The stench from the boiling tonic invaded Payton’s nose like a nasty infection. She covered the copper pot after a few seconds of stirring and bolted out of the medicine-making lab for some fresh air. You’d think a hangover tonic wouldn’t smell so nauseating! she thought to herself. She slumped down on a chair and wiped the sweat off her brow. The afternoon air was refreshing, but the break was suddenly cut short with the startling clamor of bottles and canisters falling on the sales floor of the apothecary.
“Get back here you blasted ragamuffin!” shouted Marleen, Payton’s boss.
Payton rolled her eyes and dashed out to the sales floor to help Marleen. “Just when I thought I could get a moment’s rest.”
“He stole some fever elixir!” Marleen exclaimed. “Get him!”
Payton snatched the net-shooter off the shelf and sprinted after the little boy. As the unofficially-elected thief-catcher of the apothecary, this was nothing new. She bolted out the steel doorway and into the road where she paused to scan the busy streets of Brynn, searching intently for the thief. When she spotted the messy mop of brown hair bouncing among the crowd, Payton took off after him, lugging the massive net-shooter in her arms. She dodged people, farm animals, and steam-powered carts in a struggle to keep up with the shop-lifter. City-folk were forced to jump out of the way and slam on their brakes in an effort to avoid colliding with the racing redhead.
When Payton felt she finally managed to get close enough, she aimed the heavy mechanism in her arms, pulled her trigger, and brought the young lad to the ground in a tangle of rope and steel weights. Relief coursed through her when it was all over. This weekly thief-hunting routine was taxing and certainly not something she had sign up for when she began her apprenticeship at the apothecary. If this was what she wanted to do for a living, she would’ve applied for apprenticeship at the constabulary.
Payton casually approached the net-entangled child, panting to catch her breath, and examined his unkempt appearance. He couldn’t be any older than seven. He clearly hadn’t bathed in days and his clothes were riddled with holes and soot. She eyed the broken goggles which sat atop his head and wondered if that was her doing.
“Please, ma’am! Don’t hurt me!” the boy pleaded. “This isn’t for me! It’s for my mama! She has a mighty bad fever!”
Payton put her free hand on her hip and glowered down at him. Naturally his appearance would attest to his story, however some of the facts didn’t add up in her mind. “Then why are you stealing five bottles? You don’t need that many for one person.”
Tears streamed down the child’s face as he struggled against the net and he managed to reveal the plunder from his tattered brown sack. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to grab so many! I’ll give them back, but please let me keep just one! Mama is all I have left! I don’t want her to go like daddy did!”
Payton’s expression softened and she slowly took her hand off her hip. She supposed it possible that he took more than he meant in his rush to grab and go. She knelt beside him and freed him from the net as she spoke.
“My parents died of the plague too, but you also have to understand we can’t just give away these away for free.” Payton’s gaze returned to the broken goggles. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll accept the goggles as a form of payment for one bottle. But honestly, I doubt that fever elixir will be enough to save her. If I’m correct and her illness doesn’t improve, come back and I’ll see what I can do. But no more stealing, okay?”
The boy glowed as he slipped off his goggles and handed them to Payton. “Thank you, thank you so much!”
“You’re welcome.” Payton helped the boy to his feet. “Now go home and behave yourself.”
Once the little boy was out of sight, Payton pocketed the four bottles and made her way back to the apothecary. She grimaced when she got a good look at the sales floor. Bottles and canisters were scattered about, jars were toppled over. Only a few things were in their rightful places. From the looks of it, Marleen had quite the struggle with the boy before he ran out of the shop.
“So, did you get the bottles back?” the plump old Marleen questioned with her hands on her hips.
Payton held up the four bottles and the goggles. “I sold him one for these goggles as payment. I know someone I can sell them to.”
Marleen furrowed her eyebrows. “And how do you know this person is going to pay you the same value for that bottle?”
“Because I’m not going to accept anything less, that’s why. I have good rapport with him, you don’t have to worry.” Payton grinned.
“Whatever. Just clean this mess up while I bottle up that hangover tonic.”
Marleen shuffled to the back room, leaving Payton alone to clean up after Hurricane Ragamuffin. She took a slow, deep breath, fixed her hair into a pony tail, and began the arduous task. As tedious as it was, by grouping together all the similar tonics and elixirs first then stacking them on the correct shelves two by two, she got the apothecary floor cleaned up in a flash. She took one last look at the sales floor before she went back into the lab where she found Marleen frowning over the pot.
“This tonic was slightly overdone by the time I got to it, but it’ll still do. You need to remember thirty minutes of simmering. No more, no less. You should know this by now.”
“Of course,” Payton replied curtly.
Marleen let out a heavy high and her shoulders relaxed. “Look, sweetie. I know I’m harsh with you at times. But you must understand it’s for your own good. One day, you’re going to take over this apothecary and be in my position, training someone else. You’re going to be an even better medicine-maker than I am with a lot of responsibility and I just want to make sure you’re prepared.”
