Short Stories by Rick Jankowski

Speculative and Sensitive Fiction

Trouble Magnet was published in  Futures Mysterious Anthology.  It was a finalist in the NCWA Ray Bradbury Fellowship Contest.  
Sometimes, the right gift is the best way to get even...

 

 

 

The Trouble Magnet


I rubbed the grime off the window with my shirtsleeve, pressed my hands and face against the dark glass and peered in. Dust coated everything in the shop from the light fixtures to the display cases. And everything looked old. Very, very old. Faded red, painted letters spelled out the shopís name on the cracked glass.

Sieferís Emporium.

Odd. I had walked down this block hundreds of times on my way home from work and I had never noticed this little shop tucked next to the alley. Maybe because I was always in a hurry. Maybe because someone used to be waiting for me. Well, there was no longer any reason to rush home. I brushed the dirt from my sleeve, looked up and down the empty street, then found my way into the shop through a rotting, alley door.

A bell above the door announced my arrival. Sawdust grated against the bottom of my dress shoes and a strange smell pinched my memory. I hesitated and sniffed. Matches. I remembered stealing behind my garage when I was twelve or thirteen, lighting a cigarette, and having the acrid smell of sulfur assail my nostrils as I extinguished the match between my thumb and a tongue-moistened forefinger. Glancing around the shop, I could see that it was an antiquerís delight and a catalogerís nightmare. Crammed, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and overflowing display tables elbowed one another for a spare centimeter of space. The only visible inhabitant of the room, an ebon cat, examined me with emerald eyes from atop a particularly rickety bookcase. Her black pupils seemed to bore into my soul. Then, she yawned, sprang lightly from her perch and vanished into a back room. The rickety bookcase swayed side-to-side, side-to-side, side-to-side. I turned my attention to a display case immediately to my left. Carved ivory figurines and voodoo dolls blankly returned my gaze. In the corner of the case was something that looked like a large brown spider. I leaned closer. Squinting, I saw fingernails and knuckle lines. It wasnít a spider; it was a hairy, mummified hand. I turned my head to get a better look.

The hand moved.

My mind shrieked, "Oh God oh god oh god" and I jumped back. As I did, another hand seized my shoulder.

"Careful, youíll hurt yourself." A voice like warm oil oozed into my ear.

"It, it, itÖ moved," was all that I could stammer.

"Itís the lighting in here, it plays tricks on the eyes. Anyway, Mr. Marsh thatís not for you."

"How do you know that?"

"That itís not for you?"

"No," I replied. "My name. How do you know my name?"

A long, tapered hand proffered a card. A low deep voice offered an explanation.

"You dropped your business card, Mr. Marsh, when you bent down to look in the case."

"Oh," I replied. I felt my back pocket for my wallet. Still there. How could a card have fallen out? "I seem to be at a disadvantage, Mr.Ö."

"Please, call me Lou. Iím the proprietor of this aged establishment."

Lou towered above me. Over six feet separated his well-polished black leather shoes from his unruly black curly hair. In between was a perfectly pressed suit with a red silk handkerchief in the left breast pocket. Eyes born in shadow and a smooth, smooth smile waited for me to continue.

"Itís weird," I said. "I walk past here every day, but I never noticed your store."

Lou raised his index finger and said, "Establishment."

"I donít understand," I replied.

"Establishment. I prefer that you call us an establishment, not a store. We are not K-Mart Ė we offer things and services that ordinary stores cannot."

"Oh, OK. Establishment, then. But, I still donít remember ever seeing it before."

"Youíre right Mr. Marsh. People only seem to find us at a certain point in their lives. Are you at a certain point in your life Mr. Marsh?"

I hesitated. I wasnít about to tell a total stranger that my girlfriend had just left me for my best buddy. That I was furious with them Ė and myself for letting it happen. That I was burning inside. It seemed, however, that I didnít have to. Lou wrapped his arm around my shoulder and put his lips next to my ear. He whispered. "Come Mr. Marsh, I have some things that Iíd like to show you." I glanced back at the hand in the case. I swear it moved again.

Lou led me down a long narrow corridor. Books stacked on either side forced me to turn sideways and slide my way forward. I could just make out some of the names on the dust-encrusted tomes. Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft formed a literary gauntlet, channeling me to the inner sanctum of Seiferís Emporium.

