Unlocking the gate at the rear of No. 13 Gallows Close, Simeon Chesterman put his shoulder against the wood and heaved. With an almighty squeak of protest the old gate suddenly shot open, depositing him in the slimy puddle that lay just across the threshold.
‘Shite!’ Simeon muttered, hauling himself to his feet and trying not to think too much about what he was attempting to wipe off the sleeve of his jacket.
Shouldering the gate shut again, he picked his way up the narrow path past piles of soggy cardboard boxes, builder’s rubble, dead pigeons – another one fresh this morning, and old shop fittings, to the rear door of the shop. He checked his watch – 5.02am, he was two minutes late.
Bloody cats, he thought as he flicked the latest feathery corpse off the back step with his toe of his shoe before unlocking the half-dozen five-lever dead locks and letting himself in.
As the back door to the shop closed, high above, a small piece of brickwork detached itself from the old building and began to fall. At the last second, the fairy threw off the Blending Charm and swooped low over the yard before executing a graceful climbing turn up over the wall and, picking a last fragment of pigeon feather from her teeth, disappeared into the gathering dawn.
Hanging his jacket on the hook by the door, Simeon set his lunchbox down on the table in the back room and flipped on the kettle. Tea, he thought, always start the day with tea, makes everything alright does tea. While the kettle boiled, he washed his hands, repeatedly.
He poured the tea, recorded his arrival time in a small black notebook, then removed his training shoes and wriggled his toes into a pair of bunny slippers, whose mouths opened to reveal rows of sharp, pointed teeth and growled when he walked. The slippers had been a gift from a customer in the USA, whose orders always came in by email from an anonymous US PO box return address, and whom Simeon knew only as “Jezebel.” It had taken him months to track down the particular volume “Jezebel” had wanted, his scars had almost healed, and he was more than a little grateful when the package had arrived by return.
Taking his mug of tea through to the shop, Simeon set it down on a coaster next to the till and went to check the Warding Charms he kept permanently set around the place, noting with relief no one, no-thing, had disturbed them.
Simeon surveyed his domain. Dust. Books and dust, that was what characterised Goddess Rising for the few who had ever ventured across the threshold, by invitation of course. Bookshelves lined every inch of the walls, free-standing bookcases and tables occupying almost all of the rest of the space, each overflowing with tomes and grimoires of every conceivable size, age and language.
After a quick slurp of tea, Simeon picked his way through the teetering piles to check for notes in the dumb waiter hidden in a back corner – only two volumes required today he read, and both in stock. The landlord must be taking it easy for once, he thought as he gathered up the two requested books and placed them on the dumb waiter’s tray.
As he closed the hatch Simeon sighed contentedly - he loved his job and could think of nothing better than spending his days surrounded by the smell of ancient texts, though at the back of his mind was a constant nagging doubt that he would be found out.
That nagging doubt, insidious in its tenacity, was because Simeon Chesterman had a secret. Something he had never revealed to another living soul, something that had coloured his view of the world since the age of sixteen – Simeon Chesterman had seen a fairy.
Just the once, in the woods behind his grandparent’s house on a scorching day in August, 1976.
The fairy had spoken to him at length about the Magical Realm and had told Simeon there was a plan for him, that one day he would play a vital part in a larger struggle. She had given him something, wrapped in a walnut shell and had told him to keep it with him always, that it was more important than life itself; Simeon assumed she meant hers.
The walnut shell and its mysterious contents, at which Simeon had never dared to look, currently resided in the shop safe, a much more secure place than anywhere in the high-rise council flat on a very rough estate across town that he called home.
By the time he had drained his first mug of tea of the day, Simeon had worked through much of his usual routine – he had checked the Wards, checked the dumb waiter, checked his email for orders – two, and one of the requested books would take some getting hold of. Ticking off these items on his internal list, Simeon bent down under the counter and opened the safe, making sure the contents remained untouched from the night before.
Realisation hit him with a wave of nausea, and he only just made it across the shop, wrenching open the door to the under stairs cloakroom before vomiting his tea into the Victorian porcelain lavatory bowl. The walnut shell was gone.
As he had torn open the cloakroom door, Simeon was nearly bowled over as a large, terrified cat streaked past. Completely bald, wild-eyed, and glowing a pale shade of blue, the cat shot behind a pile of books leaving dust motes swirling in its wake.
* * *
Swazzle and Pogmorton swaggered along Gallows Close, Swazzle throwing the walnut shell up in the air, bouncing it off his bicep and catching it again.
‘That was surprisingly easy,’ he said, ‘Now all we need is the book.’
‘Hmmm,’ Pogmorton replied, ‘Getting hold of that is not going to be quite so simple.’
‘Shame about the cat though,’ said Swazzle, ‘I usually quite like cats.’
I'd like to dedicate this story to my good friend @LauraEno, without whose