You can hock almost anything at my family's pawn shop…even your own soul.
You think running a pawn shop full of cursed objects with your dad and grandpops is cool? Try it for a week and get back to me.
Dad made a deal with the wrong end of the dark side to save grandpops' life, putting my whole family smack dab between the forces of evil and our friendly local blow-your-pawn-shop-to-smithereens mobsters.
All I ever wanted was to get out of this crap town and away from my messed-up family, and instead it looks like I'm gonna have to use every scrap of magic in this joint or there won't be any family left to leave behind…
"…a main character who is sympathetic and complex and very conflicted about his magical heritage made for an engrossing read."– FangFan
"…an adventurous ride full of magical objects, psychic gifts, a t-rex shaped demon, and the mob."– Cats Luv Coffee
"The story was suspenseful, and full of action, betrayal, and strange events. I had to keep reading to find out if Raz and his family would survive. The ending is satisfying, but leaves enough open that I'll be hoping for a sequel, because I want more!"– Kindle-klant
I was born into crazy.
My dad, my uncle, my grandpop, even my cousin—they're all completely batshit. They spend their time talking about ghosts of drunk Civil War soldiers pissing in the corners, demons stealing socks from the dryer, and whether duct tape will keep the cap on a Coke bottle that houses a particularly nasty djinn (for the record, it was decided that duct tape can override any black magic. So far, it's held).
The women in our family, like my mom, tend to get their fill of the crazy and bail out. If they don't die early, like my grandma did. She kicked the bucket from a stroke over some totally off the hook artifact that my grandpop dragged home. Rumor was that he'd carted home a deck of haunted Tarot cards that bled all over her new white carpet. You'd understand popping a clot over that, if you knew Grandma.
If they don't die, they leave. My mom left. Dad said that was because she was smart, and had an unusually high degree of common sense. She used to send me postcards and birthday cards from cool places like California. Once, she sent me a postcard of the Grand Canyon. Not so much anymore. I think she's figured out that I'm too much like my dad, so immersed in the insanity that I'm not salvageable.
Even though I was born into the crazy, that doesn't mean I don't try my best to avoid it.
I adjust my backpack on my shoulder as I push open the door to Stannick's Pawn Shop. It's a big brick building ribboned in iron bars, five blocks from the boardwalk. It's sandwiched between a used car lot and a burger joint. I was told that it was a bank once upon a time. There are some crumbling crenellations and part of a column that was cut off at some point but never removed.
The really nice hotels and casinos are within two blocks of the boardwalk, where all the tourists go. But the tourists don't usually make their way back here. You can't see the ocean from here, and it can get a little seedy. Okay, a lot seedy. It doesn't smell like ocean. It smells like stale French fries and car exhaust and the fact that somebody (me) forgot to take out the garbage. Again.
But it's home. My family runs the pawn shop on the first floor and lives on the second. If living upstairs from the craziest pawn shop on earth is what you call a life.
The bell jangles on the door, and I wince. I reach out to catch it, a moment too late. The 'OPEN' sign bangs against my elbow. I want to slip in, head up to my room and decompress unnoticed.
But that's not to be. The demon guarding the front door has seen me.
"'Sup, Raz?" he says by way of greeting. A miniature Godzilla perches on a stool, gnawing pizza bones. He's still a big creature, almost seven feet tall, but small for a demon. An old T-shirt of mine that says, "I do evil things" is stretched over his scaly belly. No pants. He never wears pants. He looks down at me and rubs tomato sauce from his green scaly chin.
"Hey, Bert. Nice shirt."
Bert plucks at a fleck of tomato staining the heather-gray fabric. "It was left in the dryer for three days. Finders, keepers."
I roll my eyes. "Yeah."
Those are the rules. Bert gets to keep any laundry that goes unclaimed. Part of his care and feeding as the Demon Sockmonster and security guard of Stannick's Pawn Shop. He takes unmatched socks, shirts, and hoodies. But never pants. Bert hates pants. He says they're uncomfortable on account of his tail. I just never bother to look below the waist. Eyes up. Always look the demon in the eye.
