When I’d previously thought of the kind of being with enough power to save the entire world from hostile invasion, I hadn’t considered slight young women about five-feet-tall, wearing ostentatious headscarfs and big sunglasses, who carry their knitting with them in a carpet bag. What’s more, even if I’d had such an imagination, I wouldn’t have foreseen that I’d encounter such a woman rampaging through a local coffee house, yelling that she’d had a bad day and if everyone didn’t just leave her the hell alone, she’d turn them into trifle.
When I arrive at Tim Horton’s, it’s just in time to see her tip a fridge onto a giant Viking woman and scream, “No, I’m not interested in what you have beneath your bikini! Have some self-respect and cover yourself up!”
I glance back at Pierre and he shrugs. “Ben, what’s weird is that none of this is weird anymore.”
The automatic doorway is blocked with what appear—at first glance—to be milky-white statues of young women mid-scream, but they don’t exactly strike me as classic Timmy’s décor.
Pierre poises to poke one in the chest, and then perhaps half-expecting Rosaline to appear behind him with a displeased expression, he changes his mind and nudges her shoulder with his arm instead. “It’s dessert. Actual dessert.”
“I don’t think you’ll find these desserts on the specials board. It looks like some of the sirens got more than they bargained for. I think we need to be very, very careful here.”
Maybe we’d have got on better if we could have whispered to one another, but talking quietly isn’t an option for us. I haven’t had time to take another step before the furious, fridge-tipping girl from before appears in front of me, brandishing a kitchen mop in her hands.
“Oh, so there are more of you, are there?” She swipes at me with the mop-head, missing only by inches and cleaving a path in the plaster wall next to my head.
“Ma’am, please!” I say.
“Miss, actually.” She glares fit to turn me to stone. Which, maybe…
“Miss, please forgive me and my erstwhile colleague here for our intrusion,” I say. “We didn’t mean nothin’ by it. We were simply passing this way, heard a commotion and thought we’d check it out, see if we could help.”
She stops for a moment, and then shifts my head to one side with the tip of the mop so she can better see my ears. “Earplugs. You weren’t passing by at all. You know exactly what these creatures are and what they do.”
Time to go for broke. “And with respect, Miss, I have a pretty good idea what you are too, and it ain’t human. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.”
She can’t deny it and she won’t admit it, so we’re still standing there at an impasse when Fred saunters in and slips his earbuds out of his ears, the better to hear what’s going on. “Oh wow,” he said, looking around. “You’ve made a bit of a mess of the place. I hope Mike isn’t expecting me to clear this up on my own.”
“It wasn’t me who made a mess.” The woman assumes a defensive position, looks at him, and then does so again. “Wait, I know you. You’re the nice coffee boy that works here.”
Fred pretty much tugs at a forelock. “Yes, I am! And you’re that customer… the one with the sandwiches…”
Fred sighs that sigh, the one that all customer-service staff know when the mask slips and they come to the conclusion that no amount of good service is going to rescue the day. “You’re the one that feeds her crusts to her scarf.”
For a moment, Fred looks like he might make a move to see what’s underneath that scarf, but the woman is poised to defend herself with her mop, and I have every suspicion that we don’t need to see what’s under there for ourselves.
“Enough,” I say. “I think we’re all friends here, and I think we all want the same thing: a peaceful and safe resolution to this situation…”
There’s a thump behind me as Rosaline’s haughty brother crashes through the door and nods towards me. “Mon père says that there’s a group of sirens skulking out back by the bins. They’re not advancing, but not retreating either. ‘E thinks, peut-être, they’re waiting for support.”
I expect her to leap into action but instead the young woman just stands there and stares. “Is that a cen-”
“A literal horse’s ass,” Pierre adds, knowing full well that the piaffhomme can hear him.
“He wants to know what you want us to do,” Claude’s son says, with a full-nostrilled snort in Pierre’s direction.
“The actual fuck,” the woman says, her hand going instinctively to her glasses.
“Sorry, what?” I say.
“How many of you are there?” she yells at the piaffhomme. He doesn’t reply, instead glancing at me, a picture of snobbish disdain.
