mark,” I said, with a helpless shrug. “What did you do that for?”
“Your name is Mark?” asked Bill, suddenly more uneasy than before. “I thought you said it was Ambrose.”
“It is,” said the Marquis through only slightly gritted teeth. “Ambrose Marcus Wentworth IV. And I was proving a point. Mister Thompson is paying a substantial sum of money for someone who can die for him. I needed to assure him that your qualifications were everything I claimed.”
“It’s got to be some kind of trick,” Bill stammered. “This is a scam, isn’t it? You find some way to fake your death or something. Tennis ball under your arm, maybe. I hear that makes it hard to find a pulse. And maybe you held your breath a real long time. This sort of thing just isn’t…”
He paused and took a step back. Cautiously, he stepped to me, cupped my face, caressed my cheek, and ran his fingers through my hair, examining me. Then he took three steps back.
“What happened to his hair?” he asked, his voice little more than a wisp of wind.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Your hair. It was longer, and your stubble is gone. I didn’t shave you. Ambrose, did you shave him? I didn’t see you. You couldn’t have. But you must have. But you couldn’t have.”
I could practically hear the gears in his head losing teeth trying to process it all. I value my secrets, particularly the details of my death and resurrection, but he seemed a decent enough fellow, and I didn’t want to give the poor guy a heart attack.
“When I die, I’m able to come back alive because my body reverts back to an earlier, healthier version of me. Earlier me kept himself better groomed.”
“Rather like when your computer gets a nasty virus and so you reinstall from a backup you made of your hard drive,” the Marquis said.
“What if you have no back-up?” the old man asked.
“Unpleasantness,” I said.
“Total system restore,” the Marquis added. “Factory reset.”
I nodded in agreement. Not that I entirely understood what he said. I just knew if he could explain it in a couple words, it was probably an oversimplification. I wasn’t worried, though. It would do for now. He didn’t need to know that I reverted back to whatever form I was in when I first took on that body. This guy I got the blood sample from, the guy I look like now, I think his name was Darren. He was clean cut, wore tailored suits. I thought, If I looked like that guy, surely I could pull myself together, maybe catch a break. But I didn’t have his suits, just his strong jawline, which was impressive, but not everything. I had his piercing blue eyes, but not the conviction that burned behind them. I had his perfect hair, but not the proficiency needed with a comb to keep it that way. So I worked my magic and became him, and nothing changed. As Confucius said, wherever you go, there you are.
Bill took a moment to process my answer. “So, are you going to be some kind of bodyguard or something?”
“Not exactly,” The Marquis said. “A good hitman can get to you in ways a bodyguard will never see coming.”
“Hitman? I said I thought someone might be out to kill me, and suddenly there’s a professional involved?”
“Yes,” said the Marquis. “I imagine hired by a business rival, or perhaps even a jealous colleague.”
“And now my employees are out to kill me, too? You jump to a lot of conclusions, Ambrose.”
“Did the man following you look angry in any way?”
Bill shook his head.
“A man you do not recognize follows you, but shows no trace of emotion. We assume, then, that he isn’t driven to kill you by anything personal, be it matters of the heart or his own burning ambitions. Clearly, he’s no jealous husband or bitter business rival. Therefore, he was probably hired. He is nondescript and utterly forgettable. He has been tailing you for days but hasn’t acted. He isn’t rash. He isn’t obvious. He is careful and methodical. Ergo, he is a professional. Being of such quality, he no doubt commands a high fee, which means most people couldn’t afford him. We can reasonably conclude, then, that you have a wealthy individual looking to kill you and has hired someone to do just that.”
“CEOs can be cutthroats, I admit,” said Bill, “but how do you know it’s a hitman involved? That sort of cold ambition, a man might do it himself to make sure it’s done right.”
“Mister Thompson, the people who might want you dead pay someone to cook their meals, launder their clothes, drive their cars. If they could pay someone to play their golf for them, they would.”
“What’s your point?” Bill asked.
“I think what Mark is trying to say is that these aren’t the kind of people to get their hands dirty, and they have money enough to make others do their dirty work for them. They pay people to get them dressed, and they’ll pay good money to have you killed. I said you won’t need a bodyguard because the types of people you pay good money to kill a guy will wait until the right moment, when your guard is down, when there is no one around to save you.”
Bill slumped into a chair, the lines etched in his face filling with worry. “So how can you help me?”
“I become you,” I said. “I’ll look just like you, sound just like you. When he comes for you, he’ll get me instead, and I can’t be killed. Well, I can. But it won’t stick.”
“And you’re sure he’ll fall for it? Your disguises are that good?”
I needed to give him the last convincer. Hopefully, the shock didn’t kill him.
“Mister Thompson, I’m going to need a bit of your blood.”
“My what?” He stared at me, aghast. “Is this some sort of devil thing? I don’t truck with devils.”
