“A sorcerer’s journey begins with touching a pilot stone, cut from the mother star that fell to earth centuries ago (see appendix F for a list of all known pilot stones and their respective locations). From there, the study and practice of magic is a slow and tedious journey. The new magical mind must be gradually honed like the edge of a fine sword.”
Excerpt from Magiske Uddannelse - p. 23
English translation - Alexander Hamilton
Last known location - Commander’s Library, Fort Black Rocks, Nevis
The kitchen of Sky Garden Family Buffet dripped with minimum wage sweat and the pace of minimum effort service. Madison Mosby pulled a long curl of hair out of her face, pushed her black rimmed glasses back to the top of her nose, and tried to blank out the tedium of her shitty job, letting her mind leave her body, like some brilliant child stuck in a remedial class.
Petty arguments over dollar tips, missing juice boxes, and sports stats rose over the clamor of dishes, spatulas against griddles, and the occasional broken coffee mug.
Madison didn’t look up from her cutting board, her eyes focused on her knife and the peppers she was chopping for the salad bar. Her back ached, along with her shoulders and feet. All she wanted right now was to lie on her couch in the arms of her boyfriend Reese and sip on Vodka mixed with anything. Instead, Sarah rushed up to her with a bag of lettuce.
“Jacob said we need more lettuce in the salad bar. What was your grandmother like?” Sarah asked Madison.
The short girl with perfect teeth, had to be all of seventeen, working weekends between wine cooler parties, exams and searching for just the right community college. Or, at least that’s what Madison imagined every time Sarah spoke in her Tennessee drawl.
For Madison’s entire shift, the spindly blond from the sticks had been finding the smallest excuses to come over and pester Madison. Madison’s little boast two days ago had turned out to be the biggest mistake of the week, ‘I’m Nancy Mosby’s granddaughter, you know.’ Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut?
Before that comment, Sarah had just been another wave in a sea of teenagers bustling in the kitchen, washing dishes, mopping floors and loading up serving platters. Now she was an albatross, clinging to Madison’s neck.
“She was nice enough, I guess,” said Madison.
“Was she rich?”
“She owned Blue Petal, what do you think?” The word ‘rich’ reminded Madison of her empty bank account and eleven grand in credit card debt.
People always wanted to know what Nancy Mosby was like, especially people in the Sky Garden Family Buffet family. Recluses, like Howard Hughes, always fascinated people.
What should you tell strangers anyway? That she was a cold force of nature? ‘She never gave me more than a temporary roof over my head, begrudgingly at that?’ Or, how about, ‘If they found her carcass tomorrow afternoon, in some Bolivian rainforest, I’d eat dinner, drink a little, brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that what you want to hear?’
Madison had loved Nancy Mosby at one point. But, towards the end of their time together, Nancy had grown distant and even a little nasty towards the rest of the family.
By the way, I’m a real person too.
The sentiment stung. Once associated with Nancy, Madison became wrapping paper: a shiny package begging to be opened, only to be ripped away and disregarded so that the gift of Nancy could be savored.
“I read all Mrs. Mosby’s books, too.” Sarah paused. “Caravan Kitchen - Mississippi Delta is my favorite.”
Shocker. Madison ignored her. She was pretty sure there was a recipe for squirrel stew in that one. Sarah probably loved it.
Omar, a bald, pudgy busboy, covered in regrettable tattoos, shuffled up next to Madison. He carried a stack of empty buffet bins, caked with black grease and chunks of fish. He had a hopeful smile on his face. He was no doubt looking to score some pills off Madison and thank God for that, she thought. Her liquor cash was running a little too low.
“Maddy Money,” said Omar in a low tone, “you got anything tonight?”
“Not now,” said Madison, still focused on her peppers, “check back with me at Johnny D’s party.”
“Cool, cool.” Omar took his bins back to the dishwashers.
“What’s he want?” asked Sarah.
“Well, I’m not going to that party. Just people who will be drinking and carrying on like yahoos.”
