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 Post subject: Nine To Five
PostPosted: 19 Jul 2013, 16:39 
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I have this urban fantasy setting which has been in my head so long I don't really remember when it first got started. I've always wanted it to be a book series someday, but it's not something that I can see happening until after college, if ever. I'm still really fond of the setting and characters, though, so I keep coming back to it. This is a story set in that verse. I'm not really sure what prompted me to write it, but I did, so now you can read it, if you want.

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Everyone-more or less-knows the classic standby of Twilight Zone-esque horror fiction that is the little shop that wasn't there yesterday. It appears suddenly, displacing whatever other luckless establishment was there first, and is usually a tiny, dusty place crammed with bizarre objects and overseen by a creepy old man who sells the protagonist an item sure to take his life in a more interesting direction than it had been going before. Some time later, when the unfortunate hero has discovered the more sinister properties of whatever it was he brought home, he returns to the shop with his receipt and a prayer, only to find that the place has migrated away as inexplicably as it appeared. The nature of this shop is typically not examined very closely, as that would take away from the air of eerie mystery around it. And so these stories tend not to mention things like where the owner of the shop gets his esoteric stock, or what he does when he's not waiting for unknowing rubes to wander in. Or the fact that working in a shop that is constantly traveling all over the world tends to give you jet lag.

It was for that precise reason that I was very glad to see that we were in Chicago, a mere one time zone away from home, on that particular morning. Granted, my work hours and routines were tied to my own home location, so my inner clock managed to wobble precariously in place, but it was nice to leave for work in the morning and not show up in the middle of the night.

Not that I could have told you where in Chicago we were. The only reason I knew we were in Chicago at all was because it had been written, in neat copperplate handwriting, on the whiteboard in the break room: Chicago, USA (-6 GMT). Next to the whiteboard was a map of the world with a pin stuck exactly on Chicago, just in case I might have forgotten where it was. The break room also contained a counter, complete with sink and cabinets above and below, a minifridge, a stovetop, a coffee table surrounded by mismatched chairs, and a Queen poster. There was a kettle on the stove, a gleaming brass artifact of such quintessentially Victorian design that it would have made the props master for any Dickens screen adaptation weep with joy. I rummaged in the cupboard for my mug, carefully designated 'Steven's Mug' in blue Sharpie, and made myself some tea. Thus fortified, I wandered out to see where everyone else was.

The front of the shop was empty of people, but full of just about everything else. It was all one room, but you might not realize that if you didn't know your way around and got lost in the labyrinth of shelves, racks, tables and miscellaneous piles. There was, in fact, a system to the chaos, but no one knew about it but me-not because I kept it a secret, but because all my attempts to make the other inhabitants of the shop enforce it were studiously ignored.

I wove my way to the front and looked out the windows with interest. Rain poured down on the street outside, a steady, monotonous kind of rain, the kind that could and probably would keep going all day. People hurried by outside under umbrellas or with coats held over their heads. Across the street I could see a used bookstore, a candy store-or possibly a bakery, it was hard to tell-and a shabby antiques/consignment/whatever store of the kind our shop appeared to be on first glance. Small stores. Eccentric stores. The kind of street where a strange little shop with off-key contents could lurk for years before you happened to discover it purely by accident one day. Theoretically.

I'd never been to Chicago. I don't, as a rule, count places that the shop has gone as places I've been to, since I almost never leave the shop itself. It's not my job. Officially, my job is to go through new stock, sort out what to sell, what to throw out and what to dispose of in a volcano with a hazmat suit, then categorize the good stuff appropriately and put it where it belongs in the shop according to the system that nobody pays attention to. In practice, though, I wind up being called upon to do a lot of other things, like managing customers, giving Tarot readings, making tea, making lunch, feeding the parrot, moving heavy objects, reaching high objects, fixing things, cleaning up spills, breaks and other messes, overseeing transactions to make sure everyone's being honest, providing the occasional spot of emergency medical aid, and reminding Mr. Hendricks where he left his glasses.

My job is, if nothing else, rarely boring.

I left the front room and meandered into the back storerooms, where my sole coworker was waiting. Unlike me, Harris truly can say that she's been all over the world, because it's her job to go out and acquire new stock for me to deal with. Harris (her first name is not permitted to be used under any circumstances) is an adventurer, gregarious and bold, the kind of person determined to cram as much as possible into every last minute of life gifted to her. I, on the other hand, consider getting out of bed in the morning to be stepping outside of my comfort zone, so I'm happy to leave the adventuring to her.

Normally, when coming into work in the morning, I find one or two moderate sized boxes to sort out, things we've had traded in recently, things people drop off because they think we're a supernatural Goodwill or something. Every couple of days or so Harris comes back with a another box or two worth of stuff, usually much higher quality. On that particular morning I walked into the room to find Harris reclining in the midst of what looked like the contents of an entire house neatly packed up and stacked to the ceiling.

I don't get surprised easily, but this one threw me. It's important not to show weakness in front of Harris, though, so I managed to grapple my expression down from a gaping jaw to merely raising my eyebrows. Not convinced, Harris allowed herself an enormous grin.

“Impressed?” she asked, taking a very deliberate slurp from the mug in her hands.

“What did you do?” I said. “Did you raid the Smithsonian or something?”

“Hm, not a bad idea, that,” Harris said. “We are right next to the Field Museum, and they don't even know some of what they've got in there. I bet they'd never even notice...”

I rolled my eyes elaborately and Harris grinned again. “No, seriously though. There was this guy in Ireland who fancied himself a collector, he'd been finding this stuff and hoarding it in his house for years. When he died his family knew just enough about it to be scared of it. I came by and offered to take it off their hands for a song. They were so glad for me to get rid of it I think they would have paid me.”

“You've finally done it,” I said. “You really have brought me an entire house.”

