“Is it done yet? Is it done, Gran? Is it?”
Willa Rafferty ignores the hopping child at her elbow and peers at the box in her hand. Its roughly printed label—Environment Expansion Kit! Need More Room? Create Extra Magical Space with this Quick and Easy Spell!—is now smeared with small, sticky fingerprints. “Wait a second, Chloe, let me—”
“I’m Evie, Gran. Is that bug supposed to be in the bucket? Shall I catch it?”
“What? Oh.” Willa flinches as a large, black-shelled beetle skitters past her foot. Did that come with the kit? Must’ve done. “Shit. I mean, yes. Get the bug, Chloe. I mean, Evie.”
The girl cups the fleeing insect between her palms and drops it into the bucket. It lands with a splash and an aggrieved-sounding hiss.
“Are we going to set fire to it now, Gran?”
Willa hesitates. Not if there are bugs involved, surely? Aren’t there regulations about not setting bugs on fire?
Another voice shrills in her ear: “Have you done the bodily fluids bit, Gran? Shall I spit in it? Or wee? Do we need to wee in it, Gran?”
Willa rubs her eyes. “No, Evie, we don’t need to do that.”
“It’s Ellie, Gran. Are you sure? All the really good spells need bodily fluids. Did Chloe ask if we can take some biscuits?”
“No. I mean, yes. And no. Your dad doesn’t like you having too much sugar.”
“So is it done now? Can we go?”
“Well, yes, but hold on, I’m not—”
“Awesome!” Three kisses are simultaneously pressed to various parts of her face. “Thanks, Gran! You’re the best!”
“Wait, girls, I don’t—”
But she’s talking to empty air; they’re gone.
“Oh,” Willa says. “Well. Okay.”
The bug climbs out of the bucket again. She lets it go.
It’ll be fine. She did the spell right. She’s sure she did.
She crosses to the conservatory doors, which are letting in a cold, sulfurous breeze. In the distance, something lets out a high-pitched, ululating cry.
Willa slams the doors shut. “Oh,” she says again.
Maybe she didn’t do it quite right.
She edges back into the kitchen, buttoning up her cardigan against the chill. Sage, that’s what she needs. Sage is always good for banishing and cleansing.
Unfortunately, all she can find in the fridge is a bag of lamb’s lettuce three days past its sell-by date. She tries shredding and burning that, but all it does is set off the smoke alarm.
Okay. Maybe what she actually needs is a professional.
She looks up the number for Eddie’s Ethereal Emporium and listens to their “One-Stop Magical Megastore” jingle for fifteen minutes, only to finally get told they can’t send anyone until Tuesday.
She can’t wait until Tuesday; she’s got to have the girls back home by Sunday night.
“Never mind,” she says, and hangs up.
Wasn’t there a leaflet through the door the other day? She’s certain she saw…yes, there it is.
She pulls the flyer out of the recycling bin. Sanderson Spellcraft, it says, and then some truly magical words: Have You Had a Spell Go Wrong? We Can Help! Call Us Now!
Dinah gets Ryan to lug the new batch of spell kits into the warehouse while she settles up with the supplier, sending the girl on her way with a roll of cash and a “pleasure doing business with you.”
A pleasure it is, too; this is proper high-end spellwork, not the kind of stuff any fool can get on a three-for-two at their local Eddie’s, and the kits have been flying off the shelves. Or out of the back of the van, to be more precise.
“Ooh,” Ryan says, taking one of the boxes out of the crate. Magical Assistants Kit! it says on the label. Summon Your Own Imps with this Quick and Easy Spell! “D’you reckon these work, boss?”
Dinah rolls her eyes. What the fuck do they teach kids in school these days? Not business sense, clearly. “I don’t know, and I don’t care. They’ll sell, which is what matters. Caveat fucking emptor, and all that.”
She snatches the box out of his hands. It does make you wonder, though…
Dinah’s never bothered much with magic; in her experience, there are usually simpler and less unhygienic ways of getting what you want. Money or violence, for example, normally does the trick. But this spell, she can definitely see the attraction of.
Imps are runty little things without much in the way of brains, but in fairness, she could say that for at least half her workforce. And imps do what they’re told, all without needing to be paid or threatened.
