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Hal needed something from the wizard, even though he didn't know exactly what it was...
SRU: A Higher Power -5- The Pardon
by Lainie Lee
The shabbily dressed man hurrying through the holiday shopping crowd slipped into the first door he came to. Hal David figured it must be a side corridor into service areas of the mall where he could hide for a bit. The little bells ringing took him by surprise, it was a shop?
He looked around, a weird, dimly lit little shop full of odd things. A very lifelike carved and painted leprechaun perched on a toadstool the size of a hassock. A painted fan bearing the image of a Chinese dragon adorned with a forked beard like a cossack. A brass demiurge carrying a basket full of haddock. A porcelain stallion standing in a miniature gilded paddock.
He shook his head in wonder, what the hell was a demiurge, anyway?
"It's a magical being, sort of an angel or a fairy or a djinn; but not quite any of those, more powerful and much to be feared, a maker of worlds," said a voice.
Hal looked up; an old man wearing a dingy bathrobe blinked at him owlishly from the end of the aisle. Hal didn't think he had spoken his question aloud but he must have; how else could the old man have answered him?
"Yes, you must have," agreed the wizard. "Otherwise, I'd have to be a mind reader, wouldn't I, Hal? Now, get out of here, we're not open yet, it's hardly half past the Cenozoic."
Puzzled by that remark, Hal glanced at an ornate clock showing the faces of the Oriental moon; it read a quarter 'til two. "I'm sorry, I didn't even know this was a shop," said Hal. He meant to ask how the old man knew his name but the fellow interrupted him.
"I just told you," the grumpiest old man said. "Now, again, get out. It's much too early for me to be working, I need my rest. I've got carpetlag from visiting my colleagues in Wonderland and Oz; Trellia can make you tired just listening to her twining her tales around her branches." He yawned, showing more and better teeth than could have been expected in the mouth of someone who looked older than the sort of oak planks that have been seasoned long enough to be hard as stone.
"I beg your pardon," began Hal, growing more and more confused. Had the old man said Australia? Had he said Wonderland? Had he said tales or tails? Had he really said Cenozoic? Had Hal known the bronze figurine was a demiurge when he didn't even know what a demiurge was?
"You beg my pardon, do you?" scowled the wizard. "What have you done? And it's brass, bronze would be redder more than goldener. Golden. More golden. Now you've got me doing it."
"Doing what?" asked Hal cautiously.
"Thinking like a mortal idiot," growled the wizard. "So, you want my pardon? But am I the one you committed a crime against?"
Hal's heart froze. This old man scared him, he knew too much and....
"And I really can read minds," warned the wizard. "So don't even try anything, I'll turn you into a snuffbox shaped like a toad and fill you full of flies faster than you can say remacadamize."
Hal stepped back. The wizard stepped forward; sparks like miniature lightning glanced from his eyes.
"I never done nothing to you!" Hal said, taking another step toward the door. Even the mall security cops seemed less threatening than this crazy old man with eyebrows like thunderheads.
"Meaning you've done everything!" stormed the wizard advancing like a cold front with scattered flurries of ire. "You just hadn't got around to it, had you? Casing the joint? If you came in here to nibble on my cheese, you will regret it."
"Cheese!?" Hal's eyes could not get wider and if his bowels got any looser he would need to change pants. "No, no, I'm a dip not a booster!" What was he saying?
"You're a pickpocket not a shoplifter? I should turn you into a rooster, or something worse. That's not a pocket you're carrying under your arm, it's a purse. Is that your swag?"
Hal nodded nervously, a tic so violent he almost couldn't talk. "I tried the dip but I had to snatch the bag; Miss Mark twigged and I thought she'd roust the heat. I just ran in here 'cause I didn't want to get nicked."
The old man put a finger beside his nose and smiled. "Looking for Easy Street is asking to get tricked. You're a thief and a rascal, your crimes are many and various. You asked for my pardon. Why should I give it to one so nefarious?"
"I'm not a bad guy," said Hal in a weak voice. "It's just sometimes, I don't seem to have a choice?"
"Next you'll be blaming your peers for leading you into a life of crime," scoffed the wizard. "This will be your third strike, you're looking at twenty-five years. Don't commit the offense if you can't do the time."
Hal staggered. The old guy was right. "I'm forty two now, I can't go to jail again, I'd be older than dirt if I lived that long," he protested. "You won't turn me in?"
