The Chessboard

by August Niehaus

 

The Monday morning sunlight had already made it intolerable to sit in the Accord. Shaylea shielded her eyes from the light reflecting off passing semis and sighed as she locked her phone. Two minutes until opening. She might as well spend them walking across the parking lot.

Shay pulled her bright red polo over her head and smoothed it down over her breasts and belly. The CoinNation uniform might as well have been designed to be unflattering, so well did it disguise Shay’s curves. That, at least, she was glad for; fending off Mack’s unwanted leering would have been much harder had he been able to admire more than just her face.

Speak of the devil: he was lurking at the door to the pawn shop, ogling his watch. He flashed his too-white teeth as Shay neared.

“One minute’s kinda pushing it, don’t you think? Marta’s been here ten minutes already.”

“Of course she has,” Shay said, turning sideways to slide past Mack with as little possibility for contact as possible. “Marta barely goes home.”

She tensed up as Mack put his hand on her arm, in a way that someone watching might have said was friendly. But the pressure of his fingers told her exactly how friendly he was being.

“Marta,” he said in a low voice, “is a good employee. You’d do well to learn from her. How to show up on time. How to love your job. How to say ‘Yes sir, Mack, sir.’”

“OK, Mack,” Shay said, extricating herself from his grip. “I’ll do that. Thanks.”

She wished she could shower off his touch, but it was now 10:01 AM. CoinNation Greenfield was open to the public, and Shay had work to do.

She found Marta in the employee lounge—barely a closet, with paper taped over the window on the door—wiping down the table and chairs. “Marta, which register are you on?”

“Good morning! I put my till on register two,” Marta said, looking up with her usual beaming smile. “Good morning, Shaylea! I have a feeling we buy something muy bueno today.”

“You say that every day,” Shay said, but she found herself able to smile back. Marta had been a fixture at CoinNation Greenfield for over eight years now, and Shay could only speculate as to why the gruff, suited squad of corporate males who’d come to choose a new manager last year had passed over Marta’s enthusiasm and experience. The woman had a way of making customers leave happy—a heroic feat, at a pawn shop.

“No, no. Today…muy bueno,” Marta said, tapping her nose. She gathered the cleaning rag and orange spray bottle in one hand and rested her other hand on her ample hip. “I greet them, you ring them up, we survive today, OK?”

Tears sprang unbidden to Shay’s eyes. “Yeah. OK. I’ll ring up the customers. No promises about surviving.”

*****

The register drawer smelled like Leila, the other cashier who worked the days Shay didn’t. The scent of Karma Kream followed Shay out of the back office, and she was still wrinkling her nose as she pushed the drawer into the register and reflexively tapped her employee number and PIN to log in.

HI SHAYLEA JACKSON, the screen greeted her at the top. She stuck just the tip of her tongue out at the message, then regretted it when she tasted oranges and patchouli.

The bell on the door chimed. Normally, it was a sound that filled Shay with dread—about what bored, horny old man she’d have to make polite conversation with next, or which of the neighborhood’s younger cops wanted to swing his dick around making a fuss over what merchandise might be stolen.

Today, the dread that filled her had much more to do with how the bell sounded unnervingly like a death knell for a European princess.

Shay couldn’t bring herself to look up at who had entered the shop; her gaze was heavy, pinned to the fatigue mat by her survival instinct. She registered that Mack had opted not to turn on the radio this morning, leaving the store wrapped in an oppressive silence.

Marta’s voice cut through the deadly quiet, commanding yet warm. “Good morning! Welcome to CoinNation Greenfield! Thanks for coming in! How can we help today?”

The man’s voice slithered through the store like water through cracks in a sidewalk. “I am here to sell a chess set.”

Shay shivered, her skin prickling with bumps, as Marta said in a more subdued tone, “Right this way, please, sir.”

A pressure at Shay’s temples released and her head jerked up. She was eager to see who this man was; she dreaded it.

Marta appeared first, rolling into view down the hand tool aisle and gesturing with an open palm towards Shay’s register. Her normal beaming smile was replaced by a more subdued, neutral expression—which on Marta might as well have been a death mask.

Then the man stepped into sight. He was hardly anything to look at: skin an indescribable color and covered in a thin layer of grime, only a couple of inches taller than Marta, scraggly hair greased against his neck below the line of his fedora. But his clothes were all black, and the long trench coat he wore swirled around him like malevolent smoke. He had the air of someone you never wanted to associate with.

