It was dark by the time Mark Anderson opened his front door and staggered into the house clutching the dead weight of the shoebox to his chest. He gagged as manure-smelling blue slime oozed from the base of the box, down his suit jacket and onto the hall rug. He pushed the door shut and put the box on the hall floor.
Black beady eyes peeped through the air holes cut in the box, and a tiny finger ending in a brown, gnarled claw poked through. ‘Careful, yer clumsy git!’ came a voice from the box. ‘Yer nearly broke me back, chucking me down like that. Yer past it, yer silly old sod.’
‘Save your breath, kobold,’ Mark said. ‘I’m not listening.’
The kobold was a domestic goblin. Helpful around the place till it didn’t get its own way. After that, pure spite. Mark locked the front door and put his keys into his jacket pocket. His fingers brushed against the pink envelope containing the birthday card he had bought for Pat Court, his boss. It had taken him ages to find, hidden among cards showing fake knitting patterns with obscene captions, garishly coloured landscapes and cute teddy bears. Didn’t they have any that would be suitable for a woman who – like him – was sixty two, and not into foul language, soft toys or boredom? In the end he’d settled for a print of van Gogh’s sunflowers, blank on the inside.
‘Mark! Ma-ark! You’re feeling sleepy,’ the kobold wheedled.
Mark leaned against the wall, wondering what present to get for Pat. What about that perfume she liked? She always smelled lovely. Now, what was it called? Mark closed his eyes and tried to remember.
‘Come on, me old mate, old son, that’s it.’ Just let me out and we’ll say no more about it.’
Mark crouched down next to the box and his hand edged towards the lid.
‘Nice and easy, Markie.’
His eyes snapped open and he stood up. Nobody called him Markie, at least not more than once. ‘I said, shut it. You won’t get round me that way.’ He shook himself.
‘I’ll get yer next time. Yer spineless wimp.’
Mark pulled the bunch of keys out of his jacket pocket and chose one engraved with a pattern of sigils and ornate ancient Phoenician characters. It seemed to suck in the light around it, so that it pulsed blackness.
He went into the kitchen. Next to the washing machine stood the safe, the containment facility for unwanted entities. Its thick iron door was carved with the same ornate script as the key. He’d been careful not to install it next to the fridge. Despite guarantees that the safe would be impermeable to all sorts of magic, Mark didn’t want to risk food contamination. It wouldn’t do to open the fridge and find the food covered in mould, or worse, as though he was living in a student flatshare.
Mark unlocked the safe door. The walls were solid lead. The latest theory was that magic existed as a very high frequency wave form. Lead worked as well against magic it as it did against gamma rays, provided you knew the right incantation. The same black light lurked inside the safe.
He went out to the hall, picked up the shoebox and heaved it into the kitchen.
‘I’ll ‘ave yer! I’ll ave yer! Wimp!’ the kobold poked another finger out of the box.
‘Not so smarmy now, are you? But I’m no wimp, and I’m not listening! La, la, la.’ Mark shoved the box into the safe.
‘La la? Call that magic, yer big nellie? Yer great big pansy!’ The kobold’s voice quietened in a foul-mouthed diminuendo as Mark shut the door. Silence. He locked it and went into the hall to put the key away.
Back in the kitchen, he heard snoring coming from the safe. He took his jacket off, looked at the label and put the jacket into the washing machine. He’d switch it on in the morning.
The owners of the infested house had paid well. Pat should be pleased with the initiative he’d shown, being proactive. Silly word. Lovely woman. His next door neighbour; one day he would get up the courage to tell her how he felt. Today, business partners. One day, maybe more. Mark sat for a moment, thinking of Pat’s smile, wondering why she’d never married and didn’t seem to have a partner. He didn’t think she was gay. Too busy with her career, he supposed, work took up all her emotional slack.
Mark had suggested going for a drink on Friday evening to celebrate her birthday. Perhaps he’d finally tell her. There was a spell for bravery, but he wanted to do it unaided. But, what if she didn’t feel the same? How could they go on working together?
Mark yawned. Tapping into his own will had taken it out of him. There was still the marking of his fourteen- and fifteen-year-old pupils’ English homework to be done. Two jobs is one too many, at my age, he thought. Although, teaching teenagers and dealing with demons were much the same thing.
He got up and walked over to the washing machine. The snoring coming from the safe grew louder as he took the jacket out and retrieved his red pen from the pocket. Good job he hadn’t been able to do any washing, it was bad enough having kobold slime all over the jacket without red ink as well. He put the jacket back and shut the door.