"You're singing the wrong song. You've never repented, you feel no remorse. You steal and you lie as a matter of course. Still, I will say, in your defense, you've never used a gun, not even a knife."
"I ain't going to neither! Even though nothing has never gone right in my life," said the miscreant sadly. "But it ain't true that I'm not sorry for what I've done. Sometimes I feel bad."
"Badly," said the wizard. "Don't add bad grammar to the list of your sins. I'm a wizard, nothing more; not a syntax collector, among the many things I'm not; neither father confessor, nor window dresser, not chicken inspector nor what I said before!" He hit a high note and held it for a moment.
Hal just stared at him, too stunned to be amazed.
The wizard took a deep breath and sang rapidly, "I am the very model of a modern magi general, with incantations to turn a mortal into animal, vegetable or mineral. And while I sometimes do indulge in stunts a bit theatrical, I've never quite before descended to the operatical."
"What never?" sang the chorus.
"Wrong play," said the wizard, "And that is just about enough of that. See what happens when you wake me up before I've had my wisdom nap? We almost fell out of reality into a Gilbert and Sullivan universe." He shuddered and made his beard quiver indignantly.
"I'll just leave now," offered Hal. He looked around nervously for the chorus. Where had they come from and where had they gone?
"No," said the wizard. "You begged my pardon and I haven't quite got around to giving you that boon. What's in the purse?"
"I--I hadn't looked yet?" Hal put the handbag on one of the counters and opened it up. "Uh, it's full of jewelry and makeup, most of it still on the store cards." He grinned sheepishly, "What do you know, Miss Mark was a booster!"
The wizard nodded thoughtfully, "There is no honor among thieves after all. You stole someone else's swag. She never rousted the heat but probably took a powder out the other end of the mall." He looked into an invisble distance briefly then nodded in satisfaction. "In fact, the little lady is on the bus now, cursing her luck."
"This is schlock," said Hal, examining the loot. "She was young, probably a thrill junkie. You know, stealing just for the high she gets?"
"And what about you, Hal? Why do you steal? It surely hasn't gotten you the good things in life?" The wizard looked over Hal's shabby clothes and runover sneakers.
"I get by," said Hal. "Well, most of the time?"
"You mean when you're not living off crime you're living off charity," the old man drove the sad truth home with a sneer. "Are you sure you want my pardon, you inconsequential recidivist?"
Hal had no idea what that last part meant but he protested again, "I ain't never done nothing to you!"
"A triple negative makes all come out even but I warned you once already about bad grammar. I'll give you my pardon, Henry Ambrose David, if you truly want it."
Hal felt his face collapse around his fear, he knew now that he had stumbled into something as dangerous as being the witness to a mob hit. He nodded cautiously, "Whatever you say, I don't want no more trouble." Getalong Hal, that's what they had called him in prison. He began backing toward the door again.
"My pardon," the wizard insisted. "Do you want it?"
"Yes!" said Hal, his terror once again threatening to loosen his sphincters. "Yes, please?" His habit of polite respect to figures of authority granted his speech more grace than he usually possessed.
"Freely asked and freely given," said the Wizard. "I pardon you, Hal, from your life of crime and despair. You need a second chance, a new start and someone to guide you and give you moral instruction." The old man gestured with two fingers and spoke a word in a language no one on this world had ever spoken before.
The changes came so quickly they left Hal breathless; he felt his slight paunch shrink, his bald spot disappear. His beard stubble shrank into his skin, as did most of his body hair. His limbs became slender, his shoulders narrow and his waist narrower still.
"What's happening?" he asked in a small voice that ended in a squeak because his voice box had suddenly changed. His eyebrows thinned as the hair on his head grew down to his shoulders then to his waist, then braided itself into two pigtails. His lips grew softer and rounder as his nose grew shorter and smaller. His balls retracted into his abdomen and his penis shrank to a tiny button. At least, that's what it felt like had happened.
His clothes began to change, too; his ratty jacket became a red blazer and his food-stained shirt became a pretty white blouse with simple ruffles at the neck and wrists. His hands, slim and graceful now, reached up to feel his new face. The dirty boxers in the once-blue pants he wore became sparkling white cotton panties under a plaid skirt. His threadbare socks and worthless sneakers turned into white knee-high stockings and penny loafers.
He felt a slit open into a new place between where his balls used to be. His now youthful, feminine voice cried out again, "What's happening?" just as small pubescent breasts sprouted on his chest. Her chest.
