From the author: An offer to get rid of an inconvenient spouse with complete discretion. Magical - or just a scam?
Naturally, I assumed they were they were there to sell magazines. Two scruffy awkward looking teenagers holding a clipboard and a flimsy catalog, what would you have thought? It took me awhile to realize that they were offering to kill my husband, and that what I'd taken for "Sports Illustrated" was the option of killing him at a sports event, with, if I wished, a DVD to illustrate and preserve the moment.
"Interesting," I said, still half thinking that this might just be, you know, an unusual magazine pitch. "Do you go to a lot of doors and offer murder?"
One of them looked slightly shocked; the other, slightly ashamed. "It's not really murder," said the shocked one. "It's more, you know, a removal service. A convenient removal service."
"And we don't go to a lot of houses," said the ashamed one. "Just the ones where we know we'll find interested customers."
"Interesting," I repeated. "And how do you identify those?"
They looked at each other. "Well, um," said the shocked one.
"We're just kinda told," said the ashamed one.
"Just kinda told," I repeated. "And you were just kinda told that I might want to get rid of my husband. In – how did you put it – a convenient kinda way?"
"Well," said the ashamed one. "Don't you?"
Put that way, I had to pause for a moment. "Come on in," I said, in a resigned fashion, after a moment. "I've got soda, if you want some."
"We're not supposed –" started the ashamed one.
"Oh yes," said the shocked one, and they stepped right in and happily took a couple of Cokes.
Never mind why I wanted to get rid of my husband – it's the same old story you've heard from hundreds of other women, I'm sure. The point is, I did, and death would be both cleaner and, if the insurance money clicked in, more lucrative than divorce. You'll understand my interest in the insurance aspect of it.
"We have taken out life insurance plans on each other," I said, sitting down and taking a sip of my own Coke. "So – assuming that I choose one of the options I assume you have listed in that catalog of yours there, what assurances do I have that this – convenient removal? Do I have the phrase right? What assurances do I have that this convenient removal won't immediately raise the suspicions of the insurance companies?"
They looked at each other. "Wow," the shocked one said. "Most people want to know about the options first."
"We've got a wide range of –" started the other one.
"Insurance," I interrupted. "I've read way too many of these stories where someone grants you a wish, or kills someone for you, only to have it backfire. Badly. The insurance is the most obvious point."
"Do you need the life insurance money?"
"Absolutely," I said, and meant it. Without going into tedious details, the loss of my husband would also mean the loss of a fairly substantial part of my – I mean, our – income. The life insurance was absolutely critical to maintaining certain financial goals of mine. You can probably guess which ones. At least one involved a certain type of transportation.
They looked at each other uneasily. "We can do that, but that's an extra item," they said.
"Well," said the shocked one. "It might not be that much if you start with one of the discount packages –"
"Well, we're running some specials on some removal options," the ashamed one said.
"I think we need to give you an idea of the wide variety of our basic options first," said the ashamed one, pulling out a rather scruffy – and rather large – catalog. I eyed it uneasily. "I think you'll be surprised about the number of options we can offer you."
Frankly, I hadn't spent a lot of time wondering about the number of – convenient removal – options that might have been available to me, but I would have guessed, if you'd asked, that it might have been ten maybe, or twelve. Because seriously, how many ways could people be murdered discreetly, untraceably?
The catalog listed 1674 methods, as it turns out. "With a few more in development," the ashamed one assured me, before turning a faint shade of green. I leafed through the catalog, with its tiny pictures and titles, then glanced up at him.
"Do you like this job?" I asked him, straight out.
"They offer college scholarships," he said, which wasn't quite a response.
"1674 methods? Plus options?"
"I know, I know," said the ashamed one. "We're not quite up to even the variety offered by your typical convenience store yet. But we're working on it," he added, completely misunderstanding my original meaning.
"Right now, we're more like a boutique," said the shocked one, who I gathered might have spent more time focusing during his sales training. "A, a, well, death boutique."
