Madame Midsomer braced herself against the wind. It was at its most mischievous outside her building, always plucking hats and wigs from those who dared walk the street and plopping them down on children, even babies. Those keen to keep their headgear wisely took care to purchase a meatball or two from Meatball Obsession and toss those to the wind instead, which accepted the alternative with a fathomless appetite. Children bought the meatballs to toss at everyone else.
Madame Midsomer, however, had no time for such niceties. Her yeti-hair coat repelled all forms of seasoned meat, and her hat had been woven with all sorts of incantations by a sorceress of great renown from Market Chipping. Whenever the wind slipped its naughty fingers round the brim it would get a nasty shock of lightning. So long as this didn’t happen near the kerosene carts, Madame Midsomer found the side effect inconsequential. It did once, of course near The Tower with council just exiting, and a Green Trench had the audacity to write her a ticket for the fire. Never mind she put it out before The Kitten Parade was completely roasted. Those fools just don’t appreciate how even the best-behaved magic sneaks out now and again.
“Hullo, Seller!” She clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. Her right hand kept her coat closed against the half dozen meatballs cast by a school group as she waved with the other—first at Seller, then at the school group. Seller’s face turned grim. The children turned into sloths. The chaperones, knowing a good thing when they see it, whipped out their phones to play SweetieSmash.
“And how is your family, Seller?” Madame Midsomer spoke with a smile that told the story of many years smoking and laughing and allowing the occasional fight to knock loose a tooth. “All well, I hope?” The pavement shivered with her approach, sending a few pears and apples askew.
Seller kept his hands busy with straightening the produce. The last time he shook hands with Madame Midsomer he got some sort of ghostly powder on his hand. It took a fortnight for his hand to be solid enough to pick things up again, which is damn inconvenient when you’re a fruit farmer. “Well, Madame.” He knew better than to give someone of Madame’s aptitudes his family name.
“It is the greatest luck you’re on my street today.”
“I’m here every twenty days, Madame.”
“Yes yes, but I needed you here today, and here you are! My will is insurmountable.” That bit seemed less pointed at Seller than at the Green Trench just coming up the walk now—a rookie, by the look of his panic when he saw Madame Midsomer near fruit. “This city simply cannot function against it, Seller.”
Seller smiled and said nothing. He was in no mood to sell as anything but a human. No one wants to buy fruit from an aye-aye.
Madame Midsomer let go of her coat and held out both hands. Her fingers twitched as she moved them in the air from one end of the tables to the other. It reminded Seller of typing, and if she was typing, that meant she was working. Damn.
The low table creaked painfully as the ground shook with uneasy persistence, rather like a child who isn’t a sloth tugging at one’s pants with the urgent need for more meatballs. Seller watched Madame Midsomer’s fingers pass over his bananas, grapes, tomatoes, and mangoes. That was close—he always did his best business with grapes.
The high table held apples and pears and some wrapped fruit a bit ripe, but still good for baking. The fingers moved over them. Stopped. Moved back.
Madame Midsomer pursed her lips. Seller worked hard not to think about how the lipstick had been smeared on much too thick, and was now clumping together in the middle of her lips. Her fingers typed over the apples, back and forth, then stopped completely. “Yes. These are what I need. I’ll take the lot.”
“Madame, surely you remember the limit is one per customer.”
“Yes, but today is different. An emergency, you can say.” She made a peculiar kissy-face towards the ground, sending a tiny bit of lipstick downwards. The pavement turned the same shade of “killer crimson” on impact. “And I say a dozen will just cover it.” She held open her hands to take the trays.
Seller felt the Green Trench’s stare and thrust a single apple into her hands instead. “Madame, it is the law. One per customer. I cannot possibly sell you 12.”
The wind nudged Seller, found neither hat nor wig, then snuck a grab at Madame Midsomer. The lightning managed to short out the SweetieSmash tournament and sour the chaperones. The children went on being sloths.
