Free Fiction: Nexus Bar & Grill, World of Benjamin Baxter

Hello. After last month’s short, stark story (Soul Survivor), I want to get back to a world that I thoroughly enjoy playing in and a length with with I’m more comfortable.

While Benjamin Baxter is in this ‘Starwise’ novelette, the tale is more about the building and diviner from the Census Agency. This should be a treat for the readers who who requested to see more of the world from other points of view.

[ Teaser: I’m also working on a ‘Might-Lands’ project called Mr. Sam. ]


 
Nexus Bar & Grill,
World of Benjamin Baxter
Ezekiel James Boston

Ally

Ally Dazs rolled the heavy silk sleeves of her Census Agency robe back and crossed her arms. She’d never cared for Las Vegas. The casters here were shifty. Not only that, their dealings and allegiances, were tenuous at best. If left up to her, all the branches of her Agency would converge on the city in an unprecedented audit.

She smiled at the thought of the slimiest of the city’s creeps crumpling under the weight of all their dark dealings being brought out into the light for the starwise of the world to see. She smirked at the thought of the order that would come from the momentary—in the grand scheme of things—chaos.

But that wasn’t why she was here.

The Census Agency had received notice that ownership of the Nexus Bar & Grill had changed hands, and it was her job to figure out who now owned one of the most powerful buildings in the city.

Taking a moment for herself, Ally reveled in the new spring sunshine peaking over Sunrise Mountain and warming her skin. Her smile blossomed wider. The local chapter of her alma mater had a guest house on the mountain. Perhaps, once done here, she’d stop by to visit with the Sisterhood and use their guest dorms to recover from the spell.

Bringing her focus inward, Ally ignored the hum and exhaust from the few mundane cars driving Las Vegas Boulevard, and began to gather her focus to cast Temporas Illum Orchalance. While not the strongest post-cognitive divination spell she knew, it was the most thorough.

Had she been at a lesser structure, she’d be worried about casting even the simplest spell with so many mundanes within easy breach distance, but The Nexus Bar & Grill was one of the city’s oldest nodes. Not only that, but there had once been a dueling platform out back; so the Mystique had been laid so thick here that she could almost feel it. The only way a mundane would be able to see or find this place is if they were invited, and—besides being highly illegal—only a true idiot would ever do that.

If in operation, the Nexus Bar & Grill wouldn’t be open for another couple hours and, since no one in this city could really be trusted to give her the answer as to who owned the place; it was up to her, and her divination, to ferret it out.

While Temporas Illum Orchalance would reveal everything that transpired during the transfer of ownership, the information would be jumbled and a little loose at first; but she’d get it woven together. Making sense of the independent timelines as they came together was something few could do well, and Ally stood amongst the top in her field.

Transfer of ownership. What a nice and innocuous phrase.

The higher ups at the Agency never dug into the high rates of Paramountcy—the worst kind of legalized theft—that took place in Las Vegas every decade. If North America was on the scale, Las Vegas would rank up there with Cairo, Hong Kong, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. If anyone really studied the numbers, they’d see that Las Vegas was completely rotten. But, of course, that kind of thing never happened in North America.

Perhaps she’d find a thread, like she had in Montreal, that she could use to make the Agency take notice.

Hoping that would be the case, Ally pushed all thoughts out of her mind so that she could recite the fifteen-minute incantation. She knew the spell well. With so much desire for the information, Ally made sure to take her time and not rush.

She’d know. She just needed to… take… her… time.

The wonderful scen of daisies pillowed the area as her eyes rolled back and the threads of all involved came to her. “Five beings,” she whispered. The spell began to weave them together and two slipped out. She nodded. “Three partook.” Mist fell from the braid of mindsets as it thickened into a circlet that came to rest on Ally’s brow.

She inhaled, and breathed, “Show me.”

 
* * *

The Boy

“Like stepping into a cross-section of time, Benjamin Baxter pushed through Nexus Bar & Grill’s squeaky, rough, old-fashioned saloon doors. Imagining, as he usually had, that he was in a Western, he squinted and growled through gritted teeth. “I’m lookin’ for the man who shot my pa’”

No one answered. Could’ve he beaten all his classmates here?

His favorite part of the diner—the magical ice cream scoopers—floated up from the ice cream bar. Normally at the ready, they hovered in the air to entice any who came in and only went dormant after an hour of non-use. He must’ve been the first one.

