I sucked in a breath, drawing on my magic to slow the world around me down to ten frames per second. My target was up ahead, just coming out of the alley. He hadn’t seen me yet, and with any luck he never would. I sighted my sniper rifle on him and exhaled as I fired.
His head exploded into a cloud of red mist as what remained of his life splattered across the cinderblock wall behind him. As his body slid lifelessly to the pavement, a smile creased my lips, and I leapt to my feet in triumph.
“Boom! Headshot!” I cried, pumping my controller in the air as I did a little booty dance of victory.
Blair, my boss and the closest thing I had to a friend since I’d narrowly escaped getting brutally murdered a few years ago, glanced up at me from behind her D&D sourcebook and narrowed her eyes. She was sitting amid a plethora of dungeon guides, maps, and meticulously painted miniature figurines preparing for our nightly game. Evidently, she’d been too engrossed to pay attention to my stunning display of skill because if she had been watching, she’d be booty dancing in triumph too.
“This is a quiet space, Annie.” She gestured at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging beside her patched brown leather chair with one green-nailed hand. She’d permanently borrowed the sign from our local library, which struck me as a bit horrible on the scale of things, but I’d learned to stop arguing about it with her. Every time I did, I got a lesson in taxes. Still, pointing at it while referring to me had become something of a pastime.
“Yeah, no one likes a braggart!” Badger said from his seat at the station next to mine. That wasn’t his real name of course, but ever since he’d perfected the voice of the guy from the honey badger video, that’s what we’d called him. He was a pretty normal looking guy with shaggy surfer-boy blond hair and a toothy smile. His brown eyes were perpetually dulled by something he’d neither confirm nor deny, but judging from his preference for stoner T-shirts, I was pretty sure I could figure it out on a timed exam. Hell, I wouldn’t even need multiple choice.
“You’re just mad because I’ve killed you ten times in a row, and now you have to buy me lunch,” I said, smirking at him as I gestured to his screen where his headless body was sprawled across the front of the alley. “Stop being such a scrub!”
I’ll be honest, I was about to taunt him some more, but the door at the front of our store chimed, signaling we had a customer. Actually, it probably wasn’t a customer. I mean, sure, Blair owned Wendigo’s Restoration Emporium, but no one ever came in here, and not just because it was tucked away on Magic Alley.
I mean, okay, technically we were in Los Angeles and normal people had stumbled in here on occasion, but chances were good anyone coming in had at least a little bit of magical chutzpah or they’d never wind up on our street.
Even though you didn’t have to tap a brick in the wall of a pub three times to enter Magic Alley, normal people tended to walk by our little street full of magical, mystical, and otherwise otherworldly shops like it didn’t exist. Hell, I’d had to stand at the corner more than once to physically direct a client down our street before they walked by it another hundred times. We didn’t even show up on the Los Angeles city maps.
The only reason Badger was able to even find the place was because he was a sensitive, which meant he’d drawn the short straw on the evolutionary scale. He had no magic of his own to speak of, but he could sort of sense it. Not enough to actually see magic per se, but enough to know Magic Alley was here. An enterprising artist, he’d wound up wandering in here a couple months ago looking for work because his Master’s in Fine Arts hadn’t opened many pathways for him, and he was buried under mountains of debt.
Thankfully, people like Badger were pretty rare, which was probably for the best since our shop was located next to the Black Arts Superstore. Non-mages buying bulk curses at discount prices? Not pretty.
To be honest, Blair put her shop here because she liked the way the other supernatural businesses kept the riffraff out. That was her rule number one: live around the rich and powerful, it might rub off. Or maybe that was rule two because I was pretty sure rule one was “if you can’t avoid paying taxes, at least make some creative deductions.”
Then again, while she might not have been powerful in the whole “blow up a building with a fireball” sort of way, since her powers practically made money grow on trees, she was really, really rich. That’s what happens when you get to be a couple hundred years old and have the ability to magically restore comics, artwork, and baseball cards to pristine condition.
Let’s just say, she’s on good terms with compound interest and collectors. So yeah, Blair didn’t need customers, but she loved writing off all her nerdy obsessions. See, more tax talk. Ugh. And I had to deal with said customers since it was technically my job. Double ugh.
“Annie, you better hurry up. Someone made an appointment to speak with our resident reader about now,” Blair said, glancing at her watch. “You don’t want to keep them waiting. Time is money, you know.”
“You mean, you booked me an appointment and didn’t tell me?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at her. “You hired me to read your merchandise, not for customer service.” I wasn’t exactly a people person, but if there was one thing I was good at, it was reading inventory in a magical sort of way, and Blair had need of a good reader, even if I wasn’t one in the way she thought I was since readers could do little more than talk to objects. I could do that, and a little more. Unfortunately, it was the little more that always got me in trouble. “Now you’re pimping me out?”
Blair raised one eyebrow at me. “I’m your boss, Annie. Pimping you out is my job.”
“What about my feelings?” I said, smacking my chest with my hand as I headed toward the front room. “I am more than the sum of my powers.”
“Not when we have a paying customer, you aren’t.” Blair was already looking back at her sourcebook. “Now get out there and make me some cheddar.”
I sighed and decided to get this over with. The sooner I read whatever object the person had brought in, the sooner I could get back to pwning newbs like nobody’s business. Besides, Badger wouldn’t be able to buy me lunch until after this was over, and I’d skipped breakfast. I know, most important meal of the day, but come on, who’s got time for that?
Still, I was a fan of money and having an otherwise cool boss so I sidled out of the alcove, intent on being as unfriendly as possible to said customer. As I made my way through the silver, beaded curtain that hung between the back room and the actual storefront, I stopped dead in my tracks.
