The Witch and the Magician by Beth Noland

The presence of witches in literature is a long and winding road.  Going back to the dawn of time, witchcraft and sorcery is found in some form in almost every culture across the globe. Nestled among the other literary characters found in urban fantasy, witches offer a different experience than our other favourites such as the vampire or werewolf.  Honing a gift that is controlled by themselves, the power of witches and the ability to wield their craft harnesses an intensity that captivates and pulls us in.  Sure we know that potions and spells are part of the mystery, but indeed, the magic goes much deeper.

Witches in literature have undergone many face lifts, evolving with time and audience.  When we look at the witches we know so well from our childhood, specifically those that were embedded in fairy tales, we see some interesting differences that divided them.  Some witches, such as the one in Hansel and Gretel, are very one dimensional characters.  In this case, she is very much a part of the early literary archetype of the witch—old, ugly and mean. There isn’t much explored around the character, other than what is given. But that isn’t true for all of the witches that we see in fairy tales.  Others were more complex characters, using their powers of sorcery to attain something that we would think to be unattainable.  Take, for example, Dame Gothel from Rapunzel.  Catching her neighbour in her garden, she exchanges her silence about the theft for the thief’s firstborn child.  Although a ridiculous and preposterous bargain, the neighbour agrees.  It is the same in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson.  The Little Mermaid comes to the Sea Witch and asks what can be done regarding her desire to become human.  The Sea Witch offers what seems like an unbelievable solution (the Little Mermaid losing her tongue and gaining legs that give her searing pain), and the Little Mermaid agrees to the exchange. Not only do Dame Gothel and the Sea Witch give the neighbour and the Little Mermaid a choice to do what is right, they both choose the road less travelled: the more painful option with very high consequences.

Fast forward to the witches in modern day literature, and we see something even more interesting.  We see magicians — strong women that are no longer the villain but powerful leads that push through boundaries. Hermione Granger, although perhaps a bit annoying sometimes, uses her knowledge and wit to get her friends out of dangerous situations on more than one occasion.  Not to mention Alice Quinn (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman), a reserved and intricate character that has an amazing natural ability to understand and manipulate the world around her.  Furthermore, we see men enter the profession in a seamless and endearing way.   From Harry Potter to Quintin Coldwater, the witch, or more notably now, the magician, is making a comeback.

They are the masters of their own destiny, controlling and unleashing their powers for good (and sometimes bad), but always managing to maintain a level of dignity among the other characters and their readership.  We like them and can identify with them.  No longer are they the old women that hide in the forest, waiting for little children to stumble upon their house. Instead they walk in the light, hoping to do what is right and just. They have become people with thoughts and feelings, desires and yearnings to grow and expand their knowledge, offering us, the very ordinary reader, a little chance for some hocus pocus.

Button Witch by Jane Lindskold

You find the Button Witch in places where there are lots of different buttons. She haunts these places, looking for…

Well, no one actually knows what she’s looking for.

It’s said that if you find the Button Witch and ask just right, she’ll grant you a wish. Not any sort of wish, mind you. Only a button wish. If you can figure out just what a button wish might be, you’ll get what you ask for – and you’ll live with it, too, even if later you change your mind.

Penn had seen the Button Witch three times. The first time, she’d been eight – a skinny kid with curly copper-bright hair and a button-nose – searching through a Goodwill for the makings of a Halloween costume. She’d been called “Penny” then, and liked it.

The second time Penn saw the Button Witch, she was thirteen, prowling through a flea market, looking for treasures that probably existed only in her mind. She was getting curves by then, and was becoming self-conscious about her freckles. She’d also decided that she was too old to be called “Penny,” but felt that “Penelope” was too much of a mouthful.

Penn’s final glimpse of the Button Witch had been when she was nineteen, hunting for affordable secondhand furniture for her first-ever apartment. She’d decided she wanted to be called Penn, and she was – at least by everyone except family.

Each time Penn had seen her, the Button Witch had looked just the same: a bent old woman with a face so aged and withered that she could have been any race, except the very darkest. Her eyes were shoe button black and shoe button bright, her hair a steel wool halo that tumbled about head, neck, and shoulders – wispy fine, yet full all the same.

It was her clothing that made the Button Witch stand out, for every bit was covered in buttons. Her earrings were buttons, as was the wide necklace that covered her chest. Button bangles dangled from her wrists, and button rings decked her gnarled fingers. If she wore a hat, it was sewn all over with buttons. Her shoes, of course, were fastened with buttons.

She clattered gently when she walked: a sound like dry leaves, tossed dice, or rattling bones.

Penn never spoke to her but, maybe because of those encounters, she took to collecting buttons. At first Penn just tossed the buttons that popped off her shirts or she found on the streets into a little cedar box. Later, she purchased bottles or bags of odd buttons at thrift stores, enjoying the process of sorting and organizing.

Inevitably family members noticed Penn’s interest. They gave her their own pop-offs, sometimes even going to the trouble to clip the buttons from a shirt or dress otherwise destined for the trash. When she moved into a retirement community, Penn’s grandmother gave Penn her own button box. This contained some really interesting buttons, some of which Penn’s grandmother claimed had belonged to her own grandmother.

About the time Penn’s hoard was becoming unwieldy, she learned there were serious button collectors out there. Although she never lost her pleasure in even cheap plastic buttons, she traded some of these away to make room for rarer types. The buttons she couldn’t trade, she made into jewelry or sewed onto caps or gloves.

Buttons weren’t Penn’s only hobby. She loved music as well. Not just the playing of it, though she played many instruments – strings and winds and keyboards all. She made rattles by netting gourds with mesh inset with four-holed buttons, combining her passions. Everyone knew Penn was a performer, but few knew that in her heart of hearts, Penn desired to make her mark as a composer.

Over time, while buttons remained of great interest, Penn turned more and more of her attention to musical composition. It wasn’t enough to hum a piece or sing a few bits so that her fellow performers could follow along. She wanted to learn to compose – and in the proper, old-fashioned way, not using some computer shortcut.

Many of her classmates laughed at her desire to do things the slow, hard way, but Penn had long gotten over worrying about people laughing at her. Collecting buttons was something that made a lot of people look at you sideways. Start wearing button jewelry or a button-mosaic cap, and, well…

When Penn turned twenty, she started feeling the pressure to achieve rather than dream. There were plenty of competitions calling for original compositions – she’d even won a couple, though not since high school. The thing was, many of the contests were for younger or amateur composers.

Penn guessed she wasn’t considered young anymore because now, instead of people asking her what she was studying or majoring in, she was starting to hear, “So, what are you going to do when you finish school?”

Most assumed that she’d teach, but Penn didn’t want to teach. Anyhow, teaching jobs in music were getting harder and harder to find, what with schools cutting their electives. Penn figured that if she was going to make her way in music, she needed to set herself above the rest. And she’d better do it now, before she was too old to be considered a prodigy.

Penn spent hours online reviewing all the different contests, but that wasn’t much help. There were a lot of options. That was good. But if there were so many, that had to mean there was lots of competition. Penn’s confidence plunged. Was she special enough? Was her vision… (Do you still call it “vision” if it’s the music playing in your head?) …sufficiently unique?

Penn wished she knew. And when she thought of wishes, she knew what she had to do. She had to find the Button Witch and make a button wish.

Given that Penn had only seen the Button Witch three times, and that those times were scattered over eleven years, she didn’t have much of an idea where to start her search. She began at thrift shops, drifting up and down aisles where clothing pressed tightly together on metal racks. She concentrated on aisles where coats and higher end offerings were grouped, since these were more likely to have fancy buttons, but nowhere did she see an elderly woman covered all over with buttons.

