Sheriff Decker’s hand was on his pistol. It was one of his favorite tactics, to lightly rest his palm on the handle as if to coyly say “Maybe I’ll draw steel on you, maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But either way, it’ll be because I want to.”

The Margrave stood stock-still in the face of that implied challenge. The few Richemont Dairy night-shift workers that hadn’t run away stuck to the periphery, flattening them behind idled machinery.

“You deaf?” Decker snapped. “Get out here with your hands where I can see them.”

“Or else?” The words had a playful, mocking tone. “Mayhap the lady likes her hands where they are.”

Decker lingered there a moment, hand still on the oiled leather of his gun belt, now stinging a bit from sweat. He could feel the workers’ eyes boring into him, their quiet laughter–it was always quiet but always there–about the soft boy born with a silver stick up his ass. He didn’t know how to use the gun, other than what he’d seen in the movies, but that didn’t matter now. He had to show them, those snickering sons-of-bitches, that Theodore Decker Jr. wasn’t soft.

The revolver popped easily free of its holster, and Decker brought it to bear on the Margrave, supporting his shooting hand with the other in a weak cup-and-saucer grip. “Put young hands in the air, or these boys will see some fancy shooting,” said Decker.

“Show them, then,” the Margrave said. “It would be a shame for them to miss such fanciness.”

Decker pulled the trigger, the heavy double-action jerking his aim upwards. The shot, when it came, was so loud that the sheriffs eyes widened in surprise, and he nearly let the thing spin out of his hand. Everyone dropped like a stone, fearful of ricochets. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Margrave darted forward. By the time Decker had overcome his shock, she was chest-to-chest with him. The gun was easily batted aside.

“The sheriff has had his shot,” she said. “Now let’s see what he has for an encore.”

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The circle was drawn fresh, laid out in blood taken from a virgin ram that was the seventh son of a seventh son. The book, laid out before Anovi on an ornate wrought-iron stand, was properly made–inked in ichor drawn from the sac of an abyssal squid, bound in the flesh of a cold-blooded murderer by a morally questionable bookbinder, the eldritch runes within carefully calligraphied by a seventh-level monk of art history.

All that remained was the incantation, spake forth in the Darktongue, to bring forth the unholy knowledge that Anovi sought and finally give him the vile insights into evil that he craved.

H’bin odommoc t’necov menomead ecce!” Anovi cried, reading the vile sigils in a voice that grew more distorted, more profane, with each twisted syllable.

The effect was immediate. Anovi’s elaborate summoning circle flared to luminescent life, as the blood of an unfortunately-lineaged goat became the conduit to the iron city of Dís in the chaos and evil of the infinite Abyss. There was a roar, a smell of brimstone mixed with lemongrass, and a pillar of fire burst from the circle, rising upward to scorch the stone arches of the desecrated abandoned chapel where Anovi had made his unholy workshop. Within the flames, a dark shaped writhed, stark in its inky inhumanity.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “Demon! I command you to heed my words and obey my commands!”

Abruptly, the fire sputtered out like a candle being huffed out by an errant breeze. As Anovi coughed and swatted away the wispy smoke, he saw that the circle was occupied by…

…a young woman with short blond hair and an aristocratic raiment and bearing. If not for the distinct reddish hue of her flawless skin and the batlike wings trailing behind her, Anovi could have mistaken her for a royal courtesan.

“A-as the one who brought you here, I command you!” Anovi continued, “share with my the eldritch secrets of the Abyss, that I might become the most most brilliant the world has ever seen!”

“Hmm.” The succubus looked Anovi over with a cocked eyebrow, and bit her lip coyly with a meaty fang, drawing forth a single droplet of blood. “I’d say you’re rather poor clay to be fashioned into the most brilliant lover the world, but it’s your summoning circle. We’ll start with Demogorgon’s Double-Kangaroo Scissors and then teach you the Backdoor Mailman–an musty standby in Dís, you see, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”

“W-what?” Anovi stammered. “I didn’t mean-”

“Of course you did,” the succubus said with a wicked smile. “You wouldn’t have summoned me otherwise. Now, if you’re still alive and in one piece after the Backdoor Mailman, we’ll try the Frothy Walrus of Doom, and of course the the Cheerleader And The Angry Nighwatchman. I’d advise removing anything flammable before that one…”

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“You there!” ‘Major’ McNabb cried. “What are you doing over there?”

Gnat looked up. “O-oh! Hello there. I’m just in the process of, ah…cataloguing the various architectural anomalies of the school, here. Ah, for comparison.” Sweat prickled up and down Gnat’s brow.

