This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “The Last Sorcerer.”
And since I like this one, I’m keeping it up here, for FREE. For forever. More or less. 🙂
This is officially the oldest story of all my Fiction Friday stories — I wrote the opening scene way back in the early ’90s, back when I was teaching junior high school, and I wanted to show my students an example of descriptive writing. Not sure if I succeeded, but I kept the characters and the situation in my head for almost 20 years. I hope I made my eighth graders proud!
And almost all of those characters show up later in my Contagious Magic novels, which start with A Sudden Outbreak of Magic and continue with A Wild Epidemic of Magic. (I’m still trying to figure out a way to get operative Jersey into my novels…).
Also, you can read more about the history of this this story in an essay I wrote for the Flames Rising site: “A Brief History of Magic.”
The Last Sorcerer
Under a gray-brown Chicago sky, stirring slightly between a brick wall and the sidewalk, sat a worn cardboard box. Expensive leather shoes, bright heels, and heavy boots detoured around the box, while horns honked, brakes squealed, and cars roared past on the narrow city streets. A harsh word from the driver of a speeding truck added to the clamor as it roared past the box. The owners of the shoes, heels, and boots hurried past with their heads down, oblivious to the box and the noise. To them it was just another snowy day in May.
Suddenly, with blinding speed, the cardboard box unfolded itself in an explosive and very wet sneeze, and a figure in second-hand clothes spilled onto the sidewalk. The figure wobbled slightly, shaking his head with a flurry of dirty white hair. A blue flannel shirt hung over his husky body, while threadbare khaki pants held together with patches covered his bony legs. A toe stuck out of one ruined brown boot, as if testing the snowy air. Archie the bum was awake.
The old man rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and pulled a shapeless red hunting hat onto his head. As he carefully folded his cardboard home in half, then in half again, a low grumbling emanated from his throat, but no words were formed. Pedestrians gave Archie a wide berth, their gaze falling on him for a split second before moving quickly away.
Steadfastly ignoring the people around him, Archie dug into a worn canvas pouch looped over his shoulder and pulled out a thick black magic marker. Muttering even louder as he scratched a large X on his flattened cardboard home, he leaned the box against the brick wall. A slight green glow covered the cardboard, too faint to be seen on first glance. Had the hurrying pedestrians stopped for a moment to look at the wedge of cardboard, they would have noticed that the melted snow and dirt flung up by passing cars and pedestrians bounced off the cardboard face, keeping its surface dry.
Pulling the flaps of his hunting hat over his unruly hair, Archie trudged off down the crowded sidewalk. Walkers detoured around him automatically. Heading north, he crossed Madison and Washington streets without breaking stride, timing his steps with the lights and traffic, never once stopping.
Once he was within sight of the black glass rectangle of the Daley Center, its windows fogged over with cold and condensation, Archie turned into an alley. He sniffed the low stench hanging over the alley, then continued walking into the shadows cast by the skyscrapers. An economy-sized Glad bag appeared from the pouch at his side. A quick flick of his wrist snapped it open on his way to the first Dumpster.
The unnatural silence of the alley was a contrast to the bustle of the early morning city streets. Archie’s mind drifted off as he examined the garbage in front of him, grabbing aluminum for scrap metal and dropping them into his garbage bag. Without memories to distract him, he went to a place in his mind where strange words echoed. The words in his head that cold and wet winter morning were formless and vague. The language wasn’t English, but he liked the way the words made his scalp tingle with warmth.
A stray word slipped from his mind to his vocal chords and tried to escape out his mouth. His gravelly voice, thick from lack of use, garbled it into a sound like a phlegmy, throat-clearing grunt: “Haqtinz.”
Small green forks of lightning flashed out of his fingertips and latched onto the sides of the Dumpster. The Dumpster crashed into a wall, turning a sizzling green as electricity covered it. With nowhere else to go, the electricity still pouring out of Archie’s fingers surged back towards the old man and threw him across the alley. He landed on his rear end fifteen feet away, breathless and hatless.
After a stunned half-minute of paralysis, Archie shook his shaggy head and looked up. The green light that was now fading from the Dumpster left a sense of familiarity in his reeling head, as if a memory was trying to dislodge itself. He scratched his hair with a shaking hand and began looking for his hat.
Footsteps slowly advanced up the silent alley. On his hands and knees, Archie didn’t look up, hoping the sympathetic strangers would go away and leave him alone. The steps came closer and stopped. Two pairs of black, high-topped sneakers stood a foot away from him.
“What’ve we got here?” asked a biting voice that had a decidedly unsympathetic tone to it. “What you got in the bag, Santa?”
“Yeah. What’s in the bag?” a high-pitched voice added. “Maybe we should give Santa a hand. Or maybe we should give him a fist.”
Archie raised his head in time to meet a bundle of bony knuckles rushing straight at his face. The blow hit home, mashing his nose and knocking his head back. He ended up on his rear end again.
Although he couldn’t remember the specifics, Archie had been beaten before, and he vaguely sensed that it had gotten worse in the past year or two. Everyone in the city seemed angry about something. All he could remember was to relax and let them get it over with. He rolled into a ball and pulled his knees up to his chest. Somewhere, in the haze of his pain, Archie returned to the place in his mind where the green words floated. With each kick, the words became clearer and clearer, as if rushing toward him from a great distance. He could see three words with perfect comprehension, running through him with a sudden thrill. The kicks subsided for a second as the boys stopped to catch their breath, and Archie was able to roll to his feet.
To his left stood a short black boy in white jeans and a too-thin jacket, with a black Raiders hat perched sideways on his head. Next to him was a skinny white boy wearing severely torn jeans and a Bulls windbreaker, with a black bandanna covering his hair. Both boys backed off a step as Archie rose to his feet.
The pain in the old man’s body dropped away like dead weight. Archie inhaled and spoke. “Dohol Elem Kazqu!”
Both boys were instantly lifted off the ground and flung into the slimy bricks of the alley wall. They hit the wall with a dull thump, followed by the hiss of air escaping from their lungs. But instead of crashing into the garbage below them, they were held high above a full Dumpster. The green air crackled once again with electricity. Archie stood with his right hand in the air, two fingers pointing at the boys. He made a quick cutting gesture with his other hand.
“Oskam,” he murmured, and a parade of pocket change, dollar bills, knives, and wallets marched out of the suspended boys’ pockets. The items dropped obediently into Archie’s pouch.
“Hey!” the white boy cried out in his high-frequency voice. “You can’t rob us, man! We’re gonna be Hoods, so don’t screw with us!”
Eyes wide, the black boy stared at Archie and whispered, “Shut up, man. Shut up. He ain’t from here. Look at him.”
Archie’s eyes glowed with an unnatural light that covered the two helpless boys, and his hair stood out like a pincushion. He looked up at the boys as if he hadn’t noticed them before. Reaching down to pick up his hat from under a garbage can lid, he listened to the sound of change in his pouch. He couldn’t remember getting such a big handout lately. With his hat back on his head, Archie strolled out of the alley, the jingling of his pouch almost covering the twin thumps of two boys landing in a Dumpster behind him.
* * * * *
Detective Joshua Atticks stared at the flashing light on his computer screen and told himself he didn’t need a cigarette. His fingers pulled at his lip while he began to pace the cluttered confines of his office, the drone of the city below the two windows adding to his agitation. If only the sun would come out, he thought. The winters had been growing longer and longer, stretching from mid-September to late May, to the point where summer only lasted three months these days. The rest of the year was made up of chilly, gray days. Having lived in the Midwest all his life, Josh could handle the cold. But the lack of sun chipped away at his spirits to the point where he needed nicotine just to get through a day.
His eyes kept coming back to the blinking red light on the monitor. Chewing his fingernails was much better than a smoke. Right.
The sign on the door next to him read, in peeling black letters, “Atticks and Emerson, Private Investigators.” But it was more than cheating husbands and petty larceny that captured the attention of Josh and his partner. Any private dick with a camera and the right connections could follow unfaithful spouses and hunt for fingerprints. Josh Atticks and his partner Tim Emerson found that there was more excitement in cases that strayed off the beaten path. They stuck their hands into anything that looked even vaguely weird, mystical, or abnormal. That wimp Mulder on “The X-Files” had nothing on Atticks and Emerson.
The blip on Josh’s computer screen was definitely abnormal. Tim had picked up the computer system during on of his many forays into the hidden occult shops that seemed to appear and disappear throughout the city at random intervals. A toothless old con artist had sold the “Mystical Ebb and Flow Tracking System” to Tim for one hundred and fifty dollars. Josh had taken one look at the hodgepodge of stray wires coming out of the low-res monitor and the TRS-80 keyboard and stuck it in a corner. He forgot about it after screaming at Tim for wasting money they didn’t have. He didn’t realize that Tim had plugged it in and left it on ever since.