Antique and collectible shops were Penn’s next target. She avoided the high-end places, focusing on those that were closer to being what her dad would have called “junk shops,” since their eclectic assortment of wares was more likely to include odd bottles filled with buttons or mixtures of otherwise unsaleable costume jewelry meant to tempt crafters or someone hoping to find treasures among the trash.

Penn’s search wasn’t completely fruitless, since she found a sheet of moonglow glass buttons, overlooked because they’d gotten smudged and dirty, as well as some low value but nicely made horn buttons. However, as far as the Button Witch went, Penn drew a blank.

Eventually, Penn figured she’d better go talk with the people who had told her about the Button Witch, about how she granted wishes and all that. The problem was, when she started to make a list, Penn realized she couldn’t remember a single name or face. That seemed incredible. Surely she would remember something as significant as that.

She stood on the sidewalk, buffeted by random spurts of air from cars and trucks racing by on the street, rocking a jar of buttons back and forth in her hands. The buttons made a soft muffled clatter, but Penn heard words in the sound.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

And hearing the sound, Penn realized who had told her about both the Button Witch and button wishes. It hadn’t been any person. It had been the buttons themselves, telling tales as Penn sorted and shifted, as her eyes took in color and shape, as her fingers moved in the intricate patterns of a dance choreographed by revelation.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

Penn backed away from the traffic’s flow, drifted into the lightly graveled lot that served as extra parking for the strip mall on weekends when the shops drew their greatest trade. The lot was empty now except for a scrawny elm and a battered panel van. Together they cast an uneven patch of shade that looked just like a little house with a tree growing alongside. On the doorstep of this shadow house sat the Button Witch, her motley finery crowned by a high-topped hat covered in buttons of brass that looked like gold, of tin that shone like silver, accented with gloriously gemmed buttons in vibrant hues of faceted glass.

The Button Witch looked up from stitching an elegant lacquered button onto a charm string. She gave Penn a smile that showed her teeth and made lines crinkle into lace around black-shoe-button eyes.

“So you’ve come looking and you’ve been finding. What brings you to my door?”

Penn forced herself to answer with a boldness she didn’t feel. “I’ve come to ask you to grant me a wish.”

The Button Witch laughed a laugh that was neither kind nor unkind, but hissed and chimed like plastic upon metal, like metal upon glass. “I only grant button wishes, and those only to folks who can tell me first what a button wish might be.”

Penn had expected this. “I can tell you what a button wish is, lady.”

“Can you now? Then speak. ‘Tis traditional to give three tries, but for this I give only one.”

“A button wish is like a button. It holds and frees, binds and looses, fastens and unfastens.”

The Button Witch laughed again, this time with pleasure. “That’s a fine answer. Correct, too. Very well. Tell me what you wish for, and I’ll tell you if I can grant it.”

Penn took a deep breath. “I wish to be able to hear the music of the spheres.”

“And how is that a button wish, my pet?”

“The old theories say that the music of the spheres is all around us, the universal music caused by the planets as they travel through their orbits. I figure that our minds must be closed against hearing it, the way we don’t hear the sound of our own breathing unless we listen for it.”

“And you wish to hear this?”

“I do! I want to make music that’s unique. Every other inspiration has been used and used again. This would be different…”

The Button Witch rubbed her wrinkled neck below her pointed chin, considering. “I can open your ears to these sounds, but I can’t give you the gift of making music. That’s not mine to give if it’s not in you already.”

“I can make music,” Penn replied confidently. “I’ve been studying that longer than I’ve been studying buttons. Assurance that I will stand out from the crowd is what I’m lacking.”

“Then consider your wish granted,” the Button Witch said, “although as with most wishes, I wonder if you’ll like it as much as you think.”

Penn was almost disappointed. “That’s it? There’s no quest? No payment?”

“Give me that bottle of buttons you hold, if you’d like,” the Button Witch said. She already looked a little bored and was eyeing the charm string she’d been making. “Then go your way. The binding on your hearing will come loose over the next few hours. Something so tightly fastened doesn’t come undone all at once.”

“Thank you!” Penn said ecstatically, never doubting for a moment that the Button Witch spoke the truth. “Thank you! Thank you!”

But the Button Witch paid Penn no heed. She was busy unscrewing the top from the bottle of buttons and spilling the contents onto the ground at her feet.

#

Penn was parking her car in front of her apartment building when she heard the first notes of the universal symphony. They were light and fleet, high-pitched, rapidly played on various sorts of flute. Without even needing to think, Penn knew this was the music Mercury made as it raced around the Sun.

She thought that Venus would come next, but it was Saturn, playing cymbals and triangles on its rings. Then came Mars, strident in brass. Venus was violin in its many moods: sometimes sweet and lovely, others aching with grief, still others merry fiddle strokes.

Jupiter was oboe backed by thundering timpani drums. Neptune surprised Penn by alternating harp and piano. Uranus had chosen steel drums and dulcimer. Pluto played saxophone and tambourine.

Earth played bass, both acoustic and electric, heartbeat backdrop to all the rest.

That was the first day. And the first night. And the second day. And the second night.

Penn struggled to transcribe, though her head ached. The universal music ebbed and flowed as the planetary orbits flung the sounds farther and nearer but, even when a planet was at its greatest distance, its contribution to the symphony never ceased.

On the third day, Penn began to hear the Sun, which astonished her by preferring electric guitar, playing both rhythm and lead. On the fifth day, she heard the rattle of the asteroid belt. On the seventh, she caught the descants of the various moons.

On the eighth, when she began to hear the closer stars, she realized she had to do something or else she’d go mad.

#

Finding the Button Witch the second time was much harder. The music of the spheres had grown so loud that, although Penn shook a bottle of buttons so close to her ear that it touched the lobe, she could barely hear the sound.

Worse, discordant and peculiar as the music could be, some of it was really good. Or at least really interesting. Periodically, Penn had no choice but to stop, lean against whatever was nearest, and scribble notes to herself. She wondered if they would make sense later, but she had to try and capture some of the odd combinations swirling around.

A couple times she nearly walked into traffic, mistaking the blaring warning horns for Mercury’s brass, failing to hear the hissing tires because they became instruments in the concert playing inside her skull. After being chased out of an antiques store for nearly blundering into a case of valuable purple glass, Penn flopped onto a bench and sat, shifting the bottle of buttons between her hands, concentrating on the faint whisper of its call.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

The bench shook when a figure clad in a pantsuit sewn all over with white pearl buttons, accented in pink and yellow Bakelite, plopped down next to Penn. Today the Button Witch wore a wide-brimmed cap that Penn could have sworn was Penn’s own handiwork, rows and rows of animal-shaped buttons marching around the circumference, descending from a Noah’s Ark perched in place of the more usual cap button.

Despite herself, Penn smiled.

“I don’t do take backs,” the Button Witch said.

“I didn’t think you did,” Penn replied, because she didn’t. “I don’t want a take back. I want to make a new wish.”

“Ah, now… that’s different!” The Button Witch grinned. “But I only do one wish for free or for gift. This time there’s a price.”

Penn nodded. “That’s fair. As you recall, even last time I didn’t think it was fair you grant a wish for nothing. What’s your price?”

“Give me a button that you have but which I do not. I’ll tell you this much. It’s a button you already have. And I’ll be generous. You’ll have three guesses as to which button I want.”

Mars played triumphant fanfare. Uranus chased it up and down the scales on steel drum. By the time Jupiter had finished sad commentary on oboe and timpani, the Button Witch had vanished. Head thundering, Penn staggered home to inspect her buttons and wonder just which one the Button Witch didn’t already have.

#

Maybe because they had an agreement, the next time Penn went to find the Button Witch, she found her easily enough. The Button Witch was sitting alone in the back room of a shoddy thrift shop, snipping buttons from clothes too decrepit for even this place to sell.

