Tourist Trap

The problem with the ringing phone wasn’t how loud it was, or that it hadn’t stopped ringing for an hour, but that Tom didn’t have a phone. What he did have was a banana with more brown spots than he liked, in a bowl with two mangos and a papaya, vibrating and jangling like something out of a catchy song. It rang while he read his newspaper on the veranda, while he pulled on swim trunks and sandals and buttered himself up with sunscreen, even while he walked down the foot-worn path through the trees to the beach beyond. He could hear it while he swam, the salt water stinging every fresh cut on his skin, and he knew it wasn’t in his head because it drove flocks of bright macaws into the air and away from his bungalow, their screeches barely audible over that damned noise.

He knew who was trying to reach him, and he didn’t want to talk to Kim right now. But she was nothing if not persistent, and even isolated as he was, someone was bound to hear the phone and start sniffing around to see what was what.

He sighed and picked up the banana, holding it to his ear. “Hello?”

There was a pause as the spell connected, then Kim’s breathless voice. “Tom, finally. Are you still in Cayman? I need a favor.”

“I’m on holiday.”

“Right, I know, but–”

“I’m on. Holiday.”

“It’s just a quick pick-up! The Agency will be happy to extend your leave another day for the inconvenience.”

He watched a sailboat drift lazily out at sea. “Kim, you are talking to me through a banana.”

“Am I?”

“Yes, because I do not have a telephone. Because I threw it down a sewer grate as soon as I left the airport. Because I am on bloody holiday and I don’t want to bloody pick up a thing for you, and if I knew how to hang up a banana I would have done it already!”

He was surprised to hear no response from her, and wondered for a moment if he actually had managed to end the call somehow. Magic was a fiddly thing, even Agency magic, as straight-laced and properly British as it was.

“Tom,” she said finally. “It’s Pris. We can’t reach her. She’s stranded in Hell.”

Pris. Priscilla LaRue: witch, secret agent, ex-wife. Of all the islands in the Caribbean, she had to wind up on this one, investigating who knew what magical misdeeds. Cayman was still under the jurisdiction of the Crown, after all, so it was the Agency’s purview. Still…

“Call her a taxi,” he said.

“We did. They can’t get in. Something has sealed the area, and you’re the only agent nearby. She needs to be out before sunset or her mission is bollocksed.”

The sailboat passed beyond his view, and he idly wondered how far he could throw a banana.

“Hell’s in West Bay, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, great, how soon can you be there?”

* * * * *

Hell was a jagged stretch of black limestone spires and ridges that flooded at high tide with brackish green water, like a miniature version of something from Dante’s nightmares except for the blazing blue sky overhead. Hell was also a road, a post office, souvenir shops and a petrol station, which was where Tom found Pris’s car parked. She stood in the shade of the white building, sipping pop from a glass bottle like any other tourist on the island, eyes hidden by mirrored sunglasses. Her short hair was teased out into an afro that floated around her head like a dark dandelion puff, but Tom knew from experience that there wasn’t a wind strong enough to blow those hairs awry.

“How did you get here?” she demanded, stalking up to him as he rolled down his window.

“I drove,” he said. “Get in and let’s go.” The petrol fumes made his eyes water in the afternoon heat.

“Oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that?” She yanked the door open and flung herself into the seat, her white linen pants bunching against the gray fabric. She didn’t bother straightening them, just buckled her seatbelt and waved imperiously at Tom to be off.

“You’re bloody welcome,” he muttered, peeling out of the parking space and shooting down Hell Road toward the west. It wasn’t a very long ride to her hotel, and he was eager to be rid of her as fast as his battered Chery QQ could get there. They passed the shops, the post office… and then the petrol station appeared on his left again, Pris’s car still in the lot.

“Huh,” he said.

“Exactly,” she agreed.

He swung around and headed east instead. Within moments, he was passing the post office, its wooden sign swaying in the light breeze. When they reached the petrol station, he pulled in and turned off the car.

“Want to go for three?”

Tom squeezed the steering wheel. “All right. How long have you been stuck here?”

“Four hours.”

“And all you’ve done is buy a bottle of pop?”

