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A Shop of Curiosities

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When a middle-aged woman rolled into my shop and told me she was looking for ichor, I didn’t think much of it at first.

You get all kinds in a shop like mine, and doubly so when you put up the right signs on your door. The signs that let certain kinds of people know they’re welcome, not just the collectors or the curious or the new age mystics, looking for this root or that crystal or wanting to gawk at a jar of old bones, but the less innocuous individuals as well.  The kind who mean business when they come looking for their… less run-of-the-mill specialities.

You also get people who are completely out of their depth.  It pays to take a few minutes and be sure of who you’re dealing with.  My Old Gran once accidentally inducted a hapless college student into a coven because she thought he was being metaphorical.  I’ve always made it a point to be a bit more blunt than people in my profession generally are, just as a precaution.

“Are we talking bile, or are we talking blood of the immortals?” I asked from behind the counter, where I’d been sorting what my mother referred to as the ‘tourist crystals’.  They were good enough crystals, I thought.  Nothing you’d use in an actual ritual, but there was no reason to be snide about it.  Sometimes a pretty rock was allowed to be nothing more than a pretty rock.

Pretty rocks tended to be a damn sight nicer to look at than most of my customers, anyway, including the woman I was talking to. She was tall, with stooped shoulders, dressed in dirty jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.  Her face was pale and unmade-up, with an insomniac’s bruises under her eyes and stains on the collar of her shirt.  I took a discreet whiff, but I didn’t smell any grave dirt underneath the sour tang of sweat.  Her reflection showed clearly in the polished countertop.  So she was probably alive, and there was a decent chance she was human, or at least partly so.

“Do people actually come in looking for the other kind?” she asked me, her voice wavering between a put-upon grumble and something decidedly squeakier.  One of my eyebrows ticked up.

“You haven’t even told me which one is the kind you’re looking for,” I replied.

“The – the second one,” she squeaked, and then growled, hastily, like an overgrown cub pretending to be a bear.

For a good solid minute I debated just throwing her out of the shop.  I probably should have.  There was no chance anything good was coming from this.  This sort of high-grade request and low-grade industry awareness could only come about a few ways. Best case scenario, I had some kind of hero on my hands, and yeesh.  The last hero who’d frequented the shop had nearly gotten the place pushed into a nearby dimension, stolen three rings from the supply room, and summoned a demon.  A demon which he had then left running loose.  It’d taken Old Gran, my mother, two aunties, and all six of my sisters just to get the place back into working order again, and even so there was a lingering scent of brimstone near the toilet that never quite seemed to go away.

But the thing is, I didn’t take over running a shop full of curiosities because I lack, well, curiosity.  Even if my mysterious customer turned out to be a thorn in my side, I still hadn’t figured out what she was after, and I wanted to.  So once that minute of hesitation passed, I walked over to the supply room door, and opened it.  

“Don’t touch anything,” I warned her, motioning for her to follow.

She shuffled in behind me, hunching her shoulders even more, as if she was being especially careful not to brush up against the shelves.  Good. The ‘supply room’, as Old Gran had always called it, was bigger than the actual shop front.  It was filled with rows upon rows of shelves and lines of crates, all methodically organized by yours truly, of course.  I had redone the entire place years ago, after my mother handed ownership of the shop to me.  Old Gran’s idea of a filing system had, as near as I could tell, relied on astrology, temporal wind patterns, and metaphorical alphabetization.  Loosely.  And that was before my mother attempted to introduce the card catalogue.

My own system divided things primarily into basic categories – animate, inanimate, animal, mineral, and so on, and then alphabetically and by item size.  The aunties always complained that it was incomprehensible. I led my prospective customer over towards the back wall of shelves, and grabbed the step ladder along the way.

“So,” I said, as her gaze darted nervously around the room.  “What sort of ichor are you in the market for?  The term can cover a fairly broad range of substances.”

