All in all, the Department of Magic had been slightly less helpful than hoped for. That is to say; I had at least assumed I would leave with fewer questions, as opposed to gaining half a dozen more. And as I exited the building the accompanying feeling was of being hastily shooed out a hospital post diagnoses of a fatal illness.
No, it was certainly not every day you were told a demon was looking to make you its personal buffet, and it certainly sounded like something worth avoiding. Though, what that involved was anyone’s guess, and as I climbed into my car racked my brain as to where the creature might have come from. Nothing came to mind. And I considered perhaps the creature had been looking for someone else, maybe a more significant person up the road worthy of its attention, some neighboring powerful magic user or Spirit prodigy. And, sadly, must have landed up in my dreams by accident. At least that was the only explanation that made sense to me. Imagine its disappointment, the poor blue face horror, how silly it would feel at the demon’s convention admitting it had landed up haunting a mere commoner.
But at that moment, pulling my old car out of the D.O.M parking, a more immediate concern took centre stage in my mind, namely; Critter the departed cat, a fat feline that managed to make my life less pleasant even from beyond the grave.
Sure, I could have just claimed he had run away, but that would have required acting and lying in equal parts. Two skills I dared not risk. Another solution was called for, and it came to me as I guided my feeble car back out onto a main road. A cunning plan that could only be described as ‘inspired.’ One used by parents the world over who had forgotten to feed their child’s goldfish. I would buy an identical cat and replace Critter before anyone noticed his absence.
So it was off to the nearest pet store. And there, upon describing Critter, I learned the filthy wretch was in fact a Persian. And for reasons known only to cat aficionados this made him worth more than my afore mentioned feeble car times two. Almost, but not quite, literally.
By chance the pet store had a cat of a very similar colour to Critter, except that I estimated the black patch on the animals head to extend a few inches more along the neck. Given circumstances, however, I could not have hoped for a better match, and after debating ludicrous cost against potential drama, decided to buy Critter 2 on the spot. The feeling of handing over what constituted a month’s pay was remarkably similar to being kicked repeatedly in the genitals.
Critter 2 was loaded into a convenient carry cage, free with your purchase of an overpriced animal, and I carted him out to the car. But before setting off I sat a moment, staring at him on the passenger seat, noting his placid expression and striking whiskery face. Maybe, I considered, I might make friends with this enormous puffball animal. Perhaps since I had bought him, and he was not the baggage of an intruding drunkard into my mother’s home, me and the furry hippopotamus might be friends.
“Who’s a pretty cat?” I said, poking my finger into the cage.
He responded with a dry hiss and slashed at my finger. It seemed that Critter 2 in every sense of the word was a true reincarnation of himself.
* * *
Since I had taken the day off for my appointment, not that I believed anyone would notice my absence, I decided to stop in at The Sushi Palace, the restaurant at which my mother was owner and general manager. The parking was full for one o’clock on a weekday, but I found an empty space and climbed out.
“Good girl,” I said, patting my car gingerly. It was a vehicle so desperately in need of mechanical attention it had every excuse to simply burst into a fireball and kill me.
I opened the window a crack for Critter 2 and headed for the restaurant’s front doors. Inside my mother was doing what she did best; making delightful conversation with guests. The young couple she currently engaged looked so unabashedly charmed they might dislocate their jaws from the maniacal smiling.
I offered my mother a wave which she acknowledged with a curtsey, and headed to an isolated table on the exterior wooden deck. From here was a view of a small rear garden, including a decorative pond and selection of flowering plants.
I sat and a petite young waitress approached. Linda. My mother had, on more than one occasion, hinted that I ask the girl out.
“Hey, Jet! How are you?!” she squeaked, her smile so blindingly bright and genuine I felt compelled to shield my face.
“Your mom said you might stop by! I was hoping you would! It’s so great to see you!”
I flinched as she unloaded the words. Little could prepare the unsuspecting for the sheer unrelenting enthusiasm that was her standard M.O. of communication.
“Just stopped in for a coffee,” I said, “Had an appointment at the D.O.M.”
She gasped in response. You would be forgiven for thinking I had told her I was pregnant.
“That’s right! Your mom said you were going to have your Spirit Level measured! Did they do it?! Is it high?! That’s so exciting!”
“Above average. Could I get a coffee, please?”
“Thanks, Linda. Two sugars.”
“Coming right up!”
She turned and flounced back inside. Even the way she walked demanded an exclamation mark.
I sighed and sunk into the chair, ready to let my mind go back to the blue faced monster. But my gaze fell on an unseen person further up the deck. Clinton. With beer clutched in hand and eyes peering at me nervously over his spectacles, it was no guess as to how his job interview had gone. I gave him a reluctant half nod and he smiled.
Linda returned with my coffee. Following my gaze she turned and saw Clinton.
“Oh! Isn't that your father over there?!”
“He’s not my father,” I barked.
The words were louder than intended.
“I'm sorry!” she mewled, “I just thought…”
“Never mind, its okay.”
I felt my cheeks flush. She hovered awkwardly.
“Are there any doughnuts in the kitchen today?”
“I’ll go check!”
