Quartz sits in a chair, fidgeting with his cap, his waistcoat, and his beard, unable to look directly at the woman sitting across from him. He’s completely non-plussed by her.
Gabrielle allows long, flowing skirts to spread across her feet, hiding her legs, distracting the eye with the weave on the brown lace, a pattern of chickens and smiley faces. Over those skirts she wears a forest-green frock coat with smiley faces as buttons. Neither of these details are the most startling thing about her.
What draws the eye, what Quartz can’t stop staring at, only to look away and fiddle with his own clothing is Gabrielle’s head. It may have once been a green top hat which matched her coat, but the top part has carved in. A chicken emerges from the hollow, a chicken unfurling her white wing, her beak open in a frozen, aggressive squawk. One claw is raised, poisoned to attack.
Quartz: (He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again.) I’d think you’d be worried about your head. That…what is that?
Gabrielle: That? (reaching up to touch the claw with a fearlessness that makes Quartz feel a tiny bit of awe) That is the Devourer.
Quartz: The Devourer? It looks like a ruddy chicken!
Gabrielle: (lowering her hand to her lap) Yes, well, the survivors of mystical damage can say what they like about Time devouring all things. I can’t argue, but I’d say a chicken does a ruddy good job, to use your words, at devouring whatever she can. Such as spiders.
Quartz: Got a problem with spiders, eh?
Gabrielle: One seduced a friend of mine into accepting her as religion along with a lot of other women. They’ve become part of the spider’s court, priestesses to her pretensions of godhood. Now that same spider is using the same friend to stalk three of the boys at the Navel. Yes, spider have given me a measure of grief, although I can’t interfere with this particular spider’s game. Not when her worshippers…and prey…offer themselves to her willingly. Not as long as I’m proprietor of the Navel.
Quartz: Huh, that sounds ruddy complicated, yet a far more practical reason for your chicken than I thought. Here I thought you just wore it to be weird.
Gabrielle: Isn’t it weird, though? (She preens as if Quartz offered her a lovely compliment.) I’m quite pleased with this hat.
Quartz: Err, yes, very…bizarre. Fits right in with your shop’s catch phrase, the Navel being the center of everything bizarre.
Gabrielle: And I try very hard to be worthy of that description.
Quartz: Just what do you sell at this shop of yours?
Gabrielle: Hmm, I wouldn’t say the Navel’s business is to sell things. More to return what belongs to their rightful owners.
Quartz: So it’s a charity or a place for the lost and found?
Gabrielle: The latter, definitely. The former, no. There’s a price for taking an item from the Navel. Often it’s simply facing the consequences for losing it in the first place.
Quartz: Not sure I understand that at all. (He considers the matter for a moment.) Not sure if I want to.
Gabrielle: You’re wiser than most, Quartz. I’m not sure I want to completely understand the Navel myself. Why spoil the mystery?
Quartz: Spoil the mystery, eh?
Gabrielle: I’ll try to explain a little. Take Tarot cards. They’re painted images which can mean a number of things, conveying a general meaning. That meaning doesn’t come into focus until a particular reader interacts with the cards with their thoughts and questions. It’s the same with the Navel. An object doesn’t come into focus until a customer opens the shop’s door, drawn there by a need they may not even be aware of. The object they discover in the Navel…or that the Navel’s people locate…represents that need.
Quartz: And this object can be anything?
Gabrielle: Well, there are some items on our shelves we’re always aware of. Like Damian’s art and my chicken-headed Devourers. Some things appear in the Navel when a particular customer opens the door. We’re always well-stocked with tea when Juno visits; a powerful, calm-inducing blend of dried leaves, herbs and spices capable of drugging a god. Or old-fashioned cups whenever Hebe comes calling…she always asks for a different one.
Quartz: Sounds like the Navel has regulars. Regulars whom always ask for the same thing when they walk in.
Gabrielle: Yes, but sometimes a stranger enters the shop, a stranger who’s found themselves in Omphalos (our town) drawn by a need for something in the Navel. Something which appears when they enter.
Quartz: You mentioned that sometimes the Navel’s people help find whatever the customer wants…or needs. These people include Christopher, right?
Gabrielle: Oh, yes. My son, like all the rest of us is drawn to the section of the shop where our customers need us to go.
Quartz: You call Christopher your son, but didn’t he just walk into your store one day?
Gabrielle: Didn’t your daughter just collapse on your doorstep when you found her?
Quartz: Heh, you got me. Notice you didn’t deny it.
Gabrielle: Why should I? I’ve given a lot of thought to how I met Christopher. I’ve wondered if the Navel itself didn’t provide me with someone I needed, even if I didn’t realize it, by having Christopher walk through its door.
Quartz: Only I thought it was Damian Ashelocke who brought Christopher to you.
Gabrielle: Damian is still an employee of the Navel and a good one whether he wishes to admit it or not.
Quartz: You’re saying Damian acted on an impulse inspired by the Navel when he thought of Christopher becoming your son? I thought it was to achieve his own goals.
Gabrielle: Why couldn’t the two have been in alignment, the Navel and Damian in their choice of Christopher? Strange things have happened.
Quartz: Sounds bizarre.
Gabrielle: You yourself said it. (She smiles a bright smile.) The Navel is the center of all things bizarre.
Quartz: Right. (He doesn’t sound quite so sure of himself this time.) That wasn’t the kind of bizarre I was expecting.
Gabrielle: It seldom is. (Her smiles never wavers)
Quartz: Not sure if you’ve convinced me. All this could be humbug.
Gabrielle: I get that reaction a lot, too. Particularly from Damian…well, I used to get it from Damian. (She finally loses her smile, dropping her attention to her hands.)
Quartz: Sorry about that. Damian was like a son, too, wasn’t he?
Gabrielle: Damian was many things, all of them important. I could never convince him of that.
Quartz: Once again I’m sorry. (clears his throat) He’ll be back. Christopher seems determined to bring him back and Christopher is a force to be reckoned with. (He leans forward.) Don’t tell him I said that.
Gabrielle: (grinning) Your secret is safe with me. Thank you.
Quartz: (mutters something under his breath, looks down at his buttons with a red nose) It’s nothing.