Timeline note: This one is pretty much wherever you want it to be. This isn't time-specific, although it is obviously after Dawn…
The witching hour. That's what my sister always called it when I worked the overnight. She's seventeen and going through a horror novel phase. I once invited her to come along to Copy-X-Press with me during my once-a-month overnight shift and see how not horrible and not interesting it really is. Shockingly enough, she always seemed to have other plans.
The truth is, I don't mind the night shifts much, because it is, after all, night and most people have better things to do (sleeping, for instance) then make copies and send faxes. Most people, faced with a warm bed on the one hand and a stack of papers on the other decide that the world is not really going to end if they leave their cerlox binding until tomorrow. Periodically, we do get some strange characters. This one lady, who is a regular, has an internet romance with a guy in Australia, and she comes in at night to use the net terminal because it is daytime there. And we get a few drunken goth kids photocopying their butts from time to time. But unless Yoshi has left me work from the day shift to finish, it's pretty much me, my physics textbook and all the bright fluorescent reading light I can handle.
The night the weird people came in, I was just getting through a fascinating section on cellular mitosis when the door chime sounded. I looked up with the beginnings of a pleasant smile, but paused when I got a good look at the pair. The girl seemed normal enough. She was dressed in jeans and a blue tank top, and looked about my age. The guy was older, and at first I assumed he was her father. But when he said hello, he talked British. And while he had obviously made some effort to smooth out a sweater and chinos that had seen better days and were kind of dirty, he had some marks on his face that looked unhealthy, and his hair was stiff and still oozed gel in places. And as I watched it for a few minutes while they fumbled through the desk tray for pens, it didn't seem to be drying.
"Honestly, Giles, I can't believe you didn't fill these out already," the girl complained as she jotted down notes on one of their papers.
He swiped at the mess on his head with an irritable scowl. "Sorry. Just…"
"Just that Travers will have your head on a platter if you don't get these reports in to him, and with our fax machine dying along with whatever sprayed its entrails on your head, you were in frazzle mode, I know, Buffy explained it to me. But Giles, I wasn't there. So why do I have to…"
"You know why."
"To bail you out if the demon entrails make you sick or something, I know, I know. All right, let's get on with it, then." The girl flipped pages. "Okay, next…kill time. Kill time? The council has you timing that now?"
"Approximations will suffice. Say, ten minutes?"
"For one demon? Wow, is Buffy off her game?"
"Well, he was a very large demon. And there was the whole fire-breathing part."
If it weren't for the normal-looking clothes on the girl, I would have assumed they were Dungeons and Dragons players. I remember when Yoshi trained me, one of the first things he said was just don't listen. Our customers might sometimes be kids just playing around (although the guy looked a bit old for that) but sometimes they were entrusting us to copy or fax their important business files, and it was none of our business. Don't read the faxes and copies, Yoshi said. Just mind your own business. But it was midnight, and the store was empty…
"Okay," the girl said. "Kill method…oooh, a multiple choice one. Um, stabbing, staking, beheading, immolation, hand to hand, spell or potion. Check all that apply."
The man closed his eyes and made a few mining motions with his hand, as if reliving one of the faster scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
"So, hand to hand, I am guessing," said the girl.
"Better add immolation too," the man said after a moment. "Although that was more the creature's own fault than anything we did…"
He scratched at the goop on his head. "Good lord, this itches. You don't think it's an…an effect, do you?"
It was one of those role-playing games after all, I guessed. A little gruesome and hands-on for Dungeons and Dragons, maybe, but I had heard of these parties from my friend Colette where they go into some bar or something for three days straight and pretend to be god knows what. It explained the rumbled clothes and the goop in his hair. Hair products did funny things when you didn't wash them out sometimes. Like itching, for instance.
The girl put down the pen and began rifling through her backpack. "All right. Form-writing called on account of research. Let's make sure the entrails aren't…you know, doing something."
I knew it was none of my business, but I would have to ask these people what RPG they were using. The goop the man was picking out of his hair was, under the fluorescent lighting, looking more ominous and impressive by the minute, Colette would love a game with such realistic props as this one.
He was attacking his skull now with both hands. "You'd best handle that. Not sure I am in the mood for lots of…turning pages…"
She sighed. "Bathrooms are that way. Go clean up a little, will you? All that scratching is kind of creeping me out."
She waited until he had disappeared down the amenities corridor, then began flipping through the book. Periodically, she would hold one of the loose papers aloft and squint at it, comparing what appeared to be some sort of sketch with what was in the book. After a few minutes, the man came back, hair dripping wet but hands free of it. She angled the book toward him. "Well, what do you think?"
"That's the one," he said.
She nodded. "Well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the bodily fluids really are a topical irritant. But the good news is it's just topical."
He exhaled slowly. "No aspect of a demon to worry about, then."
"No. But we will need to make a cream for it. There's a long list of stuff we'll need to get here. Is the magic shop still open?"
I was unshyly following the conversation now, and this was my perfect chance to jump in. "Yes," I told them
They both looked up as if noticing me for the first time. "Excuse me?" the man said.
"It's Saturday," I said. "They are open 24 hours on weekends."
They stared at me blankly.
"Joke-O-Rama?" I persisted. "I've been there, with my friend Colette. I bought a whoopee cushion."
There was a long pause. "That's not the store we mean," said the man with a tight smile.
He put his thumb on the book and turned his attention back to the girl. "Think we should copy this while we're here? We might have to leave something with them, if they have to order any of the ingredients."
"Well, this all looks like pretty common stuff. But we're here anyway, we might as well." She turned back to me. "How much are copies?"
"Ten cents a page," I said.
"Right. So, do we want the regular version or the extra-potent one?"
He looked over her shoulder, straining to see. "What's the difference?"
"Regular version is if it was just blood and stuff. Clears up the irritation and you're done. Extra-potent is if you think you got entrails on you too. Cause…ewww."
He scratched at his head again. "What? What does it say?"
"Well, the entrails, they can…they can do stuff."
"Aspect of a demon?"
"No, no. More like…not enough ewww in the world."
"What? What is it?" He ripped the book from her hands, then let out a squeak. "They lay EGGS?"
"Better get the extra-potent," the girl said firmly. She slapped the book on the counter. It made a hefty clunk. "Start at page 1,604 and keep going until you reach the dragon. And can you blow it up, like, 25? Sumerian fonts are so tiny…"
Never mind what Yoshi had said about minding my own business. After the conversation they had, I had been eager to get my hands on some of their stuff and sneak a peak. It had not occurred to me that this wouldn't be in English…
"And fax this to London please, straight away," the man said, shoving the loose papers across the counter to me. I gave them a quick peek to see if they were anything interesting, but he had stuck a bland cover sheet on them and there would be no way to peek without them noticing. It was with a twinge of disappointment that I carried out their order and returned their items to them.
"Have a nice day," I said.
There was no point in even asking them about their game, I supposed. If the dungeon master guide or whatever it was wasn't in English, I didn't think even someone as hard-core as Colette would play.