“There are a few of them,” I say cautiously. “Enough to help us take the town back from the sirens.”
The woman rounds on me furiously. “And you! What are you? You know what I am, and you’re hanging out with magical creatures… you’re a magician, right?”
“Oh, that would be me,” Fred says, smiling goofily and raising his hand. “I’ve kind of got an ancient power inside me. Though the coffee-making skills are all my own.”
The woman doesn’t actually change size but her fury seems to take on a shape of its own, folding around her like an aura. “Centaurs, magicians, and… what are you?” She clocks Pierre out of nowhere with the end of the mop. “You’re probably a diurnal vampire, or a really short giant or something.”
While my employer is recovering from yet another casual assault from supernatural forces, I sense a chance to steer the conversation back in a productive direction. “Now, miss, we’re a weird bunch, and I don’t blame you for thinking that. But you’ve got nothin’ to worry about. There’s no problem, we’re just looking to protect the town.”
I have to step back to avoid another swing of the mop.
“The problem,” she snarls through gritted teeth, “is that I set my club up to try and meet other like-minded magical creatures six months ago! All I want is a few other people to hang out with. I try to make it interesting, we don’t stick closely to the agenda, and I try to cover a range of interests. I spend all my free time on internet forums, trying to connect with people, and I’ve been thinking for ages that I am the only magical creature in the entire local area. And it turns out you’re all gathering together already and having fun!”
“I’m… sorry,” I say.
“Not so sorry that you’ll make an effort to connect with new people, huh?” The woman is pacing now. “I mean, I read, I do crafts, I like to bowl… I’ll eat sushi, tapas, Italian, it’s not like I’m difficult to accommodate! If I have to, I’ll learn to play poker, or throw horseshoes, or whatever the hell it is you all like to do!”
It’s Fred, glorious barista wizard that he is, that saves the day. “Miss, we’re a new group.”
She stops, as still as one of the statues from the doorway. “A… new group?”
“Yeah!” His face is flushed with genuine enthusiasm. “We literally just started up, that’s why you haven’t found us! I mean, we don’t even have a WhatsApp group yet, that’s how new this all is. We’re all still finding our way, we’re still a bit awkward with one another. Right?”
“Right,” Pierre and I say in unison.
The woman bites her lip and takes a moment to process this. “So yeah, if you’re new, I wouldn’t have found you. That makes sense.”
A throbbing in the distance begins beneath my feet, as though something extremely heavy is being dragged in our direction. I don’t have time to think about that though, as the girl grabs my arm with unlikely strength.
“I’m not too late, though, right? You’re still looking for new members?”
I pat her hand gently. “We’d be delighted to have you on board.” The sudden grateful smile on her face is a joy to behold, and for a moment, I think she might cry.
The moment is ruined by Claude, who bursts past his son and calls, “Ben, you’re gonna want to see this.”
He’s right, but I wish he wasn’t.
We all run outside. The sirens have begun to sing again, but this is not a bewitching call to a sexy death tryst. This is something darker and dirtier, like a Serge Gainsbourg concept album on 45. They’re calling, and their call has been answered. The rumbling in the ground heralds the arrival of what can only be the siren queen. Eight legs, each with the strength of a steel pylon, a shuffling spider like lower-torso with a massive thorax at least thirty feet long that she’s dragging behind a human upper-torso of similar scale. A giant, dirt-streaked, bare-breasted woman from the bellybutton up. As she passes through the trees at the end of the car park, she crushes them beneath her immense bulk.
“This is fine,” Pierre says, deadpan. “I wasn’t planning on sleeping or having dreams that weren’t night terrors ever again.”
As we watch, one of Claude’s piaffhomme troops launches an eight-foot spear through the air, impaling one of the siren queen’s shoulders. For all the impact it has on her progress, he might as well have thrown it into the ocean.
“Miss,” I say, not wanting to turn my head but still dumbly aware of the woman standing at my side. “Can your magic do anything about that?”
Before she can answer, the siren queen puffs out her cheeks like a child before a birthday cake, and breathes a perfect stream of fire onto the top of the Tim Horton’s building, setting it alight.
“This is fine,” Pierre says again.
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