As Penn pulled up a metal folding chair, she wove the faint chink-chink of buttons falling into a glass jar into the moody piece currently playing in her head. Sitting down, she toyed with the small, cool disks she’d dropped into her pocket before setting out.

The Button Witch, dressed today in a skirt heavy with the magnificent brown into honey gold of tortoise shell – some of which might be real, not imitation – and a vest alive with a clattering sparkle of mixed metallic, gave a sly grin by way of greeting, but left it for Penn to speak first.

“I think I know what button I have which you don’t.”

“Are you sure? You only get three guesses.”

“I’m pretty sure. My only problem is that, if I’m right, I don’t know how to give it to you.”

The Button Witch’s dark face crinkled with delight. “I’m sure we can work something out. Take your guesses three, then.”

Penn recognized a ritual when she heard it and took a button from her pocket. It was one of the prizes from her grandmother’s button jar, an early nineteenth century button, in which a tiny painting was protected by a minute glass dome. “Is it an antique underglass?” she asked very formally.

The Button Witch opened her vest to show a necklace made all from the rare things.

Penn put the underglass button back into her pocket and took out her next offering. This was a more modern button, but a prize nonetheless. She’d clipped it from a ruined gown by a couturier known for commissioning unique buttons for his creations. “Is it a passementerie?”

The Button Witch lifted her skirt and showed that the sides of her voluminous knickers were fastened with a mismatched array of similar braid-covered buttons.

“Last guess, little collector.”

Penn dropped the formality and leaned close enough to whisper. “It’s a bellybutton, isn’t it? I’d keep the bargain, but I don’t know how to give you mine.”

She kept her tone light, though her mind overflowed with images right out of a horror film. Of bloody surgery performed right here on the thrift shop’s dirty floor. Of a long fingernail darting out and scooping the flesh from her middle in a twisted inversion of a Turkish legend she’d read long ago. But the music of the spheres was more than she could take, and she’d put up with whatever it took to get her wish granted.

But though Penn steeled herself against flinching, the Button Witch only grinned a mischievous, crinkled smile. “That’s the button I had in mind, chick. I’ll settle for your keeping it for me in exchange for a vow that you’ll tell no one what button I lack. That would ruin all the fun.”

Penn nearly collapsed in relief. She’d spent days puzzling – navel gazing, as her mom liked to say – until she’d come up with this solution to the Button Witches’ riddle, only to be terrified by what it implied.

“So I’ll get my wish?”

“If it’s within my power to grant, you do. But first you vow not to tell the answer to my riddle, on pain of having the wish revoked and worse besides.”

Penn nodded. “I do vow. Seriously, I won’t tell anyone.”

“So what do you wish?”

Penn tried to remember the exact wording she’d worked out. It was hard, what with Venus playing soaring melodies on her violin and Pluto providing improbable harmonies on saxophone.

“My new wish is a second part to my first. Then I wished to hear the music of the spheres. Now I wish to be able to control when I hear it – to be able to bind and loose for myself.”

The Button Witch laughed. “I understand. Yes, I can grant that. Too much of anything, even inspiration, can be too much. And, now, be done with wishing and get on with doing. You’ve shown you can be very persistent, even to believing in the impossible.”

Penn pressed the passementerie into the Button Witch’s wrinkled hand. “A present and a promise. I’m done with worrying so much about not being good enough that I stop even trying. Maybe I’ll make the cut, maybe I won’t. I see now that if I waste all my energy stressing about what the future will bring, I’ll waste the present. In the end, the present’s all we have, isn’t it?”

But the Button Witch only smiled as she tucked Penn’s gift away and said nothing more.

#

Penn didn’t ever see the Button Witch again, at least not to talk to, though she imagined she glimpsed her from time to time, going around a corner or darting into a stall at some crowded antique mall. However, whenever Penn hurried after, she failed to find that curious old woman, clad all over in buttons.

But Penn had no doubt that the Button Witch was still out there, collecting her buttons, making her charms, granting the occasional wish: fastening and unfastening, binding and loosing.

Dead Records Part 4

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 2: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/04/dead-records-part-2-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 3: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/05/dead-records-part-3

I waited in an empty recording studio all the next day.

It wasn’t a patient wait, if you know what I mean. Lots of pacing, lots of grinning like an idiot wanting to give the good news. It’s a pretty rare thing for me, this whole good news lark. I quite liked it. And hey, the fact it would keep Yevgeny happy was a serious bonus.

Harvey asked me how the previous night had gone. I didn’t have to tell him; it was on the news. We watched the segment with an air of detached fascination. It was like Take That Fever, Back Street Boys Banality and Madonna Mayhem all rolled into one very marketable package. And as if the universe felt it necessary to confirm just how lucrative it was, the phone rang immediately after the segment and then rang again. I took calls from four different promoters in the next few hours, but none as big as Casterly, so I blew them off in the nicest possible way. When the phone had remained silent for half an hour, I phoned Rick. Ten minutes later I hung up and looked at Harvey.

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

He still looked at me. A bit expectantly this time.

I looked at him.

It was a long bit of looking with no words. Normally this amount of silence and looking leads to a pretty passionate first kiss in my world, but Harvey wasn’t my type.

Not that I didn’t want to kiss someone.

“Are you going to tell me?” he asked, after what felt like a whole deep and meaningful amount of silence had passed between us.

“I… ahhh… We… that is… well, not us, obviously… Aura. We got the gig. We’re playing Wembley.”

Harvey’s face split in a cheerful smile. “Well, I’d say this is a Fortunate Friday,” he said, making the sign of the cross really quickly as he looked at the last lingering stain of a fledgling career on the soundboard. “We’d better get working on that single.”

He found me in the editing bay a couple of hours later listening to Aura’s single on repeat. He had to pry my hands off the headphones and reboot the computer I’d used to listen to the file. I’m not sure what he thought was wrong with me, but he gave me some water and made sure I ate. Then I pushed him away. I needed to edit together the various takes or we wouldn’t have a song to give the BBC. Without the song, one concert wouldn’t do much for her career, even if it was at the greatest stadium in the world.

I tried again, this time with Harvey in the room. I couldn’t listen to more than a few seconds before I felt myself slipping back into the same dark pit that had consumed me at the Broken Doll. I threw the headphones across the room and they shattered against the wall, scattering black plastic and electrical components across the floor.

I didn’t care.

If I didn’t figure out a way to produce this song, Aura’s career would go nowhere, and Yevgeny Dolgov… well, forget Dolgov. He could only kill me once, after all.

At least I thought he could. You can never really tell with these foreign types.

“Serious question, Marcus. What do you think will happen to the crowd at Wembley when she starts singing?” asked Harvey solemnly. He looked at the headphones. I knew what he meant. It was the same fear that had had me hurl the headphones across the room in the first place. It was the first time I’d seen him look anything less than jovial. He was probably around Defcon 4. Maybe 3.

I held my head in my hands and let it slide down until it hit the desk.

I tried to reason it out.

The crowd at Wembley would be different.

It wouldn’t be drunks and barflies this time, not like at the Broken Doll. This was an all-ages show. There would be kids there. That was a good thing, right?

“I don’t know.” I said, trying to keep a moan out of my voice. “I don’t know.”

The truth was that I still had no idea where Aura was, and here I was producing her single. “I can’t think about this. Not yet. One day at a time. I’m going home. We’ll worry about Wembley tomorrow.”

I didn’t notice that the deadbolt had been punched out of the door of my flat until I tried to put my key in it. The wood was splintered where the lock had been, but the door was otherwise undamaged. Someone had even closed it behind them. Considerate B&E men, I guess. I knelt and looked through the hole. The flat was dark, but I could still see the broken-off deadbolt lying on the linoleum tiles of the foyer, next to my criminally disorganized shoe tree.