She disappeared back inside.
For a minute I avoided looking at Clinton and sipped my coffee. I let my eyes instead wonder over the activities of the restaurant, gazing through the glass sliding door. Inside waiters and waitresses were attending tables, the events playing out in mute from my perspective. It was remarkable how efficient and professional the employees were, I thought absently, almost to the level of absurdity. There was not a single face not smiling and not a solitary staff member who did not appear to be busy with something important. Comparing this situation to the atmosphere at The Whisperer would be comparing a plate of fresh sushi to a rotting fish corpse, and trying to argue they were in principal the same thing.
My mother floated over and took a seat at my table, smiling radiantly.
“Linda likes you,” she crooned, nodding in the direction of the girl’s retreat.
“She’s nice,” I said, wondering if my ears would ever stop ringing.
I sipped my coffee. Over my mother’s shoulder I caught a glimpse of Clinton half rising, then thinking better of it and sinking back into the chair.
“So, tell me about your appointment,” my mother asked.
“Wonderful! Your gran will be so pleased.”
I frowned. “Gran will be pleased?”
My mother smiled mischievously. “You’ll be going for training, I assume?”
“Well,” I said, taking the business card from my top pocket, “He recommended I go for defence training, yes.”
I handed her the card and she read it aloud; “‘Selena Stephania: Mental Fortification, Defence and Countermeasures.’ When are you going to call?”
“It’s not exactly cheap.”
“I'm sure if you want it you’ll find the money.”
I sighed. “If I'm going to go for training I’d at least like it to be the real kind, mom. Not the kind done by a fat guy in his back yard that has a diploma printed on tissue paper to prove his professionalism. You know?”
She let out a tinkling laugh. “I can give you a loan, Jet, you only just have to ask. We’ll get you a good trainer.”
“I know. We’ll see. I just...”
I sat back and sighed again. Suddenly, a thought that had been fluttering in my mind since the Department of Magic jumped forward.
“Mom,” I began, reluctance ringing in my voice, “I noticed something odd earlier.”
“What is it, dear?”
“I was thinking about the day dad died…”
Delight evaporated from her face. Already I regretted bringing it up.
“What about it, dear?”
“Well, the Enforcer asked about it, and when I tried to tell him I couldn't really remember anything. It’s a bit strange, but the whole day seems a bit... vague. Is it vague for you?”
“That’s not strange,” she replied reassuringly, “It was a long time ago. No one likes to dwell on depressing history. We forget and get on with our lives. That’s called acceptance, Jet.”
It made perfect sense and relief washed over me. I had had the most peculiar sensation the vague memories were significant in some way. She smiled at me and I smiled back.
Linda returned with a plate of doughnuts, her expression suggesting she had discovered a priceless artefact lost for centuries.
“Look what I found! Doughnuts!”
“I’ll just leave you two alone.” my mother said, casting me a sly wink. My heart sank.
* * *
That night I was attacked for the second time.
I remember looking down at a penguin lying motionless on its back. It appeared to be a perfectly normal animal but for being a light blue colour. Thinking it might be injured, and being a person who respected the well-being of Antarctic mammals, I bent to offer the creature assistance. That had been a mistake.
It turned to look at me with eyes that consisted of nothing but a sickening red colour. And then the pain started.
First, I noticed that both my arms were locked in position across my chest, held by an invisible pair of vice-like hands. What followed was a feeling like the knuckles of a fist being driven relentlessly into my ribcage.
Above, the blue penguin gazed down, alertness in its eyes that should not have been there. And the longer I was forced to stare, the more my screaming mind insisted I should be seeing something else. Something wearing a penguin like a… tuxedo.
The invisible fist continued its assault, the pain, combined with claustrophobia, became excruciating. I attempted to cry out in what I assume was an attempt at repeating the ‘wake up’ trick, but found my mouth not taking requests.
The moment drew on and panic took root, quickly escalating into raw terror. And then it happened. Words burst from my mouth;
“Get away! Get away!”
And accompanying both declarations was a sensation like crackling energy, or electricity, pulsing from my body in waves. The restraining hands were torn from my arms and knuckled fist pushed from my ribcage, both sent flying away.
Released, I sat up and looked around, only to realise I was in bed.
The objects in my room once again showed signs of being affected. Only this time the effects had been two-fold. My bedside table had splintered where it came into contact with the wall, and my chair had managed to gouge a groove into the wooden cupboard. Above, the light fixture swung so erratically it almost made contact with the ceiling, squeaking mournfully as it strained to stay attached.
Only then did I notice the blood splatter on the wall. Critter 2 had survived only a few hours.
* * *
If you had asked me to rate my first attack on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most horrifically unpleasant experience of my life, I would have probably gone for about a six. The second attack did better, achieving an easy eight.
These were my thoughts as I buried Critter 2 beside his predecessor. I was pleased that my cat burying skills had improved with repetition, and the poor furry beast was safely underground in half an hour.
“I'm sorry pussy cat.” I muttered as I patted down the dirt.