"Business has been slow today," he says, yawning. His back teeth are covered in gold. I have no idea where he finds a dentist to work on him. I don't want to know.
With a seven-foot demon guarding the door, you'd think business would be slow, but ordinary people don't see what I do. When most people look at Bert, they see the reflection he casts in the jewelry-case mirror: a tall, buff dude in jeans and a muscle shirt that reads SECURITY. He has an orange tan and an impressive amount of banana-scented gel lacquering his hair. Bert calls it the glamour, and he can change it at will to look like anyone he wants. It fools everyone…except people who know his true name. When you know it, you see him as he really is. And he's not an orange guy in sunglasses.
Bert catches me looking and flexes one of his tiny T-rex arms. He grins at his reflection in the glass. "I work out."
I snort. "Keep lifting those pizza bones, man." I slip past him and almost make it to the back stairs before my dad calls me.
I shut my eyes. Dammit. I haven't escaped my dad's notice. Only he and Pops call me by my real name. Even Bert calls me Raz.
The book bag slides down my arm, and Bert chortles. I dump it behind Bert's stool. I stare at the toes of my beat-up combat boots. "He wants me to do the Bunko again, doesn't he?" I sigh.
Bert crunches a pizza crust. "I imagine so. That weird lady came in about a half hour ago. I think they're waiting for you. To do the Bunko."
I hate doing the Bunko. I trudge across the floor to my dad.
The actual pawnshop's a huge space with a bunch of really cool shit—so I'm told. We have a whole lotta stuff you'd expect to find in a pawnshop. We've got lit glass cases full of coins and gently-worn jewelry and watches. Sparkly. One guy comes in here every six months to get the same engagement ring off pawn for a different chick. The walls are full of rock 'n' roll posters, old photographs of people from the Wild West, and various guitars signed by famous rock stars who are older than my dad. Some older than Pops.
We have old pith helmets, bits of pirate bullion. Part of a World War II airport cockpit is assembled next to replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy in the middle of the floor. The bombs give me the creeps, but my uncle insists that someone would want them for something, someday.
And we have weapons. Guns of all kinds: flintlocks, breechloading rifles from the Civil War, a tommy gun from the twenties. Derringers that hold only two shots and fit in the palm of my hand. We have hundreds of modern guns of various kinds: revolvers, rifles, shotguns, and semi-automatics. My dad always examines those carefully. The police came by a few years ago and found a few hot pieces. They got confiscated, and we were out the money. Luckily, no one got charged for receiving stolen property. Dad runs the serial numbers every time now. Mostly.
And then there are the more exotic weapons. We have a set of throwing stars once owned by ninjas, a small cannon that really fires potatoes, some funky Klingon daggers from Star Trek, and a replica halberd that's way too heavy to lift over my head. But it's really cool—it looks like something right out of anime. I posed with it for my Facebook profile picture. Not that anyone ever sees it.
My favorite tchotchke is a winged Egyptian goddess cast in bronze, Ma'at. She's about two feet tall, all voluptuous and cold-eyed and gorgeous. She was my mother's. She's holding an ostrich feather, the feather of Truth. Osiris, a god of the afterlife, weighed the hearts of the dead against Ma'at's feather. If the heart was heavier than the feather, the heart got devoured by Ammit, a voracious goddess with the head of a crocodile. The dead were erased from existence. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.
Tough customer, Ma'at. Like all of ours.
I clomp up to the counter. My dad stands behind it, staring into a wooden case open on the glass counter. My dad's getting shorter all the time. I'm almost his height now, at just about six feet. He's a little pudgy underneath his T-shirt and has a receding hairline. His hair is curly, like mine, but with streaks of gray in the dark brown. His brow furrows as he stares into the box. He just started wearing glasses about a year ago. It's weird. The way he squints through them and rubs the stubble on his chin makes him seem sort of old.