Had I been robbed? It didn’t make sense. I half-suspected Dolgov, but I’d done what he’d asked. Aura was in the news. She wasn’t exactly a household name, but she was on her way. Still, the thought freaked me out enough that I debated knocking on my neighbor’s door and having them call the cops, but the Bains were a working class Pakistani family and hated me already, given as I represented everything that was wrong with the world, so I didn’t bother. Instead, I searched around for a weapon and came up blank. There was a red plastic baseball bat and a hockey net outside the Bains’ front door, but the bat was one of those tee-ball jobs that weighed maybe half a kilo, and the last time someone used a net as a weapon, they were fighting lions in the Colosseum in Rome. Instead, I made a fist around a set of keys, with the key to the Jetta jutting out between two knuckles like a unicorn’s horn, and opened the door.

“Hello?” I called, which is always a great thing to do when walking into a dark flat where you’re pretty sure someone is waiting to beat your brains out. I crept into the foyer. The kitchen was just to my right, a bachelor-sized thing with a pass-through that looked into the living room. A few pots and pans littered the stove and a cutting board had been left out. I didn’t even know I owned a cutting board. Most of my meals thawed themselves out in the microwave.

I advanced further into the apartment. “Aura?”

I found her in the hallway, looking at one of the pictures that hung on the wall–my sister and I at the rear entrance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. About ten feet behind us, in blurry profile, was Keith Richards, who’d been completely unaware of us, but was, of course, the reason we’d taken the picture in the first place. We basically photo-bombed the poor bastard.

Aura was dressed in the same revealing outfit she’d worn at the Broken Doll, which made me wonder where she’d spent the night. With Dolgov? I found it hard to believe he wouldn’t have supplied her with a change of clothes. Her pink Scottish war-paint was mostly intact, though she looked more like Brokenheart than Braveheart.  She probably needed special makeup remover to get it off.

“Is this your girlfriend?” she asked, unhooking the picture from the wall.

“Sister,” I said.

I shoved my keys in my pocket and then removed my coat and put it in the closet. “She lives in Sussex now. Two kids and a third on the way.”

Aura made a face that basically said ‘too much information’ and hooked the photo back on the wall. She ducked to see the next one up close and then shrugged. “You need more pictures.”

“I need more life,” I said.

I closed the closet door and leaned on the wall, folding my arms over my chest. I had been worried that whatever I’d felt in the Broken Doll would come back the moment I saw her but, though I did feel something, it was because she was a very beautiful woman and the get up she was in was hot, nothing more. Good old-fashioned horniness. “Did you know what was going to happen, back there in the club?”

“Do we have to talk about that?” she asked.

“We need to plot our next move, and that means that I need to know exactly what happened and how we can stop it from happening again. Which means we’ve got to be truthful. I’ll start. You scared the fuck out of me back there. Your turn.”

She tried to walk past me, but the hallway was narrow, and I sidestepped in front of her. Annoyed, she reached to push me out of the way and then stopped. She withdrew her hand and bit her lip. “I thought I could control my power. My passions flow through my music, and usually that passion is hunger. I thought if I wasn’t thinking about eating, if I was singing about something else, then the audience would have a different reaction. But then I was singing about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, and I was shaking my hips, and I saw you in the crowd, and you looked great, and I guess I got hungry in a different way.”

I stared at her. A different way. A few images leapt to mind, mostly of her, mostly naked, mostly shaking her hips, and mostly with one pissed off Yevgeny Dolgov’s vampiric shadow looming over them, which I had to shove back down into my subconscious real fast. This was Dolgov’s girlfriend. If I laid a hand on her, he’d probably remove it from my wrist and feed it back to me along with anything else I laid on her. Or in her. Yeah, not going there.  “Well.” I cleared my throat and awkwardly pushed off from the wall. “Well, then.”

“Do you have any wine?” she asked abruptly.

“Yes,” I said, grateful for the distraction. “A chardonnay or a… I can’t remember, but it’s red and the clerk at the off-license recommended it.”

“I’ll take red.” She squeezed past me, rubbing her body against mine. I bit my bottom lip hard enough to draw blood as I watched her walk down the hall and into the living room before I entered the kitchen. I had to remind myself her boyfriend was a bloodsucking fiend. No matter how good she looked, I was a fan of keeping all of my blood inside me. I took the red out of the cupboard, opened it, and let it breathe before pouring myself some white from the fridge. I was hungry, but she’d already eaten… one of the salmon steaks my sister’s husband had given me after his last fishing trip (judging from the residue in the pan), and I felt awkward eating in front of her. Especially since the only other thing I had on hand were a few ready meals.

She waited for me in an overstuffed leather chair that I’d set perpendicular to the accompanying loveseat. Unlike the contents of my refrigerator, I had spent some money on my flat, and the furniture was upper-end. Aside from the loveseat and chair, a flatscreen was mounted to the wall above a small gas fireplace I sometimes lit in the winter months. Hand-painted portraits of the Rolling Stones that I’d bought at auction were hung on one wall. I remember being impressed by the skill involved in their creation. The artist had captured Mick right down to his pout.

I set her glass on the coffee table between us and sat on the loveseat. Her feet were spread wide apart, but her knees were pressed together. Very ladylike. She took off her earrings, set them on an end table, and then reached for her glass. She took a sip and savored it. “Your clerk was right. It’s not bad.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked abruptly. No beating about the bush for me. And then, embarrassed: “I mean, what happened after the show?”

“I didn’t know where else to go. When you disappeared into the crowd at the Broken Doll, I knew what would happen if I stuck around. You remember the two guys fighting in the parking lot?”

I nodded.

“That. That’s part of the magic. Usually my song brings more than one man to me, and when they arrive, they fight over me. One will kill the other, and then I take the survivor.”

I felt a chill as she described how she fed. She was so cold and dispassionate, like it was just a fact of life. Suddenly the glass of red in her hand looked a lot like blood.

She saw me looking, set it down, and then leaned back in her chair. “When you disappeared into the crowd, I was worried you might be hurt, so I ran. I had no money, no phone, and,” she looked down at her bare midriff, “barely any clothes.”

One of the straps of her halter top fell off her shoulder and, as she readjusted it, her knees drifted apart. I dragged my eyes upwards. She was Dolgov’s girlfriend, and he was a very dangerous Caucasian. “You couldn’t, um, go to Dolgov?”

She looked back at me and, noticing the effect she was having on me, smiled. “It never even occurred to me. I was thinking about you.” She leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. It was all very Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And I’ve always been a sucker for that movie. The idea of living it in real life, sans the ice picks obviously, was too much to resist. It took every ounce of willpower I had to yank my gaze upwards. She was toying with me. Was she looking to get me killed? If Dolgov knew…

I cleared my throat. “Where did you spend the night?”

“At the bus station, down by Victoria. It was cold, but several nice gentleman offered to let me stay with them. Even offered me some spending money.”

“You didn’t–”

“Sleep with them?” She licked her lips. “Or eat them?”

At once embarrassed that I’d asked the question and grateful that she hadn’t taken offence, I took a sip of Chardonnay.

“Can I ask you a question?” she asked abruptly.

“Shoot,” I said, lamely miming a gun with my thumb and forefinger. Sometimes I hate myself. I really do.

She leaned forward and folded her arms over her knees, then quickly adjusted her halter top as the strap fell off her shoulder again. She looked up. “You weren’t affected, were you? Not at first. Why?”

