Jack in the Box


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

“Thanks for helping out.” Steve said, looking up at the house. “I was told that it was likely to be full, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this full.”

“I suppose it counts as spending time together.” Fiona smiled up at Steve. “Only kidding. But it’s great to be involved.”

“And Mrs Tuesday will keep an eye on everything, won’t she?” Steve nudged his jacket pocket and Armani eased himself out and flapped lazily away, settling on the porch roof and hunching over.

“There are a lot of sensible people there.” Fiona said. “And it’s good to get away from work.” She started pulling supplies out of the car. “I couldn’t believe it either, when we had the walk through yesterday. I think we will be here for a while.”

Steve shook his head. “We are only taking care of the magical stuff. That’s the agreement. If they want anything else then they have to pay extra. And do something about the ghost.”

“She isn’t that bad.” Fiona said. “She probably only shows herself because of Armani. Anyway, let’s make a start.”

The house was a large, Victorian property with lots of gables and corners. The overgrown rhododendrons overshadowed the sash windows and the self seeded remnants of the flower borders rustled their dried seed heads as Steve unlocked the door and snapped on the hall light. “The son agreed to have the electric on for a week.” Steve said, “We can bring heaters with us if it gets too cold.”

“I’d rather keep warm by keeping busy.” Fiona dragged in the box of supplies. “So what are we looking for?”

Steve sighed. “Anything weird.” He looked around the large hallway with half a dozen coats hanging in the corner and dozens of paintings, pictures and mirrors hanging in the hall and stairs. Knickknacks covered every ledge and the four small tables wedged in the corners of the odd shaped room. “The trouble is, we share a shop full of weird things, and a mail order business full of weird things, and I work with weird things and you work with Lady Freydis which is pretty full of weird things. To us, weird is normal.”

Fiona laughed. “I know what you mean.” She looked around. “Let’s just be methodical. We start by the door, go along the walls from left to right, dealing with any furniture and cupboards as we get to them, then deal with anything in the centre of the rooms. We ignore anything that isn’t a problem, but if we go that way, we won’t miss anything.”

“Okay.” Steve looked back out through the door. “Armani?”

“I’m okay out here, boss.” Armani said. “Just doing a little bird watching.”

“Don’t upset any neighbours.” Steve said and then pulled the door almost shut. “Though I don’t think that there is anyone near.”

“It’s a shame,” Fiona said. “From what his son was saying, he was a nice old man but he didn’t really do much with people.”

“I know.” Steve said. “But I think he was happy enough. That’s what they said in the shop.”

“It’s lovely and quiet here.” Fiona said, “With a village shop and a pub and all the green spaces around. You can hear the birds sing – or you could if Armani didn’t chase them. Is he still after a cat?”

“Hmm?” Steve muttered a few words over a cardboard box and then pulled out a bundle. Still muttering he gently unwrapped the layers of silk before pulling out a prosaic hand mirror. Fiona kept respectfully quiet as he held the mirror up and angled it over his shoulder, glancing back to make sure he was getting the right view. “Fiona, could you get the angel?”

Fiona unwrapped the delicate figure from its silk coverings and held it up against the wall. Kadogan had given them the figure as a gift, and while they didn’t know what the enchantment was, it was definitely enchanted and great for seeing if detection spells worked. Steve kept his back to the figure but angled the mirror to see over his shoulder. He nodded. “I can see the angel glowing, so it’s working.” He took a deep breath. “It should be alright, if I get the angles right. Hang on…” He twisted the mirror a little. “That little picture to the right, I mean left, with the dog. There’s something there.”

It took most of the morning just to go through the hall and front parlour. Some of the items, like the picture of the dog, were just minor magic and Steve disabled and dissipated the magical charge easily enough. Other, more complicated items were photographed, documented and then wrapped in silk and packed in rowan wood shavings. It was slow and painstaking work, but Fiona found herself relaxing. “We haven’t spent this much time together for ages.”

“I know.” Steve rubbed a hand across his face, leaving a smudge. He looked down at his dusty t-shirt and dirty jeans. “It’s nice to be out of a suit for a change, and it’s been great working with you.” He smiled at Fiona. “We really need to do this more often.”

“Perhaps not something as hard as this.” Fiona shut the door on the front parlour and sighed. “But it’s been great.” For a moment the two looked at each other, enjoying the closeness. Fiona leaned forward and kissed Steve briefly on the lips. “Why don’t I make us some lunch. I’ve brought some stuff and the kitchen is okay.”

They ate lunch on a bench outside. Fiona looked around. “This could be a really nice place to live, if it was treated right.”

Steve nodded. “It has a good atmosphere.” He looked across to where Armani was trying to intimidate some crows and failing. “Despite everything.”

Fiona chuckled, then stopped. “How much is he asking for this place?”

