World of DarknessSilver Nutmeg, Golden PearMage: the Ascension
Kevin Andrew Murphy
James A. Moore

 'Friday's child is loving and giving,' and while I wasn't born on a Friday (Monday here, 'Fair of Face,' for whatever that's worth), I love my friends and was about to give something up for them, so I guess the omen for the day was working out pretty well.

 What I had in my lunchpail was a little too much of a hot potato to keep around anyway. Sure, it looked nice on my dresser, elegant in fact, but people do talk, and I was sick of having to cover it up like some sort of parrot before anyone came into the room. Anyway, I just had to show it off to someone, and if there was anyone who would appreciate it, it was Grimm. Not that he'd let it show.

 You can't be a Goth without knowing how to read people, not that there aren't those who try.

 By the way, my name's Penny, for anyone who's wondering. Penny Dreadful. There's noms de plume and noms de punk, and now there's noms de goth. Penny Dreadful or Penny D----, that's me. Lot better than Penelope Drizkowski. Dreadful name, huh? Well, that's where I got my inspiration.

 Grimm lives in the Haight, same as me, so I didn't need to catch a bus or crank up the car (and I do mean crank--as you can probably guess from the way I dress, I like old things, and when I say old, I don't mean fifties). My hat was pinned in place, my widow's weeds were just so, and my highbuttons were done up just right over my black and white Pippi Longstockings. A lady doesn't go calling on a gentleman unless she's dressed to the nines.

 Of course, she's also supposed to have an escort, but this is the 1990s, not the 1890s, so you don't have to get anal and be period about everything. Anyway, if you know anything about the Victorian Age, widows were considered experienced women and so could do just about whatever they pleased.

 Not surprising that poisoning husbands was all the rage.

 Grimm has his shop doubled-down two side streets off Haight. Great camouflage, by the way. The window has more psychic crystals and suncatchers and Shirley Maclaine books than you would think the world could possess, and any serious practitioner just rolls her eyes and walks on by when she comes to Grimm's Occult Specialty Shoppe.

 Which is a mistake, of course, 'cause it's got some really cool stuff once you get past the façade, and I don't mean the Crowley Tarot deck. (Honestly, Strength is not Lust, no matter how much you want it to be, and in my humble opinion, Evil Old Uncle Al should have gotten together with Siggy Freud. They had a lot in common.)

 Then again, who knows. They probably did.

 Grimm is a lot better than either Dr. Siggy or Uncle Al, though he's got the same sort of condescending, constipated look. The 'I am above all this! Look upon me mortals and despair! I am Ozymandias!' type look that so many Goths try to cultivate and fail miserably at.

 There are girls back at the Waydown who would just die if Grimm gave them his 'grim look.' But then, I'm not them, I'm Penny D---- and I knew Grimm already. Real sweetheart once you got past the Ozymandias look and the hawk nose and the Fu Manchu moustache.

 I came in and browsed through the Susan Seddon Boulet postcards--while she may be trendy, she does know something about metaphysics--and waited while Edith Blanton went on with her latest mystical rant: "So I says to my son, 'Norman, she's no good for you!' My spirit guides say it, my OUIJA board says it, for goodness sake, Martha down at the bakery says it! But does he listen? No . . . He just goes on defending that shrew he took for a wife, and here I am, my heart breaking, and how can I expect him to listen to my spirit guides or even Martha at the bakery, when he won't even listen to his own mother?"

 Grimm nodded, glassy-eyed, looking every bit the patient Lord Ozymandias listening to the peasants' complaints.

 But Granny Edith was entertaining all the same, and behind the stereotypical Jewish grandmother exterior was a heart of gold, and a lot of mystic trivia, even if she did change her belief system as often as she changed her socks.

 "I'm going to try voodoo," Edith said, thumping down a can onto the counter. "If 'Devil Be Gone' powder and 'Uncrossing Oil' don't get rid of that woman, I don't know what will. Which loa do you pray to to get rid of awful second wives?"

 Still impassive, Grimm went to his shelf of Catholic paraphernalia and came back with a large votive candle in a brown glass holder. "St. Jude." He set it down amid the rest of Granny Edith's purchases.

 I nearly choked to keep from laughing. For those of you who don't know, St. Jude is the patron saint of really big miracles, and he's the one Catholics (and Voudoun and Santeria types) pray to when they don't know what else to do. Either Granny Edith had a really big problem, or else Grimm was having a joke at her expense and had decided to give the Patron Saint of Lost Causes a chuckle amid His more serious requests for cancer cures and miraculous rescues.

 Granny Edith just smiled as Grimm rang up and wrapped up her purchases and gave her a simplified Voudoun ritual suitable for octogenarian Jewish grandmothers who wished to be rid of obnoxious second-daughter-in-laws. I waited, continuing to look through postcards even after Edith had left the shop, until Grimm finally took the bait: "Alright, Penny. What do you have for me?"

 I glided over to the counter--no mean feat, 'cause what I had in my lunchbox was not only hot, it was heavy--and set the pail on the counter with a clank like the cask in 'The Castle of Otranto.' (Goth classic. Read it when you have a chance.)

 I looked around, making sure that Edith had been the last of the Shirley Maclaine groupies and crystal-hunters, then looked off at the rack of metaphysical refrigerator magnets. "'Light the candle, draw the curtain, put the lock upon the door . . .'"

 It was a line from some seventies pop song I'd heard when I was a kid, but it was one of the most potent charms I knew, and Grimm took the hint, going and locking the front door and turning out the 'Back in Ten Minutes' sign. "Back room stuff?"

 "Definitely back room."

 I picked up my lunchpail and let Grimm usher me through the velvet curtain into the back of the shop. That's where he keeps all the worthwhile stuff, aside from the Boulet postcards. Treasures there to die for, and I'm pretty certain that's happened with a few of the things he's got, at least the Borgia poison ring and the Knights of the Golden Circle ceremonial sword. (The Knights, by the bye, were this splinter group of the KKK who were into all sorts of weird metaphysics and were trying to outdo both the Masons and the Golden Dawn--a neat trick if you can pull it off, and they almost did.)

 Grimm let the curtain fall down, then lit the candle in the skull-shaped holder (which, tacky as it looks, is more than it seems). He'd done the charm in reverse from what I'd sang, but it was close enough for most magic, and anyway, it was his shop.

 "'And lo, the seal was broken,'" I quoted and undid the catch of my lunchpail.

 "'And Greenpeace appeared, and lo, his face was wroth,'" said Grimm. "'"What are you doing to that seal? Fie and for shame!"'"

 I rolled my eyes. He had me there. A true Goth can appreciate wit, and I'll admit, we do set ourselves up when we get our most pretentious.

 However, I had my trump card as I took out the reason for my errand, wrapped in finest Ice White silk (from an antique Chinese funeral robe--you can find them in Chinatown if you know where to look). I carefully unwrapped the silk, which, if you know anything about metaphysics, is good for insulating things other than Tarot cards, and looks really classy on top of it.

 It fell away, and there sat the Golden Pear.

 I gestured to it, giving my best magician's assistant/Vanna White gesture, and quoted the old rhyme: "'I had a little nut-tree/Nothing would it bear/But a silver nutmeg/And a golden pear.'"

 Grimm looked at it, dumbfounded, and I continued the verse: "'The King of Spain's daughter/She came to see me/

 And all because of my little nut tree.'" He reached out and touched it in wonder. I smiled. "'I skipped over water/I danced over sea/And all the birds in the air couldn't catch me.'"

 I should probably describe the pear. It's eighteenth century Prussian goldsmithing and clockwork, which, if you know anything about jeweled doohickeys, is the type of thing Fabergé only wished he did. A gold pear on a gold base, with a little keyhole to start up the music box, which, if the books have it right, will also make the four quarters of the pear fall open and show all sorts of neat things while it plays a little tune.