And his eyes were a color Shay couldn’t pinpoint, because it was as if the man’s features were slicked with oil and her gaze couldn’t rest on them.

She found the easiest thing to look at was her fingernails, and she was inspecting them intently as the man came up to the counter and set down a box so dark it sucked the light from the fluorescents.

“I would like to sell my chess set,” he said. “For a fair price.”

Shay swallowed. She tore her gaze reluctantly from her own hands to the box, which appeared to be made from the same material as an instrument case. “I’ll need to see what’s inside—sir,” she added quickly, because Mack had popped his head up over the guitar display to stare at her pointedly.

The man moved with deliberate slowness to undo the latches on the front of the case and lift the lid. Perhaps it was just the fluorescents reflecting off the contents, but Shay would have sworn the stone figurines glowed blue-green.

Her eyes widened at the sight: it was a full hand-carved chess set, half green and half white, each resting in its own impression in a felt liner. Shay had once helped Marta purchase an ivory set, and brought in a few gorgeous wooden sets herself, but she’d never seen anything like this.

Especially not with the way the figurines looked. They could have been supporting characters out of a Studio Ghibli film. Each of the major pieces had eyes, which had been left unpolished and sat flat against the otherwise-shining surfaces.

As if reading her mind, the man took hold of two sturdy ribbon handles on either side of the box and lifted the felt insert to place it on the counter. Beneath the chessmen sat a board of perfect black and white squares, which the man also withdrew.

“It is very heavy,” the man said, turning it over in his hands in front of his face. “The board is made from jasper. The pieces are jade.”

“It’s beautiful,” Shay couldn’t help saying. She shot a look at where Mack had been, but her manager had vanished. “How much are you hoping to get for it?”

The man set the board back down inside the case, and for the first time, Shay got a good look at his face. “A fair price,” he said for the second time.

Shay raised her brows and eyed the set, running one finger along the edge of the board to buy herself time. Under her touch, the board was strangely warm and pliant, like the flank of the horse she’d ridden at 6th grade camp. A tingling sense of unease ran up through Shay’s arm, and she pulled away, pretending to type something into the system.

“I—I don’t see anything like this in our database,” she said finally, withdrawing a pen from the cup beside the register and turning it over and over in her hands. “Do you have a starting number in mind, or—?”

Before the man could respond, Mack appeared beside Shay, as if he’d been waiting in the wings and “starting number” was his cue.

“I’m so sorry, sir, I would love to give you what I’m sure you consider to be a fair price for this. But unfortunately, here in Greenfield, we just don’t sell many chess sets.” Mack rested on his elbow on the counter and sneered at the man. “I can offer you a thousand dollars. No more. And, yes, before you say anything, I do offer my sellers as much as I can while paying to keep these, ha-ha, awful lights on.”

That last part was a script Shay had heard from Mack’s mouth hundreds of times before, but swooping in with a flat offer more than a few hundred dollars wasn’t his M.O., so she gave him a hard look. Greed sparkled in his eyes, and twice she watched him grip his own wrist to avoid touching the chess pieces. He really wanted the set.

“Deal,” the man said.

Dread burrowed into Shay’s stomach. She had to fight a sudden urge to slam the lid shut on the board and scatter the pieces onto the floor to break. All those scuffed-up eyes staring at her… She couldn’t bear the idea of walking in each day to find them leering at her from under protective glass.

“Ring him up, Shaylea,” Mack said with mock warmth.

Shay fought it, but her mouth moved without her permission to blurt out, “Are you sure a thousand is enough for this?”

Mack’s anger washed over her in a tangible wave, but before he could say anything nasty, the strange man replied in his plain, raspy voice, “The chessboard is always sold at a fair price.”

“Right,” Mack snarled, “so ring him up.”

He punctuated his final word with a sharp pinch on Shay’s hip. She managed to turn her gasp into a toothy smile at the customer.

The man did not smile back. He turned his head slowly to stare at Mack. Shay felt the temperature in the building cool off a few degrees.

But the strange man said nothing as Shay walked through the paperwork to exchange the chess set for $1000 cash, nor spoke a word as she counted ten $100 bills into his open hand. He stowed the cash somewhere in his trench coat, turned on his heel, and swept out the door before Marta could holler her usual goodbyes.

The resulting silence echoed through the store.

