Bewildering Stories

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Skin Trade

by Thomas Cummings

That morning Chris found a head in the gutter. It was no one he knew.

A soggy pile of flotsam had gathered around the left cheek where the oily gutter water forked. The eyes were half open, gray and dull, suggesting a bored comment on mortality. Water pooled in the mouth and nostrils. Short hair wagged in the current like cilia.

Chris directed a solid kick at the misplaced appendage, sending it spinning in an arc over the street. A nimbus of water sprayed from the hair and a rainbow-colored halo bloomed around it in the morning sun. It landed ripely against the blacktop, continued to roll up over the far curb and came to rest on the sidewalk. Chris crossed the street and directed another half-hearted kick, but missed completely and ran on.

He moved quickly and evenly down the pavement, ignoring the shops just opening for the day, the sounds of locks clicking open and gates sliding up. He looked like a misdressed jogger in sagging jeans, loose flannel shirt flapping like a shed skin over a black T-shirt from which grinned the image of a white skull. His black combat boots clopped against the pavement. Habitually, he would pat the right front pocket of his jeans to reassure himself that the prize was still there. Pedestrians, who dodged him more than he them sent rude looks and irate comments as he passed.

When he reached home, he scaled the outer wall of the estate with uninterrupted grace. He was slowed down on the other side, halfway across the yard, by the eager assaults of Gildenstern and Rosencrans, his father's Rotweillers. Slapping their solid heads and whispering harshly, "Go home! Go home!" he slipped across the wet grass to the side of the house. There he paused and looked around. The gardener was not out yet. That meant the sprinklers had just shut off. That, in turn, meant he had less than five minutes.

Hands slick with dog-spit, he ascended a trellis, and slipped through the second story window into his room.

He quickly shed his clothes and rolled into bed. The clock on the dresser flashed 6:27. Behind the clock, through the aquarium glass, the lizard eyed him.

"What are you looking at?" Chris hissed with mild irritation.

The lizard continued to stare. Its gummy, pink tongue probed the side of its lipless mouth, hunting for a roach leg or maybe a fly wing left over from its last meal. Finding only a clean scales, it calmly drew its tongue back inside its lipless slit.

"I got it," Chris whispered harshly. He patted his pants pocket. "But Mom's gonna be up in" - he checked the clock; 6:28 - "two minutes, and I gotta look like I was sleeping. 'Sides, you don't want it in plain sight when she comes in, do you?"

The lizard said nothing and started to probe the other side of its face.

"Oh, jeezuz. Be that way," Chris hissed, rolling over. He lay still, bringing his breath to an even rhythm and widening his throat to give his voice that sleep-heavy tone of the just awakening. In a moment the door creaked.

"Chris-hon?" his mother called pleasantly in her social function voice that didn't quite hide the slur of an early morning buzz.

Chris didn't answer immediately. She called twice more.

When he croaked something unintelligible, she told him it was time to get up to go to school. He answered with a lethargic "mm-hm" and she shut the door.

He waited a full two minutes before sliding silently out of bed. (The first minute was to make sure Mom wasn't going to come back for some reason; the second, to irritate the lizard.) He grabbed his pants from the floor, shaking out the pockets. He turned his face to the lizard. It watched him imperiously.

"This wasn't easy to get, ya'know. A 'thanks' wouldn't hurt once in a while," he told it.

"You'll get all you've earned when I get all my components," the lizard replied in its laborious, deliberate speech.

"Hmph," said Chris, producing the bone. "One phalange, as ordered." He displayed the digit in front of the glass.

"Indeed . indeed," cooed the lizard, inspecting it out of the side of its head with one eye, then twisting its head to inspect it with the other.

Outside, down the street, Chris heard the high clang of an approaching bell. The slabtruck was coming. As it grew closer, he heard the familiar call of the driver between bell rings: "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!"

"Oh, yeah!" he said, the call striking a memory. "Do you need any head-parts? I saw a head this morning on my way back. Fresh one, too. Still had eyes."

"Head-parts," repeated the lizard absently, still focused on the bone. "No. No head-parts."

Finally, satisfied with Chris's newest acquisition, the lizard reached out slowly and clutched the rim of the terrarium with a skinny forelegs, pulled itself up onto hind legs and poked its head over the glass walls.

"Get me some fruit, will you?" it said.


"Yes. I'm starving."

"Sure, sure. I'll bring some up after breakfast. But what else do you need for your ritual? Are we almost done?"

The slabtruck was passing the house now. Chris figured that it probably wouldn't stop; in the posher areas of Newport Beach it almost never stopped. The families here were high-class, and could afford the services of a true mortician. But, sometimes it was just better to get rid of a body quickly, what, with a new strain of virus being discovered nearly every other day sometimes the weekly vaccination just didn't have what it took.

