“You understand the offer we’re making?” Charles Lucas said after the show in Danny Winter’s tiny dressing room. The tycoon had closets that were larger than this room, and the ventriloquist had to share this with Zard the Enchanter.
“I do,” Danny said, in a serious voice. He stared at the floor and let out a deep breath. “I understand what I’m giving up.”
“Everything,” Lucas said. “I’m asking you to trade your young, strong, healthy body for this old, decrepit, dying one. I know that sounds bizarre; I didn’t believe it myself, when I first heard it. To be frank, I’m not totally sure it will even work. But if it does, your soul will be trapped in this withered, dying shell. You’re willing to do that?”
Danny looked up from the floor, and his eyes met the old tycoon’s. “My mother is also dying, Mr. Lucas,” Danny said. “An operation would save her life — a very costly operation. I’ve tried other ways to get the ten thousand dollars I need, but the banks won’t take a risk on me. There’s no other way. That woman scrubbed floors fourteen hours a day so that I could follow my dream of becoming a star.”
“Another Edgar Bergen,” Barbara suggested.
Danny’s face soured. “Don’t mention that hack’s name in my presence, please! A ventriloquist on the radio, for God’s sake? Am I missing something?”
“So you agree, then,” Lucas said, changing the subject, “to the terms I stipulate?”
“Ten thousand dollars up front,” Danny said, “for my mother’s operation. Do that, and I’m yours.”
“Very well,” Lucas said. “The ceremony will take place the first night of the full moon. That’s Thursday next. At my mansion on Long Island. I’ll send my car for you.”
“I’ll be there, Mr. Lucas,” Danny said. “If it means saving my mother, I’ll be there.”
“Good,” Lucas said, grinning like a shark.
The fated night arrived. Lucas sat in his wheelchair, hands fidgeting, looking at the clock. Where was that young man? Was he backing out? He couldn’t. He had no right. They had a bargain. It would be another month until another full moon; Lucas might not last that long. Winter must go through with it. He had to.
“Try to be calm, dear,” Barbara said, noticing her husband’s nervousness.
“Damned easy for you to say,” Lucas spat.
Finally, the doorbell rang. Lucas watched the entrance of the sitting room with anxious anticipation. Finally, the butler entered and announced Mr. Daniel Winter. The handsome young man followed the butler into the room. He carried Professor Woodenhead in the crook of his arm.
“I see you made it, Winter,” Lucas said. “And you brought your little friend.”
“I hope you don’t mind, sir,” Winter said. “Professor Woodenhead and I have been together for years. It makes me feel more comfortable, having him along.”
“Fine, fine,” Lucas said, dismissively.
“How’s your mother?” Barbara asked.
“Doing well,” Winter said, smiling. “The doctors give her every hope of recovery, now that she can have the operation.” Winter stared at the floor. “I only wish I… could be there to see it.”
“We’re wasting time,” Lucas snapped. “Let’s get on with this!”
Winter inhaled deeply, then let out a sigh. “Yes, sir.”
Silently, Barbara opened the big French doors leading out into the courtyard. Lucas winced at the cold night breeze as she pushed him through the exit. “Are you sure we have to do this outside?” he asked.
“The spell calls for moonlight,” Barbara reminded him. “It might be safe to attempt indoors, but why take chances?”
Winter followed them into the courtyard, his ventriloquist’s dummy in the crook of his arm. Soon, young entertainer and aged tycoon faced each other about twenty feet apart.
“Are you ready, Daniel?” Lucas asked, not unkindly.
“Ready,” Winter said.
“Me, too,” Professor Woodenhead added in the voice Danny used for the dummy.
“The rings, Barbara,” Lucas said. His wife nodded. She strode over to Danny and held out one of the rings. The young man took it, slipped it on his finger, and held it up so that it glittered in the moonlight. Barbara walked over to Lucas and gently put the other ring on his finger.
“The incantation,” Lucas said. Barbara nodded and handed him a slip of paper. She walked around behind his wheelchair and stood with her hands on the handlebars as he read.
The old man cleared his throat and spoke the words. They had been written out phonetically, and he pronounced them as best he could. He lifted his trembling, aged arms high, holding the ring up to the moonlight. Winter watched him with rapt attention. Behind her husband, Barbara’s eyes grew wide. Each syllable flew from the old man’s lips like a bullet from a gun, fired at the heavens in supplication, a desperate plea for help. The level of his voice rose with every word. At the end he was screaming the ancient words, the words that had not been heard on Earth since Akhenaten was a boy. Finally he finished the incantation, shouting the last syllable to the sky.