I can tell before I get close that the lady standing before him on the other side of the counter looks a bit nuts. She's wearing a hippie print blouse and black pants covered in cat hair. Her salt-and-pepper hair is greasy, and she smells like tuna. Her rings click against the glass as she stares down into the wooden box. She leans on the counter with her elbows and boobs pressed against it. I hope to God she isn't hitting on my dad.
I jam my hands in my pockets and nod at my dad. "Hey."
He crooks a finger at me, not looking away from the box. "Come look at this."
I peer into the box. The case itself is old and wooden, with handles on the top. It reeks of tobacco and dry rot. The interior is lined with frayed red velvet, like a half-fallen cake. There are two pistols inside, situated so that they face each other like a pair of new shoes in a box. Yin and yang.
I emit a low whistle. These are really ornate guns. Lots of engraving in a pattern of leaves, flowers, and vines along the grips and barrels. I can make out faces in those vines—winged creatures and devils. The grips are sloped, like a lot of guns from times way past, and I know they're old. Or at least, fancy reproductions.
"Dueling pistols," the lady says. "Eighteenth century, French."
I look, but don't touch. I know better than to touch. My fingers feel cold and clammy in the pockets of my utility pants.
My dad nods at the lady. "I think that much is true. They're really antiques. But I don't know about the rest of the story."
I keep my hands in my pockets.
The lady purses her lips. She has wrinkly smoker lips that aren't enhanced by bright pink lipstick, but she's smeared it on anyway. It didn't take evenly, and one corner of her mouth looks like it's smiling, and the other like it's frowning.
She peers right and left to make sure no one else is listening and says, "They're haunted."
"Haunted?" I echo.
"Well, cursed, actually."
I close my eyes to keep from rolling them. Awesome. Just fucking awesome.
The lady continues, "One of them is supposed to always hit its target. The other always misses."
"So which one is which?" My mouth is dry.
"Don't know. They're identical." Her fingers flutter helplessly over the case.
"How did they get cursed in the first place?" my dad asks.
The woman clasps her hands. "My grandfather said he bought them at an auction. The story he got was that they belonged to a pair of brothers who were running a scam. They supposedly made a pact with the Devil to lead a life of murder and leisure, and the Devil gave them the magic guns to work the scam of all scams. One would challenge a guy with a lot of money and a pretty wife to a duel, and the other would swoop in to comfort the widow. The one who comforted the widow would walk out with what remained of the estate."
"They got away with it?" My dad picks up one of the guns and stares down the barrel. It's made funny—hexagonal-shaped. "This thing is in excellent condition, though it's been fired. A lot. And modified."
"They got away with it until they had a falling out over the wife of an aristocrat. They couldn't agree who would be the shooter and who would be the Casanova. She was the wife of an oligarch in Russia. A former prima ballerina, very beautiful. She was said to be more precious than a Fabergé egg."
My dad runs his fingers over the inlay of the gun. "People kill for three reasons: money, love, and sheer evil. This story sounds like all three."
"The brothers challenged each other to a duel."
"Let me guess…one of them died?"
"One of them was shot dead. The other dropped dead of a heart attack seconds afterward. People said it was the Devil come to collect his due."
She falls silent for a moment. The only sounds in the shop are the whirring of the air conditioner, Bert gnawing on crusts, and the click of my father pulling the hammer back on the gun.
"Surely they had a way to tell which was which," he says. I can hear the skepticism in his voice. "Neither brother would want to be the one with the dead gun."
The woman shrugs. "The guns were marked. But they removed the marks before their duel. Said they'd let the Devil decide."
I lick my lips. "So you take the guns to the range, see which one hits the target, and which one misses. That would give us the truth of it. If it is real."