"I need one more component," answered the lizard after a long pause. It looked Chris over soberly. The call of the slabtruck was drifting into the distance, now.


"This will be the most difficult - but also the most important." It drew a long, whistling breath through its pinhole nostrils, letting the words hang for a moment to impress the severity of its forthcoming declaration upon Chris.

"Well?" Sadly, Chris was none too impressionable.

"I'll need a body," it told him gravely.

Chris snorted. "Gosh, that'll be hard to find."

"Silence, you little fool. It has to be a living body."

"Living." Chris considered this a moment. "Like, you want me to kidnap someone, or sum'm?"

"If that's what it takes. That's why I sent you for the chloroform last week."

"Oh, yeah. That was hard to get, too," Chris muttered to himself. "Hospitals are guarded like damn prisons."

"It must be male; approximately adult age; all faculties fully operational -"


The lizard sighed. "Don't bring me any crips. Get it?"

"Yeah, I get it," Chris shot back. He glad this was going to be over soon so he could get that little green bastard off his back. And more importantly. .

Chris looked into the mirror over his bed.

"So, you're gonna fix me up after I get you everything?" He ran his fingers over the moon-surface of his face, examined the jutting ribs under his skin that rippled his chest and sides like a potato chip. He looked to his bed at the Muscle Magazine laying there. His mind superimposed his face, smooth and unblemished, over the hunk's face who adorned the cover. To that, he added a score of nubile young women. "That was the deal."

"Yes, of course.That was the deal," the lizard noted, its tone dry and sardonic. "In my lifetime, I've granted men kingdoms, wealth, power! Great feats! Great feats . ."

It looked wryly at Chris.

"You I get laid."

* * *

At 8:25 Chris was pulling into Al's driveway, honking his horn. The Falcon's engine revved as he pumped the gas-peddle impatiently. The Plague Minstrels blasted on the radio.

Al dashed out a few minutes later.

"C'mon, let's get gone!" Chris urged.

Al yanked the door open and slid in. "Well, you're the one who's half an hour late." He slammed the door to punctuate his ire.

"Don't slam my door. 'Sides, we're not late for anything."

"No school today?"

"Nope, no school. All classes officially canceled by yours truly, 'cause it's just too damn fine of a day."

"Fab. I had a Math test, anyway."

Chris backed up and onto Balboa Blvd. He slapped a Razorslut CD into the stereo, cranked it, and sped off down the road.

"So, what's the plan, Stan?" queried Al.

"The plan today, my man, is to find a body."

"Hey, I can deal with that. Preferably warm, soft, young, curvaceous. ," his voice quavered with false bravado.

"No, no. You got the wrong idea. I need a male body, preferably unconscious-"

Eyes bugging, Al scooted curtly toward the door. "No, man," he warned. "I think you got the wrong idea. Is there something you haven't told me?"

"It's not like that, retard. I . I made a deal with somebody . who can get me something I want - something that can be beneficial to the both of us, if you help me out here."

"Somebody wants you to get a male body, preferably unconscious. Who you been hanging out with, lately?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. 'Sides, it's not important. What's important is holding up my end of the deal. So, we gotta find someone who'll fit the bill. Hey, where's your cousin living nowadays? He's in pretty good shape..."

"I don't know, I think he moved to - Hey! Look, man. I'm not sure I want to be a part of this."

"Jesus, Al. Where's your sense of adventure? This'll be easy. No risk, everything to gain. People wind up missing all the time, nowadays.All the time. It's, like, expected, y'know. We grab someone we don't even know, no motive, no connection to us. ."

Al just stared at Chris. He had the same look on his face like the the time Chris had, in eighth grade, talked him into breaking into Mr. Robertson science room at school, and stealing a couple of his Guinea Pigs. They had brought the little vermin to the teacher's house and nailed them to his porch, writing DIE ROBINSON DIE in the blood, in retribution for the old fart confiscating Chris's Thrashin Magazine one day in class.

Al had been aghast. "You didn't say you were gonna kill them!" he'd exclaimed, very nearly to the point of weeping.

"Well, if I had," Chris had answered, "you wouldn't have helped me."

"You're so . cold-blooded sometimes, Chris," Al sobbed.

God, Al was so blatantly stupid. And worse, he had threatened to go to the principal's office, come Monday, and fess up to their deed, and in so saying had been wearing the very look he had on now.

So, that's how it's gonna be, thought Chris. Well, ole bud, I'm at a point in my life where you're slipping into my past. I don't need you anymore. I'm a soon-to-be changed man. People will give me the respect I deserve. I'll have women and friends. And you could have been there with me, but you're just too much of a dweeb to take a chance. The only regret I'll have is how much time I wasted with you. But, now that's over. I don't need you anymo-

Wait. What had the lizard wanted? Chris turned to look at Al.

