Chapter Thirteen: Ashe
Ashe looked around. The little shop was a mess, full of mismatched furniture, every table covered with assorted things. Stacks of old leather-bound books topped by dripping candles in rainbow colors. A jar of old brass keys, the big, solid kind that looked like they opened an 18th century armoire, or a mystical realm. And maybe they did.
A unicorn horn that Ashe hoped had been liberated from its owner after a long life and a natural death.
There was a gargoyle in the corner that stared at him lifelessly, until it winked and stuck out its tongue at him.
Ashe looked away quickly. “So can you unlock the spell?” His father had wanted him to have this key and whatever it represented. It had been his dying wish.
Alvin looked up, his magnifying lenses making his blue eyes look huge. “Oh, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Ashe sighed with relief. “Great. Then we can get out of the cr… get out of here to find whatever it unlocks.” He squeezed Jaxx’s hand. Jaxx shot him a little smile.
Ashe’s newfound hope stumbled. “But what?”
“We still have to discuss the method of payment.” The man set down the key with a little ‘clink’ on the mahogany desk.
Ashe nodded. “Is that all? I have some coin—”
Alvin rubbed his stubbly chin. “It’s not your coin I’m after.”
He frowned. “I don’t have any credit. Maybe… maybe I could do something for you, when this is all over? I’m fairly handy—I could build you some shelves?”
“I don’t take jobs on promises.” He handed the key back to Ashe and stood, turning to leave the room.
“Wait.” It was Jaxx who spoke this time.
Alvin turned to look at them both.
“What do you want?”
Alvin gave them a wide smile, showing two missing teeth. “Oh, it’s quite simple. I want five of the phoenix’s feathers.”
Ashe’s father had always told him to be careful giving up bits of himself, especially to folks such as this who might put them to ill use. “I’d rather not.”
Alvin shook his head. “Those are my terms, my fine feathered friend. I have a client who believes that phoenix feathers carry a healing power, and who will pay me handsomely for a set of them.” He waved his hand in the air, an old gnarled thing. “Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It’s what the client wants. You always give the client what he wants.”
“Come on, Ashe,” Jaxx said. “We’ll go somewhere else. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
Ashe turned to follow.
“You might be in more of a hurry than you realize,” the man said, his giant eyes blinking as he pointed to a little black and white TV screen on a child’s rocking chair in one corner. It was a news show. The banner said “Local Hotel Burned to the Ground.” Ashe gasped. It was the Econo Lodge where he had been staying the day before. “They’re coming for you.” Alvin sat and placed his hands in his lap, staring at them silently.
“Who are you?” Ashe whispered, unable to tear his eyes away from the flames on the TV.
“Someone who can help you. Do we have a deal?” He held out his twisted hand.
Kino was gone. Ashe had to make his own decisions now.
He shook the man’s hand.
“Very good. The key, please?”
Jaxx looked at him too. “Are you sure?”
Ashe nodded, and handed the key back to Alvin.
The man pulled out a blue velvet cloth from his desk and spread it out, laying the key in the middle. Pulling out a jar full of a sparkling powder, he carefully made a ring around the key, connecting it and resealing the bottle.
Then he took out a dropper filled with a dark blue liquid.
Ashe watched as Alvin released a single drop. It descended as if in slow motion, striking the middle of the key.
A bright blue light surged up from the metal, forming a roiling mass of smoke and light.
Alvin concentrated, the light reflecting off his face like the blue light of a TV screen. The curls of glowing blue smoke writhed and teamed, but seemed to be confined within the circle of dust.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Alvin reached in with slender fingers and teased out a single strand of smoke. He pulled on it as if it were a tangible thing, edging it farther and farther above the sphere, and as suddenly as it had sprung up, the knot of smoke collapsed like an untied knot and vanished into nothing.
In its place was the key. And a folded note.
“I believe this is what you were looking for?” Alvin said, handing the note to Ashe.
His hand trembling, he took the yellowed piece of paper and unfolded it.
Inside, in his mother’s handwriting, were the words:
1322 18th St. NW, Washington, DC
He touched the letters, closing his eyes and imagining her face once more, her arms around him. Her warm presence enfolding him.
He was all alone in the world.
“I’ll take my payment now,” Alvin said, bringing Ashe back to the real world with the suddenness of a crash.
Ashe opened his eyes. He could run. He and Jaxx had what they needed, and Alvin didn’t look like he could catch them.
But a deal was a deal. His parents had taught him better.
He took off his shirt. Goosebumps covered his skin, and soon his feathers appeared.
Alvin took out a pair of pliers.
Jaxx and Ashe exchanged a nervous glance.
Jaxx took Ashe’s hands, and he closed his eyes.
“You won’t miss so few,” Alvin promised.
Ashe nodded. “Do it.”
He held onto the desk as Alvin plucked them out, one at a time, each one sending a jab of pain through his wing. He winced, trying to hold still through the procedure.
Alvin dropped them, one after another with their bloody tips, into a wax paper bag.
At last, he was done, and Ashe unclenched his teeth.
Alvin handed him the key, along with two small charms, made from a dark polished wood, hung on black leather cords. “These will encourage prying eyes to overlook you. But they will only last for three days.” He glanced at the television. “Looks like you’re going to need them. Pleasure doing business with you.” He turned and disappeared into the back room of the shop.
“You okay?” Jaxx asked.
“I’m not sure. I have to go to Washington, and I don’t know how to get there.” He held the note in his hand, imaging his mother writing it, years and years ago.
“We’ll figure it out together.” Jaxx squeezed his hand.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m coming with you.”
Ashe shook his head. “I can’t let you do that. Whatever this is, it’s dangerous. My father, the hotel, the men outside your house—”
Jaxx snorted. “You think they’re gonna leave me alone just because you’re gone? I thought we talked about this last night.”
“I don’t want—”
“Not up for discussion.” Jaxx pulled him toward the door. “We need to get out of town, though, and fast. You ready?”
Ashe nodded. “Ready as I’m going to be.” He put on one of the charms, and put the other over Jaxx’s head.
Then he slipped the key and the note into his pocket and followed Jaxx out the door.