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Chapter 1 – Inevitability

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It was an inevitability that the magic world caught up with me.

As I watched the masked men step through the crack in the wall, I forced myself to swallow the yelp that almost escaped my throat. I’d been transfixed watching the crack grow from a few inches to a gap large enough for a man to fit through. I was frozen, my gaze fixed on them through the gap in the shelves I’d been stacking. The book I’d been about to place on the shelf still in my hand.

The first of the two men who’d stepped through the hole touched the wall and it slowly reformed. He was tall, pale, and wore an emerald suit. Every other aspect of his appearance slipped from my mind as soon as I thought I’d remembered it.

“Are you sure it’s here?” The Emerald man asked.

His black suited companion pulled a list from his pocket. “They keep a stash of valuable spell books here.”

“Who?”

“The old families, in case it all goes to shit,” Black replied.

“When it does, we’ll be at the helm,” Emerald said.

“The Boss said an owner of this stash checks it often.” Black was focused on the wall a little way down from me.

“No one else comes down here?”

“Only the bookworms.”

I took a careful step back and bumped into the book cart. The squeak of the wheels echoed through the basement, cutting off the words Emerald was about to say.

Emerald looked straight at me. “Fuck.”

“Stay away.” I waved the heavy tome I was holding, brandishing it like a weapon.

Black walked up beside him and touched his shoulder. “That’s Dexter.”

“Really? They did a superb job on him. I must meet the caster who did it.”

“Who are you?”

Black waved a hand between Emerald and me. “This is Dark Matter, and I’m Nox.”

I crashed into the shelf behind me, hard enough to almost topple it. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“We were never here,” Nox stated.

I nodded.

I slid to the ground as my legs gave way, and my breathing sped up.

They turned away from me, and Dark Matter opened a hole in the wall beside them. They reached into the hole and pulled objects from it. My stomach dropped when I realised it was a safe.

My head spun; white sparks fuzzed around my vision as it faded in and out. Each breath barely a hitch before I exhaled it. Their robbery seemed too easy. What if they set off an alarm or trap? The old families wouldn’t leave a stash like this unprotected.

They were long gone by the time I came back to myself. I ran my fingers through my hair, wrapped them tightly in my black curls and screamed into my hands. Why was I such a pathetic freak? If they’d really wanted to hurt me, I wouldn’t have been able to stand up for myself. The pain from my hair wrapped around my fingers and the pull of it against my scalp, grounded me enough for me to gather my strength and stand up. I took another five minutes to collect myself and leave the room in a relaxed manner.

Nothing had happened.

I’d been given plenty of horror stories about what happened to those who found out about magic when they shouldn’t.

 ***

“I’ve discovered your secret.”

I looked up from the novel I was reading. The moment my brown eyes met Julie’s green; she placed her books on the counter. She blew a strand of frizzy blonde hair from her face.

“Do you want me to scan those?” I gave her my best ‘customer service’ smile.

Julie gave me a sly smile and picked up one of the books.

I watched as she walked the short distance to the exit. She met my eyes again and used the action to focus my attention on the book. She waved it between the alarms that guarded the doorway. Silence. My stomach dropped. The alarm was broken. I looked around the library, but none of the other patrons paid attention to us. Julie walked back and slapped the novel down on to the top of the pile.

“I just did you a service. Imagine how many books would be stolen if someone, less reputable then I, discovered that trick.” She pulled her wallet from her back pocket.

I shook my head as she reached for her card. I already had her details on the computer screen.

I started scanning her books. “How did you discover that?”

“I accidentally walked out with one I hadn’t borrowed.”

“I’ll call the repair company.” I stamped the due date on the tags at the back of the novels.

“Why don’t you print a receipt with the due date on like the Tallow Library System?”

I tapped the side of the CRT computer monitor. “Isn’t it obvious? This passion project is a time pocket repeating the same day from nineteen eighty-three.”

She smiled. “It has a perception filter.”

“Why do you think there’s no cell reception?”

Julie and I startled as the shrill ring of the desk phone cut us off.

Julie left without another word as I turned around to answer the call. “Dunn Public Library. Dexter, speaking.” I spoke carefully into the receiver, tangling the cord around my fingers. The action was a nervous habit I’d stopped trying to break.