He sat down at the kitchen table and took an exercise book from the top of the pile. It read ‘A sonnet is like a poem, only it’s got 14.’ He circled the figure 14 and wrote ‘Fourteen’ in the margin. Then added ‘and fourteen what? Apples? Oranges?’ The last book in the pile contained some typed pages, at least they were easy to read. The material looked like it had come straight from Wikipedia, including hyperlinks the student hadn’t bothered to take out. But she deserved credit for doing a bit of research, and the information was correct. Mark wrote ‘well done. You’re a shining example of what can be achieved with a bit of work.’
The doorbell rang. Mark saw Pat’s outline through the frosted glass panel. He straightened his tie and let her in. She walked past him into the kitchen and put her bag on the table next to the books.
‘D’you get it?’
He nodded. ‘Turned out to be a kobold. Put it in the holding safe. It’s asleep. Listen.’
‘Hmm,’ she said, cocking her head in the direction of the safe. ‘OK, you did well to trap it. But I haven’t dealt with one of those before, I’m not sure what to do with it.’
‘Doesn’t it just disintegrate if we keep it in the dark till the next new moon ?’
‘No, that’s bunyips. I’ll give Alex a ring, he’ll know.’
Mark frowned. ‘Who’s Alex? A rival exorcist?’ His heart sank and he held his breath waiting to hear about someone else competing for work. And maybe for Pat, too.
‘I forgot, you haven’t met him yet. No, he’s no threat to the business. He’s useless at detecting entities or trapping them. But once you’ve done all that, if you can’t get rid of them, he’s your man. I suppose he’s what they call a geek. Early twenties, sits in front of a computer all day. Writes programmable spells. They’re reusable. So we’ll get him to write us a spell and next time we get a kobold, no problem.’
Mark breathed out. ‘Sounds like a sort of magic anorak.’
‘Something like that. One thing he has told me is that if you don’t know what you’re dealing with you should put a chunk of obsidian in too. Soaks up any excess magic.’
Mark nodded. ‘I read something about that, but I thought it was just a lot of new age crystal claptrap.’
‘No, for once they’re right. If the snores can get out, so can some of its magic. The lead lining in the safe stops the creature itself escaping, and weakens the effect of its magical field, but even so the obsidian is a good precaution against the magic leaking out.’ She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a jagged-edged black stone the size of the palm of her hand. ‘Funny to think it’s volcanic glass. These sharp bits cut the lines of magic force. Go and get the key to the safe.’
Mark did as he was told. When he came back into the kitchen, Pat had spread a pile of leaflets across the table. Mark picked one up and read it aloud. ‘“Traversing the City and the East End, these ghostly walking tours explore the old thoroughfares, haunted prisons and abandoned alleyways of London, each one with its own ghostly theme.” But these things are a load of nonsense, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, usually. But I’ve been asked to lead that one and a few of the others, on a trial basis for a few days. Invoke some real ghosts, give them their money’s worth. If the organisers like what I do, who knows where it might lead? I’m driving to London as soon as I leave here. Hang onto these leaflets, you can give them out to clients. You never know, they might fancy a trip down south.’
Mark looked down and fiddled with the key. ‘I wouldn’t mind one. But not during term time. How long will you be away?’
‘Just two nights. I’ll be back on Friday, in time for my birthday. Then we’ll go out for that drink.’
She took the key from him and opened the safe. The snoring grew louder. Slime oozed from the open doorway and ran onto the floor. Pat threw the obsidian inside, slammed the door and locked it. She pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and cleaned up the slime trail.
‘Burn that,’ she said, screwing the used tissue up and passing it to him. ‘And the rug. You can’t leave any of it around.’
‘It got on my jacket. Can’t I just wash it off that?’
‘And have all that magic leaking into the water? That doesn’t bear thinking about. No, you’ll have to burn that too. And you’d better bury all the ash, for good measure. OK, I’ll love you and leave you. See you on Friday! Do a bit of revision while I’m gone.’ She handed him her notebook.
Suddenly the payment he’d got for getting rid of the kobold didn’t seem like such a good deal. Maybe the jacket could also be charged as an expense. Mark sighed, shut the front door after Pat, put the notebook in the bag with the books and picked up the rug. He went back into the kitchen, took the jacket out of the washing machine and emptied the pockets onto the table.
He took the jacket and rug and went outside to get a bottle of paraffin from the shed. He put the jacket and the rug on the ground at the end of his back garden, poured on the paraffin, set fire to the tissue with a match and threw it on. If there was a spell for starting a fire he hadn’t found it.
