If you’re new here, you might want to read Part One first. Otherwise, onward to Part Two!
The Harp Job: Part Two
Copyright (c) Amanda Cook 2016
Gabby blinked and found herself standing on a narrow porch lined with Doric columns. A wide marble staircase at her feet descended to a dirt road that disappeared into the horizon. It had been evening in Blossom when Viktor brought her to Top Hat’s office, but here the sun was climbing to its peak in a bright blue sky, shining through the jade leaves of ancient trees lining the road.
When did it become daytime? Gabby wondered. She must have blacked out, but for how long? She remembered Top Hat speaking to her, something about a giant and a harp, but after that, her memories fuzzed into a blur.
Rubbing her temples, she turned to get a better sense of her new surroundings. Two massive wooden doors, so polished she could see the vague outline of her body in their surface, stood in a marble wall behind her amidst a row of stained glass windows. The colorful cut glass glinted where sunlight could reach the covered porch, hiding the rooms beyond from an outsider’s view.
Wondering if Top Hat was inside, Gabby raised a hand to the brass knocker molded into the shape of a lion’s head. Maybe he would remind her of what she was supposed to do next. Her fingers lifted the ring hanging from the cat’s mouth, but they stopped mid-knock and let go. She dropped her hand. Something told her not to try, to leave well enough alone.
“So, are we goin’, or whut?” a male voice clipped behind her.
Jumping in surprise, Gabby spun around. A pale, youngish-looking man stood on the top step of the porch staring at her, his face peppered with freckles and his pumpkin orange curls sticking to his forehead from a nasty accumulation of grease and sweat. A faint aura of alcohol wafted from his leather vest and stained T-shirt, which had to have been white at some point. His scowl conjured a sudden memory of Top Hat explaining why he had picked Gabby for the harp job.
“Jack?” she asked.
“Yeh. Whut of it?” The young man’s voice was thick and gravelly, the voice of a smoker or drinker. It was heavily accented too, although Gabby couldn’t place his origins exactly. Irish? Scottish? Definitely from the British Isles.
“You’re supposed to lead me to the beanstalk?” She arched an eyebrow at his dusty jeans and boots. He looked as though he would fit more comfortably in a biker bar than in the pages of a fairy tale book.
“Of course. You’re Top Hat’s new Agent, aintcha?” he asked, wiping his nose on the back of his filthy hand. He sniffed loudly and looked her up and down, his green eyes lingering on the band name printed across the chest of her black hoodie. Wandering down her skinny jeans to her feet, he nodded approvingly at her thick-soled combat boots, the ones she liked to wear during the harsh Midwestern winters. Gabby realized then she wasn’t wearing her winter parka. She wondered what had happened to it and if it would be returned to her before she went back home. If she was ever going to go back home.
Jack whistled low, interrupting her thoughts. “Mus’ say, Top Hat always did have excellent taste.”
He wagged his unkempt eyebrows at her with a chuckle, and Gabby grimaced as the stink of too much whiskey and rotting teeth hit her nose. Suddenly remembering the illusion Top Hat had given her, she ran a hand through her hair. It still felt long, but that wouldn’t tell her anything. If only she were more of a girly girl and kept a mirror in her pocket.
“What color is my hair?” she asked, anxious she had lost her new gift before she had a chance to use it.
Jack narrowed his eyes in wary confusion. “Blonde. Why?”
“Good,” she said and sighed in relief. The hairs on the back of her neck had prickled the moment she had set eyes on Jack; something about him told her not to trust him completely. Best to keep the illusion going as long as she could.
I wonder how long that will be, she thought. Do I have to do something to drop the illusion, or will it eventually go away on its own? Or am I stuck like this forever? Top Hat should’ve given me an instructional manual for this thing.
“Well, c’mon then. We haven’ got all day,” Jack griped. He launched himself down the marble stairs without looking back to see if she was following him. With one last glance at the foreboding doors, Gabby ran to catch up, stirring wisps of dust with each clomping step. Jack strode ahead, soon slowing to a lumbering swagger despite seeming to be in a rush only moments earlier.
They had gone a little way before Gabby dared to look over her shoulder again, and she almost stumbled into Jack’s back at the sight behind her. The monstrous building attached to the long, narrow porch was like a museum, with the columns along the facade giving the limestone structure a classical, almost mythical, appearance. Stone gargoyles crouched on the roof’s edge, their jaws open wide, revealing long, hideous tongues. One of the statues moved, propelling itself into the air and disappearing among the treetops. Shuddering, Gabby turned her attention back to the road.
“So, you’re the Jack?” she asked after a long, dull silence.
Her grimy companion gave her a sidelong look. “Whut do ya mean, ‘the Jack’?”