“I’d like to see you in my office after you close today.”

It was the mayor. My hand stilled, fingers tightening around the cord loops. Why had he called me directly? Couldn’t he have given orders through Mrs Gregory like normal? I used the bite of the ageing plastic against my skin to silence my worried thoughts. I looked through the glass window, into the Head Librarian’s office, where Mrs Gregory was processing a new batch of books. I was getting fired. I knew why, but how had she found out?

“Are you still there?”

“Yes… Sir.” I gripped the cord tighter.

I heard foil scrunching, then a crunch. I could practically smell the peanuts that Mayor Chesterfield was eating.

“Arrive before five. I don’t want to stay late at the office on a Friday.”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Mayor Chesterfield hung up.

I ripped my fingers from the cord and slammed the receiver into its cradle.

***

I waited as Mayor Chesterfield drank his cup of tea. After ten minutes, he put the empty cup down and looked me in the eyes. “Did you put the books, Mrs Gregory told you to throw away, back on the shelf?”

“Honestly? Yes.” I took a sip of water from my bottle. I felt like a kid called into the headmaster’s office, rather than an adult talking to his boss. “The Old Bat finally cracked. She printed a banned book list she found on the internet and attempted to throw out any books that had themes she didn’t agree with.”

“She’s the Head Librarian, and I trust her judgment. She’s had the job three times longer then you’ve been alive.”

“Most of those lists exist to create awareness about banned books, not to act as how-to manuals.”

“Let me be clear.” Mayor Chesterfield took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “The only reason we’re even having this conversation is because of your grandfather. If you were anyone else, I’d find a way to send you packing.”

I closed my eyes and took a few calming breaths. If I said the wrong thing to this dick, I’d lose my job. He could make my life in this town harder then it needed to be.

“You’re to train an assistant to help you make the right choices. My niece Julie is the perfect choice. I promised my sister I’d give her a job.”

I almost laughed. He didn’t know Julie very well if he thought she was going to ‘help me make the right choices’.

“If you’d rather not. I’m sure there will be someone in the area with your education and far more experience.”

“You’re threatening to fire me because I won’t let her throw out three-quarters of the library? The town's kids and elderly have nothing to do but read. What happens when you take most of the books away?”

“Everyone is glued to their phone games nowadays. It might help the kids to get outside.” Mayor Chesterfield said. 

“Look at the numbers other libraries are pulling in and tell me with certainty that people don’t read anymore.”

“To appreciate the dedication your family members have shown to this town as its previous mayors, I am offering you one last chance. If you can train Julie as your assistant and follow Mrs Gregory’s directives you can keep your job.”

I took a second to take a deep breath and fight my urge to walk out. “Okay.”

“If you want the library to have appropriate stock, there is something you can do to help.” His eyes shone as he smiled at me.

I took the bait. “I’m listening.”

“You can collect overdue books. It will be an excellent task for you and Julie.”

“What will that job entitle?”

“You visit homes to collect overdue books and the associated fees.”

I wanted to walk out. Leave them in the lurch to spite them, but I needed a job. If I didn’t work, everyone who talked shit about my marriage would think they were right. “I’ll accept the position.”

“Good. You and Julie are intelligent and perfectly capable young adults. I’m sure you can follow Mrs Gregory’s instructions to the best of your abilities. It would be a shame if you were to get fired as I would have no choice but to let Julie go, too. If you’re incapable of doing your job, how could I trust that she was correctly trained?”

“I understand.”

“You may go.”

I stood.

“Wait.” He pulled a small white business card from his desk drawer. “Call the number on this card if you encounter anything strange.”

“Strange? Like what? Possible asbestos?”

“You’ll know when you need the number. I’m not exactly allowed to tell you.”

“How do I keep myself safe if I don’t know what you mean by strange?”

“Good luck.” Mayor Chesterfield forced himself to smile.