 Of course, the key's been lost for almost as long as the pear's been around, so all you can see is the outside, where there's diamonds polished en cabochon to make four little windows that show things like 'King Gets Eaten by Wolves' and 'Mercury has his Feet Chopped Off' and 'Snake Ladies Do The Nasty With Skeletons.' Weird alchemical symbolism, and I'll admit that it's completely out of my league.

 Grimm stood so motionless that I think you could have stuck a 'For Sale' sticker on his forehead and he wouldn't have noticed. But it's moments like this that I live for. There's no point in finding pretty-shinies if you can't show them off to someone, and this was something that Grimm definitely appreciated.

 We probably stood there posed like mannequins for close on ten minutes before Grimm let out his breath. "Where did you find this?"

 I struck an attitude, grieving innocence, which I know showed off the lace on my cuffs to best advantage. "A wall safe. It was disguised as part of a mantel." Grimm blinked. "Well, honestly, it's the most obvious place to put them, and I swear, it practically popped open at me. And the thing was hot to begin with."

 Grimm smiled, going back to his Ozymandias look. "Alright, Penny. Out with it."

 "Well," I said, getting into the tale, "about two months ago, I went to the estate sale of Aries Michaels. Remember him? The wizard of Nob Hill?"

 "O of H," Grimm said and nodded. "Go on."

 I didn't quite follow what he meant by the initials, but you can't have an attitude without knowing how to hide ignorance, and anyway, it was my moment and my tale. "Anyway, he died and I went to his estate sale. Most of the good stuff had been cleared out already--though I did get a couple lots of miscellaneous knickknacks at the auction--but then I said to myself, 'Penny, there's got to be something interesting in this old house,' and since the auctioneers had cleared everything into the front room, and the realtors didn't mind if potential buyers wandered around the place--not that I could ever afford a mansion on Nob Hill, mind you--I went up into his private study where he had the pentacles set in the floor and everything, and when I stuck a screwdriver into a crack in the mantle, the door just popped right open. And I found the pear."

 "So it's hot," Grimm said.

 I nodded. "Really hot. You don't know what it is, do you?"

 Grimm didn't like admitting ignorance any more than a Goth, but he didn't say anything, so I took that for a yes.

 I reached into the bottom of my lunchpail and took out the museum pamphlet and the newspaper clippings. I put the pamphlet in his hands and flipped it open to the section with the color photograph of the Golden Pear. "1979. The Splendor of Dresden exhibit went through the De Young. See here." I pointed to the paragraph below. "'The Pear of Böttger. Commissioned by the Elector of Saxony in 1719 on the death of his alchemist, Böttger, as a repository for the last of Böttger's transmuting powder and a set of illustrations describing the secrets of the Philosophers' Stone.'

 "Except," I said, "the key has been lost since the death of the Elector of Saxony, and the pear has been lost since its theft in 1979." I put the newspaper clippings into his hands. "Big scandal. The De Young still hasn't lived it down."

 "So who does the pear belong to?"

 I shrugged. "The East German government? Except that's now part of the German government. I don't know. Aries Michaels stole the pear, or else he was a real ditz and not much of a wizard if he bought it and didn't know it was hot. But I thought, well, why should the heirs of an old thief get the reward for something he stole, when I can get it myself? Except I don't really like publicity. So I thought, gee, my good friend Grimm has a shop that sells all sorts of valuable things, he could probably sell this too. I mean, turn it in for the reward. And he's so respectable, he'd have no trouble having people believe him when he says a bag lady came in and traded it for the latest Shirley Maclaine."

 Okay, I'll admit it, I was pushing the envelope, but Grimm wanted the thing so bad he could taste it, so what the hey.

 "How much do you want?" The Mask of Ozymandias was cracking, or at least there was drool at the corner of the mouth.

 "Well, the East German government offered ten-thousand, but that was 1979, and the East Germans were cheap. The West Germans have a lot more money, or at least they did until they took in the East Germans and became just plain Germany. And the De Young offered fifty-thousand, but that was for the arrest and conviction of the thief, and Aries Michaels is dead, and part of why I took the pear was that I thought that the heirs would be happier without it being revealed that their dear, departed, eccentric great-uncle was an international jewel, art and antiquities thief."

 Grimm was looking at the pear again, checking out the little vignettes and acting almost like he was in a grocery store, inspecting it for blemishes. Except with something that old, nicks and scratches aren't blemishes--they're history. "What do you need the money for?"

 That was my business, but I didn't mind telling Grimm. "The Waydown is having a party this weekend. The Necrotic Neurotic Halloween Ball. Norna was treasurer, 'cause she's got a trust fund and rich parents, so everyone thought the money would be safe with her. General principle--rich people don't steal, or at least if she did, she could always snake the money back from her parents if she needed to, so it seemed a safe bet.

 "Except Norna's dad keeled over about six months ago, her mom walked out in the street and got run over by a bus about a week later, and somewhere in between Norna just up and disappeared. No Norna, no money, no party. And all the little Goths cried. But in for a penny, in for a pound, and I say to myself, 'Penny, you've got this alchemist's pear just gathering dust on your dresser. Hock it and earn the eternal gratitude of your friends and save Halloween.' And so here I am."

 I was really pleased with myself. I had managed to turn fencing one of the world's hottest jewels into a tragic sacrifice for the good of my friends. Which was the case, but then again, the Waydown Ball was not going to cost sixty-thousand dollars, at least not if I did the shopping.

 Grimm looked at the pear, stalking round it and struggling to keep from jumping up and down with glee like I had to when I first found it. "I . . ."

 I closed up my lunchpail. "Listen, Grimm. I'd really love to haggle, except I have to go shopping for the Ball. Tell you what--Why don't you give me what you have in the cash drawer as deposit, then sell it on commission? We can do the haggling later."

 Grimm put out his hand. "Deal."

 I took it and shook it formally. "A pleasure doing business with you, sir."

 "And a pleasure doing business with you, my lady."

 Luckily, as I knew, Grimm keeps a large supply of cash on hand, so Halloween was saved.

* * *

 Now, you've probably heard that the Waydown is dead. Don't you believe it. It wasn't buried, it just went underground.

 For a Goth club, that's pretty much the same thing. Nothing really lives till it dies, and something can't really be Goth till it lives in the shadows.

 The Waydown is like that. The police closed it down about the same time that Norna disappeared, but, I have to admit, we didn't have permits, a liquor license, or even the deed to the place where the Waydown went down, so the Boys in Blue were perfectly within their rights to chase out the Persons in Black.

 Of course, if you know anything about the Matrix program, chasing people out isn't the same thing as getting rid of them, and the Goths are still around. Even at the old burnt-out shell of the St. Francis Church in the Haight, which is where the Waydown went down with regularity.

 Now, the Waydown goes down under the façade of other clubs--The House of Usher at Thunder Bay in Berkeley, or The Temple at The Oasis here in The City. Sometimes in other places too.

 The St. Francis is saved for special occasions now. Like Halloween, or All Hollow's Eve, as we Goth's like calling it. The crew of people who make up the Waydown call themselves the Hollow Ones, a la T.S. Eliot: 'We are the Hollow Men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!' 'A penny for the Old Guy' and all that.

 Anyway, we Hollowers had dealt with the police before, and if there was one night when we wouldn't really have to worry about Big Brother, it was Halloween. Between the nude conga lines down in the Castro, and the rednecks lining up do to a little fag-bashing, the police were going to have their hands full, and a bunch of teenagers smoking clove cigarettes in an abandoned church were not a priority.

 The St. Francis is actually in the Ashbury Heights, so I cranked up the car and got going. My car's a Stutz Bearcat, and if that isn't class, I don't know what is. Found it under a tarp in a junkyard in Petaluma, and with a bit of spit and polish, and a whole lot of TLC, I had it purring up a treat.