“Um…” she helpfully replied.  I waited, but no further response seemed to be forthcoming. Sighing, I ascended the ladder, and directed her attention towards several jars and vials in stock.

“Gods’ blood, demigod’s blood, vampire’s blood, gorgon’s blood, demon’s blood.  Ichor for animating lifeless constructs, ichor for fertilizing lifeless soil. Gods’ blood wine, gods’ blood willingly given, gods’ blood unwillingly spilled, dragon blood – not generally called ichor, I know, but some texts get iffy in translations, and most dragons are immortal – sap from an undying tree…” I glanced back towards her, only to see her staring at the shelves with a sort of dazed bewilderment.  Another sigh escaped me.  “What do you want it for? I tried asking.

The customer jumped, then flinched, then swallowed.

“I… just, um, do you just have plain ichor?” she mumbled.

I treated her to my very best unimpressed look. It’s a good look, if I do say so myself. According to my aunties I remind them of Young Gran when I do it, and Young Gran is an accomplished necromancer who’s seen so much, by now, almost nothing impresses her anymore, and she doesn’t care to disguise that fact.  Buying birthday gifts for her is absolute hell.

“Plain.  Ichor. You do realize that all of this is poisonous, yes?” I asked, nodding towards the shelf behind me.  “You can’t just drink some and become a god or get high or whatever it is you’re looking to do.”

The customer actually looked faintly alarmed.

“What, even the wine?” she wondered.

Especially the wine,” I replied.  What were they teaching kids in school these days?  I stomped down off of the ladder, feeling increasingly confident that I wasn’t going to get a sale out of this.  The customer shuffled her feet some, clearly debating something within herself, and then reached into the pocket of her hoodie.  She pulled out an old, stained note.  I caught a whiff of parchment and ink and human blood, and a faint tang that reminded me of Young Gran.

Aha.

“Give it here,” I said, knowingly, and after a moment’s hesitation, she complied.

The list was written in fancy cursive.  The dramatic sort that my mother would say only two-bit hacks use, though I’ve always found a bit of razzle dazzle to be harmless myself.

“Don’t tell me you actually have the phoenix ash?” I asked.  That was tricky to come by, and expensive to boot, especially in this part of the world.

“I got some from the shop on Roadhill,” the customer replied.  “But, um, they don’t stock ichor.  Said it wasn’t vegan.  They told me you might, uh, have it, though.”

“Fucking Roadhill,” I muttered.  Then I wrinkled my nose.  “Wait.  Phoenix ash is vegan?”

“Um, I guess?”

I stared a moment, wondering how they came around to that conclusion. After failing to come up with anything, I decided it didn’t much matter, and thrust the list back at the customer.  

“So,” I said, turning back to the step ladder.  “You’re trying to raise the dead.”

Behind me, the customer coughed, and then sputtered. Her list crinkled in her hands as she clutched it.

“M-maybe,” she hedged.

I clucked my tongue at her.

“Amateur necromancy’s a good way to desecrate corpses and upset cemeteries, but a piss poor way to get anything else done,” I informed her.  Then I retrieved a vial of titan blood, and a pamphlet from one of the boxes on the shelf below it.  “If you want to raise the dead, you really should hire a professional.  There’s a lot of nuance to this kind of thing, you know. It takes a proper necromancer decades to learn their craft, but everyone always thinks they can just look up a recipe online or dig one out of grimoire somewhere and cut out the middle man.  I mean, gods know they’re expensive, my grandmother’s been on the outs with one of my great-aunts for thirty years because she refused to resurrect her for free, but you only get one shot at resurrection.  Well. Mostly.  You don’t want to botch it either way, though, do you?”

The customer hunched into herself yet more and stared out at me from underneath her hood.

“I’m, um.  Um,” she said.  “It’s… um. I’m fine.”

I shoved the pamphlet at her.  The words ‘Abominations & You – A Guide to Responsible Necromancy’ were emblazoned across the top.  One of my younger sisters had printed several dozen of them out during her short-lived Public Awareness phase.  She fumbled with it in surprise, and then followed me back out of the supply room again.