As usual, he rubbed the tall, narrow, jade saber-tooth tiger tiki totem at the end of the entryway. He shuffled across the retro, pink-and-red checkered 1980’s tile to toss his school pack into the deep, 1950’s-era booth closest to the 21 and older sign near the rear wall.

His pack deep into the corner he—as though caught by the nose—rose up onto his toes to take in the scent of the eternally-grilling onions. His stomach growled.

Kevin, LeRoy, and Neil would give him crap for ordering without them… But he was ready to eat.

Shrugging off the social pressure, he bounced into the booth. “Should’ve gotten here faster, guys.” He nodded. That’s what he’d say to them between bites. They’d probably make a play for his golden steak-cuts fries, and he wouldn’t stop them. While delicious, if he ate all of the golden goodies, they’d be nothing but unwanted squatters where ice cream, pie, or cake should go.

Held loosely against the wall by the table’s miniature jukebox, Ben pulled one of the plastic-enclosed menus. Only looking to make sure that he had the right side of the menu, he poked Harkam’s Signature Double-Double Bacon Cheeseburger. He had no idea who Harkam was, but the guy’s burger was absolutely stellar.

Sizzling sounds came from the kitchen.

Set to count down from ten minutes, a floating, golden stopwatch appeared before him where the plate would materialize.

Licking his lips, he spun the stop watch and flipped the menu over for the true decision. “What to have for dessert?”

The saloon doors squeaked open.

Though the only one in there, Ben raised his hand to signal his friends to their favorite booth, but they weren’t there.

A man in a black suit was looking at his hands as he stepped in. The air pulsed from his head in tight, translucent ripples.

Ben had seen the effect before. The ripples meant that the Mystique was doing its job on concealing the starwise world from the mundane who, somehow, had entered one of the most heavily obscured areas in the whole city.

“Hey,” Ben yelled, keeping his eyes on the man, in case he rushed back out. “There’s a mundane in here.”

To the far left of Ben’s peripherals, a flash of green popped over the kitchen counters.

Far more anxious to be the first to verify that there were actual people who worked in the Nexus Bar & Grill, than to point out some random mundane dude who happened to stumble into the place, Ben turned.

Sure enough, someone was there.

But the high, green pointed ears that protruded above a little green bald head indicated that the cook—maybe the dish washer—was a goblin. Whatever the guy’s title, he peeked over the kitchen counter at the mundane, who was standing short of the tiki.

While Ben hadn’t seen the goblin in full, he saw enough to claim the bounty. But if he did so, he would expose the fact that a goblin was working within city limits. He didn’t know what that would mean for the owners, but he knew nothing good would probably befall the goblin if he were to—by default—report it while being the first to claim Nexus’s no visible workers bounty.

More than the bounty; the status… Like a lot of hard decisions he’d had to make as of late, Ben wrestled the with pros and cons.

The Mundane

“Alright, Wes.” Wes Silva spoke to himself as he stamped and dragged his feet across the dust-covered mat outside the saloon-style doors. Dirt came away in voluminous puffs, revealing faded pink rubber letters; Nexus Bar & Grill. He answered his early self-talk of how badly to do you really need the money? “This is how badly.”

He waited for the dust to settle on his black Johnston Murphy dress shoes to obscure the fact that he hadn’t had a fresh shine in weeks. Wes stepped back to look through the large windows at the tacky interior. No one was ever in there. He stepped back up to the mat.

Wes placed his palms on the least-worn areas on the old, sun-bleached, wooden doors and carefully pushed them open. They parted with a long, annoyingly loud squeeeaaak. While the noise grated, he bit his lip in concentration until the doors were wide enough for him to enter without them banging into him.

He hopped through onto the waxed tile floor and checked his palms. “Ha!” For the first time since he had started coming here over the last six months, they were splinter-free.

Grinning at his un-punctured flesh, he called, “Hello?”

Like always, no one answered and no one was here. And, also, like always, the hairs on his neck registered that someone, somewhere, was watching him. Maybe it was the building itself. While Wes couldn’t put his instincts into words, there was always something off about the bar & grill, beyond just the horrible hodgepodge of outdated furniture.

In case he was right, and the place was sentient and could read his mind; he uttered a soft apology. “Sorry.”