It’s just a shame they’re so tiny. They’re handy for doing stuff around the house—she’s heard they’ll lick a toilet clean in five seconds flat—but a business like hers has different demands. Transport, heavy lifting, debt collecting; a bunch of two-inch imps is no good for that.
The instructions that come with the kit are very specific about the right moon phases, ingredient combinations, incantations, whatever. But there are hacks and shortcuts, ways to bend the rules, if you know where to look. And if there’s one thing you can say for Dinah Bagley, it’s that she can always find a good deal.
“Take some of this lot down the market,” she tells Ryan. “And don’t come back until you’ve sold them. I’ve got some work to do.”
“Hanna’s the one who did those leaflets,” Peter Sanderson says, as Willa shows him in. “My daughter. I wasn’t that keen, but she reckons this is the way to go. The growth business. Nobody wants bespoke, handcrafted magic anymore, you know? It’s not like the old days. When I started out, people would wait three months for a nice personalized talisman and pay a proper price for it. For the quality, you know? The work. But now all anyone wants are generic disposable charms and DIY kits out of Eddie’s bloody Ethereal Emporium.”
He sighs, then gives himself a little shake. “Well. Anyway. Yes. What can I help you with today, Mrs. Rafferty?”
Willa points him towards the conservatory. “That.”
He takes a tentative step forward and gets as far as, “Wait. How is it dark out there? What—” before something hits the glass by his head with a wet, slithering thump.
He stares at it. And although it has nothing even remotely resembling eyes, Willa gets the distinct impression that it’s staring right back.
“I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?” Willa says. “Nice cup of tea and a biscuit, that’ll make you feel better.”
Although from the queasy look on his face, she’s not entirely confident about that.
“What happened here?” he manages, in a horrified whisper.
Willa scrubs a hand down her cheek. “I’ve got the kids for the weekend, that’s the thing. My granddaughters. And they need a bit of space, don’t they, kids? Somewhere to play football and ride their bikes and whatnot. But all I’ve got is a bit of grass and a vegetable patch, and I didn’t want them trampling all over my cabbages. They make a lovely bit of coleslaw, my cabbages. I’ve won prizes. So I got talking to this lad down the pub, and he had these.”
She hands Peter the spell kit she got off young Ryan.
“Extra magical space,” she says, tapping the label. “It sounded like exactly what I needed. And I did tell them to wait. I said I wasn’t sure it’d gone right. I mean, there’s definitely extra space out there, that’s true enough, but it’s not quite what I was expecting. Not as grassy. But you know what kids are like. They don’t listen. They just wanted to go exploring.”
“Exploring?” Peter says, sounding even more horrified. “Out there?”
He opens his bag and takes out a bundle of sage, then shakes his head and drops it back inside. “I’ll ring Hanna. She’ll know what to do.”
The call goes straight to voicemail. “It’s Dad,” he says. “Ring me back. I need help.”
He keeps the phone in his hand, watching it hopefully, but the screen stays dark.
In the kitchen, the kettle shrieks. In the churning darkness outside, something else does the same.
Peter swallows hard. “Okay. Plan B.”
He makes another call. “Welcome to Eddie’s Ethereal Emporium,” the recording says. “Your One-Stop Magical Megastore! For opening hours, press 1. For the latest offers and discounts, press 2. For—”
“I tried them already,” Willa says. “They can’t come until Tuesday.”
Peter hangs on, face grim. Eventually, the recording gets to, “For the service department, press 18,” which he does. And promptly gets told they can’t come until Tuesday.
“Have you tried cleansing with sage?” the service rep asks.
Another loud, wet thump hits the conservatory doors, and Peter jumps. “Sage isn’t going to do it,” he barks. “We need help.”
The voice is unruffled. “Well, if you’d like to sign up for Premium Service, I could offer a faster—”
“Yes! Premium! That sounds good. Do that.”
“Very good, sir. I’m happy to confirm your upgrade has been processed. Premium Practitioner Lisa Gazzara will be with you right away. Thank you for using Eddie’s Ethereal Emporium, your One-Stop Magical—”
Peter ends the call. “They’re on their way,” he says. “Don’t worry, it’s fine. It’s all totally fine.”
“It’s a complete and utter clusterfuck,” Lisa Gazzara declares cheerfully, two minutes later (Premium Service is, Willa has to admit, rather impressive).