“You have pamphlets?” she asked, as if that was somehow more bizarre than a shelf full of supernatural blood.

“Obviously,” I replied.  “And do yourself a favour and actually read that, don’t just shove it into your pocket and forget it.  I don’t want you rushing back here at the end of the week with a flock of semi-conscious zombies shuffling behind you like the world’s smelliest procession of ducklings.”

The customer gripped her pamphlet so hard it crinkled.

“Do they do that?” she asked, with some alarm.

“On occasion,” I said, and slipped behind the counter to procure a padded box.  The vial of titan blood was fairly small, stoppered in a brown bottle and sealed with wax.  I double-checked the seal and then packaged it up, and stuck a poison warning label onto the side.  Then I set it onto the counter in front of me.  “Do not let it get in contact with your skin.  Wear leather gloves or oven mitts when you’re handling it, not latex. Do not attempt to ingest it, and try not to breathe in any of the fumes when you open the vial.  If you do breathe in any of the fumes you may experience dizziness, disorientation, delusions of grandeur, or momentary bouts of homicidal rage.  As long as the seal remains unopened, the ichor will last well beyond your lifetime.  If the seal is broken, freshness is guaranteed for three days, viability for up to a week.  After that, you’ll just have a vial of toxic golden goop.”

The customer shuffled her feet, and stared at the box with increasing trepidation.  I waited to see if she would change her mind.  But after a moment, she only nodded in understanding, and shuffled a bit more.

“Now, for the matter of payment,” I said.  The customer reached a hand into her hoodie pocket and produced a battered grey wallet this time.  I clucked my tongue at her.

“Don’t tell me they took actual money from you at Roadhill?” I asked.

She blinked at me.

“Um.  Yes?”

I let out an appropriate sound of disgust. My mother might have muttered something deprecating about New Age hacks, but I’ve always been above that sort of thing.

“Idiots,” I said instead.  “We don’t do business like that here.  Anything in the front you can buy for money.  Anything from the back requires payment.”

The customer fiddled with her wallet, and darted a glance towards the windows.

“I don’t get it,” she confessed.

I scowled, and tapped the counter as I considered my options.  Dealing with first-time buyers was always tricky.  Everyone had something worthwhile, of course, but people had gotten savvier about those kinds of things in recent decades.  Back when Old Gran ran the shop, you could get two years of someone’s life or the baby tooth of their firstborn just for a swatch of chimera leather.  Now, you’re lucky if anyone will even give you a day, and don’t even think about trying to get anything off of their kids.  You’d assume new customers would be easier sells, but most of the time they’re even more tight-fisted than the regulars, because they have no idea what someone can actually do with their firstborn’s baby teeth.

“Blood for blood,” I finally decided, and the customer blanched.

What?! Her eyes went wide as she backed away from me.

I sighed.

“Don’t look so alarmed,” I advised, and ducked beneath the counter to retrieve a clean needle and syringe. “It’s a bargain, really. You get a vial of ichor – which is considerably harder to come by than human blood, I can assure you – and I’ll take a vial of yours in exchange.  A first time customer’s deal.”

“Why do you want my blood, then?  If it’s less valuable?” she wondered.  She hadn’t bolted for the door, though, which was a good sign.

“It’s a new moon,” I said.  “Blood freely given, as part of an exchange involving life and death, is an attractive acquisition. I have some customers who will be interested in that.  It’ll be a quick sell, and since they won’t know your name, as I don’t know your name, they won’t be able to harm you with it.” Any of my regular customers would have refused such an exchange outright.  There would be too much risk of my using their blood against them. But a newcomer, perhaps…

“…Alright,” she agreed.

I nodded in satisfaction.

“Excellent.”