The scent of grilled onions fill the air and began to weigh on his tongue as sizzling sounds came from the kitchen. He looked to yell at the cook, again, about holding off on the onions because of his allergies. But, as always—as if magic made the onions start grilling just because he entered—the scent wafted from the kitchen.

It was light for now. Not too bad. But if Abraham didn’t get his goofy ass out here, Wes would have to step out and wait for the freak to rush him through to his office.

Music came from behind him.

He spun.

One of the miniature jukeboxes that sat on the tables had powered on all by itself. That kind of shit was always happening here. Part lounge music and part pop chart-topping hit, Magic is Real by Jack Bigelow bopped from the jukebox, injecting a bit of fun into the atmosphere.

At least it would have if Wes weren’t already weirded out by the jukebox starting on its own in the first place. Then to play Magic is Real? Too trippy.

He backed away from the table and bumped into a makeshift wooden stool.

Wes toppled.

As though aimed, the stool followed him; a rusty nail heading right toward his eye.

He flailed, batted it, and yelped.

The damnable thing clattered across the floor back toward the stupid tiki.

“Fuck!” Wes slid his back against the wooden counter and examined the pain on his palm. Three slivers where shoved in. Blood welled from the deepest. He wanted to lick the wound, but didn’t to keep the slivers from swelling.

Muttering. “Every Goddamned time.” He was able to get the biggest one out, but the two smaller ones would need tweezers.

Composure lost and civility forgotten, Wes yelled for the man he’d come to borrow money from. “Abraham! Are you in here?”

The Man

“Boss.” Squek’s voice came from his lava lamp. “Wes is here.”

The mundane’s name alone was enough to make Abraham Lasko pause his sigh of relief from the knot in his shoulder finally being worked free by Hanna. He waved his hand at the door to his private box, and the grill obeyed his will and opened the door.

Across the lounge, in the restaurant section, by the tiki, Wes Silva—sole owner of the failing Silva Saloons—grinned as he looked at his hands. As much as Abraham loathed dealing with mundanes, Wes’s three saloons stood on intersecting leylines in the city. Someone in Wes’s family had been a pretty crafty mage, but the man down there begging for a lifeline—Abraham exhaled his disgust—was utterly clueless.

Minding the mundane, Abraham rolled his head to the other side so his voice could better travel back to the lava lamp. His breath hitched, and he sighed.

Hanna had started working his other shoulder.

Abraham spoke to the lamp. “Has, he given tribute?”

Squek answered. “No, Boss.”

Abraham rolled his eyes at having to give the instructions each and every time. “Make. Him.”

“Will do, Boss.”

Movement in the restaurant caught his eye. A real customer—a caster—had slipped in.

“Poop.” Abraham dislodged himself from the oiled, masterful hands to spring to his feet. He pointed to the jukebox on the table where the caster, a brown-haired boy, had raised up out of his booth to catch a glimpse of Squek.

The jukebox lit. Jack Bigelow’s Magic is Real also struck up in the lounge.

Wes and the boy both turned to look at it.

Not concerned about the mundane, Abraham closed his right hand. He could feel the boy’s complete attention in his full control.

Wes fell from sight and cussed.

Abrahams’s hand began to shake.

The boy was shirking him off.

“Your will is mine to control.” Clenching his right hand tight, Abraham gripped it with his left and focused on governing the boy. Manipulating the boy.

If the boy saw the goblin, Abraham would have to pay the hundred ounces of gold reward that he’d put in place decades ago to revitalize the joint when he had found the lava lamp-themed nexus node and assumed control of the Nexus Bar & Grill. Worse, the Magistrate would levy fines against him and then toss on sanctions just to be spiteful. But worst of all, would be the bad PR.

His hands popped open. “What?”

The boy’s head turned back toward the kitchen.

“It’s done, Boss. He’s blooded.”

Abraham pinched the air to control Wes. “Well done, Squek.” He wiped his brow and was confounded at the amount of sweat on his hand. His gaze shifted to the youth in the booth.

He wiped his hand on his towel. “Also, find out who the boy is.”

“Will do, Boss.”

Hanna had closed on him.

Abraham waved her off. Business first. Massage later.

He went to his closet and thumbed through his various business robes, quickly settling on the burnt goldenrod one with the pointed high-collars. Whipping it on, he made sure the prongs were straight up before adding a pearl to each tip to give them a slight downward pull.