 Singing 'Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang' to it probably had something to do with it too, but while it didn't actually fly, it certainly flew up the hills of San Francisco and I got to the St. Francis in a flash.

 Neville was there, where I expected him. Neville's this tall, skinny PIB who has trouble getting the dye to take in his hair, cause he's real blond and his eyebrows fade in about an hour. He had his Gashlycrumb Tinies shirt on, the one with 'N is for NEVILLE who died of ennui.' The shirt fit in more ways than one, and Neville even has this cool deck of Tarot cards he's made out of the Tinies (for predicting the manner of a person's death, of course).

 "Penny." He might have been talking to the air, for all the expression he gave.

 I opened my lunchbox. "Halloween is saved." I put two thousand dollars in his hands. "Why don't you get the beer?"

 He stared at the money, and may have had just the faintest bit of expression. He looked up. "What did you have to do to get this?"

 "Nothing much. Just hocked the family jewels." He looked askance. "No, don't worry. Very discreet. Nothing the police should ever find out about or trace here."

 Neville nodded. "We're in your debt, Penny."

 I shrugged. "Leave me in your will and give me what shows up in the collection box. No big deal."

 Neville folded up the money and slipped it in his pocket, putting a finger to his lips and murmuring his thoughts: "Bargetto's, Blackthorne's, Jaegermeister, Frangelico . . ." He wandered off, continuing to list his wishes and dreams which the alchemist's pear had just made possible. From anyone else, it would have sounded like a shopping list, but he managed to make it sound like an invocation to the spirits, which, come to think of, it was.

 Blackrose unfolded herself from her perch in one of the niches, where I suppose she thought she looked like Our Lady of Coolness, though she actually looked more like one of the huddled urchins from the Five of Pentacles. "Well done, Penny."

 "You're welcome," I said.

 Blackrose shrugged it off by spinning in a dance step, which, I must admit, was rather pretty. She came to rest beside me, leaning on the baptismal font. "Quite a shame about Norna, isn't it? Who ever would have thought . . ."

 "Thought what?"

 Blackrose brushed back her bangs, which was hard because of all the hairspray. She has this look like 'Dress by Morticia Addams, Hair by Tina Turner' which does not work, but there's no telling her that. "Oh," she said, wrist to forehead, "Norna just disappearing like that. Strange. I called her school. They said she dropped out. Her parents died within a week of each other. And she . . . just . . . disappears. Strange. Odd. Downright mysterious."

 She lit up a clove kretek with one of those cheap plastic lighters (I don't smoke, but if I did, I'd use something with a lot more class) and took a drag, trying to look cine noire, but only coming off as needing a hit of cloves.

 No class, as I said. In the court of Louis XIV they carried around their cloves in these pomader oranges, and you could do all sorts of interesting gestures with them without ruining the effect with cheap plastic lighters.

 I'd thought she was going to accuse Norna of skipping out with all the money, which was stupid, because the reason we'd entrusted it to Norna in the first place was that she had a trust fund and a rich mommy and daddy and wouldn't be tempted by what to her was petty cash. But there was no telling people like Blackrose that. She liked to think she was a mistress of intrigue, when all she could really pull off was petty gossip.

 "Maybe she's dead," Blackrose said. "Perhaps we should hold a seance tonight and find out."

 "You're fucking nuts," said a voice from the shadows, and Peter stepped out. Spooky Pete we call him behind his back, 'cause he stalks around in this grey pea coat muttering dark prophecies (which usually come true), and if you've ever heard of haunted eyes, well, think of Peter. Most of us Hollowers were green with envy, at least the guys, because while lots of Goths aspire to being dark, brooding figures, Peter came by it naturally.

 He stalked over and looked down at Blackrose. "You don't go fucking messing with the dead. The best you can expect is a waste of your time; the worst . . ." He glowered, then plucked the cigarette from Blackrose's fingers. "And don't smoke these things. They'll fucking kill you. And trust me, the last thing you want to be is dead."

 He snapped the clove cigarette in two and dropped it to the floor, stepping on it with one of his industrial boots.

 Usually, you couldn't get away with being that rude, but Peter was an exception to lots of rules. He'd managed to bridge the gap between Goth and Punk quite nicely, for example, with his hair shaved round the back and the little nose ring, then the creepy, macabre dialogue on top of it.

 There was a fight brewing, even so, so I decided to shut it up with money. I opened my lunchpail. "Peter, why don't you do the chips and pretzels? You've got a car, and I think you said you had a Price Club membership."

 He wrinkled his nose in assent, making the nosering flip up for a moment.

 I gave him some cash, then handed a substantially smaller wad to Blackrose. "You're good at paste-up, Rose. Could you do the fliers and use the rest for crêpe paper or something?"

 "Blackrose," she corrected.

 Tit for tat, snub for snub, but everyone was glad for the money anyway. I scattered the largess to the masses and let Neville delegate the rest of the tasks, leaving for myself what I liked and what I did best: bargain hunting and taking care of oversights.

 After all, somebody had to do it.

* * *

 I have to give it to Blackrose. For all that she comes off like a poseur during the day, she can be very Goth by night.

 She'd set up the parson's table in the sacristy as the perfect seance table, which is no mean trick, 'cause parson's tables are tall and long and narrow, and seance tables are supposed to be short and round and wide. But with the lace shawls and roses and the 1920's OUIJA board that looked like it had come out of the Ray Bradbury Theater, she'd made something wonderfully macabre.

 The black, red and white beeswax tapers helped with the effect too and filled the air with a nice perfume. I'd have to ask where she got them.

 Blackrose was there, as I said, along with Neville and Rex. Rex as in Oedipus, or at least that was the reference I think he was going for. Short, stocky PIB wannabe, and I think he was no more than sixteen.

 Peter, as might be expected, was conspicuously absent, which I think was all for the best. Like as not, he'd just look at the table as if he were wondering what a cutting board was doing with an upsidedown brandy snifter on top of it, then start up a conversation with a patch of air. I'd seen him do it before, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did it again.

 Anyway, Blackrose gestured grandly to all of us and we took our places at the bench opposite her. "You may be seated."

 We were, and Rex began singing: "'Ouija board, ouija board, ouija board . . .'"

 Blackrose glared at him until he looked sheepish and stopped.

 "Place your hands upon the planchette," Blackrose intoned, perfect Gypsy, "and let the glass fill with the warmth of life." We did and Rex giggled. Blackrose had the good sense to ignore him. "Oh spirits, we are gathered tonight in this place of death and burial, this place of life and resurrection, to ask questions of one whom we fear is among your number." Give the girl credit--She knew how to do an invocation. "Let no base spirit, or false spirit, or foul spirit enter this room. By the Powers of Light I bind and implore you. Let only the spirit of Norna Weaver, who we number among our fellows, come to this place of power. Norna, the Waydown has risen again and has need of you!"

 The candleflames flickered and danced, and the glass began to move under our fingers, the cushion of warmed air levitating it ever so slightly. "Norna, are you here?" asked Blackrose, and the glass moved until the bell rested firmly on the letter M.

 "M," said Blackrose. "We have the beginning of our message!"

 The planchette moved to another letter, L.

 "M-L!" Blackrose cried.

 R the glass spelled out plainly. Q, then K.

 Then the table began to shake and the candles toppled over. The glass flew from our fingers and off the table. A shattering sound came from the floor, and the door flew open and a cold wind blew in, plunging the room into darkness.

 And the table continued to shake.

 "The spirits!" cried Blackrose. "The spirits are angry!"

 "Aighghgh!" screamed Rex.

 "It's an earthquake," Neville said, clearly and plainly. "Get to the doorways, you idiots!"

