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“For the last time, sir, your crystal ball is completely out of charges and we're not looking to purchase empty balls.”
Charlese wasn't entirely certain how she managed to keep herself from strangling the customer across the counter. No, customer was the wrong word. Customers were people who purchased things and facilitated the business of her shop. The man across the counter wanted free money.
“I'll have you know,” he began again, raising his finger into the air. The flaps of multi-colored fabric that hung from his arm flopped about as he shook his finger in what he no doubt felt was a stern manner. “This crystal ball is an XR...”
“Yes, sir, so you've said.” Charlese cut him off before he could once again tell her how great a series the ball had been. His steel gray eyes stared daggers into her for her interruption, but she was beyond caring. “However, 'Magiks and Mysteries' is not currently in the market for empty crystal balls. If your ball still had a few charges, we could probably work something out. As it is, I simply can't justify paying you anything for this particular model.”
“Well!” He huffed as he grabbed the ball from the counter. His stubby fingers wrapped greedily around the spherical crystal, and he yanked it away with such speed and force that Charlese thought it might well fly from his fingers. It didn't, which caused Charlese to feel somewhat sad. The man shoved the ball into one of his pockets. “I hope your boss appreciates that you just lost a customer!”
Charlese resisted the urge to inform him of the definition of customer, instead giving him a generic farewell as he turned and left. The second the curtains that acted as a door to the shop ruffled closed, Charlese fell back into her chair and sighed heavily. If it wasn't one thing, it was another.
It had been some three months since she'd inherited 'Magiks and Mysteries', a shop specializing in new and slightly used magic supplies, and it had been nothing but stress. It wasn't that the shop was doing bad business. It was rarely busier than she could handle on her own, but it made decent money. Nor was the shop in poor repair. The hard wood floors and walls had been well tended, the shelves were marked well enough, and everything was in its place.
The problem, and thus the stress, came from the fact that she'd only inherited the shop because the former owner, her boss, had disappeared in a mishap with a black mirror that was on the fritz. Since she was the only other employee of the shop, the law stated it was her responsibility to maintain the place. It made sense, given how dangerous used magical items could be, but she found herself really wishing she'd read the fine print on her employment contract. Either way, she'd had to figure things out on the fly. She kept trying to hire some help, but for some reason no one thought a new and used magic supply shop was as great a job as she had.
The quiet of the shop gave her a moment to rest. The sound of the caged frogs and doves was soothing, and the occasional jolt of the helio disks made a nice counterpoint. It was so peaceful and soothing that Charlese thought she could almost take a nap.
The ringing of the phone jolted her from her calm dozing. She fumbled about, slapping every nearby area in an attempt to find the thing. This served to send her off-balance, which knocked her chair backwards. She fell in a heap, hitting the back of her head on the floor, and grunted from the jolt. She scrambled over the chair, placing her weight on it in such a way that the chair skidded back and away, and she skidded forward. She reached out to grab the counter, stopping her from falling but hurting her hands in the process, and then finally reached the phone.
“Hello?!” She gasped frantically into the phone.
“Eh, yeah, this the owner of 'Magiks and Mysteries'?” The voice on the other end asked in a nasally whine.
“Oh, yes! I'm Charlese, how can I help you?” If the person on the other end was another marketing slime, she swore to herself, she would hit the nearest call center with a slime melting curse.
“Yeah, Charlese. This is Gil Thorpe.” He paused a moment as if he expected Charlese to recognize the name. “From Thorns, Thorpes, and More? Your reagent company?”
“Oh, right! Yes, of course, I'm sorry.” The reagents, being one of the few things delivered on a set schedule, were paid for out of the store account. As such, she had little to no dealings with the company except seeing their delivery man once every other week. She hadn't seen any need to change the set shipment since she'd inherited the shop, and thus hadn't bothered looking into it any further. She had enough trouble familiarizing herself with the regulations around ritual daggers, she didn't need to go mucking about with systems that worked.
“Yeah, I'm calling to inform you that your shipment this week is gonna be delayed. Having some problems down here at the plant.”