She flinched when I took the blood, a jumpy sort all around, and then held her purchase gingerly, lingering for an awkward moment as she gave the shop a final once-over.  Then she shuffled out of the door, and out of my thoughts.  I was more concerned with Roadhill selling phoenix ash, to be honest.  I had an exclusivity deal with my supplier, and if he’d broken our agreement, I’d have his head.  Literally, according to the wording in the original contract he’d signed with Old Gran.

Two days later I was restocking the candles and handmade soaps when the bell at the door jangled, frantically, as it was thrown open and then pulled shut with an audible bang. Frowning, I abandoned a box of goat’s milk hair conditioner, and headed towards the front.

The ichor customer had returned.  She was all but plastered against the shop door, dressed in the same dirty jeans and a different hoodie, a hunted look on her face. What I could see of her skin was covered in a myriad of scrapes and scratches.

I let out an internal sigh.

“Did you read the pamphlet?” I asked.

“You!  You have to help me!” she said, which was the very last thing I wanted to hear, to be honest.

No,” I replied.  “I am a shop owner, not a necromancy mentor.  I sold you a product.  I instructed you in the safe handling of that product, and provided you with additional safety information, free of charge.  I even advised you to seek professional assistance.  What you did with your purchase after you left my shop is not my responsibility.”

“They’re after me,” she insisted.

Wonderful.

“Didn’t I tell you not to come traipsing back in here with a hoard of zombies?  Was that not explicitly one of the things I said to you?”  I checked the windows, but I couldn’t see anything on the street.  Nevertheless, the little hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand at attention, and that was not a good sign.

“I, I followed the instructions to the letter. I don’t understand what went wrong,” she blathered.

Had my mother been present, she probably would have informed her that ‘what went wrong’ was that an amateur moron had attempted to meddle with powers well beyond her ken, and suffered the appropriate backlash for her hubris.  Fortunately for the poor woman, I have always been of a more forgiving mindset.

“Get out of my shop,” I said.

“Please, they’re – they’re not normally like this at all!” she begged.

Damn it all, but some small kernel of curiosity kindled in me at her words.

“How many, exactly, are there?” I wondered.

“Two.  Just two,” my former customer replied.

I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling.

“Well that would explain the problem,” I said. “I didn’t sell you enough ichor for two people.  The recipe you showed me didn’t call for enough ingredients to serve more than one.  If you tried to split it, small wonder things went awry.”

The woman swallowed, heavily, glancing nervously through the window in the door behind her.  I didn’t imagine she could see very much.  That was one of the windows I left artfully grimy in order to provide an appropriately mysterious aesthetic.

“Yeah, but, but I figured, with the size difference, it’d work out,” she stammered.

It took me a moment to wrap my head around what she was implying.

“You tried to resurrect children?” I demanded, reeling.  Undead children were the absolute worst.  But even as my dread surged, the woman shook her head.

“No, no, no,” she said.  Then, casting one last glance at the door behind her, she reached into her pocket and fished out a phone.  The battered case and slightly cracked screen looked like they had both seen better days. She fiddled with it, and then handed it to me, clearly intent on showing me a picture.  Would it be little people, I wondered?  Perhaps a pair of pixies, or even imps?  And then I looked.

“That’s Crisps,” she informed me, pointing to a fuzzy white rat napping in the left of the photo.  “And that’s Wrinkles,” she added, pointing at the brown rat peering into the camera from the right.  Both rodents appeared to be sitting inside of a laundry basket.

“You wanted to resurrect your pet rats?” I asked, strictly for clarity’s sake.

The woman hunched in on herself, ducking her face lower into the collar of her hoodie.

“They’re, um, good pets,” she mumbled.  “Not like what people say.  I mean, I know some folk don’t, y’know, like the tails, but they’re really smart and they love to cuddle.  They’re not dirty or diseased or anything. Cleaner than me most of the time, really.  It’s, it’s only that rats don’t live for very long.  Nature and all.”

“Shit,” I said, with feeling.

