An Invitation is tendered.
On Wednesday afternoon, once Corava arrived, Lelia mustered enough courage to approach her boss. He had stayed in the office most of the day thus far, and one dish had hit the wall just after opening, but between customers. “He found the tax assessment update,” she’d guessed.
“Probably,” Tay had agreed from the end of the sales counter. “The invoice for the Valentines’ stuff isn’t that bad, actually.”
“No, it isn’t.” Now she wiped her hands on her skirt and eased through the bead curtain separating the workroom from the main shop. Why was she so nervous? Because this is Arthur, and December. She rubbed her hands on the fabric once more, then tapped on the door frame.
“Yes?” the growl did not ease her nerves. Arthur frowned at her over his reading glasses.
“Ah, sir, that is,” she inhaled, then blurted, “Master Lestrang and I are going to the Lessons and Carols and choral music on Christmas Eve at St. Margaret of Scotland and thought you might, that is— If you want to come with us, you’re welcome.”
The frown deepened, then disappeared. He took off the glasses and set them on the blotter. He flowed to his feet. She shifted her weight, ready to run, not that it would do any good. Confusion replaced irritation, and he said, “Child, suflit fica, do not fear.”
“Yes, sir.” She tried not to gulp aloud.
He rested one hand very lightly on her shoulder. For a hint of a moment, she saw pain and exhaustion in equal measure in his eyes, soul-deep pain. Then the mask slid back into place. “What time, child?”
“Nine, sir. We, that is, André and I, get there early so he can sit near a door. Eight-thirty. Talshu?”
The hand moved, and she put her arms around him, being steady and quiet for him. Strong, weary arms closed around her. A few words whispered over her head, then he let go. “Thank you, Mrs. Lestrang. I will, perhaps, attend.”
Creak-thud, thumpity thumpity thud. A pause, then thump. She spun and sprinted to the shop. Books lay all over the floor! A quick glance showed that the middle shelf had failed. One end rested on the next-to-bottom shelf. Tay and Raj stood at the far end of the sales counter. “We didn’t do it!” they chorused in unison.
Corava looked from the prints in her hands to the book-slide and back. With an eloquent shrug and sigh she resumed sorting and stocking. Lelia rested on hand on her forehead, just above her cosmetics, and sighed as well. “I knew things were too quiet.” She crouched, picked up as many books as she could, and stacked them on the counter. The shop door opened, and Arthur went to meet the black-clad young man who eased in. After he finished ringing up the sale and the gent departed, Arthur lifted the heavy composite shelf off the remaining two brackets. He studied the wall. Lelia saw a bit of metal on the floor. She picked up the remains of the third bracket and handed it to her boss.
Master Saldovado considered the jagged, torn metal, the rest of the bracket still wedged into the wall mount, and growled an especially pungent phrase. Wow. The string of maledictions continued. Lelia glanced at the Familiars. Both now crouched, paws over ears. Very wow! Whatever Arthur was saying must be especially nasty, or creative, or both. As wide as Tay’s eyes had opened, probably all of the above.
” . . . I don’t know what he said, but Corava set down enough prints to make some really interesting warding-off gestures at the wall. I did catch the general sense,” Lelia told André that night when he picked her up at the shop. “He found a shorter shelf piece in the back, so we could do a half-shelf. Removing the remains of the bracket from the wall-mount needs power tools.”
“Ugh. I can see why he’d resort to intemperate language.” André glanced at her, then turned his attention back to the road. “Collin was one Rodney-hair’s width from summoning an infernal entity to take the big laser printer back where it came from.”
Rodney snorted from behind the driver’s seat. “Yeah, except the entity would probably run screaming and throw itself into a holy-water font to get away from the copier.”
“Duuuuude,” Tay intoned. “I’d pay all the money I don’t have to see that.”
“What the lemur said,” Lelia half-chanted. She leaned her head against the pickup’s headrest and closed her eyes. Quiet. No one grumbling, brooding, or snarling at her, just road sounds and—
Hoooooonk. HOOOONKKK Screeeeech! No crunch followed the spate of sound.
“May you get what you deserve,” André snarled.
Rodney sniffed, “She probably will, boss. There’s a big hole in the street two blocks that way, remember?”
Lelia wrinkled her nose. A lesser abyssal imp had probably inspired the city wait to start sanitary sewer and utility work until late November. “Is the Good Idea Fairy abyssal or infernal? I can never remember.”
“Abyssal,” Tay replied. “Although there’s still some debate about that.”