"Have you been doing this long?"
"Me, not so much. The organization –"
"It's best not to discuss how long the organization has been around," said the ashamed one. "But it's been awhile. So. Moving on. What sort of needs are you looking for in your convenient removal service?"
"Well," said the ashamed one, and now he was a distinct shade of green. I earnestly hoped the Coke would help settle his stomach. "Some people need, well, more painful convenient removals than others do."
"Painful convenient removals?" I was getting rather tired of constantly repeating their words, but I also wanted to make sure I understood what I was hearing.
"Some people are really, you know, pissed off, I guess," said the shocked one.
"Yeah, there was this one woman, and fuck she was –"
"Hey, no chatting about other clients!" said the shocked one.
"But what if I want references?" I said.
They looked at each other again, uncertainly. "References?"
"You know. Before I buy. Just to reassure myself."
"No references," said the ashamed one. "We're completely discreet, you see. Which by definition includes not giving the names of former clients to new customers."
"But we do offer a money back guarantee if you're not completely satisfied," the shocked one assured me.
"Of course," I said. I looked at the catalog, at the tiny pictures there. "Which means, I suppose, that I have to pay in advance."
"Actually, payments can be made in just 12 easy installments," the shocked one assured me.
"Of course," I repeated, beginning to feel like sort of an idiot. But then again, I'd planned to spend the afternoon cleaning my bathrooms, not discussing multiple methods for conveniently removing my husband. "Ok then. Let's talk options." I turned a worn page of the catalog over. "Earthquake?" I asked. "You aren't seriously suggesting –"
"Oh, I wouldn't recommend that one at all," said the ashamed one. "I mean, I really shouldn't say this, but the earthquake option's seriously overpriced. Plus, you know, unless you pay the extra to have the earthquake happen far away from your home, I've heard there can be serious collateral damage, you know. I think the only ones who take that are the ones that really need to make a scene."
"But –" I stared at the catalog, and then at the two of them. "You aren't seriously suggesting that you have the ability to arrange for an earthquake."
"For a pretty significant price," said the ashamed one. "Look, can I recommend a simple car –"
"Wait," I said. "Backtrack. That's one hell of a claim."
"I thought so too when I first joined this organization," the ashamed one confided. "But then –" he shrugged. "I saw."
"Oh, we know some people might be skeptical," said the shocked one. "That's why we have the money-back guarantee. It has a reassuring sound. For most people."
"Look, I'm not questioning your money-back guarantee. I just want to know how, exactly, you claim to be able to arrange an earthquake."
They looked at each other, then looked at the catalog, then the ashamed one pushed the catalog a little bit closer to me. "Um," said the shocked one. "Isn't it obvious?"
"Not really," I said.
They looked at each other, and then at me. "Magic," they both said, in unison.
I sat back and took a long sip of my Coke. "Magic," I said, trying to keep my voice noncommittal, and failing.
"Well, yeah," said the ashamed one.
"You expect me to believe that your organization uses magic to start an earthquake on demand."
The ashamed one shrugged. "How else would someone start an earthquake?"
"Oh, I don't know," I admitted, my science floundering. "A nuclear bomb, maybe?"
"That's even more expensive than the earthquake option," noted the ashamed one. "And why would they – I mean, we – go to all that effort to arrange for a nuclear bomb when magic is so much cheaper?"
I found myself focusing on the first part of this. "You arrange deaths by nuclear bomb."
"I don't think that anyone's actually bought that one," said the shocked one.
I decided to wave this aside. "Look, I'm trying not to sound overly skeptical here –"
"It's a bit much," agreed the shocked one. "Took me awhile to believe it. At first I thought it was just a job, you know?" He shrugged. "And then I saw the results."
The ashamed one turned, if possible, even more green. "The results," he agreed. "Look. You don't want to know. Just – just trust me. It works."
"And I'm supposed to just take your word for it."
"And the money back guarantee."
"And you're with the Better Business Bureau or something?"