“I know, isn't it great?” Harris drummed her heels against the crate she had propped her feet on, so pleased she could barely contain her glee.
Harris and I have known each other since we were both about sixteen, and we've spent most of that time throwing things at each other. In many ways, we make neat opposites: Harris is tall, broad-shouldered, blonde and athletic; I have black hair, an unremarkable stature and the musculature of dry kindling. Harris is cheerful and outgoing; I, generally speaking, hate the world. We both strive to be the annoying sibling that neither of us had, a relationship that has worked out pretty well for both sides so far.

I walked over to the stack of crates and placed my hand against one of them. There was an enchantment carved into the wood, spiraling shapes and letters that formed a spell of protection over the contents. It was necessary. Just standing near the crates I could feel the pulse of magic from within from so many artifacts packed so closely together. Magic is a volatile, unpredictable sort of thing, not something you want to play with. If something in those crates got broken or twisted in the wrong way, it could potentially set off a chain reaction that would end with a small mushroom cloud, best case scenario. For all that I teased Harris, though, I trusted her to know what she was doing in these matters.

“It could take weeks to sort all this stuff out,” I muttered.

“Yep,” Harris said happily.

I sighed and dropped my hand. “Well. As long as there's nothing alive in there.”

Her face didn't so much as twitch, but I caught the flicker of emotion that darted across her thoughts at my words and groaned. “What.”

“There's nothing alive in there,” Harris hedged.

“What did you bring back,” I said.

“God, Steven, you're such a pessimist,” Harris said, hopping out of her chair so she could punch me lightly in the shoulder. “It's not like I came back with a tiger or anything. C'mon, I'll show you.”

She led me through the maze of shelves piled high with paint and glue and tools I didn't know the names of, to a comparatively open space under a window. I couldn't have said where the window led out to, but it was pouring a beam of gentle morning sunlight onto the toolbench below, currently burdened with a covered dome, most likely a birdcage, and a tinted glass box. Next to the bench, in another pet carrier, was-

“Is that a fox?” I said.

“Yeah.” Harris had the decency to look slightly sheepish over that one. “Don't worry, it's tranquilized.”

I bent down to get a better look. Sure enough, the fox was curled up, sound asleep, but all the same I carefully kept my hands away from the wire mesh door. “Are you sure this was part of his possessions and not just a wild fox that happened to wander into the house?”

“Yes,” Harris said firmly. “Trust me. His family had quite a few stories to tell about that fox. Also, it had a collar.”

“But...it's just a fox,” I said. “It's not a skin-changer. It's not a kitsune. It's not even one of those domesticated foxes National Geographic did a thing on. It's just a fox!”

“He was convinced it granted wishes, apparently.” Harris took another sip of coffee and raised her eyebrows significantly. “Between you and me, I think this guy was a few crayons short of a box.”

“You reckon?” I stood up and pinched the bridge of my nose, not for the last time that day. “What do you want me to do with this? I can't sell a fox, Harris.”

“Oh, don't worry about it,” Harris said dismissively. “I just needed you to make sure there was nothing magical about it. If it's just a regular old fox I'll go drop it off with the ASPCA or something.”

I felt the need to take a long, bracing drink of tea before asking my next question. “What about the other animals?”

“You tell me,” she said, with a sweep of the arm that conveyed more generosity than I felt the situation entirely warranted.

The box was too dark for me to see anything other than the faintest outline of something I couldn't identify. It was certainly something magical, though; just looking at it was making my eyes water. I got the impression of colors and something else I couldn't describe. I decided to put that one off for a while and removed the black cloth that was covering the birdcage.

It was an old-fashioned dome-shaped cage, with black bars that looked suspiciously like iron. Sitting on top of the cage's sole interior feature-a t-shaped black metal perch-was a large raven. As soon as it saw the two of us looking at it, it raised its head and cawed, in a surprisingly baritone voice for a raven, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Harris and I exchanged glances. “I had that cloth on there for a reason,” she said.

“What happens if you answer?” I asked.

“No idea.” She punctuated her pause with a slurp of coffee and continued, “If you don't answer, it repeats the riddle ad infinitum. Until you go away, or put the cover back on, and then I guess it sort of...resets, because it'll ask a different riddle when you come back.”

I set my mug down on the bench and took off one of the gloves that I habitually wore everywhere I went. The bars of the cage were wide enough apart for me to slide my hand in and gently touch the silky black feathers-not something I would recommend doing with wild animals, incidentally. This raven was either tame or simply used to it, though, because all it did was fix me with a beady eye and repeat the riddle.

I closed my eyes and used my psychic powers.

When it comes to being psychic, there is no middle ground. You either are a Seer, or you aren't, and if you are, then you are consigned to that fate from the moment you're born. And it is not an easy fate to bear. Being a Seer is not a matter of feeling some cold spots and having the occasional odd dream; it's something that defines the way you see the world and, in turn, the way the world sees you. I see the past, the psychic residue of those who came before etched into the world around me, and I see what might become the future unfolding in the events around me. I see the ghosts of the dead and hear the minds of the living, multiple layers of emotion and thought wrapped around each other in one great big mass of noise. And I feel magic: magic coiled into an enchantment, magic at the fingertips of a powerful mage, magic that simply exists within in things, be it mysterious traveling shops or riddle-giving ravens.

A Seer can learn some measure of control over their powers. They can learn how to focus them and how to process all the information they receive without being overwhelmed-indeed, they must, because the alternative is going insane before they're old enough to drink. But we cannot turn these powers off, any more than a normal person could choose not to hear or feel pain.

It's a hard existence, sometimes.

I spent a few minutes examining the raven's magic while Harris, for once, watched silently. When I was sure I had it figured out I withdrew my hand and slipped my glove back on. Harris looked at me expectantly.

“Because Poe wrote on both,” I told the raven.

The raven opened its mouth and sang a short, triumphant little tune that sounded more like it was being played by a morbid-minded concert violinist than produced from the throat of a corvid. Then it plucked one of its own feathers out and presented it to me. I gave it to Harris.

“Here,” I said. “Have some good luck.”