It wasnít what I expected. Networked red MAC computers, routers, cables, disks and software guides concealed every horizontal surface.

"We have to keep up with the times," Lou explained. "Weíre state-of-the-art. If you find something you like, weíll bill you and you can pay us electronically via your computer." He bent down and rummaged through a stack of software boxes.

"Here it is." he said. "This should interest you, Mr. Marsh."

I took the box from him. Emblazoned across the front in flaming orange letters was the title of the software, EditorChecker. Curious, I turned the box over and read the sales blurb.

Having trouble selling your novel? Placing your play? Publishing your poems? Well this is the software for you! Works like a spellchecker on steroids! Type your story and let EditorChecker do its stuff. It will not only flag all those flaws that are preventing you from being published, it will repair them. Boring beginning? Bounce a button. Fixed! Dull characters? Hit a key. Corrected! Silly ending? Select it. Sensational! But wait! EditorChecker gives you more! Working with difficult Editors? Type in their idiosyncrasies and customize the software to meet their needs! A program that no writer should be without! Compatible with everything. Publication Guaranteed or your money back!

I flipped the box in my hand, but couldnít find a price.

"This is really cool," I said. "A few weeks ago getting my stories published was the most important thing in my life. IĎd have killed for software like this. But, now Ė well, now I have other things on my mind."

A smile skittered across Louís face. "Just needed to check," he said.

He beckoned me to sit in the chair next to his desk. He opened a drawer, reached in, and delicately placed something in the palm of his left hand. He held his palm toward me. In it was a black rectangular object about three inches long, two inches wide and maybe half an inch thick. It was perfectly ordinary looking - except for one thing. There was a holographic image on it. A holographic image that looked exactly like my stinking, ex-best buddy who had stolen my cheating girl friend.

"Whatís that? And why the hell is Jim Barneís picture on it?"

"This, Mr. Marsh, is why you are here. This, Mr. Marsh, is a trouble magnet."

"A what?"

"A trouble magnet. Have someone you want to get even with? Someone who makes your life difficult? A boss? An in-law? A rival, perhaps, Mr. Marsh? Give them a touch of your turmoil, let them feel the burning in your soul. Give them the gift - of trouble."

Lou gently placed the trouble magnet into my outstretched hands. It was warm to the touch. The hologram wavered and started to fade.

"Donít think about the how it works, Mr. Marsh," Lou said. "Let your emotions take over. That man in the hologram, how do you feel about him?"

I thought about Jim. I thought about Jim with Vanessa. My Vanessa. The trouble magnet grew hot in my hands. The hologram focused, the colors became vivid. The stupid, smiling face within began to drip and melt.

I felt Louís hands on my shoulders. Again, his voice oozed in my ear. "Very, very good Mr. Marsh. Iíve never seen a trouble magnet adjust so quickly. It now shares a piece of your mind, a piece of your soul, a piece of your torment. Pass that torment forward, Mr. Marsh. Pass it forward."

"I donít understand."

"Send the trouble magnet to the man in the hologram, Mr. Marsh and you will, you surely will."

I left Seiferís with the trouble magnet in my pocket and revenge in my heart. Lou had given me the magnet free of charge. He said that he felt sure that this was the beginning of a long, long relationship. What the heck, I thought, it was worth a try.

Once home, I poured myself a glass of wine and shoved a weekís worth of dirty dishes to one side of my kitchen table. I rummaged through my briefcase and pulled out the gold pen that Jim had given me for my birthday - just before the rat stole Vanessa from me. So like him to give and then take away. I slapped down a piece of paper and scratched out a letter.

Dear Jim,

IĎve been thinking about it and want you to know that I wish you and Vanessa the very best. I really do. I guess the better man won. I know that I said some nasty things when she told me about you - Iím sorry about that. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. Anyway, just to show you there are no hard feelings, Iíve enclosed a gift for you. Itís a hologram of you created in a quaint little shop I found. Itíll make a great conversation piece for your office at the bank.

Best of luck,

Richard

I took the trouble magnet out of my pocket and wrapped my fist around it. I pressed that fist to my lips and thought about Vanessa. Almond eyes, long chestnut hair, tiny, delicate fingers. I hesitated. Then I thought about the look of pity on her face the day she told me about her and Jim. The magnet turned red hot. I folded the letter around it, slid it into an envelope and mailed it to Jim.