“Boy, are you trying to bluff your way out of answering a simple question with a bunch of ten-dollar words?” snapped McNabb. “If this were the army, son, I’d have you drop and give me push-ups until the only things you could gasp out were ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘sir.’ You catch my meaning?”

Gnat, looking miserable, wilted under McNab’s steely gaze. “No…sir?”

The vice-principal sighed, irritated by the response even if it had obeyed his request to the letter. “In the army, you serve up a sir sandwich when you’re in this kind of hot water,” he said. “Tell me again, real slow now, and using real small words, why you are slinking around my school, and see to it that the first and last words out of your mouth are ‘sir.’ Got it?”

“B-…uhm…Sir, but this isn’t the Army,” Gnat said. Then, hastily, again: “Sir.”

“That’s what people keep telling me when I give them orders,” McNab grunted. He held up his phone. “I’ve got the number to the HPD called up. Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hit call? Like a polite explanation?”

“Ah…well…sir…you see, I…”

“Out with it!” McNabb snapped.

“I was looking to see how the school had changed,” Gnat blurted. “From before.”

The vice-principal looked at him, suspicious. “From before? Boy, you look like you’re not old enough to have graduated from here even on the five-year plan. Your parents students?”

“Yes! Ah…uh, sir, yes sir!” Gnat chirped. “That they were, sir, yes. Indeedy.”

“Uh huh. Sounds like two generations on the five year plan to me,” McNabb said. “Well, let me tell you, son: ain’t nothing changed about this building since ’94, when they added the new football field and the new band room. Your parents remember it just fine.”

“Any chance I could…see inside? Sir?”

“Boy, school is out for the summer and we do not do tours. Come back when school is in session.”

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Ms. Inez, the only full-time librarian at Higbee Public Library, was easy enough to mimic. Syd was able to do it without a second thought, squashing themselves down a few inches, expanding a few inches more, and swapping out the dull patterns of an insecure teenager with the bold patterns of someone trying to liven up a job they used to love. There was the briefest flash of what passed for Syd’s true self as the process completed, but they shrugged it off with a shudder. Being whoever they wanted to be, whenever they wanted to be…that embarrassment was a small price to pay.

The voice was a little tougher, but Syd had a great talent for mimicry there, too. Even before they’d fallen in with the Margrave, Syd had been able to do a passable imitation of most people they knew. Now, of course, it was everybody.

“Hello!” Syd said, going up an octave throughout the word. “I’m Ms. Inez, the librarian. My voice is my passport.” They giggled at the in-joke, then nodded, satisfied.

The library seemed deserted, with only the thrum of the AC and buzzing of fluorescent lights. “Some things never change, Higbee to Higbee,” Syd muttered. “This place never has any budget.”

They clasped their hands. “Oh, won’t some brave man, woman, or none-of-the-above come and deliver me from this place?” Syd cried, in Inez’s voice. “Or fund the library to a level adequate to provide the necessary services, whichever comes first?”

There was no answer. Just like at the city council meetings when they asked for more funding, Syd wagered. Before trying to figure out the ley lines to put the library out of its misery, Syd looked around the YA section for some quick getaway disguises in case their cover was blown. Everything either had an abstract cover on it or was a photo from the 80s or earlier–another snort of budgetary disgust from Syd. They eventually settled on filching an 80s book featuring a young man in a white tee and jeans–a standard enough look–and a lady from a rather sexist etiquette book from the 70s. The bellbottoms were out of fashion but people might not notice, or think it simply retro.

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“So the sign says going out of business, everything must go. Does that include the rack of video games?”

“Dunno.” The cashier, Shelly, was even more disaffected than usual. A member of the working dead, she was desperately trying to get a job elsewhere in town— which meant that, as far as Dex’s Grocery was concerned, she had completely checked out. Maybe the library would appreciate that attitude, if they were hiring. “If you wanna know, go buy one, you’ll find out when it rings up.”

“Good point,” Heath said. “What about the cash register? It’s everything. Can I buy it?” He paused a moment. “How would I even buy it? Would you have to write a receipt, or could you check me out on that other register? And then how do you sell the last register?”

Shelly sighed. “The fixtures aren’t gonna be sold ‘til the last day of business.” Then, giving Heath a sideways glare: “What would a kid like you need a cash register for, anyway?”

“Probably lots of fun stuff in there.” Heath shrugged. “And I think a POS system could really help grow my small business.”

Shelly snorted, thinking of how every other opening of the cash drawer needed to be coaxed along with a little percussive maintenance. “It’s a POS all right,” she said. “Look, kid, go bug one of the stockers, will you? Come back if you’re gonna buy something.”