“I think…” I trailed off and tried to focus my thoughts, which was damn difficult when Aura’s halter top kept slipping down. Did I even know? I remember the glass freezing in Rick Casterly’s hand and the waitress calling the Met when none of the men around her were moving. The women hadn’t been affected, but I was as much a man as Rick Casterly. More so, if even half the rumors about him were true. Okay, I admit it, I made up most of those rumors myself, but… “I think that I was paying more attention to the crowd than I was to you. I was so concerned about Rick and the rest of them that I barely listened to the music.”

“Mental wax,” she said sagely.

“What?”

She mimed plugging her ears. “Sailors used to put balls of wax in their ears to block out my music. You did the same thing, except you didn’t need the wax.” Her expression changed abruptly. “I hope… I hope it wasn’t because you find me unattractive?”

She was insecure? Either the wine had warmed my cheeks or I blushed like a schoolboy. “No. That’s not it at all. I… find you, uh, you know… on a scale of one to ten, I’d give you ten. Well, if you weren’t hooked up with a vampiric mobster boss boyfriend, obviously.”

She grinned and finished her wine in a gulp, then set the glass down but didn’t release it. Instead she began rubbing her fingertips up the stem. Then down again. Then up again. I’m no expert when it comes to symbolism, but that one I get.

“Is it hot in here?” I blurted out. “I’m hot. Are you hot? Of course you’re hot. You’re smoking. I’m going to open a window.” I leapt to my feet and made for the kitchen, and then struggled with the window. I was pretty sure the last time it had been opened, the year had started with a nineteen. Once it was open, I poured a cold glass of water, dipped my fingertips in it, and splashed some on the back of my neck. She was a sadist. That was it. One of the most beautiful women I’d ever had in my flat, ready to go, and if I slept with her, Dolgov would chop my bollocks off and feed them to me with a nice Chianti. That was the name of the red wine.

“Is it okay if I have a shower?” she asked from the other room. Oh, she was fucking killing me. And not so softly. “I’d like to get this makeup off my face.”

“Sure,” I said, without leaving the kitchen. And then, under my breath: “I could use a cold one myself.” Yes, that was a euphemism.

Soon I could hear the water running and then the sound of spray hitting the bathtub. I picked up my phone. Should I call Dolgov and let him know that his girlfriend was safe and sound? Or should I call Dolgov and tell him his girlfriend was naked in my bathroom, and I had a raging… no. I really shouldn’t mention that second bit. Can’t always say the first thing that comes into our heads, can we? I set the phone down and stepped back.

I heard humming coming from the bathroom. It was simple tune and ancient, and it was stunning. Everything about her was stunning.

I am so weak.

Pitiful.

Pathetic.

I’m such a boy

I stopped myself. Mental wax. I thought of puppies and football and yesterday’s news. The Premier League table. I tried to recount it. I couldn’t remember who was at the top. Not Spurs. Not Arsenal. That was as likely as a biblical flood all over again. My heartbeat had finally begun to slow when I realized that if she’d slept at the bus stop, she likely didn’t have a change of clothes. I went through my closets, looking for something that might fit her. I had nothing that suited her. At last, I settled on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. She had a boyish frame, far smaller than mine, but the sweats had a cord she could tighten. It was the best I could do. And let’s be honest, she was gorgeous, so anything would look good.

The water shut off in the bathroom. “Marcus?”

I stood just outside the door. “Yes?”

“I need a towel.”

Of course she’d need a towel. Like most bachelors, I had only the one towel on the rack, and it was in need of a wash. “I’ll leave it in front of the door.”

“You can come in.”

“That’s probably a bad idea,” I said.

“Please,” she said. And who wants to make a lady beg?

I grabbed a towel from the closet and opened the door. The air was misty and, thankfully, the glass shower partition was fogged up. I could see only her blurry outline as she bent to squeeze water out of her hair. She’d used my solitary towel as a makeshift bath mat. She looked up when she heard the door and opened the partition.

I immediately snapped my eyes closed. “I’ll just leave it on the counter.”

“Can you bring it here?” she asked. “I don’t want to step on the floor.”

I hesitated and then began to shuffle towards her with my eyes closed. Finally, she caught my wrist. Her hand felt warm and soft.

“Marcus,” she said gently. “You can look.” She pulled me closer and I felt her chin on my chest. I cracked an eyelid. Her jet black hair was plastered to her head and smelled of sea foam and water lilies. Tiny droplets beaded on flawless skin from her cheeks to her small, perfectly formed breasts. She looked up and me and stood on her tiptoes. It was all very vulnerable and Harlequinesque. Our lips met in a kiss that turned passionate. She tasted like a peach.

After a moment, I pulled away. “What’s happening here?” I asked breathlessly.

She stepped out of the shower and onto the towel. I don’t know how I could have ever considered her boyish. She was as beautiful as any statue in the Louvre. Rodin would have wept to bring her likeness out of stone. The Fairy Fella would have a master stoke looking at her. “I hoped that would be obvious,” she said. Her hand strayed lower and cupped me through my jeans. “I like you, and I know you like me…”

She was forbidden fruit, and she must have known it. It was time to call her on it.  “Don’t think you think Yevgeny would be upset if I slept with his girlfriend?”

She frowned. “I don’t know. Wait, do you think I’m Dolgov’s girlfriend? Is that what this is about?”

I felt the floor drop away from me. I’d made an uncharitable assumption back at Fast Chem, before I’d gotten to know her and, just like with my neighbor in the scuzzy hotel, that assumption had come back to bite me. Though I’ll be honest, her bite was arousing, his not so much. There had been no ulterior motive to her advances. As difficult as it was to believe, maybe she just found me attractive. And I’d made a fool of myself for the past hour. “I assumed. I’m sorry.”

Still naked and wet, she looked me over, as if to decide whether or not to accept my apology. At last, she seemed to come to a conclusion. “Please hand me the towel.”

She caught my arm again as I offered it to her, and we took up exactly where we’d left off.

I like to think I’ve never been the type to kiss and tell, but I also like to think I’m an awesome lover, and we all know that’s about as likely as the Fortunate Fridays reforming. Making love to Aura was a unique experience. She was enthusiastic, but also immensely strong. Her body was soft in places, but like steel in others, and she was a savage in bed, as if she could not quite control her primal urges. If she had not had her teeth replaced, I’m not sure I would have survived the experience. So yeah, it was good.

Only hours after we fell asleep together, I opened my eyes to an empty bed.

 

Carus & Mitch by Tim Major Reviewed by Kristin Luna

Carus & Mitch cover

Carus & Mitch by Tim Major

Reviewed by Kristin Luna

E-book, ISBN: 0692343377

Omnium Gatherum, February 23, 2015 -– 88 pages. Also available in paperback.

Like the life and college, the novella Carus & Mitch will leave you with more questions than answers. But the question you’ll replay over and over in your mind, the question that will keep you up at night will be, “Oh Carus, what have you done?”

The Book

Fifteen-year-old Carus and seven-year-old Mitch have been barricaded in their house for most of their lives. Just before the world-wide collapse, their mother had moved them to their uncle’s house in the countryside of northern Britain, and it’s been their home ever since. But when their mother died, the responsibility of staying safe from outside dangers fell directly on them, and with crushing weight.

Carus’ job is to take care of Mitch. She tries to fill the shoes of their mother, doing the best she can to set a routine: check on the chickens (which moved into the dinning room because they weren’t safe outside), clean the house, trade chickens and eggs with Jom, and check the barricades.

The only person left in the world that they know of is Jom, with whom they trade eggs for canned goods. They’ve never seen Jom, but must set eggs outside their house’s strongholds in order to receive their daily food. When Carus oversleeps one morning due to severe tiredness and headaches, she wakes to realize they’ve missed leaving eggs out for Jom, meaning no food for the day. Determined to never let it happen again, Carus becomes militant about following the rules they’ve created, which in turn makes Mitch more defiant. Mitch wonders why they can’t go outside, why they came to the country in the first place, and Carus can’t seem to answer any of her questions with clarity. In fact, Carus starts losing time, waking up in places she doesn’t remember falling asleep, and becoming more angry each day with her younger sister.