“Well, well how’s it any worse than bringing back a person?” she demanded, snatching her phone back.  “That’s what I want to know.  I like my rats.  They’re nicer than most people.  Mostly. Um.  Well, they were.”

“No wonder fucking Roadhill sold you phoenix ash for money,” I said.  Damn soft-hearted animal lovers. Then I stomped over to the supply room, pointing emphatically towards her as I did.  “Stay there, and do not open that door, you understand?”

When she nodded, I threw open the supply room door, and headed straight for the emergency cleansing incense on the shelf to my right.  My nerves settled marginally once I’d lit it.  I closed my eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and weighed my options.  The situation was either very bad, or incredibly dire. Enough so that I might have called in reinforcements, if I thought there was time for it.  But there probably wasn’t, so instead I gathered up three vials from a back shelf, a small wooden box, and a locked chest from underneath the incense table.

I unloaded my haul onto the front counter. My returned customer was still peering through the windows.

“This is going to be expensive,” I informed her.

She swallowed, visibly.

“You’re not going to take one of my kidneys, are you?” she asked.

I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Why?  Are you offering me one?”

“N-no!”

“Well then it’s not going to do me any good, is it?” I pointed out, as I opened the box.

A sleek, black, taxidermy cat glared up from inside with a gimlet eye that had been carefully immortalized long before I’d ever been born.  It smelled of death and sand and old, fearful things, and I couldn’t help wrinkling my nose a bit as I closed a hand around its brittle fur, and set it onto the counter. I made sure to have it facing the door. Strictly for ritualistic purposes, of course, though the fact that it seemed to unnerve the woman hovering beside it was an added bonus.

“Is, um, is that because they’re rats?” she wondered, nodding towards the cat.

I scoffed.

“They are most emphatically not rats anymore,” I informed her.

“But why?” she blurted, gesturing inarticulately with her arms.  “I don’t understand what went wrong!”

Gods help me, but she really did say that. Despite everything, I had to pause and take a moment to marvel at her, and mankind in general.  It was almost a pity my mother wasn’t present to witness her. She would have given her such a verbal lashing, it might have actually split her skin.  I took another calming breath.  Underneath the scent of the incense, and the taxidermy cat, and the pungent odor of fear, I detected a sickly sweet hint of rot.  Time was short.

“Believe it or not, necromancy doesn’t tend to follow a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of operation,” I nevertheless felt compelled to inform her.  “I selected your ichor under the assumption that you were going to use it on a human, because the recipe you showed me was for resurrecting a human.  That takes a lot of kick, do you understand?  Human lives are expensive.  So what’s happened here is that you’ve essentially used a jet engine to try and power a tricycle.  All of the excess power that would have gone into recovering a human life spilled into your rats and then overflowed.”  I shuddered. “Do you have an idea how rare it is for people to over do a resurrection spell? To just let loose a torrent of energy with no particular purpose into the space between life and death?”

The customer’s shoulders had been hunching further and further inwards as I spoke, so that, by the time I finished, she looked as if she was trying to absorb her arms into her own torso.

“It’s not like they exploded or anything,” she mumbled.

I paused in my rant, baffled.

“Why would they explode?” I wondered.

“Well, um, I mean, if you put a jet engine on a trike, it’d probably explode.  Right?” she suggested.  “Just as soon as it crashed, I suppose.”

“For all its pitfalls, necromancy rarely involves a lot of combustion,” I informed her, with just a hint of impatience.

“Oh,” she said.

“It can, however, summon unspeakable evils from beyond the veil of death to wreak havoc upon the mortal realm.”

“Oh,” she said again.

It was at that point that the sound of scratching began.

The sound was faint.  Just a light scritch, scritch, towards the bottom of the doorframe.  But the customer leapt back and away from it as if she’d been burned, her eyes wild, her hands clutching at the pockets of her hoodie.

“Oh god, they’re here!” she gasped.  “They can’t get inside, can they?”