“Heavens no,” said the Marquis, giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “It’s for genetic testing so we can find details on your physical stature, genetically instilled character traits, medical-“
“It’s magic,” I said cutting him off. “It’s magic, it’s effective, and to my knowledge, I’ve never seen a devil or demon or any other evil spirit pop up when I’ve done it, and I’ve been doing it for a very long time.”
Bill seemed uncertain, but as jittery as he was, all the Marquis needed to do was go fetch a metal bowl and sharp knife from the kitchen. He offered them to Bill much the way he offered me the wine, the presentation of the tools without actually moving to give it. Bill succumbed to his ways much as I had, and I no longer resented myself so much for giving in to his charms earlier with the Shiraz.
“Put the knife away,” I said and took the blade and bowl from the old man before he did anything foolish like cut himself. “This is the twenty-first century. There are cleaner, safer ways to draw blood.”
I went to my closet and rifled around among my things until I found a sterile needle and empty IV bag. I work as a phlebotomist by day, which allows me access to all the blood I could want. I actually keep a mini-fridge stocked with assorted pints labelled by physical descriptor of its unwitting donor. “Blonde bombshell.” “Mob enforcer.” “Pretty boy.” “Grizzly Adams.” If I ever want to be someone else for the weekend, it makes it easy to slip into someone else’s skin. It’s also handy if I need to make a moderately quick escape. Apparently, being able to draw a clean blood sample was one more of my unique skills that could make this job work.
After Bill rolled up his sleeve, I tightened a band off around his upper arm and found a good vein. It was rolly and seemed to be actively avoiding my needle, but one good stick and I had him. I did my best to make idle chit chat with him while I drew the sample. I didn’t need much—a pint was plenty—but I could see that everything was happening rather quickly and if I pushed too hard, he could lose it. So I asked about his childhood, his family, his hobbies. Things that would take his mind off of this madhouse he suddenly found himself in. Coincidentally, things I could use to help pass myself off as him. The spell I would use would copy his body exactly, including all of those little brain wrinkles full of thoughts and memories, but it was like being handed a safe full of journals. Everything I needed was all right there, but damn my bones if it wasn’t hard to access.
When I had drawn enough to perform the ritual, I removed the needle and bandaged him up. Then, I took the bag of blood and retired to my bathroom. Just because he knew I could do magic that would make me look like him didn’t mean he had to know how to do it exactly. Cutting the bag open with the Marquis’s knife, I let the blood slosh into the empty container. After dipping my fingers into the still warm blood, I began to trace a circle and various arcane symbols onto the tile floor before anointing my forehead, eyes, tongue, limbs, and heart with a drop each. Once all preparations had been completed, I muttered an incantation I learned thousands of years before and braced myself for the change to come.
I felt pressure on my bones first, compacting me down, taking inches off my height. My cheekbones sank and expanded, and a dull weary ache seeped into my muscles as I aged decades in seconds. My hair thinned and grew and hung much longer on one side, no doubt ready for a comb over I never would have guessed Bill had. My skin sagged, followed by my shoulders and spine. I tried to watch the transformation in the mirror, but my vision had grown fuzzy. Bill wore contacts. One more thing to keep in mind. After a couple minutes of suffering as my body slumped and stretched and shrank, I leaned in close enough to see clearly and surveyed my reflection. I was an old man. I was Bill.
After bandaging the arm where I had drawn blood—the spell duplicates the body exactly as it was when the sample was collected, I grabbed a bathrobe and sat down on the toilet to clear my mind. There are obvious adjustments that one needs to make when one becomes another person. Physically I was shorter. I would need to reach more or climb step ladders to reach high up things. My joints ached a little when I moved, so running would be out of the question. My vision blurred a little. I would need reading glasses at least. But these are simple, these are quick adjustments, much the way after a hard workout, we are able to easily adjust our routine to accommodate the fact that every muscle aches like we have been trampled by a mountain.
But there are also strange adjustments. Each mind is different, with neurons forming their own unique web of connections. We have different specialties and flaws. Some people just don’t get scared. Others take medication for it. Being in Bill’s body meant I was thinking through Bill’s mind. I was relieved to find it hadn’t lost its edge. For his advanced age, he was still sharp as a tack. However, there were other things, things we don’t even think about. For starters, Bill, I could tell, had a libido like a runaway freight train. I felt an overwhelming desire to bed anything that moved. To the outside observer, this may seem strange. After all, nothing in my interaction with Bill had suggested he had the heart of a ravenous Casanova beating in his chest, but that’s because Bill had no doubt spent his whole life with these sorts of hormones pumping through him. These were normal levels for him probably, so he must have learned long ago to live with them, work through them, ignore them. I had not. That would take some getting used to, and I would have to wait a few moments to get my thoughts under control before walking out of this bathroom in nothing but a robe or else things could get embarrassing really quickly.
