Of all the curses she could have put on him, she'd certainly hit the nail on the head with this one.
For here was Jack, a man who ran a very successful business despite being crippled with self-loathing issues, and she'd chosen to curse him, in way of punishment, with a miniature version of himself. One that sat beside him silently, aping his every move but never saying a word. Where once he could have silenced the hating voices inside by simply not looking in the mirror, now he had his own face behind him every minute of the day, and it was driving him up the wall, to the point of no return. He'd tried to beat the little monster away yesterday, but it was just no fun beating on something that only came up to his knees. So he was stuck with it.
Unless, that is, his secretary Julie had some good news for him. He found her in the library, checking books for a remedy. 'Is there anything you can do yet?'
'Sorry, Jack.' She struggled to suppress a smile, and noticing this tore Jack up inside – as her boss, he felt he should berate her for not taking this more seriously, but as her friend, one who knew just how bad her life had been, he was gladdened too much by her grin to mention anything. 'I've checked through hundreds of texts, and there's nothing.' She slammed an old book shut, spewing dust everywhere, and looked him straight in the eye. 'I'm starting to suspect it must be an original spell, 'cos there's nothing in any of these about any kind of antidote.'
'Just great.' He looked at his double, and as always, seeing his own face stare back at him without the aid of a mirror was a tremendously disturbing experience. He didn't know how much of this he could take, but his determination would win through. 'Well, I'll think of something. No way any old woman is going to get the better of me.'
'Of course,' Rob said in the canteen, 'you could just apologise to her.'
Rob, a stigmatic telekinetic from somewhere up North, had tried to float little Jack out of the room earlier, but the sprite had remained rooted to the floor, resistant to the powers of anyone other than his creator.
'No way,' Jack replied. 'I want her working here. I need new staff.'
'Is it really worth this, though?' He pointed at the double to emphasise his point.
Jack didn't answer at first, as he was too busy thinking of his meetings with the woman that had placed this curse on him. It was normal for people to end up in his care when their unusual abilities – telekinesis and stigmata like Rob, psychic powers like Julie's – drove them to the point of attempted suicide; that was when he found them, lying in hospitals with no one to visit them, or bleeding their lives away on a street corner somewhere, alone and unloved. But the woman he was thinking of, one Mary Reginald, seemed different somehow; from what he could tell (and he was pretty good at working people out), she was genuinely happy with her life, with her marriage, striking a happy balance between loving wife and. well, someone who could do this sort of thing to him. There was one thing about her that intrigued him, though – she didn't want kids. Which was interesting, if you followed it a little deeper, if you made a few assumptions: could it be that she wasn't totally at ease with her talents? Could she, in fact, be scared of passing them on to any offspring?
It required some thought.
He'd been nice, on the first visit. Second time round, he'd been a bully, which had been infinitely more enjoyable. Third time, she's waved some sort of relic at him, whilst threatening something about 'divine retribution.' Thinking of an event from his recent past, he'd replied, 'lady, I've taken down idols before, so don't bother.'
Then she'd hit him with the curse. Which made him wonder why she hadn't just got her husband, who was a big, scary guy, to sort him out. Even two black eyes and a couple ov lacerations would have been better than this little silent midget!
Jack stared down at his hands, suddenly feeling sorry for his harassment of the woman. Maybe Rob was right; maybe he should just say sorry. Come to think of it, maybe he should go one step further and leave her alone.
He wavered for a few seconds, wondering, but then the old Jack Peters self-defeating stubbornness kicked in, making him say, 'no. No apologies. I'll kick this bug myself. And I'll get her to sign up here. Just you wait and see.' With that, he stood and left, followed by his burden.
Rob watched his retreat, feeling more than a little sorry for him. As bosses went, Jack was okay, and Rob thought it was good to have a job here where he depended on his talent, rather than do some piddly little everyday job where he had to hide it away and pretend to be normal, but there was still something a little untrustworthy about the man that had brought them all here... no matter how much he tried to hide it.