Harris twirled the feather between her fingers and laughed. “That's pretty nifty. So could I just sit here answering riddles for a few hours and then go win the lottery?”

“I doubt it,” I said. “It's not going to give another riddle for some time, and the magic in that feather is pretty weak anyway. It's more of a novelty than anything else.”

“Huh.” Harris folded her arms and watched the raven gnaw on one of the bars of the cage. “Where do you think it came from?”

“Oh, someone designed it,” I said. My tea had gone lukewarm. This saddened me. I gulped down about half the mug before continuing, “You know ravens, everyone thinks of ravens being gothic, magical, mysterious. So what better way to make a bit of coin than to kidnap some poor birds, spice them up a bit, and sell them to the tourists? This one actually has magic in it rather than just on it, if you know what I mean, so I'd say someone's got a breeding program set up.”

“Are you sure?” Harris asked. “I mean, there are a lot of weird naturally occurring magical creatures out there. This could just be one we've never heard of.”

“Oh I'm sure,” I said. “Among other things, that was the Legend of Zelda puzzle-solving theme it just sang there, which is not something generally found in nature, to my knowledge.”

“Oh. Hm. Yes, you have a point there.” Harris stuck the feather behind my ear. “What do you think we should do with it?”

I watched the raven shifting around on its perch. “I don't know. I feel kind of sorry for it, you know? Aside from the riddle thing, it's just a bird. It probably just wants to do...whatever it is ravens do, not spend its whole life as a curiosity for someone with nothing better to look at. But we can't just release it. It probably doesn't have any idea how to live in the wild.”

“Could be worse,” Harris pointed out. “At least they didn't make it say 'Nevermore'.”

“Okay, point.” I swallowed the rest of my tea, thinking. “I'll give it to Maggie. She'd take good care of it.”

Maggie, my one-part neighbor, one-part landlord, was a witch who ran a small farm teeming with animals and a bizarre variety of plant life. Technically I rented the house at the edge of her sprawling property, but somehow every month when I went to pay up she'd insist that she needed another pair of hands more than she needed money. So I'd spend a day picking fruit, weeding, painting the barn, or whatever needed doing that week, then she would send me back home with a box of cookies. It was an unorthodox arrangement, but I wasn't about to start complaining.

With the raven sorted out, I was about to move on to the snake when Mr. Hendricks came in.

Classically expected of the mysterious little shop that wasn't there yesterday is that the proprietor be a mysterious, creepy old man. Mr. Hendricks manages two out of three. Old he is, certainly, and mysterious there can be no doubt-even I don't know who he is. In fact, I'm still hazy on what he is. In twenty-two years of being a Seer I've run into more than my share of unusual characters-vampires, faeries, mages, skin-changers, shades, ghosts, wampus cats, you name it-but Mr. Hendricks has me stumped.

The one thing he can't manage, though, is creepy. Mr. Hendricks is closer to Mr. Rodgers than the Crypt Keeper. He tries, but, well, the fact that he thought naming the shop parrot Moriarty would be a good start says volumes in and of itself. People don't buy things from Mr. Hendricks and walk away with a shiver down their spine and a feeling of vague unease. They do sometimes get that from me, though, usually on days when I'm low on sleep and feeling even more glare-y than usual.

“Steven, good morning!” he said cheerily. His sharp features were softened by the habitual welcoming smile he wore. He may have been thin and frail, his face lined, his hair gone white and wispy, but his clear blue eyes were never anything other than piercingly sharp. “Looking over the things Harris brought in, I see? It's truly splendid. I don't think we've gotten so many things in at once since, mm, well before you two start working here. Had a trader once bring me the contents of an entire bookstore that fell through a rift in the Otherworld. But that was years and years ago.” He beamed up at Harris like a proud father. “So! What do we have here?”

“We have a raven that asks riddles and gives good luck and a fox that does absolutely nothing,” I said. “I haven't gotten to the last box yet.”
“Hm, let me take a look.” He undid the latch on the top of the box and reached inside. I held my breath. More out of habit than actual concern; animals seemed to take to Mr. Hendricks naturally, even the spiny or venomous ones.

For a brief moment as the creature coiled out of the box I thought I was looking at two things, a snake and a bird, being lifted up together. Then the dots connected and I realized what it was.

It was the size of a king snake, maybe, but with a thicker upper body and a hood that recalled a cobra. Its mirror-bright scales seemed to catch the light and spin it into ripples of ever-changing color: now deep green, now ocean blue, now vivid purple. Along its smooth back it bore a pair of wings blazing with the colors of the rainbow, from the crimson tops down to the soft violet tips. Similar feathers adorned its head and crested the end of its tail in a fan shape

It was beautiful. Even if you didn't like snakes it was an amazing creature.

Quetzalcoatl,” Mr. Hendricks said softly as the creature lazily wrapped itself around his arm. “The feathered serpent. Native to Central America. Some say they were made as a gift for the horde of the green dragon Fading Sun, who ruled in Mexico hundreds of years ago, and the image worked its way into the myriad mythologies of the native people. Or perhaps the myth came first, and the creature was created in honor of it. Perhaps they simply just happened. No one knows for sure, now.”

He gently stroked the crest of feathers on the quetzalcoatl's head. It made a noise that sounded not entirely unlike a cat purring.

“Beautiful,” he said. “And extremely rare. I wonder where your Irishman found this one?”

“No idea,” Harris said with a shrug. “He kept it in this huge glass enclosure in his garden, all doled up like a zoo. Fed it live mice, apparently.”

Mr. Hendricks shook his head in wonder. “I know collectors who would gladly saw off their arms to have such a creature. What an extraordinary find. I must have time to consider it.” He carefully slid the quetzalcoatl back in its box and closed the lid. “In the meantime, we cannot keep it in here. It needs a much larger space to live in, even if only temporarily. Food, water, a perch...”

“Tell me what it needs and I'll go get it,” Harris said.

“Would you? That would be excellent, thank you.”