Male . check.

Approximately adult . check.

Not a crip . check.

Chris smiled, trying to look compassionate and reasonable.

"Well, Al, maybe you're right. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, huh? But, I don't know. You're the thinker. Maybe . I don't know . maybe, if you were to meet this guy, assess him, y'know, tell me if you think he's not on the up-and-up ."

"Jeezus-shit, Chris! I can tell you that right now!"

"Okay, okay. But, if you'd just meet him. Y'know. To be sure ."


"Well, if you thought this guy was no good, then I'd go by your opinion. I'd drop the deal with him."

"Can't you trust my opinion now?"

"Well, you just gotta meet him. Talk to him yourself. I know he won't be able to pull the wool over your eyes, bro."

"I don't know how close I want to get to this male body-wantin' guy."

"C'mon, Al. I'm your best and only friend. You'd be saving me from a whole lot of trouble."

Al had that weepy look in his eyes again. He always got that way when there was talk of friendship.

Sentimental wuss.

Chris whipped the Falcon around and headed back to his house.

* * *

Magdibinius brooded in the terrarium. The items that the boy had obtained were spread across the floor in two separate groups: The first for Magdibinius's soul transduction into the new body; the second for the boy's morphological variegation.

The lizard snorted. How, good it was to know he would soon be independent of that mindless, unimaginative little snot.

He flexed his tail, shook his frill, and pondered the morsels the boy had left for him, finally opting for the brown, over-ripe chunk of banana. He lapped it down, his scaly face grimacing as much as the primitive musculature would allow. He hated fruit. Still, it was better that than chasing down some disease-ridden roach. The trouble was, his sensitive lizard-guts wouldn't diverge from the narrow choice of fruit or bug.

Ah, what I'll do once in my new body, Magdibinius contemplated. First, I'll get a steak - real food! Then . then begins my search for Thauliphemus . and revenge.

He contemplated his former pupil, and the fate he'd bestow upon the under-handed little bastard. Once Magdibinius regained human form, nothing would spare Thauliphemus the ghastly suffering he so richly deserved. Magdibinius had taught his pupil everything, and when the student had graduated to the title of Arch-mage twelve hundred years ago, nearly becoming an equal to Magdibinius himself, the deceitful, ungrateful puke had betrayed him.

But, that wasn't the worst of it. Thauliphemus hadn't stabbed Magdibinius in the back for power, fame, or spite; those reasons Magdibinius could have accepted. Respected, even. No, Thauliphemus had done it all in the name of - the lizard cringed with disgust as best he could - ethics. That was all. Thauliphemus simply had not agreed with his teacher's principle that magic was to be used for personal gain. Instead, he had decided such power must be used only for the betterment of all people.

"Augh!" the lizard shrieked, as though the mere thought of this philosophy was able to cause him physical pain. "My gods, my gods . Thauliphemus, were did you go wrong?"

A scuttling sound from above drew him from his reverie. He looked up. A huge black cockroach moved across the ceiling. Instinctively Magdibinius's lizard-physiology produced signals suggesting an appetite for the bug that his mind did not share. Unbidden thoughts of beetle carapace crunching in his mouth flooded his brain. Revulsion twisted his stomach.

"Damn you, Thauliphemus," he cursed, looking away. "Why couldn't you have turned me into a cat, or a rat? At least they don't have to eat bugs."

Four months ago, Thauliphemus had taken Magdibinius by surprise. They had been waging war since the pupil had sundered the company of his teacher centuries ago. Their battles went like this: Magdibinius would inflict some disaster upon the world, and Thauliphemus would counter act with a cure. Then, just recently, Magdibinius introduced a new bubonic plague, one that constantly mutated, thus avoiding any single cure. He had been working on this for nearly a year, focusing his full attention into its creation. His attentions had cost him the potency of his warding-spells, allowing Thauliphemus to slip through the waning defenses and corner his former master in his underground laboratory. Before Magdibinius could defend himself, Thauliphemus directed a pre-readied physiotransmogrification spell at him.

The spell worked its horror, and Thauliphemus sold him to a pet shop.

"I could have destroyed you, my old master," Thauliphemus had said afterward in that gratingly benevolent voice of his. "But, I want you to see the err of your ways. Perhaps in this form you will find the humility that will connect you once again with your humanity. When that happens, you may then rejoin the race of men."

Magdibinius's blood had boiled - his own pupil lecturing him, giving him an ultimatum! Indeed! Besides, Magdibinius knew the only reason Thauliphemus had not destroyed him when he had the chance was because he was stumped on the transmutating virus Magdibinius had created, and was hoping that desperation would force his old master into a conjugation.

"Well, Thauliphemus," said Magdibinius, "I taught you everything you know. But not everything I know."