“Emperor Mong is infernal.” The certainty in her husband’s voice gave her pause. “He may claim abyssal or even heavenly origins, but noooo, he’s infernal.”
Large, wet flakes of snow danced down from low dark clouds as she hurried from the bus stop to the shop the next day. So big as to look like feathers or tufts of fur, the snow seemed to land with silent thuds. She unlocked the shop door, raced to the back and turned off the alarm, then returned and re-locked the front. “We’re going to be busy.”
“Yes, you are.” Once out of his carrier, Tay marched to the heat vent in the workroom and arranged himself to hog the warm air.
Lelia rolled her eyes, then clocked in. She saw the pull list for “at-store” orders. “Nyyyaaaaathhpppth.” Once she turned on Arthur’s computer and logged into the internet dark music station, she flipped through the list. Ah, of course. She’d do books first. Nox Arcana’s dark winter music sang down from the speakers as she worked. She made good progress. All the morning pick-up orders were finished before anyone else arrived. She let Tay out, then in, and drank some water before restocking. The steampunk Christmas prints sold very well indeed this year. She danced a few steps to a waltz as she worked.
The alert on the alley door chimed. He’s baaaaaaack she giggled to herself. Corava wasn’t due in until after three, but all three of them would stay until closing. Indeed, the office door clicked, and the music grew louder. She turned on the main shop lights, then unlocked the door.
“Hi! I need these.” A college student announced ten minutes later, waving her phone so fast Lelia couldn’t read the screen.
“Yes, ma’am. Which titles?”
The flow of customers eased around one. The alley door chimed, and soon the smell of food from the workroom made Lelia’s stomach growl as she tried to catch up the big sales ledger. She giggled. Black items now tied brown items in terms of numbers sold. “And that acrylic is gone,” she cheered, very far under her breath. The excessively perky, big-eyed white tigers and unicorns among lush, brilliant green trees and painfully happy flowers had drained her of Goth-points every time she glanced at it. Now it belonged to an appreciative home. She did a tiny happy-dance in place. Erasure’s version of “Gaudete” filled the air, followed by “Il est né” by Souxie and the Banshees.
A soft clatter from the bead curtain announced Arthur’s presence. She turned. He stopped just past the doorway, listening. “Normally I do not approve of ‘updating’ sacred music, but perhaps I shall make and exception.” As she closed the ledger and added the entered receipts to the proper stack, he approached the counter, moving so smoothly that he seemed to glide rather than walk. “Go eat, Mrs. Lestrang, before your Familiar consumes your dinner.”
“Yes, sir.” She bobbed a curtsy and eased past him. Whatever it was smelled soooo good.
She found Tay’s back half emerging from a large brown delivery bag. Much rustling and muttering also emerged from the bag. She slid both hands under his aft end and middle, then hoisted. His front end appeared, a thick-cut potato wedge in one paw and the remains of a second wedge disappearing into his maw. “You are a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad lemur.” She deposited him on the door mat inside the alley door.
“Whaaaat? Fat’s good for my fur, yes?” At least, that’s what she thought came from his muzzle.
She rolled her eyes as she ducked into the washroom. Now I know where the kids got it from. The bag contained a prime-rib sandwich, home-made fried potato wedges, a salad with fancy ham and cheeses in it, and still-steaming pear cobbler. She devoured it all, then nursed a small, rich coffee with her initials on the cup. She’d cut way back since joining the church, but . . . I’m trying, Sir, I really am.
Lelia washed her hands and tidied a now sulking—and burping—Tay. She got the box of Winter-Christmas jewelry and returned to the main shop. Arthur was assisting a gentleman with vests. At least a 2X, probably a 3X or special order in that Slovak line unless he really wants a trim fit. A nicely-dressed lady in a bright blue wool car-coat perused the window-end of the jewelry wall, glancing at what looked like a list in her right hand. She had one of the fashionable bucket bags, in a tasteful dark red leather. Lelia studied some of the earring pegs. Dangling winter-trees had been popular today. She added more to those pegs, put a necklace of linked black roses onto the proper spot, and frowned at the Christmas cats. The front brooch’s pin lay in the bottom of the baggie, so she pulled that one, put it in the box, and turned a little to see if the lady needed any assistance.
Wait, what’s she— “Stop that!” Lelia threw a hard physical shield over the fine jewelry case. The big carpenter’s hammer in the woman’s right hand swung down, then bounced off the shield and rebounded.
Thunkrunch. The woman dropped the tool and clutched her mouth and jaw with both hands.
