They had left Naomi sitting on her new leather couch, bitterly weeping, with a promise to get things sorted.
A promise to try to get things sorted.
The store she had bought the book from – Crow’s Blessing, gag – was of course in Wisteria, the expensive, trendy neighborhood clear across the fucking city. The few times Peggy had been to this side of town was for work, so she doubted anyone would recognize her. They debated taking a cab, decided that was too much money to pay, and instead headed for the train. It was the middle afternoon, the sun only starting to climb down from its peak and the commuters still stuck in their office buildings, so they managed to get in a car with only a couple others.
“Are we going to be able to help her?” Aster asked. They had sat down, putting one leg up down the empty row of seats. Peggy was standing, casually holding on to one of the support poles and biting her finger nail. “I mean, I really haven’t read much of this. But what I can tell from redwave magic…”
“Yeah,” Peggy said, staring out the window. “She’s probably fucked.”
She was staring out the window at the city passing by below and not really seeing any of it. Something about this wasn’t sitting right with her. The air conditioning suddenly turned on, hitting her at her neck and back. It was nice for a few seconds, but she was quickly shivering.
“You sign the contract, that’s it,” Peggy said. “There’s no breaking it, as far as I know.”
Aster looked up at her, hearing the way her tone lilted and hesitated.
“But?” they finally asked.
Peggy looked at Aster like she had forgotten they were there.
“But…I’ve known a few demons in my time, and I don’t think they usually operate like this.”
“Okay, ignoring the ‘known a few demons’ bomb, what’s different with this?”
“She didn’t know what she was agreeing to. Demons don’t like to trick people like that. History makes it seem like witches just serve the demons they get tied to, but that’s not really it. It’s a partnership. And who wants to partner with someone who doesn’t even really understand what they’ve done?”
Aster nodded slowly as they processed what Peggy was saying. “Right. Look at what she’s done since she gotten the book. Gotten herself a face lift, some new shiny toys for the apartment…”
“And a single curse. A weak one. That’s not a lot of gains on the investment,” she said. She shivered again, and stepped away from the cold air. “This whole thing is starting to feel weird.”
“She says, after seeing a curse, talking with imps, and meeting an accidental witch,” Aster said.
Crow’s Blessing was in the middle of a brick-paved street, wedged between an expensive boutique where everything sold was some shade of purple, and a frozen yogurt place that seemed to rely on bright greens and pinks to make themselves look fun. The front window of the store was papered with fliers, mostly for local yoga and Pilates classes, meditation workshops, and somebody down in Ferndate selling ‘homemade crystals,’ whatever the fuck that meant. As Aster and Peggy stood on the sidewalk, staring, a woman in green dress and oversized sunglasses came out with a man in skinny jeans, hotly discussing one or the other’s tarot reading and what it meant for getting laid that weekend.
“This is…not what I expected? But also exactly what I expected?” Aster said. “My brain is hurting.”
“It’s a tourist trap,” Peggy said. “Snake oil and crystal placebos. So, what the hell are they doing selling actual magic?”
“Maybe it looks better on the inside?”
It did not look better on the inside. The colorful signs directing shoppers to the prayer mats and the dreamcatchers and the wishing stones were all printed. There were little wooden boxes on a nearby shelf, all apparently hand carved and painted, each with a small, gold ‘Made in Taiwan’ sticker on the bottom. Despite the incense being sold the store didn’t smell like incense. It smelled heavily of lemon floor cleaner. The music when they walked in had been a tribal sounding piece made entirely of wood flutes, but as soon as that ended a soft Michael Bolton song came on.
“Is it just me,” Aster asked. “Or is this part of a chain?”
Peggy, still looking around, saw a sign on the front counter and pointed.
Visit our other locations! the sign said, and then listed off twelve other towns in the south half of Golden.
A man walking by carrying an opened box stopped a couple feet away from them. He was college-aged with a strong jaw and a name tag pinned to his T-shirt that said GARY.
“Can I help you find something?” he asked, giving them that classic, empty customer service smile.
“Uh, maybe,” Aster said. They held up the book so Gary could see it. “Our friend bought this book here, and-”
Gary dropped the box and was running for the back before Aster could even register what was happening. Whatever the box was filled with shattered, but that didn’t stop Gary.
“God damn it,” Peggy muttered, and then she was running after him.
Everyone in the store was staring. Gary cut through two guys, pushing each one to either side and ignoring their yells. Peggy was able to slip through the gap he had made, apologizing as she did. He ran for the door to the back and slammed it behind him, apparently thinking that would slow her down. It wasn’t locked, so it didn’t, and he was still only a few feet in front of her as she made it into the back room.
“No, no, no!” he yelled as he backed up through the room, tripping over a box and another box and then finally a chair. Peggy slowed, thinking she’d finally caught him. Gary popped back up and, finally looking in front of him, sprinted for the door to the back alley.
He was halfway down to the street by the time she got to the door. He was fast. Peggy was faster. She had to catch him before he got to the street, though. If he got out in front of people it was going to be hard to explain why she was marching him back into the alley in a headlock.
She still wasn’t going to make it. As he closed in on the alley he took one last look behind her. No triumph. No smirk. Just fear.
Gary turned back to look in front of him just as Aster stepped out from the alley corner and hit him in the middle with a metal garbage lid. Clutching his stomach he stumbled back and fell on his ass. Peggy finally caught up, and with Aster they got him to his feet and walked him back down the alley. Peggy spared a few glances for the street but if anyone had noticed, they were pretending that they hadn’t.
“Please, please, please, no, no, no,” Gary said, over and over. He didn’t try to pull away, though, only walked with them like a man going to the guillotine. “It’s not my fault, please, don’t. Tell Andromeda it’s not my fault, I didn’t mean to.”
Back behind Crow’s Blessing, Peggy pushed Gary up against the wall. Snot was bubbling out of his nose and he was whimpering.
Aster shook their head in wonder. “When he ran, I thought he’d be all tough and scary. Not…this.”
“I’m not tough! Or scary! Please, don’t hurt me. I’m sorry. It’s not my fault. Tell Andromeda-”
Peggy waved a hand. “Stop, stop, stop blubbering. Who the fuck is Andromeda?”
Gary’s eyes grew wide. “You…you’re not with her?”
“No,” Aster said. They held up the book again. “Your store sold this a couple of weeks ago. Except it’s actual magic, and now we got a guy who can’t open his mouth without light bulbs exploding.”
“If you’re not with Andromeda, who are you?”
Peggy reached up and put a hand on his ear, twisting. “We’re not with her but we’re still plenty mad. Spill it.”
“Okay, okay. Fucking hell, lady.” He shook his head, trying to get his ear to stop stinging. “He came to me a few weeks ago. Said he was a book salesman and he had something for the store. Usually things have to go through corporate, but…I don’t know…he was just so convincing. He gave me one, to try out-”
Aster sighed. “And you did the first spell in the book?”
“I didn’t know it was real,” Gary said, holding up his hands. “We sell spiritual stuff, not actual magic. He showed up after I read it. Just – pop! – standing in the middle of my apartment. He said the books were at the store, and I was to sell as many as I could to anyone I could. And to keep that they were real magic to myself.”
Peggy raised an eyebrow. “And Andromeda?”
“He said to watch out for her or her goons. That she’s ‘the big cheese in this patisserie,’ his words, and that if they caught wind of what we’re doing they’d kill us both. Would she? Kill me? This wasn’t my fault…I didn’t know…the things he said he’d do if I didn’t…”
Gary broke down crying, bending at the knees and falling to the ground. Aster patted his back while mouthing, what the fuck? to Peggy.