Pris lowered her glasses to turn the full force of her icy blue eyes on him. “Of course, because I’m an idiot. I haven’t walked the perimeter of the spell, I haven’t attempted to pentangulate the source, and I haven’t used aleuromancy for some hint as to how I should proceed.”

Tom suppressed a smile. “You still carry around fortune cookies?”

“They saved you that time you were lost in the catacombs in Rome.”

“Not before I was neck-deep in reanimated priest skeletons.”

“Maybe if you’d used Ariadne’s Skein like I said–”

“How was I to know the necromancer would–” He stopped himself and took a deep breath. “This bickering will get us nowhere. Have you had tea yet?”

“Just the cookie and soda. Want one?”

“What, a drink or a fortune cookie?”

Her coral-painted lips curved into a smile, and some part of his lizard brain remembered why he had married her long ago. “Cookie. You never know.”

He shrugged. “Sure, fine. Give over.”

She grabbed a handful and held them out to him, and he selected one at random. The plastic crinkled as he tore it open, and he could see the paper curled up inside the hard biscuit like some kind of insect waiting to hatch. Cracking the shell in half, he pulled out the fortune and scanned it.

“When the time comes, choose the top one,” he read aloud, shaking his head. “Bloody useless.”

“Yeah, well. What have you got in YOUR pocket, Agent Nguyen?”

He opened the door and stepped out, leaning on the roof. “I’m going to talk to the locals. See if this has been going on long. There must be some reason I was able to get in when the taxis couldn’t.”

“I already interviewed everyone in the area,” Pris said. She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, the attendant at the gas station. Says he’s had a couple of tourists complain but he always assumed they were nuts.”


“Right, or drunk, or sunburnt. Two, the guy at the post office. Nice older dude, said basically the same thing. He thought the people were lost and sent them to the gas station for maps. Three, girl at one of the stores. Has had a few people ask how long the road is, weird stuff like that, then they usually buy something and that’s that.”

“And these people are locals, are they?” Tom asked. “Don’t live within the spell’s boundaries?”

“Right. No houses on this part of the road, just shops.”

Tom rubbed sweat off his temple, watching some birds take off and veer seaward. They had no trouble leaving either, it seemed. “Surely plenty of people stop here for petrol, at least. They can’t all be stuck for hours or it would be crowded in no time.”

“Whatever it is, it only seems to affect tourists.” She laughed. “A regular tourist trap.”

“What’s that?” He looked at her sharply. “Do you think?”

Pris tapped a finger against her lip. “Hmm. A variation on a Sierpinski trap?”

“No, then we’d see duplication at the edges of the matrix.” He scanned the sky, then the ground, trotting toward the place where the road had gone recursive. “This is more like a Mobius loop.”

“Can’t be: there’s no edge. I tried walking north and ended up behind the post office.”

“So some kind of Klein bottle, perhaps. But there must be a door, because people can get in and out.”

“An Alice box,” Pris said. “We dropped in through the rabbit hole…”

“And we can’t climb back out,” he concluded grimly. “I suppose that makes you Alice, and I’m your white knight?”

She smiled. “So let’s find the Red King and put him in check.”

* * * * *

The only shop Pris hadn’t been able to enter on her sortie was The Devil’s Hangout. Unlike the other white wooden buildings, this one was painted bright red, with big block letters on the side that read “WELCOME TO HELL” in a field of orange-yellow meant to mimic flames. Below that, a cartoon devil in a white tank top and shorts grinned impishly, a camera on its hip. Another sign closer to the road proclaimed “THIS IS HELL!!!” with an arrow pointing towards the shop.

“It was closed earlier,” Pris said. “For lunch, I figured.” She bounded up the ramp to the door and yanked it open. Tom followed, his skin prickling as he went from Caribbean heat to air-conditioned shade. Shelves of knick-knacks and trinkets were arranged in clusters that formed a maze from entry to cash register, forcing any patron to look at everything if they wanted to see anything. T-shirts, magnets, snow globes, rum cakes… Standard fare, plus a selection of Hell-themed paraphernalia, including postcards ready for a Hell stamp and a Hell postmark from the Hell post office across the street.