Exactly one week later my phone at work rang. I checked caller ID. It was Jim. I waited until voice mail was ready to kick in, then picked it up.

"Richard Marsh, Finance Department," I answered.

"Hey Richard, itís Jim."

"Jim, itís been awhile," I replied.

"I know," he said. "When Vanessa told you about us, you seemed mad enough to kill, so I thought I had better lay low. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the hologram. Itís awesome. Hope you didnít go to too much trouble."

"No Jim, no trouble for me at all. Say, I bet it looks great in your office."

Jim sighed. There was silence for a moment. I leaned forward in my chair.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the morning I got your gift, I got laid off."

I held the phone above my head and gave a little victory wiggle. When I put the phone back to my ear, Jim was still talking.

"Ömy day just seemed to go downhill from there. While I was packing my stuff, I dropped the hologram on my toe Ė broke it."

I stopped my little chair dance mid-wiggle. "The hologram?" I asked.

"No, my big toe. Fractured in two places."

Now, this called for a full-scale victory dance. I pushed out of my chair.

"And, on my way home," Jim continued, "the cops stopped me for speeding."

I began bobbing and weaving around my office.

"To top it off," Jim said, "I was late for dinner with Vanessa Ė and you know what sheís like when youíre late."

I stopped dancing. I did know. Lips thin and straight. Eyes narrowed. Silent fury.

"Oh man, Jim. Sorry to hear that," I lied.

"Yeah," he replied. "It seems like that hologram was the last good thing that happened to me. Just wanted to call and let you know - and Richard, if you have any openings at your bank, let me know?"

I hung up the phone. For a moment, I sat perfectly still. Then, I slammed my fist triumphantly on my desk. It had worked. The trouble magnet had really worked. I remembered scoring a winning touchdown in high school. I had leveled a linebacker to do it.

This felt better.

I swiveled my chair and looked at a picture frame lying face down on my credenza. It had been that way for weeks. I set it upright and Vanessaís delicate face again graced my presence. I leaned close to the picture, nose to beautiful photographic nose, and whispered, "With Mr. Jim Barnes having so much trouble in his life, Vanessa, I think that youíll soon be mine again. But Ė not before I teach you a little lesson too."

My laugh startled the cleaning lady making her evening rounds.

#

That night, the lights were on late at Seiferís Emporium. Lou and I negotiated a four-figure deal for a second trouble magnet. This time the cat with the emerald eyes didnít yawn.

Three days later, Jim called me at work and told me about Vanessaís trouble. Being a gentleman, I powered down my computer, left my office and cabbed to her downtown apartment to offer comfort.

Vanessa ran slender fingers along the marble mantelpiece. She turned toward me. Her hand covered her mouth; her hair cascaded over her shoulders.

I waited.

"Itís all gone, Richard," she finally said.

Slowly, I walked over to her. Gently, I touched her arm with my fingertips. Maybe three inches separated us. Her eyes glistened.

"All my savings, just Ögone."

"What happened V?" I asked. I moved an inch nearer. Her fragrance - a close, close dance on a rainy summer evening.

"I donít know," she said. "One minute the money was there, the next - gone. Someone hacked into every one of my accounts."

"Your bank doing anything?" I asked.

"Theyíre investigating. In the meantime, Iíve got nothing Ė and I feel - violated. If only Jim hadnít been laid off Ė heís good at tracking this kind of stuff."

I moved another inch closer. "V, Iím here," I said "Iíd be glad to help." God, I missed her.

Vanessa smiled. "You know, thatís the first time in a long, long while youíve offered to do something nice for me."

"Címon V," I said. "I did send you that hologram."

"Yes, you did, and that was very sweet. Ė maybe youíre changing."

I shouldíve left well enough alone, I shouldíve just said, "youíre welcome." I didnít. Instead, I tried to kiss her. She twisted away from me. Her beautiful ivory skin flamed.

"Damn you!" she shouted. "You didnít come here to help me, you came here to help yourself. Youíre nothing but trouble!"

Vanessaís blazing eyes scanned the room. From experience, I can tell you she has quite a temper - and quite an arm. Her eyes locked on the trouble magnet. I darted toward the door and ducked. The magnet splintered the door frame inches above my head. I didnít wait for her to reload.

#

In the cab on the way back to the office, I realized that there were complications to using the trouble magnet.

