“You have stage four pancreatic cancer.”

With those six words my life careened off its carefully planned trajectory. Soon I would find myself in a world that I never dreamed existed, a place that—had I ever heard of it—I would’ve written off as part of a fairytale. The equivalent of someone telling you, a modern adult, that there’s a spot in the deep dark woods where gypsies cast spells and witches converse with spirits. For real.

Back to those first moments in my doctor’s office. A kind of deafening hum seemed to fill the room, but it was coming from inside my skull. I couldn’t think clearly for several minutes. When I could, my first thoughts were of my wife and my two kids, ages three and five. You know we like to make jokes about life insurance salesmen and what a nuisance they are. Well, there’s another side to that, it turns out. Like, they’re right. My gift to you.

More background on me then. My name is Bill Richards and I’m thirty-two years old. I worked in the biotech investment arena with a focus on oncology. I still work in investing, but more on that later. I used to put out a stock tip newsletter that was available by subscription only. That and the returns on my own small investments (I didn’t have a lot of capital to play with) made up the totality of our meager income. It wasn’t a bad start and the future had looked promising, but now it wasn’t going anywhere. My family was completely unprotected financially from what had just happened to me.

Because of all the research I’d done in the field of cancer treatment, I knew immediately what my doctor’s six words meant. I had a few months to live at best, and nothing but so-called palliative care available to me in the interim. That is unless I intended to fly down to some quack Mexican clinic and make sure my family was absolutely penniless when I was gone. Most oncologists who get this diagnosis, by the way, choose to spend their last months on earth totally treatment free—apart from pain medication. Better than spending your final days in a hospital vomiting, is how they tend to see it from their well-informed point of view. I had to agree. I opted for no chemo or radiation.

I told my wife Vanessa that same afternoon. We informed the children, as best we could explain it to them, a few days later. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and no one should ever have to be on either end of that conversation. If there’s a God in Heaven I hope to meet Him soon so I can ask him what the fuck He was thinking when He created cancer. Should be a very interesting answer.

About two weeks after the diagnosis is when I saw the ad. I was researching possible legit PIII clinical trials, because a part of me still hadn’t given up. The irony there is that when you’re in a phase three trial (which gives you a shot at a drug or treatment that has at least shown some promise) your already slim chances for survival are cut in half. You could be getting a placebo. But you’re contributing to the furthering of human knowledge, so that’s perfectly okay by you, right? Sure.

Anyway it was while I was doing that trials research that I spotted this ad that offered money to people with incurable diseases. The ad said that if I qualified I could scoop up a hundred thousand dollars. Not enough for the family to live off indefinitely, but a cushion at least until my wife got back into the business world.

I made the call and was given an appointment to see a representative the very next day. Harold Finman was the man’s name. He came right out to the house. Middle-aged, balding white man, suit and tie. Looked like an insurance salesman, ironically. He wore a pleasant smile and was full of empathy for my situation. I thought it was a strange world he’d gotten used to in his line of work. I didn’t know the half of it.

I expected to hear Mr. Finman say they wanted my body for some kind of research. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. What they wanted was my soul.

“You want my soul,” I said across the kitchen table, repeating what I was sure I’d heard incorrectly.

“Yes,” Finman said. “Not forever, naturally.”

“Are you out of your mind?” my wife said in a calm but serious tone, like he might just answer yes ma’am, I am, as a matter of fact.

She was seated there to my left. The children were off with their grandmother. We had the house to ourselves. I didn’t want to risk our eldest, Jacob, sneaking around spying through cracked doors and picking up any of our conversation. They’re good kids and generally pretty obedient, but Jacob was curious by nature.

I was glad then the kids weren’t home, because the first thing I did was raise my voice. Not quite a shout, but a long way from polite.

“What kind of sick, sad, con job are you trying to pull here?” I said. “You want my soul?”

“Yes,” Finman said, his face open, his eyes steady. "And in return we give you one hundred thousand dollars."

“And I what, I have to give you a good faith deposit first? Is that how you do it? I wire five thousand dollars to a bank in Nigeria now?”

At that point Mr. Finman snapped opened up his valise and produced a stack of hundred dollar bills. Ten stacks, to be more precise. Each bound with a band that said ten thousand dollars on it.

My mind was reeling. My wife went silent. Everything told me that this was some sort of scam, that there was no reason to buy into a second of this insanity. I should usher Finman out of the house before I lost my temper and did something stupid like pop him one.

But the money. I had never seen a hundred thousand dollars in cash before. It’s almost hypnotic, the effect it can have on you.