He coughed, but not from the sudden drop in temperature; he’d gotten a tickle in his throat from a hefty dose of magical residue. This was the place, all right. He glanced at Pris, and she nodded.

“Sulfur and rosewater,” she muttered. “And something else?”

“Rum, I think.”

“Are you looking for rum, young sinners?” A man emerged from a back room, his voice deep and lilting with an island accent. His face was ruddy, his hair and beard white, and he wore a pair of red horns and long red cape like Santa Claus half-dressed for Halloween. His shirt was painted to look like an old-fashioned tuxedo, but shorts and sandals completed his ensemble.

“You sell it here?” Pris asked. Tom admired how quickly she recovered. He was still trying to digest the man’s appearance.

“Like hell we do!” the man replied. “You’ll have to visit the nightclub for that vice. Here, we have the finest damned merchandise that Hell has to offer!” He gestured expansively, gripping his cloak and flaring it out like a bat wing.

“We’re just looking, thanks,” Tom said. He dug into his pocket for his loupe, holding it up to his eye and searching the magnified blur of the shop for any residual magical auras.

Pris, on the other hand, tended to prefer the soft approach. “This shop is great,” she told the man, wandering through it and picking up the odd doodad to give it a closer look.

“Damn right!” he agreed. “Best damn shop in Hell, if I do say so.”

“Have you worked here long?”

“Half my damn life,” he said proudly. “Sold my soul to Hell, you could say!”

Tom realized that there was a low-level glow permeating the shop, a pale lemony color that would have been hard to see from outside, even if it were visible beyond the interior walls.

“You’re very funny, mister… I’m sorry, what was your name?” Pris asked.

“Everyone calls me Uncle Bob, cause Bob’s your uncle!” Another cheeky grin.

The glow brightened as Tom turned toward the counter where Uncle Bob stood. It didn’t seem to be coming from the man himself, though. Something near his right elbow… Tom had to crab-walk past shelves of mugs and shot glasses and picture frames that jutted out just enough to invite an accidental jostle.

“What do you think of this shirt?” Pris held up a black t-shirt that read, “This shirt has been to Hell and back!!!” She winked at him and he nodded.

“Ace,” Tom said. Three exclamation points, dear god. He realized the man was giving him a strange look; he must have noticed the loupe. Well, couldn’t be helped. They were in a rush, after all, with sunset not far off.

He was almost there. It had to be something in one of the displays–a necklace, maybe, or one of the magnets–there! Tom pocketed the loupe and leaned down to examine a display of snow globes that were like any of the others in the shop. Clear dome, plastic base with the words “Greetings from Hell!!!” printed in block letters at the bottom. Scale models of the road outside, complete with buildings and the brackish patch of limestone that drew tourists. Three of them, all identical, one on top of the other in their own little shelves.

How would he know which it was? Up close, the glow was too diffuse to tell. He thought back to the fortune cookie and groaned inwardly. “When the time comes…” The top globe, he saw, was resting on a slightly concave mirror made of burnished silver, which seemed to magnify and reflect the globe more than physically possible. Now that he had found it, he noticed it also had a subtle look-away spell that rendered it unobtrusive. He reached out a finger to tap it gently.

“Eh, that one’s not for sale,” Uncle Bob said, moving to shield the globe from Tom. He noticed that the man didn’t touch the globe or the mirror, just held his hands in front of them protectively.

“It’s very nice,” Tom said. “A little miniature Hell. Come see, dear.”

Pris was next to him faster than he would have thought possible. “That is so cute!” she exclaimed. “There’s the post office, and the gas station… Where did you get it?”

“Er, my niece got it for me,” Uncle Bob said. He had started to sweat, despite being almost directly underneath the air conditioning vent. “Look, these other ones are just the same–”

Pris smiled like a cheshire cat. “Except they’re not, hmm? Had this one specially made, did she, your niece?”

“Yes, I suppose she did.”

“When business wasn’t so hot, maybe? People coming to Hell for the joke of it, but leaving without opening their wallets?”