#

When I stepped out of the elevator, two bloodshot, yellow, watery eyes were waiting for me. Two bloodshot, yellow, watery eyes that just happened to belong to my boss.

"Marsh, where the hell have you been? I donít pay you to take two hour lunches!" his voice thundered.

Heads swiveled. Office doors creaked open. I mumbled an apology and scurried back to my office. I closed my door and stood with my back against it for a long time. Complications or not, he was going down! I saw Lou again that evening. The next morning I electronically transferred a large payment to Seiferís. The next afternoon, my boss was fired.

#

Interviews for my bossís replacement went quickly.

The intercom buzzed. "Heís ready for you, Mr. Marsh."

I straightened my tie. One week. The Director had decided. Well, it was an easy choice, I thought. After all, I was the real brains of the department. I checked to make sure I had my gold pen, just in case there was a contract to sign. The Directorís secretary opened the double doors to his office. I stepped in, ready to receive my promotion, ready to get what I deserved, ready toÖ

"Jim?"

Jim Barnes was standing next to the Director. Smiling. Shaking the Directorís hand. They looked at me and the handshaking stopped. So did the smiling.

"Sit down, Marsh," the Director commanded.

I sat.

"Marsh, I believe you know Mr. Barnes," the Director continued. "Well, through good fortune, he recently became available. Excellent timing really. He has the most wonderful financial and technical credentials. So, seeing we had an opening, weíve hired him to run the Finance department."

I blinked my eyes rapidly. The arm of my chair turned to sawdust in my grip.

"Furthermore, Marsh," the Director continued, "there have been discrepancies lately. Large sums of money missing from accounts. I asked Jim to do some investigating this past weekend. And, Marsh, guess where his investigation led."

I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

Jim spoke. "To your computer, Richard. All the missing money was transferred via your computer."

"Whereís the money, Marsh?" the Director demanded.

I looked from the Director to Jim and back again. I was confused. I hadnít stolen any money. I had only used my computer to transfer money. To transfer money to Ė

Seiferís Emporium!

"Well, Marsh, whereís the money?"

I chewed my bottom lip. "I have no idea," I said. "But I think I know who does."

"Then talk. There are treasury agents waiting in the next room."

I talked fast. I told them about the computer set-up at Seiferís and how I had recently bought some gifts and transferred my money there. I didnít tell them what I had bought. Who would believe that? When I finished, the Director frowned. He removed his glasses, cleaned them, then spoke.

"Jim, is it possible that someone hacked in here?"

"With all the network security you have, it would take a devil of a hacker, sir," Jim replied.

The Director slid his hands into his pockets. He walked over to his office window and looked out at the city. He spoke without turning around.

"Jim, take Marsh and the agents to this Seiferís and check out his story. Marsh, if youíre lying, Iím going to put you away for a long, long time."

#

Jim and I went in his car. The agents followed in theirs. We drove in silence. We were about five minutes from our destination when Jim spoke.

"I traced Vanessaís funds to your computer too. Man, Richard, how could you be so stupid."

"I didnít do it," I said. Then I pointed to my right. "Turn here, Seiferís is just down the block."

Jim motored around the corner, pulled close to the curb and glided to a stop. Dusk had coated the city gray. I pushed open the car door and stepped into the shadows. The agentsí car screeched to a halt behind me. I heard two doors open and close. My dress shoes and Jimís clicked in unison on the sidewalk. The agentís shoes echoed behind. Past the laundry, past the bookstore, past the coffee shop. Then, the clicking stopped. The echo stopped. And, my heart stopped.

Seiferís was gone. There was just a vacant lot.

Before the agents led me away, Jim asked for a private minute with me.

"You had me worried when you mentioned Seiferís," he said, "but when you gave us the wrong address, I wondered what you were up to. What are you up to, Richard?"

"What do you mean, wrong address?" I said.

"Seiferís is near my condo on the other side of town," Jim replied.

And, then I understood. I reached into my jacket pocket and touched the gold pen that Jim had given me. It felt warm.

Jimís eyes followed my movement. "Thatís right, Richard," he said. "Trouble magnets come in all shapes and sizes."

The agents escorted me to their car. Arms folded, Jim watched silently and smiled. Just before they shoved me into the back seat, I turned and spoke. My voice was low and sad.

"Lou found me and he found you, Jim. Do you really think he missed Vanessa? She give you any gifts lately?"

Jim stopped smiling.