An awkward silence hung in the air, years of taking shit from people for not living up to her potential made her keenly aware of when she was about to receive a lecture. She could almost sense that Sarah was going to say something like, ‘I don’t know why you want to hang out with those people, Madison. You’re better than that.’ Instead, Sarah resumed her interrogation.
“Did Nancy have a big mansion?” Sara opened a five pound bag of lettuce and dumped it into one of the stainless steel bins, destined to go uneaten by the restaurant’s nutrient-adverse patrons.
“Yeah, I guess it is pretty big.”
What did big mean anyway? Sarah could have lived in a mansion that dwarfed grandmother’s. Big was a safe description for a three story house with two wings, more rooms than Madison could remember, and an indoor swimming pool. A memory flashed through Madison’s head of when Nancy would let her and her sisters swim in the pool for a party. Why couldn’t we do that all the time? Because her younger sister Dana never bothered to learn to swim. Dana ruined everything.
“Is it still in the family?” asked Sarah.
Sara brushed her hands on her apron, leaving flecks of wet lettuce.
“Why are you working here?” More lettuce landed with a wet plop in the steel bin and Sara began separating it with her fingers. She looked up as if gazing at the moon. “I mean you should be in one of those secret Blue Petal kitchens I saw on 60 Minutes, where you get to make anything you want and…”
Madison’s hands curled into fists. Pain shot through her jaw as it clinched shut. Her vision narrowed to a circle, framing her hands and her pile of peppers. Work used to be a sanctuary from her family’s fame and mystery but now all of that was piled next to her in a relentless, blond-haired fangirl.
Madison whirled at Sara and pointed the knife at her stomach, her wrist just stiff enough to make the blade look menacing. Sarah didn’t flinch though.
You’re a strange one, Madison thought. She’d pointed a knife at people before, people that needed to shut the fuck up. They always backed away, but Sarah just stood there, her eyes locked with Madison’s.
“Because real cooking jobs are hard to find,” said Madison. “My grandmother believed in the value of hard work, not handouts or nepotism. I got this job because I applied, not because of my last name. If Nancy Mosby hadn’t dropped off the face of the Earth, I doubt she’d even know I was here in this kitchen.”
What did Nancy care about some remote outpost in her empire anyway? Sky Garden Family Buffet was probably a fly speck in relation to how huge Blue Petal was.
Madison muttered under her breath, “I graduated from fucking Johnson and Whales to chop garnish.”
After a long staring contest, Sara took her bin of lettuce out to the dining room.
Beth, a beautiful blond server, perfect nails and arms to die for, walked over. Everyone called her ‘Guns.” She carried a kid’s drink cup, with a top and a straw poking out. “Making friends?”
“No. Guns. She’s annoying, but…”
“Coming out on Thursday?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Madison said with all the sarcasm she could muster. She needed some liquor stash funds, but the idea of seeing Johnny D, the cook turned accidental millionaire wasn’t her idea of a must-attend event.
“This is from Zach, he said the guy ordered the wrong drink.” Beth put the cup next to a pile of chopped peppers.
“Tell him I love him.” Madison winked and picked up the cup to suck down what tasted like vodka with cranberry.
Jacob scurried into the kitchen, clip board in hand. He had the look of a mother searching for a lost child in a razor factory. He was a model of Sky Garden Family Buffet management’s calm in the storm of dinner.
“Oh god!” he huffed, looking in all directions. “Marco just quit. We’re down a busboy. Madison, can you go bus tables for the next hour, until Junior comes in?”
Madison finished the last of her drink, dropped her knife and turned to her frantic manager. “Sure.”
“The trash needs to go out first though,” said Jacob, looking down, scribbling notes on his clipboard.
Madison’s shoulders dropped and she trudged over to the corner of the kitchen where garbage cans stood. Half eaten food spilled from the tops. Bits of the same peppers she’d been chopping for the last hour stared back at her.
Why do I even bother? It took every ounce of control, not to scoop some of them up and sneak them over to the salad bar.
The back door swung open with a bang and Madison dragged the heavy trash bags past the smoking area and across the parking lot. They slapped against her thighs, no matter how she held them. Cold wind ripped at her face and she cursed the lazy trash company for putting the dumpsters so far away from the back door.