Lisa rubs her chin, looking thoughtful, then nods. “Okay, yeah. I see your problem. What you’ve got here is a dislocated intradimensional aperture with expanding encroachment.”
Willa blinks. “A disco what now?”
“Dislocated intradimensional aperture. In layman’s terms, a hole in the fabric of reality.” Lisa turns the Environment Expansion spell kit over in her hands. “This kind of spell uses them to open a door into a specially designed pocket universe. That’s where you get the extra space from.”
“Is it normally one with a nice bit of grass? A few trees? Maybe a pond?”
“It’s normally one with whatever you like. But I assume you didn’t want…” Lisa squints into the murk. “The inside of H.P. Lovecraft’s head?”
“That wasn’t the plan, no. But you can you fix it, can’t you?”
“Of course. Well, probably.” Lisa waggles her hand in a see-sawing motion. “I think you’re going to lose those cabbages, though.”
Willa makes a mournful noise. “And the kids?” she adds, as Peter gives her a hard look. “They’ll be all right, will they?”
Lisa starts to do the hand-waggle again, then thinks better of it. “I’m sure they’ll be fine. I bet they’re having a whale of a time. It’ll be like being at Jurassic Park, or something.”
Willa frowns. Did the kids get eaten, in that film? She can’t remember.
“So anyway,” Lisa says brightly. “I’ll just check in with the office and then we’ll get cracking.”
She goes out to the van and speaks into the radio for a few minutes. Willa can’t make out all of the conversation, but the word clusterfuck features quite heavily.
When she comes back in, she spends a while examining the jars and packets in the kit, sniffing some and dipping her finger in the residue of the others. “Willa, where did you say you got this from?”
“Off this young fella down the Gardener’s Arms. Ryan. He had a whole vanload of them.”
“And you followed the instructions?”
“Of course, yeah. Well, mostly. More or less.” She starts to make her own see-sawing motion, then looks at Lisa’s raised, disbelieving eyebrows. “Okay, no.”
Peter shoots her an appalled glance, but the doorbell goes before he can say anything.
“I’ll get it,” Willa says quickly, and hurries to the door.
“Hello,” the young woman on the other side says. “I’m Hanna Sanderson. Is my dad—”
“This way,” Willa says, grabbing the girl’s arm and leading her to the conservatory. Where, with perfect timing, one of the huge Lovecraftian horrors is busy slithering over the glass roof.
Hanna stops dead, her mouth hanging open. “What…How…”
“What the hell is it? No idea,” Peter says. “How did it get here? That one, I can answer. Because of that.” He points at the kit Lisa’s holding. “And you wonder why I don’t want to sell them?”
Hanna’s eyes widen when she sees the box. “Oh. But that…that’s not supposed to…”
“Tell me about it,” Willa says glumly. “I wanted a bit of extra garden, not a ticket to the Twilight Zone.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen either, though,” Lisa says musingly, still fiddling with the contents of the kit. “Even if you had followed the instructions.”
Hanna turns her horrified gaze on Willa. “You didn’t follow the instructions?”
“I didn’t think it’d be that complicated,” Willa says, with a small, sheepish shrug. “Bloody Ryan Henning. I bought a cappuccino machine off him last year, and that’s never worked properly either. Burns the milk every time.”
Peter looks from Hanna to Lisa. “Can you two put this right?”
Lisa purses her lips and looks thoughtful, as if she’s doing calculations in her head. “Yes,” she says eventually, then aims the same thoughtful look at Hanna. “I’d say we can.”
“Good. Then I can go and find this Ryan.”
“What? No!” Hanna looks alarmed. “Why would you want to do that?”
“To stop him selling any more of these things, of course. We can’t let this happen to anyone else.”
“But—” She blinks hard. “You don’t know this man. He could be dangerous.”
“It’s all right,” Peter says. “I’m not going to cause trouble. If he won’t give me the kits, then I’ll just buy them. As long as it gets them off the streets.”
Hanna winces. “Oh—that’s not—”
“I’ll go with you, if you like,” Lisa offers. “Be your backup.”
Peter shakes his head. “No, you should stay here, work on getting the kids back.”