“Clean the set,” Mack said, slamming his palm down on the counter so hard the register rattled. “Every piece. By hand. Never undermine me in front of a customer again, bitch.”

Shay fought her tears and won as she put the insert back in the chess box and carried it to the back. She threw the case on the table, then winced when it hit harder than she’d intended. She opened it up and to do a quick check and make sure nothing had broken.

It was as if she’d opened a portable radiator. Angry heat poured out of the case, radiating from the pieces. Shay recoiled, bile rising in her throat. A deep sense of unease filled her from her toes to her watering eyes.

“Cómo estás, chiquita?” Marta asked behind her, making Shay jump. “Do you want some help?”

Shay hugged herself and bit her quivering lower lip. “Yes please,” she managed, and pushed the box across the table. “I can’t touch it. It’s—I dunno, it’s evil.”

Marta settled herself into the chair opposite Shay and sprayed a bit of orange cleaner onto a clean rag. She sighed, clucking her tongue. “Sí, sí. El es terrible.”

Shay glanced up, managing a snide smirk. “I didn’t mean Mack, Marta. Not this time. I mean this.” She took in the chess set with a sweeping gesture. “I dunno, it’s—evil.”

Marta was about to pick up the green queen, and her hand froze, hovering above it. She frowned, then shook her head sharply. “No. No. Not this, not this.”

Before Shay could react, Marta used the towel to pluck the pawn out of Shay’s hand and put it back in the box, slamming the whole apparatus shut. “No,” she scolded when Shay tried to protest, “we tell Mack, he need to send this to the warehouse now.”

Marta insisted on marching both Shay and the chess set up to the front and confronting Mack with one hand on her hip and the other gesticulating wildly at the case.

“This is no good! It goes, tomorrow! Today! Take it now!”

“Marta, Marta,” Mack tried to soothe her, shooting Shay a sharp look. His unspoken message was: Calm her down, or I make this worse.

“No ‘Marta, Marta’! No! Take this away!” Marta’s arms flailed as she pantomimed shoving the case through the doors. She shook her head decisively. “If it is here, then greeting customers—no. No more.” She crossed her arms across her bosom and stood like a boulder.

“I don’t understand, Marta. What’s wrong with the chess set?”

“It’s—there’s something weird about it,” Shay said carefully, not wanting to repeat her declaration of evil. “We think it might be stolen.” Or cursed, she added silently.

Mack looked from one to the other, his expression thoughtful. “I’ll put it in the locked case up front,” he said at last. “And if someone reports it stolen, of course we’ll give it right back, Marta.”

He waved his hand to dismiss them and strode to the door to the back; the issue was clearly settled, in his mind. Shay felt the furious steam pouring off Marta, and she caught the older woman’s eye and shook her head imperceptibly. Not worth it, Marta.

“Oh, and—” Mack walked backwards several steps as if he’d just thought of something. It was clear from his smug smile, though, that whatever he was about to say was both unpleasant and pre-meditated. “Shay, I’m challenging you to a chess match. Every morning, one move each, until one of us wins. It’ll make the set look better, and customers might come back every day to see who wins.”

He leered at her as the implications sank in: opening the locked case was something that only happened before CoinNation opened for the day, meaning Shay would have to start her shifts earlier. And, much worse, she’d be alone in the store with Mack for thirty minutes every day. Her skin crawled at the idea.

Shay chewed the inside of her upper lip fiercely before she could manage to say, without slapping the shit out of him, “OK, Mack. I’ll do that.”

*****

Tuesday morning, 9 AM: a time Shaylea had considered cursed since middle school, when she’d been forced to endure jazz band in an unventilated room every week at that hour. Today she dragged herself and her work clogs to the front door, where she had to wait for a humiliating three minutes while Mack strolled around the store, pretending not to see her.

Finally, he made a show of unlocking the door and opening it for her.

“Come to see how the sausage is made?” he said around a toothpick.

Shay pushed past him. “The only sausage I want is breakfast,” she muttered, then pulled up short at the sight of the chess set in the locked case.

Grudgingly, she had to admit that Mack had done the set justice. He’d set it up sideways, so from the point of view of a customer who’d just walked into the store, the pieces faced each other down across an empty battlefield. The polishing work Shay had finished up herself after Marta refused to touch the pieces had left every piece gleaming. The pawns were shiny-headed soldiers poised for war, their glowing monarchs and defenders behind them.