“...Delayed for how long?” She tried to keep the worry from her voice, but only marginally succeeded. She was almost out of eye of newt and tongue of frog, not to mention the putrescent essence that had been used up two days ago.
“Eh, week. Maybe two. All depends on how long it takes us to get the trucks repaired.” His tone of dismissal didn't make Charlese happy.
“I pay good money for those shipments, and you're telling me I might have to wait two weeks because you can't find a mechanic?” She might have been more understanding, except the man had woken her from a nap with bad news. That didn't endear him to her.
“Look, lady, if it was just a mechanic problem it wouldn't be an issue. Some wise ass got a hold of some powdered sentience and tossed it in all the gas tanks. Trucks are all busy trying to form a union and we got the U.S.O. forming a picket line outside.”
“Union of sentient objects. Look, long story short's that trying to get new trucks is union busting so we can't do it, and our lawyer says driving the trucks anyway's gonna get us dinged for slavery. So your shipment's gonna be delayed until we get this all sorted out. I'm just giving you a heads up.”
Charlese sighed heavily. She understood the man's situation, since the laws regarding sentient objects were far more strict than seemed reasonable. Charlese blamed it on the election of Governor Maytag last year, but it hardly mattered at this point. What mattered was trying to find a way to get her shipment.
“...Could I just come get it myself?” she responded with a hopeful tone.
“Hey, you wanna try passing through the picket line, you be my guest. 'Till then, I got a lotta customers I gotta call, so if you'll excuse me.”
Charlese heard the click of the phone hanging up, and then the dial tone. She hung up her end with a sigh, trying to decide what she would do. She argued with herself for five minutes before realizing that there wasn't really an option. There was no way she could wait a week for her reagents, let alone two. With a sigh, she grabbed her coat and headed around the counter. She stepped through the curtain, and turned back to the shop to activate the security ward. She spoke the activation phrase, and an ephemeral voice informed her that her shop was now in the safe hands of Tink's Warding and Gargoyles. Thus satisfied, she moved quickly to her car.
* * *
Gil hadn't been kidding. She was three blocks away from the old warehouse, and she could already see the line of objects. A line of cars, trucks, and motorcycles lined the street, revving their engines in solidarity with their delivery truck brethren. Several of the vehicles sported slogans written in shaving cream on their windows, such as 'we're cars, not pack horses' and 'carry it your own damn self'. On the sidewalk stood swarms of floor lamps, flickering on and off in random patterns, washers and dryers that rattled and shook their doors, and the occasional stuffed animal. Charlese could even see the odd protest sign, though they sported slogans from protests long over. Charlese had tried asking one why it didn't get painted and re-worded, but since it responded with vitriol she'd never tried asking again. She didn't understand the problem. It wasn't like she called it inanimate or anything.
She had to park a block away, as it was clear she would get her car no closer. As it was, she could see a Honda sport bike giving her the evil headlight. She gave it an apologetic look, and made several gestures which she hoped explained that her car was not sentient and she was only here to pick up reagents for her shop. The motorcycle seemed unimpressed.
Rather than try to reason with the motorcycle, she made her way through the crowd. The lamps turned their heads towards her and flickered in patterns she couldn't interpret, and one of the protest signs waved frantically at her. She stepped past and around them, only to have a stuffed bear jump into her foot path. It jumped up and down rapidly, making an annoying squeak noise each time its feet hit the sidewalk. She tried to turn out of the way to walk around, but found the way barred by a top-loading washing machine. It flapped its lid several times, making a loud metallic bang with each closing.
“I'm not trying to oppress anyone!” Charlese cried out, no small amount of frustration in her voice. “I'm just trying to get my shop's reagents!”
That didn't seem to appease the crowd. One of the lamps stretched its head towards her, shoving itself lightbulb to nose. It flashed angrily, which caused Charlese to wince and cry out in surprise. She hadn't realized light could be so bright in broad daylight. She stumbled back from the flash, which caused her to trip over the stuffed bear. It squeaked in pain and surprise, but Charlese was too busy hitting the ground to be concerned.