She shrugs. “You’re paying the bill, you call the shots. But if you ask me, I reckon Hanna’s got this. She doesn’t need me getting in the way. Come on, we can take my van.”
“Wait, wait,” Hanna says. Willa wouldn’t have said any more color could have drained out of the girl’s face, but apparently she was wrong. “Dad, what does she mean, you’re paying the bill?”
But Peter’s out the door without replying. Hanna slumps onto one of the conservatory chairs and lets her head drop into her hands.
“Fuck,” she murmurs. It sounds heartfelt.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Willa says, patting her shoulder.
By the time she comes back with two mugs and a plate of custard creams, Hanna is finishing up the reversal spell. The light’s going back to normal and the shrieking cries of the Lovecraftian horrors have fallen silent.
Willa barely has time to say, “That was quick,” before the French doors burst inwards and the girls come barreling inside, all three of them covered head to foot in black slime and cabbage leaves.
“Whoo!” Ellie says, waving a long, dripping tentacle. “That was awesome! Thanks, Gran. Best weekend ever!”
“Well,” Willa says. “Jolly good. Just…maybe don’t mention it to your father…?”
“Oh,” says Chloe, turning around with a biscuit in one hand and a phone in the other. “Should I not have put the pictures on Instagram, Gran?”
Instagram? Is that more magic? Willa shakes her head. Worry about it later.
“Thank you,” she says to Hanna, emptying the cash out of her purse. “You were brilliant. Totally saved my bacon. What do I owe you?”
Hanna looks around at the shattered French doors, hanging drunkenly off their hinges, and the trail of gleaming slime and shredded cabbage the kids are tracking through the house. Then she lets out a long, heavy sigh and waves away the money.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says.
Dinah stirs when the warehouse door creaks open. A voice drifts inside.
“Dinah? You there? It’s me. Ryan. I’ve got customers. They want the spell kits. Like, all the spell kits. Isn’t that great?”
Dinah groans. Typical Ryan, to go all Employee of the Month on her now, when she’s got other things to worry about.
“What was that noise?” he says. “And why’s it so dark in here? And ew, what’s that smell?”
“Ryan?” says another voice: an older man. “What’s this?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, that’s the other lot of kits we got in.” Ryan’s voice perks up. “Magical Assistants. Cool, right? Summon your own imps with this quick and easy spell! Oh, looks like that one’s been used. We’ve probably still got some left, though, if you’re interested in them as well.”
“Imps,” the other bloke says. He sounds nervy. “That never ends well.”
“You’re telling me,” a third voice says. Female, this time. “I was on the ground during the Gidea Park Demon Disaster of 2013, which all started with one drunk trying to summon an imp to clean his toilet and finished with the entire neighborhood being infested by the legions of Beelzebub. We ended up selling an entire years” worth of banishing kits in less than two days.” She sighs nostalgically. “Good times.”
“What—” Ryan starts, but Dinah cuts him off.
“Give us a hand, will you?” she says, hauling herself up. And up. And up. “I think something went a bit wrong with—”
All three of the voices let out a piercing, unholy shriek.
“That is most definitely not an imp,” the older man says breathlessly.
“You’re not kidding,” the woman says. She looks inside the big duffel bag she’s carrying, then back up at Dinah. Her face is grim. “I think we’re going to need a bigger banishing kit.”
“Ryan,” Dinah yells. Or tries to, rather; there’s a bit of a short-circuit going on between her brain and her mouth right now. Between her brain and most of her other bits too, to tell the truth. And there do seem to be a lot more bits than she’s used to, as well. She never had sixteen arms before, did she? Or a tail? Or…whatever the fuck that is…?
“Help me!” she tries, but all that comes out is a kind of unformed Raaaaar sound.
Dinah stamps at least half of her feet in frustration, leaving great craterous holes in the floor.
“Fuck this for a game of soldiers,” Ryan says, and bolts back outside. The other two follow fast on his heels.
“Right, that’s it! You’re fired!” she bellows, but there’s no response. The warehouse door stays firmly shut.
Sod it. You just cannot get the staff these days.
Dinah drops, heavily and in several stages, to the ruined floor.
“Raaaar,” she says morosely.
“Gran, Hanna’s phone kept ringing, so I answered it. It’s a lady called Lisa.” Evie holds the phone out, her head on one side. “What’s a clusterfuck, Gran?”