 He did not have to tell this girl. I was already there, doorframe in one hand, skirts which I'd hitched up for running in the other. I remembered the '89 quake, and while I had not been anywhere quite so precarious as a blacked-out, abandoned, condemned church (with fire damage), it hadn't been pleasant.

 Then again, the Old St. Francis had survived the 'Pretty Big One,' and I'll say, with the authority of a Californian, born and raised, that this one was not quite as strong.

 Not that that seemed to matter much when one was standing in the aforementioned blacked-out, abandoned church. With fire damage.

 I heard a few things crash down in the background, then I managed to produce one of those little keychain flashlights from somewhere and shine it around.

 "Everyone okay?"

 Rex and Blackrose looked pretty badly shaken (no pun intended--there is a time and place for everything, and this was not one of them), but Blackrose managed to gather her composure enough to take out her cheap cigarette lighter and relight the candles. She followed this with a cigarette and took a long drag. "Well," she said, wreathed in a nimbus of clove smoke, "that was a trip, wasn't it?"

 We all exchanged glances and surveyed the wreckage of the seance table, with wax pooled in the webbing of the shawl and the planchette (or brandy snifter) shattered on the floor.

 "We have our message," Neville said, deadpan. "'MLRQK.'"

 "Mlrqk!" echoed Rex, laughing nervously, and Blackrose looked decidedly put out.

 I slipped the flashlight back in my pocket. "It was a lovely seance, really, Blackrose. But obviously the spirits were busy elsewhere tonight." Rex chuckled. I shrugged. "Let's just take it as a good omen. Norna's still alive. Somewhere."

 "What about Mr. and Mrs. Weaver?" Blackrose asked, hopeful. "We know they're dead."

 I wanted to put an end to this before someone could make a joke about crying over spilt 'Mlrqk!' "Oh, honestly, Blackrose. Norna's parents never knew where she was when she was alive. How do you think they can keep better tabs on her now that they're dead?" I gestured to our surroundings. "Anyway, we better check to see how much damage the St. Francis has taken. Cops or no cops, there's no way we're going to be holding All Hollow's Eve here if the place is about to fall down on our heads."

 Neville looked pensive. "There is a certain moribund charm to it."

 I gave him a plain look. "Do you want to be in the choir loft when the subwoofers kick in on 'This Corrosion'?" Neville moved his head to a different angle. "Thought not. Listen, we're doing the Necrotic Neurotic Halloween Ball, not the Fall of the House of Usher. Anyway, House of Usher is on Tuesdays in Berkeley, so it's been done."

 Blackrose had the good grace to admit defeat. "Spirits! Thank you for your . . . attention. Return to the realms where you belong! And Norna, if you can hear us . . . send us a message when you have a chance."

 "Amen," said Neville, with what for him was dry humor.

 We each took one of the candles and wandered out into the Old St. Francis. The damage, as I had hoped, was minimal. The church had remained standing since the fire seventy years before, and would probably still be standing seventy years from now.

 I stripped off my lace gloves, and Neville and I made ourselves feel better by pounding a few nails and odd bits of lumber around to shore up the choir loft. It still looked dangerous, but did a good bit to set my mind at ease.

 Blackrose stayed at the St. Francis, and so did Neville, and I think Rex was a recent addition to the crash-pad set.

 I, however, wanted to see what had happened to my apartment. I bid them adieu and went out to my car. There was still another day of preparations and shopping ahead of me as well, not to mention picking out exactly what I would wear for the ball two nights later.

 The moon was a day from full, and I caught its light from a penny in the gutter.

 One can't be a Goth without holding with superstition, at least the cool ones, and I was particularly fond of my namesake. I stooped to pick it up.

 As I looked up, I saw that a tiny spider had built her web in the spokes of my car since last I parked. But caught on the strands were beads of mist, and they spelled out, as clear as clear, two words: GOOD WORK

 I stared at the Charlotte's Web message for a full minute before a small breeze came up and scattered the water droplets and webbing.

 I stood up, shaking, and it was about twenty minutes before I could put the penny in my pocket and drive home.

 * * *

 Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed. Like the day Penny Dreadful came by my shop to sell me a golden pear. It's not that I have a problem with Penny--far from it, she's one of my better suppliers--it's just that on that particular day, I couldn't manage to get anything to go right.

 Fridays are normally pretty busy at Grimm's Occult Specialty Shoppe. I can almost always count on a good number of mundane sales by noon. That Friday, two days before Halloween, I couldn't have sold a can of Spam to a starving mongrel--I managed to sell a few trinkets to Edith Blanton, but those didn't count, she always bought something, it was just her way. I woke up with a fearsome headache, one that simply would not give me a moment's peace. In addition, another moron had tried breaking in the night before, and had managed to do a good number on the glass door of the shop even through the wire mesh that keeps everything locked up properly. Before I opened for the day, I was out almost three hundred dollars for a new window-- it's amazing how much they'll milk you for when it comes to a rush job.

 So I was pleased to see Penny when she came in; a friendly face at that point was a huge bonus. I figured on a little chit-chat and polite conversation, not a quick purchase for an item that I wasn't even certain I wanted. Don't misunderstand me, the Golden Pear of Böttger is a true find--and more than worth what I paid up front--it's just that I prefer not dealing in items with a publicly known history. Public histories can tend to cause troubles, especially when the Technocracy is already sticking their damned noses where they don't belong. I'd had Men In Black casing my store off and on for a couple of weeks, and frankly I was starting to think about moving on, and that was before a certain bad Penny turned up.

 But I made the sale anyway, Penny said just the thing to brighten my day. She said she'd come back later and we could barter about the price. Penny knows my weaknesses, and near the top of the list is a good, hard sale. I think there are too many people who miss out on golden opportunities and a roaring good time simply because they would rather look at a price tag then actually haggle over the value of whatever item they are interested in purchasing. There are no price tags on any item in my store, from the cheap post cards to the antique wine goblets. If you want to buy, you have to tell me what you're willing to part with.

 I'll give this to Penny, despite a penchant for dressing like a widow in her mother's hand-me-downs, despite being far younger than most of my suppliers, she had the good sense to scope the area out and wait for the right time before trying to fence her stolen goods; she picked a good day, the goons in dark trench coats had not bothered to show themselves. For almost anyone else, I would have never made a deal with only a partial payment in advance. Especially when it comes to a hot item that is incomplete. The Golden Pear, the one that allegedly held the secrets of the Philosopher's Stone, was absolutely useless without the key that opened its delicate mechanisms. Any attempt to open the Pear without the key would simply open a false front, and the infernal machine was too well designed to allow any peek at its true treasures without destroying the patterns. I know this, because Aries Michaels tried his damnedest to open the Golden Pear on several occasions, and confided the whole nasty mess to me during one of his infrequent jags of drunken stupidity.

 Aries Michaels was a sharp man, and he certainly would have been a formidable enemy, but he was also a man who loved his alcohol a bit too much. Whenever he got into his drink he called on me and told me his woes. Normally a visit from Aries started with him trying to convince me to go back to the Order of Hermes, and ended with him crying on my shoulder. That was okay, he'd been my teacher once, and he'd certainly taught me plenty about the ways of the Order, but he'd also been my friend for a long time, and he had definitely pulled my fat out of the fire when I was too young and stupid to know better. We had a mutual respect for each other, and he knew I would keep his secrets just as I knew he'd keep mine. I think I may have been the only person he ever told about stealing the Golden Pear.

 I miss Aries, and one of these days I think I might have to break down and avenge his murder. But I don't know if I'm ready for that quite yet.

