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.