This was, in fact, Harris's job-or part of it, anyway-but Mr. Hendricks still acted as if she were doing him a favor out of the goodness of her heart. I had a hard time thinking of Mr. Hendricks as my boss because he never seemed to think of us as employees, rather than people who were kindly helping him out just because they felt like it. He did still pay us, thankfully, it was just that money seemed to be such a complete non-issue for him that he couldn't fathom why it alone would be enough of a reward for our labors. A more unscrupulous person might have tried to take advantage of this and milk him for everything they could convince him to hand over, but I felt that trying to cheat Mr. Hendricks would be like kicking a grizzly bear cub: not only straight-up wrong, but likely to end horribly for you. He was more than he seemed, Mr. Hendricks, of that I was sure, and though I didn't know exactly what he was I felt instinctively that beyond the frail, innocent facade was the kind of power I had no intention of messing with. And when you're psychic, it pays to trust your instincts.


While Mr. Hendricks and Harris went to sort out the quetzalcoatl's living situation, I turned to my own job of shifting through the rest of the stuff Harris had brought back.

The crates were all made of crisp, sturdy wood reinforced with steel at the corners. The locks each had their own password, consisting of a combination of words and gestures, in addition to needing an actual key. Harris had left the keyring on top of the crate pile, so all that remained was to somehow figure out the passwords-and to get the keyring away from Moriarty, who was chewing on it. The passwords were terribly precise, impossible to guess, and she never used the same one twice. Moriarty, on the other hand, was content to give up his toy for a bit of apple.

A few minutes later, Harris came into the room, pulling her coat on. “Here, I'll get those boxes open for you before I leave-” she began, then stopped as I turned a key in the lock of the crate I had selected. The lock clicked open. I undid the latches and swung open the lid.

“Dammit, Steven,” Harris said. “Is there anything I can hide from you?”

“No,” I said.

“I don't believe it,” she said. “I'll just have to keep trying. One of these days I'll get you.” She left, shaking her head, then leaned back into the doorway a minute later and said, “Have you ever considered a weekend in Vegas?”

“Only every time you've asked me that,” I replied. Harris grinned and disappeared again.

I smiled to myself as I heard her thunder down the hall-Harris saw no reason to simply walk when she could run, stomp, skip or tapdance instead-and out the door. Odd as it may have seemed, Harris's constant attempts to somehow 'win' against my powers were one of the reasons why she remained one of my few true, steadfast friends. The fact is that Seers tend to be rather ostracized by people who know they exist, and even sometimes by people who don't. No one likes the idea of having someone around who can effortlessly see into your deepest thoughts, secrets and dreams. The fact that most Seers just want to be left alone doesn't make it any better, since even when we're trying not to we still see too much. That Harris cheerfully took my abilities as a challenge to best rather than as a reason to hate me meant a lot to me, more so than she knew.

“Reichenbach,” Moriarty squawked, pecking at my fingers. “Rrrrreichenbach.”

“Oh, shut up,” I told him.

The crates all had stick-on labels covered in Harris's rather anarchistic handwriting. The contents apparently ranged from 'Clothes' and 'Books' to 'Weapons' and 'Intangibles'. I hauled one down from the top of the pile at random and opened it.

Two hours later, the dent I had made in the crate pile was still disappointingly small, but what I had gotten sorted was threatening to block my passage to the exit, so I was about ready to take a break. A fair amount of the collection had turned out to be things that looked impressive but weren't actually magical at all, such as a dagger covered in runes that looked ominous but actually only spelled out 'Ylqubr' and a heavy leather-bound book filled with completely-made spells. Most of the 'spells' were of the utterly ridiculous 'eye of newt and toe of frog' sort of thing, but I had to give them points for the calligraphy. A lot of the things that actually were magical were simply trinkets or curiosities: a Rubik's Cube that solved itself, or a snatch of music captured in a bottle.

But every now and then, just when I thought I'd gotten the measure of the collection, I would find something truly exceptional. Buried in one of the clothing boxes, under a bunch of fancy-looking but otherwise mundane robes, I found a skin-changer's coat. It was a wolf-coat, gray and dappled brown, with a mane of rough fur along the shoulders. Long it had waited in solitude in the Irishman's collection, yearning for an owner. I folded it carefully and set it aside; you didn't sell things like that.

There was also a Hand of Glory, a hideous thing that I extricated from the crate with a pair of tongs, and a pair of actual no-kidding Seven League Boots. In the Intangibles box I found a captured nightmare of such potency it could drive a man insane.

Then there was the poltergeist.

Buried at the bottom of a box marked 'Miscellaneous' was a handmade rag doll. It had obviously been designed with the goal of being creepy, but whoever had made it had overshot their mark. Rather than having an undefinable air of something subtly wrong, the doll was so obviously malevolent that it was more laughable than anything. The stitching that formed its mouth made a jagged scar across its head, tufts of red yarn hair stuck out in all directions, and one black button eye was missing, leaving the other one staring out with an expression of vindictive glee.

It wasn't the doll that concerned me, but what was in the doll. I pulled off its ragged shirt and found a binding seal stitched into the back with red thread. It was hot to the touch. I doubted the seal had been particularly high quality even when it was made, but the creature inside had been thrashing and gnawing at its magical chains for a long time, and those chains were about ready to snap.

Poltergeists are not normally evil beings, although that analysis may depend on your definition of 'evil'. More than anything else they're like small children, in particular small children who have gone to a birthday party and had a bit too much sheet cake and Kool-Aid. Hyperactive and manic, they delight in causing chaos and confusion, not because they want to hurt people but because it's fun. Unlike children, though, poltergeists don't grow into the ability to empathize with other people and know when their actions are hurting others. Fortunately their attention spans are so short they can't maintain their destructive sprees for very long, and they have a hard time holding grudges.

This poltergeist, though, had been bound inside this doll for a long time even by my standards, a painful, boring eternity to a creature that rarely thought more than five minutes into the future, and it was pissed. It no longer knew or care who had originally put it inside the doll, it just wanted to get out and take revenge on the first thing it saw.

I was contemplating what to do with it when Mr. Hendricks called my name. I looked up and saw him standing in the doorway with a tall, dour man in a top hat behind him.

“Mr. Bramhold has come by to discuss the sale of a few particular items,” Mr. Hendricks said. Mr. Bramhold tipped his hat gloomily. “Would you mind to watch the shop for a bit while we talk?”

“Sure thing,” I said. Mr. Hendricks beamed at me. “Right this way,” he said to Mr. Bramhold, and the two of them left, presumably for Mr. Hendricks's office. He usually held those special conversations there over tea and cookies, not that Mr. Bramhold looked like a cookie-eating type.
The doll took advantage of my distraction to bite me on the arm.

I swore in surprise and pain as rows of inexplicable shark-like teeth clamped around my wrist. The thing clung on like a terrier, ignoring my desperate attempts to pull it off. Blood began to run down my arm and dribble onto the floor. The prospect of having to get stitches because of a ragdoll attack loomed frighteningly in my future.

The parrot saved me. Whether he was actually trying to save my life or just thought it was fun I couldn't say, but suddenly Moriarty was on top of the doll, biting and tearing at it. For a brief moment man, bird and doll thrashed around in a panicked melee of blood, felt and feathers. Then Moriarty succeeded in ripping out the stitching on the doll's back, and the binding seal finally burst.

Here's a tip: breaking enchantments should be undertaken much like defusing bombs. Moriarty had just performed the equivalent of neutralizing a car bomb by launching the car from a trebuchet. The ensuing explosion flung the poor bird across the room and slammed me into a nearby crate, missing the reinforced corner by a bare inch. For a moment all I could do was sit there and stare at the pretty colors while bits of stuffing rained down upon me. Then I realized that there was something I needed to attend to, namely the fact that an enraged poltergeist was now loose in the same room as a lot of volatile magical items. Unfortunately, the poltergeist figured this out before I did.

It was as if a high wind had suddenly blown into the room. Books flapped open, their pages fluttering frantically, and the lighter items took to the air. The wolf-coat was flung into my face, leaving me unable to see anything but gray fabric. Fortunately I wasn't the kind of owner the coat was looking for so it didn't try to bond to me, but I lost precious moments disentangling myself from it. As I pulled it off the nonsensically-engraved dagger flew past and buried itself in the crate about three inches from my face. I looked up and saw the poltergeist, an angry mass of neon colors forming a vaguely humanoid fog. Two violently red eyes glared out of an otherwise featureless face.

I struggled upward, trying desperately to formulate a plan. I didn't have the ability to bind a housefly, let alone a furious poltergeist, and there was nowhere that I could chase it to that wouldn't make things even worse than they already would. Harris was gone and Mr. Hendricks would never hear me from his office, so I had to deal with this without reinforcements.

Then I saw the Rubik's Cube.

I leaped towards it, narrowly dodging a glass jar that crashed into the wall and let loose a gust of wind captured from a cool October night, and grabbed the cube. The poltergeist watched me from within the swirl of paper and sharp objects that had gathered around it. Poltergeists can't help but cause chaos; when they see something orderly, they're compelled to mess it up.

I tossed the cube in one of the empty crates and the geist went for it in a blur of eye-watering color. Normally it would take only a few seconds for a mature poltergeist to un-solve a Rubik's Cube, but this cube solved itself. While the unstoppable force wrestled with the immovable object, I slammed the lid to the crate shut. The geist was too occupied with the cube to notice me giving the password until the magic lock clamped shut, sealing it inside.

Head throbbing, arm bleeding, heart still jumping frantically, I slumped across the crate and gasped, “I'm going to kill Harris.”


Roughly five minutes after I had bandaged my arm, cleaned up the mess, soothed Moriarty's ruffled feathers, made a fresh cup of tea and sat down at the front counter with an icepack to my head, the bell on the shop door rang. I sighed heavily, but perked up when I saw the woman who walked through the door.

She wore a black trenchcoat over black jeans, a black t-shirt, and black and silver boots. Her short black hair had a single streak of bright pink dyed into it. Complicated-looking silver earrings dripped from her earlobes. You could have been forgiven for thinking she was nothing more than your average goth who waxed lyrical about witches and pentacles but knew nothing about actual magic.

Well, I would forgive you. She probably wouldn't.

“Abby,” I said gratefully. “Thank God it's you.”

Abby set the large box she was carrying down on the counter and raised an eyebrow. “Were you expecting someone else?”

“No one in particular. I just thought when I heard the bell that you were going to be a customer, and I really don't feel like getting up right now.”

As soon as I said that, the bell jingled again. A young man with intentionally messy hair shouldered his way into the shop, a petite blond woman hanging off his arm. They were both, obviously, customers.

Abby smirked. I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. Again.

“Oh, look,” the woman said. “They do Tarot readings!”

Her boyfriend rolled his eyes and made a “guh” sound. “I can't believe people actually buy that crap,” he said. “C'mon, you dragged me in here. Let's go see what they have so we can leave.” He dragged the woman off into the stacks, though not before giving Abby and me what he no doubt thought was a withering look.

“People these days have no respect,” Abby murmured. She had a slight German accent, which lent everything she said a tinge of dour wryness. Abby was a potiomancer, or in layman's terms a drink-mage. She made and sold potions, some of them to us.

“I've seen worse,” I said. “They haven't started throwing things yet.”

Abby sat down on the edge of the counter and plucked a peppermint from the bowl of candy Mr. Hendricks kept filled next to the ancient cash register. “So, are you all alone today?”

“At the moment. Mr. Hendricks is in his office talking to some guy in a top hat and Harris went to get a snake cage. She ought to be back soon, though.” It was Harris's job to negotiate the potion-buying; I just sorted the stuff.

“Your job is so interesting,” Abby mused over her peppermint.

“Yes, well, after working here I can see why the Chinese viewed that as a curse.”

The customers were arguing over something which the girl wanted to get and the guy insisted was “some stupid gimmick that'll probably break as soon as you buy it”. I stirred my tea and shifted the icepack. It was getting my hair wet but not doing all that much for my headache.

Abby's vibrantly pink eyes traveled over my sore head and bandaged arm. “What's the story with the icepack, then?” she asked.

I told her about the poltergeist. She didn't bother to hide her amusement.

“You got your ass kicked by a doll?” she squeaked out in between giggles.

“It wasn't a doll!” I said indignantly. “It was a malignant spirit of chaos! That it was inhabiting a doll at the time is entirely beside the point-”

There was a shriek from the other side of the room, accompanied by a crash. I sighed and clambered out of my chair to go deal with it. Abby trailed behind me at a safe distance.

The woman was sitting on the floor against an over-turned table, surrounded by all the things that had been on said table in the recent past. She looked like she was trying to come up with a smart remark, but when I met her eyes she turned away and mumbled, “I'm...I'm sorry. It just startled me...”

I looked across the makeshift aisle and saw the source of her distress sitting on a pile of books on another window: an open black and white jack-in-the-box, with a calaca doll danging out on the end of the spring, its skeletal face grinning cheerfully from underneath a sombrero.

“I didn't touch it, I swear,” the woman went on. “It just-it just went off...”

I set my tea down on the counter and gently pushed the calaca back in the box. The customers watched me, thinking that any second I was going to spew out some angry tirade and order them out of the shop, or make them pay a fine, or perhaps just harass them like an angry schoolteacher. Mostly, though, I was just wondering why we even had that jack-in-the-box in the first place.

“No, you didn't touch it,” I said as I closed the lid. “Your friend did.”

The young man's eyes widened as his girlfriend turned to stare at him. “I...it was just a prank...” he muttered. “I didn't think she'd jump like that...”

I extended a hand toward the woman to help her up. “I believe you,” I said. “No harm done. But in the future, please do not tamper with the merchandise, lest something more dangerous go off.”

The boyfriend shoved me out of the way and hauled the woman off of the floor himself, less than gracefully. “Freak,” he muttered. The two of them flounced off down the aisle and disappeared behind a stack of books. Not two seconds later, there was another shriek.

I followed them around the books and found the woman clinging to her boyfriend's arm and staring in horror at a grinning human skull perched on top of a Lord of the Rings collection. She reached out a finger and jabbed at the skull, then instantly recoiled in disgust. “It's real!” she wailed.

It wasn't, but if she couldn't figure that out I wasn't about to tell her.

The boyfriend glowered at me. “What kind of place is this?” he demanded. “You can't just keep skulls laying around!”

“It's not illegal,” I said.

“Charlie, I don't like this place,” the woman whimpered. She was looking around at the merchandise in all its macabre glory: the (fake) stuffed crows wired to the windowsill, the rocking chair in the corner that moved by itself, the shelves against the nearby wall that were crammed with multicolored potions. We didn't keep anything that was actually dangerous down here where the mundane customers could wander in and poke at it, but they didn't know that.

“Oh come on, don't tell me you're scared of this stuff,” the boyfriend said. “Beth, it's all just fake. I bet even that skull isn't real. They just paint a bunch of stuff black and sell it to the morons who believe in this crap. I mean, look at this!” He strode over to the potion shelves, dragging poor Beth along with him. “Look, look,” he said, grabbing potions off the shelf at random. “'Nightmare in a bottle'? 'Temporary Insanity'? 'An Evening's Charm'? Give me a break.”

Beth looked nervously at the bottle he was holding, which glowed with a soft gold light. “Why's it glowing?”

“They probably put something in it. Phosphor...stuff. Or there's a lightbulb inside.” He uncorked the bottle and peered inside.

“Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to put that back,” I said.

“Bite me,” he sneered. “People like you are all just a bunch of frauds. I bet this isn't even legal. Maybe I'll call the cops and tell them you're selling people weird chemicals and...and...human remains and...God knows what else!”

He tipped the bottle, about to dump its contents on the floor. I grabbed his wrist. He made to shove me away. I dodged, but the movement jostled the bottle and splashed glowing liquid all over both of us. Beth shrieked for a third time. My ears were starting to ring.

One of the advantages to being psychic is that you know when someone's about to hit you before the necessary nerves have even fired for their muscles to move. Sadly, being psychic doesn't otherwise come with improved speed, strength, reflexes or other combat skills. So when Charlie growled, “Get off of me, freak,” and tried to throw me against the wall, I was able to avoid the actual blow, but in the process lost my balance, slipped on the spilled potion, and went crashing into the shelves anyway. The potions rattled and tipped over. One of them fell on my head. Another one fell to the floor and shattered, releasing purplish liquid into a spreading, viscous pool. Everyone held their breath, even the disbelieving customers.

Something began to rise out of the broken glass, a cloud of black smoke that formed itself into a looming figure. It wore a hood and carried a long scythe that somehow managed to appear deadly sharp. I caught a glimpse of a leering, skeletal face as it glided past me, towards Charlie and Beth, who stood petrified in the middle of the aisle. The specter reached out a hand and gently placed one long, bony finger under Charlie's chin, pushing his head up until he was forced to look it in the eyes. Or at least, the eye sockets. Charlie dropped the half-empty bottle, spilling the remainder of its contents all over his pants in the process. He didn't seem to notice.

The smoky reaper let out a deep, throaty laugh. Then it began to dissipate, and seconds later there was nothing to indicate it had ever existed. Charlie stared at me, looking like his knees were about to give way, while Beth tried to hide behind him. I caught Charlie's eye and gave him a crooked smile.

“You shouldn't tamper with what you don't understand, Charlie Owens,” I said, just because it seemed appropriate.

Charlie screamed, a shrill, train-whistle of a scream that sounded like it had been winding up for several minutes. He bolted from the shop like a scared rabbit, with Beth hot on his heels, leaving a trail of glowing footsteps in their wake.

