There were no corners in the shopfront. The edges had been molded or sanded down and rounded off, although it was otherwise your basic retail office space. Big front window, single glassy door, the rounded corners fitting into what looked like a rubber seal. Julia had the impression the whole store had been exuded by some mutant oyster, spat out like a half-finished pearl. The door gave way with a bit of stick and a sucking sound.
Julia crossed the threshold into a world of warm, dry air. The scent of drying herbs and fresh earth. The carpet crept up the walls and down from the ceiling. No corners, again. A kind of cavernous space where nothing was exactly parallel. Opposite the door, a low table, littered with...offerings. A plate of gold. Decanters of cut crystal glass. Small plates and bowls with arrangements of plants, dried herbs, wood shavings, cigarettes. A glass jar in which nightcrawlers turned in black earth. An assortment of very plain, functional knives with handles of different metals. Behind the table, staring at her, a beefy young woman in a business suit that was cut, frayed, and burned at every edge - deliberately, she thought. Behind her, a curtain.
An office laid out like a temple, a secretary guarded the holy-of-holies.
"They see you." the secretary said, rising from behind the table. She towered a head over Julia. Guided her around the table, drew back the curtain. "They see you now."
The way behind the curtain was dark. Darker than it should have been. Yet there was a light.
Julia hurried past the secretary, ducking under her arm. She caught a scent of something wet and animalistic as she swept past. Like a wet fart of pure musk. Swallowed a gag as she stepped forward. Then the curtain fell. She was alone in darkness.
A twenty-watt bulb burned, perfect and red, frozen in space about five feet off the ground. Julia took a moment to let her eyes adjust. There were walls, which formed a rough corridor with a sagging ceiling. Ran a hand against rough fabric. Sloping walls, like a tent. Or skin hanging off some strange, angular skeleton. The air was warmer here, the herbal smell giving away to something a bit more...harsh, medicinal, with overtones of old nicotine.
Julia walked, feet sinking into something like denim covering thick carpet - a strong, yet giving surface on top of something softer. The floor was also off - she felt the ascent, though it couldn't have been more than a few feet.
Then she was in the space. She saw the...
"Consultant." The figure said. "You are here for a consultation."
The figure was naked beneath their business suit, Julia thought. Skin showed through the jacket when they moved. No shoes, or socks. No undershirt. The tie formed a ribbon of blackness that hand between the small breasts. The hair and face were carefully androgynous. Full lips, a ribbon of black around the eyes.
"Sit." The consultant said, and Julia did - on an amorphous shape like a piece of exercise equipment wrapped in layers of blankets. Soft edges, hard skeleton. Ergonomic, but not exactly comfortable. The consultant moved something, revealed a small flame burning beneath the bare bulb. They tossed a wet leaf on the flame, which immediately began to smoke. The nicotine smell increased, and Julia began to sweat.
"Historically, people understood magic in a very different sense than is common today." The consultant said. "The Babylonians, we know they had witches and exorcists, priests and astrologers. Yet this was not all understood as magic in the way we think of it today. We think in terms of spells and conjurations, cause and effect. We separate sorcery and sanctity, science and religion. They did not. To them, it was all a spectrum. Parts of the natural and supernatural world interlocked, interacted. They had superstitions - rituals and beliefs by which people could interact with that supernal world, the seen and unseen. When that was insufficient, they would consult others. Specialists in those interactions. Intermediaries trained in the lore. You want tigers, you hire a hunter." The consultant's eyes flashed. "Today is like yesterday. You have encountered a problem you cannot handle, perhaps one you do not understand. You need help."
The smoke stung Julia's eyes, but she was starting to get a buzz, like from your first cigarette. "I want..."
The consultant held up their hand. The nails were tapered, sharpened. She could easily imagine them scraping across her thigh, drawing blood. "You need to absorb this consultation first. Digest the information. Define your problem. Then, if you need it, there will be another consultation." The consultant came close, hand grasped Julia's chin, drew her in close...to stare her hard in the eyes. "There will be a price. The things we deal with, have their price, and that cost is passed on to you. Think on this."
Julia let the consultant take her arm and guide her up from the chair-cum-torture device. Her ass hurt, and her head felt funny. The ceiling seemed like it was going to collapse in on her. Finally, there was a door. A fire door. Steel covered with paint. A bar at waist height. Instinctively, Julia reached for it. Felt the cool metal beneath her palms. Something pushed her from behind. Julia stepped forward into the light.