Josh ran a hand through his thinning, dark blonde hair, making it stick out at wild angles, and fumbled for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t in his shirt pocket. At thirty-one, he knew quitting was for his own good, but he never should have let Janie talk him into going cold turkey last week. This job, and the weather, encouraged bad habits.
Until that morning, the mismatched computer system had buzzed continuously in the corner of the office as it gathered layer after layer of nicotine-laced dust. The buzzing had stopped at about nine that morning. It had taken Josh half an hour to realize it was the abrupt silence of the computer system that was causing his head to throb. When he dug the monitor out from under three weeks’ worth of paperwork, the normally-blank screen displayed a flashing red dot floating over an incredibly detailed map of the city.
According to the MEFTS operating manual from Tim’s desk, with instructions written in over twenty languages, the computer had located someone using magic.
Despite the nature of many of their cases, Josh had always forced himself to be skeptical about such things as unidentified flying objects, extrasensory perception, and other paranormal activities that implied something “other” in the world. But deep inside him was a child whose father had burned his E.C. horror comics and prohibited him from going to movies. He’d never admit it, not to Tim or even to himself, but he wanted to believe in magic. So he had given up his career in engineering and teamed up with Tim to be a private investigator of the unknown. It was a lot more fun than building bridges.
Tim had bolted out the door as soon as he saw the screen, babbling something about an old man and a magical sensory apparatus. Nothing seemed to get the kid down, not even a half-year of seasonal affective disorder from the endless winter. Josh was stuck waiting in the office, twisting a pen cap in his mouth and watching the traffic rush through the streets below. A smoke would definitely help pass the time, he decided.
There was an explosion of footsteps outside the door. “Josh! I got it, man!” Tim Emerson, a short twenty-six-year-old with wireless glasses and tousled brown hair, burst into the room. In his hands he held a long, thin black box with an antenna sticking out of the end. To Josh it looked like the world’s skinniest walkie-talkie.
“Emerson,” he groaned, “don’t tell me the old guy sold you a remote control with a radio antenna glued to it. You got conned again, kid.”
“Piss off, man. It works and I’ll prove it to you. And don’t call me kid. You’ve only got five years on me, baldy.”
Josh sighed. “Let’s see it.”
Tim pulled the antenna out slowly, muttering, “Okay, let’s see if I remember. The old guy said to turn slowly and hit RETURN on the computer twice as I turn.” He glanced at Josh. “This’ll work, man. Trust me.”
Tim turned in a circle as Josh tapped the key twice. Nothing happened.
“Great job, kid,” Josh snorted, digging a partially used cigarette butt from under a battered book on the occult.
Tim continued spinning and hitting RETURN. “I know it works. I know it does.”
Gradually, almost too low to hear at first, the buzzing that once came from the computer was recreated by the long black instrument in Tim’s hands. The instrument slowly but surely pointed out the window and down into the busy street below.
“Hah! I’m not doing this, Josh. It’s working. It’s like a magic divining rod, you see? It’ll lead me right to whoever the MEFTS picked up.” He spun on his heel toward the door. “I’m outta here. I’ve got a magic-user to find.”
Josh looked up from under his desk, a match in one hand and the cigarette butt in the other. “Uh, Emerson, are you just going to walk around the street with that thing buzzing and leading you around like a fool?”
Tim shrugged. “Sure. Who’ll notice in this city?” He pointed the magical sensory apparatus at Josh accusingly. “And I thought you quit, you backslider!” Before Josh could respond, Tim rushed out the door and down the hall, the buzzing following him like a stubborn mosquito.
Alone again, Josh lit the butt he’d found and inhaled stale smoke. He coughed and fumbled for his coffee to get the taste out of his mouth. He dropped the butt into the garbage and tried to look over some backlogged cases. Somebody had to earn some money around here, he thought half-heartedly. In the back of his mind, though, Detective Atticks wondered what they were going to do if Detective Emerson actually found a real-life magic-user.
* * * * *
Jimbo McAndrew was mopping the entrance to the bathrooms when he saw the old man enter the restaurant. He’d been lost in his thoughts, most of which focused on how much happier he’d be in bed, under four blankets and about ten pillows. Oh great, he thought to himself, straightening his aching back. I hope this old bum isn’t looking for some free curly fries. It was Jimbo’s second day on the job, and he was alone up front for the first time. He hustled behind the counter and pushed his hat up out of his eyes.
“May I help you, sir?” he said, his voice cracking. Jimbo stood five feet eleven inches and weighed one hundred and twenty pounds, soaking wet. He towered like a reed in the wind over the bum’s bent head. He cursed his own nervousness and attempted his best I’m-happy-to-serve-you smile. The old guy didn’t look impressed. “Sir?” Jimbo asked again.
It sounded like the old man had a pocketful of change, but his head was down and he was muttering to himself. When Jimbo bent down to try to hear the words, the man’s head shot up. Jimbo found himself gazing into two very bushy white eyebrows.
“Five roast beefs. Six large curly fries. Extra horseradish sauce. Two strawberry shakes.” The voice was low, deep, and barely audible, but Jimbo keyed in the order and wondered when the old guy’s friends would be arriving. I’d be quite impressed, Jimbo thought, if this old guy ate all the food he just ordered. Jimbo himself was still feeling the effects of the two big roast beefs he’d eaten before work.
After a few moments of scurrying around the heat lamps, Jimbo placed the food and drinks on one overstuffed tray. “That will be twenty-six dollars and sixty-three cents, sir,” he said, pushing the tray toward his customer.
Mumbling to himself, the old man dug into his pouch and pulled out a handful of bills and coins. He dropped the entire handful on the counter and grabbed his tray. Jimbo leaned forward slightly, sniffing as he counted the pile of crumpled bills and change. It smelled like someone had just blown out a match.
The old man had given him the exact amount.
Jimbo looked up to say something, but the old man was walking away, his burnt odor lingering in the air behind him. The first sandwich was gone by the time the old guy sat down. Impressive, Jimbo thought.
Trying to put the horror stories his sister had told him about crazy homeless people attacking innocent fast food workers, Jimbo resumed mopping the restaurant floors. He squeezed excess water out of the mop and glanced at the old man in the corner. Except for Mario changing grease in the back and Jo in the manger’s office, Jimbo was alone in the restaurant with the very hungry bum. The old man was finishing off his last sandwich, a bit more slowly this time. No other customers had come in since.
Jimbo slapped the mop down and used all the strength in his thin arms to move it across the tiled floor. The motion of the mop and his arms calmed him. I can handle this job, he thought. He was about to begin whistling when a motion on the other side of the restaurant caught his eye. Jimbo turned in time to see the old man slump and fall out of his booth.
“Oh God! Mario, get Jo! This old fart’s dead!” Jimbo’s knees wobbled unsteadily as he ran up to the prone body. “And call 911, damn it!”
Holding his breath and wondering why these things always happened to him, Jimbo bent over the old man. He put his hand on the side of the old man’s neck, cringing at the scratchy feel of the man’s beard and skin.
“Don’t be dead don’t be dead don’t be dead,” Jimbo prayed crazily. He felt a slight fluttering under his fingers, then his hand was grabbed in a deadly grip. The old man pulled Jimbo down to him in a fraction of a second. The bum’s eyes opened and turned a brilliant green. Jimbo was caught by that unnatural gaze.
“The grip of Hand is weak,” the old man said in a whisper. Jimbo tried to free his own hand, disagreeing completely with what the old man had said. The old man had a grip like death.
Before Jimbo could say anything else, the old man made a guttural sound deep in his throat. Jimbo felt his legs turn to lead. He sank down onto the floor, a sense of peacefulness rolling over him. Outside the windows, a bright light filled his vision, as if the sun was finally coming out.
Next to him on the floor, the bum slid back down to the floor, the strange green light in his eyes winking out. The almost blinding sunlight streaming in through the windows was suddenly replaced by a grayness that grew darker and darker. Jimbo wanted to cry out in anger at the loss of the sun, but he couldn’t move. An image of his warm bed flashed into his mind, then was gone. His last thought was about how he was going to explain this to his boss. Then Jimbo McAndrew blacked out.
* * * * *
As she slept, Kelley Farthing floated above the world on the power of a thought, sliding through white clouds and blue skies over a green countryside. On the gravel road miles below her, a toy-sized car started to swerve out of control, so she reached out instinctively with her mind and stopped the car before it hit the ditch. Clouds began to drift toward her, so she again pushed out with her mind and the clouds broke apart. She laughed as her body soared higher.
While she continued gaining altitude, the sky turned a deeper, darker blue. She tried to will herself lower, but she was pulled up higher and higher into the sky. Vertigo shot through her from the dizzying height. Her ears popped, and the air was sucked out of her lungs when she tried to scream. Stars glittered in the black void. Spinning out of control, all she could feel was the pressure of the outer atmosphere tearing her body apart.
