Here’s a story for you.
This was about eight or nine years ago, just when I first bought the building which has become my shop/office/place of residency.
Francis and her friend Jan came in my shop by accident. There was a pale blue box sitting on the counter by an old book of Virginia folk songs. They stood at the door, looking about the cluttered place. Francis wasn’t keen on staying. She felt claustrophobic. Dust floated about in the air, which always caused Francis skin to itch, and her nose to twitch. Jan wandered around touching books stacked above her head and different pieces of pottery with missing parts. She found a record trough and immediately began thumbing through them. Francis didn’t move an inch, for fear of catching scurvy or worse.
“Look at this,” Jan said shaking her head. “My mother’s vinyl collection. Nothing worse than Rick Astley.” She looked up at Francis. “Oh no. You’re not having one of your germ fits again.”
“I’m not moving an inch until we leave.” Francis’ face tightened in a frown.
“You’re hopeless.” Jan went back to flipping through the records.
“You said this was a shoe store.” Francis said in a huff.
Francis looked at the sign that hung above her. Francis stood under the flailing sign and mouthed both names. EVELINA’S CURIOSITY SHOPPE, EVELINA GILES: WITCH. The other side said Haverty’s. She clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“I haven’t had time to buy a proper sign,” I said. “Nor the capitol, for that matter.”
Francis shrugged. “It happens.”
I felt her eyes move up and down on me, and her disapproval. She walked away and went to her friend Jan. They whispered back and forth. I was curious as what they were saying to each other. Because both of them took turns glancing at me and went back whispering. I know what you’re going to say. Who cares what people think? Yeah, right. You do. And so do I!
So I thought of the spell and rewound the tape so to speak. Then I thought of another spell that made their whispers easier to hear.
“Who the hell does she think she is?” Francis said.
Jan looked at me. “She says she owns this place? No way. She’s all of twenty?”
“Mhm,” Francis said. “I thought she was fifteen. She’s a teeny bopper trying to dress like mommy.”
“Oh my God,” Jan muffled a chuckle with the palm of her hand. “That skirt is wayyyyyy too short. Her legs are like a stork.”
“That’s it,” Francis nodded. “Mommy and Daddy actually own this place.”
Those bitches!! My legs are like a stork? Ohhh, fuck you……
Jan went back to being preoccupied with the vinyl records, picking one up every few seconds reading the contents on the back of the jacket. “I guess I was wrong, then.”
“This is ridiculous, Jan. I want to leave.” Francis stamped her feet.
“If you want to leave, leave. Wait for me in the car.”
Francis looked at the door, her face fell. She sighed. “You know I can’t do that.” It was true. Francis could only walk through a closed door if someone did it first. A bad habit she developed after her husband Mick left her six months ago. When she and Jan have to work, Jan picks her up in the mornings, Jan has to go out the door first.
Jan walked away from the record trough. “Alright. You really need to see a psychiatrist about this problem. Well, problem among problems—-”
“Wait!” Francis eyes moved to the counter where the cash register was. “What’s that over there,” She pointed at the pale blue box. She rushed to the counter.
“You are too freakin’ weird, Francis Scofeild.!” Jan followed Francis, shaking her head. “It looks like an ordinary cigar box.”
“I don’t think so……” Francis moved to touch the box when a man popped out from behind a curtain that separated the rooms.
“Don’t touch that!” The man cried out in a shrill voice.
Francis and Jan jumped. “Where did you come from?” Jan said, catching her breath. “Wait…what happened to that teeny—young lady?”
The man was taken aback. “What young lady? I’m the only one here.”
Francis asked a more important question. “Why can’t we touch it?” Francis was intrigued by the box. “Is it for sale?”
“You want to buy a cigar box?” Jan cackled.
The man winced.
“You are so weird,” Jan went on to say.
The man wore a pinstripe suit with a white bow tie. He took a comb from his breast pocket, and combed his thick bushy mustache, then placed it back the breast pocket of his pinstripe jacket. “If you touch that box, it becomes attached to you. It will never leave your side.” He retrieved the comb from that breast pocket and ran it through his greasy receding hairline, and put it away again.
Jan cackled again, a noise that could pierce eardrums. The man winced, he turned two evils to Jan, who at once backed away from the counter.
“And yes,” The man said to Francis in a whisper. “For the right price.”
Francis nodded, studying the pale blue box. “What’s inside, “She said after a few moments.
The man shrugged uneasily. “I—I—I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, “Jan said mockingly. “C’mon, Francis. Let’s leave.” Jan took Francis by the arm to lead her out. Francis pulled away, went back to the counter. “Francis. Let’s leave.” She said it in that Motherly tone that Francis always hated.
“Surely you know the contents of this box. You know about every item you sell,” Francis said to the man.
He shook his head. “Not this. The owner, Mr. HAVERTY. He won’t tell me what’s in it. And I’ve learned the hard way not to question him.” The man pulled the sleeve on his coat to reveal a discolored skin and a burn mark of three interlocking circles.
“What happened there?” Francis moved away from the man’s arm, worried it might be catching.
