I step up to the door and knock 5 times. There is a camera in the door pointed at me. I hear severallocks deactivate and a high, airy voice behind the door says soemthing that I can't understand.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear that. I am looking for Dragon? I'm hoping you might be able to help me."
I look into the camera. Do they want me to open the door. I thought I heard it unlock. I had better not barge in.
"I can pay in CASH." I say. The door creaks open and a small person in a grey hoodie pokes their head out. "How do you know to come here?" They breathe in a voice that sounds like it hasn't been used all day.
"I'm a friend of Julia's..." I say. "Julia downstairs... in the café..."
They narrow their eyes at me.
"Yes, I know who Julia is. She is my wife. But I'm not totally convinced that you are really her friend. What is your name?"
"I've never heard her mention you. Good bye." The door closes swiftly and I hear the locks beep and click again.
"Wait! I'm really despierate! I really can pay you in CASH. I just need to get out of your building unseen. It's a long story. I can't go back out that window, please help me." I plead.
The locks move once more and the door opens again.
"Despirate, you say?" They clear their throat. "Well I'm not a cruel person. Come on in." They open the door a little further and I step inside. The room is bare of furniture but there is a soft rug on the floor and a computer in the corner that Dragon sits in front of, facing me. I sit down on crossed legs. They hold their tiny hand out to me and curl their fingers back to their palm rythmically in my direction. "Out with it!" They demand.
"I am being followed by the police. I just got out of jail tonight and I've been trying to lose them. I thought I was free of them, but they followed me to the cafe. I managed to sneak out the door and up here but I think they are waiting for me downstairs. I'm sorry for bringing the police here. But Julia said you might be able to help me lose them. Maybe I could sneak out the back door?"
Dragon laughs. "There is no back door." They look up to the ceiling and shake their head. "The back building was build right up next to this one, that's how we got such a great deal on it. If you were actually friends with my wife, you would have known that, she brags about it all the time."
"Okay so maybe we don't know each other that well..." I can feel my face burning with blood.
"You are a criminal, ah?" Dragon asks. "You look like a wizard..."
"Well, I mean... I do work in The Underground, if that's what you mean..." I start.
"Ah, well I do as well. So there is no need to worry about secrets." They draw their chin into their neck and look at me through their eyebrows.
"I'm sorry for leading the police to your home." I say as seriously as I can.
"Ah!" Their hand waves next to their head, like they are swatting a fly. "I can handle the police. Why are they following you? What did you get arrested for?"
"Well I'm a runner so, well... I‘m not totally sure, to be honest."
"A runner? You don't look like a runner. You look like a wizard. Are you sure you aren't a wizard?" They put their hands on the tops of their knees and lean forward towards me, their spectacles spinning and refocusing. I feel like if they lean at me any more, they might fallforward into the rug.
"I do magical work too. So I mean, kind of?" What the hell does "wizard" even mean, anyway?
"We seem to have so much in common, you and I!" They start. "I like to call myself an Astral Janitor, but others who do the same work as me prefer the term "Custodian."
"I'm kind of a Spirit Custodian." I say. "I mean I help spirits around the city."
"I just clean up spills, really." They say, wiping their nose. "Astral Leaks. City’s full of them."
"Astral like space and planets and stuff?" I have heard the term before. I think it has something to do with the belief that magic comes to earth from asteroids or something. Something to do with astro-onomy but not necisarily astrology. Or maybe it does include it sometimes. I don't know. I remember people arguing about it on Arachne but it wasn't really my scene so I didn't pay too much attention.
"Not really. The word "Astral" is an ancient word that's used to describe a certain kind of magic substance. It refers to the cosmos in the same way that Christians refer to things not of this world as "Heavenly." Like how the heavens are up there and we live down here. It's just a way of separating the two spheres of existence. You know?" I nod but they continue anyway. "Like in a Church, that's the holy place and outside of the church, is the dirty worldly place. And the deeper you go into the church, the closer you get to holiness. So the altar is the most holy, you see."
"Yeah but what does that have to do with the astral magic?" I try to say but they keep talking over me. I'm not sure if they hear me at all.
"And in churches, they have so many of these separations, so many doors or doorways where you move from one to the other and it is in that moment that you feel the magic. So people think they are moving into the holiness. But really they are just moving through the slice of astral between the two."
"Right like liminal spaces, right?" I say pointlessly.
"It's the diachotomy between heaven and earth that pulls the tear to the atral open. But luckily churches have regular rituals that help sort out the magic that is constantly leaking out of these tears."
I decide to just nod until they are done.
"But there are doorways all over the damn city that are in shambles. Too many people moving through them over and over. The older parts of the city are a torn apart mess from them. And cities older than ours, they can be even worse. It's why churches and gallaries, and venues need to have constant ritual happening in them to keep repairing these tears and sealing it off by reminding evryone exactly what the space is. It glues it down to our earth. Without it, these places lift away from our world, they get stuffed up with magic blowing in from the Astral and suddenly, we don't know what it is anymore. We don't know who we are when we go there, we don't know why we are there or what we could possibly be there. That's why temporary underground venues can feel so alienating if you aren't comfortable traversing astral space."
"So how do you clean up?" I ask.
"I go in and do cleansing rituals." They say.
"Don't folks like... kick you out?" I ask.
"People hate it and we usually get into a verbal back and forth about it but it usually forces them to say outloud what the space is to get me out of there, so it usually ends up helping to ground the space back anyway so..." They shrug their shoulders.
"Do you have a city assignment?" I ask
"Hah!" They laugh. "What religion would I claim this work for?!" They shake their head and look up to the celing. "I'm not gonna get paid for any of this work. I'm not going to waste my or the city's time with a stipend request."
"I get my apartment paid for with mine. You just got to look Pagan enough. It really wasn't hard." I try. "And I'm a solo worker too, they still approved me."
"Well good for you." They smile. "I hope they don't take that away from you now that you are running from the police." They snear.
"Good point." I admit.
They squish their eyes together in a smile and turn around and tap away at their machine. 2 videos appear of surveylance. 1 pointed dpwn the fire escape and one at the front door of the coffee shop.
"Yeah that's my friend standing outside." I say.
Dragon growls. "Don't call cops your friend. They might feel it." They switch the video to a feed in the coffee shop. Rows and rows of sofas filled with people. I don't see the other one.