"Well, no," admitted the ashamed one. "But, thing is, no one has ever needed to complain."
I couldn't help thinking that it would be an awkward complaint anyway – er, Better Business Bureau, the murder I arranged didn't go off, can I complain about the service? But I didn't bring up that point. "Can I add that you steering me away from the earthquake option rather makes me think that you can't actually do that one?"
"Oh, we definitely can," said the shocked one. "It's just so overpriced, I can't stand to see people buy it."
"You aren't seriously trying to tell me that you can do magic."
The shocked one shook his head. "We can't," he said. "Our employers can."
"Magic," I said.
"Well," said the ashamed one. "How do you think we found you?"
I thought about it. "I assumed you talked to Lisa, to Rosalie –" quickly naming the two friends who liked my husband, if possible, even less than I did.
"That sounds so…inefficient," said the ashamed one. "I mean, what kinda business has time to run around and listen to your friends' gossip?"
Put that way, I couldn't think of one. "I guess I just figured you did market research."
"Well, it is in a way, I guess," said the ashamed one. "I mean, I've even heard that that's what the Department calls it –"
"Um, are we supposed to be giving these details?" said the shocked one.
The ashamed one shrugged. "I keep telling you, no one is going to believe any of them even if they say something, and since she's going to use our services, she's not going to say something. So why shouldn't she know?" He turned to me. "Look, I'm just doing this for college, k? It's just a summer job. I don't have any inside info or anything. Just what I'm told."
"And you're told what, exactly?"
"That a few years ago some people realized that they could do, you know, real magic, and tried to figure out a way to make some real money at it."
The shocked one turned red. "We don't call it that."
"As we said earlier, the correct term is convenient removal service," said the ashamed one.
"Why not play the stock market? I mean, I'd think that if you had the ability to do magic, and needed money, that would be safer. Or just create money?"
"I asked about that, actually," said the ashamed one. "Apparently, even magic can't just create things out of nothing, so you can't just create gold. And nobody has a real clue what's going on with the stock market – oh, they say they do, but they don't – so it just can't be manipulated. At least, not by magic. So they looked around, and thought, what services aren't being provided by the regular market place that could be easily provided by alternative methodologies?"
"And they came up with murder?"
"Convenient removal service," repeated the ashamed one.
"Whatever. This is what they came up with?"
"It's a surprisingly large market," said the shocked one.
As I may have mentioned, they were both quite young.
"And what if this magic targets the wrong person?"
"Oh, our employers almost never make that sort of mistake."
"I think there's been like, what, one? Since I started this," agreed the shocked one. "I mean, it's just been a few months for me, but, seriously. Just one."
"Except maybe for the earthquake option, or so I've heard," added the ashamed one. "Another reason to avoid that one."
"Anyway," said the shocked one. "The first step is the market research – finding the people with this need. Then they send us out. Then –" he shrugged. "I don't actually know the details, k? I've never been in that department."
"No one goes to that department," said the ashamed one.
"Except for our Employers," said the shocked one. "But they don't bring anyone with them. Screws up the mojo, I guess. Even the receptionist, who says she's been there for fifty years, hasn't been there."
"Fifty years?" I interjected.
"Well, it's not a product that goes out of demand," said the shocked one.
"I never knew how many people wanted to get of people before this," added the ashamed one, quietly. He squirmed in his seat, and put his hand over his eyes for a moment. I stared at him, and then looked at the shocked one.
"It's why –" started the shocked one.
"The money's so damn good."
And discreet," the ashamed one said. "Nobody will ever know – except the Employers, and they won't talk. Incredibly discreet."
The ashamed one looked up, flushing. "Trust me. We won't talk."
The shocked one shrugged. "So anyway, they do their bit of mojo, and find the customers, and the customers select an option, and they do a bit more mojo, and then – well, payments continue to be made." He shrugs. "And if you're asking why pretty much everyone signs up – well, the fact that we've found them in the first place is usually enough to convince them."
