Nico paused before the door, taking a deep breath, letting it out, taking another, feeling the weight of her backpack shift and return. This could be embarrassing, but it was for Rita's sake.
The door, like the rest of the little building, was charmingly rustic but recently restored. Unlike the rest of the building, the door fit perfectly in its surroundings. The cute two-story affair was close enough to the freeway to hear the cars, but nestled in among a gnarled thicket of low trees, whose profound age held danger instead of tamed charm.
Nico pushed open the door in accordance with the instruction on it, and tiny bells tinkled somewhere deep in the shop. The inside was wall-to-wall kitsch, punctuated by a few windows trying vainly to let in the afternoon sun. Terrariums with snakes and giant cockroaches and other creepy-crawlies shared shelf space with smaller bottles of dead ones, and featureless wooden boxes were helpfully labelled in what looked like Korean. A rack of thumb-sized bottles in various shades of clear had a nondescript "Aqueous Reagents — $27-$192 each" tag, while a similar rack in reds and blues was tagged "Love Potions — $10-$25 each". A table of wands in countless woods had no such tag, but was dominated by a glass box of nine wands in nine sizes, tagged "SALE! all 3×3 — $450". A gorgeous old oak table in the middle of the room featured a cash register paneled in little oak plates, and a cougar with medium-brown skin and hair, looking dapper in a cream skirt suit. She had a face like she'd been a witch in a school play and never looked back, and was now living the dream. The coin-counting spell-casting dream.
Then she looked up at Nico, with a smile like she was about to offer cookies. "Can I help you find something?" Her accent was unplaceable but vaguely posh.
Nico looked around. There were three cars outside, not counting hers, but within the shop the two of them were alone with the vast towers of magical junk. "I, actually, I'm trying to find someone…"
The proprietor got a thoughtful expression and exhaled slowly, gently. "Ah, a missing person. You'd like a seeker spell?"
Nico nodded miserably.
"How long have they been gone, and what's your budget like?"
"Fifteen days. The cops just told us they're standing down —" What she'd intended to be the end of a sentence was instead a voice-crack, and the older woman nodded sympathetically, looking like she wanted to give Nico a motherly hug. "And my budget is, like, ramen. Community college student." She fished a bag out of her backpack, picking less than $30 in cash out of random Rita-related items.
"Wait." The older woman's eyes had narrowed, and she was peering past the Rita kitsch into the earth beyond. "What's that book?"
Nico picked it out, holding it up gingerly. It was sturdy enough that it didn't need careful handling, but Nico had no idea what might overwrite the magical trace a "seeker spell" would presumably need. The cover was deep blue cloth, shod in heavily-tarnished brass, still locked. "Her diary, from when we were kids. I think she was 11 when she filled this one."
"And she was that involved with a boy that young?" The older woman's voice was suddenly full of wonder. There was something poetic in a magic shop proprietor finding magic in precocious horniness.
"Travis, yeah. We were just kids, for fuck's sake, but those two — wait, how did you…" She looked at the proprietor anew. Maybe this magic bullshit really would work. Maybe it wouldn't matter that she hadn't seen the key to Rita's old diary in a decade.
"Sampling the merchandise, you might say." She sniffed in vague regrets, but took the book and danced her thumb over it, as if swiping a touchscreen a dozen directions. "But yes, this makes it very easy. I'll do the spell for you, so it's done right. Twenty bucks." She whirled away, to pick out a compass from a rack of them marked "Blank & Clean — $2", all pointing in different directions. "Do you have any maps in your car? Go get one and I'll show you how a seeker spell works."
Nico nodded numbly and ran out, mumbling her thanks.