Cast of Wonders 57: Empty Pockets (Part 2)

Show Notes

Today’s episode is Part 2 of “Empty Pockets” by James Issac. Be sure to listen to Part 1  if you haven’t yet.

Empty Pockets, Part 2

by James Isaac

Fresh, clean and ready for his first day of work, Dee Jay made sure to wake way before nine o’clock. No rain today, a good sign, he thinks as he walks leisurely to the shop-with-no-name. MCG is sitting on her stool, this time whistling as she paints purple polish on her nails. She nods to Dee Jay as he crosses the street, shouting loudly because of the noise of the headphones “Good morning.”

As soon as he pushes past the bead-curtain Granny Guffin is there, throwing an orange apron at him. “Here is your ‘Apron of Customer Service,” she says. Lacking kangaroo pouch, Dee Jay considers it ‘rated underling.’

“Don’t you ever close?” he questions, as Mrs Guffin seems to be wearing the same gear as yesterday.

“Don’t be silly. Now clever young man, off to work you go. I want you to put the contents of those boxes on the shelves” she says pointing over to several large cardboard boxes between the aisles. “Do it anyway and anyhow you want. And remember, in case of a customer, we are what we are in the eye of the beholder.”

“Yeah right,” he mutters under his breath as he prises open the cardboard boxes. Just bags and bags of crisps, plain white packets, with the words ‘plainly flavoured,’ and that’s all. Monotonously crisp-merchandising for the next hour, Dee Jay makes it bearable only with the thought of crispy fifty pound notes. Then everything changes. 

The back door jingles as it is pushed open. Inside walk two figures; a man in plated metal armour, and a woman clothed in studded, hooded leather, showing lots of thigh. Dee Jay stops shelf stacking entranced by the Amazonian vision before him. A nasty smell breaks the enchantment. Manure scents the air, the whinnying of horses outside. Dust and chaff now cover the floor. Oaken interior replaces generic ‘corner-shop décor.’ Racks replace shelves, and all those crisp packets have vanished, leaving in their stead some kind of medieval armoury and a variety of statues and jewellery.

“Only one at a time or the shop will get angry sir” says an old woman that should be Granny Guffin. Long crooked nose, bent of back and leaning on a long gnarled walking stick, dressed all in black too. The only thing lacking is a pointy hat. For a moment it seems as if the shop somehow contracts, but then the amazon lady mumbles an apology and steps out the back door. A verifiable feeling of release pulses throughout the interior. 

The Guffin-witch-lady wobbles over to Dee Jay, saying “Our customer is a knight. A regular, nice young man like yourself. Your job is to serve him. You’ll know what to do, it will come to you. Just remember, tell all customers that everything comes with a price to be paid later. And only one item per person.” Dee Jay frantically nods his understanding, if only to try and wake from this strange dream.

The steel coated man booms, voice bold and hearty, “Hail wise mother Guffin. Yet again the kingdom needs the wonders of antiquity to rouse the people’s spirit against evil. Pray tell me Excalibur is back?”

“Still away Sir Tristan. Ask my young squire to assist you good sir.” Before she hobbles away, she whispers in Dee Jay’s ear,” Ye olde antiquity section is there in the corner.” Dee Jay’s apron hums with static electricity and his mind buzzes, filling with pictures and words.

Imperiously the man gestures, “Imp boy, what do I require to ignite the fervours of my nation against the enemy?” Imp boy? But Dee Jay does indeed feel shorter. A reflection caught in a polished breastplate, hanging on a nearby rack, shows a thing he does not recognise. A bald, pointy eared, conically chinned, devilishly eyed impy creature stares back.  Hmm, so this is what Sir Tristan beholds? Dee Jay thinks he should be scared, but somehow it all seemed so… appropriate.

“Imp boy, I’m talking to you. Assist me or I shalt give you a damn good thrashing. And believe me, I’m good at thrashing.” Again energy crackles through Dee Jay’s mind, the blessings of cosmic salesmanship radiating from the apron.

“Well, we have a good selection from antiquity milord, and I have just the thing. Over there between the Bones of Agamemnon and the Cornucopia you’ll find a man-sized wooden statue, the Palladium of Troy. As long as you hold it, your nation will never fall.”

His armour clanking over the wooden floor, kicking up small clouds of chaff, Sir Tristan stops and ponders the antiquity. “Well, I must say it is a bit chipped. But yes, this will do nicely. Same payment as always yes?” He takes a breath, “A price to be paid of Mother Guffin’s own choosing on an undetermined date, but less than half the success wrought by said artefact?”

“Yes sir. I see you are well versed in the ways of these things.”

“Well done imp,” Sir Tristan says, before picking up the statue and bellowing, “Wise mother Guffin, see the imp-boy gets a raise.”

“As you like good sir, “she mumbles, dusting cobwebs from a mighty shield.

Awkwardly trundling through the store, the knight barges the backdoor open. Standing on tip-toes in order to try and catch a glimpse of the Amazonian fantasy-fuel outside, Dee Jay ultimately fails to see past Tristan’s bulky plate-mail. Then the heavy door slams shut and the local supermarket, bedecked with crisp packets, returns.

Back to her dread-locked form Granny Guffin states matter-of-factly, “Of course someone will steal the Palladium in the end, but then that is not our concern. Either way, I get the future prospects of a kingdom. And notice he had no pockets? That’s why he had to heave it around.  Anyway, good job young man. And see, you are back looking like your handsome self.” Firm-hold-gelled hair nests atop his head, ears nice and rounded with standard cubic-zirconia, chin not so conical. What a relief!

And so the day passed, shop conforming to the expectations of clients. Granny Guffin becoming anything from raven-haired gypsy fortune teller, to a voodoo lady, even something like a Miss Haversham who Dee Jay remembered from English class. 

Suffering through this odd changing process too, Dee Jay found himself dressed as a butler, serving a red coated man smudged with black powder and smelling of smoke. While the red-coated customer patronised the store, the surroundings clicked and whirled with clockwork machinery. The red-coat requested a way to defeat a well-known diminutive French general. After Dee Jay had assured him that Excalibur was indeed no longer available, he waded through a tumble of imperial silk next to a piping, whistling alchemical device which kept turning a lump of coal golden, and black. Eventually he found what he wanted, something called ‘The Turk:’ a tiny automaton of said Turk playing chess.

“Not what I was looking for. But it could just do the trick, knock the sheen of the all-conquering shine, what?” said the bemused red-coat.

Something like the electrifying of a filament sparked in Dee Jay’s mind, “Sir this is pocket-sized, but will increase to man-size once you leave the shop. And remember the price will be paid later.” As the man left, the roar of cannon outside the back-door caused Dee Jay to wonder if a chess-playing machine was really such a good choice.

Another time, dressed as a skateboarder-cum- nerd of all nerds, he programmed a ‘holy USB of hacking’, requested by a black-suited man in shades who spoke with a Russian accent. Later, he greatly impressed Granny Guffin after giving a high-profile banker, looking for luck, a vacuumed packed rabbit-foot from MCG’s stall, the first ever to be ‘sold.’

Dee Jay sets his thoughts on home and the £400 he had earned when time ticked to the eight-hour mark of his working day. As the shop again starts to shimmer, he makes a mental note that this will indeed be his last customer of the day. The familiar crackle of knowledge fizzles through his mind, and this time his body feels stiffer. Fibre-optics and wires wrap his thighs, forearms and chest. Cool! A future hi-tech place. He has actually grown to look-forward to the changes, after all Drive-through Dave couldn’t say he had travelled to a dozen dimensions during his nine-to-five.

Instead of the usual old-lady shape, Granny Guffin had morphed into a computer, black and streamlined without controls, only a flashing screen seamlessly blending into the now all-black decor. Glowing spheres sparkle, holographic screens blink. Instead of a jingly bell signalling entrance via back door, a thing began materialising ‘beam-me-up’ style in the middle of the shop.

Angular blades poke from the flesh of the thing, wires twist with sinew, blue electric arcs; a bastard of man and machine. The face is a concave bowl of dark grey, featureless except for a single, red flashing dot in the middle.  Everything about it screams ‘psycho-killer. It holds a sword, archaic or medieval.

“Ask the servitor for assistance” says the digitised voice of the Granny Guffin computer. The red dot swings Dee Jay’s way, projecting itself over his cyborg heart.

“I want to exchange this Excalibur,” voice mechanical, not in a ‘genius I-am-AI-incarnate Steven Hawking’ way but resonating with a metallic screech like a train struggling to stop in time. “Found on some primitive rebel world. It’s no good to me. I need something to spread awe and terror on that rebellious planet. And no rings of seeping insidiousness.” The sword’s hilt is offered to Dee Jay, as the thing holds the bladed end.

“Jeeday, please hang Excalibur up and put it in a pocket. A scabbard.” Granny beeps when Dee Jay takes the sword.

“Overlord, that is quite a problem. Servitor, do you have any advice?” Strange, the first time today that Granny has asked, rather than ordered. Is she nervous?

The sword is heavy in Dee Jay’s grip. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems to have wanted it. Doesn’t seem any better than the many other weird weapons and things he has seen today. “Um, Overlord,” he ventures. “I know what would please you. You want a weapon the size of a small moon right? Something like a star, that spreads death?” The blinking red light swings back over to the Granny computer.

“What is wrong with your servitor?” it rasps. “I should format its mind and blast it into the vacuum of the void. How am I supposed to carry a small moon?”

Tightening his one-hand grip on Excalibur, the blessing of the ‘Apron of Customer Service’ fizzles in his brain once more. A glass marble with blue glowing centre levitates upon a counter next to many others marbles of many different colours. An instant later the marble hovers between Dee Jay and the Overlord.

“Here mighty Overlord, a ‘nano-plague of devouring.’ Immune to sneak-attacks down trenches.” Deep, doom-laden silence permeates every atom of the shop. Then a blade-finned hand, knotted with veins and wires, reaches and unfolds under the marble, which drops and is caught. Without as much as a word the Overlord phases away and the supermarket returns. 

Granny Guffin stifles Dee Jay’s concerns as she loudly exclaims, “Home time JeeDay. You have been wonderful today young man. Here you go, a little cherry on top.” Her hand takes nine crisp fifty pound notes from her pouch, which Dee Jay greedily pockets with his free hand.

“Hold your hand out dear, I have something else for you.” Next she pulls a shiny watch from the pouch. Stylish, not too thick and ‘blingy’, but a little sparkle from what Dee Jay presumes are diamonds. She straps it to the wrist of his outstretched arm. “Take this watch and wear it tomorrow. Now, be off with you.” 

Examining the watch, Dee Jay feels odd. Does she think I’m a long lost grandson or something? But still, a nice watch is a nice watch. Then he notices a dent, a split on the rim of encrusted diamond. He shrugs and wanders out. “See you tomorrow Mrs Guffin.” 

Outside the shop MCG is leaning over the display-table and popping gum. Baggy fitting, rainbow coloured skater shorts hint at a well-formed arse. Dee Jay can’t help but admire it and grips Excalibur even more tightly. Dammit! He still has the sword; and his shop apron! 

The thought of going back inside is too much to bear; who knows what could happen? Leaning the sword up against the wall by the beaded-curtain and hanging his apron off the hilt, he assumes MCG will surely put everything back. She stares right through Dee Jay as he passes and waves, undoubtedly lost in a land of sound.

Frantically running down the street, Dee Jay can’t believe that he got up at midday. His mum had already left for work and didn’t wake him. He had to iron his own shirt. And no sign of any buses. Even though the contract stated ‘whenever’, he is sure Mrs Guffin would only let him off so much.

As he runs across the street to MCG’s stall he gets an even greater surprise. MCG doesn’t wear her headphones, and she is jumping and waving at Dee Jay to hurry. When he sets foot on her side of the road she runs to him, crying. “Please Dee Jay, help Granny. I don’t know why she isn’t fighting back.” She hugs him tightly and Dee Jay, the newly appointed ‘fearless protector of damsels’ hugs back. Think pure thoughts, think pure thoughts!

“It’s fine. I’m here now,” he says softly. Although it’s frightening to consider what Granny can’t deal with by herself. By now he suspects she is all-powerful and the old granny-act is just a ruse. He lets go of MCG and, with trepidation, makes his way to the beaded-curtain door, instinctively on tip-toes. Parting the curtains ever so slightly, he peeks inside. 

Circling the Granny computer is the Overlord. It strokes the huge barrel of some sort of…laser canon-death ray. A half dozen of what Dee Jay can only describe as muscled, squat, ‘cyborg-henchmen’ hammer bladed fists against counters and stock. Black, smooth shards whizz across the shop-floor from shattering blows. Clearly the Overlord is not happy with his recent acquisition.

“I can’t even populate the damn planet with my own minions now. That nano-plague was too effective. I demand compensation,” the Overlord roars, sounding like the screech of one steel edge grating against another.