“Have you any idea how much work it would take to clear this place?” Steve asked. “I mean, it needs completely gutting, the garden needs to be dug out and replanted and…” He trailed off. “We haven’t even looked at the sheds.”

“That would mean a lot of storage space.” Fiona said. “You’re right – the kitchen is a nightmare and I don’t want to think about the wiring, but…” She trailed off and looked around. “It’s not that far from York.”

“It’s technically in Leeds.” Steve said. “We would have to answer to Lord Marius.”

Fiona shrugged. “He’s your father and will enjoy annoying you, but it could be worse.”

“Yeah, it could be worse.” Steve took the last mouthful of coffee from his cup. “Come on, let’s try the back parlour next.”

The back parlour was always going to be the biggest challenge. The old man had used it just as storage and it was now a heap of cardboard boxes and crates. “We’re never going to get through these in a week,” Fiona said, standing in the doorway.

“We can just be methodical.” Steve said. “We can stack the stuff we’ve sorted through in the front parlour for now, and if we can get this done then we have got through the worst.”

“Is it even safe?” Fiona looked at the towering piles in front of them. “Perhaps we should get ladders?”

Steve whistled and Armani came reluctantly into the room. “You can start by bringing that box on the top down.” Steve said. He glanced at Fiona. “It’s about time Armani earned his tea and biscuits.”

Armani stared around the crammed room. “Bloody hell!”

It was quicker than they thought. A lot of the boxes were filled with books which could be easily sorted, and the old man had hoarded household supplies as well as magical curiosities. Some of it was just junk, but there were some interesting pieces.

“This is truly beautiful.” Steve held up the delicate porcelain candlestick to the light. “I can see why he wanted to keep it, but I don’t understand why it wasn’t out on display and getting appreciated. Get the next box, please, Armani.”

“No way, boss.” Armani started to shiver. “That’s a bad box. I’m not touching it, it’s more than my wings are worth.”

“What?” Steve stared at the imp. “I’ve seen you face down rogue vampires and crazed werewolves. What’s so bad in there?”

Armani shook his ugly head, wiping his hands down his filthy jeans. “I’m not going it near it, boss, and if it’s all the same to you, I’m going outside to sort out them crows.”

Fiona watched him flap quickly out into the hall and then looked at Steve. “How bad could it be?”

Steve frowned. “I’ve never seen him react like that. Not even when he was going in to rescue you and it was all going crazy.” He took a deep breath. “Hang on…” He placed his hands palms together and muttered a few words. With a struggle he pulled them apart and a glow formed in front of him, flickering and stuttering at first, but growing stronger. Sweat streaked down the dust on his face as he forced the light in front of him and up to the box. “This is tougher than I thought.” He twisted his hands and the light gently hovered over the nondescript cardboard box which started to glow. “It shouldn’t be doing that.” Steve struggled, trying to keep control as he gently lowered the light towards the box, which exploded.

Fiona screamed as the paper cascaded everywhere, shreds hanging from the curtains at the opposite side of the room and from the elaborate light fitting. The smell of scorched paper hung in the air and Steve staggered back, grabbing hold of Fiona to stay upright. Fiona clung onto him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Steve looked pale but pulled himself upright. “That wasn’t what I expected.” He looked down at the small, lidded bronze pot lying at his feet. “This is the culprit.” He gently extended a hand, tentatively touching it before picking it up. “It’s not hot.”

Fiona came closer. “It doesn’t look like anything special.”

“I know.” Steve said. “That’s not a good sign. If it was meant to be opened then it would look a lot fancier.” He looked around at the cardboard-covered room. “Let’s get into the open air.”

The went outside and Steve placed the pot in the centre of a dried-up bird bath. “Fiona, stay there.” Glancing quickly around, Steve jogged to the house and came back with some supplies. “Armani, I know you’re out there. Get yourself next to Fiona.”

“I daren’t boss.” Armani was perched on the top of the house, clinging to a twisted chimney pot. “I daren’t go near it.”

“Then stay well clear.” Steve rigged up a circle of protection and braced himself. “Fiona, when I count to three, take the lid off the pot, then drop to the floor. I’ll be ready to deal with whatever comes out.”

Fiona took a breath. She had dealt with so many unexpected things – Mrs Tuesday, being fed love potions, Jeanette getting taken for a walk ‘in fur’ and coming back and shedding mud all over the floor, and she had faced them all. But now her husband looked pale and set and the imp that was normally loyal to the death was hiding behind a chimney pot and she had to set loose whatever was causing this. She tugged a stray shred of cardboard out of her hair, swallowed, and took the lid off the pot.

It was surprisingly easy. Fiona had expected there to be a struggle or stiffness, but it didn’t even feel like a snug fit. There was no flash or shout or explosion, just an incredibly handsome man standing in front of her, bowing low and kissing her hand.

“My lady, I owe you my freedom. I am Jack, completely in your debt.”

“Oh hell, not again.” Steve said.

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