Alex parked at the mouth of the canyon. There were a few lights in the houses that lined the gap, but they were distant as stars from where he stood. Counter to the stereotypical panel van, Alex drove a nondescript white sedan, swapping the plates out every few weeks. He hefted his cargo (an easily ditchable paper grocery bag) and hiked to his rendezvous point.
Ben was a professor of something, Alex could never remember what. Ben was prone to long rambling monologues about the universe and enlightenment and other such sundries. Ben was also prone to girls ten to fifteen years younger than him. The one at his side tonight wore a half-shirt with some kind of fairy on it and a pair of cutoffs belted with a macrame strap. She looked uncomfortable as Ben draped an arm over her shoulders, twisting her body away slightly.
Ben nodded back. “My elucidated brother, well met by moonlight.”
Alex opened his sack. “What can I get you tonight, Ben?”
“I’ve got a new acolyte I intend to get on the starry path.” Ben nudged her towards Alex, and her muscles locked up. “Say hello, Ginger.”
The girl mumbled something.
Alex did not bat an eye. He had a tremendous poker face, a boon in this line of work.
“I would like to get some Indigo Girls, and a smattering of Fairy Caps for my fairy princess here.” Ben was sweating, a bit of the wet patch beneath his arm transferred to her shoulder.
Alex set a series of plastic baggies containing dried mushrooms on a nearby rock. “You know the deal. Cash in hand.”
Ben smiled. “I have to grab my wallet. Be right back.”
He gave the girl’s shoulder another nudge and walked into the darkness.
They stood, the girl with her arms crossed on her torso, Alex with his feet planted casually apart. He scratched his neck. Above the collar local band shirt he wore (his customers expected it) black horns easily mistaken for a run-of-the-mill tribal tattoo laced his skin.
“He’s not going to narc,” the girl said out of nowhere.
“Ben? Yeah, I know him. Good customer.”
“Oh.” the girl said nothing for a while. “It’s Gwen.”
“My name. Short for Guinevere. I don’t know why he calls me Ginger, I can’t get him to stop.” she shivered.
Alex paused, thinking. “I’m going to ask you something, and you can be completely honest with me: have you ever done mushrooms before?”
Gwen shook her head.
“Do you want to?”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to take anyone down this path that isn’t willing.” Alex scratched his neck again. His skin felt hot. “Here, I’ve got something for you.” He retrieved another baggie, pressing it into her palm. Gwen regarded the mummified fungi, their tan bodies corkscrewing as if in agony. “What’re these?’
“Beech mushrooms. Pair well with light soups and most noodle dishes.” He smiled benignly at her perplexion. “Safe. You could buy them at the store.”
“Oh.” She shifted the baggie in her hand. “But there’s no…danger it’ll do something like the other ones, right?”
“Nope. They don’t even grow the same. These—” he flapped the baggie of Ben’s, “—are coprophilous. They grow on shit.” He savored her look. “Beech are saprotrophic.”
“Sapro—” she narrowed her eyes.
“Grow on dead material. Dead leaves, dead trees, that kind of thing.”
Alex smiled. He said nothing.
Gwen shivered and withdrew once more into herself. They heard Ben coming back long before they saw him, shouting and swearing as he broke through the underbrush.
Ben fanned his cash out before stuffing it in Alex’s hand. Alex didn’t count it. He didn’t have to.
Gwen’s eyes popped wide. “Wow. How do I get a job like yours?”
Alex tucked the money in a back pocket. “Get in the wrong kind of debt to the wrong kind of people.”
Ben swept up his baggie. He was really sweating, his cheeks glowed in what little moonlight there was.
“Feel good hit of the summer,” he said as he dropped a capped stem in his mouth.
“Ben, how are you feeling?” Alex could feel the back of his neck grow warmer with every passing minute. “You got a fever?”
“I am feeling like a cog in the machine, ready to tumble into infinity.” Ben smiled crookedly. “How are you, Ginger beer?”
Gwen looked more relaxed than she had a few moments ago. “Um, I think I’m okay.”
Alex wanted to let it lie, but he couldn’t. “How’s everyone? I mean, is there anyone got this sickness going around?”
Ben thought. “Fitz? I haven’t heard from him in a few days.”
“Fitz.” Alex swallowed. He really was too warm. “He live up on Oakhurst?”
“Nah, Kennedy. It crosses with Oakhurst.” Ben proffered his arm. “Shall we, my little disciple?”
Gwen gave Alex one last backward glance before allowing herself to be propelled back up the canyon slope towards Ben’s outdated chickmobile. She’d be fine. They usually were.
Alex turned the AC on full blast once safely back in his car, navigating the labyrinth of suburban roads to Peter Fitzgerald’s house. There were lights on in the kitchen and den, but no movement. Alex showed himself in via garage, just a friendly visit from a concerned citizen.
The smell hit him first. Then the heat. The furnace blast that traveled up and around his back. Alex shucked his shirt off like he’d been burned. The inky stain on his back that looked like the fresh, wet work of a tattoo needle glowed in a map of mycelial fingers that spread agony throughout his skin.
Fitz had been sat at his drum kit when he went. Head cocked back, fruiting bodies sprouting from his mouth and eyes. White fuzz of mycelium sticking up to the wall kept him upright. The air smelled slightly medicinal under the rot.
Alex produced a knife with a handle of volcanic glass. He spoke a few words of Aklo, or rather, they spoke him. They burned a trail through his brain and produced black holes in his vision as he harvested the caps, storing them carefully in mesh bags.
Fitz was sweating an oily substance. In a day the mycelium would wither and disintegrate, leaving him bloated and dripping with adipocere. Just another junky who OD’d in the summer heat.
Alex’s back cooled by degrees. He donned his shirt again, bowing his head to Fitz. He’d been one of Alex’s oldest customers, as these things go. Paid his dues, never asked too much. A shame. But Alex was not in the social business.
He set the mesh bags on the passenger seat gently as if they were sleeping newborns. On his way out of the neighborhood, just to be on the safe side, he transferred plates.