***

As I grabbed my bag from the library, I slipped the card the Mayor had given me from my pocket. It was a fine cream card stock with metallic green letters. The card held only a number with a green border around the outside edge. I looked up the number, it had no history at all. Had they created a number when they planned this prank? I flipped it between my fingers. It was an expensive trick. Good cardstock and fancy ink. All for a sick joke. The whole meeting had been a sick joke. At least there weren’t people waiting on the other end of the line, ready to laugh at me.

***

Early Saturday morning, I strapped on my hiking boots and walked out the back of the property into the national park that surrounded Dunn on two sides. I walked five kilometres downhill and into another world. As a kid, I’d been terrified of being alone - any place where I couldn’t hear another human - anywhere another human couldn’t hear me if I screamed. I had been so fearful of ghosts, cannibal witches in the woods and fae, that I could barely function. As an adult, I revelled in the freedom of my own private world. I’d strayed off the main path two kilometres back. The Echo was a small valley with a waterfall and a pool of water. Only a handful of the locals from the old families knew about it. I lay on a large rock in the shade and pulled my e-reader out from my small backpack. Here I felt like the only human on the planet, free from the social pressures and judgement of everyday life.

Click, click, click.

I sat bolt upright, to see a creature had made the noise was on the rock beside my leg. It was a crab-like, the size of my thumbnail. Its claws clicked against the rock as it slowly made its way across it. I would have assumed it was a native crab I hadn’t encountered before if it wasn’t for the colour. Its shell was bright green, the colour of healthy algae. I’d never seen such a creature, a few shades darker than cartoon toxic waste. I imagined there were birds, flowers or frogs that colour, but a crab?

“Hello, Little Fellow. Where are you from?”

It looked up at me through dark, beady eyes. The closer it got to me, the more I could feel the atmosphere around it. A sense of not rightness hovered around the creature. My instincts were sending a clear message; this thing didn’t belong. The creature looked up at me as though it had understood what I’d said. One thing I had been right about as a little boy was the existence of the monsters. When my Gran had taught me the truth about the secret world that existed under the mundane one, she made it clear that I couldn’t live in Dunn and fear it. I felt my childhood fear of monsters, leach into my brain as I made eye contact with the creature. My mind raced with the visions that had once plagued my nightmares.

For what could have been an eternity, neither of us moved, each transfixed on the other. The small creature looked as though it hadn’t expected to see anything quite like me.

“Dex!”

I let out a startled yelp as I heard my name called from the path above. I saw the creature scurry off the rock as I looked upwards to see Eli walking down the path towards the valley. He jumped the last few meters to land on the sandy bank beside me.

“Are you okay?”

“You just frightened me.” I gave him a smile and a quick peck on the lips. My mundane husband could never know about the creature I’d just encountered. Even with all of Dunn’s strange curiosities, there were still people who lived oblivious to it.

“I’m glad I had an excuse to come down here.” He started to unlace his shoes.

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“Last night’s shift was a fucking killer. I need a swim.” He stripped the rest of his clothes off and waded into the water. After a minute under the water, he slid into a back float with a loud sigh. It wasn’t worth reminding him we had a pool back at the house; he was as transfixed by this place as I was. I looked around but couldn’t find a sign that the creature had even existed. If I were mundane, I probably would have written it off as sunstroke. I pushed the worry from my mind. The crab had plenty of opportunities to hurt me, but it hadn’t.

“I don’t know how you can stare at this water and not want to hop in,” Eli said. “Reading a book when you have the company of a devastatingly handsome man is rather rude.”

“Coming.” I stripped down to my trunks and swum out to him.

“Swim trunks? You came out here alone. Who do you think is going to see you?”

“You never know.”

“As it’s only you and me here do you think you could forego the swimwear just this once?”

“I just don’t like the idea of swimming naked in a public place.”

“It’s weird. The only person within ten kilometres of you is me, and I’ve seen you naked plenty of times.”

“You never know who could come along.”

“Then they’ll get a show. You’re naive if you think they aren’t expecting it.” Eli smiled,  sure of himself, and stepped back far enough to lose his footing and slip under the water. His next words had been about to leave his open mouth. I laughed as he re-surfaced coughing and splattering. As he recovered, his eyes landed on me. The look of sure determination returned to his face. Before I could take a step towards the bank, he tackled me and pushed me under the water.


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