Then, with an audible croak and gasp for breath, Charles L. Lucas slumped forward in his wheelchair, his bald head dropped down onto his sunken chest.
Barbara Lucas stared down at her husband’s still form for a long minute, two. Then she looked up, staring at Winter with wide, anxious eyes, silently questioning.
“It worked!” Winter cried.
Barbara rushed to Winter’s side in exhilaration. “Darling, it worked!” she cried. “It really worked!”
“I know, I know!” Winter cried happily, sweeping her up into his arms and swinging her about. “All these months of planning, and it worked better than we dared hope for!”
“I thought I would have to strangle the old fool from behind, after he wore himself out chanting that silly incantation!” Barbara laughed as Winter set her down again. “But the miserable old miser up and died on us just as he finished it!”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Winter asked. “And he willed everything to me, actually believing that these ridiculous rings would transfer his mind into my body! So now the old boy’s fortune is mine — free, clear, and legal!”
Barbara giggled. “If the rings are so silly, darling,” she chuckled, pointing, “what’s that?”
Winter looked where her finger pointed: to the wooden hand of his ventriloquist’s dummy. The scarlet ring rested on the carved finger. Winter looked up at her sheepishly.
“Well, it never hurts to hedge one’s bets, does it?” he asked. “I mean, my mother believes in fairy tales about people being turned to salt by a vengeful God and the sea parting to let fleeing slaves pass through. How much more far-fetched is this?”
“Well, I did have to be authentic,” Barbara said. “I wouldn’t have put it past the paranoid old goat to check on my story! I really did get the rings from an antiquities dealer, and there really is a legend about them! The incantation was even authentic!”
“Authentically foolish,” Winter chuckled. “Still, I felt safer slipping the ring onto Professor Woodenhead’s finger. I’m just glad Zard taught me some basic prestidigitation.” Winter tossed the dummy into Lucas’ dead lap, then scooped Barbara up into his arms, holding her about the shoulders and beneath the knees. She giggled as he carried her off. “Now, my darling, let’s celebrate! I’ve got the old boy’s boodle and his bride, and I intend to enjoy them both!”
The young lovers departed for the sumptuous bedchambers of the mansion, leaving the dead man and the wooden dummy outside under the moonlight.
An hour later, Winter and Barbara lay in the huge four-poster bed in her bedroom. Winter lay on his back, smoking a cigarette; Barbara lay curled up against him, her head on his chest.
“At long last,” Barbara whispered. “You don’t know how horrible it’s been, being married to that animated corpse for fifteen years! When I first married him, I didn’t think he’d last a year!”
“That’s all over now, baby,” Winter said, exhaling smoke. “You won’t be a prisoner in this house any more. Rome, Paris, Monte Carlo, name it!”
“Mmmm, dreamy,” Barbara murmured. “You know, there’s only one thing missing from this celebration!”
“Champagne?” Winter asked.
“You read my mind,” Barbara giggled.
“Another trick Zard taught me,” Winter joked. “I’ll just hop down to the wine cellar and get us a couple bottles of his best, shall I?”
The young man got up from bed, pulled on a black silk dressing gown, and walked out of the room. Barbara lay back on the soft pillows and sighed a deep, contented sigh. Her suffering was over at last. Charles’, too. In a way, she felt sorry for the old coot and hoped he was happy, wherever he was.
The new widow was startled out of her contemplation by a loud, bloodcurdling scream — a man’s scream. Barbara pulled the silk sheet up to her chin. “D-Danny?” she called out. “Danny, are you all right?”
“Danny?” Barbara called again. “Danny, answer me! Are you all right?”
“No,” came a voice, not Danny’s. “He’s not all right.”
She gaped with wide eyes at the half-open bedroom doorway. She saw a shadow approaching along the floor, the shadow of a man. She trembled in fear, hunching herself back against the bed as far as she could go. Then the figure appeared in the doorway, a kitchen knife clutched in its small fist. Blood dripped from the kitchen knife. The painted eyes leered at her through the twin monocles.
Barbara screamed, and kept right on screaming until the knife ended her voice forever.