Story art by Stefan Tosheff.
From the author: Two wizards investigate a goblin-run phone scheme running amok at their retirement home in this mashup of Harry Potter and the Golden Girls.
“Grams? I need help.” The phone line wheezed like an old man. Even modern magic couldn’t improve the quality of transatlantic phone calls.
“Are you sick, Isaiah? You sound like you have a cold.”
A pause. “I’m fine. I mean, I’m not sick. I need money.”
“Do you still have that potion recipe I sent you last year? The one made with mussel shell and— Money?”
Octavia hadn’t heard from Isaiah in nearly eight months. Last she had heard, he was in—
“—Egypt. I...made a mistake”—which did not surprise Octavia at all—“and, well...”
Octavia rolled her eyes so hard, she hoped Isaiah could hear it. He had been travelling the world for the last few years. “Finding himself.” This was the fourth time he had called begging for money. Always in trouble, always desperate—and never so much as a postcard to say thank you. But Octavia knew what it was to fall in with the wrong sort during the wayward days of your twenties. She glanced at the photo of Isaiah and his sister Michelle magneted to the small fridge in her kitchenette. It was partway covered by an invitation for Michelle’s baby shower. “Have you called your mother or sister? They’d love to hear from you.”
“Yeah, Mom’s fine. She can’t help me, though. Listen. I lost my passport—but I can get it back! I just need money.”
“The Canadian embassy is charging—”
“Not the embassy, just— Grams. I need help.”
Octavia sighed. She would help her grandson (again) in the way that his parents never could. The house boomball team, Thackeray’s Daiquiris, would just have to wait for their new uniforms—
Her thought was cut short by a sound so loud, the walls of Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards shook. Next door, Ms. Rosewater’s collection of crystal unicorns cascaded to the floor with the sound of glass raindrops.
A wolfish old man appeared. He wore brown slacks, a white shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, and rainbow suspenders. The man snatched the phone from Octavia, incanted under his breath, and then reached into the receiver as though it were a small bucket. Octavia was startled more by having a stranger in her room than by his appearance or actions.
With a sucking sound like a boot being pulled from mud, the man withdrew his hand from the phone. In his white-knuckled grasp was the raspberry-red head of a goblin, its teeth gnashing and long ears flapping.
“Bugger!” it snarled while trying to bite the man. Octavia was startled by her grandson’s voice coming from the wizened goblin’s mouth.
The man wrestled the goblin the rest of the way out of the phone—then, with another loud pop, they were both gone.
The whole encounter lasted less than fifteen seconds.
“Mr. Wolfe.” The attendant didn’t look at Alfred Wolfe as he spoke. Instead, he opened a door identical to the two dozen others lining the hallway in either direction. Though Miss Prunella’s had already proved eccentric, this hallway was a disappointment.
As was the room behind the door.
Ushered inside by the attendant, Wolfe found a room identical to one in a non-magical retirement home. The main living area had a kitchenette, room for a dining table, and a sitting area that might fit a chesterfield and armchair. Beyond a closed door was the bedroom.
The attendant gave Wolfe the rundown—no hot plates, quiet time at nine o’clock, mandatory guest registration—then left. The door shut. Wolfe wandered into the bedroom, which already had a bed (and not much room for anything else).
He sat on the bed and enjoyed a moment of silence. Since his son had died, he had been surrounded by people with condolences, or papers to sign. Memories and pity. Now, quite suddenly, Wolfe was alone. He wrapped himself in quiet and solitude.
And he cried.
A bead of sweat trickled down Wolfe’s back, though the Gathering Hall of Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards was climate-controlled by a spell that customized the temperature for each resident. A work of ingenuity, really. Even during the height of his youth, before his magic had started to fade, Wolfe would not have been able to pull it off.
All eyes in the room—two hundred sixty-three in all—watched as another bead of sweat worked its way from his brow to the tip of his noticeable nose. The sound of it hitting the cherrywood was resounding. Wolfe surveyed the other wizards. There were skinny trolls, coiffed humans, hippies, drooping goblins, wood nymphs, selkies, an elf, and even a few ghosts (wispy in presence and manner, refusing to leave Miss Prunella’s despite the insistence of their former bodies). Magical energy wafted from them all to varying degrees.
One woman watched Wolfe with particular intent. Her hair was an effervescent halo limned with pink, and her wheelchair was covered in sparkling stickers. “I know you,” her gaze said. “I know what you’ve done.”
“—Mr. Wolfe?” The diminutive Miss Prunella stood beside him, staring and obviously waiting for a response. She blinked once, slowly. Her eyelids were caked from lash to brow in luminescent eyeshadow. Wolfe gulped. “Any words of introductions for these other fine wizards?” she finally repeated.
“Hello,” Wolfe said to the audience. He was a big man, but his voice was small.
“Project!” snapped Miss Prunella. “Fill the room!”
A private eye most of his life, Wolfe was used to life behind the scenes. He would have preferred a quiet entrance, and certainly was not interested in addressing the “experienced” wizards who resided in rotting perpetuity behind the doors of Prunella Thackeray’s Home for the Forgotten and Useless. They were old—and he was not.
Not really. Not yet.
Miss Prunella cleared her throat awkwardly. “Well, Mr. Wolfe—welcome home! Neighbours, how about a warm, wizardly welcome?”
Octavia approached Alfred Wolfe, who was slinking through the crowd after he exited the stage at the front of the Gathering Hall. Octavia blocked his path. In trying to avoid her, he nearly bumped into poor old Mrs. Pottbottom. “I’m sorry,” he said to both of them at once. He wouldn’t look them in the eyes—as though they were predatory animals and he could avoid their further attention if he would just not look at them.
Wolfe started forward, and she cut him off again.
“Excuse me!” He bit off the words. He was getting annoyed—which wasn’t unusual for new residents, especially after Miss Prunella put them through her dog and pony show...
“You could have introduced yourself,” said Octavia. Wolfe looked at her as though she had just passed wind.
“I thought Miss Prunella did a fine job.”
“Earlier, I meant. In my room. With the goblin.”
“In your room! With a goblin?” Now he looked up at Octavia, and his penetrating look reminded her of her granddaughter Michelle. Retired cop? Octavia wondered, filing the thought away for later. “You are certainly mistaking me for someone else.”