His attention went back to the kid. A young person with that kind of potential was to be brought under his wing. Or—if need be—crushed under his heel.

Ready to impress, Abraham had the robe float him to the doorjamb as he focused on the kitchen door.

The robe set him down at the threshold.

Abraham stepped over it and was transported to the swinging kitchen door. It opened for him and, pinching the air to hold Wes idle, he stepped out and had the swinging door stop.

Though he wanted to focus on the mundane, his gaze drifted over to the boy. There was an absolutely fascinating wild element about him that didn’t exist often in today’s youth. Also, the Nexus relayed just how much raw potential lay within the teen that, currently, was well beyond his reach.

The boy would be the perfect apprentice.

Ben, The Boy

While Ben planned on calling the goblin out, the jukebox coming on by itself was unusual.

He wanted to check the parking lot to see if his friends were pranking from out there, but he couldn’t look away. For some reason, this particular item held his attention like nothing ever had. Like few things ever could.

Scampering sounds came from the kitchen.

Ben tried to turn, but again, the jukebox kept hold of him. It hadn’t ever before, and it didn’t make sense. Unless. Unless someone had cast a spell on him. Ben set his will, and yanked.

The resistance gave.

Ben’s hand dropped into his pack and he fished out his Anvilsmith tablet. If it was a friend, he’d chuckle off reacting like he’d been attacked, but he’d been through too much lately to think what had happened was anything else.

The mundane fell, flailed, and cursed. Not a threat.

From muscle memory, Ben’s fingers worked the glass faceplate to wake and unlock the tablet.

Awake, it thrummed in his hand.

Ben dropped his thumb and tapped the bottom left corner where Achilles sat. To keep up appearance of magic having to be forced into his being—like it did with all other Technocasters—he shook and worked his jaw as the magic slid smoothly into his center and dispersed; pulsing power through his being.

The fresh-cut-pineapple scent that accompanied his physical prowess spell overpowered the smell of grilled onions as his muscles twitched and begged to be put into action.

The scampering went back into the kitchen.

Hand hovering over his combat spells, Ben turned his head.

The goblin had high-tailed it into the kitchen. The wide-open door swung back and flopped through center to be all the way open, for anyone coming out. Then flopped back all the way the other direction for anyone going in.

Slumped against the oaken bar, the mundane studied his hand, then yelled, “Abraham! Are you in here?”

“Humble sorry, good patron.” In the kitchen, a spindly green arm waved a spatula with a white cloth napkin attached.

The door continued its wide flopping. In. Out.

Ben kept his awareness broad. “I’m calling bull crap.” Danger played on the air, and his gut registered the apology from the kitchen as the kind that follows a failed attempt. And something larger was going on.

“Truly, good patron.” The white flag spatula rose a bit higher and the waving became more pronounced as the goblin stepped out where it could be seen. A dirty white apron with The Nexus Bar and Grill logo lay over long brown sleeves, jeans, and small, dingy tennis shoes. “The mundane was going to lay eyes on me, and we both know we can’t have that.”

The pineapple smell from Ben’s spell began to mix with his saliva. Unable to keep still, his legs began to shake and he bounced in place.

Ready for the real threat, Ben scanned. The parking lot was empty, and only the goblin and the mundane were inside.

The goblin rested the spatula on his shoulder. “You’re not surprised to see one of my kind?”

“I’ve seen goblins before.” Ben didn’t want to dismiss the little guy, but the attack didn’t feel like it had come from him. “Just not within city limits.” But it must have. He turned in the booth to face the goblin, and let the words stand on their own. Forget the bounty, using spells on underage casters was a big fat violation and he left the threat of calling the Primaries unspoken.

Skepticism turned the goblins’ features. “Like Hell you’ve seen one of my kind.”

“I have.” Ben assured him, leveling his gaze. He tried to loosen his shoulders, but his spell kept them tight and ready to spring. “At Meadow’s Towing.”

“Bullshit. You’d be a blood-spot.” The goblin let the spatula drop to the floor with a clatter. He crossed his arms. “Your kind cant’ go there.”

“Kinda like your kind can’t be within city limits.” Wound for action, Ben tried to sigh, to ease the internal tension. His spell didn’t let it work. He had programmed it well.

Eyes lowered, the goblin stroked his long ears.