Kelley woke, gasping for breath with a scream on her lips. A train passed by on the elevated tracks a block from her tiny apartment, rattling her windows for half a minute while she tried to get her bearings. Pulling her long brown hair back from her forehead, she wiped a traitorous tear from her eye in frustration. She hated crying, even though the gray skies made her want to every chance she got. Walking on shaky legs to the kitchen, she opened the small window next to her table and tried to collect her thoughts with the chilly breeze.
Kelley shivered at the memory of the helplessness she had felt at the end of the dream. The dream always ended with her losing control. She breathed cold air into her lungs. The dreams had started a year ago, a few weeks after the accident. Sometimes she had them four or five times a week, especially if she hadn’t gotten much sleep or if her classes had been particularly stressful. This morning had been the final straw. Four hours of sleep a night just wasn’t enough for her to remain sane.
Kelley pulled on a heavy flannel shirt, a pair of jeans, and her father’s old workboots. She grabbed the phone book and her bookbag, even though she knew she was going to skip her ten-thirty class. It was time to do some real research.
After a half hour of fruitless searching through the maze-like shops bordering the streets of northern Chicago, Kelley found the first bookstore. None of the books she’d found in regular libraries had told her much about dream analysis beyond Freud and pop psychology. The tiny shop in front of her looked more promising.
Even though she must have passed the building countless times, she had never noticed “Haze Books and Gifts” before. The store name was written on a wooden sign in faded blue letters, and a winged horse reared up against a friendly-looking dragon beneath the words. The door was almost hidden by a heavy black awning. Kelley pushed against the heavy door and entered the shop. Inside, the air was thick with flavored smoke that Kelley could almost touch. The solid wooden door slid shut with the tiny tinkling of a hidden bell. Silence fell on the store as she looked around.
Every spare inch of the walls was covered with oak bookcases overflowing with paperback, hardcover, and leather-bound books. In front of Kelley stood twelve long tables, each with a different arrangement of related artifacts and knickknacks. There was a table for crystal balls, a table for pewter figurines, a table for spices, a table for musical instruments, and even a table for windup toys in the shape of knights, magicians, centaurs, and dragons.
The toys caught her eye, and she walked up to the table in the center of the shop. The store seemed much bigger from the inside, and Kelley felt like it was expanding as she walked. She had walked half the length of the store before she realized she was holding her breath and tiptoeing. Exhaling, she bent to touch a green and blue dragon with almost transparent wings. As she was admiring the forest of scales carved into the dragon’s muscular back, she noticed that none of the items in the store had price tags. She carefully wound up the dragon, grimacing at the clicking sound it made in the quiet shop.
“May I help you?” asked a voice from directly behind her. Kelley jumped, letting go of the dragon. It circled gracefully around her head in before landing at her feet with a bump.
“I am sorry. I did not intend to frighten you, miss.” A short, petite woman with gray-streaked black hair, who looked to be in her late forties, stood looking up at Kelley. The woman’s eyes were the color of the sky in Kelley’s dream, before the dream turned into a nightmare, and there was a hint of laughter in the thinness of the older woman’s mouth. She didn’t seem too sorry for scaring me, Kelley thought.
“Hi. I’m sorry for messing with your dragon.” Kelley looked down and picked up the toy, its legs still kicking and its wings still twitching. “Is it broken?”
“I am sure Alexander is all right,” the woman murmured, with the hint of a foreign accent. “I must also apologize, for my manners. I am Ms. Haze. Welcome to my shop.” She folded her small arms over her chest. “What are you looking for today, Miss…”
“Farthing, but just call me Kelley. I’m a grad student in psychology, and I’m thinking about doing my thesis on dreams, especially dreams about flying and power.” Kelley was surprised at how easily the lie spilled out of her mouth. “I’ve covered pretty much everything our library had to offer, and I was hoping you’d have something, well, something more.”
Ms. Haze scratched the back of her neck where her hair was cut short while she gazed thoughtfully around the shop. “Let us try something over here, Kelley, in section sixteen. Follow me.” The little woman strode to a bookcase on the far wall, picked out five books from five different locations, and dropped them into Kelley’s arms.
“You should read these, Kelley. I do not think your library would have these in their collections.” She stopped herself abruptly. “Let me check a price for one of your books. Stay here for a second, Kelley.”
Kelley set the books on a rickety chair and looked over the first book as Ms. Haze disappeared behind a velvet curtain. It was called Dreams and Nightmares in the Waking World, and it was written by Dr. Gregory Vest, a name she didn’t recognize. It looked pretty boring. When she closed it, a small book on the bookcase next to her caught her eye. She walked over to it, glancing at the curtain, and read the title: Inner Magic. Before she could stop herself, she had stuffed the little white book into the inside pocket of her coat and zipped the pocket shut.
“Here it is, Kelley,” Ms. Haze’s voice said faintly from behind the curtain. She slipped through the curtain with a ledger in her hand, tiny glasses perched on her nose. “I will sell you all five books for sixty dollars. What do you think?”
Kelley winced at the price, but the books would be worth it if she could get a decent night’s sleep. Plus, the weight of the small book against her chest made her want to reimburse Ms. Haze in some way without admitting the theft. She handed the cash to the older woman, who was watching her intently.
“I hope these help you with your paper, Kelley,” Ms. Haze smiled. Her teeth were really white, Kelley noticed. “May I get you anything else?”
Kelley looked around the shop, taking in all the fantastic trinkets and mysterious books. Her eyes fell upon the dragon, forgotten on the floor. She bent down and handed the toy to Ms. Haze. “I’ll buy him, too. He’d go great in my apartment.”
Nodding, Ms. Haze placed the dragon in a small padded box and pushed the box across the counter next to Kelley’s bag of books.
“What –” Kelley began.
“Take Alexander, Kelley. I know you will appreciate him, and I know you still believe in magic.” Ms. Haze smiled up at Kelley again with her perfect teeth. “Pleasant dreams.”
Kelley started to argue, but the older woman waved her off. Thanking Ms. Haze, Kelley turned toward the door, the small white book warm against her chest. With her arms loaded with books and the box, Kelley left the Haze Books and Gifts shop feeling slightly uncomfortable and completely guilty.
* * * * *
Tim Emerson was beginning to sweat as the late morning sun slipped out of the clouds long enough to burn away some of the dirty snow. He walked as fast as he could, waving the long sensor in front of him and muttering, “Come on, come on.” All his attention was focused on the buzzing apparatus in his hands. He was on the case.
Five years ago, struggling through his sixth year of college, Tim had been friendless and penniless until he met Joshua Atticks in a criminology class. They hit it off well, despite the differences in their personalities. Tim enjoyed Josh’s black humor and intensity, and Josh constantly cracked on Tim’s optimism and boundless energy. Together they had set up a fledgling detective agency with their criminology textbooks, five hundred dollars, and a lot of promises. Starting with regular cases, Tim and Josh realized that they both had dangerously short attention spans, which led to the weird, off-the-wall cases that gave them the rush that a stakeout or a textbook couldn’t give.
In the rollercoaster of years since, Tim had been broken up phony exorcisms, used himself as a medium in a channeling, and even convinced Josh that he could summon a demon from hell. He’d almost pulled it off, too, but he’d had trouble pronouncing some of the words from the faded pages of his ancient book, and he’d ended up with a strange case of swine flu that doctors hadn’t heard of since the Middle Ages. It had taken Tim a long and painful month to recover from the bouts of diarrhea.
Everything that he and Josh had done in the past, however, couldn’t compare to the rush he felt now as he tracked down his magic-user. If and when he found the source of this magic, the possibilities were overwhelming. They could cure cancer, AIDS, and all other diseases. He could go backwards and forward in time. He could make the sun come out again. The world would be a very cool place if magic existed.
Tim was broken out of his reverie when the device in his hand began buzzing louder. It pulled him into a dark alley, his hands vibrating crazily. The buzzing grew until his ears ached. The device jerked around in his hand, pointing up at a brick wall above a Dumpster. It also pointed at an overturned Dumpster on the other side of the alley. It moved back and forth between the two areas, faster and faster, as if confused or malfunctioning. Before Tim could stop it, the device shot out of his hands and shattered against the wall.
“Shit!” Tim cried. He could hear Josh already, complaining about another Emerson screw-up. He bent to pick up the pieces of the ruined device.
To his right, something shuffled and shifted. With his heart in his mouth, Tim stepped back. Covered in three days’ worth of newspapers, an old man with a thick gray beard touching his chest let out a long, echoing belch. The old man’s back was against the Dumpster, and he was either asleep or in a drunken stupor. A floppy hat was pasted to the old man’s head, and a worn pouch was wrapped around his middle.
“Hey. Hey man, wake up.” He gently prodded the bum with his shoe, trying not to think of lice and diseases and how long it must have been since this old guy had taken a shower. This had to be the man. “Want some food, buddy?”
The old man didn’t answer. Tim held his breath and nudged the old man harder.
“Whuhh? Who?” the old man groaned, then pulled himself up straight against the Dumpster. His hands clenched into fists. “Whothehellareyou?”
“I’m a, uh, a friend,” Tim said, wishing Josh was here.
The old man belched Wild Irish Rose at him. “Ge’ los’, kid.”
“Come on, man. You’ve got to be hungry. I’ll get you something to eat.” Tim paused, mentally figuring how far their petty cash could stretch. “And maybe, just maybe, something to drink.”
The old man looked over at Tim and raised his bushy eyebrows. He worked his way up to a standing position without taking his eyes off Tim. “Didjoo say ‘drink’?”
Tim nodded. Pulling, pushing, and begging, he coaxed his magic-user through the streets of Chicago toward the offices of Atticks and Emerson, grinning triumphantly.
* * * * *
“I need a report. It is twelve o’clock.”
The calm voice came from behind Operative Jersey, cool as the icy lake forty-five stories below the control room’s single window. Jersey suddenly stiffened in front of his glowing blue monitor, then tried to relax his large frame. Though Jersey was a foot taller and a hundred and thirty pounds heavier than the man who had just spoken, the voice still caused a shiver to run down his long spine every time he heard it.
“Jersey. The report.”
“Yes sir, Dr. Azure,” Jersey said, clearing his throat as he pulled a manila folder from under a stack of printouts, CD-ROMS, and maps. He did not turn to face his employer. “After two early disturbances at nine eleven and nine fourteen this morning, things have been relatively quiet. As usual, operatives York and Mexico have been dispatched to find the causes of these, ah, discrepancies.” Jersey lifted a hand to wipe his forehead, where a line of sweat had begun to form despite the chill in the room.
“What have they reported?”
“There seems to be a problem, sir.” Jersey pulled out a report from a laser printer at his side and handed it to the thin man dressed in a deep blue suit next to him. He did his best to meet Azure’s gaze, but he found himself glancing away toward his monitor instead. “The operatives locked onto the area where the energy was actually used, but we have two faint sets of energy trails leading away from the deserted area. One trail has two carriers, while the other has just one. It’s been so long since we’ve had a power spike like this, we can only theorize what happened.”
Dr. Azure never stopped moving, circling the control room as Jersey spoke, passing the four huge computer towers at the center of the room. He stopped directly in front of Jersey. Azure was not a short man, nor was he especially tall, but his fierce eyes demanded all of Jersey’s attention.
“Theorize for me, Jersey. What happened?”
Jersey stood up and began pacing himself, his long legs taking him the length of the control room in five strides. Away from Azure’s eyes and his shiny, shaved head, Jersey could concentrate and organize his thoughts.
“First possibility: all three are users,” he began, staring down at the cold city below him. “We’d need to find them all. Second possibility: two used on a non-user. We’d want to find the two users. Third possibility: only one is a user, and he used on the other two, then went off by himself. We’d just have to find one. Fourth possibility, and this one bothers me: none are users alone, but when they get together they cause some sort of reaction. This supposedly happened in ‘96, and they’re still trying to put D.C. back together.” Jersey put his hands on his hips and turned towards Azure. “I’m betting on the single rogue user myself. It’s more realistic, since we haven’t had users in this area for over two months.”
“I agree,” Azure said, and Jersey felt himself relax slightly. “Follow the trail of the two. Forget the other.” As abruptly as he had arrived, Dr. Azure turned and slipped back into the darkness of his adjoining office.
Jersey was left alone in the beeping and chittering control room. The computer towers hummed in a row next to him, churning data and constantly searching for users and the power spikes they caused. He gazed out the window at the random chunks of ice floating on the lake, then he went back to his terminal.
“Find the two? That makes no sense,” he mumbled, glancing behind him as he spoke. Still, orders were orders, so he phoned York and Mexico in the operatives’ van and gave them their new instructions. He hung up quickly to avoid their confused replies.
Jersey typed a line of commands into his computer, then paused, looking at his copy of the power spike report. This wasn’t the first time Azure had given him orders he didn’t understand. As this past winter dragged on, even longer than the last, Jersey had found himself disagreeing with many of the things his employer had been doing in the past few years, but he didn’t dare say a word about it. He sighed. You don’t live to be Azure’s age by making mistakes, he thought with another shiver.
* * * * *
Detectives Atticks and Emerson frowned and furrowed their brows in concentration as they bent over their subject. Their hands flew back and forth in front of each other, attaching electrodes and wires and extensions cords to their silent subject. Five minutes later, both men stepped back to admire their work. Not bad, Josh thought.
A very unhappy and very hungover old man sat in front of the detectives. Four electrodes covered his face, while the wires of a clicking polygraph were connected to his fingertips. An extension cord held up the old man’s baggy pants.
Shifting his weight from leg to leg, Tim glanced at Josh. “Ready, partner?”
“Let’s begin,” Josh said, his voice calm. He didn’t want to get caught up in Tim’s enthusiasm.
Tim held a tape recorder in front of his face and hit the record button. “May nineteenth, two thousand. Tests for the possibility and potentiality of supernatural kinetic and/or paranormal ability. Subject is transient male, approximately seventy, white hair, slightly obese, definitely, um, wizardly-looking. Tests will include the Warne series of skills, the Archer battery, and the Zygotsky quiz.” He clunked the recorder down on his desk. “Beginning with the Warne test, followed by the Archer battery.”
The bum, who had been sitting quietly for the past half hour as Tim and Josh set up, struggled to stand from under his spiderweb of wires. “Battery? You’re not gonna batter no one, you little asshole. You grab me outta bed and wire me up like some guinea pig, I oughta…”
The bum stood up and tried to take the electrodes off his face, swearing the entire time. Tim backed off, protecting his delicate equipment. Then the bum glanced behind Tim and abruptly fell silent. He sat back down with a strangely calm and expectant look on his face.
Josh dangled a dollar-fifty bottle of Orange Driver in front of him like a carrot. His eyes were narrow and he was smiling a tight smile. “Okay, Joe, we’re going to run these tests on you,” Josh said. Off to the side, he saw Tim shudder. Tim had been on the receiving end of that tone of voice many times before, he knew. “We aren’t going to hurt you, but we’re going to need your cooperation. When we’re done, you’ll get this bottle and anything else you want. Are you with me, Joe?”
The bum’s lips were quivering as he nodded his head. “How… how did you know my name was Joe?”
Josh leaned over Joe, pulling a worn Social Security card halfway out of his back pocket for Tim to see. “Magic,” he whispered.
The first test was the Warne series of skills, which was used to determine the subject’s ability to identify hidden objects. Tim shuffled a deck of cards and laid five cards face down on the table in front Joe. Josh settled behind a monitor at his desk that showed Joe’s pulse, brainwave, and a third reading labeled ZP, which stood for “zapping power.” Zapping power, according to Tim, showed how much of the brain’s potential was being used in a specific situation, and a high reading could mean the presence of supernatural ability. Strangely enough, their slightly damaged polygraph machine measured ZP perfectly.
Joe’s pulse was fifty beats a minute, his brainwaves were two scribbles above flatline, and his ZP wasn’t reading at all. They were ready to begin.
“Flip over the highest card, Joe,” Tim said.
Joe tapped the middle card, then changed his mind and touched the card to the right of it. Josh read zero ZP the whole time. Tim flipped over the ace of spades.
Josh saw Tim’s mouth twitch excitedly as Tim picked up the rest of the cards and passed them to him without flipping over the remaining four. Josh looked them over: five of diamonds, ten of hearts, joker, and queen of diamonds. The old man did it.
Tim laid out five more cards, his small hands darting over the table. Joe picked the joker this time. Josh’s eyes narrowed into a squint again as he realized the mistake. Tim had left the jokers in the deck. Since the jokers had no value, the results so far were skewed. Josh began to chew his lip.
Tim repeated the test with the rest of the deck after pulling out the other joker. Of these eight tests, Joe picked the highest card twice, which wasn’t significant enough to prove anything. Not once did the ZP even register, although the old man’s brainwaves were starting to move in a widening series of vertical lines.
The Archer battery took a little more time to set up. Tim would hypnotize Joe and try to get him to release the magic locked up inside his worn-out body through a series of key words and phrases. Joe was losing his enthusiasm as Tim tried to walk him down the steps of hypnotism.
“You’re on the second-last stair,” Tim murmured. He spun a tiny prism that caught the light and sent it flickering around the room in greens, blues, and reds.
“Screw you,” Joe mumbled, blinking over and over to throw off Tim’s hypnotic suggestions. He yawned in spite of himself. “Screw you and the horse you rode in on.”