Jesus Christ. Willa grabs the phone. “Lisa? Hanna’s just helping me clear up. She sorted out all that hole-in-the-fabric-of-reality business, but it’s left a bit of a mess. Do you know how to get intradimensional effluent out of—”
Lisa cuts her off. “We’ve walked into a bit of a mess down here too. We could do with a bit of help, so I’ve texted the address. If—”
A monstrous roar drowns out the rest of it. When Willa puts the phone back to her ear, the line’s gone dead.
“What was that noise, Gran?” Ellie asks. She’s wearing her skinned tentacle trophy as a hairband.
“I think it was the mating call of a clusterfuck,” Evie says.
Chloe turns around, looking impressed. “Ooh. Can we go and watch, Gran? I could do a project on it for biology.”
“No, Chloe,” Willa says. “There’s nothing…mating…with anything else.” She hopes there isn’t, anyway.
Hanna, a smear of black goop glistening on her cheek, appears in the doorway. “What’s happening?”
“That was Lisa. She said there’s a clus—I mean, a situation they need help with.” Willa hands over the phone, then turns to the girls. “Wash your hands and put your coats on. We’re going out with Auntie Hanna.”
Auntie Hanna looks dubious about this, but Willa holds up a hand before she can object. “You helped us, so now it’s our turn. And to be fair, this was all my fault in the first place—you wouldn’t have got involved at all if it wasn’t for me. And if we mess something up, we have to help to make it right. don’t we, girls?”
That earns her three solemn nods and a “Yes, Gran,” sung in perfect unison. “It’s called personal reponsibibbilty,” Evie adds, carefully pronouncing each syllable.
Willa smiles approvingly. If she can turn this little adventure into a moral lesson, maybe their dad won’t freak out too badly about it.
“Yay!” Chloe says, clapping her hands. “We’re going to see the clusterfucks fuck!”
Willa closes her eyes. Or maybe not.
She bundles the girls into the car and follows the sat nav, which directs them to a deserted industrial estate off the A12. Lisa’s yellow Eddie’s Emergency Assistance van is parked at the back.
Ryan Henning is outside, puffing on a roll-up while leaning on a double door with NO FUCKING SMOKING hand-painted on it.
“Hullo, Mrs. R,” he says. “Did your spell kit not turn out too good either, then?”
“Not really, no.”
He nods. “Looks like the boss tried one as well, and it went a bit pear-shaped.”
“That doesn’t look like a pear,” Evie says. She’s climbed on a crate and is peering through the filthy warehouse window. “It looks more like…” she pauses, frowning. “Chloe? Did clusterfucks ever have babies with Daleks?”
“Not sure,” Chloe says, tapping at her phone. “I’ll have to check.”
Lisa nudges Hanna. “I thought you might want to take point on this one. Since, you know, you made such short work of the intradimensional aperture. It would’ve taken me all day to work out how to reverse-engineer all the variables in that spell from scratch.”
Hanna blinks rapidly, then clears her throat. “Right. Yes. I’ll, er, see what I can do.”
She hauls her equipment bag out of the boot and sets it down, then takes out a fat spiral-bound notebook filled with small, densely written calculations. She chants softly as she measures out small amounts of unidentifiable substances into a copper bowl, and when the final mixture is ready she sniffs it cautiously. Then she spits in it and sets it on fire.
“Told you, Gran,” Ellie says.
Hanna rubs the resultant ash over her skin, then opens the warehouse door. They all wince at the foul smell that billows out before she slams it shut behind her.
Peter gets as far as “I hope she—” when there’s a resounding roar and Hanna comes flying backwards through the door again, propelled on a wave of green sludge.
“Ew,” Ryan says.
Hanna hits the side of Lisa’s van and hangs there, her arms and legs spread wide. Peter races over and tries to pull her down, but she’s stuck fast.
Chloe pulls out her phone and starts filming. “Close Encounter with a Clusterfuck,” she narrates. “A multimedia project by Chloe Rafferty.”
“Right then,” Lisa says. “Time for a new plan.”
“Like what? Willa says.
She shrugs. “Fucked if I know.”
“I know,” Ellie says, tugging on her sleeve. “Akyxgruxthragoth.”
