“Trust me; it’s just easier if you call me Todd.” He told me when I found his house in the lost and found where I work. Where a genie gets off calling himself “Todd” is only a slightly smaller mystery than how that necklace he lives in wound up abandoned in a cardboard box.
I could see how someone would toss it or forget about it. It’s just a plain, muddy green stone on a metal chain. The necklace looks a hair too good for a gumball machine but not worth enough to be sold in a drug store. That’s right kids, Todd the genie lives in a dime store bauble. No lamp. Good thing too since Todd was bound to me when I tried on the necklace and I’m not putting up with some giant lamp in my apartment. He’s with me till death, too. None of that three wishes crap.
There are no wishes at all. Todd is my semi-obedient servant on his best day and a downright voyeuristic pest on his worst; listening to me only when it amuses him or I threaten him with damage to the stone. Case in point: I put on the necklace and pass right out after a fourteen hour shift at the coffee shop/diner. When my head hits the pillow, I fully expect to see soy lattes and greasy burgers in my nightmares. I manage to sleep a good portion of the next day and wake up to some strange little white guy leering at me from the edge of my futon.
I forgot anything anyone ever taught me about self-defense and scream my head off and hurled my pillow at him. I deserved every bit of the following laughter. Who but a horror movie scream queen throws a pillow at an intruder? Todd was still chuckling when he explained and demonstrated what he was by turning my couch into a pillow-covered monstrosity suitable only for the most stereotypical harem. My first order was he better not spend anymore nights watching me sleep like a creepy pervert. He said to sleep dressed and we had a deal. So began our strange relationship.
I could tell Todd expected more shock from me when he told me he was a djinn. He was confused by the exasperated “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” I blurted out when it sunk in that he wasn’t gonna take off. But Todd contented himself with following me around. Fun fact: he does not need to do so. Being bound to me is not what makes that sandy brown mop pop up in the passenger seat of my pick up or in the mirror of the employee bathroom. He could stay home or wander around but he’d rather follow me to work.
And what a thrill meeting my boss for the first time! “That fag belong to you?” He says to me in the kind of whisper everyone can hear. Yes, Brian is a homophobic, racist, sexist sack of shit. But as long as he keeps the “Bull dyke red skin” comments to a minimum, signs my checks, and accepts the reality I’m the only reason anybody drops a dime in his joint instead of the local Starbucks, I put up with it.
Todd is too well-groomed. Whatever magics he’s got he uses to keep his olive skin so smooth people rationalize it by thinking its makeup. The mysterious roaming beauty mark doesn’t help matters. The green of his eyes shifts to make the ladies swoon and he warps the light to get people to focus on his oh so shiny hair. I keep my hair short to spite Brian and Todd. It’s entirely too amusing to watch them squirm over something so stupid.
Having a djinn around is annoying and I knew he’d cause me trouble. Just how much remains to be seen.
Trouble comes in many forms; smoke billowing from under the hood of your car, a call from the IRS, or in my case, freakishly knowledgeable, overly cute young children who seem to know who you are.
Or should I say in Todd’s case. I don’t even hide my enjoyment when the mute, doe eyed boy dives into Todd’s lap while he’s chatting up one of the cheaper offerings of our local plastic surgeon. I think she was shocked when the kid appeared. There was too much Botox in her face for proper emoting. Todd more than made up for it. His heavily groomed eyebrows leap into his widow’s peak and he looks at the kid like he’s walking weapons grade plutonium. Shit, I wish I had a camera.
The silicone mannequin sloshes away with what I think is a frown on her face and the little boy helps himself to Todd’s snack. I’m glad somebody’s eating it. Todd orders food for appearances and its appalling for so much decent food to go to waste.
“I knew you’d leave behind a brat or two.” I snicker at him from behind the register. To be honest, this place isn’t so bad. It’s kept clean, all the tables and chairs are kept in excellent condition and brightly colored in garish pastels. Brian has his place styled like a nostalgic diner with stools at the counter, cake and pie in a lazy Susan, and a big open space to watch the cook do his thing. Sadly, Brian is also the cook and watching a surly jackass snarl over a grill is only fun for a select group of people. You may think I’m one of them but it got old to me pretty fast. He’s lucky the food is good and I look cute in a waitress uniform. Otherwise this place would be boarded up by now.