And then, one night, Mitch disappears. Carus falls deeper into her psychosis, revealing hints to the real threat that has kept the sisters trapped in the house nearly all their lives.

Tim Major tells Carus & Mitch through Carus, and as with all 15-year-olds, she’s a somewhat unreliable narrator. Grim, bleak storytelling, paired with simmering tension strikes the same haunting chord as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and the overall tone is reminiscent of Room by Emma Donoghue and Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”

The Author

Tim Major’s love for speculative fiction and the book We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson influenced him to write Carus & Mitch. Tim enjoys writing stories about the effects of extraordinary events on ordinary people. His short stories have appeared in various science fiction and fantasy magazines, and Carus & Mitch is his first published novella. Tim lives in Oxford with his wife and son.

The Rating

As with all art, there’s a large degree of subjectivity in determining if it’s “good,” or “not good.” The best I can do is share my thoughts and opinions, and rate this book on an arbitrary on a scale of Daniel Day-Lewis films. Aha! This is a trick scale, because there is no “worst” Daniel Day-Lewis film, as they are all the best. Like an undoubtedly great Daniel Day-Lewis film, Carus & Mitch contains true craft and substance. The richness and depth of the characters may keep you up at night thinking about them, wondering what they’re doing now. You’ll speculate and contemplate the truth, knowing that you’ve only just glanced the tip of the iceberg, while much more lurks just under the surface. You’ll finish this novella and immediately start it over again, desperately piecing together the clues. Carus & Mitch will haunt you and leave you strangely wanting more.

Interesting fact: “Carus” and “Mitch” are not their real names.

Interesting quote:

“Is air made from bits of flower?” [Mitch]

“It’s made of lots of things.” [Carus]

She turns. “Like what?”

I try to remember lessons at school. “Oxygen, that’s what your body uses to stay alive. And there’s the bits of flowers and other things, but really, really tiny.” I pause. “And then, um, neon and carbon.”

Announcement: Staff Changes and Submissions Reopening

At this time, we have read and responded to nearly all the submissions that were sent to us prior to May 4th. We have about a dozen submissions still under consideration, all of which have passed the initial slush pile and are awaiting review from either myself or our Slush Editor, Frances Silversmith.

We are open to regular submissions once again, with a slight tweak: To help avoid future backlogs, we ask that you wait ten days after receiving a rejection before sending in a new piece. We work hard to make sure every story gets personal feedback, and we appreciate when authors apply that feedback to their next work, rather than just sending us another story straight away. We want to thank everyone for their understanding.

During the break, we also had a major staff change: Jordan Ellinger has stepped down as Managing Editor. He will still be staying on the magazine as Technical Director, and I will be taking over his previous responsibilities of running the magazine. I’m looking forward to the work, and you might seem some changes in the magazine layout over the next few months. I’m hopeful they are all changes that will make the magazine even more awesome.

Thanks for reading!

-Katrina S. Forest

Jackaby by William Ritter Reviewed by Kayla Dean

Jackaby cover

Jackaby by William Ritter

Reviewed by Kayla Dean

ISBN: 1616203536

Algonquin Young Readers, September 16, 2014 — 299 pages. Available in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

You might want to take a second look at Jackaby by William Ritter if you love the vibe of a Victorian novel, the urban sprawl of chilly New England in America’s Gilded Age, and the flair of an atmospheric murder mystery. Though it has its ups and downs, the lovely cover and intriguing first chapter drew me in.

A YALSA Top-Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, Jackaby promises to deliver on a tall order to be the cross between Doctor Who and Sherlock — a novel “brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre,” according to the book jacket. R.F. Jackaby, the title character, is our “Sherlock,” just as New Fiddleham, the fictional New England town, is our London. Just as the setting is a character in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, so is New Fiddleham in Ritter’s debut novel.

We begin the story in New Fiddleham in 1892, where Abigail Rook just made her way off a ship from Europe. Weary, homeless, and in search of a new life, Abigail notes the moody, gas-lit city. Through her eyes,

“The city of New Fiddleham glistened in the fading dusk, lamplight playing across the icy buildings that lined the waterfront, turning their brickwork to twinkling diamonds in the dark.”

Early on in the novel, we learn that Abigail is a runaway from Hampshire, England. She is a girl who ran away from the conformity of a society girl’s life. She rejected ball gowns and bows for adventures, but she has found more than her fair share of struggles along the way. Abigail is no stranger to the odd looks people give her when she wears an old dress or men’s trousers. Her dream, although not clearly revealed to us, is to experience the world first-hand and make her own way in the world.

In a pub, Abigail meets Jackaby, and in her search for employment, she finds herself on the scene of a crime as a detective’s assistant. Jackaby, her employer (and a witty, odd fellow who solves crimes with a touch of genius), sees beyond normal sight. Although we aren’t sure why, Jackaby can see fairies, redcaps, banshees, and other supernatural creatures.

After a well-known journalist is found dead in his apartment, it isn’t long before other victims start falling prey to the enigmatic, and probably inhuman, killer. Urged on by the call of a banshee, Jackaby knows more will die before he catches the murderer. But we know from taking a look in his unusual home, filled with ghosts, an upstairs pond, a well-loved library, and a messy laboratory, Jackaby has all the tools he needs to find the murderer.

Jackaby is quirky in his own way: he wears a coat with so many pockets that at the police station, they can’t even process his belongings before morning — and this is a regular occurrence. He also wears a strange hat, and he has a friend who may or may not be a seer herself.

Ritter really gives the reader a great sense of the sensory detail. We are constantly grounded in the setting, because the author evokes rich detail to describe everything in Abigail and Jackaby’s world. We note the way the light gleams or how fog filters through the streets as mysterious characters weave their way through the small town. And while New Fiddleham is not a real place, the setting Ritter shows the reader is vivid and brings to mind other New England locales.

Ritter takes a unique look at New England during this time era. We get a rich sense of New England in the Gilded Age, one of this country’s most formative eras. Instead of choosing New York, or some other large city, Ritter wrote about a small, atmospheric town. And instead of writing about the rich, Ritter takes a look at the poor and the lost.

This novel suggests a Victorian mood even though it is in an American setting. We see this through Abigail’s journey from Hampshire, and through the moody descriptions of a foggy New England town in the midst of a string of murders that evoke Jack the Ripper.

This book is decidedly an urban fantasy, but it does not have the same pacing as many books in the genre. While Jackaby more than delivers on rich description and flair, it does have its shortcomings in characterization.

Abigail and Jackaby are both enjoyable characters, but we really don’t get a sense of either of them. We know Abigail’s story from the first chapter, but we don’t really see more than an impression of what her life was like back in Hampshire besides vague references to her parents and their constricting rules. Also, while Jackaby is mysterious and clever, we don’t know where he’s from, why he can see the paranormal, or where he gets his genius from. It doesn’t seem like enough of a justification that he is simply an archetype of Sherlock Holmes. However, this is the first in a series, so perhaps these questions will be answered in the sequels.

As far as style is concerned, I was surprised at the sheer amount of backstory we get on Abigail so early on in the novel. Also, I was struck by how little dialogue there was in the beginning. I had to flip some pages before the real talking began. Even then, the novel did not race by with the speed of a thriller like I expected it would.

If you like to linger over the setting of a novel, then Jackaby is right up your (gas-lit) alley. However, this pick is not a heart-pounding suspense novel. The mystery is not the crowning jewel of this story. Read it for the atmosphere and style, preferably with a cup of tea. Don’t forget to imagine Abigail’s British accent while reading. And remember — it’s not Jackaby she’s sitting across from at the kitchen table: it’s Sherlock Holmes in another life.

