by Tom Hooker
Gus Nelson worked as a roofer on Nikolai Pashenka’s crew. He knew, but didn’t care, that Pasha bid on jobs using prices for top-quality materials, then bought and installed cheap stuff. That was the customer’s problem. Gus cared only that he had a job and that he got paid.
Their current project was a Victorian with gingerbread trim. It had a steep roof and multiple gables. Pasha had drooled when he saw it, then applied the hard sell to get the job.
Gus sat atop the house, wielding a nail gun, when the young woman walked out her door and got in her champagne-colored Lexus. Her long sable hair, interspersed with strands of summer ermine and copper, seemed to change color as she turned in the sunlight.
He was so discomposed by the sight that he put a nail into the toe of his shoe, barely missing flesh.
“Hey, watch it,” Pasha warned. “I don’t have worker’s comp.”
“Who’s that?” Gus asked.
“Name’s Caitlin O’Bannon. She owns this place,” Pasha answered.
“Is she married?”
“Nope. But trust me, she’s too classy for you.”
She returned in late afternoon. Pasha’s crew, having completed the job, were packing their gear. She fumbled with her keys, trying to unlock the door while holding a double-armful of groceries.
Gus vaulted into action. “Allow me,” he said. He felt the cool skin of her arms as he gathered her load.
“Thanks,” she said, meeting his gaze with a smile. Her eyes were the color of emeralds.
After a job, Pasha usually excelled at dodging complaints from his many disgruntled customers, but Caitlin was imaginative and persistent. He summoned Gus.
“I know you’ve got the hots for this woman, and she’s gullible. After all, she let me roof her house,” Pasha said. “Meet with her and see if you can get her off my case.”
But Ms. O’Bannon appeared indifferent to his charm and good looks.
“I hired your company to put a good roof on my house,” she said in a heated voice. “Instead, it’s worse now than it was before.”
Gus looked into her angelic face, and melted. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You what?” Pasha said, when Gus reported back to him.
“I told her we’d fix it.”
The boss shook his head. “You’re worse off than I thought. I’m not gonna do it.”
“Give me a coupla days,” Gus replied. “I’ll make it right.”
Pasha stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Not with my money, you won’t.”
“And those days will be without pay.”
“Okay, I said.”
Gus almost exhausted his bank account buying the quality materials Pasha had promised and re-installed Caitlin’s roof by himself.
“Thanks,” she said, mollified.
“You’re welcome. Say, would you like to have dinner sometime? Maybe go dancing?”
She regarded him carefully. “I’m glad you fixed my roof.” Her jawline hardened, drawing his attention to her slender throat, “which you wouldn’t have had to do if you’d done it right the first time. But I don’t think we’d work as a couple.”
Gus felt helpless. “Don’t you believe in love at first sight?”
Caitlin shook her head. “No. I believe in lust at first sight. Love takes time to grow, and it needs a seed to get started. There’s nothing here for us, Mr. Nelson.” She disappeared into her house.
Pasha laughed when Gus came slouching back to his job and recounted his meeting. “You spent all that money fixing her roof, and then the mighty Romeo struck out! You should take a lesson. In romance, don’t try to trade up.”
Gus laughed along with his friend, but his mind made other plans.
He sent her flowers. He sent her chocolates. He sent her cards with love poems copied from books he found at the library.
She ignored them and him.
Until she caught him lurking along the street outside her house.
“This is stalking, you know,” she warned.
“Have I threatened you in any way?” he asked, innocence soaking his voice.
“Your behavior is threatening.”
“I just want to get to know you. Take you to dinner. You’ll like me, I promise.”
Caitlin pulled her cell phone from her purse. “I’m calling the police.”
Gus, who’d dealt with cops and restraining orders before, left.
Gus and Pasha sat on the roof of the house they were currently working on, taking a break. The day was cool, and the breeze quickly dried the sweat on their bodies.
“She’s really gotten to you, hasn’t she?” Pasha asked.
“I dream about her,” Gus said.
“I dream about pretty girls all the time.”
“Not like that. I don’t dream about her like that.”
“But she won’t give you the time of day?”
“She’s threatened to call the cops on me,” Gus moaned.
Pasha stroked his moustache. “Sounds like this calls for extreme measures.”
“I know a woman. She lives out in Green River. She sells... potions and stuff.”
Gus studied his friend. “A witch?”
Pasha shrugged. “She’s got a broom... to sweep the floor. I’ve never seen her fly on it. She does have a black cat, though.”
“You expect me to believe that she can cast a spell or something to make Caitlin love me?
“You say you’re desperate. Just how desperate? Maybe you should go and talk to her.”
Following Pasha’s directions, Gus navigated a steeply sloped dirt track near the base of the gorge plowed long ago by the wild river. He found a rustic house made of logs and chinked with clay. He saw no house number or mailbox.