She stood there, arms outstretched, grappling one apple. One. What in all the Multiverse was she supposed to do with one? “Now you listen to me, Seller. I need all twelve. It is imperative.”
“And it is imperative I follow the law, Madame.”
“Sod the law!” And she readied her hand for a wave, her eyes as white as the pearls dangling from her ears.
Seller covered the remaining apples with his arms. “Better an animal above ground than a prisoner beneath it, Madame.”
Madame Midsomer squinted with that hideous darkness only known in The Cautionary Tales the wind whispers to children on the schoolyard. But the Green Trench was no child, and thought only to protect the victim of Cruel Magic.
The pavement leaned, shook, wobbled—Seller ran for the bananas and tomatoes before they could fall upon the aye-aye, googly-eyed and drowning in his emerald coat, already frustrated by those impossibly long fingers. Seller skewered a few grapes on one, since it seemed the sort of thank you an aye-aye would appreciate.
Madame Midsomer ignored them both. She turned her eyes upward, apple still at a distance, and looked to her flat.
Fissures fat and determined ran from her windows down the building’s height. Dust sparkled with shattered glass, cutting the wind in a thousand places and sending it off screaming for its mother. Brick and steel crumbled and regrouped into a head the likes of which no zookeeper could ever identify, Seller was sure of it.
The Tower of Height Street raised the alarm. Madame Midsomer lunged for the apples. Seller grabbed the umbrella for a shield.
“Give me those apples!” She still had time, it had not yet found its feet…
“Grow your own apples!”
“HALT.” More Green Trenches climbed down the wind and formed a circle around the fruit stand. One saw his fellow officer transformed, called out, “Corporal, there’s more here than Tampering.”
The Old Corporal moved behind the circle with his eyes fixated on Madame Midsomer. Madame Midsomer held the apple at him, then at the created head high above them, now with girdered neck and creeping fingers and the occasional flat resident holding on for their pitiful lives. A couple Trenches went after them. “Officers, you must let me stop this.”
“Not this time, Madame,” said Old Corporal. He held out his arm to the aye-aye, who crawled up gratefully. “Willful Cruel Magic against an Officer and Unlawful Tampering? There’s only one punishment for such crimes.”
“You’re all pathetically inept. I’m the only one with the power,” she said with chunks of lipstick flying dangerously close to their coats. Killer Crimson splashed onto the street, the mangoes, and Seller’s legs instead.
Hands folded behind him, shield-badge aglow, Old Corporal stood his ground, even when the sofa exploded on the pavement behind him. The other shield-badges carried the glow through the circle, and soon the light began to weave and bind…
“No!” Madame Midsomer hissed and called the power of the apple’s life, but the shield-badges took it first, and when the light pulsed away she found her wrists in cuffs. “You can’t, you can’t do this, the city needs me!” She clacked backward, swayed, she was but an old woman, after all, was there no pity? “Seller, please, tell them!”
Old Corporal glanced at Seller. The man was smart, and said nothing Madame Midsomer could capture and hide in that blasted coat of hers.
The deluge of rocks and residents stopped. Apparently, it had a taste for meatballs.
“I warned you, Madame Midsomer, that the new council wouldn’t tolerate your Tamperings. Now maybe this city can finally take on someone a bit more reputable for Lead Sorceress.” Light ribboned down from each shield-badge in a criss-cross beneath Madame Midsomer’s ridiculous shoes. “You’re under arrest.” Light and pavement vanished. Madame Midsomer fell with a shriek, but not before the wind caught her hat and danced about with it, giggling.
Old Corporal wiped his hands. “‘Bout bloody time that happened.”
Seller sighed over the hexed mangoes, not to mention his pants. “Those sloths are children, too.”
“We’ll get round to them later. Can’t have them poking about the building while we fix it.” He skewered a few more grapes for the rookie and pulled out his phone to contact his superiors. He paused. “Quick game of SweetieSmash?”