Fiction: The charm (from The Demon in Business Class)

Funny thing, WordPress doesn’t let me tag non-blog posts (the links in the header row), so without occasionally posting excerpts from my book, its potential readers can’t find me by searching. Every so often I’ll post a short excerpt here on the blog. To read the first two chapters, click here.

This is from the early pages. In the midst of a downsizing Zarabeth has found a new job, and, to her surprise, a path to the supernatural. 
On Friday half the cubicles outside Zarabeth’s office were empty and dark. The remaining people slouched at their small desks. She felt as if she faced a dog licking a deep wound, clammy feel of sepsis in the hot air. Pathetic. She would take a brick to it.
Her new boss Magda’s admin had forwarded a twenty-page report about satellites, a third redacted with thick black marker. It looked military or spook, above her own nerd rating.
Wanda knocked, holding a thick plastic-film envelope. “This just came by messenger.” Wanda stood there, impressed and curious.
“Thanks. Go away. Close the door.”
Inside the envelope were new business cards, employment documents, a ticket to London (tomorrow night, business class), also a jewelry box and a black parchment envelope.

In the box was an orange bottle opener, with the firm’s logo and the current tagline:
Straightforward Consulting - The Devil You Know
Her new job was all cloak-and-dagger, but she got a company tchotchke. Funny.
She signed the papers, put the flight in her calendar, shredded her old cards. All the while she thought about the black envelope. She locked the door and sliced open the flap with scissors.
Inside was a sheet of white parchment, the real kind, made from animal skin. On it a five-pointed star drawn in dark brown. Dried blood.
She shook it out onto the desk, studied it from all sides without touching it. She rotated it with the eraser of a pencil, sniffed the eraser, tasted it. Finally she touched the parchment. It felt cool, faintly greasy. She wasn’t about to touch the blood.
There had always been rumors, since Zarabeth’s earliest days pushing a cart full of hard drives, that Straightforward Consulting had uncanny resources. In the year since her friend Missy had revealed herself as a witch, Zarabeth had kept an ear out. In Houston a drunk petrochemical engineer talked about the firm’s Cold War intelligence work on occult matters. Janice Goldman in Los Angeles was aging too slowly, but she claimed it was vitamins. Zarabeth had never found anything as immediate or convincing as Missy’s power. Now Magda had made it scary plain.
The parchment was a dormant charm, a magic spell embedded in an object, like a disk of software. If Zarabeth burned the parchment something would happen. Zarabeth looked through the papers, looked again, checked her e-mail. Nothing said what the charm did.
Don’t do it, do it now, do it later. A new job in London at the other end of the dare. She had to do it now. Here there were people to help if she had a problem, and if she turned into a monster she could eat them.
Zarabeth emptied out her candy jar, hiked up her skirt and sat on the floor. Her heart raced and fluttered. It could be a slave collar. It could be awful. She took yoga breaths to calm down, count of four in through her nostrils, count of eight out her mouth.
She held the charm by the corner and lit it with her cigarette lighter. The parchment burned fast with hot blue hissing flames. She dropped it into the jar, her fingers smarting. Thick oily smoke spilled over the edge of the jar. Zarabeth inhaled the smoke, coughed hard. She inhaled again, pressed her hands to her mouth to hold it in. It itched like bugs in her lungs.
She leaned back on her elbows. By the time her arms fell asleep she felt a newness in her mind, an idea with no meaning. The smoke was gone but the jar was still warm.
The phone rang. She clambered onto her chair, keyed the speaker.
“I’m Endre,” the caller said. “ProgEm Internal Support. We shipped you a device —”
“The charm? Yes, I got it, thank you.”
“Any problems with it? Sorry we sent no documentation.” Something funny in his voice.
“No,” Zarabeth said. “I mean, I think I did it right.”
“It sounds as if everything worked,” Endre said lightly. “I also wanted to give you our phone number here in case you have questions later.”
“That’s great, thanks.” Not his voice, Zarabeth thought, as she keyed the number into her phone’s contact list. His accent? His words. His words and the order of the words. And hers. “Endre?” she asked. “Am I — we’re speaking Hungarian, right?”
“Yes, Miss Battrie, we’re speaking Hungarian.” Endre sounded pleased, the same gotcha Magda had also enjoyed at her expense. These people liked to fuck with you.
“Wow. Cool. So it just —”
“It just works. The Polyglot begins with standard speech, adapts to your current region. Brush up before you go with web-casts or movies.” He switched to English, with a thick accent. “There’s online help if you want more information. And we staff this desk twenty-four-seven.”
“Köszönöm szépen, Endre.”
“Szívesen, Szarabet. Look forward to working with you.”
Zarabeth hung up. She laughed. Wait until she told Missy, told her in French and Gaelic.

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