Lisa floored the van’s accelerator, thrashing the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic on the A12 and even slipstreaming an ambulance from Gallows Corner to Gidea Park. It earned her more than a few angry horn blasts, a lot of obscenities yelled out of car windows and undoubtedly a shedload of bad karma, but it also shaved a good ten minutes off the journey. And when you guaranteed delivery in half an hour, no exceptions, that counted for a lot.
The customer lived in a good-looking place round the back of the station, with a massive driveway that was already filled up with cars. Loud, rhythmic music came from inside, punctuated by the occasional shriek.
Sounded like quite a party. Lisa parked her van on the road and killed the engine with her trip timer reading 02:16. She’d cut it fine, but she’d made it. With any luck, she’d get a decent tip off this one.
She grabbed the bag from the passenger seat, sprinted for the front door and rang the bell. On 01:35 it was opened by a dark-haired bloke in grey jeans and a check shirt. He reeked of wine, sulphur and incense, and his eyes were glowing red. That didn’t bode well, for either of them. The possessed were never big tippers.
Lisa gave him a big smile anyway, and held out the bag. “Delivery, mate.”
He peered at her. “Huh?”
She made an effort to keep the smile going. “It’s all paid for on the card, so I just need you to sign on the little screen here and we’re all done.”
He stared blankly for a few more seconds before his face cleared. “Oh, right. The pizzas.”
Lisa let go of the smile and her hope of a tip.
“No, mate, I’m not the pizza girl. I’m the emergency magical supplies girl.”
“I’m from Eddie’s,” she said. “Eddie’s Ethereal Emporium? I’ve got an order of — ” she paused, checked her manifest and continued, “pine smudge sticks, black beeswax tapers, granular frankincense, powdered dragon’s blood, juniper oil and virgin’s tears, for this address.”
Check Shirt just blinked those scarlet eyes at her and swayed. Lisa’s timer read 01:13.
Another shriek came from inside the house, followed by a deep, rumbling snarl. Lisa shook her head. Bloody amateur magicians, always getting themselves into shit they couldn’t get out of. She blamed Harry Potter.
“Look, mate, these are ingredients for a banishing ritual, yeah? So someone here must have had enough of their right mind left to realise you’ve got an unwanted guest at the party.”
Lisa rubbed her eyes and counted to five. Ten was always better, but she was on a deadline. “Listen, I know what it’s like when summonings get out of hand — you’ve had a few drinks, you get a bit sloppy with the Latin, the sigils end up the wrong way ‘round. You might just be trying to raise an imp to clean up the toilet, but you end up with the legions of Beelzebub pouring out of the u-bend. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.”
Check Shirt scratched his cheek with a nail that blackened and lengthened into a claw.
“Huh?” he said.
A huge snake-like creature slithered out of the door and over his feet. Lisa stepped back and it disappeared under the hedge at the side of the house.
She snapped her fingers in front of Check Shirt’s face. He was drooling slightly. “You’ve got demons, mate,” she said, speaking very loudly and slowly. “Inside and out, by the look of it. So I strongly recommend you sign here, then go and sort it out. Okay?”
Behind her, a motorbike picked its way through the cars on the drive. “Three large pepperonis and a garlic bread, for Steve,” the rider called out. “Twenty-five quid.”
Check Shirt’s eyes snapped back into focus. He reached into his back pocket and came out with a wallet.
Typical. In the battle of man’s stomach versus his immortal soul, the stomach won every time.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Lisa said. The display on her timer showed 00:35, the digits flashing red. She pointed a warning finger at the bike rider, who was carrying a stack of red and white boxes. The savoury aroma mixed uneasily with the smell of brimstone wafting out of the house. “I was here first, mate, you wait your turn.”
She threw her bag into the hallway, grabbed Steve’s hand and used a talon to scribble on the screen. The status changed to Delivered, and the countdown halted on 00:17.
“Thank you for using Eddie’s Ethereal Emporium, we hope you enjoy your magical purchases,” she said. “Preferably as soon as possible, yeah?”
Steve ignored her, his attention fully focused on the stack of pizza boxes. She shrugged and headed back to the van.
She’d just driven off when a huge gout of black smoke boiled out from the house. The pizza bike, burning merrily, flew over the top of the van and landed in a skip about twenty yards down. There was a great clap of thunder and an ear-shattering roar that could never have been produced by a human throat. It sounded very much like “I hate pepperoni.”
A smaller fireball, which might have once been a pizza box, shot out of the swirling black vortex and joined the bike in the skip.
Lisa picked up her radio. “15 to base,” she said. “Clear from Gidea Park, heading back to the warehouse now.”
She kept up a leisurely ten miles an hour above the speed limit. In her rearview mirror, the cloud of smoke split apart and formed into a writhing mass of horned, fanged shapes. A few of them disappeared down the chimneys of the neighbouring houses.
Lisa got back on the radio. “15 again, base. Eddie, you might want to prepare more of those banishing kits. I think we could be getting some new orders.”
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She has worked as a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. The first two volumes in her Transient Tales series of short stories are now available, and details can be found at www.transientcactus.co.uk.