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with apologies to Bill Hart
I blinked. Then I looked around.
"Um. I... er. Have a delivery. From the Dean's office."
The old fellow chuckled slightly under his breath. All in all, he presented a rather disturbing picture... I mean, yes, the perks of owning your own business do include setting your own dress code, but in all honesty, it wasn't even a particularly nice-looking bathrobe. And this is me speaking, mister "One-of-these-days-fancy-collectors-will-come-looking-for-my-T-Shirts-so-I'd-bloody-well-better-not-get-rid-of-them." I figure if I even got within a fifty-foot radius of any halfways decent fashion show, there would be this tremendous explosion as we cancelled each other out. Anyway. Description suffices. He looked like a wacko. And then there was that _other_ issue... my name...
"Um. Listen. About my name..."
"Yes, yes. Get that all the time here. No point in asking about it, young pup. You just take a look around the old shop, see if there's anything you feel a... certain... attachment for...?" He chuckled again. Kind of a cute little baby maniacal laugh, just a hatchling, really. Instinctively I began to wonder about the contents of the sealed envelope I was carrying. Surely, the Dean would have _something_ better to do with his time than correspond with wacky curio-shop owners...
A mental picture of the Dean formed in my head. Actually, he probably _didn't_ have anything better to do with his time.
It was then that I realized that the old man was staring at me as I was self-narrating. Perhaps he was waiting for a response to his previous statement. Perhaps not. It was the sort of statement that didn't really _require_ a reply, as such...
I was self-narrating again. Still he stared. I tried to recall the precise flow of the conversation thus far...
"Ah!" I said, at last. Then, "No. Actually. Not here to shop. Just making a delivery. For the Dean. Just a little envelope. Just dropping it off. Then, you know..." I gestured to the door. "Outta here." I illustrated this by motioning my head towards the egress. Still he stared. Several tense seconds flitted by. Finally, he broke the silence.
"Well, well, then, boy. Give it here, by all means."
I did so. There was another pause. Almost as though the old man was _waiting_ for something...
"Well." I said. "That's done." I said. "Going to be going now." I said.
Still he stared.
I gritted my teeth under the scrutiny. They made a noise.
"Look here, you knotty old bastard, why do you keep looking at me that way?"
"Temper, temper. No need to talk that way, Steve..."
"And that's another thing, how..."
"All in time, my boy. All in time." He began rummaging around in a glass-fronted counter full of porcelain sculptures. "I often find that people who are... drawn... to my store... do so because they have... certain... desires. Certain wants. Wishes. Needs."
"Um. I want to leave. Does that count?"
He chuckled again. This was _really_ beginning to get on my nerves.
"Not really, my boy. Tell me. What did you come here for?"
"To give you that bloody envelope." I shifted my weight from foot to foot. The door was just a few yards away...
"Why, _really?_" He continued to shuffle around in the case.
"_REALLY_ to give you that bloody envelope! Look, do you..."
I stopped as the old man turned back around. Nestled in his cupped hands was a statue of a Canada Goose, picked out in perfect Black-White-and-Grey porcelain. The one species in all of creation that spoke, directly, to my spirit. I blinked. How had he...
"Pretty, isn't it?"
"Beautiful," I breathed. "How did you..."
"I have my ways, Steven. You will understand all, in time."
Hearing the name again brought me out of my brief reverie.
"Yes, Steven, I am just a simple shopkeeper, but sometimes..."
"Sometimes, people come to me who need... a little something..."
I don't know how I managed to produce a neutral interjection with an exclaimation point, but I managed, and it served the proper function. The old fellow shut up.
"That's not my name."
"Gack." He said. And then said no more. His eyes bulged out and he put his hand to his throat. Good heavens! The man was asphyxiating! In a moment, he was searching around for something... perhaps to drink...
I located a bottle on one of the crowded curio tables. "Here!" I said, not knowing what else to say. The old fellow batted my offering out of my hands, and choked a bit more. Not to be discouraged, I searched around the store until I found a small Origami cup, lying forgotten on a shelf.
"Here. Why don't I go get some water from the-"
"Was that a no?"
I started getting nervous. The old bat was going to die on me! Quickly, I retrieved what appeared to be an off-brand can of soda from the window display. This only increased the old man's fervor. He shook his head violently and began trying to pantomime something... Damned if I've ever been any good at charades, though.
"Two words. No. One word. Damn it, man, keep your hands still..."
The fellow was getting more and more exasperated with me. He vaulted over the display counter with a spryness that belied his age, and I got a quick personal glimpse of what must have been the hands-down winner in the current Guinness Book of World's Records "Boniest Knees" Category. He vanished through a curtain into the Off Limits area, hacking all the way. A moment or two passed in silence.
He re-emerged, perfectly composed.
"I'm sorry, boy, I thought you said something along the lines of 'That's not my name.'"
The coughing began again. "Er. Look here, you old bastard, sir..."
He vanished again. He didn't return.
I found myself alone. Casually, I began tip-toeing towards the door...
From the back room came an unpleasant ratchety noise that, in any normal individual, might possibly have been crying.
"Oh, for Pete's Sake," I said, and worked my way around the counter to the curtain.
I must confess that I was a bit surprised upon parting the natty old fabric of the curtain. I had never known that the mall designers had included enough space for a warehouse in this wing of the mall. Much less one the approximate size of a airline hangar. Oh, well. Wonderful what you can do with creative architecture. I shrugged, and focused again on the sound.