 Anyway, I bought the damned Pear from Penny, more for the promise of a good haggling session than for any other reason, save possibly the look of desperation she tried so hard to hide. I guess I should explain a little something here, I'm just slightly less well off than God when it comes to my finances. Both of my parents were rich, and the use of a little coincidental magick had insured that my investments went well after I inherited their wealth. I don't need to run a shop, and I certainly don't need to dabble in selling items of power. If I never worked a day in my life, I'd still die a wealthy man. I run a store and deal in specialty items because I like the people I meet and because I'd go crazy if I spent all of my time looking in musty old books for the secrets of Ascension.

 I bought the Pear, and I watched Penny head out the door, and I knew then and there that I had made a hideous mistake. I stowed the lovely and potentially powerful trinket back in my specialties room and tried not to think about it. In fact, I did a fine job of not thinking about it for the next several hours, while I dusted shelves, popped aspirin like candy, and dealt with customers who will never know how close they are to what they are looking for, or how far away from that same goal.

 I'd just finished lunch when a mage I'd never seen before came into the shop. Most mages can hide what they're capable of--have to in fact if they wish to continue breathing-- but I'm very good at seeing what others normally miss, and I couldn't have missed this one if I were blind. The woman that entered my store was stunning. I mean that, she was physically stunning, the kind of woman who makes men forget what they were going to say, and makes women who are used to attention suddenly feel ignored. She was wearing designer jeans and a soft cashmere sweater over a body that promised sensual delights with every little move, and she stepped into the place like she owned it. I think for a smile I would have given the store over to her too, and she knew it, you could tell by the tiny upward curve at the corners of her full lips. She had a mane of black hair that surrounded her head like a cloud, and her hair was truly black, not colored that shade like Penny's or any of her little pseudo-intellectual friends. Unfortunately, the reflective sunglasses she was sporting kept me from seeing the color of her eyes, but I'm certain they were mesmerizing, whatever the shade.

 I stared at her when as she walked over, I simply couldn't help myself. To my credit, I stared at her face instead of her body, and believe me, that was no easy task. Her voice was pleasant, and sent shivers through me with the promises her tone made. "Hello. I'm looking for Mister Grimm."

 "You found me. How can I help you?" I'm very good with a poker face, you have to be when you do the sort of work I do. I was very grateful for that particular talent right then--I'm almost certain my voice would have squeaked like a boy in the throes of puberty otherwise. I mean what I said, she was an overwhelming presence.

 "Hello, Mister Grimm. I understand you sell specialty items."

 That was one hell of a lot more blatant than I like my customers to be, and the effect was like a splash of cold water on my face. Despite her intoxicating perfume and magnetic appearance, I sobered up very quickly. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about Miss...?"

 "Blake. Jodi Blake. I'm sorry, Mister Grimm, I got ahead of myself. I just assumed with no customers in the store..." Her look was apologetic, and I eased up on the stony face I'd put on.

 "No harm done, Ms Blake, but please, use discretion."

 She smiled brightly, and I swear the entire room grew warmer by a good twenty degrees right then and there. "Call me Jodi."

 "Call me Bryce." I smiled back, and extended my hand. She returned the gesture and shook my hand with a firm grip; I decided that I liked that, liked everything about her. "Now then," I said when I could speak again, "how can I help you?"

 "An old friend of mine recently passed away...his name was Aries Michaels." I nodded solemnly, letting her know that I had heard about his death and expressing my condolences simultaneously. "Aries spoke fondly of you, Bryce, and told me that I should pay you a visit sometime if ever I was looking for any items in particular." She paused for a moment, and my eyes were drawn to her tongue as it passed quickly over her upper lip. It took me a second to remember how to breathe. "I'm looking now."

 I resisted the urge to loosen my collar. Frankly, I was wearing a T-shirt, and what collar there was, was plenty loose enough, but that didn't stop the constriction of my throat or the sensation that I just couldn't get a good lungful of air. I was very conscious of my own pulse in my ears.

 "Why don't you step into the other room with me?" I asked as I locked the front door and placed the 'Back In Ten Minutes' sign facing out towards the street. Jodi gave me that little smile again, the one that sent crazy signals running through my brain. I resisted the urge to kiss her, but just barely. I have never met a woman before that so affected me, and I hope never to meet another. "Can you tell me what it is you're looking for, Jodi?"

 "There is a black onyx chalice, intricately carved, the bowl in the form of a skull placed on a stem and base of silver in the shape of the severed wrist of an open hand. I want that chalice, Bryce. I want it very much." I knew the cup she was speaking of, it was one of only twenty in the world. The Tears of Kali are very rare, and allegedly filled with the powers of entropy. I have two of them. One is not for sale. Maybe someday I'll tell you how I got them, but not today. Jodi looked at the chalice when I presented it to her, and actually shook with pleasure when she held it in her hands. Either she was a member of the Euthanatos Tradition, very well versed in her spheres, or she was cold. I suspected the former, the little moan that escaped her lips was all the hint I really needed.

 I'd like to say that the haggling was satisfactory, and that I got a fair market value for the Tear of Kali. But I'd be lying. It's fair to say I've never been as thoroughly seduced as I was in that room, and likely I never will again. For all the world I was like a lamb being led to the slaughter. She paid me very well for the chalice, but only partially with cash.

 Sometime later, I led Jodi out of the store, much more composed than I had been earlier, and with absolutely no headache to speak of. I don't think the aspirin made much of a difference. Even as she was leaving, another person came into the store, a portly old woman with a mink stole and an attitude problem. She spent twenty minutes trying to make me buy back a deck of Oriental Tarot cards, explaining shrilly and firmly that she didn't like the future they kept presenting to her. I was in a good mood, and I explained myself three times before finally telling her where she could stick her cards. Once the cards have been attuned to someone, they shouldn't be used by anyone else, and I refuse to purchase shoddy merchandise or to give a refund on something that cannot be re-sold in usable condition. Besides, the cards don't lie unless you make them. Whatever her future holds is her problem, not mine.

 Around seven that night, I closed shop for a few hours, I needed a break. The other big advantage to not needing the money is that I can set my own hours without worrying too much about making the rent.

 I took a long shower to remove the tension that was creeping into my shoulders, and then I made a light dinner. Afterwards, I went down to my specialties room and did a little light dusting while making certain that everything was in order. Then I opened my doors and prepared for any late night business that might come my way. Across the narrow street, I noticed a man with pale skin and an expressionless face looking everywhere but at my store. I've met enough Men In Black to know one when I see one. I looked away from him and pretended he wasn't there, hoping that he would just go away.

 When I was finally convinced that he wasn't looking for me--You tend to know when they are looking for you, the handgun and badge are normally pretty good indications--I checked in my specialties room again, because something was bothering me, and I couldn't quite place what it was. I started mentally ticking off the items in the room, and after about five I realized what the problem was. The Golden Pear was missing. I stayed calm, but it wasn't easy. I double checked every nook and cranny, then I checked again just to be certain. There was no mistake. Angry doesn't begin to express my feelings on the subject of someone stealing from me. Monumentally pissed off doesn't even begin to come close. My whole world went red for a few seconds, and I was fully prepared to go charging into the night, ready to hunt down the thief at any cost, when I noticed my friend in the black trench coat standing in the same spot as before, at the entrance of a shop across the street. I was starting to get worried, he'd been there for an awfully long time for a man that wasn't investigating something.

 I decided I should play it cool, and instead of trying to leave myself, I just picked up the phone. I like Penny Dreadful, I really do. But the deal was that she'd make additional monies aside from the advance I'd given her off of what I managed to receive from a sale on the Golden Pear, and I couldn't very well sell what I no longer had. Penny was honest, and Penny was almost painfully lucky at "finding pretties." I imagined she could locate the Pear a second time. With some of my suppliers, I would have been out of luck; they would have just moved on to another city, found another shop like mine and sold the item again. The shops are there, not many of them, but if you know your way around, you can find them. But Penny was a decent person, and also a friend. I knew she hadn't lifted the Pear, it's just not her style, but I also knew of no one else I could trust. Penny would be happy with a small reward in addition to her retainer's fee. She has no fashion sense, and some of her friends are too morbid for my tastes--to say nothing of their own good--but she' s good people all around.