“The last step is in front of you. You step onto it and feel your anger dissolve, and you reeelax.”
“You and you horse…” Joe’s eyelids were drooping.
“And you’re asleep.” Tim set the prism down and looked at Joe’s head rolling slightly on his limp neck. “I ought to give you a post-hypnotic suggestion to improve that attitude of yours, Joe.”
“Get on with it, Tim,” Josh said, his skin suddenly itchy. Watching Tim put someone out really unnerved him, because the kid was so damn good at it. Josh rubbed his mouth and looked at the readouts, searching for some sign of ZP.
“Raise your right hand,” Tim said, confidence returning to his voice.
Josh chewed the end of his pen. He was losing his enthusiasm for the experiments as well. Tim had Joe spouting off in a guttural language that sounded like a cross between Russian and German, and reminded Josh of the Klingons on “Star Trek.” There was a tiny blip on the ZP readout when Joe made a noise like he was clearing his throat, but just like everything else, it wasn’t sufficient enough to record.
Thirty minutes passed, and Tim begrudgingly brought Joe out of his trance. Josh had to smile. Tim looked frustrated and worn out, and his mustache seemed to droop.
“Oh, and one more thing, Joe,” Tim said before the old man woke. “You’ll be on your best behavior, and everything will smell like roses every time you hear your name. Got it?” Tim shot Josh a tired grin. “Three, two, one, wake up.”
“Screw you, you fool.” Joe shook his shaggy head, blinking his eyes quickly. “You couldn’t even hypnotize me. I’m sick of this shit and I’m sick of you!”
In an attempt to shut the old man up, Josh threw the bottle of cheap wine to Joe, who caught it deftly with one hand. “One more test,” Josh said, “Joe.”
Between long sips, Joe gurgled happily, “Sure, sure, anything for my buddies! I’ll do whatever my two good friends need me to do.” His eyebrows furrowed like a fat white caterpillar. “Hey, where’s the flowers? Do you guys smell flowers?”
Tim gave Josh a knowing smirk and set a pink bicycle helmet on Joe’s head. Five small antennae poked up from the protective hat. As Tim was attaching the chinstrap under Joe’s beard, the old man started choking and flailing his arms crazily.
Tim jumped back, covered in cheap orange wine. The coughing stopped, and the old man slumped forward. Tim ran behind Joe and tried to position his hands for the Heimlich maneuver.
“Josh, help me here!” Tim yelled. Just as Tim’s arms circled Joe’s waist, the old man straightened up, then suddenly went limp. Tim looked up from behind Joe, his eyes wide behind his glasses. He backed away from the bum’s unmoving body below him. “Oh man. We killed him, didn’t we?”
Josh checked his monitor and saw the line for Joe’s pulse and the weak scribble of a brainwave. Still no ZP, though.
“He’s still alive, kid. Just an old drunk, that’s all. We’d better get him to a hospital, just to be safe.” Josh paused, biting his lip. “Say, Tim, maybe we could just, you know—”
“No. We’re not going to dump him somewhere. We owe him more than that.” Tim stared at Joe and shrugged. “Plus, I’m not done testing that old fart yet.”
* * * * *
Kelley returned to her quiet apartment building at one in the afternoon. Walking up the three flights to her small apartment, she kept her eyes glued to the pages of the small white book in her hand. Wind whistled in from the partially-open kitchen window when Kelley opened her front door. She set the box with the dragon in it on the kitchen table and pushed the window down with her elbow. Still reading, Kelley flopped down onto her couch.
The book read like a how-to manual for using what the unnamed author called “inner magic.” Kelley re-read the beginning of the first chapter out loud, shivering in the cold apartment. “‘You and every other person on Earth have the ability to use magic. You simply need to use the parts of your brain that are lying dormant, focus all of your emotions, and believe you can do it. Your dreams are part of the first step of understanding and utilizing your inner magic.’
“Inner magic, inner magic,” Kelley muttered. Shifting and stretching her legs, she tried to laugh about the book, but she couldn’t put it down. It made sense, in its own strange way. She began walking around her apartment as she read, from the hall doorway to her kitchen to the TV to the couch.
“‘Belief in yourself is the most important aspect of your inner magic. You must trust yourself. When you remove all self-doubt and focus your emotions, you will easily control your thoughts and focus your will like the lens of a telescopic camera. Your inner magic will flow only if you allow it.’
“Yeah, yeah, enough of the pep talk.” Kelley flipped ahead to chapter six: Pyrokinetics. “‘Your body stores heat like a battery stores energy. You can rid yourself of this heat in a forceful manner through motion, concentration, and your own voice.’
“‘First, build up the kinetic energy in your body through physical activity. The best way to build energy is by running, but you may also wave your arms in circles or kick your feet. In a common person, energy is released in sweat, and it is through sweating that calories are burned. But you can utilize this energy by focusing your will on containing the energy inside you before it is lost, in the same way a lid holds the heat inside a pot of boiling water.’”
Kelley walked around the room faster and faster without realizing it. Passing the box that held her dragon, she took him out and wound him up. He flew in lazy circles around the apartment as she paced. Kelley threw off her coat and continued reading.
“‘The way you keep the heat inside you is by simply telling your body not to sweat. Your brain is a powerful tool. Remember that your body is a slave to your mind. Tell every cell in your body not to release any heat until you want that heat released.’”
Kelley moved the book from one hand to the other, pulling off her heavy flannel shirt. Still walking faster and faster, she untucked her T-shirt with her free hand and fanned herself with the bottom of it.
“‘Build this heat until you feel ready to release it. Then, all you have to do is use a keyword to let loose your inner magic. A keyword can be any word spoken confidently and loudly. A good example of this would be the word Fire—’”
The apartment exploded when white-hot energy rushed out of every pore of Kelley’s body. She disappeared in the blinding flash that made a torch of her couch, melted her TV, and shattered her windows. Fire alarms screamed and sprinklers went off above and below what was left of Kelley’s apartment. Where Kelley Farthing had once stood was now a gaping, smoking hole. The only thing moving in the wreckage of her apartment was a partially-buried green and blue windup dragon, trying desperately to fly.
* * * * *
Tim walked down a glaringly white corridor next to Joe, avoiding Josh’s gaze as they made their way through the emergency room. His face felt like it was still burning. After an hour of tests, the doctors hadn’t been able to find anything wrong with Joe other than a somewhat worn-out liver, though the nurses had been pleasantly surprised at the old man’s upbeat, eager-to-please personality. Tim tried his best not to think of the old man as the bum Josh claimed he was. There had to be something about the old man from the alley that had activated the MEFTS.
The three men were headed for the exit, walking at a fast clip that had both Tim and Joe struggling to keep up, when a strange buzzing filled Tim’s ears. Something moved in his pants pocket.
“Josh, stop,” he said. The buzzing sounds became louder. “There’s something in my pocket.”
“Emerson, that’s a personal problem,” Josh said, pulling on the old man’s arm.
Tim touched his pocket, feeling the broken pieces of the sensor that had exploded against the alley wall above Joe’s bed. He looked up and down the hallway, taking a step here and there.
Before Josh could stop him, Tim moved toward a private room, the pieces in his pocket rattling like mad. Getting warmer, he thought to himself. He pushed open the door. An old, bearded man in a hospital johnny was pulling on a pair of patched-up khaki pants over a very white read end. The old man froze, as if he were trying to make himself invisible. A bag of cans sat at his feet, and a pouch was strapped around his neck.
Tim reached out and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder gently. When he touched the old man, the pieces of the sensor stopped buzzing and dancing. Tim felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up, and his mouth went dry.
“Hey, buddy, it’s okay,” he croaked, turning the old man toward Josh and Joe, who had followed him into the room. Josh gave Tim a blank look with his left eyebrow raised. Tim knew by that look that Josh would play along with his plan, for know. “Do you have some friends here, buddy?”
The old man answered by shrugging and picking up a garbage bag full of cans.
“What’s going on?” a groggy voice asked. A skinny teenager in a fast food uniform sat up in the bed on the other side of the room and looked at the three strangers.
“Hey, kid, is this your grandpa?” Tim asked, stepping between the exit and the old man, who was edging for the door.
“No, he’s not. I’ve never seen him before in my life, until he zapped me this morning and knocked me out when I was supposed to be working.” The kid sighed and rubbed his head. “And my name’s Jimbo. Don’t call me kid.”
“Sorry,” Tim said, sitting on the foot of the bed. Josh pulled a chair next to Jimbo. The old man gave up trying to escape and carried his cans back to the other bed. Joe introduced himself to the silent old man and began showing him the contents of his many pockets. “I’m Tim Emerson, and this is my partner, Joshua Atticks. We’re investigating some paranormal activity that occurred this morning. It seems your friend here may be the cause of it.”