“I lit some candles I was not supposed to.” The man closed his eyes to rid himself of the painful memory. “Only one. Before Mr. HAVERTY stopped me from lighting the rest.”
Jan clucked her tongue. “It just looks like a freaky tattoo to me.”
The man cut his eyes at Jan. “That’s what I get for not listening to Mr. Haverty.”
“Where is Mr. Haverty? Is he in?” Jan said.
“No, he is not,” the man rolled his eyes. “Are you interested in buying this box?” He sniffed. “ It’s two hundred dollars.”
“C’mon Francis, he’s conning you.” Jan tried again to take Francis arm. She shook Jan off.
“I want this,” She told Jan confidentially. “I don’t know why…..I just do……I’m……drawn to it.”
At this point Jan was considering having her friend committed. But she also took pity on her. She had only Jan and the job in the office that was it. Jan let out a deep sigh. She touched her friend’s elbow. “Okay, dear.” Approval is what she needs now, approval she’ll get, Jan thought.
“Give me two hundred dollars, then.” Francis held out her hand with a huge smile on her face.
A sale was made. Jan and Francis left with the box. The man who sold the box to them pocketed the money. He went to a mirror that was perched on an oak table, the wall propping it up. The man vanished, and I reappeared. I turned to the left, then to the right.
“My legs do not look like stork, bitch!”
Francis was sitting on the couch, just staring at the pale blue box on her coffee table. She hadn’t opened the box at all. She was very curious, but remembered what the man in the gift shop said. Still, she wanted to know what was inside…….
She picked up her cell phone and called Jan. It rang twice, went straight voice mail. Francis closed the lid on her phone and thought a moment. She stood, slowly ambled to the kitchen. She grabbed a bag of chips and turned to head back to the living room when she saw the box sitting on the kitchen table.
“Boy, that guy wasn’t kidding. Touch it, and it won’t leave your side,” Francis shrugged went back to the living room. She sat carelessly on the couch. The box was back on the coffee table. “Good grief,” She said.
She quickly dialed Jan again. This time she answered on the first ring.
“What, Francis? What?” Jan sounded annoyed.
“It follows me wherever I Go, Jan,” Francis retorted in quick succession.
“I thought your cat ran away.” Jan yawned.
“I’m not talking about the cat, Jan.”
“What are you talking about?” Jan yawned again.
“The fucking box!” Francis screamed into her phone.
“My God,” Said Jan. “Do you have to be so loud? Go to sleep, Francis.”
“It’s getting on my nerves. I don’t know what to do,” Francis said frantically.
“Well, I know what I’m going to do,” Jan said.
“What’s that?” Francis had excitement in her voice.
“Get some sleep,” Jan hung up.
Francis tossed her cell phone on the coffee table. “Bitch.”
Jan rang the doorbell of Francis apartment. She heard Francis call out for her to enter. Jan saw Francis sitting on the couch, still in her nightgown.
“What are you doing? We are going to be late for work.” Jan took a few steps inside, closed the door. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Francis staring intently at the pale blue box. “Oh no,” Jan said, sighed. “Francis, you’ve been up all night, staring at that stupid box.” Jan sat next to Francis, letting her fall to the floor.
“I can’t help it. I want so badly to see what’s inside, but I’m afraid of what will happen if I do.” Francis rubbed her eyes, thinking of how much she dreaded going to work.
“This is my fault. I shouldn’t have took you to that place. You better get dressed, Francis. You know how Maggie hates you. You’re always on her shit- list.”
Maggie Frank was the manager at the call center, and she hated all of the operators. Their jobs were to answer questions about the insurances HI-LOW sold. Maggie and her assistants listened to every call. She critiqued everyone. But Francis was always the one she used as an example in every meeting. She was an extremely harsh woman. Company allowed a 45 percent success rate how good customer service and how well the customers rate you. Maggie’s rate was 80 percent. Her operators mostly had a 65 percent. Francis received a 35 percent over the last 60 days.
They arrived at the office still arguing over being late. It was only one other person there, as the other three operators had quit last week. Bill, who sat in cubicle next to them, let them know right away that the dragon lady was at a meeting, they were safe.
“You girls are damn lucky the dragon lady is out. Out partying late?” Bill leered at them. Once, at lunch, he mentioned in passing of inviting both of them to his place later that night and having a few drinks. Well….if that might lead to something between the three of them…..
Needless to say, Jan, who was driving, left him stranded downtown at the cafe they were.
“Shut-up, Bill.” Jan said. “Your Mother still dressing you, I see.”
Francis giggled. “I bet he still keeps her in the basement with the other stiffs he dates.”
Jan cackled. Bill winced, his face looked as if he ate a lemon. Jan placed her headset on her head, started up her computer. She saw the pale blue box sitting on Francis desk.
“You’re kidding me,” Jan said. “Francis, you brought that box with you?”
Francis made a face. “I told you. That thing follows me wherever I go. I can’t get rid of it.”
Bill looked at around the corner from his cubicle. “Smoking cigars now, Francis. How butch of you.”
Francis crumpled a sheet of typing paper into a ball and threw it at Bill. It nearly missed him.