Just then, my husband rang. We talked for about five minutes. The ashamed one pulled out an iPod and started to watch something on it. The shocked one just twitched in his chair. I hung up the phone and returned to them.
"I'll take it," I said, placing my finger firmly down on a random square. "This one –"
"But don't you –"
"I'm set," I said. "What sort of deposit are we talking about?"
As they'd promised, the deposit was extremely reasonable. The financial arrangements seemed simple enough – indeed, I could pay everything discreetly online, making it look as if – the ashamed one cheered up at this – I was just making a down payment on some porn.
"Your satisfaction's completely guaranteed, of course," the ashamed one added.
I nodded. "And if I'm not satisfied?"
"Oh, there's a form on the website you can use if you're not completely satisfied. But you won't need to use it. The great thing about magic like this – it never screws up."
"I don't know," I said. "Movies and books would suggest otherwise."
The ashamed one shrugged. "That's just when you're trying to use magic for good, or to conquer the world. When you're just doing something like this, it always works. Or so they tell us."
"We haven't had a dissatisfied client yet," said the shocked one.
"How do you know?" I said.
They looked at me. For a half second, I thought they were going to say, "Magic." But they didn't. An awkward pause filled the room. "We just do," they said lamely.
"Ok," I nodded.
I gave them each another soda and showed them to the door. It might have been, I knew, just a scam to get my credit card info. Nothing more than that. If my husband hadn't – but never mind that. The important thing was to keep an eye on future credit card statements, and if it were a scam – well, I could always cancel the card, or better let, let my husband deal with it.
Not that I told him about any of this, and for some reason, I didn't cancel the card, and for some reason, I put the whole encounter completely out of my mind for some weeks.
The call came precisely three weeks later. A police officer informed me in a quiet, professional manner that my husband had died in a scuba diving incident, and began discussing various arrangements. I'm not entirely sure what I said to her at first: my knees felt suddenly and unexpectedly wobbly, and I had to sit down as a buzzing noise filled my head. The noise started to dim as I scribbled down a few words and instructions from her, not really hearing or seeing what I was writing. He had, as far as I knew, never been scuba diving before, and indeed had almost never visited the ocean.
"Was it – painful?" I asked, after awhile. I'd wanted to get rid of my husband, certainly, but – and only now, on the phone, did I realize this – I hadn't wanted to cause him pain. I had no idea just how many of those options included pain as part of the death process, and I wasn't sure I wanted to know.
"Oh, no," assured the voice on the phone, far too quickly. "In cases like this – well, it's really immediately fatal. I doubt he felt anything."
Great, I thought, hearing the lie in her voice. I'd unthinkingly paid extra for pain, and I hadn't even wanted it.
"Thank you for telling me," I said quietly into the phone, and then I fell down into the nearest chair, my knees shaking, and waited for the consequences.
But none came. No one guessed; no one knew. Magic, it seemed, was just as discreet as its two scruffy marketers had promised. The life insurance was even easier to obtain than I'd thought. I made my final payments to the company. That process went so smoothly and discreetly that I wondered if a bit of magic was involved there as well. With the life insurance, the house, and some extra investments I hadn't been aware that my husband had, I even made a nice profit out of the deal. I told my job that I needed a change, and moved cities. Never mind where. Let's just say it was a tremendous improvement, and not just because I was away from the in-laws. I kept the car and the cat.
But it took months before I could believe, really believe, that no one would be asking me any questions about scuba diving. And years before I found the courage to marry again. A really sweet guy, the opposite of my former husband in so many ways. We married in the spring; honeymooned in New Zealand, returned home to a home that we redecorated together, in an ultra modern style. I started spending more time at Starbucks and less time at bars. I felt happiness – something I'd almost forgotten – flow through me again. I breathed. I relaxed. Until the day when I was driving home, and saw them, right before I pulled into the driveway.
Two scruffy looking teenagers, just outside the door.
I think they were selling magazine subscriptions. But I can't be sure.
This story originally appeared in Fictitious Force, April 2008.