Ben smirked at its confusion and, in that moment, he knew he goblin hadn’t attacked him. The mundane had gone completely idle. Whoever was doing that was probably the person who had put the jukebox whammy on him, and the one he should report to the Primaries.

“Oh yeah?” The goblin put his fists on his hips like a child giving a dare. “What’s your name then, tough guy?”

Ben knew what he was supposed to do. Among golbinoids, introductions were a show of force; meant to intimidate. Having been promptly laughed at when he tried their way, Ben had sworn not to feel that particular type of foolish again. While he ran with them, that aspect of their way wasn’t his.

Deadpan, Ben said what his goblins called him, “Benja.”

The cook’s ears rose a bit, but his face remained unchanged.

That was something Ben hadn’t seen before. He had grown accustomed to his name granting instant recognition with local goblinoids. Apparently, this city-goblin hadn’t heard of him. Ben tried to dismiss the un-acknowledgment with a shrug, but his magic wouldn’t let him relax even that much.

He settled for a slight twist of the neck. “Might want to call a cousin. I hate to toot my own horn, but I’m kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, I know who you are.” Voice small and quivering, Squek’s lips barely moved. In an odd, delayed reaction, the green eyelids went wide to their full range. “My name is Squek Yum-Fire, and it’s truly an honor to be meeting you.” His small fist thumped against his narrow ribcage. “Benja.”

Wes, The Mundane

Finally, one hand raised to shoulder height, the six-four Abraham came from his office in a bed-robe that would’ve made Liberace jealous. No matter the color, Men shouldn’t wear clothes that sparkle.

“With all the perfectly fine, tacky-ass chairs that you have in here—” Wes grunted as he used the light green, pillow-topped, vinyl stool next to him to get to his feet. He frowned down the line of chairs that looked like each had been picked from different bars from different decades.

Wes then eyed the sucker that almost blinded him and wished for an axe. “Why do you keep that piece of shit?”

Voice thin as usual, Abraham drolled in his faggy manner. “It, has its uses.”

“I presume the tweezers are still in your office?” Wes checked his hand. There was more blood than normal for his mishaps at the Nexus.

“Yes.” Abraham nodded absently. “As, is Hanna…”

Wes shook his head against getting a massage, and then unconsciously started to nod as he pictured the hot Swede. Puffing on that lava-lamp-theme hookah that Abraham had, he could chill for an hour or so and let her use that coconut oil to rub away the stress of the day. Man, that oil always took him back to the glory of his honeymoon in Hawaii. The peak of his marriage. The happiest he had been.

Thinking back on his honeymoon, Wes reveled in the memory for a while. Then his ex-wife’s face flashed, so young and gorgeous at the time, came into his memory one too many times; reminding him of the biggest mistake he’d ever made—admitting to have cheated on her.

He knew he should’ve been ashamed of the deed, but most couples they knew had a Hollywood Pass List. And when he slipped up into the greatest opportunity of his life—to bed the gorgeous Angelina Anderson—he wasn’t going to let it pass. Since he and Hellen didn’t have the list, he shouldn’t have, but he did. Still, if he hadn’t tried to come clean…

He grinned at his accidental pun.

Shit. What was he doing? It was like he couldn’t focus on the moment.

Wes shook his head to get all three women out of his mind.

While he still had a lot of time in the business day to get the money to the bank, he’d already waited until the last day to have come here for a loan. If he didn’t stop daydreaming, he’d end up pushing it to the last hour. And—if the Swede got her hands on him—to the very last minute.

While he’d been idle, Abraham had waited.

The bald, robe-wearing freak was looking at an empty booth and smiling when there was obviously nothing there to amuse anyone.

What a weirdo. With hours left in the day, Wes decided to not be anxious about getting a loan. Though desperate, he didn’t want to seem like it.

Wes adopted his own bemused smile as he looked outside and focused on the tourists that formed a haphazard line on the other side of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Seems like there was always a line of the folks wanting to take their picture with the world-famous landmark.

As long as they brought their green to keep pumping money into Sin City, Wes didn’t mind. His bars were focused on serving local. When a tourist came in, he, his works, and his regular patrons called them randoms. But randoms’ money spent just as well as locals.

When they no longer interested him, Wes turned back to Abraham.

The same lopsided, toothy grin that Wes had seen every time he had come to get an advance from the gold-slinging loan shark—particularly the first time—was on the guy’s face. Though not currently directed at him, the same predatorily menace stalked the corners of the freak’s eyes. And he was ready to pounce.