His footsteps rumbled on the ancient wooden porch. He rapped his knuckles against the weathered door.
Gus expected to see a leather-faced old crone, maybe with a wart on her long nose, but a late-middle-aged woman wearing a dress that looked to be made from burlap answered. “What do you want?”
“A friend told me I could fine Madame Irenka here,” Gus said.
“Your friend was right. Come in.” The woman had dull gray hair, uncombed. The pores on her skin were visibly large, making her puffy cheeks look like dry sponges. He detected the faint scent of damp moss. “Have a seat.” She disappeared into what must have been the kitchen.
Gus sat in a bentwood chair. The furniture seemed to be made of deadfall wood from the forest. Pots containing strange plants sat on shelves lining two walls, while the other two resembled an eighteenth-century apothecary with bottles of various sizes and shapes.
Madame Irenka returned carrying a tray loaded with a pewter teapot and two glazed clay cups. She placed the tray on a short table made of gnarled vines and filled the cups with tea.
“Well, dearie,” she sat and regarded Gus with jade green eyes. “What is your problem? Woman trouble, I suppose?”
“How did you know that?”
Irenka smiled. “When a man your age visits, it’s always a woman.”
She listened quietly, sipping her tea, as Gus explained his dilemma.
When he finished, Irenka asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I’d do anything to make Caitlin love me.”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Caitlin?”
“Caitlin O’Bannon. I want her to love me.”
The woman put her hands on her knees and hoisted herself to her feet. She trudged to one of the apothecary shelves and selected a bottle with a long, tapered neck. The mouth was corked and wrapped in gold foil. She blew off a fine layer of dust and presented it to Gus, label up.
“Vino Diaboli,” Gus read aloud. The logo appeared to be a stylized depiction of a ram’s head. “What does it mean?”
“It’s Latin,” Irenka said. “Wine. Very old, very... potent.”
Gus studied the bottle. His heart pounded like a jackhammer. “Is it a love potion?”
“I mix a potion, but the contents don’t go in the wine. Only the essence does.” She resumed her seat. “You must share this with her. It is a double-bind elixir. After you and the woman drink, she will love you, and you will love her. Is that satisfactory?”
“Yeah. Are we supposed to drink it all?”
“You can if you wish, but you don’t have to. Listen carefully; you must dispose of any unconsumed wine. No one else may drink of it.”
“Then she’ll be mine?”
Gus inhaled deeply. “What’s it going to cost?”
“You must give me a fetish. A personal item will do.” Irenka looked him over. “Your belt.”
“What are you going to do with my belt?” Gus asked, but he was already taking it off.
“Nothing. It is only a contingency.”
* * *
Caitlin’s pleasant expression faded when she answered the doorbell and saw Gus. “I told you—”
Gus held up his hand, palm out. “I know. I just wanted to tell you, I’m going to stop stalking you. You don’t want a relationship with me. I understand that. I just thought” — he lifted the wine bottle in his left hand — “we might have a toast and leave as friends.”
Caitlin looked unconvinced. “A toast to what?”
Gus hesitated before speaking. “To the end of my quest.”
She still appeared doubtful.
Gus held the bottle out to her. “You pick the glasses and pour. I’ll take the first sip from whichever glass you give me.”
She held up the bottle and read the label. “Vino Diaboli. Devil’s Wine.”
“You know Latin?”
“A little. Those marketing guys really needed to select a better name and a better logo.”
“You know the whiskey guys call the stuff they squeeze out of the aging barrels ‘The Devil’s Cut.’ I think it’s something like that. The sommelier said it’s very old. She recommended it highly.”
Caitlin still made no move to invite him in. “Just one toast?”
“Just one. Then I won’t disturb you ever again.”
She sighed and opened the door wider. “Have a seat at the table. I’ll get the corkscrew and the glasses.”
Gus tried to steady his breathing as he watched Caitlin move around the kitchen. In a lavender silk blouse and tan pants, her body flowed like a dancer’s. She placed a wine glass before him and poured it a quarter full of the deep purple-red liquid. She poured an equal amount in her own glass and sat across the table from him.
They lifted their glasses and clinked rims. “To the end of my quest,” he said.
“To the end of your quest,” Caitlin repeated. She paused and watched him take a sip. She smiled and put her glass on the table.
“You’re not going to drink with me?” Gus asked, a note of alarm in his voice.
A form moved from the shadowy hallway. Gus smelled an aroma of damp moss, and Madame Irenka stepped into the kitchen. She and Caitlin shared a glance.
Irenka picked up the glass Caitlin had put down. “You don’t think I would let you enchant my daughter, do you?” she asked as she raised the glass to her lips.
Copyright © 2020 by Tom Hooker