Payton feigned a smile as she helped the old woman bottle the rest of the elixir. “Of course. I’ll go and put these out on the floor.”
Her fake smile faded into a frown as she stepped out of the lab with a box full of hangover elixir. As she stocked the shelves, the bell above the door rang and a finely-dressed young woman stepped into the shop. Her chestnut hair was artfully pulled up into a refined bun and she glanced around the shop with her deep lavender eyes.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Payton greeted. “How can I help you today?”
“I’m looking for a sleep elixir.” The woman smoothed a hand against the silver floral lacing which adorned her black corset. “What do you have available?”
“You can find sleeping tonic at the tavern across the street,” Payton smirked. “The whiskey there will knock you right into next week.”
The customer tilted her head and frowned peevishly. “Thanks, but I go to the tavern when I feel like blacking out in an alley and waking up regretting my life choices.”
Payton maintained her mischievous smile as she lifted a bottle of the hangover tonic to her customer. “Well, in that case, I would recommend this hangover tonic. I brewed it freshly myself.”
The lady leaned forward on her gold dress cane. “Are you always this cheeky with your customers?”
“Only to the ones who I know can use some humor,” Payton replied while she finished stacking the shelves. “My name’s Payton, by the way.”
“Tiffany. Pleasure.” The woman glanced about the apothecary. “So how long have you been doing this?”
“Three years,” said Payton as she moved to fetch the sleep elixir. “I started here when I was sixteen.”
“Ah, you’re so young. How do you like it here?”
Payton shot a frown in Tiffany’s direction as she thought about the best way to answer honestly. Tiffany raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Oh, so you don’t like it here.”
Payton scanned the room to make sure Marleen wasn’t anywhere near. “Honestly, I only took on this job so I could get my foot in the door with nursing. But Marleen insists on me taking over this place ever since she and I came up with the first ever antidote for hallucinogenic mushrooms that doesn’t involve fully tranquilizing the patient.”
Tiffany peered down her nose at Payton. “Did you now? Impressive. I’m sure your parents are proud.”
“I’m sure they would have been if they were alive.” Payton smiled weakly. “They fell victim to the plague several years ago. It’s just me and my younger brother right now. He just started his apprenticeship under the repair man here in Brynn, but he won’t be old enough to get paid for two more years, when he’s eighteen.” She paused for a moment and scoffed. “Look at me, spilling my entire life story to a customer I just met. Soon I’ll be going to the anti-itch cream for advice.”
“I find that wine is a much better listener,” Tiffany chortled.
Payton jolted at the sound of the back door bursting open.
“Payton! What is taking you so long?” Marleen stopped suddenly upon seeing Tiffany. “Oh, you’re with a customer. I beg your pardon, ma’am.”
Marleen quickly returned to the back room and Tiffany noticed the subtle roll of Payton’s eyes. A smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth.
“Listen, I could actually help you get your foot in the door with nursing, and most likely pay you more than you’re making here. If you’re interested in my offer, meet me at Bailey’s at eight sharp this evening.” She glanced at the elixir in Payton’s hand. “And forget about the elixir for now.”
Tiffany winked at the puzzled Payton and strutted out the door in her high-heeled boots. Payton’s eyes shot madly around the shop as she searched her mind for clarity. What kind of job opportunity was she talking about? she thought. Why would she be offering me a job? Payton eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to truly get an answer for what this was all about was to go meet Tiffany at one of the finest and most expensive restaurants in all of Brynn. So when the sun was low in the sky and Payton had cleaned up and left, she headed home to change into more refined attire.
Payton jogged the majority of the way home, so she was out of breath when she came in through the door tossed her keys on the table. A lanky teenaged boy with fair skin and red hair to match Payton’s approached the second-story banister where he gaped at the his unusually worn out sister with brown eyes.
“Did an ogre chase you all the way home or something?” he asked teasingly.
“Hey, Lawrence,” Payton breathed as she locked the door behind her. “No, I just rushed home because a woman came in today and said she might have a better job opportunity for me.” Payton entered her room where she made a bee-line for her closet and searched among her clothing options. “She wants me to meet her at Bailey’s at eight so I really have to get ready. Will you be okay by yourself for a few more hours?”
“Of course,” Lawrence smirked. “You know I’m the best company ever! Besides, Lawrence wanted to talk to me about some very important matters, so this will be the perfect opportunity to do so.”
Payton couldn’t stifle her laughter. “Don’t say things like that in public, or they’ll throw you into the asylum!”
Payton shut the door on her brother so she could change into her nicest ruffled white blouse, floor length violet skirt, black cincher, and her finest pair of black boots. It may not have been the most elegant ensemble in Brynn, but she knew it would pass for Bailey’s. Once her hair was pulled into a taut bun, Payton scrambled down the stairs, gave her brother a kiss on his forehead, and bolted out the door to Bailey’s restaurant. She may not have had any idea what she was getting herself into, but she couldn’t shake the excitement which swelled within her.