“I don’t do children, Missy.” Todd grumbles, failing in his efforts to wiggle out from under the kid. Todd calls me ‘Missy’ because I call him ‘Todd.’ I’ll give up my real name when he gives up his. He won’t get it from Brian either since he doesn’t call anybody by name. And my real name isn’t in a single scrap of paper anywhere. I’m sure Brian’s into some shady shit, too, since I’ve never had any issues with the IRS.
When the kid is though plowing his way through the tuna salad on the table, I sneak him a thick slice of blueberry pie. He smiles so sweetly in gratitude, I suddenly remember my ovaries function and I take two giant steps back. I cover it by retrieving a vanilla milkshake.
Brian sees me setting it in front of him. “Hey, Missy! That little ni-“
I cover the kid’s ears. Innocent ears and all that. “He’s visiting. A dear friend of mine’s son. Like my own so make your special, ok?” I bat my eyes, decreasing my IQ by several points. With that gesture. he’ll only take part of the cost of the burger out of my check and I’m officially on break. It’s a slow night anyway.
“You got it.” He shrugs, really not giving two shits about who my friends are as long as he sells a burger.
My ovaries override my good sense once again and I slip into the booth between the kid and the kitchen view window. I should have the damn things removed. I smooth my apron over my powder blue uniform a little tighter to try and strangle them. “He’s too cute to belong to you.” I leer at Todd, slipping my order pad from my back pocket. I drop it in front of the kid with my lucky pen and his eyes beam with pride.
“How did you know he can’t talk?” Todd grumbles, annoyed with being crammed into the corner of the booth.
“No five year old boy is ever quiet if he can help it.” I give him my full attention. “Write your name, kid?” Blueberry encrusted fingers clutch the pen and write in slow neat strokes. That’s ok. It’s why God invented alcohol wipes. “Well, Mike, how can we help you?”
He points at Todd, who looks like a violently nauseous deer in headlights. Mike needs Todd’s help? “Oh, that is just too precious.”
“If you think for a second that I’ll have anything to do with-“
I finger the necklace, dragging un-manicured fingernails along woven black cord. Might as well be a chalkboard to the little priss. “Whatever you need, kid.” I smirk, letting the little green charm fall back to my chest. When Todd glares at me from over Mike’s head, I grin menacingly. “In for a penny, in for a pound, Toddy.”
Since I’m helping the kid, Todd’s helping the kid, end of story. The djinn refuses to enlighten me as to why he feels the need to obey me when I threaten the jewel or what would happen to him – or me – should I choose to smash the thing with a brick. If he doesn’t wanna tell me, I don’t feel like bugging him about it. Whatever strand of fate that put this stone around my neck in the first place will reveal what needs revealing when the time is right. Fate’s pretty Zen like that.
Mike taps me on the hand, the look he’s giving me makes it obvious he was dying to know what I was thinking about. He lays a picture on the table without staining it with blue goo and pie crust crumbs. The woman in it has the same eyes but otherwise looks nothing like him. Mike’s eyes are a bright, lively green, but the woman’s are faded and tired. Her skin is fair and hair straw blonde, smiling at the camera like whoever took the picture took too long to press the button from the tension in her sharp face.
“Your mom?” You never know these days. My race is pretty mixed up and I’ve seen plenty of kids come in here that look nothing like their parents. Not to mention the added variable of adoption and the very real possibility Mike is more than he appears.
Mike screws up his little nose and seesaws his head. I decided it’s no longer my business. He points to the picture and shrugs his shoulders, poking out his bottom lip.
“Don’t overdo the cute, kid.” I tease him. “Can’t find her, eh?” Not that I’m any good at finding people but I bet Todd’s got some skills there. “Is she in trouble?”
Mike’s eyes flatten in a way I’ve only seen from the most jaded adults and Todd shakes his head. “You’ll bury yourself asking too many questions.” He smirks, preening his nails.
I ignore him for Mike’s solemn nod to my question. “Alright. You got a place to chill till I get off work?” Another nod, but happier and the light is back in his eyes. “Meet me at the door at nine. I’ll be done here.”
The kid smiles and hops out of the booth, licking pie chunks of his fingers. Todd groans, smoothing non-existent wrinkles in his pants. “What is it with you and charity cases, Missy? Can’t you just put your spare change in a cup like the rest of the rabble?”