“Paranormal,” Jimbo repeated. “Magic, right? Cool. Just like Mulder on the ‘X-Files,’ right?”
Tim gave Josh a pained look as the kid continued talking.
“Let me tell you what happened.” Jimbo described his morning at Arby’s from mopping to the perfect change to the final words of the old man. “‘The grip of the Hand is weak’,” Jimbo repeated. Tim took notes, looking at the goosebumps on the kid’s arms as he scribbled madly to keep up.
“So why did he attack you?” Josh interrupted. “You were trying to help him, weren’t you?”
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe he panicked. It all happened so fast, you know?”
Tim gave Josh a disapproving frown. “Come on, Josh. Let him finish the story.”
“Fine. Go ahead, Jimbo.”
“Okay, so when I bent over the old guy, he grabbed me and pulled me down. Then I could see this green light in his eyes—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down,” Josh said. “Green eyes?”
“Come on, Josh,” Tim said, leaning close to Jimbo.
Jimbo cracked his bony knuckles. “I don’t know why his eyes were green and glowing. I don’t know why he attacked me.” He sighed. “I just wanted to help him.”
“Perhaps,” a deep voice spoke from behind them, “you should look to the source for the answers to your questions, gentlemen.”
The air was filled with static electricity, almost crackling with energy. Tim, Josh, and Jimbo looked across the room at the old man standing next to Joe, who slid silently to the floor. The old man’s eyes were a bright, phosphorescent green.
Smiling, he took a step toward them. “What would you gentlemen like to know?”
* * * * *
Jersey yanked himself out of his contemplation of the tiles of the ceiling with a sudden movement, knocking over his 33-ounce plastic cup from the convenience store across the street. He’d heard the heavy footsteps that could only belong to operatives Mexico and York. He had been thinking about a file he’d hidden under a pile of paperwork, and what he was going to do about it. Now a lake of Coca-Cola was seeping across his desk toward the file. Jersey jumped to his feet when his two fellow operatives, York and Mexico, threw open the door, carrying two young boys with them.
“Don’t screw up the computer systems with that shit, Pretty Boy,” York called out, his Bronx accent grating on Jersey’s ears. York was the same height as Jersey, but thicker around the middle from his Italian weakness for pasta and sausages. He wore his greasy black hair parted severely to the side, and his mustache drooped around his mouth in a permanent frown. He sneered at Jersey from above the tall skinny white boy below him.
“Hard at work, amigo?” Mexico said under his breath, his mirrored sunglasses reflecting Jersey’s discomfort back at him. Jersey had most of his spill cleaned up as Mexico secure his thick black hair into a ponytail single-handedly, keeping his other hand tight on the shoulder of the chubby black boy below Mexico.
“Are these the kids?” Jersey nodded at boys, who seemed to shrink even further in the clutches of the hulking operatives.
“No. Ellos son su madre.” York snorted. “Am I bilingual or what? Pretty good, huh, May-hee-co?” He pushed the thin boy toward Azure’s office and elbowed Mexico.
“Bien,” Mexico whispered, not smiling. “So what is with these wild goose chases, mi amigo Jersey? You playing with us? Because I think you are playing with us.”
“Yeah,” York shouted from the other side of the control room. “We going to start calling you Doctor Jersey now?”
“I believe one doctor is plenty for this operation, York.” The cool voice came from the open door of Dr. Azure’s office, but Jersey couldn’t remember seeing it open. He thought he could hear something akin to enthusiasm in Azure’s voice.
York rubbed his mustache and pushed the skinny white boy toward Azure, and Mexico brought the chubby black boy over to Azure in four strides. Azure stepped back and beckoned the two boys into his office. His door swung shut before York or Mexico could enter. Jersey felt a pang of sympathetic pain for the two boys. He hoped they talked quickly.
The two other operatives waited for a few minutes in silence outside Azure’s office. Like puppies, Jersey thought. Jersey tapped on the mechanism for the weather system controller, and Mexico stood with his head cocked toward Azure’s door. They smirked at each other when the sound of a muffled, tear-filled voice reached the control room, and they walked off toward the lounge without looking back at Jersey.
Drumming his fingers on his sticky desk, Jersey blew out a long breath. He pulled the report out from under the stack of printouts. He had decided not to show Azure the data from the third “disturbance” from that morning. At his keyboard, he typed in the coordinates from the report and scribbled down the address on his monitor. The boys began screaming in Azure’s office. He cross-referenced the address with a keystroke.
“Arby’s?” he whispered to himself, running a hand through his thick blond hair and playing with the security badge clipped to his shirt. He cast a nervous glance at the door to Azure’s office, where everything had become ominously quiet. He shivered and dialed the phone number his computer had given him.
“Hi,” he said to the voice on the other end. “My name is Detective Arnold Jones, and I’m investigating the incident at your restaurant that occurred at—” he glanced down at the report “—nine twenty-nine this morning. ”
“Yes? What about it?” the other person answered.
“I need to know who was involved and where they were taken, if they were hospitalized, please.”
“Man, you guys sure are slow. That was almost four hours ago! They took Jimbo and some old bum to Cook County about ten o’clock.” The man’s voice lowered. “Something weird happened to them, man, but I don’t know what. I found ‘em both passed out in the restaurant. My boss wouldn’t let me go check up on him, either, so tell Jimbo that Mario says hi, all right?”
“Sure,” Jersey said, clicking off the phone. He stood, wincing at the fresh round of screams from behind Azure’s office door. He was across the room and out the door without realizing what he was doing. Before closing the door behind him, Jersey pulled off his badge and threw it back into the room. It bounced from one computer tower to another and disappeared from sight. Operative Jersey left the control room for the final time.
* * * * *
Kelley opened her eyes and found herself behind the wheel of her ‘84 Escort. Her clothes were charred and smoking, and she could smell burnt hair. In her lap was the small white book she had been reading in her apartment. She had no idea how she had ended up in her car.
Then the explosion came back to her in a rush. It hadn’t been a dream this time. She opened the car door and stepped out, but her legs buckled, dropping her to the pavement. A block away, in front of her apartment, two fire engines blasted water on what used to be her home.
As she usually did in times of trouble, she thought about her parents. Her dad, a tall man with a chubby red face, had always teased her about keeping her nose in books and never going outside to play. The memory of his voice, low and laughing, soothed her. She could hear him justifying the destruction of her apartment, saying how he never liked her living in such a bad neighborhood anyway. Her mom, a thin, quiet woman, would hug her and explain how it all happened this way for a reason. She could feel her mother’s arms squeezing her and whispering in her ear, and her memory kept the tears out of Kelley’s aching eyes.
A clicking and whirring sound filled the air above her, and when Kelley looked up, she saw a blue and green dragon flying clumsily toward her.
Kelley grabbed the dragon and held it to her like a life preserver. “You made it, little guy,” she whispered, running a hand down the dragon’s scales and searching her memory for the dragon’s name. “Alexander. It’s just you and me, Alexander. What do you say we go for a drive?”
Walking unsteadily back to her car, Kelley set the dragon on the passenger seat and started the engine. She turned the car’s heater on high and drove downtown. She wanted to have a word with a certain bookshop owner.
After making a wrong turn and backtracking, she found herself in front of a small brick building with a black awning. Kelley parked and walked to the door, but it wouldn’t open. She had to lean on the brick wall next to her for support as she knocked on the door. After a minute of knocking, nothing happened. Kelley felt her legs give out, and she slid down to the cold cement.
“Where is she, Alexander?” she whispered, holding the dragon up to her face. Alexander looked at her blankly.
Kelley hit the door with her fist again, as hard as she could, and pain shot up her arm. In anger, she pushed at the door with her mind, the way she had pushed at the car in her dream. The door unlocked itself with a click and swung open.
Her mouth slack with surprise, Kelley walked into the darkened shop, Alexander in her hand. She could just barely make out the figure of Ms. Haze behind the counter.
“Come in, Kelley,” she said. “I have been expecting the two of you. I had a feeling you would find your way in.” She took Kelley’s hand and led her behind the curtain into a small room with a couch and two chairs.
Kelley fell onto the couch and set Alexander on her lap. Ms. Haze handed her a cup of hot tea and sat in the chair across from her.
“Have you read any good books lately?” Ms Haze asked.
“Ha.” Kelley’s mouth was parched, and she sipped the spicy tea. “You could say that.” She held the small book out to Ms. Haze. “What do you know about this book? It just blew up my apartment and almost killed me.”
Ms. Haze looked at the book without taking it from Kelley. “Magic, Kelley. The book is all about magic. But before I tell you any more, you must promise me that you will listen with both your heart and your mind open.”
Kelley sat up on the couch and brushed the hair out of her eyes. Ms. Haze was looking at her with an intensity that made her feel uneasy. Kelley nodded.