He stood and yawned as the sparks flew upwards. It had been a long day. At least, with Pat as his next door neighbour, he’d get no complaints about having a bonfire at 10 pm. Not that she was there, anyway. And what did she mean by ‘love you?’ He decided to let the fire burn itself out and went back into the house to make a cup of tea.
He emptied one bottle of milk but there were four in the fridge. More than enough for one person. He picked up the red pen, wrote ‘no milk today’ on one of Pat’s leaflets and put it in the empty bottle. He noticed the birthday card on the table and picked up the pen lying next to it. If you really are no wimp, like you told the kobold, he thought, then prove it.
He opened the card, took a deep breath, and wrote: ‘Pat, when you read this, you will know what I’ve been too scared to tell you. You have made my life complete. Take me to your heart. I’ll be yours through all the years, till the end of time.’ He paused and put the pen down. Would Pat think it was silly? He took a sip of tea. Get on with it, he told himself, putting the cup down again and picking up the pen. You can’t stop now. You’ve got to give her that card, it’s too late to get another one. So you might as well get it over, finish the job.
He wrote ‘You’re pure magic. I know I can make you happy. The things I have to say won’t wait until another day. Be mine, be mine. I love you. Mark.’ He shoved the card back into the envelope, sealed it and wrote Pat’s name on the outside. He picked up the milk bottle and went outside, leaving the bottle on his doorstep. He went next door and pushed the card through Pat’s letterbox, holding onto the trailing edge for a moment. Go on, he told himself, you’re no wimp. He let it go. Well, you’ve done it now, he thought. He went home, to bed.
On the way to work next morning, he stood in a queue in the corner shop, looking at the empty fridge.
‘You want milk?’ the shopkeeper said. ‘Sorry, no can do. Out of stock at the cash and carry. Same all over the place.’ He pointed at the headline on a tabloid paper: ‘Milk production halted. Is Europe to blame?’ The text continued ‘Saucy Sally says there may be no milk today, but she’s got lots up top to take your mind off it. See page 3.’
Mark shuddered, paid for his paper and put it into the bag with the books. A woman rushed into the shop, knocking into him in the process.
‘Where’s your milk?’ she shouted to the shopkeeper, looking at the fridge. ‘Milkman’s really late and they haven’t got any in the supermarkets.’
Mark drove away, past a milk float. The crates on the float were all empty and the milkman had climbed onto the roof. People surrounded the floats, shouting and waving their fists.
At school Mark turned down the offer of a cup of tea without milk and walked into the empty classroom. His bag felt heavier than usual as he put it down on the table at the front and took out Pat’s notebook. He put it in his pocket and pulled out the books. Underneath them were pieces of fruit. He didn’t remember putting them in. His heart raced faster. Early dementia? He named the Prime Minister, checking it in his newspaper. No, he still had his marbles, even if the PM didn’t. Perhaps the fruit fell into the bag in the corner shop. He took it out and lined it up on the table. Fourteen apples and fourteen oranges.
The fourteen and fifteen year olds slummocked into the room and sat down. Mark got a boy in the front row to hand out the books.
‘None of you would know a sonnet if you fell over it. And, Philip, it’s got fourteen lines.’ Mark noticed a girl at the back.
‘None of you would know, except for Elsa. Read what you wrote, please.’
Elsa used non-poetic Anglo-Saxon language and a bit of two-fingered obscenity stifled the muffled comments of her classmates. She opened her book and read a paragraph.
‘Now read what I said, so the rest of them will find out how to do their homework.’ Maybe they’d listen to Elsa telling them to do research.
Elsa cleared her throat and smirked. ‘You are a shining-’ She stopped and screamed, holding her hands over her face. The students on either side of her leaned away, knocking tables over in the process. Mark looked up, and his eyes watered as the white light jetted, lighthouse-like, from between Elsa’s fingers, reflecting off the shiny table tops.
‘It’s hot! No, cold!’ She screamed, waving her hands above her head and turning her face from side to side like a spotlight. Books and furniture flew as her classmates shoved each other aside in their desperation to dodge its beams and escape into the corridor. Classroom doors opened and teachers looked out.
Mark ran to her and took her elbow. Looking away from her, he rushed her to the sick room. He told the school secretary to call her parents. Mark ran into the staff room.
It was empty, as he had hoped it would be. As though Elsa’s light had forced its way right into his mind, he realised what must have happened. With shaking hands he took his mobile phone out of his pocket and keyed in Pat’s number. It rang on and on. Just as he was sure it would go to voicemail, she answered.