“You know,” she said, grinning conspiratorially. “The Jack. The one from the stories?”
Jack stopped and glared at her, his eyes flashing. “Whut stories? Who ya been talkin’ to?” The edge in his hushed voice warned her that she was dangerously close to making him mad. She backed away, hands lifted in a sign of peace or surrender.
“Nothing!” she exclaimed. “No one. Forget I said anything.”
He eyed her for a long, apprehensive moment before starting down the road again.
“Where did ya say ya was from?” he grumbled after another uncomfortable lull.
“I didn’t. I’m from … Earth, I guess you’d say?” Gabby stared at their surroundings, fairly certain she wasn’t in Indiana anymore … or anywhere else on her home planet, for that matter. With her mind still reeling with the idea that fairy tales and magic were real, she thought the area did sort of look like something from a storybook. The sky was too blue, the leaves too green, the clouds too marshmallow white, as if someone had increased every color’s saturation level by 50 percent.
“Oh, ya mean the Earthplane, yeh?” Jack said.
Gabby squinted into the shadows between the dense growth of trees on her side of the road. The forest was oddly quiet for a forest. No birds were singing, no animals scurrying in the underbrush. Just the occasional breeze whispering through the branches overhead.
“So, um, where are we going anyway?” she asked.
Jack smiled, revealing yellowed, cavity-riddled teeth. “You’ll see.”
They walked on, Gabby’s head full of questions she was afraid to ask her sullen companion. After what must have been an hour, the sound of voices up ahead—hundreds of voices, talking or laughing or clamoring to be heard over everyone else—broke the interminable quiet. Gabby glanced over at Jack, who sped up, and she matched his pace, eager to see who—or what—was making so much racket. They climbed a small hill, and at the crest, Gabby stopped, her jaw dropping at the sight on the other side.
Below them, spread out along both sides of the road, stood an extensive, boisterous, vibrant fair. The forest had been cut back so that booths of every shape and size could be erected. Some were huge, elaborate tents with billowing awnings covering ware-filled tables while others were little more than rugs on the ground, their vendors seated on rickety stools as they hawked the latest in “magical wonders.” Gabby blinked, amazed that such a thing actually existed. She remembered going to the renaissance fair as a child, where she ate sugary elephant ears and watched jousting knights on white horses, but this fair and its marvelous booths made that faux-Elizabethan carnival pale in comparison.
And it wasn’t just the booths. All kinds of magical creatures wandered up and down the dirt road, filling it with a sparkling, roaring, wildly musical throng. There were unicorns eating apples, witches perusing spell books, dwarfs buying pickaxes, pixies (tall and wingless, Gabby noticed) tittering over some secret joke, even a jinn selling Persian lamps. Pausing to take it all in, Gabby stepped aside to allow a small contingent of wizards pass by, their gray heads bent in conversation. She watched them disappear into a dark tent with a crescent moon and six-pointed star affixed to its awning. When she turned to say something to Jack, she realized he was gone, lost somewhere in the crowd.
“Over here!” he called, waving his hands to get her attention. He was across the road from her at a booth adorned with multi-hued ribbons. Gabby wound her way through the crowd to the booth’s table, where Jack stood gazing at the beautiful array of gemstones and baubles on display. The warm, sweet scents of cinnamon and nutmeg and something else drifted to her nose from somewhere inside the tent, and Gabby slowly found herself entranced by a necklace dangling between the ribbons along the tent’s awning. Its delicate chain was weighted down by a silver pendant in the shape of a skull, which glinted as it spun in the cool afternoon breeze.
“May I help you find something, love?”
As if she’d been dreaming, Gabby blinked and tore her gaze away from the sparkling sapphires embedded in the skull’s eye sockets. A tall, willowy woman stood on the other side of the table, her gauzy lavender dress rippling around her slender ankles and wrists as she moved closer to her customers. Her golden hair had been pulled back into a braid, revealing delicate ears tapered to a point. She eyed Gabby with a mixture of curiosity and kindness, a smile playing around her pale pink lips.
“Um …” Gabby stopped, unable to find her voice.
“She’s wif me, Krystal,” Jack said without looking up. “An’ she don’t need nuffin’ right now, thanks.”
Krystal frowned slightly at the curly-headed lad, her eyes flashing. “Are you sure, Jack?”
“Positif. Now, what can I gif ya for this nice lil ring?” He held up a silver band set with a large black onyx.
“Three Fae gold pieces,” she said. Her frown deepened into a grimace, and Gabby wondered if she was really going to sell the ring to Jack.