 The phone rang four times, and then I heard a garbled static-flooded funeral dirge playing tinnily in my ear. Almost unintelligible through the music, I heard Penny's voice advising me that she was not home, but would respond to any messages if she felt like it. I waited through ten more seconds of scratchy Victorian chords and then heard a shrill beep indicating that I could now leave my message. I took the hint and started speaking.

 "Hello, Penny," I started. "This is Grimm. I'm Dreadful-ly sorry to interrupt your night, my dear, but I have a little situation...."

 I explained quickly, and cursed Penny's name for only having a two-minute play time for speaking. It took five calls total to give her the entire message.

 There was a long pause between the third and fourth messages, caused entirely by an earthquake that literally knocked me off of my feet. I remember cursing the beep and dial tone that hit in the middle of my sentence to Penny, and even as I reached to hit the 'redial' button on my telephone, a wave of vibrations lifted me into the air and slammed me none too gently into the ground. The book stand at the front of my shop wobbled briefly and then toppled against the plate glass window. The window shimmered like heatwaves for a second and then exploded into the street. A case of loose crystals that rested above and behind my cash register slid forward and unbalanced the glass shelf that held it in place: Both the crystals and the shelf fell to the hard wood floor, the shelf exploding on contact and the crystals bounced and skittered across the ground. I had enough sense to cover my head and duck into a fetal position, but the glass still nicked my ear and pelted off of my back like pebbles thrown from a slingshot. I remember hearing the cacophony clearly, even over the sound of extreme vulgarities pouring from my own mouth.

 When it was over, and I'd managed to stand again, I doubled the flow of foul words and surveyed the damage. There was absolutely no way I could leave the shop in this state, too many items that could easily be stolen. I called Burt Calhoun, the man who'd fixed my door earlier, and told him to bring his supplies out. He explained that the quake meant he'd be busy, and I explained that I would double his usual fee for rush jobs if he got the damned windows in place before night's end. That got him moving.

 Like I said before, some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed. So far, I'd lost a good twenty thousand dollars in merchandise, at least, and my parts and labor expenses had just reached an all time high. By the time the windows were installed, and Penny called me back, my mood and my surname were identical.

* * *

 The apartment was a mess, that simple.

 It didn't help, of course, that I had the place stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of baubles, bangles and beads, though after the earthquake, it was then waist deep in trinkets and trade-goods.

 I made my way in, doing a balancing act from couch to coffee table to wherever I could set a foot down without breaking something, and finally got to my bedroom.

 That was a bit better. The bookshelves were packed so tight not even an earthquake could pry them loose, and all that had busted open was the box of miscellaneous knickknacks I'd gotten from the Michaels' estate. It had fallen off the top shelf of my closet and scattered all over the floor, and I did not want to deal with it just now.

 After all, while I might have dealt with a lot of weird things as a Goth, and talked about stranger ones as a Hollower, it wasn't every day you got an 'atta girl!' from Charlotte's Web.

 I sat down on the bed, which was clear except for a book, a card, and a bluish rock, all of them dusty with cobwebs. The card was an old 'Thank You' note from Norna, and the book was--no, not Charlotte's Web--but Arachne by Lisa Mason. A large silver spider gleamed on the cover.

 Some coincidences are just too weird.

 I set them aside and picked up the bluish lump, brushing aside the bits of spiderweb. It wasn't stone, it was verdigris, or at least whatever the name is for the blue type you find on silver.

 One toothbrush and a half a can of Silvo later, I had it cleaned off. A nutmeg. A silver nutmeg.

 I steadied my hands, then slid it open along the seam. A last sliver of corrosion fell out and a beautifully preserved silver key emerged, double-hinged.

 The Elector of Saxony's silver key for the Pear of Böttger.

 I don't know how long I stared at it before the phone started ringing. I ignored it, waiting for the answering machine to kick in, but as those of you with answering machines know, they tend to go on strike after a power failure, and evidently there had been one with the earthquake, since the phone just continued to ring.

 I finally picked it up, holding it in one hand and the Silver Key in the other. "Hello . . ."

 "Hello, Penny." It was Grimm. He was attempting to sound bright and chipper, and that meant something was wrong. "Have you checked your answering machine?"

 "Grimm, I can't find my answering machine, let alone check it."

 He cursed briefly, then composed himself. "I'm dreadfully sorry to interrupt your night, my dear, but I have a little situation . . ."

 I had a situation too. Namely an apartment knee-deep in Mardi Gras beads, miraculous messages appearing in spider webs, and the long-lost key of the Elector of Saxony showing up on my pillow like some sort of bedtime chocolate from the gods.

 Okay, I'll admit, I usually operate on what I call Serendipity Overdrive, but there's a big jump between doing little charms and spells and having them work, and having major, mumbo-jumbo weirdness walk into your life. About the same as the difference between having small prayers answered and having the Virgin Mary show up in your living room for tea.

 The key I could have dealt with, but not with the spiderweb on top of it and Arachne staring me right in the face. I take my omens seriously. If you're a Hollow One, you have to. I'd seen Spooky Pete and Neville's Gashlycrumb Deck be right too many times to start doubting now.

 And now there was Grimm. "Tell me your situation, Grimm. Let's see if it beats mine."

 Grimm paused. "The Pear was stolen."

 "Stolen?" I twiddled the key, rotating the nutmeg between my thumb and forefinger.

 "Stolen," Grimm said. He went on to describe the thief. Female. Tall. Attractive. Long, raven-dark hair.

 "Grimm, you've just described Carmen San Diego."

 No, as it turned out, her name was Jodi Blake, and as he went on to list her charms--and I don't mean the magical variety--I nearly got sick. He had it for her bad, and from the sound in his voice, well . . .

 Something you should know. Grimm only gets laid about once a year, and then only when he's lucky and desperate. And from what I could hear between the pauses and pants, this woman had screwed him seven-ways from Sunday, or at least intimated that she'd like to.

 Not that he'd ever admit to it, mind you, and I wasn't going to call him on it. Grimm was as tight-lipped as a White House press secretary about things like that, and just about as uptight.

 He went on to ask me if I could do that voodoo that I do so well and find the Pear for him a second time.

 "Damn straight I'm going to get the Pear back. And you're going to owe me big-time too, Grimm. And no, we're not going to haggle out the price right now." I played with the Silver Nutmeg, folding and unfolding the secret key. "Why's that? Oh, simple enough. I just found the Silver Nutmeg. That's right, the Elector of Saxony's lost key to the Golden Pear and the Philosopher's Stone. The price has just gone up."

 I hung up on him, then pulled the plug from the wall. After a moment's thought, I uncovered the answering machine and reset it, volume turned off. Let him call to his little heart's content. I'd deal with it in the morning.

 A cup of tea and a book of poetry later, I was fast asleep.

* * *

 Morning dawned bright, with the Silver Key on my dresser and the sound of Eek! the Cat filtering in from the kids in the next apartment. I held the pillow over my face. "Cumbaya!" was right.

 I took a shower and began setting the apartment to rights. It helped me organize my thoughts, and while I was at it, I picked out an outfit for the following evening. No matter what, I was not going to let random weirdness ruin a long-anticipated night of hedonistic morbidity.

 Grimm had left five messages total on the answering machine, none of them important except for his warning that Jodi was a dangerous witch. Men! Just because he'd been too busy watching her ass to see what she did with her hands, she had to be a powerful enchantress. Couldn't have been any of his own doing.

 Then again, maybe this was what Evil Old Uncle Al had meant when he'd made over the enchantress from Strength into the nubile bimbo for Lust. Wasn't hard to get the Rod of Power when men would give it to just about anyone for a wiggle and wink.