“Very good,” Ms. Haze said. “Though it may be hard to believe in this day and age, magic is everywhere. It works in tandem with the science of the natural world, and it accounts for all the beautiful surprises life brings us. It is in everything. But most of all, it is in you, Kelley Farthing.”
Kelley twisted her lip, feeling her face grow warm. She didn’t feel full of magic.
“Magic has been with us since the beginning of time. Many men and women, like myself, have spent their entire lives studying magic, and it was only recently that we were able to categorize magic into two groups.”
Kelley’s head was beginning to spin. “How recently?” she asked, just to have something to say.
“I believe it was about eleven hundred years ago, Kelley,” Ms. Haze said. “These two types of magic were called the Hand and the Fist. The Hand was used for research and knowledge. It was used in the construction of Stonehenge across the sea and the statues of what you call Easter Island. Most recently, the Hand helped propel rockets into space. But the green light of the Hand requires great patience from its users. Many users die before they see the results of their magic reach fruition.
“The Fist is in many aspects just as powerful as the Hand, but it is often used for different purposes. The Fist is concerned with dominance, not knowledge. It was used heavily during the Roman Empire, for example. It was also used over the centuries to create newer, more effective weapons of war. While the Hand prefers acting in defense, the Fist prefers striking first, on the offensive, and keeping that dominance with strength. The blue flames of the Fist take fire quickly and have immediate results. But it is also hardest to control.”
“The Hand and the Fist,” Kelley muttered. “Is that all there is to magic? Knowledge and power, offense and defense? It sounds like football or something.”
“Yes, Kelley, it is like a game to many of the users of magic.” Ms. Haze paused. “Or, rather, it was like a game, until we ran out of players. Only a handful of us remain.”
“‘Us?’” Kelley asked, looking sharply at the little woman across from her.
“I was a magic user, Kelley. Although I do not have the energy to practice it any longer, I still keep a lookout for lost souls like yourself.” Ms. Haze leaned closer. “There is one last thing I must tell you, Kelley.”
Kelley sank back down to the couch, sipping her tea nervously.
“There is a last kind of magic, one that has been discovered quite recently. In just the past two decades, actually. While the magic of the Hand and the Fist come from years of study, practice, and physical training, this new magic comes from a special kind of person. I have found that only a person who has experienced the strongest of emotions and endured great strife and hardships can even begin to use this magic.”
Kelley could feel herself fading as Ms. Haze spoke. Her head felt heavy, but she was no longer tired. It was her actual body that was fading, becoming almost weightless from under the blanket Ms. Haze had given her. Kelley fought the urge to panic, focusing instead on the other woman’s soft voice.
“This magic is called Inner Magic. I believe you have this inner magic in you Kelley.” Ms. Haze’s voice became even quieter. “There must have been a great outpouring of emotion inside of you in the past year or so to have created such potential for magic in your mind and heart. Think of your apartment.”
Kelley wanted to close her eyes, but she could feel the tears threaten. She thought of her parents, the two tombstones side by side, a week after the accident. Her body felt like it was floating, as if she were no longer connected to the rest of the world.
“You must use this power, Kelley. It is a wonderful gift that would be terrible to ignore.” Ms. Haze’s voice was a whisper. “You have been chosen, Kelley. You must…”
Kelley let her eyes close. Ms. Haze and the shop and the rest of the world fell away from her, everything but her and the dragon in her hand. There was no pain, no grief, no fear in this white world. A rushing sound filled her head, and her ears popped. When Kelley opened her eyes, she stood outside the doors to a hospital.
* * * * *
“The last step is in front of you. You step down onto it and feel yourself reeelax.” Josh watched as Tim swung a watch in front of the old man’s bushy eyebrows, trying not to see the desperate hope in his partner’s eyes behind his glasses. Within seconds, the old man lay back on Jimbo’s bed under Tim’s power and closed his eyes. “And you’re asleep,” Tim whispered, then turned toward Joe. “See how easy that was, Joe?”
“You got it, buddy,” Joe said with a grin, sniffing the air over and over again.
“Okay,” Tim turned to the other old man in the room, “let’s start with your name.”
“I am Johnathon Archibald Masterson Brightwell, Sorceror of the Green Hand, son of Richard Masterson the Defender,” the hypnotized old man answered. “But you can call me Archie.”
Josh sat on the edge of the bed, his skin crawling again and his lips longing for the comforting weight of a Marlboro. Jimbo inched closer to the two detectives.
“All right, Archie, I’ve got a couple questions for you.” Tim opened his notepad and clicked his ballpoint pen. “First, what did you do to Jimbo this morning? Did you intend to hurt him?”
Archie’s face twisted into a frown. “No. What happened this morning was an example of how the magic of the Hand has been failing since in the past one hundred years.”
When Archie didn’t continue, Josh put his hand on the prone man’s shoulder. “Explain your magic to us, Archie,” he whispered. The imaginative child inside of him was starting to believe the old man’s story. Whenever this happened, Josh forced himself to be doubly cynical to compensate. “What is the Hand, and why is it failing?”
“Of course, of course,” Archie murmured. His eyes remained closed, and his whiskered face was slack and peaceful. “You young men wouldn’t know about this, since you were born such a short time ago. Ever since humanity began putting faith in science and technology instead of the gods and the unknown, magic has become less powerful. It has almost faded from this planet altogether.”
“Hmm,” Tim said, glancing at Josh. “Makes sense, Josh.”
“Maybe,” Josh said after a pause. He turned back to Archie. “So how do you use this magic?”
“I am the last Sorcerer of my kind, the last of the Hand. I have spent all my life working to maintain the balance of the planet and the universe, but the world has been taken over by technology. Nobody needs magic anymore.” A long sigh escaped his lips. “And the magic takes a toll. A terrible, terrible toll.”
“How long have you been a, um, Sorcerer?” Tim asked.
“Since my thirtieth birthday, in the year 1345.”
“Uh-huh,” Josh said slowly. “That would make you, oh, about six hundred and fifty years old, give or take a decade or two. Did you get that, partner?”
Tim shrugged him off. “How are you able to live so long, Archie? It doesn’t seem possible.”
Archie’s eyes opened long enough for him to wink at Josh, who pulled his head back in surprise. “Magic,” Archie whispered.
“Magic sustains me, of course,” he continued, his eyes closed again. Josh could have sworn the old man’s eyes had been glowing. “Magic, along with the forces of nature, hold the universe together. As a result, Sorcerers and other users of magic are able to bypass some of nature’s laws.”
“But at a price, right?” Tim said.
“Yes, it takes its toll. Many magic-users burn out their physical bodies, while others lose their minds from the strain of thwarting nature. In my case, it was a little of both.”
“How so?” Josh asked.
“Since the 1900s my powers became erratic, and eventually I lost the ability to consciously control them altogether. I began to age and lose my memory. It was only in times of great need that my magic would come to me, and I’d often black out after using it. I fear I may be in danger of losing the power of the Hand altogether.”
“So why did you take it out on me?” Jimbo chirped up from behind the detectives.
Archie opened his eyes and sat up in the bed. He gazed at Jimbo with clear eyes filled with sadness. But before he could say anything, he was stopped by a loud knock on the door. After two more sharp raps, the door swung open. A bald man dressed in a royal blue suit walked through the doorway, and the lights seemed to dim the tiniest bit.
“I am Dr. Michael Azure,” the bald man boomed, holding a square, glittering badge in front of him. His other hand pointed at Archie. “By the power of the blue flame of the Fist, I place you all under arrest as accomplices to this man.”
Josh was held motionless by the bald man’s gaze. He could move his eyes enough to see that everyone else in the room was in the same shape as him, except for the old man on the bed who was supposed to hypnotized.
“I was wondering what had happened to you, Michael,” he said with a laugh. He stood up and walked over to Dr. Azure with his hand out. “I see you managed to find yourself a legitimate job at last. How are you doing?”
“Stay back!” Azure shouted, raising his arms. The strange paralysis that had overtaken everyone else in the room dissolved, along with Archie’s laughter. Just as Archie was about to touch him, Azure cried out, “Alionzquo!”
Archie was thrown back against the wall by a glowing blue fist. His white hair flew up around him and his beard smoked. Josh grabbed Jimbo and pushed him under Archie’s bed, while Tim pulled Joe under the opposite bed.
Coughing, Archie smiled at Dr. Azure. “You always did go for the easy way out, Michael,” he said, climbing to his feet. Dr. Azure took a step back, his eyes narrowing.
The two detectives looked across the room at each other, Tim’s eyes full of wild enthusiasm and Josh’s eyes wide with shock. They were experiencing true magic here. They both crouched down and watched the bald man and the white-bearded man face each other.
Azure made a fist and repeated the strange word again. Archie calmly held his hand out to Dr. Azure, palm up, and this time the blue flame was stopped by a glowing green shield of light a foot from Archie’s face.