“The goblin from the phone. You arrived and disappeared without so much as a hello.”
“What are you talking about?” He was confused, but there was also a glint of curiosity in his reaction—as though he were unravelling an unasked-for but pleasant puzzle.
“You really don’t know?” Octavia said. She could see now that he was every bit as sharp as he looked but genuinely did not remember the incident with the goblin. “An hour ago, I was on the phone with my grandson (who was not my grandson, it turns out), and you appeared—POP!”—Octavia gestured wildly with her hands—“and pulled him through the telephone receiver. It was all rather impressive. Just as quickly, you disappeared with the goblin.”
“I’m familiar with such an extraction incantation,” Wolfe said. “Simple, really. You can’t get through four decades as a PI for the Society of Thaumaturgy and Magic without—”
Octavia cut him off with a clap. “A detective, yes! That makes sense.”
“—learning a thing or two about removing pests from crevices. You say I was in your room earlier?” Curiosity was overtaking his skepticism.
“Yes. But you were too preoccupied with wringing the goblin’s neck to introduce yourself.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” The tone of his voice said one thing, but Octavia could see in his eyes that he was hopeful that it wasn’t. “My name is—”
“Alfred,” said Octavia. “I know. Miss Prunella introduced—”
“Just Wolfe. It’s what everyone calls me.” He was wolfish—but more in his manner than his looks. He was wiry in the way of older men, and his high-waisted slacks billowed comfortably beneath rainbow suspenders. His face was weathered and softened by age. His observant eyes never left Octavia’s. She challenged that gaze, not backing down until he blinked.
“So,” she said.
Not the type to take kindly to losing a staring match, Wolfe turned to leave. “You’re crazy! All of you. Lost your minds.”
“Not a joke to make lightly here, Alfred,” said Octavia as she once again cut him off from the room’s single exit.
“Yes,” he said, though the frustration didn’t leave his face. “You’re right. I apologize. Now, please excuse me, dear. I’ve an appointment.” And you’re still crazy. He didn’t say it, but Octavia could hear it in the way he primly nipped his words.
“Dear?” Octavia wielded the word like a weapon. “None of us have appointments to keep, Alfred. We’re retirees. This is becoming more complicated by the moment.”
“I don’t do complicated anymore.”
“I need your help.”
After further cajoling and physical impediment, Octavia herded Wolfe into a private sitting room. He removed an old chair from beside a small table for Octavia and then sat opposite her. Octavia incanted—a simple verse with the sound of clinking cutlery and a boiling kettle—and soon after, a trio of faeries arrived with nibblies and tea.
Wolfe looked at his watch. “You have three minutes.”
“I received a call from my grandson, Isaiah, who is in Egypt—”
Octavia was interrupted by a new voice. “Here you are, Grams!”
“Michelle!” Octavia said, hiding her annoyance. Her granddaughter was fifteen minutes early. Usually, Octavia looked forward to Michelle’s visits, but today her timing was inconvenient. Octavia loathed upset plans. “This is my friend, Alfred.”
Wolfe stood and stuck out a hand, which Michelle accepted. “Nice to meet you, Michelle.”
Octavia’s granddaughter was tall and muscular, with the same dark skin as her grandmother. She wore her pregnancy like she was born for it, belly round and proud. In her, Wolfe could see an image of what Octavia must have been in her youth. Vibrant and strong, keen.
“Hello, Alfred,” said Michelle. A glimpse of her grandmother’s mischievousness touched her smile.
She narrowed her eyes and said, “Moving in on a defenseless old woman like this? She has no protection against your charms!”
“I didn’t specialize in Charms,” said Wolfe.
“A good-looking man like you? I doubt you needed magic in your younger days, and you don’t need it now.”
“We’re friends,” Octavia said, brushing aside Michelle’s speculation with a waved hand.
Michelle closed her eyes and fanned herself as though overcome by Wolfe’s mere presence. “Have you known Grams for long?”
“Not long. I moved in today.”
Michelle was surprised, but that settled into a look of impressed bemusement. “Today? You seem like old friends.”
“Hot fires forge strong friendships,” said Wolfe. In fact, Octavia did have that way of feeling like an old friend. The anxiety of being on stage, the melancholy of his lonely room—it was all gone.
Michelle’s eyes narrowed. “You were a cop.”
“PI,” said Wolfe. No use hiding it. “And you? RCMP?”
“They’re still letting you work?” Wolfe said, scooping his hands over his belly.
“Letting me?” Michelle shot a look at her grandmother, and Wolfe realized he’d overstepped his bounds. “Who the hell is this guy, Grams?” Eyes back on Wolfe. “Letting me? I’d like to see them try to stop me.”
“Good,” said Wolfe. “I respect that. Swear to god, cops in my hometown didn’t know a day of hard work in their life—”
“For money,” Octavia butted in. “Isaiah was calling me for money.”
“Isaiah called you? He only emails me.” Michelle said. “Actually, I heard from him yesterday. He’s in Greece.”
“Is he really?”
Michelle sighed. “You can’t be sending him money anymore, Grams! He’s a lost cause.”
“He’ll never be a lost cause. But that’s not the point. It wasn’t him that I’ve been sending the money to.”
“Then who was it?” Michelle’s confusion was clear.
“We think it was a goblin,” Wolfe piped in, despite himself. He’d been rolling the clues around in his head, and the basic picture was beginning to take shape. He could no longer deny the fire growing in him, or the desire to catch a crooked goblin.
Michelle rolled her eyes. “A goblin stole your money?”
“That’s a little outside my jurisdiction,” Michelle said. Wolfe didn’t know if she had the spark, but he was willing to bet that working for the GVPD meant she didn’t. Policing in the wizarding world was more of a vigilante matter than in the sparkless world, and there was rarely crossover between the two law divisions.
“You’ve sent money before?” Wolfe asked.
“Yes. He’s not the most...self-sufficient of us. He travels the world, and, well, trouble follows. I don’t like sending him money, but family takes care of its own.”
“How many times have you sent him money?” Wolfe asked.
“Three times,” Octavia admitted.
“I’m sure Isaiah is safe, Grams,” said Michelle. “In fact, he’s probably entirely unaware that his voice has been stolen and you’ve been caught in this game.”
“Goblin crime rings are not unusual,” Wolfe admitted. “They prey on those with good hearts and deep pockets. We must go after him.” Wolfe could have put on a trench coat and fedora, and the transformation from quiet retiree to PI wouldn’t have been more obvious.
“Yeah. It’s common in the real world, too,” said Michelle. Wolfe hated the term “real world,” which was often used by those who knew of the wizarding world but lived outside it. “The money’s gone, Grams. It’s almost impossible to catch scammers like that.”
“It’s not the money,” said Wolfe. “It’s the principle.”
“Well, it’s also the money,” said Octavia. “I was saving up to buy new uniforms for the Thackeray’s Daiquiris. There’s a do-or-die game in a few weeks, against those loathsome poor sports, the Whispering Oaks Vipers, and we really must look our best during the victory lap. Now the money’s gone, and I’ll be lucky to afford new decals for their hats, let alone uniforms. We’re old but not used up. What do we do?”
“Unless you can go back in time, Grams,” said Michelle, “take it as a lesson learned—you’re not too old for that. And tell your friends so they don’t get scammed in the same way.”
“We’re not that old,” Wolfe said. Octavia started to laugh, until she realized he was serious. Michelle looked like she wished she were anywhere else.
The Gathering Hall was a maelstrom of magical and mundane activity. Saturday was the day that Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards really came to life. In one corner, several wizards performed some sort of play for a small (but rapt) audience, complete with instantaneous costume changes and what appeared to be a domesticated Pollywample.
Wolfe and Octavia were enjoying the late spring breeze at one of the Hall’s ceiling-high windows, and watching the house boomball team, Thackeray’s Daiquiris, practice in the courtyard. Their uniforms were faded from long exposure to the sun, and several of the newer players were outfitted in attire a size too large or small. Hardly inspiring.
Several residents placed bets with Octavia, which she recorded in a small notebook. Even with this rush of income, Octavia couldn’t possibly make up for the money stolen by the goblin. The thought of the team having to face the Whispering Oaks Vipers in those uniforms made her blood boil. They were bitter rivals, and the midsummer league title was on the line. New uniforms or not, they would simply have to prove it on the field.
“You shouldn’t be taking bets,” said Wolfe under his breath, displeasure obvious.
Octavia raised an eyebrow. “Tell that to my bettors.”
“It is illegal! And not ladylike.”
“I’ll show you ladylike.” Octavia gestured at him so rudely that she thought his blush might boil his eyeballs. “That’s what I thought.”
The scrimmage ended. Octavia turned back to Wolfe, finally giving him the attention he obviously craved. She ran a hand through her hair, but her curls bounced back, vigorous. Wolfe absently touched his bald pate, vainly shined.
“My wife had hair like yours,” he said. “It was blond, though. Not…” A pause. “…pink.”
“Auburn. Once. When the dinosaurs roamed.”
“I was born during the Paleogene Period.”
“Ah,” Octavia smirked. The joke hung in the air for a tender moment, then she asked, “Can you tell me about her?”
“I don’t think about Jane much anymore,” said Wolfe, but Octavia could see the lie in his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” She reached to take Wolfe’s hand, but he moved it away; whether to avoid the touch or just by coincidence, Octavia couldn’t tell.
“No need. She’s not dead—as far as I know. We separated a long time ago. She deflected during the Bitter Years, and, well...we couldn’t find the magic again after that.”
“I was never married. It seemed too...difficult.”
“The west coast is wild and free,” said Wolfe, with a self-pitying chuckle. “That’s one of the reasons I moved back, besides being closer to my son.”
“I don’t think the west is much different than the east, to be honest. But, yes, I suppose some of us are more wild and free than others. You moved here to be closer to your son?”
“After he moved here for work, the thought of staying behind in Thunder Bay seemed lonely. I followed him and his wife. Do you have children?”
“One,” said Octavia. “My son. Jeremy. He has the spark, though he buries it. My daughter-in-law is sparkless and so are my grandchildren. Michelle is due in a few weeks. We’ll see if the spark reemerges.”
“My son is—” The words trembled on Wolfe’s lips. When he gathered himself, his voice was strong. “He was sparkless.”
“Was?” asked Octavia. As soon as she said it, she saw the can of worms spill open.
“He died. Three months ago. And, well...here I am.”
This time, Wolfe let Octavia take his hand. He looked around the room as if seeking a distraction. “So many sparkless these days,” Octavia said. “It must be that half the residents have sparkless children.”
Wolfe shook his head sadly. “Old magic has no place in this world.”
“Not here, maybe, with our skyscrapers and children glued to screens—but you’re wrong. Magic is still strong in this world. I know. Can’t you can feel it?”
“It feels weak to me—in me,” said Wolfe. Bitterness twisted his voice like an old scar. “My magic is withering faster than my body.” He was still strong-backed and physically capable, so Octavia knew the price he paid for each word.
Octavia’s magic remained strong. She often helped other residents by performing incantations and cantrips outside the purview of the regulations and bylaws at Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards. All under the table, of course, but nothing harmful. Serious magic was meant to be controlled (and profited from) by Miss Prunella and her staff. It was often this way with wizards: magic fading before their body, or vice versa. Only the rarest wizards kept both. However, even Octavia’s powerful incantations were not enough to help heal her failing body. “Together, we sort of form one real person,” she said.
Wolfe laughed. “I’ve always thought that to be an admirable trait in a friendship.” Wolfe’s callused fingers were rough on Octavia’s papery-thin skin.
“Oh, to be young enough to be fit and strong but old enough to appreciate it,” said Octavia. “Though, even with all this”—she waved her hand at the elderly wizards surrounding them—“I’m not sure I would go back. I was hard on myself, and it wasn’t always easy. Being younger, I mean.”
“Younger,” Wolfe pondered the word. He let go of Octavia’s hand and rubbed his head furiously. Then, suddenly, he looked Octavia hard in the eyes. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” Octavia said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Younger. When I met you for the first time, in your room, you were younger, yes?”
“Not by much, but, yes, I was younger three days ago.”
“It seems so obvious now that I think of it! The maelstrom sound when I appeared in your room? I’ve heard it before, when I was chasing down an escaped sphinx near Yellowknife. It had a habit of popping in and out of time. Bugger to catch.”
“Time travel?” Octavia said, hand drawn to her mouth.
“Time travel,” Wolfe agreed. “I must go meet your younger self. Three days younger, to be exact. And there I’ll catch a crooked goblin. Follow me.”