Wes had regretted seeing the smile the first time, and every time since. What was he missing? He scanned the booth again. What could make the weirdo grin like that?

He began to feel a little tingly. The onions were starting to get to him. He knew was coming here. Why didn’t I bring any Benadryl?

Still, Wes knew the timetable for his breakouts. He had more time. And he still didn’t want to be the first one to bring up why he had come. They both knew. He just hated having to admit it. Worse, it seemed as though Abraham loved to make him say it. Which Wes always did, but he sure as Hell wasn’t going to be trained like a house dog.

I can do that, too. Wes folded his arms and made an attempt at mimicking Abraham’s vacant stare.

It all came back to how desperate Wes was. So desperate that he’d go to an almost always vacant building—one he could only find when he needed money—and break bread with a guy who only wore robes which only got more and more fabulous as time went on.

A year ago, he’d already hit up his friends, who were broke. More interested in the land beneath his financially troubled saloons, the banks didn’t want to touch them. Lastly, the mob families had treated him as though he was trying to pawn off a plate of steaming shit as fresh sausage. After a week of that, the We Invest In The Distressed, flyer that he found jammed under his windshield seemed too impossible to be real.

And, there hadn’t been a month that had gone by since that Wes hadn’t regretted following the instructions in the trifold. The conditions under which they had to meet, made him feel like he was making a deal with the devil. But, only in South Park, was the devil this gay. Yet, here he was. Again.

Wes found that he was shaking his head. His thoughts formed words and slipped from his mind. “Desperation’s a real motherfucker.”

He smacked his mouth to try and stop the sentence halfway through.

His lips were pressed tight.

They remained sealed as stuff appeared in the booth. Car keys, a cellphone, and a tablet on the table. Then, a red canvas backpack—like the one his boy had—materialized in the corner next to a shimmering form.

Wes gripped his jaw tight and held it closed. Neither it nor his throat moved as his thoughts became audible again. *What in the blue fuck?*

Abraham, The Man

Though Abraham thought about easing his control of Wes as he came through the swinging door, the sight before him made him decide to keep the air pinched to keep the Mundane idle.

Translucent ripples hung around Wes’s head, slightly thicker, but still tight, around the temples.

The Mystique would hold.

Better than that was Squek, standing in the booth across from the teen. Somehow, the two of them had really hit it off and were engrossed in a conversation about the tablet.

Squek clapped. “Really?” Almost enamored, he leaned on the table to look directly down on the boy’s tablet. “And that’s all there is to it?

A faint pineapple scent came when the boy spoke. “Not really. You have to program the spells in first or, like I said, the spellcards. But, after that, yeah, I guess it’s pretty much ready to go.”

Squek summarized, “The cards just need mana, but you have to press Cast on the tablet. Right?”

The teen nodded.

No. Not a technocaster. Please, anything but that. Such potential. Abraham looked past the teen to his backpack. The patch—a red gorilla with a sword and a shield on an orange field—depressed him. An Archon Private Academy student… So much for an apprentice.

Word had spread about technocasters running amok in the city. Officially, Lar Lightningpalm, the Chief Magistrate, would persecute any open attack, but get him the body of a technocaster on the sly and you’d earn the ape’s weight in silver.

Abraham would’ve preferred an apprentice, but the consolation prize made him grin. Picturing the ingots, he rubbed his hands and projected his thoughts. *How much do you weigh?*

The kid turned, opened his mouth to answer, and paused.

*It’s called telepathy.* Abraham gave a mental chuckle after his thought, in case the simpleton proved incapable of registering his disdain. Magic was for the chosen, and magic hadn’t chosen this boy, or any of the apes. They’d found a loophole; more to the point, their parents—not potent enough to pass on the gift—had exploited a loophole shown to them by the school’s master. *Any monkey can cast with technology, boy. But all traditional casters are raised with both magic and telepathy. It’s our birthright. But what would you know about any of that, Ape?*

Using his idiot-mouth, the teen said. “Oh, I know how to mindspeak.” He pointed to Abraham’s right.

Mindspeak. What a pitiful way to describe the sheer elegance that was telepathy.

The boy gave a quick nod and shifted his eyes to where he pointed. “But it looks like your precious ability is about to cause your friend there to breach.”

