Norman’s PDA was broken, but he still had four hours left in his day. He rotated the batteries, just in case, but there was no change. The thing was dead.
“Hey Norm,” said Pete, popping out of a nearby doorway with a thrashing sack over his shoulder. “Lovely evening, ain’t it?”
Norman stowed the PDA and paced over next to Pete.
“I don’t suppose I could check your firehose, could I?”
“Why?” said Pete, eyes narrow.
“My PDA died.”
Pete sighed, fished his own out of his pocket, and handed it over. Norman paged through the entries as efficiently as possible, but the scroll wheel was sticking… tacky, almost. He shuddered to think why.
“All strange-os t’night,” said Pete. “I been through the list six, maybe eight times, and notta one that don’t give me the willies.”
Norman nodded. They list was rather freakish. He was about to give up when he saw something truly unusual. He held the PDA up so Pete could see.
“What do you think this means?”
Pete’s face twisted into a semi-smirk.
“Izzat even English?”
“Somehow, I hope not.”
“Looks sick,” Pete laughed. “This I gotta see.”
He snatched the PDA back and started down the street. He took a moment to deposit his sack into the steel trap of a Collection Truck, then turned back toward Norman.
“You comin’ or what?”
Norman hopped to attention. He ran after Pete, barely catching the door to a low rise before it closed with a thump. They skirted their way into a dark stairwell, started up as quietly as they could manage.
“It’s a door upstairs,” said Pete, labouring up the steps. “Never a door downstairs, izzit?”
“We could use the exercise,” said Norman.
Pete stopped, turned on Norman with a sneer.
“Y’know why the PDA thing always happens t’you, right?” he said. “Iss the subconscious expectationlism you got goin’ on. You think it’s gonna break, so it breaks. You gotta think more positive-like, yeah?”
Norman said nothing.
They arrived at number 508, listened by the peep hole. There were voices talking inside, but the wood was too thick to hear the words. Pete turned the knob, and the door swung open silently.
Inside and down a short hall was a small, shabby living room with aqua-green carpeting. At the far side, perched on the sofa, was a young woman with wet brown hair, wrapped up tight in a yellow towel. Her eyes were closed, her head back, and she moaned softly, deeply,
There, kneeling below her, was a gnarled old woman with greenish skin, patchy grey hair, and a giant wart on the end of her nose. She had the young woman’s foot in her hands, caressing it gently with her foul, purple tongue.
“‘Witch lick feet’,” laughed Pete. “Well I’ll be. This’s goin’ in the record book, I can bet you that.”
The young woman and her witch both looked around quickly, suddenly aware of the intruders in the room. Norman took an involuntary step behind Pete. He couldn’t stand this part.
“Hullo, ladies,” said Pete. “Sorry to interrupt, but my friend and I are going to have t’take the old bag away.”
The young woman looked frantic.
“It’s nothing personal,” said Norman, almost apologetic. “You can pick her up in the morning if you—”
“The going rate forra full humanoid inna state such as this is, it’s about four-fifty. That’s payable in cash, or credit, but please no personal cheques unless they’re certified, yeah?”
The young woman didn’t answer. The witch was backing into the bedroom, eyes wide with fear. Pete pulled a sack from his jacket and started after her, moving with the calculated precision of an experienced kidnapper. He closed the bedroom door behind him while he worked.
Norman finished filling out some paperwork on his notepad. His pencil tip broke.
The woman sniffled to herself, and even though he didn’t want to, he felt the need to say something to her.
“It’s fairly standard business, kidnapping fantasies like this,” he said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I mean… we see some truly remarkable things every night. Yours is fairly mundane. You really shouldn’t worry about it. As long as you pay the ransom within a week, nobody has to know.”
The woman nodded just as Pete came in, dragging the thrashing sack behind him. He stopped next to Norman, checked the notepad, and nodded.
“We all good here?” he smiled.
The woman refused eye contact. Pete laughed, a cold edge to his voice and sidled over to the woman, tugging at the edge of her towel.
“Missy,” he breathed, “we all good?”
The woman, again, refused eye contact. So Pete gripped tightly, and with a mighty heave, took her towel. He slung it over his shoulder as Norman quickly averted his eyes. The witch in the sack started squealing viciously, shoving her head out the hole in the top.
“Zippit, hag!” Pete grunted, and pushed her head down.
Norman left the receipt on the coffee table and quickly backed out of the apartment without glancing at the woman again. When they were safely in the hall, he scurried next to Pete, whispering urgently.
“Was that really necessary?”
“Respect issa two-way street,” Pete said.
Down at the Collection Truck, Norman once again got to browse the PDA while Pete tried to shove the witch into the hole. She was getting louder and more frantic, furiously trying to get free.
“Witch not bad!” she shouted. “Witch get even! Witch make you slavers! Witch make you cry!”
“Yeah yeah,” said Pete, shoving harder. “Heard it, seen it, and whatever.”
Finally, the sack went in, and the door closed with a clunk. Two seconds later, the air filled with a horrible grinding noise, like a fat hamster in a food processor. Pete and Norman both frowned. It was rather jarring.
“That don’t sound right,” said Pete.
They opened the door again and peered in. Rather than the usual sparkling dust and whiff of ephemeral whimsy, the processor was thick with blood, bone and hair. It dripped thickly down the sides of the tube.
“That ain’t right at all,” said Pete.
Norman quickly re-scanned the entry that had sent them there: “Witch lick feet”. He opened the full details for the order, saw all the random chatter from the agents who’d intercepted the fantasy request, the chain by which it had arrived downstream… and finally, to the full report.
“Oh dear,” he gasped.
“What?” asked Pete. “What’s what?”
He took the PDA from Norman and started reading, and in a second, his face turned from concern to outright horror.
“Goddamn character limit,” spat Pete, walking away with his head in his hands. Norman fell back against the Collection Truck, swallowed a sob.
“Witch lick feet,” he said quietly, “of beauty in yellow towel.”
This week's topic tag is actually courtesy of @quillsandzebras, who send along some truly remarkable search terms that people used to arrive at her site. I won't list them here, but you'll probably be able to guess... they're the really, really freaky parts of the story.