“Hold the barrier,” Arthur commanded from behind the counter, reaching for the phone.
“Yes, sir.” Lelia flipped the shield, re-forming it around the would-be thief. Blood seeped from between the woman’s hands. She swayed, then sat hard, moaning, hunched over.
Lelia set the re-stocking box under the print shelves and stood guard until an ambulance rumbled up, followed by a cop car. Tay emerged from the back and leaned against her shins. She managed not to panic much when the policewoman entered the shop. Much. “Here sir, ma’am,” Lelia pointed down at the woman and lifted the shield. “She suffered an injury to her face when—” The woman’s left hand moved, and a flash of power flared. Lelia caught the charm, held it, and heard a predatory growl from her boss.
“Break it, Silver, don’t hold it,” Rings commanded. She drew power from him and threaded magic into the charm, unmaking it, then grounding the power.
“Strong intention, pre-set spells, sir. A look-away and fire illusion.”
The woman’s face had turned green under the blood. Lelia grabbed Tay and moved well clear of the medics, and of any bodily emissions. The metal of the fine-jewelry case had been dented through the spell. At least, it seemed dented. The case swayed, as did she. She felt warmth under one arm, Arthur’s hand closing on her elbow, steadying her.
“You all right?” the police officer asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Working spells back-to-back makes me light-headed,” Lelia fibbed. Well, not quite fibbed. She hadn’t pulled from Tay until she’d broken the charm. She could feel his irked look.
“Go sit, then I’ll get your statement.” The policewoman sounded sympathetic, or at least not angry. That was good.
“Thank you, ma’am.” More quietly, she said, “I’m fine now, thank you, sir.”
She felt her boss’ irked look as well. “Perhaps.” He guided her to the counter, and only then let go. She eased Tay onto the top of the counter, then sat on the stool. Arthur spoke to the police as Lelia got a cup of Tay’s sugar-gel out of her belt pouch and opened the top, then gave it to him. Enthusiastic licking sounds ensued. The tubes had been better, but the company didn’t make those anymore. Once he’d been cared for, she pulled the baggie of nuts and chocolate out of a different pouch and ate half, then stowed it again.
Twenty minutes later, perhaps a little longer, one of the medics spoke quietly with the police officer. The other had escorted the injured woman to the ambulance and was in the back with her. Officer Meecham nodded. “I’ll call the hospital so security will be ready,” she told the medic. The slender brunette turned to Lelia and Tay. “If your story is corroborated by the video, there probably will not be charges filed against you, ma’am.”
Oh, I’m glad Arthur didn’t hear that. He was burning the video from the cameras onto a DVD as well as sending a copy to the department’s e-mail. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“How long have you been a reserve officer?”
“Twenty-six years, ma’am, I think. My husband was one in Phoenix, and when his credentials transferred to Riverton, the then police chief was encouraged by my former parole officer and Sergeant Jamie Macbeth to swear me in as well.” The shaking in her hands had nothing to do with the memories of that visit, nothing at all. Tay eased closer, and she rested one hand on his back. It helped.
“Huh. That explains the strange badge number. Good to know, ma’am.” Officer Meecham returned her licenses and ID. Arthur pushed through the curtain, DVD case in hand. “Thank you, sir. Have a quiet rest of the day.”
“Thank you, Officer, and I hope the same for you,” Arthur said. After the woman departed, he turned to Lelia. He studied her as she petted Tay. “Silver, go get something more to eat, and see to Master Tay. I will clean the floor.” The medics had sprayed disinfectant on the floor and wiped up the blood, but the surface looked as if it was a little tacky yet.
“Yes, sir.” She stood, carefully. The world didn’t sway. Tay eased down to the floor from the counter, and they retreated with slow steps to the workroom.
How long had it been since they’d had a shoplifter? At least five years, not counting the small things like the cheap earrings that walked off on occasion. Word got around, especially after Arthur had bodily heaved the guy into the side of the cop car. Lelia smiled despite herself as she finished the nuts and drank some water. Her boss had needed the stress release, and the guy had deserved it.
Not ten minutes later, the rush picked up. Lelia, Arthur, and Corava all sagged with relief when Arthur locked the front door at ten that night and flipped the sign to “Closed. Come back Tomorrow—If there Is One.” Raj and Tay had made themselves scarce in the workroom. The Pallas cat had grumbled mightily about her mage was working too hard and was ignoring her, that being Raj’s, needs and desires. Lelia suspect that desires outweighed needs. Raj was pure, double-distilled feline and it showed.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved