Special Delivery – A Grimm Agency Short Story
I’ve always believed that the best gifts are experiences, not just because they involve me spending time with the people I love, but because you can’t put a bow on them, wrap them up, or do any of the other things which trigger a disaster when I’m around. And speaking of disasters, I was fairly certain what came next would be one.
“Marissa,” said a man’s voice, “while I know you find this distasteful, I assure you, you’ve experienced far worse in my service.” The voice belonged to the reflection of a man watching me from the shop window. The passing crowds didn’t obscure his reflection in the least, since he wasn’t actually on the sidewalk. He could best be described as an English butler, with his fine charcoal silk suit and black horn rimmed glasses, but this was no Alfred. It was Grimm, the Fairy Godfather. Nominally my boss, in the same way I was nominally his partner.
I grimaced, working up the courage to take the plunge. “Have not.”
“I seem to recall my partner being a young woman who faced a fairy godmother in her own realm, and survived. And yet, you quail at this?”
The here and now, that worried me more because the past rarely returned for a second go-round. “Where’s Ari?”
“Princess Arianna is inside, as you should be. Stop stalling.”
I caught my breath, and hefted my purse, which contained my credit cards, cash, and a nine-millimeter pistol. The last served as the final arbiter in many of my disputes with creatures most folks would label fairy tale, and I would label “Just another day at the office.”
With that, I stepped back, kicked the door open, and strode straight into a carnage I hadn’t seen the likes of since an elf snapped and shot up a shoe factory in Malaysia.
Before me, crowds milled in a mash of flesh that made it hard to tell where bodies began and ended. Limbs flailed and voices raised in agony. Mine, not theirs. What was I thinking, coming to the mall on Christmas Eve?
“Marissa!” From across the mall-way, a short woman in a red and green fur coat waved to me. “I bought you something.” That would be Ari, the aforementioned princess, part-time agent at Grimm’s agency, and my full time best friend. She twirled, sending her coat flaring out. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Tell me you did not buy this.”
She kept her light blue eyes open and smiled as she answered, “I did not buy this.”
The easy way she answered raised every suspicious bone in my body, which was pretty much all of them. I’d made paranoia and cynicism the hallmarks of what I hoped would be a statistically long and reasonably fulfilling career. “You made them give it to you.”
Ari blushed, matching the color the fake fur atrocity she wrapped herself in. “I did not. I was guest number one thousand, so I won it!”
Of course she did. Though the title “Princess” didn’t come with a crown or a throne, it did come with luck I could only describe as ridiculous. The universe itself bent over backwards to make her life easier.
“I won a coat for you, too!” Ari held up the bag by her side, and offered me a coffee cup. “You have to try this.” She took a sip from hers and waited, watching me.
I never understood why people called it coffee if it had cream or sugar in it. You wouldn’t add cream and sugar to your blood, and I harbored a secret suspicion that the blood in my veins ran Columbian dark. But I took a sip anyway, just for Ari.
And gagged. “What in Inferno did you just give me?”
Ari smiled. “It’s a limited-time Holiday Spice latte!”
Mine tasted like holiday spice, all right. The problem was the holiday was Samhain, and the spice had apparently been made of ground beetles and rotten bark. I nodded to her and faked another sip before drizzling that swill into the nearest potted plant, which began to wilt on contact. “Can we just get this done?”
Ari nodded. “Grimm says it’s on the third floor, in a crystal shop.”
We worked our way through the crowds, taking the escalators up and up, until the smell of people mingled with the scent of evergreens. No matter how much cinnamon or pine sap they added, all I ever smelled was the sweat and stink of people pressed together.
“I love it at Christmas.” Ari’s face had that dreamy look that said she was going to launch into another soliloquy about the warmth of the human spirit. Your average person didn’t warm my heart much unless he was on fire, which happened depressingly often in my line of work.
“I love it at three in the morning when there’s no one around.” I spotted the crystal shop and headed for it. The sign read, ‘A Touch of Sparkle,’ and both doors stood wide open. Just looking at the place made me nervous. The white marble interior made me think of arctic ice, while recessed lighting mixed shadows and glittering rainbows through the store. Snow globes, crystal fountains, and clocks lined the walls and stood in displays just perfect for me to trip and fall into.
I wasn’t clumsy, just unlucky, and life had taught me that both patches of cactus and shops filled with crystal were to be avoided. “You have the package?”
Ari nodded. She reached into her shopping bag and pulled out a brown paper package. At least, I think it was paper. The closer I looked, the more the wrinkles looked like hair. Which meant I didn’t want to look closely.
With Ari in the lead, we entered the shop and approached the counter. The shopkeeper, an Asian woman whose pitch-black hair hung in a short bob, crossed her arms and alternated between frowning at me and smiling at Ari. I took a business card from my purse. Polished silver, the card could and did work as a mirror. On one side, it read “Marissa Locks, Partner.” On the other, it bore the words “The Agency.” I pushed it across to her. “I’m here on business.”
Grimm’s face appeared in the business card. He could have chosen any of the thousand other shiny surfaces, but Grimm enjoyed a good dramatic entrance almost as much as saving money or magic. “Ms. Feng, I hereby authorize the opening of your gateway for official business. And may I say, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
Judging from the sour expression on Ms. Feng’s face, the feeling might not be entirely mutual. She pushed a simple snow globe across the counter. Inside, a festive country shack rested in the middle of a blizzard. My eye twitched as I watched the snow swirl, so I focused on Ms. Feng. She glanced around the shop, untied her apron and stepped out from behind the counter. “Everyone,” she shouted, “go home. We’re closed.” With that, she began to shoo out the few remaining customers.
While she argued with a woman by the door, Ari reached deeper in her bag. “I want you to put this on so we can be twins!”
Twins where one of us had brown hair and brown eyes and the other had red hair and blue eyes. Add in the fact that I came stock from the factory with a tan, while Ari could get sunburned by a sunflower, and we weren’t exactly twinny. Ari pulled at the bottom of her bag and yanked out a decrepit cloak. Dark indigo, with lumps and warts sticking out, the lining at the collar could either be matted fur or chewing gum, it was hard to tell.
She held it up and shuddered. “I don’t understand. This wasn’t—“
“A gift?” I raised one eyebrow. “For me?” Gifts never worked out for me, and Ari knew better, most days. If I was lucky, the cloak only contained garbage. Live scorpions were a definite possibility. I took the cloak anyway, hanging it over my arm, where at least if something venomous bit me, I could cinch a tourniquet quickly. “Thanks, but you shouldn’t have. I mean, really, remember this next time.”
Near the front of the store, Ms. Feng’s gentle whisper had risen to a gale force shouting match. Worse yet, Tropical Storm Feng swung around, moving our direction, trailing a woman heading away from the doors.
“I said closed!” shouted Ms. Feng, as she locked the shop.
“Not leaving without a gift,” said the woman.
“Please?” asked Ari, turning on her princess charm. That innocent question, the way she looked up from puppy dog eyes, you could almost feel the universe leaning over Ari’s shoulder and saying “Yeah, please?”
The woman hunched over and narrowed her eyes. “Stuff it, Red. I didn’t brave the hordes to leave without a gift for my Muffy. Mommy’s going to get her the perfect paw-surgery present to make her little tail wag.”
I reached into my purse, regretfully moving past the nine millimeter and choosing my wallet. With a flourish, I pulled out a hundred dollar bill. Cash worked better than guns for handling normal problems. “I will pay for you to get a gift from somewhere else.”
Her eyes scrunched up as she looked at the bill. “That there’s a fraud. You aren’t putting one over one me, girl. I want—that.” Her gaze locked onto the snow globe on the counter. When I say ‘her eyes lit up,’ for most people, it’s a euphemism. But for one moment, the woman’s eyes shone with an orange light that twinkled in a dozen prisms. “It’s perfect.”
“NO!” Ms. Feng shouted, elbowing her way past. “That boring. You want commemorative Cleveland Browns Super Bowl globe?”
Ms. Feng’s reaction, the way her entire body tensed, told me more than Grimm had. Never once did Grimm claim the delivery was actually to the shop.
Ari put one hand on the snow globe. “Is that the north pole?”
Her question triggered another memory, far less pleasant than this evening. “Grimm!” I picked up the business card and waited. “Tell me this isn’t for him.” The second year I worked for Grimm, I delivered a bundle on Christmas Eve to a team of postal gnomes, and made the mistake of signing my name on the invoice. The receiver had used it to look up my address, and the consequences continued for years.
Grimm blinked back into the card. “Relax, Marissa. This year, you’ll know exactly–” His gaze shifted to Muffy’s Mommy, and he whispered, “Marissa, Princess, you must protect the gateway.”
That was all the confirmation I needed. Often, objects served as anchors, mostly for spells laid down back when tearing up an area the size of Alaska didn’t attract as much attention. Gateway spells. Unlike a portal, which had to be powered, and tuned to a location, a gateway spell only went one place. You’d think portals would be far more popular, and among magic wielders, they were. But portals had limits on where they could go. Gateways suffered no such limits. You could build a gateway to the heart of a black hole, as long as you possessed a truckload of magic and no sense of self-preservation.
And Gateways usually had guardians.
“Ari, keep an eye on—” Before I could finish, Muffy’s Mommy snarled, and lunged for the snow globe. I should have known. Ari was a princess, and therefore immune to most magic. I’d been exposed to so much magic I found it boring when I didn’t find it deadly, and Ms. Feng, well, I’d bet dollars to donuts she was wrapping paper on something much larger and uglier.
But our fellow shopper had a different reason for her sudden interest. I’d seen possessions, performed exorcisms, and though I couldn’t name the creature with orange eyes, I had no doubt. Something had hitched a ride to the mall on board a woman with a love of small dogs.
I leapt for the snow globe, wrapping my hands around it and throwing a vicious elbow. Ari’s shouting rose to the level where I figured she’d break out in bolts of lightning, like she always did when she was agitated.
“Grat di to-vung,” shouted a voice which did not fit inside a frumpy middle aged shopper. Since it was neither English nor French, I couldn’t tell you what it meant, but I bet it wasn’t “Have a nice day.” Magic welled up inside the woman, and vomited out as a torrent of pure power.
But not at me. No, she power-puked over my shoulder, catching Ms. Feng right in the chest. Our dour Asian gatekeeper flew backwards, destroying a pile of crystal clocks.
The floor beneath me began to shake, and outside, the lights flickered and then exploded. Which meant the cavalry was on their way. Two spell creatures, called Harathakin. One was blessing, the other a curse, but neither one had ever seemed to understand the meaning of the their names. Their existence was tied to mine, so at times, they could be overprotective.
Ari dashed in to seize the shopper’s leg. “Marissa? Your pets are going crazy—“
A crystal fountain to her left exploded.
“I know,” I said between gritted teeth, as I fought to tear the snow globe away. I wasn’t armed. At least, not in the normal way. So I bent over and bit, ignoring the fact that I didn’t know when this woman last washed her hands, and also, that she tasted like old newspaper.
She shrieked and threw her head back, then screamed louder. The woman’s hair stood out from her head as something invisible tore small patches of hair from her head. Those harathakin could be handy at times.
Ari swung her shopping bag, probably meaning to hit the woman up side the head. Which, to be fair, she did. She just hit me too, as a bonus. I had one thing going for me: lots of experience on the losing end of fights. Pain was more of an old friend than a surprise visitor, so when Ms. Muffy’s hands slipped away, I curled myself up around the snow globe.
“Walker, you will not survive the night,” shouted Ms. Feng. Her voice took on a chill which caused the crystal in her shop to vibrate in response, echoing her words. “Always seeking the gates. Using that poor woman to try and reach it.”
Ari helped me up, and I kept the snow globe cradled in my cloak of horrors, which despite being ugly, made good packing material.
Ms. Feng held the shopper by her shoulder. Each of Ms. Feng’s fingers now ended in split claws, which drew blood where they sank in. She hissed with a forked tongue. “I will kick you out of that body, Walker, and when I do, your days in this realm will end.”
The woman’s eyes lit up yellow again, and she roared in a voice like the crackle of dead leaves, “No.” She twisted forward, a blur of motion that left her hand on the snow globe. “Erundi Destos Fugit.” Her words weren’t proper Latin, but for most magic, the actual words didn’t matter nearly as much as intent. The snow globe pulsed in answer, beating like a heart. Most people thought of spells as static creations. In my experience, all magic was alive at a subtle level, and it longed to do what it was meant for. And what this gateway wanted to do–
“Marissa!” Ari shouted, and swung her hand toward me. But the world chose that moment to suck me down a straw, flying further, faster until shapes lost meaning. And I was gone.
That’s it for this week. Tune in next Tuesday, for Chapter 2.