Peggy was having a very nice dream where she was on a beach and that one actor whose name she could never remember but she never forgot his face, he was shirtless and he kept bringing her fresh glasses of Mai Tai, and it kept feeling like it might change to a sexy dream any second but even if it didn’t the Mai Tais were killer. And then her fucking phone started ringing.
She’d never gotten an answering machine because, honestly, fuck those things, and the phone just kept ringing and ringing until she finally threw back the sheet and reached for the receiver on the bedside table.
“Jesus Christ, are you dying? What kind of noise was that?”
Peggy sat up, rubbing at her eyes. “Who is this?”
“It’s Aster. Duh.”
There was only one person who ever called this number, and that person wasn’t Aster. For a few seconds she only sat on the bed, trying to get her mind right. It was like taking a sip of what you thought was vodka but discovering it was gin. Your brain had to jump a few tracks to make the world seem okay again.
“Hello? Did you die?”
“No, I’m here. I’m…how did you get this number?”
She could practically hear Aster shrugging over the line. “I’ve got ways. Can you come down to Dinah’s?”
“I’m physically capable of coming down to Dinah’s, yes. Do I want to?”
Aster made a pfft noise. “Don’t be a bitch.” They lowered their voice, and Peggy was sure they had cupped their hand over the mouthpiece. “I’ve got a job.”
“You’re not bartending anymore?”
“No! Like…a job. For us. To work. Together. You know…a job.”
“Yeah, Aster I get it,” she said, pulling her hand through her hair.
It had been three weeks since they had killed that vampire behind the Thorny Crown, and not once did Peggy think Aster had actually dropped this. Because Aster brought it up every time Peggy came into Dinah’s. The books they had bought. The books they were now reading. That they hadn’t found anyone who needed their help yet, but they were looking! Peggy’s only hope was that Aster would never find anything, but it had never been more than that. Hope. Because Peggy knew what was out there, and knew someone as determined as Aster would eventually find it.
“Do I have to threaten my own safety again to get you down here?”
“No, no, I’m coming, give me half an hour. Fuck, you’re annoying.”
“Love you, too.”
Dinah’s did a sing-a-long brunch on Sundays, but it was Wednesday, so when Aster let her in a little before eleven most of the lights were off and the chairs were on the tables. All except one, up by the stage, where a miserable looking man and a waif of a woman with a bright pink pixie cut was sitting side by side.
“Where have you been?” Aster asked as they ushered Peggy in. They were wearing typical Aster attire, purple slacks and a boxy, floral shirt with suspenders. “You said half an hour.”
Peggy held up her large plastic cup and shook it around so the ice shimmied. “Needed coffee.”
Aster made a face. “Please tell me you’re going to take this seriously.”
“As seriously as it needs to be taken.”
“No, you seriously,” Peggy said, pointing at them. “I told you this isn’t what I do. If you want to, fine. I’m just here to make sure you don’t get yourself killed in the process.”
Aster considered this, a hand on their hip. “Fine. I’ll take what I can get. Just…be nice.”
“I’m always nice.”
Aster suppressed a laugh as they led Peggy over to the table.
“This is Peggy,” Aster said as they sat down. “Peggy, this is Maria, and her brother Mario.”
Peggy raised her eyebrows. “Let me guess. Twins?”
Maria rolled her eyes as she crossed her arms. “Fraternal. Didn’t hold Mom back, any. Dressed us in matching outfits until eighth grade.”
As she talked, Peggy found Maria incredibly expressive. Her nicely shaped eyebrows moved in time to her words, and even as her arms were crossed she was still moving her shoulders, shifting her weight, even cracking a knuckle. Meanwhile Mario, next to her, still sat with a glum expression, only staring at the table.
“Maria, tell Peggy what’s been going on,” Aster said, patting a hand on the table.
Maria looked Peggy over, her eyebrows making the arcs that said she wasn’t sure Peggy was actually going to believe anything she had to say. She looked at her brother, and then at Aster, who nodded. With a shrug, Maria threw her hands up.
“Basically, my brother has been cursed.”
Peggy tried very hard to keep her face neutral.
“I’m a very spiritual person,” Maria said, moving her hands around. “And I could just tell something was very wrong with his aura. It’s…how do I put this in words…it’s chipped? Shredded? Something is there, surrounding him and damaging it. Like a cheese grater.”
Peggy nodded. “He’s been cursed with a cheese grater?”
Maria glared at her while Aster kicked her under the table. Peggy stayed still, trying not to give Aster the satisfaction of shouting.
“That’s just what his aura feels like, okay? The curse…well, once I saw it…once you see it you can’t deny he’s cursed.”
Peggy looked around the table. Maria and Aster shared roughly the same expression, waiting for Peggy to do the obvious thing. Mario still sat there, hands in front of him, glancing at her or his sister every so often. Peggy sucked on her straw and shrugged.
“Okay, then. What’s going on?”
Maria nudged Mario. “Go on. It’ll be okay.”
Mario shook his head.
“I know, but you have to show her so she can help. Just something small, that’s all you have to do.”
Mario sighed, and Peggy leaned back, wondering what the fuck was about to happen. He looked up at her, and opened his mouth.
One of the light bulbs over the bar exploded, showering glass down, making Maria yelp and Peggy ducked. Aster turned and groaned.
“Not the cocktail fruit! Man, I’m going to have to replace all of that.”
Peggy looked back at Mario and Maria.
“This happens every time he talks?”
Maria shook her head. “Not this, exactly. Just…something bad. Like, okay, he realized something was wrong when he was talking to someone on an elevator and it…snapped and fell. Just a couple of stories, everyone was okay! Only then, when he was telling me about that happening, there was a car accident right in front of us. And then when we were yelling about that happening, a manhole cover exploded out of the street and hit a fire hydrant and there was water everywhere.”
Peggy put a hand on her cheek as she considered. She wasn’t too well versed in curses, but this seemed to have the makings of one. She hoped it wasn’t, for Mario’s sake, but something terrible happening every time he opened his mouth?
“Yeah, that sounds like a curse.”
“Yes,” Aster said, pumping their fist. They looked up to see everyone staring at her, and they cleared their throat and put their hands in front of them. “I’m terribly sorry for your misfortune.”
Maria held her hand out. “So? What do we do about it?”
Peggy looked at Aster. Who looked back at Peggy, harder. Slowly, Peggy realized that she was supposed to be the one with the answer. Curses…what the fuck do I know about curses?
“Curses are really hateful things,” she said slowly. “No one’s laying down the energy for a curse without a reason. I guess…we need a list of everyone you might have pissed off recently.”
Maria snorted. “Well, that’s just going to be a list of his exes. What? You’re terrible at breaking up with people, that’s not my fault.”
Once they had written down a bordering-on-long list of names and addresses, Aster promised them they’d be in touch shortly and shuttled them out the front door. They turned back to Peggy, leaning against the bar and looking over the names.
“So, that’s a job, right? You weren’t just saying that to get them to leave? He’s actually cursed? Please please tell me that we actually have a job right now.”
Peggy sipped at her coffee, pulling in the dregs with that crackly empty sound before tossing the cup into the garbage can behind the bar.
“We have a job.”