Tom examined the globe while Pris talked. He couldn’t break it, or they’d have another Atlantis on their hands. Move it from the base, and Hell would probably end up in null space like Area 57. No, he had to figure out some way to subvert the conditions of the enchantment. It only seemed to catch tourists, and Pris had mentioned them leaving after buying something–

“Look here, miss, I don’t know what you’re insinuating, but why don’t you just make your purchase and have done?” Uncle Bob’s face was as red as his cape. “Then you can shove off to wherever you’re from, quick as you like.”

Aha. “That’s it, then,” Tom said. “We’ll have the snow globe there. How much?”

“I already said–”

“We know what you said,” Pris snapped. She reached over the counter and grabbed Uncle Bob by his fake bowtie, pulling his face toward hers. “Listen, Bob: I’m in a hell of a rush, got a big offshore magic circle to take down before the full moon rises. So you can either sell us this incredibly dangerous enchanted item, or we can buy something else to get out of this spell-hole, and come back with a posse of pissed-off wizards faster than you can say you’re my damn uncle.”

Uncle Bob stared at her, eyes big as souvenir saucers. “There’s no such thing as wizards!”

“Says the gent with a magic snow globe,” Tom muttered. “Come off it, man, we’ll give you a good deal and you’ll get off with a warning.” He held up a wad of bills, which Uncle Bob stared at sadly.

“A warning, you say?”

“Much better than wizard jail,” Tom assured him. “We’re not big on fresh air and balanced meals.”

“Fine,” Uncle Bob said. Pris released him and he slumped back, his impish grin gone.

“How much?” Tom repeated.

“A thousand?”

“Done.” Uncle Bob’s sour face told Tom that the man regretted not asking for more.

Pris shot him a look, but Tom ignored it and handed over the money. Uncle Bob rang up the purchase like any other, on an old cash register that dinged when the drawer opened. Tom resisted glancing inside to guess at how business was doing. It didn’t justify a nasty trap spell like this one.

“Grab it, Pris,” Tom said.

She shook her head. “You bought it, you take it.”

She was right, of course. He gingerly picked up the mirror and carried it to the door, which was just beyond the counter at the end of the shop’s labyrinth. Pris opened the door for him and he stepped out into the bright sunlight, blinded by both the sun and its reflection in the hazy silver dish.

“Come again,” Uncle Bob called weakly after them. Tom stifled a laugh. Ever a salesman.

They walked past the gas station, toward where the spell ended. As they reached the border, there was an almost audible pop and the smell of bad eggs and burnt flowers. They went a little farther just to be sure, and came to a faded blue house with an old woman in a rocking chair on the porch. She called down to them, “You lost, then?”

Pris smiled. “Just walking our souvenir, thanks!”

The old woman muttered something inaudible and Tom laughed. They headed back to the petrol station and Pris climbed into her car.

“You’re welcome,” Tom told her.

“Yeah, well, you know,” she replied. ‘You gonna keep that?”

He shook his head and handed her the mirror and globe. “Here, you have it. A little memento of your trip to Hell.”

She laughed and shook it, watching the snow inside fall gently on the miniature street. She put it on the seat next to her, flashing him a warm grin and slamming the door behind her.

He watched her pull out and take off toward the west, to whatever mission she was supposed to finish for the Agency today. She’d probably call Kim on the way to debrief, so he was free to get back to his holiday. Just another tourist on this island paradise. Except, he thought with a sigh, he should probably find out about this niece of Uncle Bob’s who had given him such a potent spell in the first place. An agent’s time was never his own.

Oh, Hell, he thought. Maybe I’ll buy a t-shirt.

2 Responses to “Tourist Trap”

  1. Wow! That was an awesome story. The pacing was good, the descriptions were detailed yet beautiful.

    This is my fav:
    “Hell was a jagged stretch of black limestone spires and ridges that flooded at high tide with brackish green water, like a miniature version of something from Dante’s nightmares except for the blazing blue sky overhead.”

    Love the ending too!

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. 🙂

  2. Dad says:

    Great story. Constructed well, no deficiencies. Very entertaining. Could be a pilot for a series…

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