‘What’s wrong, Mark? I can’t talk for long, I’m leading a bunch of tourists round Jack the Ripper territory. They’ve paid to hear about possessed pubs, mass burial and murder and I don’t want to keep them waiting.’
‘Why do you assume that something’s gone wrong? Technically, everything is going right. Weird stuff is happening. Everything I wrote yesterday evening is coming true.’ He explained about the fruit, the milk, and Elsa’s shining example.
‘I’ve never heard anything like that before. What did you write with? Did you use the same pen for the apples and oranges sarky bit on the homework as for everything else?’
‘Yes, it’s just an ordinary biro. I’ve had it for ages, right there in my pocket, nothing like that has happened before.’
He heard Pat gasp.
‘In the pocket of your jacket?’
‘The pocket of your jacket that got kobold slime all over it?’
‘And that you put in the washing machine next to a leaky containment safe, just in case it hadn’t got enough kobold magic all over it? Mark, how could you?’
‘I’m really sorry, Pat. What can we do?’
‘Well, I can’t do anything now. I can’t run out in the middle of this job. And if we leave it till I do get back, goodness knows what will have happened. Fruit pouring out of your house when you open the front door. Milk riots. And that girl’s parents will be going mad.’
‘OK, what do I do?’
‘You’ll have to call Alex. His number’s in the back of my notebook. OK, I’ll have to go. Don’t call me again, I’ll come and see you as soon as I get back tomorrow.’
Mark found the phone number.
‘Leaky magic?’ Alex said. ‘I can’t come over to you till Monday, I’m mad busy – no, don’t cry, I’ll e mail you details of where you can download my spell-reversing app. That’ll do the trick.’
‘App? What’s that? Because of the apples? What about everything else?’
‘Haven’t you got a tablet?’
‘What, one of those giant mobile phones? No, a laptop’s good enough for me.’
‘No need. Can’t you send me something to download?’
‘Uh-uh. Got to be my app. A simple download’d spread right through the web, bugger everyone’s computers up. You’ll have to come round here.’ Alex gave him his address.
Mark ran back to the now empty classroom, stuffed the fruit into a bag, told the secretary he had a migraine, and rushed to his car.
Alex’s flat was on the 20th floor of a council block. In front of the door was a mat shaped like in inverted letter L, bearing the word Enter next to a reverse L-shaped arrow. A sign on the door read ‘There’s no place like 127.0.0.1’. Mark knocked.
Alex had floppy hair down to his shoulders and wore jeans slung low on his hips, revealing grubby green underwear. His t-shirt bore the slogan ‘Make a date with a geek and your computer will stop misbehaving.’
‘Kobold?’ he said. Mark nodded. ‘Come this way.’
He led Mark into a room about 6 foot square, curtains closed, crammed from floor to ceiling with computer equipment, trailing wires and empty fish and chip wrappers. Through the gloom Mark saw open and closed laptops, and multiple computer screens, some displaying the same thing, others not. Alex picked his way around grey and black electronic components with flashing lights to a desk at the end. Papers spilled out of the half-open drawers. Mark stared.
‘What did you expect,’ Alex said, ‘Piles of grimoires? Fuming alembics? A pointed hat? This is the 21st century.’
‘I know. Just give me the spell. Please. A hundred pounds, I think you said.’
‘Yeah, a ton. Got cash?’
‘OK, where’s your laptop? I’ll type it in.’
‘You never told me to bring it. If I have to go back and get it, it’ll take even longer.’ Mark thought of people blinded by Elsa. And they wouldn’t be able to buy milk.
Alex flopped down into a chair with a ripped cover, put his hand over his closed eyes and shook his head.
‘OK, keep your hair on. What’s left of it. I thought it’d be OK to assume you’d know you had to bring it.’
‘Assume! Assume makes an ass of U and ME. Now what am I going to do?’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Alex said. ‘How did you think I’d give you the spell? Telepathy? I’ll have to print it out. You’ll have to type it into your laptop yourself. Then run the program and it’ll all go away. Just like magic.’ He turned to one of the keyboards and flicked a key.
On the other side of the room, under a pile of magazines, a printer powered up and hummed into life. Alex fished under the detritus and pulled out a sheet of paper. He took an envelope from under a mug full of grey liquid, put the printout inside, sealed it and handed it to Mark.
‘Don’t open this till you get home. Now, watch this.’ He tapped at the keyboard. ‘Boot your laptop up. Once it’s running, do this, this and this, you’ll get a screen you can type the spell into. Then do this to run it. Just make sure you copy exactly what’s written here.’ He held his hand out and Mark paid him.