Little gold earrings shaped like hearts flew out of the stolen purse and pierced her ears. "Ouch?" she yelped. The wizard chuckled.
"What did you do to me?" she asked in a tiny schoolgirl voice. Tiny was right, the wizard towered more than a foot over her now.
"Given you a new opportunity to learn proper behavior," said the wizard. "I pardoned you right back to when you first stole something in the fifth grade. We won't count the jelly beans."
"I--I'm..." she stammered.
"You're ten, and you're an orphan in a Catholic girls school," the wizard informed her and she knew it was true. "The nuns are good to you but they're very strict, if they catch you with a purse full of stolen doodads, you won't be able to sit down for a week."
She backed away from the handbag, "I don't want it!" Her hands flew to her ears, remembering that the earrings from the bag had made now-healed holes in her lobes.
"You can keep those," said the wizard. "You had a little money in your pockets, from doing chores. I'll see that the rest of this stuff gets back to where it belongs." The bag and swag therein vanished with a modest, if slightly indecent sounding, "Poot!"
"I'm a girl?" she asked, one hand feeling of her chest and the other pressing her skirt to her thigh. Soft brown hair in long braids tied with ribbons, clear rosy complexion blushing in her confusion, neat little school uniform and long coltish legs, she didn't yet know what an adorable little pixie she had become.
The wizard smiled at her, his ancient face creasing in lines of benevolent amusement. "Yes, you are. You'd better go, you don't want to spoil your outing by being late back to the bus. Your friends will be waiting for you."
"I've got friends," she said wondering and she knew their names, Karen and Cindy and little Sarah who talked with a lisp and couldn't say her own name plainly. The nuns would get Sarah speech therapy, just like they had gotten braces for Cindy's teeth. "What's my name?" she asked.
"You're Alison Hildegard Stuckey, and you're going to hear Sister Elisabeth Mark calling that name out if you don't get going." The old man made shooing motions and she drifted toward the door.
"Stuckey? My sister married a man named Stuckey years ago," she murmured. But the memories of Hal David seemed like something she had seen in an old movie.
"That's right, they were killed in a car wreck on their honeymoon; only this time it happened after they had lived long enough to have a daughter. You're your own niece, Heidi."
She smiled and almost giggled. Heidi for Hildegard because there was already an Alison in her grade at school. She liked it and her pigtails bounced with her pleasure. Her blue eyes danced and she gave the old man a wide smile, showing the gap where she had lost a tooth only last month.
"Go," said the wizard, raising his arms like a conductor. "They'll put you on restriction if you're late. Those nuns are tough. I wouldn't want to mess with them." Which was true, religious with a true vocation had a power proof against wizard spells. He could only affect them indirectly as he had done now, and only if he worked no harm.
This particular order took in children that weren't even Catholic; since Heidi's mother had been Jewish they would offer her the opportunity to study her heritage in a few years. The wizard looked forward to see his latest client growing up to become a teacher herself, and a wife and mother before discovering an unknown love of music and talent for songwriting in her old age. At least, that was one possible path the future could take.
In the there and then, ten-year-old Heidi spun quickly, sending her pigtails flying. The little bells jingled as she paused at the door. "Should I thank you?" she asked, looking back.
"You should. I've given you the opportunity to grow up to be something other than a sad little thief; take care and do it right this time. The nuns will show you the way and correct you if you get off the path."
Somehow it all made sense to her; all fear had dropped away and she felt only awe and wonderment. And gratitude. "Thank you, sir," she said politely and discovered that she knew how to curtsey. The bells jingled joyfully again as she shut the door behind her.
"You're quite welcome," said the wizard, purposefully a beat too late.
"Who were you talking to?" asked Dannie coming up behind him.
The old man looked at his latest apprentice, "Just a little girl who had lost her way; she was polite and begged my pardon, so I gave it to her." He kept the smile out of his voice and off his face though he knew she could sense his satisfaction.
"You gave someone something," Dannie said doubtfully, yawning the sleep out of her own voice. She looked to be in her teens, a shapely girl who had once been a client of the strange old man herself. She stretched, deliciously unaware of how she looked when she did that. Sometimes she reminded the old man of a cat. Now she smiled a question at her boss.
"Freely asked and freely given, even the devil knows the path to heaven," said the wizard mysteriously.
"Oh. Okay," Dannie didn't feel curious anymore. "I'm hungry. Are the mastodons all dead, already?"
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