 Pardon me if I'm being a bit crass, but I was mightily pissed that morning, and not in the mood to be either respectable or ladylike. List any number of expletives or blasphemies you like, and you'll have my mood.

 And still, none of it explained Charlotte's Web, or the serendipitous appearance of the Elector of Saxony's Silver Nutmeg on my pillow the night before. I didn't doubt that it had been in the box of Aries Michaels' miscellaneous junk--I had a feeling when I bought the lot that I was going to find something worthwhile--but that it had landed on my pillow when everything fell off the shelf . . .

 Well, you don't need to read Shakespeare to understand signs and portents.

 Getting the Golden Pear back from Jodi Blake, aka the Kama Sutra Carmen San Diego, was going to be the trick, and I couldn't believe that Grimm had been so stupid as to leave it sitting on a shelf in his back room, even if only for the sight of his discerning customers.

 I'd filched it 'cause I knew it was hot, and there was no way that Aries Michaels was blowing the whistle on me, even if he hadn't been dead. Jodi Blake, whoever she was, evidently knew the same rules to the game, and knew that no matter what Grimm did, he couldn't blow the whistle on her either.

 Which meant that I just had to steal it back, assuming that I could find Ms. Jodi Blake.

 Broderbund it was not, but I sat down with Aries Michaels' junk anyway and carefully sorted through it, hoping to find a letter like "Dear Mr. Michaels, blah, blah, blah, I know you've got the Golden Pear, blah, blah, Would you consider selling? blah, blah, Love, Kisses and Blowjobs, Jodi Blake."

 I knew the type of letter it would be. Pink, perfumy, on expensive paper, with a little heart over the i in Jodi and three invisible swords through it.

 Unfortunately, it wasn't in the box. However, I'd bought the contents of Aries Michaels' junk drawer, not his correspondences, and if they'd gone anywhere (Aries Michaels being the notable San Francisco eccentric that he was), it could only be one of three places.

* * *

 One of three places turned out to be Special Collections at the University of San Francisco. Don't listen to those hacker geeks when they say they can find anything they need to know with computers. A computer is only as good as its database, and if you knew the number of things 'not catalogued yet' in libraries, you'd chuck the keyboard and just go straight for the reference desk, or at least the phone.

 USF's rare books room is amazing, by the way. They don't have a Gutenberg Bible, but they do have a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicles, and one where the picture of Pope Joan only has a beard and glasses scribbled in, instead of having her face scratched out like they do with most copies. They also have an amazing occult and theology collection, which is only to be expected, I suppose. They're Jesuits.

 Anyway, I'd forgone my usual finery for a black turtleneck and slacks, vintage mod wear, circa fifties London. (Okay, I'll admit it, I will wear some things from the fifties.) It worked well for the collegiate beatnik look, and was the closest thing I owned to ninja gear short of authentic kabuki blacks, and no matter what they say about San Francisco, some outfits are more conspicuous than others.

 The rare book room not only had the Michaels' letters, they had letters from Jodi Blake. Spanning a period of sixty odd years, and the first one was obviously not written by a child of ten.

 And they were all written by the same person. I know my handwriting well enough to spot that, and Jodi's was unique to the point of being unforgeable.

 I was also right--She did put little hearts over her i's.

 Regardless, putting what Grimm had told me together with the content of the letters, all I could say was that somebody's Oil of Olay was certainly working well.

 Unfortunately, there were no return addresses, and the little "Be seeing you!" tag lines, and the Jodi Blake envelope subheading (Bitch from Hell!), left me certain that Mr. M---- and Ms. B---- had not been on the most cordial terms.

 Call it inspiration, but since Miss Blake had been sniffing after the Pear ever since Aries Michaels snatched it, there was one place I had a strong suspicion she would be.

* * *

 The realtors' office implied it and the society columnist at the Chronicle confirmed it: Jodi Blake had set up in Aries Michaels' old digs. Unfortunately for her, someone had already stuck a screwdriver in the mantle of the study, and had also bought the contents of the junk drawer--which included the Silver Nutmeg. I was wearing it on a chain around my neck.

 The mansion wasn't dancing on chicken legs yet, but Jodi Blake had gotten ready for Halloween by putting a fence of plastic skulls with glowing red eyes round the place, and, call me superstitious, but I didn't really want to go past them to see if Bimbo Yaga was home.

 However, Domino's delivers in half an hour or it's free, and I called in an order for two pepperoni, extra cheese. It seemed appropriate.

 I set myself up a little bit up the street, binoculars ready, and twenty minutes later saw the Domino's delivery boy go to the door and get greeted by a dead-ringer for Carmen San Diego, assuming that once Carmen took off her red trenchcoat she wore a red miniskirt and bustierre, with a matching riding crop.

 The Domino's delivery boy went in then, and I don't know, maybe it was some weird trick of the light, or maybe he was that horny, but I swear, the guy's eyes (one of them, at least) looked blood red. Weird.

 Regardless, by climbing halfway up a fence, I was able to see that, whatever the guy's eye color, Domino's does in fact deliver, and that Jodi Blake, whatever her age, was just as skilled as she'd implied in her letters to Michaels. Honestly, I've looked through the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, and while most of the positions involve persimmons, peaches and pomegranates, Jodi was doing a fine job improvising with pepperoni pizza.

 Yes, children, the letter for today is P, and that includes Prostitute, Pulchritude, and Passion.

 However, I'd done what I intended, namely see if Bimbo Yaga was home, and if so, distract her for a little while. I'd succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, 'cause the way Miss Blake was teasing that poor boy, I was certain that she meant to earn her free pizza.

 Which gave me slightly less than thirty minutes to get what I came for.

 I screwdrivered the latch of the carport of the apartment next door and went on in, hopping the fence into the backyard of the Michaels' mansion, careful of my lunchbox.

 I didn't bother with the back door, shinnying up the trellis to the second-floor balcony where the screen door was open into the master bedroom. And oh my, in her long life (assuming that the woman downstairs was the same one who'd written the letters) Jodi Blake had acquired a serious taste for kink. If you've ever seen a bondage parlor or The Gauntlet down in the Castro, you know the type of implements and furnishings Ms. Blake had managed to acquire. Everything but The Curious Sofa (which I bet she'd pay a bundle for), and she even had some medieval implements, notable among which was an extensive collection of choke pears.

 I considered how pissed the Elector of Saxony would be if he found out that someone was planning to take his exquisite (if a trifle weird) music box, stuff it in someone's mouth, then turn the key and let it go through its clockwork show. I was livid, if just because we Hollow Ones like to style ourselves morbid and macabre, and the thought had never occurred to me before now.

 Anyway, I left the Chamber of Kink and took the stairs up to the study.

 When I went in, the pentacle was still there, as I remembered it, but the room was now furnished in what I can only call Lovecraft Modern, and by Lovecraft I mean H.P.--not the type that was going on downstairs. There were Aztec sacrificial bowls, and masks of Tlaloc, the tentacle-faced Mayan rain god, and nasty little Eskimo ivory tupilak figures, and, right over the mantle, a big, framed poster of the Beholder from DOOM, with votive candles set up before it.

 And there, off to one side, in the center of a rather ordinary library research table, was the Golden Pear.

 I stepped across the floor, careful off the pentacle and the various other symbols and altars set up around the room, and set my lunchpail down, softly opening the catch and taking out the Chinese funeral cloth.

 "I wouldn't touch that if I were you."

 I froze as I heard the voice, which was high and strange and raspy and not at all what I expected from the bitch-from-hell demon-temptress Bimbo Yaga.