“I’m white,” Mack said, thrusting his shoulders out as if to make himself seem larger as he pinkened with embarrassment, realizing what he’d said. “I’m playing the white pieces,” he clarified, coughing into his sleeve. “You can be green.”

“White goes first,” Shay said, shrugging.

Mack gently slid the glass door aside and reached into the case. He took hold of one of the pawns and moved it forward two squares.

“Your move.” He showed his teeth, but didn’t move from where he was standing, so that Shay would have to get very close to him in order to choose a piece.

She sucked in her breath, gathered her courage, and went to the case. Very carefully, without making physical contact with Mack, she reached into the case and put her fingers around the pawn closest to the door.

It hummed and buzzed and something like an electric shock leapt to touch her skin. She hissed and jerked away, then reached for the piece beside it instead. This one was warm to the touch, but didn’t hurt her, so she gently set it two squares forward—several columns away from Mack’s piece.

Shay extricated herself from the case. Mack nodded, apparently satisfied, and slid the lock back into place. “Alright. Polish the hand tools. Put the same love into those as you put into these.” He indicated the chess set with his thumb, grinning toothily again. “’Cause I know you love it.”

Until Monday of the next week, they each only moved pawns, cluttering the battlefield with eager militia. Then Shay unleashed her knight on Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning, she arrived at nine to find Mack stroking his chin and staring at the locked case.

He let her in without speaking, a soft frown crinkling his normally confident features. Unlocking the case, he made his move first: castling his king.

Shay sucked in her breath sharply as she spotted the opening he’d made. Without stopping to consider, as if the move would escape her if she thought too long about it, she rushed forward and neatly swiped one of his pawns into her palm.

It was cold and leaden, and she quickly pushed it into the upright felt insert and withdrew her hand to smirk at Mack.

Mack staggered, clutching at his heart. He made a very soft “oh-hhh” sound. At first, Shay thought it was for dramatic effect, and chuckled uncertainly, but then she realized he really did look rather ill. He was feeling his tongue with his teeth and sounding like he had the world’s worst case of dry mouth.

A satisfied bubble buoyed her chin, even as a chill passed across her hand where the pawn had been. “Marta just pulled up. I’m gonna let her in.”

She walked away, her spine a rod of steel and her heart pounding in her ears. As soon as she was sure Mack couldn’t see her anymore, she covered her mouth with her hands and half-sobbed, half-laughed for a full minute, until there were tears on her cheeks. She felt like she’d released an impossible amount of energy, the way she did when she went for a run and pushed herself too hard.

And though she couldn’t prove it, Shay was sure that Mack’s reaction had something to do with that damn chess game.

So what the hell happens when he takes a piece?

*****

Shay didn’t have to wait long to learn the answer to her question. Two days later, on her Friday shift, Mack ate one of her pawns with a bishop.

When his rashy fingers pushed the green playing piece deep into the felt, Shay felt it: lancing across her skin, something like weight and energy intertwined. It burdened her and overloaded her senses at the same time—as if someone had thrown a net over her and pressed her into wet sand.

She had to stay seated behind the counter for the first half of her shift, dazedly ringing people up for items purchased and items pawned. Marta, over whom Shay whispered numerous fevered blessings, noticed her counterpart’s shift in wellbeing and whispered Mack-approved counter-offers as she conveniently passed behind Shay during transactions.

When Mack finally relieved Shay for lunch, she stumbled into the employee lounge and lay with her cheek on the table until she heard the door squeak.

Through blurry eyes, Shay saw Marta’s worried face hovering before her. “Chiquita, are you OK?”

“The—chess game,” Shay murmured. “Mack… He took a pawn. I couldn’t move. Something—”

“Es un rituale mágico,” Marta said, her lips tightening together. She stared at the floor, clenching her hands into fists. Then she closed her eyes tightly, so tightly Shay sat up as best she could and stared.

Finally, Marta’s eyes snapped open, and now the friendly brown was flecked with mysterious gold. She went to the door and closed it, securing the lock—at which Shay’s eyes widened. Then Marta came back and brought her hands together sharply in front of her chest, and when she drew them apart, there was a soft green glow between her palms.

Marta gently touched her palms to Shay’s cheeks. Shay shuddered at the uninvited touch, but then cleansing warmth spread through her whole body and she didn’t care anymore. The weight, the aftershock, lifted from her bones.