Stepping on the bear didn't make her any friends. As she scrambled up to her feet she could see the lamp flashing at her accusingly. Rather than try to reason with the objects, she decided to turn and flee. She leaped over a tricycle and then spun to the side in order to avoid an oncoming skateboard. One last washing machine tried to bar her way, but she placed her hands down heavy on the lid and leapfrogged over the top. She darted the last few feet to the glass door of the warehouse, the sounds of clattering and squeaking echoing in her ears. She threw the door open, darted inside, and shut it firmly behind her. Only then did she stop to gasp for breath, pressing her forehead against the cool glass.
“Rough out there?” came a feminine voice from behind her.
“You have no idea,” she responded without moving. It took her another few moments to finally turn around. The sight that greeted her was no different from most lobbies. Tasteful pictures of landscapes and famous people hung on the wall, potted plants sat tucked in the corner, and chairs that had clearly been purchased surplus some twenty years ago sat speckled about the floor. Against the far wall sat the secretary's desk. The secretary herself was an older woman with graying red hair puffed into a beehive. Wire framed bifocals sat on the edge of her nose, and she was currently busy filing her nails.
“Been like that for two days, now. Apparently one of our pencil sharpeners heard the boss talking to the lawyer about whether it matters that the trucks weren't turned sentient on purpose. Leaked it to the press, next thing I know I'm stepping over teddy bears and dodging clothespins to get to work.” She continued to file her nails as she spoke, not looking at Charlese.
“This is insane! How are you guys dealing with all this?” She looked back out of the door. The vehicles and the squeaking stuffed animals had begun to make noises to the tune of We Shall Overcome, with the washers and dryers backing up with a rhythmic harmony.
“Oh, this is nothing. Shoulda seen the plant uprising of '56. Now that was insane. I didn't have a single blouse left that wasn't stained with some kind of fruit juice.” She shook her head, inspected her nails closely, and then put her nail file down. Finally, she looked up at Charlese. “Now, what can I do for you, deary?”
“Oh, I'm Charlese. Charlese Tras. I'm the owner of 'Magiks and Mysteries'?” She reached into her pocket to find her wallet, figuring the woman would want to see her proprietor's license.
“Magiks and Mysteries? What happened to Leeroy?” The secretary titled her head and arched a single, well plucked eyebrow.
“Black mirror on the fritz,” she said quickly, pulling her license free. She stepped over to the desk and handed it to the secretary, who took it gently.
“Oh, yeah. No one likes an unexpected trip to the spirit lands. How long's he been gone?” She flipped through a notebook on her desk, occasionally peering back at Charlese's license.
“Couple of months. I'm just happy the deliveries were set up out of the store bank account and the process is all automated. I'd only been working there for a month and a half when the shop was dropped in my lap.” She sighed, not able to keep the heaviness from her voice.
“Yeah, that's why you gotta read the fine print on those employment contracts. Well, looks like your license is in order. I presume you'll be wanting to pick up your shipment?” She handed the thin plastic card back to Charlese, who took it and slid it into her wallet.
“Yeah, though I'm not sure how I'm gonna get it back out to my car.”
“Tell me about it. I just said to hell with it and rented a flying carpet. A little expensive, but it frees up so much stress. I'm too old to be dodging washing machines anymore. Anyway, you'll want to talk to Gary, the warehouse manager. Just head through the door here and the signs'll lead you straight to him.” She helpfully pointed to the door. Charlese nodded in gratitude and understanding, and moved through the indicated door.
The smell of reagents hit her nose like a three week dead fish slapping her in the face. The smell of putrescent essence she could handle, after having gotten used to it in the shop. It was the smell of what had to be gallons upon gallons of pungent unguent that got her. Even those two combined would probably be manageable, if not for the stench weed, ghoul powders, and what had to be five different kinds of halitotic oils. She resolved then and there to never work in a reagents shipping company.
At least the secretary had been right. The signs on the wall clearly pointed her towards the warehouse. She walked through the halls of the building, passing several offices on her way. She hurried past them, trying not to disturb what she presumed was important work. Besides, her experience suggested that when someone's job involved standing over a cauldron that was spewing thick blue smoke, they weren't generally the kind of people who enjoyed interruptions.