The librarian was a gnome with ears that looked like they should be hooked up to a phonograph. He cocked an eyebrow when Wolfe described the book they were looking for, but directed them to the stacks two floors up without a fuss. Once there, Wolfe began his search, while Octavia browsed a nearby aisle.
“Ah-ha!” Wolfe called, emerging from the dusty aisle with a book. It squirmed in his hands, arching its spine like a cat. “It’s an older edition than I’m familiar with, but it should work.”
The book was bound in dark leather softened by centuries of human touch. On its cover: an embossed hour glass. On its spine: Temporal Deviations and Wormholes (rev. 8). “Warm,” Wolfe said. He had lived with his son outside the wizarding world for so long that he’d almost forgotten the quickness of living books. The heartbeat of their knowledge. He traced a finger along the binding, over the copper clasp—
Octavia glanced around nervously. “Shh!”
“It nipped me!”
“They get ornery with age. How would you like some stranger running his finger up your spine without asking?”
“Depends on the stranger,” Wolfe snickered, refusing to give Octavia the victory. He handed her the book. “Open it to any page.”
Octavia soothed the book with a minor incantation. The pages were blank, but, like a drop of blood in water, swirls of ink appeared and formed into letters. Words. Sentences. She looked up, surprise clear on her face. “This is a very exact record of my phone call with the goblin and your dramatic appearance!”
“A mundane moment to keep on record, no?” said Wolfe. His smirk was decadent.
“Mundane?” cried the book, its voice like the dry riffling of old pages. Octavia was startled and nearly dropped it. “I’m not mundane!”
“N—no.” Wolfe stammered.
“Certainly not!” said Octavia.
“Well,” said the book. “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Octavia asked.
“To. Travel. Back. In. Time.” Living books always seemed to adopt a flair for the dramatic. Wolfe believed there was intersectionality between a book’s desire for sentience and theatricality. “That’s what I do. “
“Time travel.” Octavia drew out the words. “How fascinating.”
“You’d like to go back to this spot in time?” asked the book. Its pages fluttered like waving arms.
“Well, yes. I suppose so.”
“You only get one chance. No more.”
“Wouldn’t be very interesting if I let you do it over and over again. Plus, you know, temporal complications and all...”
“No! It must be me.” cried Wolfe. He had been the one to appear from thin air in Octavia’s room, not her.
Octavia started to object, but her face lit up as she realized the truth of Wolfe’s words. “Of course it must!”
“Put your hand on my page,” said the book. “You get fifteen seconds. Use them well.”
Wolfe’s hand covered paper and ink. He was sucked into the book without even a whisper of sound. In her surprise, Octavia dropped the book.
Fifteen seconds passed. Wolfe reappeared in a maelstrom of sound and light, his knuckly hands throttling the goblin’s neck. On the goblin’s robe was an insignia of entwined oak trees. Spittle flew from its lips as it squirmed. Wolfe held tight until it stopped struggling, on the verge of unconsciousness. He loosened his grip. The goblin hung there, gasping, its eyes flicking back and forth between its captors.
“What’s your name?” Octavia said in the voice she used on her children when they had misbehaved.
The goblin snarled. Wolfe squeezed harder again. “Gazlowe,” it said in a posh London accent that sounded nothing like Isaiah. Octavia thought she felt a tickle of magic issue from the goblin—but then there was nothing, not even the residue of Wolfe’s time travel.
“You stole her money!” Wolfe tossed the goblin to the floor. It scrambled backwards, bumping into the nearest bookshelf, trapped as Wolfe approached. He leaned in so close, his glasses were fogged by the goblin’s breath. His stabbed an accusing finger at the goblin and flicked its nose. “You stole from her.” He pointed furiously over his shoulder at Octavia.
“Technically, I haven’t stolen from her yet,” said Gazlowe, dropping effortlessly into Isaiah’s voice. Some smarminess appeared in his manner. He waggled at Octavia in a way that reminded her of the class bully at her boarding school, who would wave at her victims from behind the teacher’s back.
“You’ve stolen from her before!” Wolfe’s bellowing was attracting the attention of a volunteer book shelver.
“Not me,” said Gazlowe. “Must’ve been one of my colleagues.”
“You will return her money. Now.”
“Well,” Gazlowe said, his lip trembling like a child on the verge of crocodile tears, “in that case...” From an inner pocket of his robe, he extracted a winged wallet made from the hide of a very small dragon. He opened it...and a moth flew out. “Ahh, pity. Looks like I’m a little short.”
A twinkle in his eye and an ear-to-ear grin, a slight parting of his lips. He waved his hands and...disappeared. No loud noise, no sparkling lights. At the same moment, Wolfe shouted an incantation (something that Octavia thought might be meant to bind the goblin). It died on his lips. The residual magic broke against Octavia like the ripples of a small stone dropped in the centre of a huge lake.
Wolfe raced from one end of the aisle to the other, checking around each corner. The book shelver watched them with a curiosity that was quickly turning to concern.
“God dammit. I should have known. I should have seen that coming.” He looked spent, and Octavia realized how much the use of magic had cost him.
“He’s gone, Alfred,” Octavia said gently.
Goblins could teleport to a location to which they had previously tethered. It stood to reason that a crook like Gazlowe would be tethered to a safe location, should he be apprehended by the Society of Thaumaturgy and Magic. Or another angry wizard.
“God dammit,” Wolfe said again, his voice deflated. Old. He picked up the book. “We had him. The bastard was right there. Literally in my hands. My spell—”
“It fizzled, Alfred. There’s no shame in that, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.” Wolfe looked like a scolded puppy, so she softened her next words. “I’m sorry I wasn’t faster to catch on. But now it’s my turn,” said Octavia, confident. “Pass me the book.”
Wolfe gave it to her. “Your turn?”
“I will stop this before it even begins,” Octavia said. A plan blossomed. There was no need to keep pulling weeds if she could get them at the roots. Octavia opened the book to a random page. Words appeared.
“Airport?” Wolfe muttered, squinting behind his glasses as he tried to read the book over her shoulder. Octavia placed her hand on the page. “Where are you—”
Octavia was sucked into the book.
Time whipped about her like a sail caught in a squall. Wild. Violent.