He had been a bit of an aggressive asshole as far as cats went, but I believed we could have been friends given an adequate amount of time. There would not be a Critter 3. Consequences would have play out of their own accord. But these particular consequences seemed the least of my worries.
I arrived for work wondering if a bank would dare loan me defence training money based on my dismal income, or whether some poor sucker could be fooled into buying my car. Neither option seemed feasible, and as I attempted to got busy with work, eyes swimming unfocused on one of my favourite sleazy websites, part of me already accepted I would be asking my mother for money.
I had just come upon an article that reported an incident involving a suspected convict eating his own liver, but before I could check as to whether Benny played a part I was interrupted. Brent was at my table, cup of coffee in hand and fingers scratching at goatee.
“How’d the thing go?” he asked nonchalantly, attempting to hide genuine interest.
“Got your Spirit Level?”
“Nice.” He took a slurping sip of coffee. “So? Gonna go for training?”
“Was considering it.”
“Know how much decent training costs?”
“I do. A butt load. Has to though, right? Otherwise you’d have every asshole with a drop of Spirit and handful of money learning all sorts of crazy magic.”
“Sure, but I can’t think of anyone stupid enough to buy my car.”
“What, you don’t know?”
I shrugged. “What?”
A sly grin suggested he was about to reveal a secret of the universe.
“The Whisperer has to cover it,” he said smugly.
“Defence training. If it’s to prevent harm to your person, The Whisperer has to cover your training costs.”
“I didn't know that.”
“Most don’t.” He took another sip of coffee. “It was either that or dental, The Whisperer took the defence training route. Guess they assumed if it didn't get round they’d never have to actually pay.”
“Right. How do I…?”
“Ask Claudia for the form.”
He cleared his throat and scratched at the goatee again.
“Hey, do you ever gamble, Jet?”
“Got a little card game going with Benny. Would you…?”
But he was cut off.
A short, balding man was approaching at speed, his suit so finely pressed it seemed radiate an ‘expensive’ aura. The sneer on his podgy face said he had just caught a horse shitting on his bed. Brent looked up and his shoulders sagged.
“Paul, I was just…”
He was cut-off a second time. Paul, who I recognised as my boss but had not exchanged two words with, was so close to Brent for a second I thought he might grab the taller man in an embrace.
“You tryna jerk me off?” Paul spat.
“I… no, not trying to jerk you off, sir,” Brent stammered.
“You think I don’t see you, Brent? ‘Going to the bathroom?’ ‘Going to make copies?’” He clicked off the quotation marks in the air with sausage fingers.
“Well… I was just…”
“Where the hell are my design layouts, Brent?”
“Sir, I just…”
“Then you must be tryna jerk me off, Brent. A quick hand job? Tryna slip me a ‘handy?’”
The quotation marks were clicked off again. The exchange was drawing gazes from around the office.
“No, not trying to slip you a handy, sir,” Brent muttered.
“In my office. Now.”
With that Paul let out a shuddering sigh, smoothed out his suit, and stomped off, his stalking stride as practised as his intimidation.
Brent stood rigid, flushing.
“We’ll talk later,” he murmured to me, then followed in Paul’s footsteps for a good session of being belittled.
* * *
Shortly after I approached Claudia’s desk, located in The Whisperer’s white-tiled entrance lobby. She looked up with a face of pure ice and stone.
“Hi, Claudia,” I began.
The words came out sounding like an apology.
“You want something?”
“Yes, um, Brent mentioned a form…?”
“For… training,” I shifted from foot to foot, “For defence training?”
“You want the claim form?”
“That’s probably it, yes.”
She reached down, took a stack of paper roughly equivalent to a small tree from a drawer, and tossed it in front of me.
“Is the form somewhere in this pile?”
“Fill those out, bring them back and I’ll apply for the claim.”
“The whole pile?”
She attempted to kill me with a stare of venom and I shuffled back to my desk. It took most of the morning to complete the paperwork, having to phone my mother twice for ‘next of kin’ information. One section involved describing how severely I felt my life was in danger, giving only ‘very’ and ‘not at all’ as options. I added a third option; ‘somewhat,’ and marked it as my choice.
I handed in the forms just before lunch, feeling pleased with my own record time in completing work involving paper and pen. My expectation was that the claim might be approved in a month if I was lucky, but was prepared for a much longer wait. As I left for home five hours later, Claudia put a single sheet of paper on her desk.
“That’s yours,” she said.
She tapped the paper with a finely manicured finger. “Your claim.”
I picked up the sheet; the words ‘claim approved’ leapt out at me, stamped neatly in a corner.
“Someone called in and had it pushed through.”
She fell back on the tried and trusted method of staring at me like I was made of faeces.
I scanned the paper for more information and was met with a second surprise. I had been granted time off from work ‘until such occasion as trainee graduated from defence training.’ It was unthinkable. The Whisperer spent most of its time hoping I would forget to collect my pay cheque.
“You sure this is mine, Claudia?”
“Please go away.”
Deciding it was not in my best interest to gaze into the maw of the proverbial horse, I left for home. With every step closer to my car I fully expected a Whisperer accountant to become aware of the grievous error, leap out from behind a bush and attempt to restrain me.