“I don’t trust Brian not to steal from the cups.” I grumble, gathering up the dirty dishes. I’m gonna end up eating that greasy ‘special’ but it was the only way to keep Brian occupied during that little consult. “And the kid is in need of specialized help if he was able to find us.” Mute wasn’t entirely accurate. There is a seal on his throat. That boy stank of magic. If he needed help, he certainly found the right beings to help him. I didn’t have time to wonder the how and why of it.
Mike is punctual for a little kid. He’s sitting right by the front door when I lock up for the night. Brian leaves early so I can clean without him underfoot. The trade off is that I don’t have to open the place at five in the morning to set up. He’s got some other poor sap to help him with that. Todd huffs snidely at the sight of the kid, rolling his eyes when I present another milkshake in a huge paper cup complete with bendy straw. I’ve always enjoyed a good bendy straw. The ‘special’ is quarantined in Styrofoam till I eat it or Mike gets the munchies. Gods, please let him get the munchies. There’s a lot of calories in that container.
He takes the shake, his eyes dancing in gratitude. They turn to questioning and Mike tugs on my uniform. “I have jeans in my truck, kid. I imagine you’d like to find this lady in a hurry?”
Mike nods around a deep gulp of strawberry goop and Todd turns green at the complete lack of manners. My little djinn spent the rest of my shift alternatively trying to convince me to bail on the kid and pouting when I kept telling him to shove it. I keep my promises. I won’t lie, though. I’m very curious as to exactly who this woman is and what exactly Mike is. There is something very inhuman about those soulful, big eyes that make what he’s thinking so very clearly understood to me.
The two of them follow me to my truck parked at the other end of the dark of the parking lot. Mike is a perfect little gentleman, averting his eyes when I slip my jeans under my skirt. I didn’t bring any spare shirts with me so I’ll just have to make an interesting fashion statement in keeping the uniform over my pants. My legs will more than thank me for protecting them from the nighttime chill, the goose bumps sinking back into my skin. I ditch the name tag. No need to give Brian any more advertising than necessary.
“You still got that picture, kid?” Mike peers around the open door of the truck to make sure I’m decent as I lean against the driver’s seat to lace my sneakers and nods again. “Any other clues?” He shakes his head around the straw, unwilling to let go of it for the moment.
“Did little Timmy fall in the-”
“Todd, shut up or be helpful.” I take a better look at the picture in the orange glow of the parking lot lights. She’s dressed in a plain pink blouse, wearing a simple silver ring pendant. Nothing overtly descriptive on her person. Behind her is a small store, possibly in a strip mall but I can’t tell ‘cause her head’s in the way. The ad on the telephone pole catches my eye. “This is nearby.” I mumble and Mike tugs excitedly on my apron, bouncing up and down silently on his toes. “There’s only a couple places with that old ad still up.”
Todd plucks the photo from my fingertips. Upon closer inspection, he flashes a knowing grin. “Not the one you’re thinking, Miss Missy.” I grind my teeth but don’t curse him out. “How I love this modern era. Shall we? In the interests of finding this woman for this poor young man, of course.”
Not what I’m thinking? So much for that impromptu visit to the local mega-mart. That leaves the other place. Oh, brother. “Of course you know exactly what’s outside a titty bar.” Crap. I really need to learn to check my language. I look at Mike with an apology on deck but he giggles and nods his head. Great, he’s familiar with the place, too! Am I the only one in Arizona who’s never been to The Riders?
“I hope you have all your shots.” I grumble, leading Mike to the passenger side door. “Just for that, you ride in the back, Toddy-boy.”
The chick in the picture doesn’t seem like the type to work in any dive in The Riders. Those clean cut looks? Gotta be more the “sports bar” type or maybe a cleaner titty bar. Even the most desperate of college girls avoid this place like the plague (or whatever strain of venereal disease going around these days) and the most desperate of college guys would rather swipe porn from a convenience store. Better a paper cut than the clap after all.
When my pick-up lumbers into the parking lot, my eyes fall right to the spot where the picture was taken. The faded paper ad for women ages twenty-four to thirty-five to lose weight in a study that ended a year ago is still stapled to the telephone pole. Most of the paper tabs are still there. Guess a cluster of strip joints isn’t the best place to find overweight women. Body image issues in abundance but not so much in the way of obesity. The men in these parts like them some matchsticks.