Just before she made it to the dumpster’s gaping mouth, one of the bags snagged on the edge of a lamp post and split open, spilling a wet, noisy mess of cans, bottles, and a smell that could only be likened to a garbage disposal loaded with cat shit.
“Fuck me!” Madison shouted.
Looking down at her black pants, she saw lima beans and a half eaten pork chop slide towards her black tennis shoes. She grabbed a relatively clean can and knocked away the pork chop and most of the lima beans. Just as she was about to toss the can into the dumpster she noticed the Blue Petal logo on the label, right under the words “nature’s all natural lima beans.” Madison heaved the mocking can into the dumpster.
Promising herself a few extra drinks when she got home, she scooped up as much of the trash as she could and left the smaller, slimier bits to the neighborhood wildlife.
As the last empty bottle of vegetable oil clamored to the bottom of the bin, Madison took a deep breath. Her ears rang in tandem with her heartbeat. The employee parking lot felt dead. And this was the first time Madison had really noticed all the new construction going up around the old Sky Garden restaurant.
Lights, atop construction cranes, blinked against the cloudy night sky. They rose above the skeletons of new condos and office buildings. The Arlington neighborhood had changed so much in the last two years.
Maybe that’s why my rent keeps going up.
The patch of gravel and cigarette butts, next to the back door was empty. With the dexterity of a pick pocket, she freed a small plastic bottle and took a long pull of Sophisticate Vodka.
A stress-borne headache nagged the base of her skull. The sight of the split trash bag had sent the pain from a three to eleven, but the five dollar bottle of vodka burned so good on the way down, melting away her anxiety and frustration.
Madison leaned against the cold steel of the dumpster and fought the urge to just get in her car and go home. Exhaustion tugged at her eyelids. Her back and shoulders ached. But skipping wouldn’t do. Just gut it out for another hour. She felt her lids close for a second.
A man stood in front of Madison. He smiled, revealing a sliver of gold in his teeth.
“I need something from you.” His voice was deep and soothing.
“Go over to Randolph Street for that, asshole.”
I’m not a whore yet, I have a very respectable side business selling meds stolen from old people.
“Huh? No, I don’t want that. I worked with Nancy Mosby. She has something for me. I’ll pay you for it.”
“Coolio. How much, big shooter?”
Fucking cash is king said...someone once, thought Madison. She hoped mister Grandma’s friend was for real. I need cash, like I need another drink. Oh, happy day, I can ditch Johnny D’s thingy with some fresh cash. EBay, here I come.
“Maddy!” A woman cried.
The man disappeared.
Madison snorted and came to. Someone was shaking her shoulders.
“What?” groaned Madison.
“Maddy, you were sleeping against the dumpster!” It was Sarah. “And a man was standing next to you. I turned my head and he was gone. You’ve been out here for ten minutes.”
“I’m fine. Wait, what man?”
The fog of the cat nap dissipated.
Sarah looked left, then right. “You were just talking to him.”
“What man? What? I thought you said I was asleep. Come on, let’s get back inside.”
“That’s just it. One second this tall fella’s standing in front of you. Someone in the kitchen shouts, I turn my head and when I look back, it’s just you. He’s gone.”
Sarah walked around the dumpsters, making a circle before coming back to Madison. She stood there, face scrunched, staring up at Madison.
Madison just wanted this night to end, and she wasn’t going to stand there chasing shadows around a dumpster with a teenager.
“Come on,” said Madison. “Let’s just go back inside.” They shuffled to the back door. “I’m sure it was nothing, Sarah.”
“Maybe my eyes are play’en tricks on me. My daddy said he was so tired one time, he thought he saw a ghost. I am pretty tired.”
But was Sarah seeing things? Madison wondered. Whatever. She fell asleep, dreamt about some gold-toothed guy looking for a hooker or her grandmother, and then Sarah caught her in a cap nap. That’s all it was. That’s all it fucking was.
Madison pushed the thought out of her head and pulled out her cell phone. A zillion alerts and updates clogged the screen. She scrolled down until she found the one thing she gave a shit about. And there it was. Her package was waiting for her at the apartment.