Abby poked her head around the corner. She looked at me. Her face twitched violently. “Are you alright?” she managed to ask, in between stifled giggles.

I was covered in sticky, glowing liquid and my head was throbbing so painfully I was pretty sure I was going to throw up if I tried to move. I wanted to be angry, but the situation was so completely ridiculous that all I could do was laugh. Unfortunately, this was apparently one shock too me, because my nose promptly started bleeding.

“Oh, great,” I muttered thickly as the blood began to cascade out of my sinuses. “Could you get me a handkerchief? There should be one in my inside coat pocket. It's over there, on the coat rack. Yeah. Thanks.”

I could hear Abby snickering her way across the room to the coat rack. By the time she got back there was blood all over my face and I was using my shirt as a makeshift towel, since it was already a lost cause anyway. Abby handed me a handkerchief so thoroughly bloodstained that it the original white had all but disappeared.

“You sure you're okay?” she said, looking less amused and more concerned now. “You are very pale.”

“Yeah, this happens all the time,” I said. “It looks worse than it is.”

People always think that being psychic involves nosebleeds for some reason, although they do usually imagine it as being a thin, stately trickle in times of extrasensory stress, rather than the gory mess I was dealing with. I blame Hollywood. In reality, the only reason being psychic would give you a nosebleed is if you banged your head into something while having a vision-which does actually happen to me quite a bit. In fact, I broke my nose that way once.

With her usual sense of impeccable timing, Harris chose that moment to come back from her errands. I heard her enter through the back and come barging into the front of the shop, calling my name.

“Over here,” Abby called.

Harris came striding through the stacks and stopped dead when she saw me. For a long moment she just looked down at me, slumped among the broken glass and potion remnants, handkerchief clamped around my nose, covered in blood and glowing like a nuclear Christmas tree.

Harris has perfected the art of the eyeroll. She has a wide number of unique variants on it, each one communicating a subtly different message. I recognized the one she performed now as the classic 'Steven would be long dead without me'.

“I can't leave you alone for five minutes, can I,” she said.

The blood came off easily enough; the potion did not. Ten minutes of scrubbing at it in the shop's tiny bathroom only reduced it to a dull moonglow. I ditched my ruined clothes for some clean ones I kept at the shop for precisely this sort of occasion, an old black t-shirt and some patched jeans. I wasn't sure if the potion would ever come out of the clothes, but maybe I could wear them if I ever went spelunking or something.

Abby was describing the incident to Harris as I walked back into the front of the shop. “You should have seen his face,” she said. She waggled her fingers and spoke in a cartoonishly deep voice. “You shouldn't tamper with what you don't understand, Charlie Owens...I thought he was going to faint.”

Harris chucked me on the shoulder. “That's my boy.”

“I'm glad you approve,” I said. “Are you two going to be out here or do I need to watch the shop for a while longer?”

“I think you've done that enough today,” Harris said. I sighed with relief.

Abby had rescued the mug of tea I had left on the other side of the store. Now she handed it to me and I realized she had magicked it. It was still warm, for one thing.

I looked down at the tea suspiciously. There are certain lessons that most parents take care to embed in their children at a young age: don't play with matches, don't drink those chemicals we keep under the sink, don't accept candy from strangers in white vans, etc. My dad taught me some different ones: never accept a gift or favor without knowing what the price will be, and never eat or drink magic food unless you're absolutely sure you know what it is.

“What's this for?” I asked.

“For giving me the best laugh I have had in a long time,” Abby said. “It should ease that headache.”

I sipped at the tea. It was exactly the right temperature and tasted better than any I'd had in a long time.

“You,” I said. “are the best.”

“I got you lunch, too,” Harris said, handing me a brown paper bag. I blinked at it. I hadn't even thought about lunch.

Harris sighed. “You know, sometimes I worry that if I leave for an hour I'll come back to find you starved to death while I was gone,” she said. “Go eat, florescent-boy. Try not to wreck the shop while you do it.”

I was too tired to even provide a retort for that one, so I just took my tea and lunch back to the break room. Inside the bag was a sandwich, exactly the kind I liked, and french fries. It's good to have friends who know you.

Mr. Hendricks poked his head in as I was finishing my tea. “Ah, there you are,” he said. “That meeting went on longer than I thought it would. Did everything go alright down here?”

“Some customers got rowdy,” I said. “They broke a couple of potions. I tried to stop them, but...things got out of hand.”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Mr. Hendricks murmured. “Always so much unnecessary violence in the world. Well, I'm sure you did all you could. Is Harris back yet?”

“She's out front with Abby,” I said.

“Oh, Abby is here? Splendid! I must go say hello.” He bustled off, leaving me alone with my sandwich. I was alright with that.

The rest of the afternoon passed considerably less eventfully. Feeling more human after a meal and Abby's magic tea, I settled into the back room and began cataloging the things I'd sorted that morning. For each item I wrote down a brief description, any cautionary measures that should be taken with it, and how valuable I figured it was, if it should be sold at all. Mr. Hendricks would review the list later and make the final decision on how much each thing should be sold for, since he knew more about the impossibly complicated magical market than I ever would. The work was wonderfully calming after everything else that had happened that day.

After a while Harris came into the room, carrying a huge glass cage filled with various pet-care items I didn't recognize. She eased it onto a nearby worktable with a grunt of effort, then frowned at the crate that was sitting in the middle of the floor. “Why does that say 'poltergeist'?” she asked.

“Because there's a poltergeist in it,” I said.

“How'd a poltergeist get in here?”

“It was in the stuff you brought back.”

“What? No way. Seriously?”

I told her about the doll and the epic battle it had started. Harris picked up the shredded ragdoll and poked at the remains of the binding seal on its back. “Wow. I had no idea.”

“I'd like that Rubik's Cube back at some point, by the way,” I said.

“I'll deal with it. I need that crate back anyway.” She began taking things out of the cage and piling them onto the table. “So, I was wondering something.”