“It’ll take them some doing,” I replied, unlocking the chest I’d hauled out to the front.

“How, um, how much doing?”

“Come here,” I said, instead of answering.  The sound of scratching started up again, underneath one of the front windows instead.  The taxidermy cat tilted its head ever-so-slightly towards the sound. The lights flickered, but the ominous effect was somewhat diminished by the bright sunlight still streaming in from outside.  A baritone squeak drifted through the shop, deep and menacing, seeming to come from all directions and none at the same time.

With a shaking hand, the customer produced a battered sandwich bag full of cereal from the depths of her hoodie.  She clutched it like a lifeline.

“Ah, good,” I said.  “Give me that, and hold this.”  I scooped up the cat, and before she could protest, I snatched the baggie from her grasp and dumped the cat into her arms.  She clutched it, at first, and then did a disgusted double-take and held it at arm’s length instead.

“Why do I have to hold this?” she asked.

“Why does anyone in this shop do anything?” I replied.  She stared at me blankly.  “Because I fucking tell them to, that’s why.  Now, stop asking stupid questions.  I need to focus, unless you’d prefer to spend the rest of your brief existence being gnawed apart by your former pets?”

“I would not,” she conceded, and then backpedalled frantically as I grabbed up the chest and two of the vials, along with the bag of cereal, and carried it to the middle of the room.

The cat’s lifeless head tilted towards the far right.  The sound of scratching intensified, followed by several more ominous squeaks, and the putrid scent of rot was getting strong enough to unnerve me.  Even the customer seemed to notice it, if her wrinkled nose was anything to go by.

“They didn’t smell that bad when they were just dead,” she mentioned.

I uncorked one of the vials.

“This is lich ichor,” I informed her.  “It is more than four hundred years old.  The only comparably valuable substances you could barter for it would be your still-beating heart, your firstborn, or your immortal soul.”  I broke the seal on the top, and with great care, spilled a handful of drops over the circle carved into the floor at my feet.  The customer flinched as each droplet fell.  I stared at her as I closed the vial again, and held up the second one.  “This is a tincture of Night Phlox.  It comes from one of my sisters’ gardens.  She overcharges, and I intensely dislike having to replace my store of it.”  With a flick of my wrist, I tossed it onto the floor, where it shattered.  Then I reached down, and carefully grabbed up a handful of the contents of the chest.

“What, um,” the customer asked, before she seemed to swallow back the rest of her sentence.

The cat looked up towards the ceiling, craning a little awkwardly in her arms, and the sounds of scratching started to coalesce around the skylight.  They were joined by a tapping sound, and then a great, resounding bang.  That was followed by another, and then another, until the entire shop was filled with the cacophony.  It was rather impressive, as a matter of fact.  The crystals on the shelves started to vibrate, and one of the books at the tarot display toppled over.

The skylight cracked.  The banging abruptly stopped.

“That’s going to need to be replaced, too,” I said.

“Shit, oh god, shit shit shit,” the customer replied.

From the corner of my eye, I saw something dart between the shadows in the room.

Carefully, I scattered the handful off dust into the circle. Then I held up the bag of cereal, and began to shake it.

“Here, mousy mousy mousy,” I called.

“They’re rats, not mice!” she blurted at me.

I rolled my eyes, but refrained from correcting her on the front of them not being any variety of rodent at all. Again.

“Here, ratty ratty ratty,” I called, instead, still shaking the bag of cereal.

Massive shadows began to loom along the walls. The cat turned and looked towards a far corner of the shop. Beneath one of the bookshelves, two sets of glowing red eyes appeared.

I shook the bag of cereal again.

The customer attempted to hide behind me.

In a rush, the rats – or, rather, former rats – charged. They were very fast. Not totally surprising, considering that they were bleeding excessive energy into the boundaries between space and time, and were likely possessed by at least a few demons. I almost didn’t snatch the cat away from the customer in time, but you don’t hang onto a job like mine with poor reflexes.