Octavia was dumped onto the thin-carpeted floor of a departure gate at Vancouver International Airport. Nearby, passengers hovered in every state between anxious and excited. No one saw her arrival except for one startled child, who tugged at her distracted father’s sleeve. Octavia’s chest was tight, her shoulder muscles tense—but soon that discomfort was replaced by slow, dreadful realization. Her stomach dropped as she looked around, searching for her wheelchair. It was not there. Of course it had not come with her!
She started incanting and disappeared from sight of the sparkless passengers. But such an invisibility charm required constant incantation, and her lungs were beginning to burn. Still, she kept incanting and searching. So many people. She glanced between legs and through the gaps separating travelling groups. There! Isaiah was at the check-in desk, pointing frantically at the ticket. The airline employee behind the counter looked unimpressed. Isaiah yelled something, but Octavia couldn’t hear his heated words. His finger stabbed down at the duffel bag on the floor beside him. The airline employee shrugged.
Stars spun in Octavia’s eyes.
She gasped and her incantation died.
Other travellers noticed Octavia now. Scared or contemptuous, most of them averted their eyes or pretended not to notice. A young woman saw her through the crowd. Hand raised to her mouth, she hurried forward, speaking kindly to Octavia in Arabic, and shooting daggers at the bystanders who refused to help. One of them guiltily called for help.
Before the woman reached her, however, Octavia felt time’s pull and she was twisted apart. A gale-caught leaf. When time snapped back into place, Wolfe stared down at her on the floor, curious and concerned.
“What happened?” Wolfe asked. They were seated in Octavia’s small living room. He handed her a hot cup of chamomile and a bit of chocolate. That combination had worked for him from the first day his mother had administered it.
“Failed what?” Wolfe was trying to be patient, something he had struggled with as a father and husband. But he believed that people could change, and, dammit, he was trying. “Where did you go?”
“I went to stop him,” Octavia said. “To give him a password,” said Octavia, “so I would know it was him on the phone.” The surface of her tea jittered in rhythm with her hands. Wolfe wasn’t sure if it was anxiety or the stress of time travelling. It had not hit him so hard—but, then, he hadn’t failed his task until he’d returned to the present.
“It doesn’t matter, Alfred. You can’t change what’s already happened.”
Octavia sat in quiet contemplation, a copy of Padma Utval’s A Brief History of Teleportation and Tethering ignored in her lap. Delighted laughter drifted in through a nearby window. Outside, several wizards had turned one of the courtyard’s enormous fountains into an ice slide.
She had not seen Wolfe during the two days since their failed attempt to recover the goblin and her money. Well, that was not entirely true. She had seen him in the common areas. He’d been cordial, but she had started taking the long way back to her suite to avoid crossing his path. Unlike most of the men she had known in her life, he was giving her the space she obviously required.
Of course, such good behaviour could not last forever.
Wolfe entered the lounge, bursting with more energy than Octavia had ever seen from him. A grin lit his face, revealing teeth so perfect they had to be dentures.
“Vengeance is in my heart,” he said, voice booming as though he stood on stage, “death in my hand, blood and revenge are hammering in my head.”
“A touch dramatic.” Though Octavia was loath to admit it, the theatricality worked for him.
“It’s Shakespeare. You do know Shakespeare?”
“I’m a wizard, Alfred, not a troll living under a rock.”
“You never know with our type.” His relief was palpable. “It’s healthy to keep a connection to the sparkless world. Lack of magic is a void often filled by creativity. I’m pleased to meet another Shakespeare fan.”
Octavia put down her coffee cup. “I never said I was a fan.”
“Not a—” he stammered.
“The vengeance in your heart, the death in your hand, the blood and revenge hammering through your head—they appear to have been replaced by hot air.”
Wolfe squirmed under her unexpected merriment. “All I meant,” he mumbled, “is that I still want to catch the bastard. And I know where to find him now,” Wolfe finished with a dramatic thump of his fist upon a nearby armchair.
Octavia scrunched her eyebrows. For the first time since Gazlowe escaped, she felt the stirring of the fire that had spurred her to seek Wolfe’s help in the first place. “Well?” she said.
“Gazlowe made a mistake. Or an unforeseeable oversight, rather. He’s a resident at the Whispering Oaks.”
“Explains why he’s such a bastard. How did you figure that out?”
Wolfe put something on the table in front of Octavia. It was a flyer advertising the upcoming boomball match between Thackeray’s Daiquiris and the Whispering Oaks Vipers. Emblazoned above the team names were their house logos.
“I knew I recognized the badge on his robe,” said Wolfe, a beatific smile revealing perfect teeth. Octavia hadn’t noticed. “Only, I couldn’t place it until I saw this poster in the common room.”
The Whispering Oaks retirement home was in Saanich, only an hour or so away from Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards.
Octavia had been stifling her appetite for revenge since their failed encounter with Gazlowe. “What do you propose we do this time?”
“We get the bastard. No one else is going to do it for us.” Wolfe’s confidence was overflowing, and Octavia worried that it might be clouding his judgement.
“We buggered up our last attempt, Alfred. How do we stop the goblin from simply whizzing away again?”
“I called in a favour from an old friend of mine from the Society of Thaumaturgy and Magic. A few favours, actually. Arqat loaned me this.” Wolfe held out a small egg-shaped device. The intricate pattern etched on its surface glowed crimson.
“What is it?” Octavia asked.
“An interferovum. Simple, really. Creates a space/time bubble that no magical energy can pass through. Stops a goblin from teleporting long enough for us to clap him in cuffs.”
“Seems too easy.”
“We have to get close. Real close. The bubble’s about the size of a closet.”
“So, we have to go to the Whispering Oaks. How do we get there? If we fly, we could be there in—”
“We can’t fly,” said Wolfe. “Well, I can’t. Doctor’s orders. And besides, we can’t just barge in there in the middle of the day. They’ll see us coming, feel your magic.”
“Michelle can drive us.” Wolfe replied so quickly, it was clear he’d been contemplating every facet of the plan.
“She’ll never go for it,” Octavia said with a shake of her head. “She’s sparkless and, worse, protective of me. She won’t be roped into our crazy.”
“It’s not crazy! Please, Octavia. Call her.”
“You’re positively glowing!” said Octavia. Despite the seriousness of the situation, there was no hesitation or anxiety in her voice—just a grandmother making chitchat with her granddaughter. Michelle, on the other hand, was mixed skepticism and amusement.