He talked. My wife and I listened. In the end I took the deal. Not crediting the story he told, but secure in the belief that he and his employer believed it, and that the money was ours. For good.

 

 

__________

 

 

In retrospect there was a line of reasoning I could have followed that might have warned me off, or at least let me know that I was wrong about Finman and his boss being lunatics. To do what Finman had laid out, to manipulate a soul’s destination, would require a person who had command of a certain kind of magic. Real magic. What do we know about such an individual? Interestingly we know one thing for sure. He or she would be a very rich person.

Think about it. If you could really do magic, if you could cause matter to pass through solid matter, for example, you wouldn’t be making rubber balls jump around under brass cups at the Magic Castle. Unless you were an idiot. No, you’d be out making cash pass through ATM machines without a bank card. Or maybe you’d lift the money right out of the bank’s vault through fifty feet of steel and concrete and make it fly into a suitcase in the trunk of your car. Why the hell not?

I suppose, if you were a caring soul, you could even do good with such a power while getting rich at the same time. You could make tumors like mine pass right out of a body. And, hey, there’s bound to be money in that once you got your reputation rolling, right? I can tell you there’s nothing that I wouldn’t have paid for such a service.

And then what if you could really see the future? Would you charge fifty dollars a pop to tell lonely women that true love was on the way in the form of a man with blue eyes who parts his hair on the left? No, you’d wait until the mega lottery had run up to around a half a billion or so and then cash in. Hell, yes, you would.

So it stands to reason if you’re looking for someone who can actually do magic, I mean real, genuine magic, then that’s where you would start. With the filthy rich. And if you did your job well, if you managed that search properly—or if I had—you or I would eventually find billionaire investor Larry Mortenson. Maybe others too, I’m not sure. It’s only Mortenson I know about. He’s the man that Harold Finman works for. He’s the man that I work for too. Now that I’m dead.

He can’t see the future, or move matter through matter. He doesn’t have to because he can bind souls. So he has people like me. Dead people, preferably with a background in finance or investing. Had I investigated more deeply and saw how staggeringly rich the man was behind Finman’s offer, I might have put two and two together.

I didn’t. And because of that I’m trapped. For now.

 

__________

 

 

A woman that I can only described as a Voodoo priestess came by the house the week after I signed the papers with Finman. She performed the ceremony that bound my soul to Larry Mortenson’s will. That is, up until he himself dies, at which point I will be free to move on. I never for a moment imagined any of it was real, of course.

The disease progressed steadily. I myself died peacefully, stoned out of my mind on a witch’s brew of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis and I don’t know what else. A variation on something called a Brompton’s cocktail.

There was, at the end, no light, no tunnel. Maybe there would have been ordinarily, but what happened to me was that I suddenly found myself standing in Mortenson’s corporate offices.

He looked right into my eyes from across a vast and conspicuously empty deak. “Welcome to the firm, Mr. Richards. I can see and hear you. No one else can. That makes you very valuable to me.”

He’s a fat man with pudgy hands, short fingers and a thick, curly moustache, almost a parody of the rich capitalist. If he had striped pants and vest, a cutaway coat and a top hat, he would look like the character from the game Monopoly.

He went on to explain my new job. Corporate espionage. This was the system that made him his immense fortune. I can move anywhere in the world at will. I can haunt any person. I only need the smoke from a burnt clipping of their hair. How Mortenson manages that particular trick I don’t know or care. It’s probably the stickiest part of his work because the rest is pretty straightforward. He takes the information that I and others in my position gather and uses it to invest in or short certain stocks.

Now let me tell you about this in between world I dwell in. It’s a lonely, awful place. You want to talk about depressing? I can’t taste life anymore, but I’m stuck at the dinner table with the whole banquet spread out before me. I follow Mortenson through his days when I’m not on an assignment. I can’t talk until he bids me. He doesn’t seem to see me until he wants to. So I’m trapped in the life of a rich hedonist who daily enjoys all the pleasures that I can’t. It's the most painful itch you can never scratch, the most horrible thirst you can never slake. It's pure hell. Finman never mentioned that part when we were sitting at the kitchen table.

But I’m always on the lookout for a special kind of investment and I may have just found it. A certain Russian oligarch I’ve been assigned to. There’s an angle that Mortenson can play. I’m laying it out for him right now. When he does it, unbeknownst to him, he’s going to ruin this Russian. Destroy him financially. And there will be only one man who profits from that downfall. And the Russian knows how to follow the money.

Did I mention that I’m free the moment Mortenson dies?

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