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Authors: Edward Irving

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BOOK: The Last American Wizard
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As the three walked up to the space enclosed
by
the equipment-laden folding tables, Steve felt the phone in
his
pocket vibrating. Without looking, he reached into his pocket
and
turned off the buzzer. He didn’t want to be bothered by
some
lame assignment-desk editor right now even if might mean a paying
job.

The vibrating stopped and then abruptly began again, the phone wriggling so violently, Steve thought it might leap out of his shirt. When he felt heat beginning to build against his chest, he jerked the phone out and checked the screen. The shaking and the feeling of heat stopped
instantly.

A picture–a tarot card–filled the screen. It was the Hermit, an old man holding up a lantern as if to light his way. Steve stared at it for a moment and then turned the phone over and looked at the back. It certainly seemed to be his old phone–a cheap and unreliable knockoff. Why was it showing him random pictures?

It vibrated again–even harder, if that was possible. He looked at the screen and saw that the lamp the old man was holding had been replaced by an image of a cell phone. The Hermit appeared to be taking a picture and there was a white cone where the flash would
be.

Steve looked up–the Colonel and Ace were both looking back at him–clearly annoyed at being kept waiting. He almost put the phone back in his pocket, but then he remembered Ace’s strange statement about its
importance.

Feeling ridiculous, he raised the phone up in front of him, pushed the button and the swipe bar to turn it on, and waited to see what would happen. Briefly, the Fool appeared–Steve was certain
it was meant as a comment this time–and then the video camera app appeared and the red dot indicated it was
recording.

At the moment, the picture was a recording of the Colonel’s backside–an image that Steve thought was certainly aesthetic but most likely not immediately relevant. The vibrating began again. Reflexively, his hand jerked and the screen showed the tables. The vibrating
stopped.

Just to see what would happen; Steve pointed the camera at Ace. There was a brief but violent vibration and a burst of the intro to the Supremes’
Stop! In the Name of
Love.

Steve decided that since his phone was clearly no longer just a phone, he probably should acquiesce to its demands until he worked out exactly what it was. The simple fact that it
made
demands was unnerving
enough.

He pointed the camera at the space inside the
tables.

Ace said quietly to the colonel. “Millions of dollars’ worth of high-tech gear and he uses his
phone.”

“Who knows?” Tataka responded. “Maybe he wants to put it up on
Facebook?”

Speaking directly to Steve, she continued in a louder voice. “Which would be a crime punishable by death just in case you’re dumb enough to try it.” She pointed at the unmarked tarmac between the tables. “This is where the aircraft
crashed.”

“Here?”

“Right
here.”

Steve began to turn toward the colonel–the phone buzzed instantly. He pointed it back at the unmarked section of tarmac. “Colonel, I agree with you that most significant jumbo jet crash sites have a lot more–well, pieces of a jumbo jet. Obviously, either you’re wrong about this being the impact point or something happened.
What?”

Tataka glared at him and bit off each word. “I. Am.
Not. Wrong.”

After a moment of additional glare just to make sure that the fact of her infallibility had sunk in, the colonel leaned over one of the portable tables and pointed into the center. “OK, look at that cigarette butt–the Marlboro Light. Got
it?”

Steve and Ace both nodded. “OK, now look up about two inches. Do you see...? Damn it! It makes no sense, but I can’t describe it any other way. Do you see a hole in the
air?”

Steve stared where she was pointing, but the air just looked like...air. Then he glanced at the screen on his phone. Pointed at the same place, it showed a blood-red gash about six inches long, out of which a viscous purplish sludge was steadily oozing. The sludge fell into what was already a spreading pool of the stuff and
it seemed to be evaporating–wisps of reddish-purple mist were rising into the
air.

He panned the phone over to the colonel’s feet. “Ma’am. I know you don’t know what this is yet, but I think that standing in it up to your ankles is probably not a great
idea.”

“What the hell do you
mean?”

“I mean that this...hole in the air...is leaking something. In my professional opinion, it looks like a raspberry Slurpee.” Steve panned around the area with the phone again. “And I’d say that everyone within about 35 feet is standing in a purple puddle.”

The colonel immediately headed for the door at a fast walk, barking orders as she went. She ordered everyone to clear the area, and called for the standard tents, showers, and baby pools to be set up outside so that they could run everyone through a full decontamination. In seconds, the space was empty except for Steve and
Ace.

“What are you trying to pull?” Ace said as she looked over Steve’s shoulder. “There’s nothing on that phone except your dumbass Lebanese screen
saver.”

Steve stared at the phone–which was still showing the growing pool of red sludge. He glanced at Ace. “You really can’t see
it?”

She shook her
head.

“Try those fancy sunglasses,” he
suggested.

She put the glasses on and scanned the area. “Nope. I see a lot of empty parking spaces. No red ooze. No
mist.”

“Here,” he said. “Let me try those.” He could see the red gash with the glasses on and off. He handed them back. “Well, you said these would stop working. You were
right.”

“I’ll keep them, if you don’t mind.” Ace grabbed them back and hung them on her collar. “It’s part of the
package.”