The woman casts me a dirty look. Sellers always hate it if you question the authenticity of their item—whether it's purported to be a wrapper from Babe Ruth's chewing gum or fucking Excalibur. I don't care about offending her. Frankly, I hope she'll get huffy, sweep the guns back into the case, and leave.
"It's not that simple," she says. "They're only supposed to fire at live targets."
My dad's left eyebrow crawls halfway up his shiny head, like a caterpillar up a leaf. "Oh, yeah?" I can hear the challenge in his voice.
I rub the bridge of my nose. Jesus Christ. Here we go. Again.
My dad rattles around in drawers for ammunition. The woman sputters and protests. My dad finds some gunpowder and a pencil. He dumps some round pieces of lead on the table. I catch them as they try to roll off.
He and the woman are arguing. My dad has that maniacal glint in his eye he gets when he's latched onto some mystery. This woman arguing with my dad sounds a lot like my dad arguing with my mom, when she was still around.
"Don't damage them!"
"I just want to see."
"You can't fire them in here…"
"Watch me, lady. I test 'em, or you can walk away right now."
I shrink back into the shadows. Bert climbs down from his perch on the stool by the door to amble over to us, still wearing his Jersey Boy persona.
"Whatcha doin'?" he asks.
The woman pauses, at eye-level with his unnatural pecs. "Um. I can't—"
My dad is shoving one of the little lead balls down the hexagonal shaft of the pistol with a pencil. I can tell he's concentrating because he sticks the tip of his tongue out when he does it, like a big kid.
"If this checks out, I'll give you what you asked for them—two thousand dollars. If either one of them fires, I'll only pay you what they're worth as mantle decorations. Five hundred." My dad jabs a gunpowder-blackened thumb at me. "But the boy gets the final word."
Goddamn it. I do not want to be involved in this.
The lady stops protesting. I can't tell if it's the money or the mesmerizing effect of Bert's pecs. Bert twitches the right one up, as if he caught us looking at his reflection in the glass. He winks at me.
"All right," she relents.
My dad grins, aims the gun upstairs, and moves his finger to the trigger.
"Jesus Christ!" I blurt.
Bert and I both reach for the gun as he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens.
Sweat prickles on my brow. My fingers are wrapped in Bert's reptilian ones. Bert and Dad yell at each other.
"Pops and Uncle Sid are upstairs!" I shout. "Are you crazy?"
Bert growls at him. "What the fuck, man? You'd blow out our hearing, shooting that thing in here—if it didn't explode in your hand first!"
My dad shrugs. "Nah. Pops is sleeping in the back room, and Sid's smoking out in the alley." He sets the gun down on the scarred glass with a clunk. "Stick your fingers in your ears next time."
I wipe my sweaty hands off and press them to the counter.
The woman is shaking. She's now beginning to get an inkling of the crazy.
My dad loads the second pistol with gunpowder and a lead ball. He aims it at a framed poster of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II that hangs over a trophy of a stuffed moose.
"Dad…" I begin.
"The moose is too pretty to shoot," he says. "Al is another story."
I cram my fingers into my ears, sweat squishing. My pulse hammers.
He squeezes the trigger. The hammer hits the strike plate.
Again, nothing happens. Al Pacino has not been torn from his red, white, and black poster.
I pull my fingers out of my ears.
The lady sticks out her hand. "Two thousand bucks, mister. Cash money."
My old man shakes his head. "The boy decides if they're real. That was the deal." With one hand wrapped around the barrel, he offers me the gun.
"Dad, I…" I squeak.
Bert leans forward. His tail lashes in agitation. "Look, don't make the kid do it. You've seen enough."
"Bert, shut it. You don't get a vote." My dad looks at me. "You don't have to if you don't want to. I'll ask Carl to do it later."
I swallow. My cousin Carl is at ball practice. This would sure as hell ruin his evening. "Give it to me." Taking a deep breath, I reach for the gun.
The instant my palm connects with the engraved butt of the pistol, there's a flash of light and I'm hurled out my reality and into the world that exists beneath it.