When the electricity faded away, Archie walked up to Azure, whose bald head was covered in sweat, and crossed his arms in front of him. “Why are you acting this way, Michael? Last century I would have expected this of you, but you are no longer in your mid-hundreds. I expect you to act like an adult now. Let’s find a place to sit down and talk about old times over a bottle of wine. I know of a good year.”
Azure nodded slightly and looked up at Archie. A smile that didn’t touch his eyes crawled onto his lips. He held his hand out to Archie. When Archie grasped it, Azure muttered, “Fiulor Elem.”
Tiny bullets of flame shot into Archie’s chest from Azure’s other hand and knocked him back against the wall again. He slid to the floor and remained there, motionless.
Josh watched in numb disbelief as Azure raised his hands over his head and began speaking in his strange language again. Blue fire crackled and popped over his head, and the air in the room was sucked toward him as the fire in his hands grew. Azure tensed his body as the power raged through him, and his voice was like a roll of thunder over the lightning crackling in his hands.
“Owiyoto Aquiol Inv—”
Tim glanced at the doorway in time to see a tall man with long blond hair streak into the room and tackle Dr. Azure like a defensive end uprooting a quarterback. A rush of wind blew back into the room as Azure’s spell misfired and blew out the windows. Security alarms began screaming while the tall man wrestled with the smaller bald man.
“Josh, let’s get everybody out of here,” Tim yelled, pulling Joe out from under the bed. Josh led Jimbo to the door. Tim tried to circle around the big man wrestling with Dr. Azure to get to the fallen Archie.
“Leave him!” Josh said. “He’s dead, Tim!” Heavy footsteps approached from the hallway.
“No! We can’t just leave him.” Tim dove toward Archie.
Small blue sparks flew out like sweat from Azure’s body as he tried to form a spell while fighting the big man on top of him. Josh reached for the door and was run over by a dark-skinned man who was almost as tall as the big man wrestling with the bald man. A second tall man with a drooping mustache ran into the room, pushing Josh against the wall again.
“Jersey!” the dark-skinned man yelled.
“You goddamn traitor!” the other man cried.
“Oh shit,” Jersey said.
Both men dove onto Jersey and knocked him off of Dr. Azure. Azure crawled away, gasping and shaking his head. Josh looked at Tim across the room trying to revive Archie. Tim looked at Josh in desperation. The three big men wrestling on the floor blocked Tim and Archie from the door leading out of the room. The two detectives shrugged at each other and jumped onto the oversized operatives in an attempt to pull them off their new ally. Jimbo grabbed a bedpan and joined the fray.
Almost forgotten on the other side of the room, Archie opened his eyes. He pulled himself up from the floor and began talking to himself. Green energy began to flow out of him, lighting the room in a surreal color.
On the other side of the room, Dr. Azure rose to his feet and began chanting above the five men and Jimbo wrestling on the floor. Blue flames hungrily spread across the room.
“Tim,” Josh said, looking at the power building around either side of them. The two big men stopped pummeling Jersey and looked up in shock at the two men above them. Josh pulled his partner back out of the fray, ducking Jimbo’s bedpan.
Green light covered Archie like a spotlight as he boomed out words of power. Blue flames lit up Dr. Azure like a bonfire as his voice shook the walls. Wind screamed through the window. Both sorcerers sucked energy into them and channeled it through their bodies. A growing roar filled the room. Josh covered his ears with both arms, waiting for the explosion.
And then white light filled the room with a deafening silence. Everyone froze. “I hope you boys are having fun,” a soft voice whispered, in a slightly scolding voice. “But it’s time to stop this nonsense.”
York and Mexico disappeared with a pop of rushing air, followed by a loud pop as Dr. Azure disappeared. Jimbo and Joe disappeared with two smaller puffs of air. Josh dropped his arms from his head. Covered in white light, a young woman with long brown hair walked across the silent hospital room. She held a miniature dragon in the palm of her hand.
“You and I need to talk, my friend,” the young woman whispered, walking toward Archie. Josh struggled to see more, but with a waving gesture from the woman’s slender arm, everything went blank for a split second. When Josh opened his eyes, his partner Tim and his new ally Jersey were looking at him and one another with wide eyes and slack jaws from the comfort of their downtown office, the MEFTS buzzing madly in the corner.
* * * * *
The next morning, former operative Jersey felt a sense of déjà vu when the pretty brown-haired girl walked into the offices of Atticks and Emerson the next day. He knew he had seen her before, somewhere. His nose was bandaged, and his eyes were almost swollen shut from the beating he had taken the day before. He squinted at her from behind the frayed wires of the MEFTS computer.
“Can I help you?” Tim said with a quick smile, offering Kelley his chair. His glasses were taped together at one corner with duct tape, and his right eye was swollen.
“I think we can help each other, actually,” Kelley said.
“You’re the girl from the hospital,” Josh said after a moment’s silence. He smiled, showing the gaps in his mouth where two teeth had been knocked out. “I thought I recognized your voice. What did you do to everyone?”
“Well,” Kelley began, looking from Tim to Josh and back to Tim again, “there’s only so much I’m able to understand myself. A lot has happened to me in the past day.”
Tim grabbed his tape recorder and said, “Go ahead.”
“It all started with these dreams I’d been having,” Kelley said. As she told her story, Jersey left his work and walked over to listen. He’d accepted Tim and Josh’s job offer that morning when he realized he could never go back to Azure’s offices. He hadn’t told the detectives everything about his former employer, at least not yet, but he’d told them enough to earn their trust. Jersey wasn’t sure he could trust anyone himself, but he needed the work. He was fairly confident that he had gotten the MEFTS up and running again in the corner. A red light on the monitor’s map shone directly over the address to their office.
“And I was able to contain their opposing energies and stop the two men from killing everyone in the hospital,” Kelley finished. “Then I sent them home. That’s all.”
“What?” Josh sputtered. “You sent two magic-users back onto the streets, to fight again and maybe kill someone this time? I don’t get it.”
“I’ve taken measures to keep that from happening,” Kelley said coolly. “I’ve got a good idea that Chicago is going to be relatively safe from magic. For now.”
Tim pulled a chair next to Kelley. “How would you feel if we ran some tests on you, Kelley?”
Josh winked at Jersey, who grinned with a wince. Touching his aching nose, he looked out the office window. As Kelley reluctantly agreed to let Tim hypnotize her, Jersey wondered what his previous employer was doing at that moment. He wondered what kind of grudge a man Dr. Azure’s age held, and how long he held that grudge.
* * * * *
“Try the program again, York,” Dr. Azure said with a small sigh. He walked away from York’s hunting and pecking on the keyboard that connected to the system Jersey had designed. Mexico pounded on the laser printer next to York, trying to get it to work. Azure pulled the door to his office shut behind him.
He rubbed his head, stubbly with unshaven hairs. His chin was also rough with whiskers. For the first time in his life, Dr. Azure felt old.
He fell into his chair and gazed at the computerized map of the world on his wall. In the course of one day, all the blue spots that had been designated as Fist strongholds had disappeared. All of Azure’s hard work had been erased, and the outposts of the Fist had been reduced to the same non-functional conditions of his control center. To top it off, all the snow that he loved so much had melted, and the temperature was in the eighties.
Dr. Azure sat at his desk and tried to remember what had happened to ruin all of his life’s work. Most of the events of the previous day were blank to him. Speaking to himself in the strange language of the blue Fist, he could call to mind only one name: Archie. He clenched his left hand into a fist and carved the name into his desk with his forefinger. Focusing all his energy and knowledge on the name scrawled in front of him, Dr. Azure concentrated until sweat dripped onto the table. But only silence answered.
* * * * *
The sun shone high over the streets of Chicago. An old man wearing a red hunting hat walked down the street with a pouch around his waist and a bag of cans in his hands. His head was up, nodding at the pedestrians and cars passing him, and his gray and white beard flopped on his chest as he strode through Chicago’s streets.
Most of the other walkers ignored the old man, but he didn’t appear to mind. He walked on, determined and confident, until he saw three young men approach a man and woman in bright clothes and clutching maps and a camera. The men pushed the two tourists into an alley. Cries for help could be heard, but only the old man seemed to notice. His eyebrows furrowed. Turning into the alley, the old man hurried down in the darkness.
“Dohol Elem Kazqu,” a voice thundered, and the alley turned green. The dazed tourists ran out of the alley, glancing behind them. Three voices yelled out in surprise and anger from further down the alley. “Oskam,” the deep voice said.
Seconds later, the old man strolled out of the alley, his pouch jingling and his bag a little bit fuller. The glowing in the alley faded slowly as the old man left the three young men behind. Archie the bum walked into sunny downtown Chicago with a wise smile on his face and a green light glowing in his eyes.