He pointed the phone at his feet and saw that his shoes and socks were already soaked and a purple stain was creeping up his pants cuffs. Then he swept the camera up and down the SEAL. “Hey, that’s weird. You don’t have a drop on you.” He kicked at the sludge around his feet and splashed it towards her. She jumped back, with a furious glare that Steve missed because he was still staring at the tiny screen. “Well, well. Look at that. The stuff split and went in two directions before it touched you. It looked like positive iron filings avoiding a positive magnetic pole. I think it just doesn’t like you.”

“It’s only fair. I don’t like it. Whatever it is.” Ace looked around as though she would have glared if she could see anything to glare at. “And if it’s a smart sludge, it should be seriously afraid, because if any of it does touch
me…”

“Stop complaining.” Steve agreed. “I’ve already got it all over my shoes and soaking into my khakis. The odd thing is that I can’t feel it. My feet aren’t wet
or…”

He almost dropped the phone as
Lawyers, Guns, and Money
announced an incoming call. He looked at the screen. The camera view was gone and the ID for the incoming call was the tarot card of the Hermit. At the bottom, instead of “The Hermit,” it said, “Barnaby.”

Steve had no doubt that he’d forgotten things in all the bizarre events of the morning–hell, he forgot a lot of things on far less stressful days–but he would have bet a year’s salary that there was no one in his contact list named
“Barnaby.”

He held the phone out to Ace and said, “It’s for
you.”

She snapped a palm up in a definite negative. “Sir, I’m pleased to inform you that Barnaby is your problem from now
on.”

CHAPTER
SEVEN

 

 

Steve gave Ace his best withering glare. Ace responded with a soft but extremely dismissive snort. Steve decided to ignore it in the interests of dignity and put the phone to his
ear.

“This is Steven
Rowan.”

There was the same series of soft clicks and ambient noise level changes as this morning followed by what certainly seemed
to Steve to be the same voice–or at least the voice whoever it was had finally settled on after it had gone through all its earlier variations.

“Mr.
Rowan?”

“Is your name really
‘Barnaby’?”

The voice sounded a bit huffy. “I can’t see how that’s really relevant, but yes. Or at least it was, a long time
ago.”

“Why
‘Barnaby’?”

“Well, in the 1950s, there was a comic strip featuring a little boy named Barnaby, who had a friend–a rather small man with wings and a cigar who was a fairy godfather. His friend–Mr. O’Malley was his name, I believe–would show up with a giant named Atlas, who was as short as he
was.”

“A short
giant?”

“A mental giant. That was the joke. Now can we get back to business?”

Steve couldn’t help it. “Absolutely.
Barnaby.”

There was a short silence. Then, “Could you ask Master Chief Morningstar if she is carrying a
weapon?”

Steve asked. “Are you carrying a weapon?” and got a look. He said to the phone. “Oh, definitely. She was just shooting at someone a few minutes
ago.”

“I was shooting at something, not someone.” Ace corrected as she pulled out her SIG Sauer
P228.

‘Whatever,” the voice on the phone said. “Now, Mr. Rowan, please ask Ms. Morningstar to shoot you. Preferably in the chest or groin
area.”

Steve grimaced involuntarily and stared down at the phone, which was now covering his crotch. Turning sideways to the blonde woman, Steve carefully examined the phone, shook it vigorously, and checked the volume. He would have done more, but he honestly couldn’t think of any other diagnostic
procedure.

Frustrated, he said, “Barnaby. Have I done something to
offend you? Do I owe you money? Wait! Was that your wife last year down at that ‘clothing optional’ club in the
Bahamas?”

“No.
Why?”

Steve stared up at the fake ceiling of the fake building trying
to think of other regrettable events in his past. The problem was that there were so
many.

After a short period of intense thought, he said, “Oh, I was just trying to figure out why you would want to kill
me.”

“I don’t want to kill
you.”

Steve looked over at Ace and pointed at the pistol. “Do you miss very often with
that?”

She pointed the pistol at his groin. “About as often as you miss with
that.”

Steve spoke into the phone again. “Listen,
Barnaby
or
whoever the hell you are, I’m as willing to give my up life
for
the advancement of science as any other man–which means not
at
all. Anyway, I don’t think the Master Chief here is ready to shoot
me.”

Ace’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. Then she began to inspect her weapon–pulling out the clip to check the load, replacing it, and racking the
slide.

Steve held up his hand. “OK, maybe she’s ready, but I am not willing to be
shot.”

The voice on the phone said. “Oh. I see the problem. Well,
just tell her to shoot to wound–not
kill.”

Steve put his hand over the microphone at the bottom of the phone and said. “Good Lord, this guy is crazy. Now he’s saying just shoot to wound as
if–”

In a movement almost too fast to see, Ace raised the pistol, aimed at Steve’s upper arm, and pulled the
trigger.

Steve had always heard people say that “time slowed” in a crisis situation–hell, he’d even written it into a story once or twice– but he’d thought it was just a cheap literary device that bad novelists used to get their hero out of a desperate situation. It just didn’t happen in real
life.

Time
slowed.