The Duchess of Fitzrovia by Anne E. Johnson

If I hadn’t been transferred across town to the Fitzrovia shop in Foley Street, I’d never have met the Duchess. They shunted me over from the stall at Victoria Station without my say-so. But a girl needs a job, doesn’t she? It’s the blessing and the curse of being a barista at Cafe Augustus. They’ve got maybe three hundred branches in London, and they decided they needed me in Fitzrovia, afternoons and evenings.

“Got family?” asked a black-haired Italian girl named Clara, charged with getting me up to speed in the new location. When I shook my head grumpily, she hurried to explain, “Me, I’ve got little ones at home want looking after, so you may need to cover for me.”

Oh, I could hardly wait.

“You’d make a good mum,” she offered, as if that made up for it. I’m ashamed to say, it kind of did. I’d always wanted a family.

The tour continued. “That one’s a daily,” Clara warned. “You’ll earn your employee discount dealing with her.” She pointed at a hefty pensioner nestled up to a table like she lived there, surrounded by shopping bags from shops long since shuttered. She wore what my Gran would call a housedress, a simple cotton shift with pink flowers dotting the periwinkle. Shabby without the chic.

“Doesn’t seem so bad to me,” I ventured.

That earned a snort from Clara. “In here every day, all day. Must be at that table, or she carries on like we’d cut off her leg. I once saw her strong-arm a couple of young guys out of sitting there.”

That seemed unlikely. “How could she ‘strong-arm’ anybody?”

“Psychologically, I mean. Like she stands over ’em while they eat their croissants. ‘Take your time,’ she says, ‘only, I always sit at this table. Near the loo for an old lady, you know?’ And then she hovers about till they vacate to another spot.”

“Does she buy food and drink all day long?”

Clara shrugged. “Always the same. An espresso every few hours, two lemon poppy muffins in the morning, one chicken pesto ciabatta in the afternoon. We call her the Duchess, ’cause she practically holds court here.”

“Since it’s the court of Augustus, we should call her Senator, yeah?” My classical witticism fell flat, as they tend to do. Which is why I’m still single.

“Anyway,” said Clara, “we take turns with the counter and table-bussing.” She’d moved on, and I didn’t expect the Duchess of Fitzrovia to trouble me much more. Oh, God, was I ever wrong!

The weirdness started my second week at that location. My turn to bus, and one of the daily espresso cups sat empty on the Duchess’ table. “Take that outta your way, ma’am?” I asked, a courteous warning before I disturbed her typical trance state.

I glanced at her to smile and nod, just to prove I held no bias against the homeless or the elderly. And that’s when I saw her roll an eye toward me. Just the one eye. The other was busy looking at something else. I froze, staring at her face, a face that didn’t quite …fit. As in, fit within the normal definition of “face.” It had all the required elements, such as chin and cheeks and nose and so on. But something was, well, wrong. The texture of the skin, maybe? The shape of the skull?

“I been watchin’ ye,” she chortled. “Your hair’s like tiny coiled wires. Your hands like they’s made o’ chocolate.”

Was the naughty old thing coming on to me, I wondered? Not wanting to find out, I grabbed her coffee cup and bolted for the other side of the room.

“She fancies you,” Clara ever so kindly pointed out.

“Get stuffed,” I just as kindly suggested. It was all just a bit too disturbing to talk about.

After my break, I got hold of myself. Some harmless old bird, trying to relive the glory days that probably never even happened to her. What was the harm? But still, something about the Duchess set my teeth on edge.

That evening, just as I was going to shoo her out, I saw her messing with her left ear. Not scratching it or digging out the wax. She seemed to be untying her ear, like she was about to let the air out of a balloon. Her flesh pulled loose at first, then filled in, making her head the shape of a rugby ball. The opening where the ear used to be she kept pinched closed with finger and thumb. Her eyes were shut and her breathing deep; I got the sense that this ear business was giving her some kind of relief.

But then she opened one eye and caught me staring. Quick as you please, her head was its normal (if hideous) shape and her ear twirled back up in its proper place. It had all gone by so fast, and she looked so unperturbed, no one could blame me for doubting what I’d seen.

“Time to be moving on, Missus,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t shaking. “Closing for the night, okay?”

The Duchess waggled her deep-burgundy eyebrows. “Gonna see me babies soon,” she said. Her teeth were all capped in silver. Even the front ones, like an old pirate. But her smile was genuine, and I admit I was moved.

I wanted to know more. “They’re all grown, then?” I asked. “Do they come and visit often?”

She scrunched her brow. “Do who visit?”

“Your children, ma’am.”

One eye popped open wide and the opposite cheek twitched. “But I just said they was babies,” she snapped. “How could they be all grown? Are you impaired, girl?”

I decided she was crazy after all. Babies, at her age! I whisked her out the door and finished my tidying up.

Next afternoon she was there as ever, same table, the second espresso and the second muffin laid out before her. I stole up behind to examine her left ear. As I closed in she turned, ferocious as a wildcat. “They’re comin’ today! My babies!” she yelped shrilly while pointing downward. For one horrifying moment I thought she was indicating her own reproductive system. But then she leaned toward me and whispered, “Me nest is safe below ground.”

“Below, eh?” I chatted gamely. “Like, in the basement?”

“Course not, girl. Not very snug for one’s nest in a basement, eh?” She spoke like what she said was not just sane, but obvious to anyone. “I laid me nest six months ago, just under the floorboards.” She pointed under her chair with a finger two or three centimeters too long for her hand. “Just here, where the wizard’ll never find it.”

“Ah, good for you,” I replied. “Got to get back to work now.” I hurried off, trying not to picture squirming fetuses trapped under my feet.

It was Saturday, our busiest afternoon of the week. Soon I’d forgotten about untied ears and hoarded infants. There was a whirlwind of work. Lunch crowd turned to teatime crowd turned to pre-theater snack crowd. Then, finally, it was closing time. I could hardly stand and my brain was porridge.

“Got to pick up the kids.” Clara overdid her Italian accent, as if that would make me forgive her for ducking out before final clean-up.

It worked, of course, woeful wimp that I am. “You look after your tots and get some rest. See you for more of the same tomorrow, right?”

“You’re a love,” called Clara, waving her sweet little fingers. And out she went.

I waved goodnight to the two kitchen workers. That left just me and you-know-who, the Madwoman North of Thames, Countess of Muffins. She did not look ready to leave.

“Missus, I’m closing up.” I tried to sound kind but firm. With all the tables to wipe down, I didn’t take the effort to look at her as I spoke. In hindsight, I should have done. “Gotta clear out in five minutes,” I informed her on my way to the sink behind the counter.

Still I didn’t look at her. The clanking and rattling noises behind me as I wrung out my cloth sounded like traffic noises from the street. When I finally turned round, I was miffed to see her shapeless bulk still at the table. “Seriously, you need to…”

I never got that last word out. My tongue was deadened by shock. The Duchess had, shall we say, changed. Morphed. Seems I hadn’t imagined the rubbery ears after all. Only it was all of her this time. Every orifice, every crevice had come unfurled, had swelled and loosened. There was nothing human about her.

With a huge breath of panic I bolted past her to the front door. It was glued shut somehow. No matter how I rattled the handle or smashed my shoulder into the glass, it wouldn’t budge.

“I think you’re so pretty,” said a distorted, slurred version of the Duchess’ voice.

I had no doubt that, if I looked, I’d see her lips all distended. I stayed facing the door.

People! I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t really alone. There were always people on the streets of Fitzrovia. I waved through the glass with both hands. I shouted. I slapped and kicked and knocked.