‘Sweet as,’ Alex said. ‘That’ll get rid of the magic that’s leaked out. I’ll be over on Monday to sort the kobold himself. That program’s too long for the likes of you to type out. I’ll bring my own machine. By the time I’ve finished, he’ll make a nice garden gnome. Got a pond?’
Mark shook his head.
‘Want one? I’ve got an app that’ll make him dig one for you.’
Mark said he’d think about it, and went home.
Mark put the fruit onto the kitchen table next to his laptop. The cursor winked in the top left hand corner of an otherwise blank screen. He opened the envelope, read the printout and copy-typed:
10 PRINT “Anti-kobold spell v184.108.40.206”
20 PRINT “Pen magic deletion charm. One star per spell”
30 INPUT “What is your name: “, U$
40 PRINT “Hello “; U$
50 INPUT “How many spells do you want to delete: “, N
60 S$ = “”
70 FOR I = 1 TO N
80 S$ = S$ + “*”
90 NEXT I
100 PRINT S$
110 INPUT “Do you want to delete more spells? “, A$
120 IF LEN(A$) = 0 THEN GOTO 110
130 A$ = LEFT$(A$, 1)
140 IF A$ = “Y” OR A$ = “y” THEN GOTO 50
150 PRINT “Goodbye “; U$
Mark ran the spell. The display on the screen read
What is your name:
He typed Mark.
How many spells do you want to delete:
There was the fruit, since Mark didn’t think he should eat it or just throw it away. Then the milk. Then Elsa. That was three. But, there was also the small matter of Pat’s birthday card, written with the same pen.
He was glad that he’d put “when you read this” before his declaration, but as soon as she did, she’d fall in love with him. He could never let her do that, even if she thought it was all her own idea. And, what if she did but the magic wore off? He imagined Pat holding his hand then dropping it, shaking herself, standing with her brow furrowed. No, he’d rather it didn’t happen at all, if it couldn’t happen naturally.
He wished he’d asked her for a spare key, at least he could have taken the card back, she would never have to see the wretched thing. But now she would, and he would rather run the risk of her reading the card and wanting nothing further to do with him than have her love him on false pretences.
He typed 4. The screen displayed
Do you want to delete more spells?
Mark typed No
Goodbye Mark appeared on the screen.
With a series of pops, the fruit disappeared, leaving behind a blend of cider and marmalade smells.
The next morning, the fruit hadn’t reappeared and the milkman had left two pints on Mark’s doorstep. He drove to work past a milk float laden with bottles. He walked from his car towards the school, his heart pounding. With relief, he saw Elsa standing next to the bike shed, talking to her friends. As Mark walked past, she shoved the cigarette she’d been smoking behind her back. He heard her say ‘three hours we waited in A & E and the glow just stopped. Said there was nothing wrong. My mum’s grounded me for winding her up. Cow.’
At home that evening, the doorbell rang. Mark opened it and Pat barged past him into the kitchen, a wad of envelopes in her hand.
‘Well?’ she said.
She didn’t seem scared to meet his gaze. Was she going to ignore what he’d written? Would it be an unspoken awkwardness between them or would they pretend it hadn’t happened? Better to get it out in the open.
‘Happy birthday. I’m sorry about the card,’ he said, reddening and looking at his feet.
‘What card?’ Pat shuffled through the envelopes. ‘You mean this? I haven’t had the chance to open it yet. I just went home, dumped my bag and ran round here. No, what happened about the leaky magic?’
Mark looked up. ‘Alex sorted it out, everything’s fine. Tell me about your ghost tour.’
‘Good news. I found a new one the organisers hadn’t known was there. They asked me to find out more about it. Then either I have to get rid of it, or recruit it. I only came back to grab some books and equipment, then I’ve got to go right back again.’ Pat’s cheeks reddened and she looked away. ‘But, I missed you. It wasn’t the same without you by my side. It’s Friday, why don’t you come back to London with me?
Mark gulped and stared at her.
Pat turned towards the kitchen door. ‘Let’s just forget all about it.’
‘Don’t go. Just give me a moment to pack a bag.’
‘Good. I’m glad to see you doing something reckless, something unplanned, for once.’
‘I can throw caution to the wind, when I want to.’ He’d told the kobold he was no wimp. He cleared his throat and took Pat’s hand. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Open your card.’
Judith Field writes fiction, mainly speculative, and has had stories accepted by Fabula Argentea, Stupefying Stories, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, The Lorelei Signal, Aoife’s Kiss and other publications in the USA and the UK.