“Wha’ abou’ these, instead?” With an eager grin splitting his face, Jack reached into one of the many pockets on his vest and pulled out three lima beans. Krystal’s pale eyebrows shot up in horror.
“Get those away from here!” she shouted, pointing a finger toward the road. “I do not deal in such black magic.”
Jack leaped away from her finger, hands raised in apology. “Awright, awright. I hear ya. ‘S your loss, lady.” He grabbed Gabby’s elbow to lead her away. “C’mon, missy,” he muttered in her ear. “We don’ need anyfin’ she’s sellin’, anyway.”
Gabby yanked her arm out of his hand and was about to step away from the tent when long, gentle fingers encircled her wrist, stopping her mid-stride. She looked back over her shoulder and found Krystal’s lilac eyes full of concern.
“Please be careful with him, love,” she murmured. “He is nothing but trouble.”
Gabby nodded, unsure of how to respond to such a warning, and Krystal, relief glowing in her pearly cheeks, released Gabby’s wrist with a nod in return. The waifish woman gave a slight bow before disappearing into her tent, and Gabby turned in time to see Jack walking into the trees nearby.
She ran into the forest after him, the gnarled tree roots and broad trunks making it difficult to keep up with his clipped pace. “Where are we going?” she puffed out behind him.
“To the portal.”
They hiked for only a few minutes when Jack halted so abruptly, Gabby bumped into his bony back. She glanced around, wondering why they had stopped. Nothing seemed different here than anywhere else in the forest, just trees, trees, and more trees.
“What was all that about back there at the booth?” she asked, her skin prickling from Krystal’s warning.
“Ah, nuffin’. The Druid’s go’ a rod up her arse, is all,” he mumbled, his attention on the treetops. He turned in a slow circle, his eyes on the branches as though he was searching for something. Scratching his whiskered chin, he stopped and stepped up to a nearby tree (sort of a walnut, Gabby thought), knocking on the trunk with his bare knuckles. Nothing happened, but he nodded to himself in satisfaction anyway, then grabbed Gabby by the wrist and pulled her to the tree.
“Here,” he said, pushing back the sleeve of her hoodie. He held her wrist against the rough bark, and the fresh ink of her rose tattoo began to glow, the skin around it pricking and burning with an unseen fire. Gabby jerked her arm, but Jack held her firmly. He pointed at the sky, and she looked up. As the burning increased, the treetops rippled and blurred, eventually disappearing behind a sizable hole ten feet above their heads.
Gabby’s mouth fell open, and she forgot all about her burning wrist. Instead of darkness, there was land on the other side of the hole, land floating far, far away in a sky different than the azure bowl above the forest. It was green land and brown and obscured by gray-white clouds scuttling beneath it … and exactly like she imagined a giant’s homeland would look from underneath. Her heart beat rapidly, and her stomach lurched with excitement and anticipation. As her mind whirled, trying to figure out how they were going to get there, a vine the width of her forearm dropped through the hole to the ground at their feet.
“That’s the beanstalk?” Gabby asked after a moment’s shock.
She peered back up through the hole, her heart pounding more fiercely against her ribcage.
“And we’ve gotta climb all the way up there?”
“No’ we,” Jack pointed out. “You.”
“Me!” Gabby cried. “By myself? You mean, you’re not coming too?”
Jack shook his head, his carrot-colored curls brushing against his shoulders. “Nope. Top Hat wan’s me to stay put. Says I disappoin’ed him las’ time.”
“Last time?” Gabby’s eyes narrowed. He had said it as though it hadn’t been a big deal, that disappointing their boss didn’t really matter to him. And maybe it didn’t matter. But how could he be so apathetic about failing to steal a harp from a giant, a giant who probably could have eaten him in one gulp? And why hadn’t he been eaten in the first place? How had he escaped?
“Don’ worry,” he said, slapping her on the arm with a wry grin. “It ain’t tha’ bad up there.” He leaned in, his eyes twinkling. “Jus’ try to stay away from the giant’s boots, ya hear?”
Gabby gulped and nodded, suddenly paralyzed by the prospect of climbing a vine that didn’t look like it would hold her to an unknown land where a human-eating giant wearing evil boots lived.
“Up ya go, then.”
Jack linked his fingers and knelt, giving Gabby a leg up onto the vine. Grateful for the rope climbing she’d done in high school gym class, she wrapped her stiff legs around the stringy beanstalk and started the slow, steady ascent to the portal.
“Try no’ to fall!” She hadn’t been climbing long, but Jack’s voice sounded oddly distant. Once she crossed the portal, she looked down. Jack and the forest had disappeared below a clump of clouds at her feet.
That’s it for now. Come back in a week or so for Part Three of “The Harp Job.”
And as always, thanks for reading.