Todd fumes at being exiled to the truck bed while Mike rode in the cab with me but his infantile protests fade into the background noise of passing cars and music pounding as some guy’s night out gets started. Once the sun goes down, the music goes up at The Riders.
There might have been some fancy reason this strip mall was first named The Riders but that reason is obscured by time and the bouncing mammaries of dancers now. Present day residents call this lonely string of highway side stores The Riders because the chicks there work the pole and they do not speak of this place kindly. I respect a lot of these girls who come in for breakfast with the kids they strip to support. They know the value of a good tip. When Brian isn’t looking, I slip them extra coffee or juice for the kids. Us working gals have to stick together, ya know?
I feel Mike tugging on my apron again and I’m thankful it’s sewn into the uniform. He’s certainly testing those seams. His eyes are appreciative but concerned, wondering if this is the right place. I kneel to his level and hold up the photo to match the surroundings.
“This is the place, alright.” Even the rooftops match the picture. “Nothing to do but ask around.”
Todd finishes combing his hair and breezes by us in a cloud of well quaffed superiority, snatching the photo out of my fingertips. “Allow me. Such places are not for the inexperienced.”
Mike follows without hesitation causing me to watch the kids back with amazement. I’ve had Todd as my live-in annoyance for a year now and I wouldn’t follow him that eagerly into a… Anything! Not even my own apartment! I might find it full of naked men with wine casks. Again!
A shimmer passes though the air around Mike’s body, creating a disturbance in the way light hits him. It has to be some sort of glamour because little Mike doesn’t get stopped at the door of The Platform by the goon behind the door; but the kid still just looks like a kid to me.
The Platform is one of the few establishments here making a nod towards subtlety. The windows are covered with blinds with warm blue curtains behind them and the door has been freshly finished, gleaming under the gently flickering fluorescent sign. I wouldn’t say the place had class, but it didn’t give off the vibe of a vortex of venereal disease. Not a ringing endorsement because I still feel like I’ll need a shower to wash this place off me.
I don’t stop to wonder how Mike did whatever he did. I just keep a bit of distance between us until I cross the threshold. Glamours can be tricky things. The meat slab at the door fixes his beady eyes on me, the callous wrapped sausages he thinks pass for hands land on my shoulders and ten different ways I can make him very sorry he touched me pop into my head.
Before I can pull number seven on him, Mike grabs my curling fingers and pulls me away. The meat sack stays rooted in that position, his sausages hovering in the air vacated by my shoulders. I really wish I could bore a hole into the rolls of flesh he calls a neck. That fucker is so lucky this magical kid is here.
It takes a moment for Mike and I to catch up with Todd, who is walking around the place with the picture in his fingertips comparing every female in the room with that image. I don’t believe for a single second Todd needs that picture after he saw it the first time. He just took it to flourish as he struts through this place. I spot her coming out of the bathroom wringing her freshly washed hands right before Todd’s head snaps in her direction as if catching her by scent alone. That picture didn’t do her justice. Her blonde hair shines in the horrid mood lighting in this place, her skin is so smooth even I want to just stroke it in awe. Luxurious lashes almost touch her rosy cheeks as she straightens her clothes. Completely natural breasts hold up her slinky top at a height a woman half her age would pay good money to attain, the beads dangling from them like diamonds as she moves with such grace, I have to admit, I wouldn’t kick her outta bed.
“Hardly a challenge, little man.” Todd points her out to Mike who stops moving completely at the sight of her. “There’s your girl. Go on and get her.”
Mike trots off towards her and Todd backs toward me. There’s a tension in Todd’s back that roots me to the floor. When the woman looks up to see Mike bouncing toward her, her eyes double in size from pure terror and her mouth opens in a scream that never generates any sound. I look back down at Mike and he’s covered in a sheen of gray light. The entire place quiets as if Mike pulled the plug on the world. The woman turns to bolt and after I blink, she’s on the floor with Mike on her stomach.
“What-” Todd cuts me off with an arm in front of my face and I curse his height. I look around the suede enclosed arm and nobody in the room is moving. Mike lifts the woman’s face in his tiny dark hands, denting her skin with a strength no child could ever have. From where I stand, her eyes roll back as the grey light around Mike surrounds them both, glowing and twisting till I have to close my eyes at the force of whatever he’s doing to her. The silence is horrid. I almost beg Todd to say something stupid.