Granny beeps “No refunds Overlord, you knew the policy. Once you take it, the repercussions are your responsibility.”

“I’m going to smite this place and take everything.” Its back facing the bead-curtain, the Overlord presses the tip of the gun against the Granny computer.

Dee Jay knows that in this moment many things might occur, one of them being the destruction of his first work place environment, resulting in joblessness and the witheringly sad eyes of MCG reduced to even witheringly-er sadness.  Whatever else might happen, that MUST be prevented!

Something catches his eye as he pops his head away from the curtain; Excalibur, glinting in the cold light of a sun which has just pierced grey cloud above. Thank god MCG left it outside! Once more he grabs the sword, feels its weight, its balance. He draws in a deep breath, holds, and charges. Beaded curtain strands flail behind him like the locks of a well groomed warrior-hero somewhere else. 

Bits of shop splinter around him in the fury of rampaging henchmen as, behind the Overlord, he draws the blade above his head. So heavy, his under-worked arms already straining, Dee Jay swings and this moment of ripe possibility, if moments were eggs and Excalibur a spoon, breaks open. The Overlord’s flashing empty faced-head spins in the air, cleaved from its body. The torso twists into a heap of sparking circuits and drops as dead weight on the floor just before the head bounces alongside, red light no longer blinking.

Hands aching from the impact, Dee Jay drops the sword. Bravery ebbs away when the stunned henchmen turn to look. An instant later the walls of the shop clench, or bite like a giant mouth grinding cyborg into pulp. Chewing walls press against each other, except for where the Granny computer beeps and Dee Jay stands. Suddenly releasing, the back-door opens into starry void sucking the remains of Overlord and henchmen into the vacuum of space.

The blandness of a twenty-first century, local London supermarket, shimmers back into existence around Dee Jay. Granny Guffin wanders between the aisles as if nothing has happened. In the corner of his eye MCG’s face disappears behind the rattling beaded curtains. Dee Jay is pissed off.

“Why didn’t you do anything earlier?” Anger heightens his voice.

“Well, you are the help dear.” And then Granny Guffin winks at him. Not a come-hither wink, but a secret, ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ wink. “I knew you’d arrive in the nick of time.” To which Dee Jay thumbs against his watch, feeling the dent in the encrusted rim, understanding something that he didn’t a moment ago. And then noticing that Granny Guffin wears the same orange clothes as two days ago, he wonders why she isn’t decked out in designer gear with diamonds and gold herself.

“Um Granny, I’m just curious. What do you get paid with?”

“Well, everything. We are not a charity. People carelessly pay me in fragments of time and/or space, fragments of hopes and/or dreams.” Granny starts to wander again. Dee Jay is quick to follow.

“Um, I have an idea to make your shop look better. That empty awning outside, I could design a logo for you. I’ve thought of a name and everything.”

“Clever boy. Well, what’s the name?” she says, somehow pulling a very long feather duster from her pouch and prodding a corner of ceiling with it.

“Empty pockets.” Granny stops her attempt at dusting, a wide smile beams from her face.

“Wonderful! Oh so wonderful!”

Dee Jay shrugs, “It’s nothing. I like working here.”

“I should give you something special young man. Do you want a blank cheque?” Although Dee Jay didn’t pass his exams he isn’t stupid. Sometimes he doesn’t pay attention, but this cosmic salesman lark has him all ears. Granny would own something of his if he took anything from the store. He figures he can make a nice bit of money from this place without a blank cheque. Anyway, there has been something else on his mind ever since he left the Pound Palace next door a couple of days ago.

“Um, Granny Guffin, I would like to ask for something else.”

“Go on.”

“Could I ask your granddaughter on a date?”

“Yes, I am sure you could.”

“No, I mean, could you make her say yes. To just to give me a chance, I mean, to go out somewhere with me.” The rush of blood to his cheeks is unavoidable and so he looks at his trainers.

“Silly young man. I’m sure Macey is quite taken with you already. But you must know, the most powerful artefacts in the universe cannot challenge a woman’s prerogative.”

“Uh…” Dee Jay furrows his brow in confusion.

“Make a fresh pot of tea and bring her a cup. You never know, you might be in luck… ”

About the Author

James Isaac

CoW Logo

James Isaac is a person who exists.

Find more by James Isaac

CoW Logo

About the Narrator

Graeme Dunlop

Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.

Find more by Graeme Dunlop