At the back of the store, near the rack of Nintendo Wii shovelware, Heath found a familiar veiled shadow.

“Here too?” he said, shocked.

“Here too. The Margrave was surprised at the boy’s question. What had he thought would happen, next?”

Heath bit his lip. “This store is closing in a week,” he said. “There’s no reason to destroy it when it’s destroying itself just fine, right?”

The woman seemed to glower darkly from her shadows. “The Margrave reminded the boy that there is no justice in an act of self-destruction. This mildewy mart cannot expect to use its own bedsheet noose to cheat the hangman.”

“Look, I was fine with the statue,” said Heath. “That other stuff. It needed to go, it was bad. But not everything needs justice, right? Justice for what? There’s some stuff that isn’t so bad.”

“The Margrave spoke slowly, and with a tone of ice so that the boy might know her intentions. There is nothing worth saving in this wretched town, in this or any world.

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“Hey, good to see you, Jim.” the man smiled. “I haven’t seen you since the gallbladder, how’s it going?”

Syd grinned back as wide as possible. They’d imitated the Movies R Us clerk, sure, but that didn’t include the guy’s name, or his medical history, or anything. At least Syd knew the guy’s name was Jim, at least.

“Uh, hi, doc,” Syd said, taking a desperate guess that the silver-haired man with an expensive-looking watch was a doctor. It was either that or a Chinese medicine guy, with all the talk of gallbladders. “Oh, it’s…it’s fine. Yeah. All healed.”

The doctor set down his DVD, and looked at Syd over the tops of his glasses. “It’s fine, huh? Grew back on you, did it?” he said, a grim and serious expression on his face.

“Well, uh…” Syd tensed up, getting ready to bolt and then chuck the movie rental guy’s form at the first opportunity. “I mean, it sometimes feels that way, but…”

The doctor’s face suddenly lightened, and he grinned. “Relax, Jim,” he said. “I’m just messing with you. Who’d have the gall to grow one of those back after we yanked it out of them already, huh?”

“Ah! Yeah. Well, not me. On account of not having a gallbladder anymore, y’know, nowhere to put the gall.” Syd picked up the DVD and looked at it. “Ice Pirates?” they said. “That is…that’s a deep cut, doc.”

“I know, I know,” the doctor laughed. “It’s cheesy, but it’s fun as hell and it’s not on Netflix. I saw this when I was in college, you know, in the theater. It sucked then, too, but it’s always more about who you’re with at the time, you know?”

“Who were you with?” Syd had no earthly idea how to run the video rental system, so they quickly smashed a few random keys and handed the disc case back.

“My wife. Well, at the time, she was just my live in girlfriend and baby mama. But still. Good times, y’know?”

“Y-yeah,” Syd said. They had a sudden flash of a memory, of sitting in a theater showing From Justin to Kelly, wrapped arm in arm with… “Good times.”

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“This place always creeps me out.”

Jayda was wearing her balaclava, as she always did when out and about as the MacBook Bandit. Leaning to one side, she looked idly about. “You’d think there’d be more people farting around this place, you know? It’s a small town, everybody knows someone who’s been here. Hell, I bet half the old ladies on East Downs already have a place reserved. But it’s always empty except for the days Eddie mows the yard. And of course me and Heath. Why do you think that is, Georgina?”

Georgina didn’t answer, but that wasn’t really her fault–after all, according to the headstone Jayda was leaned up against, she had died a “beloved daughter” about five years ago. It was a big family plot, with the other names already pre-carved (somewhat ghoulishly, in Jayda’s opinion) but the tenants not yet moved in.

“I tell ya, Georgie, it’s always kinda a thing. People are all over this place on Memorial Day, there band comes, they shoot fake bullets…and then everyone goes about like they don’t know anybody that’s come down with a bad case of death. Like they plan to live forever.”

She spied the groundskeeper, Eddie, glowering at her from near his lawnmower shack a fair ways away, down a gentle slope before the graveyard terminated at Tapps Dr. Jayda waved happily; Eddie had seen her loads of times and had never been able to summon the energy to do anything more than scowl in lawnmowerish.

“Hey!” Heath had appeared as scheduled, but coming from behind the stone, he shocked Jayda enough for her to leap about a foot into the air.

“Don’t sneak up on people in graveyards,” she said. “Unless you’re an undertaker on a slow business day.”

“Have you got what I asked for?” Heath said. He held out an envelope. “It’s all there, count it.”

“Oh, I trust you.” Jayda took the bills and shoved them in a pocket. “After all, I know where you live.” She tossed a small package at Heath’s feet. “All the console modding supplies you could ever want, courtesy of an illegal Radio Shack.”

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