With only a little fanfare, I dropped the unnerving taxidermy specimen into the circle.

There was a smoky boom and the scent of bone dust, and the taxidermy housecat warped and twisted and then sprang to life. The fast-moving rats were already racing towards it too quickly to reverse course, and what followed was a battle that literally shook the foundations of the shop.

Several crystals finally gave up and crashed to the floor.

“You will also be paying for those,” I informed the customer, who was, by then, clutching the back of my shirt and attempting to invoke a god she probably didn’t believe in. Just going off of the general lack of effectiveness. Jupiter was an odd choice, though. You didn’t hear that invocation every day. Especially not when it was being made by someone who, it was becoming swiftly apparent, didn’t actually know that was a name of a god as well as a planet.

Where had this idiot been getting her information from? If she’d actually had a guide, whoever it was deserved to be shot.

The rats were eviscerated.

The cat turned towards us, and I opened the rest of the chest and, before it could get any clever ideas, slammed the box over top of the beast. It took some work to get the lid closed. Furious growls resounded from the inside, but once shut, the chest refused to move. Just as it should. It would be a noisy mess until I could get Young Gran to come and put it down again.

She would charge for that.

I turned, and regarded the customer, who was staring at the mangled corpses of her former pets with…

Well now.

You see a lot of grieved people in my line of work. And a lot of desperate people. A lot of remorseful people, and a lot of angry people. A lot of curious people as well. You get a knack for picking out the genuine ones, and so help me, but that scruffy, smelly, foolish, woman was genuinely distraught over her mutilated, undead vermin. They had been trying to kill her not two minutes ago, and yet she looked as if someone had just pulled the floor out from under her.

I sighed, and scooped up the corpses.

“Where are you taking them?” she asked.

“Failed resurrections need to be carefully disposed of, if you don’t want them twitching their way through lingering unlife and potentially getting back up again,” I replied.

She hung her head, while I unlocked a case beneath the cash register.

“I, um, I guess… does this mean you own my soul now?” she wondered.

I gave her a flat look.

“Are you offering me your soul?” I asked.

“No!”

“Keep up, then,” I advised. “I can hardly accept what you won’t offer. Haven’t I made that clear?”

Now, where was…? Ah, yes, that would do. I pulled out a long, slender box, and an older lighter that whispered about flames until I shook it quiet. The customer watched as I set the rats into the box, along with a few key components.

I did not mention their cost.

“Well… but… you said I had to pay,” the customer reasoned.

“And you do. But how you pay is not solely to my discretion. What do you take me for? A bully? A thief? If anyone has been unfairly harassed and robbed here, it’s clearly me,” I reasoned.

Then I lit the box on fire.

She flinched.

Two seconds later, the fire went out. I caught a whiff of the smoke. Sweet, a little flowery, carrying away the last note of fetid rot.

With a satisfied nod, I opened the box, and moved to quickly catch the living, squirming, perfectly healthy rats that immediately attempted to clamber out of it.

The customer gasped.

That was rather pleasant, actually. It had been some time since I’d done anything to elicit a pleased gasp.

I handed her pets back to her. She took them reverently, letting them sniff at her, tiny whiskers twitching as she cuddled them against her hoodie. I averted my gaze when she started to cry, and instead set about cleaning up the mess.

“You…” she finally said.

“It would have been much cheaper just to mention all of this up front,” I informed her. “So consider those two a reminder of the values of forthrightness, and tread a little more carefully in the future.”

The customer swallowed. She really was a crier. I was glad my mother wasn’t around, then; she loathed criers. Never had the heart to completely take them to task.

“But how do I pay?” she wondered. She sounded rather more resolute than despairing about the whole idea, then.

I Looked at her. Really Looked, mind you. Straight all the way through.

“I am sure you will come up with something for the other expenses. But the resurrection is free,” I decided, and shoo’d her back out of the shop.

A little touch of genuine goodness.

In my line of work, that is invaluable.