Life in the big city, man: nobody notices when someone acts completely mental. All the tired Londoners, hurrying home or out to a party, had more important concerns than a flailing barista.

The Duchess, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to find a thing more fascinating than Terrified Tess. She waddled toward me. Or should I say slopped? Oozed? Sludged? She no longer had what one might call “legs,” only more like vast sacs of flesh bobbling out from under the hem of her housedress. Her side seams popped open and out she drooped.

“So pretty,” she sprayed. “My babies will love your pretty face.”

Time for reasoned argument, I decided. Using the tone that works with my Chihuahua, Paco Taco, when he attacks the sofa cushions, I cooed at the blob before me. “Now, now. Don’t you want to go home, Missus? You’ll want to hurry home to your babies, right?”

That shrink on the telly had never dealt with the Duchess. The skin around her eye sockets stretched even wider. “I told you,” she screeched, “me babies is under there!” On the last word, she splayed both her hands so they were wide as an undertaker’s spade. With a single motion she bent over and scooped up the wooden floorboards like they were sand. I had to shield my face with my forearms to keep from getting hit by splinters. I should’ve kept my arms there forever, but I made the poor choice to lower them and look where the floor used to be.

A nest of newly-hatched giant maggots writhing in a pool of vomit. That’s what was in the floor: dozens of mini Duchesses, flabby and shiny, ready to be raised to full size and distributed among all the branches of Cafe Augustus in the Greater London Metro area.

“I should probably be going,” I suggested, trying to sound nonchalant in a voice an octave higher than normal.

“Know them! Know them!” she wailed over and over. She must’ve had muscles like Ultra Man, the way she forced me to lean over the cluster of squirming slimeballs. I resisted with all my might, but couldn’t move an inch against her will without snapping my spine. So I bent.

My panicked hoovering of air coated my nasal membranes with a stench somewhere between rancid fry grease and toe jam. “Gonna upchuck,” I squeaked. Not sure who I was warning, since the kiddies would probably like it. Miraculously, my dinner stayed down. The Duchess pushed my face lower as the balls of skin reached up toward me. “What do you want?” I asked tearfully. “Are they gonna eat me?!”

The change was total and instantaneous. Somehow I found myself sitting up in a chair, halfway across the room from the maternity ward. Though I’d never have thought it possible, staring into the sagging belly of the Duchess was like enjoying a seaside vista compared to where I’d just been.

“Eat you? Why would they eat you?” The Duchess wobbled back and forth as she spoke. Her rubbery face pulsed in and out, up and down, and I realized with horror that she was crying.

“I didn’t mean it, Missus. Sorry if I offended you,” I said to the freakish wacko holding me hostage. “Why don’t you tell me what you want.” I confess, I actually cared. World’s fastest onset of Stockholm Syndrome, maybe.

Anyway, my kindness yielded good results. The Duchess pulled the big rubber mat from the store’s front entrance and draped it over the steamy hole in the floor. Then she dragged a chair near mine. She turned it backwards, like she planned to straddle it in a fit of Bob Fosse choreography. But, no. She heaved her legless self up onto the seat and rested her wide chin mournfully on the back of the chair.

“I’m goin’ away.” Her voice had a slight gurgle.

I tried to downplay my excitement over this good news. “Going home, then?” I asked, meaning Mars or wherever.

Her frown made her look like Mr. Toad. “I die today.”

Oh. “Now, now,” I assured her. “It’ll pass.”

That’s when her skin started peeling off, like a time-lapse video of a really nasty sunburn. “I been waitin’ for someone like you, ever since I slipped over from the other side.” Weird how she still had her East End twang with one lip missing. “I want me babies to be raised in your world. That way the wizard cannot take them from me, like he does all the Gooptroll youngsters.”

“Gooptroll?”

She was sobbing too hard to notice my question. “He’ll make them his slaves. Adopt them, pretty lady! Take care o’ me babies!”

“I don’t think the Border and Immigration Agency will allow…” I stopped when I noticed the Duchess’ chest caving in. Crumbling. Disintegrating. I ran around frantically, probably screaming, gathering napkins (although there was no blood), looking for the first aid kit, trying to dial 999 for an ambulance with shaking hands. But I’d only dialed one 9 when all her molecules came unglued and she sifted as powder into the crevices in the floor.

The Duchess of Fitzrovia was gone.

I don’t know how long I stood there, left knuckles white around my phone, right hand clutching a roll of bandages. I kept blinking hard, opening my eyes wider each time, as if that would make her reappear. The oddest thought crossed my mind: We’ll have to close the Fitzrovia shop. It won’t be the same without her.

The off-key polyphony of crabby gooptroll babies broke through my private memorial service. Gasping as I realized I hadn’t dreamed the whole damn thing, I refocused on the phone. “Ring the cops,” I instructed myself. “Ring J.K. Rowling. Ring Downing Street. Ring the Zoo. Ring somebody, you infernal idiot.”

But I didn’t. I powered down the phone and slipped it into my pocket. Then I walked over to the nest of fantastical infants and dragged away the carpet covering them. As they burbled and hissed at me, I was overcome with a feeling of pure…parenthood. A sense of calm, of welcome responsibility, settled on my chest. I was ready for this! This was what I’d wanted. My very own instant babies. No partner? No problem! All I’d needed was a nest of trolls under the bridge of my life. I’d have preferred the kind with feet, but never mind.

“Hi, kids,” I said in my most monster-friendly sing-song tone. “I’m your new Mummy.” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the biggest soup pot I could find, then came back out and scooped up all my adoptive progeny. “What do you lovelies eat?” I asked the squiggly baby on top. Instead of answering, it enrobed my finger in mucus. Its biological mother would’ve been proud.

That’s when it came to me. What did the Duchess order every blessed day? I pulled six double espressos and dumped them into a bowl. I grabbed the last lemon poppy muffin. The bowl and the pastry I lowered into the soup pot and watched my children gobble their dinner. Tears of pride clouded my vision.

So I took them home. There was some hubbub next day about the broken floor, of course. The cops watched the CCTV footage and concluded that some old homeless lady had gone bonkers. I guess the cameras weren’t at an angle to show what was under there. I surely didn’t feel like pointing it out.

Over the coming weeks, people stopped wondering about the Duchess. Other customers used her table. But her legacy lives on, even if only in my bedroom closet.

My babies, all eighteen of them, sleep most of the day in a huge toy box I bought at Marks and Spencer. They grow slowly, but they do grow. What will happen when they’re all as big as the Duchess? Who knows? Maybe they’ll take over a chain of cafes. Maybe they’ll take over the world. I really couldn’t say.

Until then, I bring home espresso and muffins for them every night. Eventually, when their stomachs become a bit less translucent, I expect they’ll want pesto chicken on ciabatta, too. I can’t think of a better use for my employee discount.

Welcome to the June 2015 Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

We’re excited to have a new story by New York Times bestselling author Jane Lindskold. In “Button Witch”, a girl named Penn seeks a wish from a witch who’s inspired a lifelong hobby.

In the “The Duchess of Fitzrovia” by Anne E. Johnson, a mysterious woman with an otherwordly air takes up residence in a coffee shop, leaving the barista to decide whether to help her or turn her away.

Beth Nolan explores the history of witches throughout literature in our nonfiction article this month. And in “Dead Records: Part 4”, Marcus probably wishes he had someone who could change his life with a single spell. Trying to sell a siren as a popular singer is not getting any easier.

Our reviews this month feature two great YA novels: JACKABY by William Ritter and CARUS & MITCH by Tim Major.

Want to share your thoughts about this month’s stories? You can leave feedback on our website or on Facebook. Thanks for reading and enjoy!