In her mind, there was a door. Its entryway lay at the bottom of a narrow stairwell that lurked back from the road in a nook between a Chinese takeaway and a mouldering 7-11 convenience store. To either side, neon flashed electric.
Breathe in for one, then breathe out for two.
She lay in her bed. Miles away, she was also standing on Elizabeth Street in middle Melbourne. As she stepped out of the wind and ruffled her coat, the stairwell ahead yawned wide, dark and absent of teeth.
In for two, now out for four. A pause, then the low tone of a bell.
RED INK COMICS, the letters across the archway read. She sashayed on vermillion heels and negotiated each stone step with care. Click-click. Click-click. She avoided the handrail’s tacky foreign surface.
Three, then six. Somewhere, water lapped at a fringe of white sand. Waves crashed.
As she descended, her mind grew quiet and the sounds of the tape receded, as they always did.
She reached the bottom of the stairs. The door ahead of her—the one in her head—was painted a deep mustard yellow like That Yellow Bastard, and was closed but not locked. On the other side, Miles Davis and his moody trumpet blues gently wailed. The piano accompaniment plinked across her heartstrings.
As she grasped the doorknob with one manicured hand, the small sign that dangled off of it—COME THE HELL IN—flickered, then disappeared.
‘You gonna stand out there all night?’ asked a gruff voice in broken English. ‘I have commerce to pursue.’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ She smiled lazily, snapped her wrist and flicked open the door.
She swayed into the room like Cleopatra’s asp. Passed comic book display cases. Bargain bins. Shelves that piled up and to the back of the store. A multi-coloured array of issues, and re-issues, and graphic novels about heroes/heroines who thought they were bats and cats and rats.
A short, thickset man with dark hair crowding his neck sat behind the main counter that bisected the room. His eyes were lidded, and his rough features arranged soft. He nodded his head slowly in time with the lilting sound system.
‘Jazzing it up in here, I see, Zoran.’
He snorted. ‘”Blue in Green”. My favourite on a shitty night like tonight.’
She arranged herself on a small stool next to the counter. ‘You just admitted to liking something. Surely you’re sick? Got a fever?’
‘A fever—for more cowbell.’ Left-of-field but the quote registered. Still, Zoran didn’t seem the type to be a fan of Saturday Night Live.
‘Yeah? Well, I got a fever too.’ She pursed her lips together.
‘For comics?’ Thumb-and-forefinger gesture. The international symbol of cash.
‘Not tonight. Tonight, I feel…special.’
Zoran exhaled and folded his arms. ‘Again? Come on. I not a charity, you know? People have to buy to keep the place running.’ Above his head, a torn poster of Chewbacca glared down at her. ‘I have Batman. Everyone likes Batman.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘More female then. How about mint condition Padme doll? From Star Wars prequels. I know—they not so good, but very collectable.’
She leaned across the counter, her coat spilling open. ‘You know what.’
Zoran lifted his hands and stepped back, or at least he tried to, but she grabbed him as he flickered, as the faded pants and t-shirt billowed into a suit and tie ensemble. As she reeled him in, his eyes went wide; she grasped the back of his neck and rammed his thick head into the counter. Crack. Shards of teeth and glass.