Adjusting to your Abnormality in Today's World; Dealing with your Dilemmas and Dishwashing your Demons; Problems with your Parents? – they had nearly as many advice leaflets as inmates – sorry, employees – here, and Jack flicked idly through some now, as his double sat at the other end of the table watching him. The one regarding parents made him ponder his own; how would they feel, he wondered, if they knew what he did now? He imagined telling them: hi, Mom and Dad! What's my job? Well, let's see, I'm in charge of a business that rents out people with abnormal powers to solve problems that normal people can't – speak to their departed loves, predict their future, that sort of thing. And how did I get this job? Well, brace yourself, cos this one's going to come as something of a shock: I'm abnormal, too! I'm a healer. But some wounds heal harder than others.
One particularly hard to deal with wound was the memory of what he'd done to his best – and only – friend when he first got the job. But that was a different story, one with no happy ending.
Despite all of this, he liked to think that he was a success. He knew that others had doubts, though. One had once asked him, 'how can you even hope to be a good leader when you can't stand yourself?' This Jack wondered about now – as he dropped the leaflets and threw darts at a photo of himself.
Not liking the roads that these thoughts were leading him down, he sat down at the table so hard that the double flinched. For just a second, there was a tiny flicker on its face. It was brief, but in that instant another face appeared behind the Jack-one it was wearing, a face that was grey and not quite human. It transformed back straight away, slipping back behind the mask, but by then Jack was already smiling, feeling power slip into his court once more.
'Can't be much fun for you, eh?' Staring at himself was creepy, but eye contact with the thing was absolutely essential. 'Her just calling you up from wherever and making you wear whatever face she wants you to wear?'
Stony silence. This was going to be tougher than he'd thought.
'You know how many better people you could look like?' He tossed one of Julie's gossip magazines, one full of hot and hip singers and actresses, at the form. It held out for a full minute before Jack caught its – his – eyes creep down to the magazine. Jack's grin grew wider; if there was one thing that supernatural beings loved, it was knowing what those famous human types were up to. Well, good supernatural beings, at least – the bad ones were more likely to gut you and eat you. All of which supposition led him to believe that the being currently leafing through a fashion bible was basically good-natured. He was glad; there were few activities he enjoyed more than manipulating good nature. He raised an eyebrow when the double finally looked up, and nodded when it pointed to an actress and said:
Jack's agreement was fake, as he thought that most actresses were mingers. 'Bet you'd like to look like her, eh?'
It nodded Jack's head.
'Yeah, and I bet it can't be much fun following me around every day, either. There's a much bigger world out there, you know.'
'Yeah.' Jack sighed. 'But I guess you're stuck as me now...'
It was easy after that. The double wrote down the spell and then transformed into its natural (if that's the right word) state, which was a pile of funny looking ash. Then Jack took it through to Julie, and made her cast the same spell that had given it Jack's face. Soon it was a solid lump of grey clay, wearing the face that Jack had momentarily witnessed earlier. 'All we need now is a face,' Julie told him. 'Shame. It's kind of cute this way.'
'It'll be even cuter in a minute.' Jack handed her a picture of the face he wanted on it. Then settled down to wait.
Day one brought nothing. Which was fine, as he had plenty of other things to keep him occupied.
Day two was a bit slower, and he found himself hanging round the table watching the clock a lot.
Day three, however, brought her pleading to his door, a broken, sobbing woman. 'Please call it off! I give! I'll do anything you want!'
'Good.' The curse couldn't be reversed as such; you could only persuade the form to go and hassle somebody else. And it seemed that Mary Reginald didn't have the persuasive skills that he did. 'Just sign here,' he said, handing her a copy of The Contract. 'Welcome to the business, Mary. I'm sure you're going to love it here.'
He held out his arms, and the woman's double jumped into them, clinging to Jack like an infant. He smiled at yet another victory – now this was what he called winning in style.