“Bless you,” Ryan says, holding out a tissue. Ellie waves it away impatiently.
Willa frowns. “Aki—groo—what?”
“Akyxgruxthragoth. We met her this afternoon. You know, when we were exploring. She’s my friend.”
Ellie pulls something out of her hoodie. It looks like a claw; a very long, very black, and very sharp claw.
“She said I can use this to call her, if I ever need help.” She grins happily. “All I have to do is set it on fire.”
“Well, that’s easy,” says Ryan. Before anyone else can move, he strikes a match on the NO FUCKING SMOKING sign and holds it to the serrated edge of the claw.
It bursts into flame with a great whoomping sound that sets Willa’s ears ringing and seems to suck all the air out of her lungs, and then a gargantuan, writhing, Lovecraftian horror lands squarely on the warehouse roof, squashing the whole thing flat.
“Ew,” Ryan says.
There’s a single, rather feeble “Raaa—” then silence.
Ellie claps her hands and jumps up and down. “Yay! Thanks, Akyxgruxthragoth!”
After another couple of chest-constricting whoomps—which manage to sound remarkably like the words No worries—the creature vanishes and all that’s left is an empty smoking hole in the ground and the discordant wail of a car alarm.
Chloe resumes filming. “Clusterfuck nil, Akyxgruxthragoth one,” she says, panning around. “This is so gonna go viral.”
“Uh oh,” Evie says, her own phone in her hand. The screen’s flashing Dad.
Willa flinches and turns to Ryan, who’s lighting another cigarette from a glowing lump that looks like it might once have been a hoof. “You haven’t got any of those doorway-to-another-universe kits left, have you? I don’t care if doesn’t work properly. Anywhere other than here will do.”
Ryan glances at his van, which has three flat tires and a coating of soot, but is otherwise in one piece. “Actually, I might still have—”
He gets no further before Peter marches over and punches him in the face.
“Ow! No, okay. No more spell kits.” He rubs his nose and looks at the smoldering ruin of the warehouse. On top of the rubble is a jagged piece of hand-painted sign. It says FUCK. “I think it might be time to find a new job, anyway.”
Peter sighs heavily and helps him up. “You and me both, son. You and me both.”
Lisa sidles over to Hanna, who’s managed to mostly peel herself off the side of the van. “Speaking of jobs, the bill for this one is going to be pretty spectacular. Premium allocation, off-site assistance, personal risk surcharge…oh, and the van’s going to need a pretty thorough valeting, too.”
Hanna closes her eyes and makes a strangled, inarticulate sound.
“Of course, we might be able to come to an arrangement.”
Hanna’s eyes fly open again. They’re the only part of her that isn’t covered in mud, ash, or slime. “Arrangement? What kind of arrangement?”
“You could work off the debt, if you want. There’s always a place at Eddie’s for good practitioners. Especially those with a creative approach to revenue generation.”
Hanna pulls the last part of her arm free with a squelch, then sags. “You know, don’t you?”
“That you made the kits? Oh, yeah. No one could have closed that aperture as fast as you did unless they already knew the base spell. And it didn’t take long to work out the kits had been sabotaged. I assume the plan was to make twice the money—get paid for the sale, and again for the fix. Win win.”
Hanna sags even further. “Yeah.” She shoots Willa an apologetic look. “But it was never meant to be that bad.”
“Trust me,” Lisa says, “people will fuck this shit up without any help at all, which is why we’ve always got vacancies.” She grins at Willa. “No offence, Mrs. R.”
“None taken,” Willa says, waving it away. She’s not wrong, after all.
In the van, the radio crackles. “Lisa, are you clear from the Sanderson job yet? Only we’ve got a lot of new calls stacking up. Including somebody complaining about a dislocated intradimensional aperture in their toilet, if you can believe that.”
Lisa grabs the receiver. “I can believe it, yeah.” She grins again. “But my new partner will know how to fix it. Tell ’em to get the Premium upgrade, and we’ll be right there.”
|Michelle Ann King is a short story writer from Essex, England. Her stories of fantasy, science fiction, crime, and horror have appeared in over a hundred different venues, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, Black Static, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Her collections are available in ebook and paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, and links to her published stories can be found at her website: www.transientcactus.co.uk.|