When I hear my djinn’s arm move, I open my eyes. The woman is alive, left there on the floor like a broken doll. Little Mike is gone, replaced with a towering shadow of a man with eyes as white as stars and a green knot of tattoos in place of hair shining against the midnight hue of his flesh. Mike’s new limbs are waif thin and so long it hurts my senses. He moves them with the grace of a winter tree swaying in the breeze as he steps toward us.
The new Mike smiles when Todd backs toward me further. To protect me? How sweet. I’ll decide if that’s worthwhile ammunition later. “I mean your master no harm, djinn.” Mike’s new voice is very much like the wind through winter trees movements me makes; haunting, threatening, and frigid cold. He stretches his limbs, savoring the bend of every joint, the twitch in each muscle. Relief is thick in the air and written in his eyes. “In fact, she has done me a great service. You both have.”
“What is going on?” I manage not to babble like a complete idiot but my voice cracks. If anybody noticed, they didn’t say.
Mike nods slowly. “She cheated a bargain with me. Stole my power. Locked me in a child’s body.”
Todd is completely blocking me now so I have to speak around his shoulder. “Why us?”
Mike’s mouth forms a grin that makes me sorry I asked. In that grin, I know Mike knows. So much for hiding. Shit… “You will have nothing to fear from the fae all your life, Missy. As for you, Todd.” Mike’s voice gets light with amusement. “Consider part of your debt to us resolved.”
Mike doesn’t disappear. He is simply not there, his existence erased. Activity bursts back on around Todd and me. The drunken revelry and sloppy appreciation of the female form is almost comforting.
“Jean!” One of the other strippers runs over to the woman on the floor. Jean groans and there’s something odd about the way she struggles to her feet. The grace she had was gone and her skin has no luster. As her friends help her, I see Jean’s face is lined and tired, her hair stringy and thin.
“That fae gave her all that beauty and she thought she could keep it without paying.” Todd turns to me and starts to shuffle me out the door. I don’t resist. “Mike made her pay. Stupid woman.”
Really stupid. She’s lucky she’s not dead for fucking up a deal with a fae. Mike had every right to not only kill her, but eat her if he was the type of fae to do so. Recalling his gift was an extreme kindness. Jean probably won’t see it that way.
I stare in to my coffee mug as if I can will the pot to brew faster. Todd pretends he’s not watching me by giving and revoking sentience from dust bunnies he found under my bed. In a way I envy them; reborn entirely fresh and clean about ten times in the last hour. Ten fresh chances. There’s another spark from the sofa. That’d be eleven chances now.
I flip my bangs from my eyes and marvel at how much of a sick fuck I am. I should be more haunted by Jean’s silent screaming face as Mike sucked the pretty right out of her. But I don’t even care. I’m pissed Mike was able to find me and guilt ridden for every time I called Todd a selfish prick. A woman nearly dies and my primary concern is my exposure. I am now honorary selfish prick in training.
“Sulking doesn’t suit you, Missy.”
“Oh, shut it.” I shove myself off my counter and turn my vicious glare on my coffee pot. Discount store piece of crap…
A throw pillow bounces off my head and the mug clatters across the floor. Cheap plastic holds its shape, saving me a cleanup and I whirl to meet Todd’s dancing eyes. “Quit that bullshit already. It’s annoying.” He smirks.
That’s it. I’m gonna beat him to death. I lunge toward him, offending pillow in hand and targeted directly at that flapping mouth. He ducks it but my entire body lands on top of him and we both roll off the couch. I don’t know how long vicious, pillowy death rained down on us both, but the coffee I’d been waiting for is rancid by the time I’m collapsed on the carpet with a formally firm throw pillow in my grip.
Todd sits cross-legged by my head, leaning over my face. “Feel better?”
“More will come now. Word will spread.”
“Care to tell me why?”
“Care to tell me what you owe the fae?”
Todd smiles, his shirt still perfectly creased and every hair in place while I’m covered in sweat with my hair at every compass point. “I would love to tell you that story.” He croons, a sick gleam in his eyes.
“Oh, geez. Never mind.” I roll up and pull my t-shirt back into place. I have coffee to remake.
Todd shrugs with a disgusting wink, extending his legs to where my head was. “Your loss, Missy.”
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