 A tail uncurled from what I had first taken to be a bundle of furs, then the cat put its head up and opened glowing--and I mean glowing--green eyes. "I've been set to guard it," said the cat, and its mouth didn't move with the peanut-butter-stuck-to-roof-of-mouth effect you see in cat-food commercials.

 Charlotte's Web. Silver Keys. Ancient sorceresses. Talking cats.

 Something snapped and I realized that it was real. All of it. The webs and the keys and the sorceresses and the cats, and not just the little fun bits like picking up pennies for good luck and throwing salt over your shoulder. All of it.

 And I'd just broken into the house of the Kama Sutra's answer to Baba Yaga and was talking with her cat.

 Call me a classicist, but if all of it was true, then all of it was true, and the things they did in fairytales should work just as well as everything else.

 "What a pretty cat," I said, and it really was a very beautiful black cat, if you could ignore the talking and the glowing eyes. "I bet she doesn't feed you very well."

 "Oh no," said the cat. "Everything is wonderful. Just to the pact. Blood and milk and human hearts boiled in wine once a month."

 Well, scratch that idea.

 "I shall have to tell the mistress of you," the cat said and began washing one ear.

 "She doesn't want to be disturbed," I said. "She's having sex."

 The cat began washing the other ear. "She does that a lot."

 Somehow I was not surprised. "The mistress sent me," I said.

 The cat looked up. "How do I know you're not lying?"

 "Because," I said, "the mistress wants the key to the Golden Pear, and see, I have it here." I took out the Silver Nutmeg and slipped the chain over my head, twisting the halves and revealing the Key. The cat watched, fascinated. "Would you like me to wind up the pretty music box so you can watch it play?"

 "Yes, mistress's friend," said the cat. "The mistress wants me to watch the pear, but it would be much nicer if I could watch it move."

 I slipped the key into the base and turned it three times, leaving it in the lock. A pretty tune began playing as the nutmeg turned counterclockwise and the sections of the pear slowly folded down, like a flower opening in stop-motion.

 In the center of the pear was a tiny tree, filled with jewels, with a phoenix in a nest of diamonds at the very top, twisting, twisting, and glittering in the light of the altar candles as the alchemical suite played from the music box.

 I was almost as fascinated as the cat, but then remembered another fairytale and brought down the handle of the screwdriver as hard as I could on the cat's tail. According to that story, the worst I could expect was having a kid with a nose the size of a casaba melon, and I wasn't really planning on having kids anyway. If I did, they could get nose jobs.

 The cat opened its mouth to screech, but I was ready and stuffed in a handful of the Chinese funeral silk, grabbing the cat and wrapping it and swaddling it. Silk is strong stuff, strong enough even to stop a bullet, and it was thick enough and I was fast enough that I managed to bundle the cat up and stuff it in my lunchpail without getting a scratch. "'Oh I love little pussy/Her fur is so warm/And if I don't hurt her/She'll do me no harm,'" I sang, slamming shut the lunchpail and snapping the catch, throwing a small padlock on for good measure. The Golden Pear played its minuet in ridiculous counterpoint.

 I held the lunchpail down with one hand and took the nutmeg key out with the other, stopping the tune and the self-immolating phoenix and causing the quarters of the pear to snap shut. I held my breath for a long moment, then let it out.

 Then a voice came over the intercom, sultry, seductive, and very, very satisfied: "Grimalkin, is that you?"

 I said nothing, and the real Grimalkin was nicely bound and gagged by the silk and the lunchpail.

 "Grimalkin," said the intercom, "are you doing anything you're not supposed to be doing?"

 I froze, realizing that if there was not an answer forthcoming, Bimbo Yaga was going to come up the stairs and find me not only with her cat in a lunchpail, but the Silver Nutmeg too.

 I pitched my voice as high as I could. (The raspy part wasn't hard.) "No, mistress . . ." It also wasn't hard to sound scared and guilty and caught-in-the-act.

 "Grimalkin," said the intercom, "what are you doing?"

 My voice sounded smaller as I squeaked, "Playing with a little mouse. . . ." It was the classic line from Baba Yaga, and I hoped it would work.

 "Grimalkin . . . you'll spoil your supper." The voice from the intercom sounded disappointed and indulgent, like a mother with a favorite child. "I have a human heart, stewing in wine, and it will be done soon. And fresh blood."

 I held down my stomach. "And milk?" I asked.

 There was a brief spurt of cursing in a language I didn't understand, and the candles burnt blue. "No, Grimalkin. It's all curdled, I'm afraid. But I do have some pepperoni pizza, extra cheese."

 "I want milk!" I said in my best cat-voice. "The pact says I get milk!"

 There was more brief cursing and the candles flickered blue. "Yes, precious," said the voice, no longer quite so indulgent. "I'll go to the store immediately. You're quite right. The pact requires you have your milk, and have it you shall." There was another word, very nasty sounding, and the candles flared, lighting up the room like a blue-light special at K-mart. Then there was the sound of slamming doors from downstairs, and a minute later the sound of a car starting up and screeching out of the garage.

 There wasn't much time to lose. I put the Silver Nutmeg back around my neck and bundled the Golden Pear up in what I took to be an altar cloth, stuffing it into a makeshift sack I made out of Bimbo Yaga's ritual robe. For good measure, I grabbed the tacky chalice Grimm had said was one of the Tears of Kali, then went hog-wild and ran around the room, grabbing everything that gave my sixth sense even the slightest tingle, gathering up a Nightmare Before Christmas sackful of grisly trinkets and curios.

 Then I stuck my screwdriver in the crack in the mantel. I know. You're probably expecting that something really gross and scary popped out, like the clawed ducky from Alien or my Aunt Ethel's head on a spring. No. The safe was empty. Completely bare except for a spider spinning her web.

 Except if you know anything about omens, seeing a spider spin her web is one of the worst ones possible. At best, it means that people are saying bad things about you, and at worst, well, I won't go into that, but I pinched my left earlobe with my right hand to make Blackrose bite her tongue (if she was the one talking behind my back) and watched as the spider pulled and adjusted a spare strand from the center of her web, which was otherwise neat and perfect and geometric as a clock face. In fact, it was a clock face, with twelve quadrants and the spider and her line the minute hand, nearing twelve o'clock.

 She spun about with her line like a ballerina on wires, ticking a minute closer, and on her abdomen was an hourglass, scarlet on black.

 Us Hollowers know all about red hourglasses and clocks striking midnight, and you probably do too, but let me remind you of the moral of both: Don't get caught. Things would have turned out a lot different for Cinderella if she'd decided to party-on and had her ballgown turn into rags right there in front of God and everyone, and Dorothy would have lost more than her slippers if she'd stayed in the witch's workroom when the last of the ruby sand fell inside the hourglass. And I know an omen when I see one, 'cause black widows webs usually look like cat's cradles on acid, not the faerie clock faces of anal retentive orb spiders.

 I slammed the door on Charlotte's latest warning, and, alright, I'll admit it, I'm responsible, but even us Hollowers know better than to leave votive candles unattended. All I had to do was push them back under the baroque frame of the DOOM poster and throw a handful of paper in one.

 The wall went up in moments, and I grabbed my sack in one arm and my lunchpail in the other, getting the hell out of there. I stopped just one second to say a quick prayer for the butchered pizza delivery boy in the front room and grab his keys.

 Once I was out the front door, I paused a bare moment to pull the extension cord that led to Bimbo Yaga's fence of glow-in-the-dark plastic skulls, 'cause I know what the originals did in the fairytale, and believe me, it was not pretty. And praise be to fast food, there was the car with the Domino's Pizza light on top. I tossed my Robe of Grisly Items and Cat-in-the-Box in the passenger's seat and I was out of there and back to Grimm's.

 When I'd planned to spend the day bargain-hunting and taking care of oversights, this was hardly what I had in mind. But what they hey, it was a good haul.

Continued In...
Grimm Reminders

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