“Yes?”

“I was thinking, after work, we could go out and, y'know, see the sights. There's a lot of cool stuff in Chicago. Even you would like some of it.”

I sighed. “Harris. You know I can't do cities.”

“You always say that,” she grumbled. “You need to get out of your shell a bit. We travel all over the world on a daily basis and you refuse to even step outside. Do you know how many people would kill for this opportunity?”

“This is not about me refusing to step outside my comfort zone,” I said. “There's a reason I don't go out there. I wouldn't last five minutes. You know that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered.

Harris is not the kind of person who accepts limits, hers or anyone else's. It's not that she doesn't believe me when I tell her what being a Seer is like, that there are some things I can't do, like drive a car or get drunk. It's just that she never quite believes that these aren't things I couldn't achieve if I just tried a little harder. I don't think Harris has ever run into anything she couldn't overcome with enough effort. That's not to imply that her life has been easy or that she's had everything handed to her, just that she was blessed with more sheer strength of will than any average group of ten people put together.

I suppose I can't really fault her for it. Most people have a hard time conceiving of what being a Seer is like. They get this image of psychics from fairgrounds or, these days, reality TV. People who ramble vaguely about feeling presences or cold spots. People who are, basically, nuts.

Imagine listening to a group of people, ten or twenty of them, all talking at the same time. Some of them are shouting, some of them are whispering, some of them are somewhere in between. A couple speak in clear, concise sentences, but most of them are spouting fragments of nonsense. Listening to this group, you could hear the overall tone of the voices, maybe pick out a few words here and there, but mostly all you would hear is noise.

That is what being a Seer is like. People have so many overlapping layers of thought that to 'read minds' is to hear a medley of immediate reactions, subconscious emotions, ongoing ruminations, echoes of memory, things the person doesn't even know they're thinking about, random intrusive thoughts they can't control, a kaleidoscope of sensory input, and usually some song that's going through their head. If I tried really hard I could focus on one strand of thought, but mostly it's just noise.

That's one person. Imagine that multiplied by 2,714,856, the population of Chicago.

After several minutes had passed in sullen silence I said, “I'm sorry. I wish I could go. I really do.”

Harris could have pressed the issue. I knew she wanted to. But instead she said, “So, Mr. Hendricks says this snake isn't even fully grown. It's going to get a lot bigger. Can you imagine?"

I leaned back, notebook against my knees, and listened to Harris talk about quetzalcoatls, while the rain beat a steady rhythm against the world outside.

It was still raining a couple of hours later as I got ready to leave. Harris caught me as I was pulling on my coat. “You know you're still glowing,” she said.

“I'm aware of that, yes,” I said.

She reached behind my ear and produced the raven feather that was miraculously still there. “You sure this brings good luck?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not a lot of good luck, but some.”

“I shudder to think what would have happened if you hadn't had it, then.”

I shrugged. “What are you talking about? This is an average day for me.”

Harris looked at me for a long moment. Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out another feather, this one a dazzling sky blue. “Came off the rainbow snake,” she said, fixing it behind my ear instead. “You want to go by Widdershins? I'll buy you that cocoa you like.”

Widdershins is the part-bar part-restaurant part-who-knew-what that a group of faeries had set up in our hometown. Their hot chocolate is divine, although Mac, their brewer, still hasn't forgiven me for my abstinence of his creations.

“I'd like that,” I said.

“Come on then,” Harris said, pulling open the door. Hundreds of miles away, clear skies beckoned.


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 Post subject: Re: Nine To Five
PostPosted: 19 Jul 2013, 18:43 
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That was very enjoyable to read, though there are a few typographical Errors (you've misspelled 'fluorescent' as 'florescent', unless, of course, you meant the Potion was in Flower rather than that it was glowing), but I shall leave those to our resident Thesaurosaurus. I own I'm quite intrigued by the World — it seems as though some People don't know magical Things are real (or perhaps do to an Extent, but tend to have numerous Misconceptions), but that Witches and other supernatural Beings are not unheard-of, at least in some Circles. I would be very interested in reading more.



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 Post subject: Re: Nine To Five
PostPosted: 20 Jul 2013, 01:24 
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The setting operates under a fairly standard urban fantasy masquerade, so the vast majority of the average human populace has no idea magic and its assorted paraphernalia exist. Seers are somewhat rare, so even people who are in the know about their existence can still have a lot of misconceptions about them, but generally when Steven talks about how people view psychics, he's talking about how normal people think of psychics, which is the same way people in the real world tend to think of psychics.

Also, side note: Mr. Hendricks should be imagined as being portrayed by William Hartnell.


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 Post subject: Re: Nine To Five
PostPosted: 23 Jul 2013, 03:44 
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Apologies for the very late response to this story. I was deliberately leaving it until the summer break started in order to have a chance to sit and read it without interruptions (but in the end, at the first attempt, I got interrupted a good half dozen times and gave up until now).

I liked this story immensely. The setting is a wonderful idea: the macabre little shop that seems to mysteriously appear, sell something of significance to the protagonist, and then vanish has turned up in stories so often that it's pretty much a cliché now, but to switch things around and see things from the perspective of the shop's staff is really original. And highly entertaining. You've created a good balance between the slightly creepy and the absurd, with some lovely touches of humour. Like Klarth, I'd be very interested in reading more stories from this setting.

As Klarth also stated, there are a couple of typos, but I consider myself here to comment on the story rather than to proof-read, so I wasn't planning on going through and picking them out (unless you'd like me to).



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 Post subject: Re: Nine To Five
PostPosted: 23 Jul 2013, 21:04 
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Thanks for the reviews, guys. I only meant for this to be a solo standalone story, but if people like it I might write more of them. It was pretty fun to write, which is the only reason it got done at all-I haven't been able to motivate myself to do much of anything this summer. (As for the typos, as long as they're not incredibly distracting, I don't really care about them that much. If I was trying to publish this or something, I would, but I'm not, so...)


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