The door into the warehouse was an empty door frame, from which she could hear the sounds of truck engines. She stepped inside, pulling her shirt over her nose as she came directly in contact with the crates upon crates of reagents. She could see, off in the back near the delivery bay, three large trucks speaking with a man in a suit. From her position she couldn't hear what they were saying, but it seemed heated.
“Can I help you?”
The voice made Charlese jump. She turned to find a stocky man dressed in jeans and a dirty t-shirt. His hands were covered by gray work gloves, and he chewed on a toothpick as he waited for a response.
“Uh...Oh! I'm Charlese, I'm the owner of Magiks and Mysteries?” She gave the most pleasant smile she could manage, wondering how he walked around without any kind of nose covering.
“Ah, right. Gil said you might be coming by. Well, lemme get your order.” The man Charlese assumed was Gary shrugged casually, turning towards another end of the warehouse. Charlese followed him, glancing back towards the negotiations.
“So, how're the negotiations coming?” she asked, more as a way to make small talk than anything. It also helped keep her mind off the stenches assaulting her nostrils.
“Kind of a stale mate. Trucks want a full garage, premium gasoline, and a right to negotiate their paint jobs. We've got 'em under a carport, but we can't afford to build a full garage or spring for premium. We're willing to budge on the paint job thing, though.” He moved into a side room, inside of which sat several stacks of labeled crates. He looked over the wooden boxes, muttering to himself. “Magiks and Mysteries, Magiks and Mysteries...ah. Here we go.”
He pulled a box from near the center, shoving the boxes on top of it back in order to get it out. He held the crate up, and Charlese held her arms out to accept it. He placed it into her waiting arms, and she grunted from the sudden weight.
“We'll go ahead and waive the delivery charge for you. Seems the least we can do,” He gave a shrug, before moving to a markerboard on the wall. He pulled a black marker from a cup, looked up an down a grid that Charlese assumed was the delivery schedule, and made an X next to her shop's name.
“Thanks. Any idea how I'm gonna get back past the picket line? The last thing I need is a pissed off skateboard rolling itself under my feet.” She adjusted her grip on the crate, trying to spread its weight over the most area.
“No clue, but...” The lights began flashing, and a piercing siren assaulted Charlese's ears. She winced in surprise, but Gary seemed more annoyed than anything. “Shit.”
“What?” Charlese looked around, confused. “This sort of thing normal? Did a brick throw itself through the front door?”
“Nah, that's the magical creature siren. Billy must've botched the summoning. Again. Told 'em not to hire a guy fresh outta college.” He shook his head, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a small square of paper, upon which was drawn a sword glyph. He spoke a word of power, and the paper turned to ash before a reddish energy glowed around his hand. The energy sprung into the shape of a long dagger, and he finally looked back to Charlese. “You oughta get going.”
“But what about...” Gary was out of the room before she could finish her question. She sighed, stepping out of the room. The trucks and the human negotiator had already fled, though the warehouse was now littered with men in work clothes. They each had a yellow helmet with a blue crystal hanging in front of it, and they were frantically searching the cracks and crevices between the crates.
Charlese didn't know what to do. She just wanted to get her shipment back to the shop, but she didn't want to go out the front door. She also didn't want to stick around in a warehouse with a magical creature of unknown biology on the loose. She left the warehouse quickly, turning the opposite way from which she had come. Maybe there was a back door she could sneak through.
She got to the end of the hall, elated to find a steel door that proclaimed itself to be an emergency exit. After everything, could it really be that easy? She was cautious, but saw no reason to stand around. She moved quickly towards the door, adjusting her grip on the large wooden crate. The reagents inside rattled about, and she reminded herself to complain again that they delivered in crates far larger than needed for her order.
A skittering noise reached her ears as she got within mere feet of the door. The surprise caused her to hop back, surprise gripping her insides. She looked around frantically, mental images of basilisks and chupacabras dancing about her mind. She sighed with relief as she spotted a small lizard, no larger than a gecko, sitting on its haunches near her feet. It stared at her with curious yellow eyes, its scaly skin glittering a rainbow of blues, greens, and purples. She didn't recognize it immediately, but she couldn't see such a small thing being a threat.