I told the Marquis about this sort of thing once a few years ago and he likened it to computers. Our souls are the software, the programs, and our bodies are the hardware, the actual circuits and electronics and whatnot. What I’m doing, the Marquis told me, was transferring my programming into someone else’s hardware, and while for the most part I would still be able to access my files and use my programs, there would naturally be glitches because of different security settings and different processors and graphics cards and other computer terminology I can’t remember but he swears makes for an accurate analogy. He even had an analogy for how I can, on rare occasion, access the memories of the body I’m in, but that one is long since gone. It’s hard to hold on to metaphors like that when you don’t understand one of the things being compared.
Thinking about my body and mind in such analytical, computer terms seemed to quell my raging lust, but then I remembered the sort of videos and images I could find on the computer and it all came rushing back.
There came a knock at the door.
“What is it?” I asked, and almost choked on my words. No matter how often I change bodies, it always startles me the first time I hear a new voice coming out of my lips. Even if I build up to it, try my best to recall exactly what the voice sounds like and what my words will sound like in that voice, it catches me off guard. No one’s voice sounds the same in his own head.
“You’ve been in there for some time, Jaime,” the Marquis said. “Is everything good?”
“Yes,” I said, adjusting to the strange resonance this foreign voice takes on inside this foreign head. “I’ll be out in a moment. Just need a minute to adjust is all.”
“Well, do hurry,” he said. “Bill is becoming quite anxious.”
I ran my hand under scalding hot water to take my mind off these wild thoughts. For a few flashes, just fractions of seconds, I would get these images, pornographic in nature. A young woman in a spring dress doing things that were gone too quick to catch. An African woman, middle aged, body sagging in the back of an eighteen wheeler, but desperate to love and be loved. A blonde with short bobbed hair, a scratched Elvis Presley record in the background, “…hound dog cryin’ all the hound dog cryin’ all the hound dog cryin’ all the…” and moving in time to the skipped groove. I couldn’t tell if these were my memories or his at first. But I had never been inside an eighteen wheeler. I was feeling bleed-over from his past. Rare, but it happens. It takes a particularly strong memory to pop so easily out. He must have visited these moments often in his mind.
I collected myself, wrangled in all of wild Bill, and left the bathroom. When I entered the living room, Bill’s jaw dropped so low it could have told me whether the box of old vinyl albums I stashed in the basement had started to mildew. I worried he might die of fright, especially the way he kept gasping, struggling for breath. He began to collapse, but the Marquis caught him and pulled him over to the dingy hide-a-bed. Words tumbled out of his mouth on top of each other, as though if he could just get them all out, they might miraculously fall into place on the floor like a puzzle assembling itself.
Tears welled in his eyes and the words “impossible” and “real” barely managed to slip out between wet, blubbering sobs. I wish I knew if this sort of reaction were normal, but I’ve never dropped the resurrection and shape-changing on a person within five minutes of the other. I imagine it’s a difficult combo to process, especially all at once.
The Marquis offered him a glass of wine, the motor oil Riesling, which Bill blindly took, drank, and offered the empty glass for a refill. Maybe he was too shook up to notice the smell, or maybe the flavor really was all the old Frenchman made it out to be once you got past the odor. Either way, after the second glass, Bill’s nerves seemed to settle enough for him to look at me without panicking.
“Can… can you take off the robe?” he asked, stammering.
I did as he requested, though I don’t know what he hoped to see. For all I knew, he might have fantasized about having sex with himself. Probably not, though. It didn’t feel true when I thought it. Still, I haven’t really had a sense of self as a physical thing, haven’t associated my appearance with my identity in so long that it’s hard to imagine I ever did. Hell, I don’t even know what pronoun to use for myself anymore. How could I possibly hope to imagine what sorts of things run through a person’s mind when he seems himself standing before him naked as the day he was born.
“Turn around,” he whispered.
I did as he asked, and I could hear him gasp in fright or amazement or confusion.
“It’s so strange,” he said, and I could see boyish wonderment in his eyes when I turned to face him once more. “You have my birthmark, the one shaped like a bean, right there on the left cheek. You couldn’t possibly have known I had that. My infantry tattoo on my right arm, though, must be a dozen pictures of me with it. Everybody knows I have it, but you left it off of your disguise.”
I felt like there was a question there, one unspoken because he hadn’t yet found words he wouldn’t feel foolish speaking aloud. “It’s not a disguise,” I said, answering his eyes. “I’m you. I have the birthmark because it’s naturally a part of you. Your scars, your skin tags, all of that is naturally you. The ink isn’t, so no tattoo.”
“It really is magic, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Alright then,” he said, steeling himself as he offered his hand to me. “Let’s save my life.”