Steve could see Ace’s trigger finger begin to relax. The slide on her pistol was moving backward and her hand jerked up from the recoil. For a moment–no, that would be wrong–for some tiny fraction of a second, he thought he could see the bullet come spinning out of the muzzle. Maybe he would experience his own Matrix-style “bullet-time,” except he couldn’t bend backwards like Keanu Reeves so it would only result in some extra moments to imagine how much the bullet would hurt before it actually
hurt.

No bullet came out. Instead, the muzzle of the automatic seemed to warp back and forth like a slow-motion video of a rubber band snapping. Eventually, it settled down into a vertical
slot from which a jagged bolt of blue lightning began to emerge. It was surprising but, frankly, Steve couldn’t see how being artistically zapped was much of an improvement over just being shot.

About a half inch of the bolt had emerged from the gun before Steve admitted that time had, against all reason, slowed. He tried to move–throw himself out of the path of the lightning–but his muscles didn’t react. Apparently, only his mind was moving at super-speed–his body was even slower than
usual.

“I guess that means I have to do something with just my mind,” he
thought.

He tried
Demanding
that the lightning stop. Then, in order, he attempted
Praying
to several gods (including the image of Jesus that had appeared on his toast in 1995),
Offering
his soul to any devil who would make a reasonable bargain for it, and
Performing
what might be considered a Vulcan mind meld if he were a Vulcan and the lightning had a
mind.

None of these attempts had any effect. He considered going on to devils with completely unreasonable bargains, barring only the ones who wanted to eat him
immediately.

He noticed that the blue streak was making a low, growling sound. He reasoned that what he was hearing was a slowed version of the crackling, Taser-like
zzzzap
of the jagged electrical pulse
that now stretched halfway between him and
Ace.

Wait.

What had Ace said this morning when they’d fallen to their deaths? Well, technically, they hadn’t fallen, she’d jumped, and they weren’t actually dead
but...

He forced his mind back to the immediate emergency.

Something about a death loop and some sort of
magic.

Blood
magic.

What could he move quickly enough to draw blood before he was
fricasseed?

He tried to bite a lip and could feel his teeth begin to move. Obviously, the response time from brain to jaws was significantly faster than from brain to legs. Interesting to know but there was still no way they were going to draw blood in time.

The
Fool.

That card had done something to stop their fall. Ace had said he was the Fool. What was on the card? Weird-looking kid. Stepping off the cliff. Little dog. A stick with a bag on the end carried over one shoulder. In the other hand, a
flower.

A flower? On the card, the kid had been holding it straight up in his palm. Almost like a
shield.

He concentrated furiously, imagining what it would be like to have a flower shield on his palm. A thing of nature. It would be in his left palm–right in the path of the lightning. Standing upright as if it had always been there. As if it would always be
there.

He
Insisted
that it would always be
there.

Again, there was a feeling of ripping. Pain ran up his left arm and exploded in his head. A red glow appeared and grew in his left palm. It stretched upward. Like a plant to the sun. Red like a
rose.

It looked weak. Thin and fragile as a soap
bubble.

He begged it to be stronger–struggling to push whatever
power was in him into the
glow.

The bolt was beginning to cross over his left hand–only inches from his arm. There was no more
time.

He ordered the flower to grow–the shield to hold
fast.

He
Reached
for Power and
Commanded
it to his will. Somehow, he was certain that all the words were not only capitalized but in bold as
well.

There was a brilliant purple flash. His eyes were blinded by a jagged orange
afterimage.

Pain flashed in his mouth. “Damn!” he swore. “I bit my
lip.”

He blinked the afterimages from his eyes. Ace was staring at the barrel of her gun–still a narrow slot instead of a circle. She looked up. “What the hell did you do? You screwed up my favorite weapon!”

Steve looked at his left arm. Twisted it around to examine the outside. No burns or bullet holes. “Are you sure it’s ruined?” He mumbled around the blood seeping from his lip. “Wouldn’t it work just as well if it fired lightning
bolts?”

“That’s not the point. It’s mine; I want it to be a SIG Sauer P228 and not...this.” She glowered at him and aimed carefully at a spot on the floor where a ricochet wouldn’t hit anyone outside.
Blue lightning ripped through the air and blasted a six-inch-deep hole in the asphalt. She looked relieved. “Well, it’s definitely not regulation, but I can work with
it.”

She relaxed into a shooting stance and took aim at Steve again. “Let’s try it
again.”

There was a short but embarrassing shriek. Steve, after shrieking, had dived to the asphalt and was now lying prone with his arms over his head. “How about we don’t try it
again?”

He jammed the cell phone back to his ear. “Mr. Barnaby, sir. Don’t you think that quite enough has been proven in the area of firearms? I’m not at all sure there’s much more to
explore.”

Without waiting for an answer, Steve popped his head up and said to Ace in a single breath. “Barnaby says that the tests are conclusive, no more experiments are necessary and, in fact, could be counterproductive. He feels that you should not fire at me again, and I, while reluctant to stand in the way of technical progress, must
agree.”

It would have sounded better if he hadn’t finished by trying to bury his head into the parking lot and whimpering over and over. “Please, please don’t shoot
me.”

BOOK: The Last American Wizard
6.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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