Marta drew away and Shay sat up. She rubbed her eyes and looked appraisingly at the other woman, whose smiley-stickered name tag and motherly demeanor had so put her at ease that she’d been oblivious of this magnificent power.

Shay reached out a hand to touch Marta, but Marta shrank away, an apology in her eyes. “No, no. You touching the stones, you no touching me.”

Shay frowned, then realized: “The stones. The chess pieces. Yeah. Maybe that’s a bad idea.”

“Terrible. Touching stones means no more healing, means…mucho dolor.”

Shay held Marta’s gold-dappled gaze steadily, though anxiety tightened her throat. “Marta, I’ve gotta win this damn game.”

*****

She read a few strategy articles over the weekend, and then Shay came in three days in a row and put white jade into the insert: a bishop and two more pawns. Each blow hit Mack physically, turning his skin yellow and drawing deep bags under his eyes. Shay started to notice other ways his power had diminished: he no longer pestered her when customers were at her register; he couldn’t drive the same hard bargains he once had; and he lost track of his favorite watch and sold it off to an eager kid with a $20 bill.

Shay felt confident enough to wear her hair down on Thursday, something she’d only done once before, in her first week of working at CoinNation. That day, Mack had said some of the worst things he ever had to her, about how she looked and what he’d like to do to her. Before today, she’d never given him that opportunity again, and kept her hair back in a tight bun during her shifts.

But today, she breezed past a feeble Mack, her hair flowing out behind her, and tossed her head proudly. “Your move, boss.”

Mack gave her a glare of pure, puffy hatred from unrested eyes, and silently unlocked the case. His hand shook as he hovered over one, then another, then a third piece, and he shot Shay a sideways glower.

She whistled a jaunty tune in response.

Mack jerked and grabbed one of his knights, landing it within threatening distance of Shay’s verdant queen. Shay narrowed her eyes, the tune forgotten as an overwhelming anxiety rose up to freeze her blood. She reached into the case and angrily, recklessly took out a fourth pawn, threatening the knight with the pawn’s diagonal attack.

Her satisfaction over further reducing Mack’s power was sobered when she spotted the gaping weakness she’d left in her defenses. Her queen was still in danger, and moving that pawn had opened a path for Mack’s bishop—so any retaliation by her king would put it in jeopardy.

The rest of her shift, Shay walked around with her heart in her throat, stuttering a few nervous words in response to customers’ questions. She could only think of the horrors the end of this chess match had in store for her.

Her imagination shredded up the hundreds of comic books she’d read, mixed them up with her appetite for horror flicks, and sprinkled on a touch of obscure Japanese anime. She felt like there was a demon lurking in every empty aisle, just around the corner, with a mouthful of razor fangs and agonizing poison.

She pulled her hair back and powered through the day.

The next morning, it was just as she’d feared: Mack captured her queen without consequence. The rush of fire and helplessness that roared through her left her hung over and lethargic, and at lunch Shay had no appetite. She sat in the break room, head slumped onto her chest, wishing she’d had the strength to ask Marta for her healing hands.

The door creaked open, and Shay raised her head, a bubble of hope rising that Marta had somehow heard her thoughts, and come to see if she…

But the bubble burst when she saw Mack’s satisfied leer. He raised one eyebrow, and it was like the corner of his mouth was connected. “Really sorry for taking your queen.”

“You are not,” Shay deadpanned. “Not even.”

Mack closed the door behind him and leaned against it for a moment. He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes at Shay. “You know, you’re not looking so hot this week. Though your hair did look amazing yesterday. You should do that again soon.”

Shay opened her mouth, prepared to spit some snarky denial at Mack, but her words bloomed out of the well of hopelessness in her gut, and left her mouth without her blessing.

“OK, Mack. I’ll do that. Thanks.”

She’d said the same to him, that fateful morning the chess set had come into the store. But now, instead of the defiance they’d once held, the words were resigned.

Mack grinned. He cleared the distance between the door and the table in two deliberate steps. Shay shrank into the corner, readying her leg to send the toe of her shoe between Mack’s legs.

He put both hands on the table and leaned in, showing his teeth and tongue as he said, “Yeah, you will. You’ll do what I say and then some. This magic game, it’s going to make me a very happy man.”

Shay’s skin crawled at the promise of his advances, and her mental cauldron boiled over. Mack withdrew suddenly, as if tugged by some unseen force, and lurched to the door. “Don’t stall too long now,” he called over his shoulder with a sneer.