“Well hey there, little guy. You know, you've got a lot of people freaking out.” She chuckled, starting to turn back towards the door.
The movement happened so quickly she could barely move out of the way. The lizard's head grew three times as large, and shot towards her like a snake after its prey. She managed, just barely, to step back and pick the crate up to protect her face. She felt the crate jolt and shake, and heard a crinkly thud on the ground.
She opened her eyes after a moment, attempting to inspect the damage. The lizard sat there, smacking its jaw as it gnawed on the part of the crate it had eaten. The crate itself had a hole in the corner, out of which was falling packets of rolled scotchgrass. Charlese wouldn't care about the crate, except she was keeping her reagents there.
“Hey! That's not cool!” She yelled at the lizard. She shifted the crate around so the hole was at the top, and attempted to reach out for the scotchgrass. The lizard was quicker, snapping its jaws out to devour the reagents. Charlese eeped in surprise, hopping back quickly. “Fine! Keep 'em! Geez!”
She scrambled backwards, pushing the door open with her backside and rushing outside. She managed to shut the door just as the lizard's head shot out again, and the door jolted as the lizard slammed its face against it. She sighed heavily, leaning back against the door for a moment before inspecting the damage. She peered inside the hole, doing as complete a count as the situation allowed. Down three packs of scotchgrass, but she was willing to write that off. It was better than going back to dealing with the lizard.
She moved down the sidewalk, stepping as quickly as she could with a damaged crate in her hands. She was relieved to discover that the police had finally been called to keep the peace. The protesters pressed against wooden barriers, which pushed back to keep them in line. She noticed a teddy bear struggling with a roll of caution tape that had apparently taking umbrage to the tone of its squeak, and wondered if it was the same teddy bear that had tripped her up.
She reached her car, and with little more than a grunt of annoyance reached up and removed the doll hanging from the antenna. The noose was a nice touch, but she was unimpressed with how the doll kept calling her an oppressor. She tossed it casually towards the bushes, ignoring its insistence that she would never get away with this as she shoved the crate into her back seat. She climbed in the car, turned it on, responded to the doll's shaking fist with a middle finger, and drove back to her shop.
* * *
She pulled to a stop in her spot in front of the shop, and climbed from her car with a sigh. She would drop the crate off in the front, she told herself, and then go upstairs to sleep for the next three days. She'd call it a business holiday. It was at least partially true. She was in desperate need of a holiday from the damn business.
She approached the curtain, starting to speak the keyphrase for the ward when she realized the ward had already been dropped. For the third too many times that day fear gripped her insides. She moved in through the curtain, looking around carefully as she prepared herself to find everything ripped off. To her great relief, nothing seemed missing. The relief ended, however, when she saw what was in the store. Or more correctly, who.
“Where have you been? I've been waiting for twenty minutes in here! Look, I was thinking about our earlier conversation, about the XR-232 model crystal ball I've got...”
Her eyes narrowed in a look that would have frozen a basilisk in place. She didn't know what was more annoying. The fact that the pudgy bastard didn't seem to realize he'd done anything wrong, or that he was still going on about that damned empty ball.
“How did you get into the shop?” She asked, her voice holding enough vitriol to poison a fire serpent.
“Oh, Tink's Warding and Gargoyles tends to use a couple of common keyphrases, I just guessed until I found the right one. Look, I think you don't seem to understand how...”
She placed the crate heavily on the ground, stopping just short of letting it slam. She stormed to the man, stepping behind him and pushing him in the back. He stumbled forward, and she shoved him again, moving him towards the door.
“Out! I don't want your damned ball! It's a fifteen year old model with no charges, and the company stopped producing extra charges for it nine years ago! Now get the hell out of my shop before I call the cops!” She shoved him again, not listening to his protests of how functional the model had been. He finally stumbled forward through the curtain, and Charlese shouted the ward's activation phrase.
“Your place of business is now safe in the hands of Tink's Warding and Gargoyles. Your safety is our specialty.” The ephemeral voice informed her.
“Put a sock in it!” She snapped back, before sitting on the ground and leaning back against the wall. She needed to find a new job.
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