“Glowing?” Michelle said with a deadpan look. “Sweat-sheened, more like it. Ask Tony and he’d say pregnancy’s more about glowering than glowing.” As if to prove her point, she ran a wrist across her brow, and, indeed, some of the glow wiped off. “Can’t you wave your hands and make this heat go away?”
“Oh, you know it doesn’t work like that. Now, let me get some drinks.”
Octavia went off to her kitchenette to retrieve a pitcher of lemon water and three glasses. Meanwhile, Wolfe and Michelle relaxed in her living room.
“How’s Tony?” Octavia asked once she returned. “Nervous?”
“Tony’s my husband,” Michelle said to Wolfe (though he knew that already from talking with Octavia). “He’s fine.” She rolled her eyes. “Underworked. He’s cut a few projects from his schedule to ‘prepare for the baby.’ Whatever that means. Maybe he could take you golfing.” She turned to Wolfe. “He needs an excuse to leave the house.”
“A splendid idea!” pipped Octavia. Wolfe hated golf.
“We need your help.” Wolfe hadn’t intended to be so blunt, but the words spilled out.
“Here we go...” Michelle muttered.
“Hear us out,” Octavia said. Her eyes were shooting daggers at Wolfe. She explained their plan, and Wolfe chipped in here and there to clarify a few points about his friend. Michelle regarded Wolfe with wariness at first, then open contempt.
“I knew you were up to something!” said Michelle. “You’re absolutely not going after the goblin. Not even ‘on principle.’ Here are your options: A) phone your magical police, the Society of Pharmacists and—whatever, or, B) you forget about the money and smarten up. Your choice.”
“Michelle—” Octavia began, only to be cut off by her granddaughter.
“But, of course, you’re not going to take either of those completely sensible options. Not you, Grams. Stuck in a home, making friends with rabble-rousers”—she nodded at Wolfe—“and with that fire burning in your belly, same as mine.”
“Secret option C?” said Wolfe, hopefully.
“Yeah,” Michelle said. “Secret option C. Fine. I’ll take you.”
Octavia was flabbergasted and it showed on her face. Wolfe knew she had a whole spiel planned, a heartfelt plea for help centered around an argument that Sam Gamgee was the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. She would be crushed that her preparation had gone to waste. “Fi—fine?” she stammered. “You’ll take us? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Michelle said. “You’ll go whether I take you or not. There’s no stopping you, Grams. I know that. You know that. At least this way, you’ll have a cop to keep you safe and away from anything too illegal.”
“Outside of your jurisdiction, anyway,” said Wolfe. He didn’t even try to fight his smile.
“What about you, anyway?” Michelle shot back. “You look fit; can’t you drive?”
“Can,” affirmed Wolfe. “Haven’t in years, though. Let my license lapse.”
“When do we leave?” Michelle said with a resigned sigh.
“Now,” said Octavia.
“Now? I’m— Grams. Now?”
“Yes,” said Wolfe. “Arqat is being very generous with his time and attention—he doesn’t have to do this, you know, and, frankly, if anyone knew he had lent me this”—Wolfe took out the interferovum to show Michelle—“well, there’d be trouble.”
Michelle sighed again. “I should have filled up the gas tank on the way here. We’ll have to stop along the way. At least gas is cheaper out here than in the city.”
“Oh, we won’t be taking your car,” said Octavia, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Not taking my—”
“We’ll be taking Ms. Rosewater’s car. She’s agreed to let us borrow it.”
“Does she know where you’re taking it?”
“Absolutely not!” Octavia mimicked her granddaughter’s earlier incredulous tone.
“We move in secret!” Wolfe said, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Why her car and not mine?”
“You can’t expect a sparkless car to find a magically hidden location, can you?”
Minutes later, they were piled into Ms. Rosewater’s old Lincoln Town Car—the kind with the single bench seat up front, that guzzled more gasoline than a cruise liner—arguing about how to get it started. Michelle jingled the keys in the ignition again. The crystal unicorns that covered every flat surface stamped their feet and made a noise that sounded like ice rain drumming on a tin roof.
“Jesus Christ, Grams! I know how to start a car!” Michelle snapped.
“Not this car, Michelle,” said Octavia. “Sparked cars are different.”
“Just do this—” said Wolfe, who was halfway between the front and back seats, trying to reach past Michelle to the ignition. His fingers brushed the keys, and Octavia felt a slight thrill of magic shiver through the car. The engine roared to life.
“Still got a little left in these old bones!” said Wolfe.
As soon as the car started, an ’80s pop ballad came blaring to life. Ms. Rosewater was anything but subtle. Wolfe and Octavia both clapped their hands over their ears. Michelle laughed. “Ms. Rosewater is a Madonna fan? Who would’ve thought?”
She eased the car out of the parking stall and then up the ramp that led from the underground lot. Soon, they were careening along the serpentine Malahat Highway. Above was a pastel painting of indigo storm clouds scraping across a starry sky. Octavia sensed a growing excitement in Michelle. She had always been adventurous and curious—constantly in trouble as a child, seeking challenges, fleeing boredom. She drove like a bat out of hell, and soon, the car was rattling so much that Octavia’s teeth started to chatter.
Raindrops flared like falling stars in the incandescent light of the car’s headlights. Michelle killed the engine. The drum of rain on the broad roof and hood were the only sounds stirring the dark night.
Wolfe’s gaze wandered over the three-story expanse of the Whispering Oaks. Where Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards was grandiose from its roots to the peak of its highest tower, the Whispering Oaks was slumbering elegance—clean lines and subtle beauty that felt out of place in the broad, rural Saanich countryside.
“I’ve come out here a hundred times to stargaze with Tony,” said Michelle, “but I swear I’ve never seen this place before. It looks like it was stolen from Dubai...”
Octavia returned Michelle’s puzzled look and shrugged.
An enormous iron gate blocked the car from getting any closer to the Whispering Oaks. “So, do you just walk up and knock on the front door?” Michelle asked. “That gate sure looks locked.”
“Up and over,” Wolfe said with a grunt as he opened the car door. Michelle popped the trunk, and Wolfe retrieved Octavia’s wheelchair. Moments later, the two would-be break-in artists were at the gate, protected from the rain by a spherical bubble of air. With a boost from Octavia’s magic, Wolfe clambered over the gate’s lowest point, which was more decorative than protective, and dropped to the other side with noticeable protest from his knees and lower back. “Jesus Christ,” he grumbled.