“My headset isn’t working,” Francis rose from her desk.
Her elbow brushed the pale blue box. It fell from her desk and fell on its side. During the fall, the lid on the box opened. Francis looked on in horror, her hand covering her gaping mouth. Her eyes cut to Jan, then to the box. Her hand covered her mouth.
“Oh GOD! Oh, good GOD! Oh, God. Oh, God, oh, God, God, God, God, God, God, God………Goddddddddddd!” Francis trembled.
Jan went to her side. She looked on, with that I told you so expression. Jan picked up the box, dumped out whatever was supposed to have been in it.
“Nothing,” Jan said. Then she cackled. “Nothing in that stupid box.”
“What’s going to happen now?” Francis was still trembling.
“Nothing, you stupid woman!” Jan shook her friend violently. Haverty ripped you off! Wait,” She thought a moment. “He ripped me off!”
“Haverty?” Bill spoke in a whisper.
“What, Bill? You been there?” Jan said. “The whole time?”
Bill shook his head yes. He looked up at Jan. Francis knelt beside the box and reached out to touch it. Suddenly, her nose began to twitch. Her face contorted. She buried her head in her hands and sneezed.
Bill was lost in his thoughts. “He sold some candles to my sister.”
“So?” Jan shrugged, started back to her cubicle.
“He told her not to light the candles. They found her body burned beyond recognition. Her house wasn’t touched by the fire.” He said, looked at both of them incredulously. “Not one flame burned anything in that house.”
At this point, Jan heard a strange, low grumble from behind her. She cocked her head, heard it again. No, it wasn’t a grumble, but growling. Like a dog or a wolf…..
Bill let out a shrill cry as Jan turned to find Francis face to face with her. Francis eyes had turned a weird milky white. The pupils were almost non-existent, and long purple veins were pulsating throughout her yellow-skinned face.
Francis threw back her head and several panic-stricken screams pierced Bill and Jan’s ears.
Bill began sobbing, crawled underneath his desk. He whispered a prayer he learned in Sunday school as a child over and over.
Francis grabbed Jan by her blouse and tossed her to the floor. Jan felt a stinging pain rise up through her body. Jan tried to get up but fell back. She looked up and saw Francis chasing Bill around the office, knocking the flimsy plastic cubicles over in her trek. Bill was screaming, calling out for help. Jan managed pick herself up and rushed towards Bill. She saw the stationary closet door open. She waited for Bill to lead Francis to it. Just as he turned the corner, Jan pushed Francis inside. She slammed the door shut and tried to hold the door in place. Jan called for Bill. He ran to her and helped hold the door. Francis was getting angrier and angrier, pushing, scratching, and bumping the door as hard as she could. They heard her cry out like a wounded animal, followed by several more inhuman screams.
“Push a desk in front of the door!” Jan commanded.
“He’ll do no such thing,” they heard a voice. The two of them turned and saw Maggie standing behind them. She was alone. Unusual. She always had an assistant at her side. The tall, dark haired woman in her late forties stepped closer to them, her heels sounding like a round of bullets fired from a machine gun. Maggie was the ever consummate businesswoman. Business suits that obviously cost more than she could afford with her paycheck.
“I leave you three alone for twenty minutes and look……what the hell is going on——wait…….where is Francis?”
The three of them listened. A growl came from the stationary closet, nails clawing at the door.
“Is she in there?” Maggie said.
Jan and Bill were silent. Scared out of their wits of Maggie, knowing their jobs were over. Maggie ushered them out of the way. Bill and Jan gingerly moved from the door. Maggie stepped up and slung the door open. Before Francis could let out another round of screams, she sneezed.
A line of white stringy snot covered the top of Maggie’s lips and right cheek.
Maggie was flabbergasted. .Francis was confused. She slowly moved out of the closet. She saw the mess in the office. She walked toward Jan and Bill, they immediately backed away from her. Maggie wiped the snot from her face with a hand. She turned on her heels and screamed.
“You filthy animal!” Maggie was furious and embarrassed. “I’ll have all of your jobs for this disgusting joke!” She stormed into her office. The echo from the door slammed shut could be hear throughout the office building.
“What—-what—–happened here?” Francis pointed to the office.
“You don’t remember anything?” Jan looked her over, making sure her friend was back to normal.
Francis shrugged. “No,” she said. “What’s wrong with Bill?”
Bill was sitting in a corner, his thumb in his mouth. He was mumbling a prayer and rocking back and forth.
At the end of the day, they had calmed Bill and cleaned up the office. Maggie hadn’t stepped out of her office all day. Jan and Francis were getting ready to go home when Bill reminded them of the pale blue box under Francis desk.
Jan reached down and picked it up. With much joy and relief, she stuffed the wooden box into a trash can.
Inside her office, Maggie was sitting at her desk, stewing. The purple veins pulsated as they formed long deep creases in her body. Her eyes were a milky white.
The echo of several inhuman screams could be heard all through the empty office building.
PRE-ORDER MARK SLADE’S ‘WITCH FOR HIRE’ HERE