Standing before me was an Adonis. His broad chest was covered by a Captain America T-shirt so tight it was more of an idea than actual clothing. I’d say it left little to the imagination, but combined with his deep blue eyes and wavy blond hair, it made a whole bunch of things run through my mind.
My cheeks reddened as he caught sight of me and flashed me a smile that made my heart speed up in my chest. And, I’ll be honest, my next several thoughts were a mixture of “OMIGOD he has to talk to me because he’s in our store!?” “What am I gonna do?” “Does my breath smell?” “How long have I been wearing this hoodie?” So, yeah, I found him hot. What of it?
Part of me wanted to sniff at both my hoodie and my breath, but I decided it’d look weird. Instead, I swallowed hard, trying to think of something interesting to say as two hundred pounds of muscle poured into skin-tight black jeans came toward me. Yummy.
“I know you guys usually do restorations, but I heard you might have a secret stash.” He cocked a grin at me. His voice was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Besides, I’d have remembered someone like him. “I was told it may or may not contain a CGC 9.9 Hulk #181.” When I didn’t immediately respond, he stopped mid-step and narrowed his eyes so his blond eyebrows made a cute little v. “You know, the first appearance of Wolverine?”
“Actually, he first appeared in Hulk #180. It’s a common oversight,” I replied before I could stop myself. My hands shot to my mouth in an effort to catch the words and shove them back inside, but it was too late, they were out, and like the rotten little bastards they were, they hit him full force. I know, I should have been totally cool with correcting a hot guy, but he wasn’t just any hot guy, he was a customer, and as Blair had told me a million times before, while the customer is always a jackass, he is always right.
“I know.” He shrugged, brushing off my unwitting jab with a sweep of his perfect hand. “But I already have 180 and 182. I’m just missing the crown jewel.” He was cute and had an awesome comic collection? God, would he just marry me already?
He took a step closer, still friendly. God, why was he so friendly, and so, so hot. I mean, jeez Louise. He was supposed to be someone I could kick out without a second thought. Instead, I was wondering how good he was at video games and if our future children would like StarCraft more than League of Legends. This was not going to end well.
“Do you think you can help me out?” he asked, flashing me a smile that made my knees shake.
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard. “It’s in the back, but it isn’t what I’d call cheap. It’s expensive. Like in the way buying a congressman is expensive.” I tried to smile. Usually when customers asked us about stuff like this, they didn’t expect our prices to be, well, astronomical. As I said before, Blair’s talent was as good as coining money. It wasn’t like she needed more, so it took an exorbitant amount of cash to get her to go through the hassle of selling from her private collection.
He made a show of checking his wrist. It had one of those blue fitness bands designed to capture your heart rate, steps, and stuff. “Pftt, I bought six of those in the time it took me to walk through the door.” He held his hand out to me. “Name’s Justin.”
His name sparked a surge of recognition that nearly knocked me from my feet. I stopped mid-movement, my hand halfway out on its way to meet his. No, it couldn’t be, but as I looked at him and pictured him with a goatee and eyepatch, I knew I was right. Holy fucksticks!
“Justin Bailey?” I asked, hoping I was wrong even though I totally wasn’t. Still, I was somewhat proud I managed to keep my squee locked inside. It was a near thing, let me tell you.
“Guilty,” he replied, that same grin on his face as he gestured at me in a way I didn’t quite follow. “You might remember me from such films as Werewolf Ninja and Vampire Undercover: Outlaw.” I’ll be honest, his Troy McClure was off the chain.
“But…” I said as he closed the distance between us and shook my hand. The moment he did, he went from being just some hot B-movie actor to something far, far worse. Because the cloying, tingling sensation that rippled up my arm and struck deep into the heart of my soul told me one thing.
Justin Bailey was a werewolf, and no werewolf would ever come into a shop owned by a mage like Blair, let alone step foot into Magic Alley. Not even for a CGC 9.9 Hulk 181. No, he was here for something else, and as much as I wanted to know what it was, I wanted to get out of here more. See, there was one thing I’d forgotten to mention about myself.
I’m a mage, but not just any kind of mage. No, I’m an animator, which meant I could take a model of anything fictional and make it work like it did in said fiction which was why I always carried around a toy lightsaber. As long as I had a good enough replica, knew what it was supposed to do, and had enough power, which was consequently why I had never managed to make Blair’s replica DeLorean real. Yes, I’d tried when she wasn’t looking. Unfortunately, way too much power was required for things like time machines.
In real life, shooting a werewolf with silver bullets wouldn’t do diddly squat to them, but I could shoot them with silver bullets and they would die.
Which is also why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been hunted by werewolves because even though my power could be used to make any monster equally dead, the werewolves had been affronted by it to the point of killing pretty much every animator that dared to breathe the same air as them.
In the end, it’s a convoluted story about blood feuds and such, but suffice to say, I was about half a second from sprinting into the back room. I wasn’t sure if Blair had any silver back there, but if she did, it’d be more than enough to stop this guy. The only thing that stopped me was cold logic. Werewolves were super predators so if I ran, he might chase me. After all, predators chased prey, and I was definitely werewolf prey.
His eyes flickered like he sensed what I was, and my gut tightened in fear. He was onto me. His nostrils flared as he unconsciously inhaled my scent, and as they did, amber colored in his blue eyes. Frak. Double frak!
Yes, okay, let me just say this right now. I’d never actually seen Battlestar Galactica, but my brother had loved the hell out of the show, and since he was dead at the hands of werewolves, I’d taken to saying it as a way to remember him by.
“Animator,” he whispered in a low, guttural tone that made the knife of fear stabbing into my guts twist violently. “I had hoped to find someone like you.” His lips curved into a grin that was downright predatory.
Well, screw logic.
As his grip tightened on my hand, I drove my knee into his crotch as hard as I could and sprinted for the door as he collapsed to the ground clutching his nethers.