After the rush of customers, James had to decide what to do with the cart. He didn’t like it in the hallway, nor could he leave it out back because if anything wasn’t nailed down, some band of bored and roaming adolescents would throw it off a building.
Olivia told him to shove it in between the dumpsters. He hated the dumpster area and there were always hidden squirrels who seemed to go out of their way to chase him. Everyone found this funny and when it became clear that he would not budge, Brock offered to put the cart away so that he could use it as an excuse to smoke as well.
He went upstairs and heard James talking to someone. It was Ruby, possibly another reason James didn’t want to take out the trash. But Brock and Ruby had been childhood friends growing up and he knew her better than most. He showed himself and then asked her to come out back with him. James glared.
Ruby asked what Brock was smoking, had tried it before, and declined. She asked him whose dumpster was whose, then begged him not to tell her. After narrowly avoiding a squirrel-in-the-face, she tore open a trash-bag and pieced together the journey of the refuse.
“This apple was brought by someone who never brings their lunch but is resolving to eat healthier. The fact that it’s barely nibbled on means that it sat in their house for so long it started to rot.
“An Amazon box, now there’s a challenge but since this is a business trash . . . if I can just . . . there, it’s not a business address which means that the object is being used for business but the person doesn’t want to report it. For tax reasons,” she snapped her fingers, “got it. It’s a keystroke analyzer/collector that the person installed to get rid of certain computer activity. They just started doing something which they’re going to do regularly and which would cost them loads on taxes or regulations. And judging from the dumpster this came from, I’d say they’re buying underground helium.”
“Wouldn’t all helium come from underground?” asked Brock.
“It’s an endangered gas,” replied Ruby. “It’s getting super-expensive so balloon-shops are having to resort to the explosive hydrogen.”
“You’d think there’d be some no-smoking signs around here if that were true,” said Brock. “Which it isn’t. You can do better.”
“You see this paper plate?” Ruby pointed out. “It was used twice, then cleaned then used again all for the sake of proving a point. One of the employees next door really wants to be a comedian and his only line is ‘you seem like the type of person who would re-use a paper plate.’ He’s said it to every employee, totally out of context and never gets a laugh. So one day, they hid his lunch, then presented it to him on a paper plate. Fair enough, but then they emptied all the trash (hence these nearly empty garbage bags) and all the cans so that he couldn’t throw anything away, and they took all the break-room utensils out so that the next day he was forced to use the same paper plate and people took pictures from an actual camera,” she lifted up the disposable camera, “an entire roll, got them developed and posted them on the bulletin board.”
James poked his head out the back door and yelled, “Hey! The shopkeeper says hop to it!”
Alone with the professor, Olivia asked for his help with the dirt.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Irving Adwell said.
She handed him a potion and had him pour some into a handful of dirt and mix it together. She had him repeat a few phrases, unintelligible to him and which he had trouble pronouncing. As he did this, the dirt crumped in his hands onto the table. “Keep going,” she told him.
Brock and Ruby came back in and together moved the crate of dirt to the corner. The professor continued his mantra. Olivia went upstairs and told James to lock the door and put up the closed sign. He protested all the way down stairs and she assured him that yes this was the only time everyone could be together for this and yes it was serious.
“When did Julie get here?” asked James.
The professor dropped his dirt on the table. Julie noticed him staring and backed away to be by Ruby.
“A moment ago,” said Olivia. “Pay attention.”
“Does everyone here know each other?” asked Professor Adwell.
“I don’t really know James all that well,” Brock volunteered.
“And no one knows who you are,” said Julie.
The Professor explained how he read something which told him to come here and he wasn’t sure why.
“The point is,” said Olivia, “one or more of you is breaking our pact. And I brought you all here to feel uncomfortable about it. I don’t know who it is . . .”
“What pact?” asked the professor, “surely you can’t expect me to know . . .”
“No one knows what she’s talking about,” said Brock. “Happens all the time. She knows something that we don’t, ourselves, consciously know.”
“That’s enough,” said Olivia. One by one she placed her new potions and pouches on the table while she continued speaking. “These are the next steps in our Equalization Studies. Your assignment. You’ll know what to do when the time comes. As for the betrayer . . .” she lowered her head so that anyone looking at her would just see her eyes, focused on nothing.
James opened the door to the stairs and ushered everyone out the back. He reopened the shop. Olivia remained downstairs for the rest of the working hours.