With an incantation, Octavia levitated herself up and over.
No alarms blared; no spotlights fell on them; no guard dogs came racing from kennels.
“Ha!” Wolfe exclaimed. Until that very moment, he wasn’t sure they would follow through, but there they were. Inside.
“What are you waiting for?” Octavia said in a stage whisper. She was already halfway to the nearest service door.
“Locked,” she said as Wolfe caught up.
“Of course it is.” Wolfe pulled a large key from his pocket, fitted it in the lock and turned. The door popped open. “Old trick,” he said, spinning the key on the end of his finger with a flourish. “Skeleton key. It’ll get you in most doors that people aren’t serious about keeping shut.”
Passing through the door, they found themselves in a dimly lit hallway lined by doors. Belying its austere exterior, the inside of the Whispering Oaks was almost royal in its appointment.
“Alfred,” Octavia said, as if piecing together an intricate puzzle. “Now that we’re here, how exactly do we find Gazlowe?”
“I...” Wolfe muttered.
Octavia raise an eyebrow. “Alfred,” she said sternly.
“I never quite figured that part out. I hoped your magic would help, or, well...just dumb luck. I stumble into that every once in awhile. Don’t you?”
Octavia began a retort, something that would no doubt leave Wolfe’s ears blistering and his stomach churning, but stopped and looked intently down the hallway. “Did you hear that?” she snapped, her voice lowered to a harsh whisper.
It was Wolfe’s turn to raise an eyebrow. He’d never had great hearing.
“Quick,” said Wolfe. “In here.” They scampered into the common room. Through the crack of the almost-closed door, they saw a small figure enter the hallway. Walking in their direction, he was whistling something that sounded like the theme song from Cheers if sung by a bag of cats being swung overhead in violent circles. Octavia incanted and a cone of shadow and silence fell over her and Wolfe, but he suspected the goblin’s whistling—for it was certainly a grizzled goblin with a Whispering Oaks emblem on the breast of his red robe—would drown out any noise they made. Gazlowe passed the door to the common room without any indication that he had seen them, and continued down the hall at a saunter. He rolled the Cheers theme into The Twilight Zone, which managed to be even more ear-splitting.
“See,” said Wolfe, “dumb luck.”
“I loathe men like you, Alfred Wolfe.”
Gazlowe must have opened a door, for suddenly, the sound of a ringing phone and voices flooded into the hallway. The door shut and the sound was muted almost to imperceptibility. Wolfe and Octavia were about to make their move when the door opened again and an older ogre and human woman came out. The telltale click of a lock followed. They said nothing as they parted, going their separate ways down the hallway. The woman, whose glowing eyes and translucent skin suggested selkie blood, stopped in front of the common room and peered suspiciously at the door. Wolfe’s pulse soared. Octavia’s incantation was good, though, and the woman moved on.
Once they were sure she was gone, Wolfe and Octavia left the common room and crept down the hallway. The noise of the ringing phones was more obvious as they got closer to the door. Gazlowe’s whistling ripped through the walls like they were rice paper.
“Well?” said Octavia.
“Let’s go catch a crook,” Wolfe. He slid his skeleton key into the lock and silently turned the handle.
Wolfe burst through the door. Amid a jumble of phones and computer screens, Gazlowe wheeled around, startled by the noise. The goblin froze, not suspecting an attack in his home, and a moment of pure panic twisted his already-gnarled face. Before Wolfe had crossed half the room, not close enough to trap the goblin with the interferovum, Gazlowe disappeared.
A whisper of a moment later, Gazlowe appeared in a corner of the room, cleared of debris for exactly that purpose. Just as Wolfe anticipated, the teleportation spell was still keyed to this room (wizards rarely think about those sorts of things when they’re in what they consider a safe space). It would take Gazlowe only a moment to rekey the spell, so Wolfe uttered a muting incantation aimed at the bewildered goblin. It would only last a few seconds, but that would be enough to get in range for the interferovum. The simple incantation fizzled on his lips, though, and dribbled uselessly from his extended fingers. Words spilled out of Gazlowe’s mouth as he incanted furiously—magic still alive and well inside his aging body.
“God dammit!” As Wolfe swore, the rolling blue light of a muting incantation shot past his shoulder and hit Gazlowe square in the mouth. Wolfe whipped around. A ferocious grin split Octavia’s delighted face. The residue of her assault still dripped from her fingers.
Wolfe lunged at Gazlowe, grabbing him by the shoulder with one hand, with little care for whether he hurt the goblin. The thumb of his other hand snapped down on the interferovum’s activation switch. A shimmering barrier enveloped him and Gazlowe.
The muting incantation expired. Without missing a beat, Gazlowe finished rekeying to a new location. He immediately tried to teleport, but, still half-corporeal, bumped rather viciously against the top of the interferovum’s damping field. When he reappeared fully, he was crumpled unconscious on the floor.
Later, they were raising something of a ruckus outside the Whispering Oaks. Gazlowe was awake and uttering such threats that even Octavia was impressed. She sought revenge by describing to Gazlowe in excruciating detail the way her recovered money was going to help the Thackeray’s Daiquiris in their upcoming match against the Vipers.
Michelle was out of the car, speaking with Arqat Bukar, Wolfe’s friend from the Society of Thaumaturgy and Magic, who was also apparently a somebody in the Magical Law Enforcement department at the Society. Michelle’s manner flickered from uncomfortable (accentuated with disbelieving glances at the trussed-up goblin) to amused as they discussed the particulars of the arrest.
“This is something else, Wolfe,” said Arqat. Alerted of Gazlowe’s capture, he had arrived outside a few minutes after Wolfe and Octavia, who dragged a dazed Gazlowe out of the Whispering Oaks behind Octavia’s wheelchair. “I gave you that interferovum with the understanding that you were using it as part of a lesson for young wizards.”
“A half-truth,” said Wolfe, not abashed in the least. “We were teaching a lesson—”
“—only to a very old wizard,” Octavia finished.
Even Michelle joined in the laughing.
The laughing was cut short, though, as Michelle grunted softly and walked suddenly to the car. She was in obvious discomfort. Neither of the men seemed to notice. They were laughing at an incomprehensible joke, punctuated with a chopping motion at the prone goblin. Octavia left them and followed her granddaughter.
