Do Not Enter

A Bonus Companion Story to Umbra

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A changeling and a human walk into a bar…

Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but nope it’s just a normal Saturday night in the Po-Town Fringe. The way they kept looking over their shoulders and exchanging furtive glances as if they were having a tense telepathic conversation let me know what they were here for—Rebus.

I sat at the end of the bar, legs dangling in front of the stool, reading a book. I was in my female form, which I usually was in order to hide my shapeshifting. My hair was big and wild, half the size of the rest of my short, skinny body. Technically a ten-year-old had no business in a bar, but all the locals knew me and wouldn’t mess with Rebus’s adopted kid.

He was behind the counter mixing a drink for a regular. The amber liquid flowed over crystalline ice cubes. Rebus flashed me a wink before turning to address the couple who had worked up the nerve to approach.

The taller, blockier one wore a gray beanie that flopped in the back. Ears that were slightly pointed at the top identified him as a changeling. The shorter of the two was slender with a green puffy vest over a black hoodie.

“Uh, hey,” Beanie said. “We’re looking for—”

Rebus spared them the angst of asking. “Yeah, that’s me. What do you need?” His dark curls hung past his ears, and his hairline was just starting to recede. He gazed at the changeling over the top of his wire-rim glasses.

“So, we heard you can get…things back for people.” Vest’s voice was a delicate whisper.

“Most things. You want to talk in the back? You look tense.”

They nodded, and he signaled to me where he was taking the potential clients. I slid down off my seat and followed, but I stopped at the mouth of the hall while they stayed outside the office, under the yellow cylinder lights hanging from ceiling rods. I camouflaged myself to blend in with the wall, just so they wouldn’t freak out.

“Okay, what do you need returned to you, and does this thing legitimately belong to you?”

They had a silent discussion, and finally seemed to reach an agreement.

Beanie answered. “Definitely ours. Basically.”

I cocked an eyebrow at that. So did Rebus.

Beanie started to sputter, and his eyes started to water. “Hey now, no need for that.” Rebus handed the changeling a bar rag that had been hanging from his back jeans pocket.

Beanie pulled himself together. “It’s… they’re ours. We were short for the rent, so we pawned our rings. It was only supposed to be for two weeks, but when we tried to get them back, Donny had already claimed them for himself.”

I shuddered hearing Donny’s name

“What would he want with them?”

“Protective enchantments. A gift from my father. He’s a fullblood. Summer Court.”

Rebus scowled. “He can spring for enchantments but not help with your rent? Fey like him give fullbloods a bad rap. I can see why that pain in ass would want them.”

I remembered that first night when I had wandered into the Fringe. If Rebus hadn’t shown up when he did…

“I’ll get your rings back. Which pawn shop?”

I woke up from a nap on the couch in the office when Rebus came in after closing up. Nat, my adopted mother, usually went up to our apartment above the bar and let me sleep knowing Rebus would carry me up when he was done.

He had changed into all black clothes, and a skullcap covered his head. “Wanna come?”

I was instantly alert. “YES!” I shifted so my jeans and t-shirt were all black, withdrew my hair into my head, and darkened my skin to match the clothes. “Where to?”

“Gonna check out that pawn shop. You know the drill—stick close and do what I say. Got it?”

Before he even finished speaking, my head was nodding with enthusiasm to rival a puppy on Adderall.

We sneaked through a smelly alley and around to the back of the store. The shop next to it was a pizza place, and the odor of the different wasted foods made me gag. A couple of rats scurried under the dumpster, and I moved closer to Rebus as he picked the lock in a matter of seconds. He patted my back and led the way inside.

A gelatinous ball stretched and snaked around his forearm—one of his minor enchantments. A moment later, it lit at the tip into a small flashlight. He gave me one as well before tiptoeing inside. We passed two closed doors, one on each side of a short hall that opened into the main part of the shop. Piles of pawned items looked like they would topple any minute.

“Stay put, sweetheart. Don’t go poking into anything. This place takes human and changeling merchandise alike. Some of it could be dangerous.”

I nodded and watched him go off to inspect the store’s contents.

This wasn’t nearly as exciting as some of our other jobs. I leaned back against the wall and slumped to the floor. Across from me, one of the doors was Tardis blue, and I shone my light up its length. Toward the top, a sign read DO NOT ENTER.

A reasonable, obedient person would have stayed put and followed not only the door’s instructions, but Rebus’s.

I opened it.

I heard the creature before I saw it. Deep growling, deeper bleating, and hissing all at once. My body went cold as if all the blood left it.

A motion light blinked on. I couldn’t even scream. “Re-Rebus?” came out in a whisper.

Crouching like it was about to pounce, the thing had two heads—a lion head and a goat head—three if you counted the snake head at the tail.

 Flight, fight, and freeze all kicked in at once. Something told me to shift into anything bigger than the creature. Except my brain didn’t have just one thing to shift into. The images of a bear, a tiger, and a wolf all jumbled together in my head. The monster roared. My body started to fluctuate between the different animals in my mind—all at the same time. One second, I was big, brown and upright, but then my legs shifted to wolf hindquarters and couldn’t support the bear weight. Tiger claws at the end of stubby bear arms were useless.

I tried to scream, but what came out was some mishmash of tiger and bear roars and a wolf howl as I rolled around the floor cycling through hybrid forms. The loss of control over my body added to my fear as the anticipation of getting shredded sent me into full panic mode.

“Mercy!” Rebus shouted my name.

He appeared behind me. A bright light flashed. There was a ZAP and a POP.

The room quieted except for my thrashing and Rebus whispering to me like he did when I was younger. With the danger past, my shifts slowed. My body returned to what it was when I left the bar.

Swaying, I made my way back to my feet. I stared down at them, too ashamed to meet Rebus’s eyes.

“So…what part of ‘stay put’ wasn’t clear?” His tone was calm, as usual.

I shrugged and wilted.

“Uh huh. And I know you can read because Nat spent a year homeschooling you so you could start school at the same place as your peers. What happened there? You did see the big sign, right?”

I nodded. My breath hitched, and my bottom lip began to quiver. What had I been thinking?

Rebus sighed, came over to me, and folded me into his arms. “Scared the life out of me, kid. What am I going to do with you?” He hugged me.

I broke. “I’m sorry, Rebus. I got bored, and—”

“Shh…We’ll talk about the importance of following directives later. For now, let’s get out of here.”

As I wiped my face with the heels of my hands, I noticed the rest of the office. In the center of a very neat desk sat a black velvet box. “Rebus, over there.”

As I wiped my cheeks with the heels of my hands, I noticed the rest of the office. In the center of a very neat desk sat a black velvet box.

“Well, I’ll be damned. You found them.”

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