Marta appeared where Mack had been, the magic already glowing between her palms. Her expression was one of knowing sorrow.

But when the door was closed and locked, Marta spoke of something that gave Shay a tiny seed of hope, planted deep in that well of despair.

*****

Shay flipped her phone from hand to hand, nervously awaiting 8:58 AM. She’d arrived a few minutes earlier even than Mack demanded, because today, everything had to be timed.

The alarm went off on her phone and she silenced and pocketed it in one move, pushing out of her Accord. She was sure to keep her head at the appropriate angle for a woman who was supposed to be dreading her inevitable defeat in a cursed chess match, but she couldn’t help stutter-stepping her shoe on the pavement every time her stomach fluttered with excitement.

She made it to the door with a minute to spare. Mack swung the door open with a beaming smile. “Good morning, princess! Ready to make your final move?”

A million retorts bubbled up in Shay’s head, but she bit her tongue and managed to keep her wild reaction to a mild shrug. “I guess. What I really want is pizza for breakfast.”

Mack stared at her for a long moment, then shook his head. “You’re so weird.”

The sun flashed off a car turning into the parking lot: Marta’s Corolla, right on cue. This next move was Shay’s. Dropping her pretense of indifference, she straightened up and tossed her head, drawing Mack’s fragile attention back to her.

“Hey, you know what’s weird? Not making our moves exactly on time. I’m like Pavolv’s dog over here. Feels like we’ve been playing this set forever.” She showed her teeth, hoping the smile looked like friendly competition and not aggression.

Mack’s eyes flicked to the new arrival in the parking lot, but his smugness won out. He pulled the keyring from his pocket, holding them by the case key and making them jangle. “Let’s do this.”

While he fiddled with the lock, Shay dared a look over her shoulder and saw Marta running double-time to the doors. Down by her hip, Shay made a thumbs-up.

The magic hit her as Mack captured one of her pieces—she couldn’t see which, but it must have been a major one, because the crushing weight was unlike any she’d yet experienced. Shay cried out, clutching at her lower back, then at the back of her neck, where her joints screamed in protest.

This was so much worse than being bitten by a demon.

The world roared in Shay’s ears. She doubled over, hands coming in contact with the gritty tiles.

From very far away, she heard a sharp rap-rap-rap on the glass door. Mack’s footsteps rang like blows on a hollow log as he went past her, body tense with curiosity.

All right, Shaylea Jackson, get your ass off the ground and get this done.

Magic isn’t literal.

You can play the game against yourself too.

She pushed herself to her feet. All she could really hear was a murmur of voices: Marta’s insistent warble and Mack’s cool rebuttals. She lunged to the case, praying the distraction would be enough.

Shay moved the pieces in quick succession: green pawn, white bishop, green rook, white knight, green pawn, white pawn. Checkmate. Then the final move, conquering the white king with her intrepid knight.

She pushed the fallen king into the felt.

Sagging against the locked case, Shay slowly turned around.

Mack whirled at the sound of pieces clattering, his mouth falling open. He lunged at Shay.

In the same instance, Marta lunged for Mack’s hand, pressing her palm against his.

Whatever horrible fate she had expected or wanted to befall Mack, nothing had prepared Shay for him simply winking out of existence.

One moment he was roaring towards her like a starved baboon, and the next there was nothing between her and Marta, and their gazes met like lightning across the now-empty shop floor. The keyring clattered noisily onto the tile.

Marta squatted down and picked up the keys. She looked at them thoughtfully, and then at her hand. In the center of her palm was a small, round burn, about the size of the felted underside of a chess piece.

“Touching stones means mucho dolor,” Marta said very quietly.

Shay closed her eyes, weariness overtaking her. She swayed on her feet, grateful when she felt Marta’s arm around her shoulders.

“You sit now,” Marta said. “We clean up later.”

Someone tapped on the glass. Still holding Shay upright, Marta turned around and yelled, “We not open now! Come back to CoinNation Greenfield in one hour!”

“Excuse me, it’s Leila Bridges from corporate,” insisted the slick-haired woman on the other side of the door. “The manager told our office this location would be ready for an inspection today?”

Shay and Marta exchanged a long look. Shay nodded slowly, realization spreading warmly through her limbs.

“I am manager,” Marta told Leila Bridges with a confident, beaming smile.

Perhaps all wrongs could be righted today.