“Michelle?” she called once out of earshot of the men. She tried to keep the concern out of her voice, but she had a sneaking suspicion what was happening. As she moved around the far side of the car, Michelle was tying her jacket around her waist.
“Is everything okay?” Octavia asked kindly.
Her cheeks flush with embarrassment, Michelle wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It’s fine, Grams. I just had too much tea before we left, and this baby is getting fiercely territorial...”
“Honey,” Octavia said. “I don’t think that’s pee.”
It took a moment for Michelle to catch on, but Octavia knew it was because of denial rather than ignorance. “Grams,” she said finally, rubbing her stomach, “I’m not ready!”
“None of us were ‘ready.’ You’ll get there, though.”
Michelle’s brow furrowed as the first contraction set in. It was short and not very strong, but after it abated, her eyes were wide. Reality was setting in.
“Oh, god,” she said. “We’re in the damn middle of nowhere.”
“Get in the car. Back seat.”
Wolfe and Arqat were loading Gazlowe into a harness that the wizard would use to transport the goblin to the Society’s holding cells. They were still laughing. Gazlowe was still cursing. Several windows in the retirement village now framed silhouetted onlookers.
“Alfred!” Octavia called. “We have to go!”
“Just a moment!” he called.
“No time, Alfred.”
Wolfe gave Arqat an apologetic look.
“I’ve got it from here, Wolfe. Your friend will get her money back in a few days. Go on,” said Arqat. “And thanks.”
Octavia was surprised by the friendliness of their embrace, then Wolfe was stamping his way towards the car, perturbed, but not resistant.
“Why is Michelle in the back?” he asked. “Do I even want to know why she’s lying down?”
Octavia didn’t answer his question but instead said, “You’re driving. Just get the four of us there safe and sound.”
“Four?” Wolfe muttered.
What followed was a sometimes-harrowing drive from the Whispering Oaks to Victoria General Hospital, punctuated by Michelle’s colourful language and Wolfe’s alternating curses and whoops of delight. Wolfe drove as one would expect of a retired wizard who hadn’t had a driver’s license for years.
Tony came through the door, two empty plastic cups in his hand.
“Octavia!” Tony had a kind but tired smile. “Michelle and the baby are fine. Great, in fact!”
Octavia relayed the news to Wolfe, who was sitting on the far side of the lounge, chewing his thumbnail ragged. Colour returned to his ghastly white cheeks. Some men fell to pieces at the mere mention of childbirth. From the moment they had stepped into the hospital, Wolfe’s rush of adrenaline from being behind the wheel had turned into a bundle of anxiety and awkward motivational clichés.
“Great?” said Octavia. “Push a human out of you, then tell me you feel ‘great,’ Tony!”
Wolfe joined them.
Tony took the rebuke in stride. “You must be Alfred.”
“Thanks for driving Michelle and Octavia.”
Wolfe nodded coolly. As the anxiety left him, Octavia noticed a dropping of his shoulders, and his slowing movements. He was exhausted.
“Can we see her?” Octavia couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Michelle’s sleeping,” said Tony.
“And the baby?”
“He’s in NICU. Healthy, thank god, but we’ll be here for at least a few days. He’s so tiny, Octavia!”
The tired pride of a new parent was sketched over Tony’s entire face, and his words were full of wonder. “My parents should be here soon. We’ve ordered pizza. I bet you’re starving.”
Octavia was woken from a fitful sleep by Tony. With his help, she moved from the sleeping chair, which creaked and groaned even more than she did, to her wheelchair.
Michelle was awake, propped up in bed, nursing her son. She looked even more tired than her husband—like she’d won a war—but was settled and content. Whether that was the effect of motherhood or painkillers, Octavia wasn’t sure. Both, perhaps. When Michelle saw her grandmother, she blew a kiss, then said to her baby, “Austin. She’s here! Grams is here!” Too involved in his meal, young Austin did not welcome his great-grandmother. The spark burned like a torch in his tiny body.
“Oh, Michelle! Look at him! Isn’t he a miracle, Alfred?”
Wolfe hung back in the doorway, giving the family some space. He watched with red-rimmed eyes—grief fought with joy on his face. Octavia thought of Wolfe’s son and the fifteen seconds he had spent wrangling a goblin from a telephone.
“Yes,” said Wolfe as a tear rolled down one cheek. “He’s beautiful.”
A hundred wizards stomping their feet with raucous glee shook the bleachers as Thackeray’s Daiquiris, looking resplendent in their new sage- and plum-coloured jerseys, completed a resounding 17–8 victory over the Whispering Oak Vipers. No one cheered louder than Alfred Wolfe, whose newfound love for boomball was startling and thorough. Octavia watched her friend and celebrated—not just for the team but also for hot fires and fast friendships.
That evening, the residents of Prunella Thackeray’s Home for Experienced Wizards celebrated the victory beneath the midsummer champions pennant, which hung from the illuminated rafters of the Gathering Hall.
Alfred Wolfe was curiously missing from the celebrations.
“You again?” Dry laughter. The sound of pages riffling in a soft wind. A thousand stories whispered.
“Yes.” The simple reply was loaded with desperation. He held the book in his hands, not daring to put it down on the table, fearing that to do so would let the magic escape him. “I want to travel again. To see him. Show me my past.”
“You only get once chance. I told you that. You knew the stakes.”
“You said it wouldn’t be as fun if you let us do it over and over again. Let. Us.”
“Mincing words, old man.”
“Let me do it again. I know you can.”
“You have no idea what you’re asking—”
“I don’t give a damn about your rules.” A pause. “I need to see him. To hold him in my arms. To kiss his forehead. Just once more.”
“Do you have any idea what an unleashed temporal distortion could do to—”
“I said I don’t give a damn about your rules.”
“A risk-taker. I don’t disapprove. Everyone is so cautious these days.”
“I’m a product of different days.”
“You’ll let me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Your new friend. The one with the pink hair—”
“—doesn’t need to know.”
“She’ll notice if you don’t come back.”
“Then I’ll just have to come back, won’t I?”
“Very well. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Words formed from nothing. Alfred Wolfe placed his palm on the page and was whisked away by time.
This story originally appeared in A Dribble of Ink.