The roach above began to scuttle again. The lizard did not look up.

* * *

"Why are we at your house?" Al asked.

"Because this is where that guy is. I told you it'd be all right."

Chris killed the engine, opened his door and started toward the house. Halfway up the steps he realized Al was not with him.

Chris turned around. Al still sat in the passenger seat.

"What the hell?" he called out. "C'mon, wouldya?"

Al tentatively pushed open the car door and started forward.

"C'mon!" Chris urged.

"Chris . what's going on here?"

"I told'ya. C'mon."

"This guy . he's living at your house?" There was pronounced uncertainty in his voice.

Chris thought fast.

"Yeah . he's . an uncle. Here for a visit."

He turned and resumed marching up the steps.

"Jeezus," he added for conviction.

The explanation must have been good enough for Al, because he met Chris at the door and walked next to him as they ascended the stairs to his room.

When Chris opened his bedroom door he found the lizard sitting atop the wrinkled bed.

"Well, did you - " the reptile began expectantly.

"Shhh - " Chris cautioned, and allowed Al in.

"Why are we in your room? Hey, your lizard got out ."

Chris pulled the chloroform from his pocket.

". or do you leave him out ."

Chris unscrewed the cap and poured the fragrant chemical onto a handkerchief.

". to scare your mother away if she goes snoop-"

Chris got the tainted cloth over Al's mouth and nose with barely a struggle. In a moment the hapless kid lay unconscious on the floor.

"That is the best you could do? He's kind of pathetic."

"Hey, watch it. That's my friend."

"Oh, please, excuse me, I meant no offense." The lizard eyed the body. "Well, it's better than what I have now. Let us get this done. You are going to have to help me. First-"

"Oh, no, no, no. Not so fast, runt. You do me first."

"Why, you poisonous little-"

"You're in no position to make demands. 'Sides, what if you double-cross me? Do me first."

"Very well," the lizard resigned impatiently. "Gather the components."

Themorphological variegation was a simple enchantment. It took the lizard less than five minutes to cast the spell, another two for the magic to remold Chris's body. Magdibinius had not warned Chris the change was going to be painful. He took some pleasure in watching the kid writhe.

While Chris recovered, the lizard placed the components around Al's body, shaping the required design. Then he crawled back atop the bed.

Chris staggered woozily to his feet. "Whoa," he said, examining his muscular arms, then looking into the mirror and turning about to see every angle of his new babe-snagging bod. "Check me out."

"You'll have ample time to admire yourself after we are through with me. Now, first-"

A blinding flash cracked in front of them. The smell of ozone and burnt flesh filled their nostrils.

Their visions returned.

"Whoa, dude," Chris murmured.

"What?! No! No!" the lizard cried.

A pile of ash lay on the floor where Al's unconscious body once lain. Magdibinius heard a familiar and hated voice.

"Yes, my old master. You are clever, but I know your tricks."

The words came from above.

"No. ," murmured the lizard in disbelief, looking to the ceiling.

"I have been watching you since the boy bought you from the store," continued the great, black cockroach above. "I sympathize with your discomfort, but you have not yet learned the humility you desperately - "

"Shut up!" cried the lizard. "Shut up! Oh, I'll kill you for sure, now! I'll kill you slow! We had an amusing game, but you went too far! YouS youS humiliated me!"

"Good. That is a beginning. You are learning. Now, you must - "

"Oh, shut up! You thought you could out-guess me? You're master? Ha! Hahaha!Ha! I still have a trick up my sleeve."

With that, Magdibinius spat out a quick psychotransmutation spell, switching his own mind with what went for Chris's. (Conveniently, the components for this spell were the same as for the soul transduction, but with a shorter, less complex verbal invocation.) In the blink of an eye, Magdibinius was chasing the big, saintly, cockroach, which had just sprouted a pair of whit dove wings (apparently Thauliphemus had a few tricks of his own) out the window in Chris's newly formed body.

* * *

Somewhere in the house there was a fly buzzing.

Chris sat there for quite awhile listening to it, dazed and confused. He had watched the two moving forms, the small flying one and the larger one, go away out the window, paying particular attention to the small flying one. But now they were gone and nothing else moved. He continued sitting, his lids half-closed over his eyes. A peculiar thought was cycling around his brain, one that was almost lost between the slowly firing synapses. The thought was this: Somehow, he had been cheated out of something. He did not feel disturbed by it, but it occurred to him, vaguely, to consider what this something could be. He brought a skinny forelimb up and scratched the rough skin of his face, as though this could somehow lead to an answer. He didn't feel any different. He tried to think, but his understanding of the concept of "being cheated" began to loose cohesion. He tried to recall. Recall anything. But there was a fly buzzing somewhere in the house.

Salivating, he set off after it.

Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Cummings