Eventually, after a minute or two of searching, I located my quarry. He was sitting on the floor between two rows of the towering shelves, apparently looking at some sort of photo album. The noise was no less irritating here at its source than it had been earlier, but there was a _little_ bit of pathos involved in seeing the pitiful figure of the old man. He looked up as I approached.
"Not Steven?" He said.
"No." I replied. This sent him into a new wave of hysterics. I stood there for a while, feeling stupid. Finally, with a bit of a hacking cough to clear the tears out of his voice, he said, "Years, I've been operating this shop. Centuries. Never once have I been wrong."
He chuckled through his tears. "It isn't your fault, boy. Perhaps the problem is with me. Perhaps... I've been at it too long." He spread the photo album out before him. "I mean, look at it. Here's me back in the Dark Ages. Wonderful time. Look at me. All bright-eyed and so on."
I inspected the photograph. It appeared to be the same bathrobe, only considerably newer. Suddenly, something went "ping" in my brain.
"A photograph? How did...?"
"Never you mind, lad." He raised his chin, haughtily, as though to restore his faith in his own omniscience by keeping minor secrets from me. I let it slide.
"All of this time, One-Hundred-Percent. And then you. Of all the two-bit chintzy curio/slash/magic-shops in this crazy old world, why'd you have to come walking into mine?"
"Envelope. Delivery. Remember?"
"Yes, yes. You've ruined my self confidence already, try not ruining my film allusions to boot, Hm?"
Just then, a nondescript humanoid with a mad glint in his eye rounded a corner of the shelves holding an indescribably complex contraption of dials, levers and buttons. A light flashed ambiently somewhere thereon.
"I didn't see anyone out front," he said, his voice not sounding any saner than he looked.
"Hello, Craig," said the old man, mustering his dignity and rising to his feet.
"Never mind the Craig. You can call me... _JACK!_" He began laughing in a singularly disturbing fashion. It echoed alarmingly in the high-ceilinged room, like thunder. He then began pressing random knobs and buttons on the machine. More lights flashed.
"Be careful with that," said the old man. "You break, you buy."
The mad glint became positively gleam-ish. "Oh, I _do_ want to buy..."
"Very well," said the old man, buisiness-like. "Mister Not-Steven, I must go out front to ring up a purchase. You will follow." I felt it ludicrous to disobey a direct order in the presence of two such certifiably disturbing people, and so I followed the two of them out to the main shop, where the old man rung up the purchase after a bit of difficulty with the customer's credit cards which all got sorted out sooner or later. The madman then departed, cackling unbalancedly as he went, leaving just the two of us again. The old man sighed and leaned heavily against the counter.
"So you see. I didn't even get that one quite right."
"Look, if you don't mind me asking... why is it so bloody important that you get the names correct on the first try?"
"It's the magic, son. Names have Power. Why, it was once thought that anyone who possessed the True Name of a being could hold over such a being the power of life or death itself." He paused. "In my case, I usually don't go in for Life and Death, but there are certainly many, many interesting... Options... to be found therebetween."
I had never heard _anyone_ use the word "Therebetween" before, and I was suitably impressed. "So knowing the name is part of your... business?"
"Quite right, lad. Of course, lately, I have had to settle for the given name... True-Names are so hard to come by anymore. And now... I can't even get _those_ right anymore..." Tears welled up in the old man's eyes. I decided to step in.
"Look. If it's so important... why don't you just ask them?"
He looked at me. Then he looked at me again.
"Sure. You know, 'Hi, I'm a wacky old bastard. Who are _you_?'"
"Buh... buh... but.... What about the sense of mystery? Of arcane power?"
"Won't the bathrobe count for something?"
He mused for a bit. "I suppose." He chewed on a strand of his beard for a bit. "Just ask them, you say?"
"Might be worth a shot. Of course, I've never been wrong before..."
"Well. In case you are again, you'll know what to do. Yes?"
"Right." He nodded, still trying to come to terms with the idea. Finally, he spoke again. "Thank you, boy. You've been of some small help to me. I suppose I should offer you a token of appreciation..."
"Er. No. Thanks. I'd better be going. The Dean will be wondering where I've gotten to."
"Are you sure? It's free. Nothing diabolic, I promise."
I _still_ wasn't quite sure what was up with all these arcane references, but I decided to play along. Perhaps it would make him feel better.
"What about the Goose figurine? The one you showed me?"
"Ah... Excellent choice, my boy. Excellent." He retrieved it from the countertop and presented it to me. I took it. It felt heavy in my palm. "Thanks," I said, a bit lamely.
"You're quite welcome, my boy. Now shoo. Run along."
I complied and stepped back out into the mall, all too happy to be out of that weird little shop. I took a deep breath of stale, recycled mall air and regarded the obligatory plants with a new appreciation. Just then, a voice from the curio-shop door called for my attention. I turned back for one last look.
"Yes?" I said.
"Your name. It won't work without your name." He paused. And then, very slowly, as if sounding out the syllables for the first time, he said...
"What... er... what is it?"
I smiled, despite myself.
"They call me... _Mister_ Wells."
"That was unneccesary."
"It also didn't fit into the story as a whole."
"There was a brief reference to movie allusions. It fits."
The old man pondered this.
"Anyway," I continued, "You've messed up my ending line. Now it's just going to have to peter off or something."
"You still haven't really told me your name."
I bit my lip. Finally...
"Pretty close." He said. And walked back into his shop.