*Desperation’s a real motherfucker.* Wes slapped his mouth. Rightly, confusion poured from his thoughts. *What in the blue fuck?*

It was still controllable.

Abraham pointed under the table. *Hide!*

Squek dove where commanded.

Like a stupid bobble-head, the boy shook his head.

Not happy and not wearing gloves Abraham would have to actually touch the mundane.

Disgusted, he did.

Abraham rushed around Wes, grabbed him by the shoulders, and pushed. “Quick. To my office.”

The translucent ripples gave way to grey and then formed a tendril that started to search its way toward the teen.

Abraham’s high-court robe began to cling and stick to him. The arid air became thick with moisture and static. A storm was coming.

At the break in the counter, Wes shrugged Abraham off and turned back.

When the tendril got close to the boy, the Mystique couldn’t conceal his prismatic magical aura any longer and, thoom, contact.

The storm was coming.

Abraham shoved Wes again.

Wes resisted. “Where’d he come from?”

“So, you can see me?” With a sickening simper, the boy held his phone as an anchor to the mundane world. The little dolt gave a happy, fast wave.

His back almost to the kitchen door, Wes grabbed onto the rear edges of the gap.

Abraham mustered all of his physical might and shoved.

“Who are you?” Wes rocked back, but held his grip. “By your feet!”

“Your buddy there calls me, Ape. And that’s a Squek.”

Abraham spun.

Wes’s grey tendril was now forked. Trying to synchronize with the aura, the part from the fork to the boy scintillated with emerald, crimson, black, and gold energy. Trying to grab on, the thinner piece groped Squek’s vibrant azul aura. Though the goblin had dived to hide, the angle made him visible.

Abraham pointed at the boy. “Shut up!” He brought his focus into his center chakra, where his mana bubbled with rage he couldn’t rightly express; not with a breach happening and in front of the mundane.

Color hadn’t hit Wes’s head yet. The Mystique would smooth the situation over, but Abraham had to get them out of sight before the mundane fully moored.

Abraham looked around desperately. The he remember Hanna. Hanna and a sack of potatoes in the panty should be near enough mass for the swap.

He fixed his eyes on Squek. “Blood.”

“Boss, no!” Lipping curses, Squek fished the needled blood-ring from his pocket.

Centered over his navel, Abraham formed a circle. Thumb to thumb. Forefinger to forefinger. He nodded to Squek.

The goblin babbled apologies, and punched the boy’s calf with the needle.

The boy kicked.

Breifly breaking the circle, Abraham flicked his right hand and inverted it to re-form the circle with thumbs touching forefingers. He then put his hand up to obscure Wes’s vision.

The boy and Squek were gone.

Hanna and the sack of potatoes had taken their place.

Matte grey, Wes’s tendril snapped back, only to slowly stretch toward Hanna.

Crisis averted, Abraham spied the boy’s tablet on the table.

“Now’s not a good time.” Abraham squeezed past Wes. Hanna would do exactly what should be done, and, without the tablet, the boy would be powerless. And he’d soon be receiving the boy’s weight in silver.

Abraham didn’t know what Lightningpalm did with the apes, and didn’t care. Anyone the Chief Magistrate put on his shit list had a way of disappearing, never to be seen again; and, right now, after that little stunt, Abraham looked forward to making the boy beg mightily for his life. Then, once the boy believed that he had sparked a pity that would never kindle, Abraham would call Lars for the exchange.

Elated at the reverse of fortune and promise of incoming wealth, Abraham’s frustrated frown gave way to a syrupy sweet pleasantness. He straightened his robes and he focused on the doorjamb to his private box.

“Come back tomorrow.” And without a further thought to the mundane, he turned and pushed through the kitchen door.

Wes

Wes’s arm hairs stood as Abe pushed him backwards toward the kitchen door. Miniscule streaks of light, like rainbows of energy, danced on the tips. Each time his tongue touched his teeth, it shocked him, like when he used to lick twelve-volt batteries for a kick.

A whiff of pineapple, the stench of an electrical fire. Maybe that’s why Abe was in such a hurry to get to his office.

The shimmering form in the booth became a person. And that person was a teenager in a red-and-white private school uniform, that looked just like the one his son wore.

To talk without shock, Wes pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, slushing his words. “Where’d he come from.”

The teen waved at him. “So, you can see me.”

Wes reached out and gripped the counter to stop Abraham from pushing him into his office. The splinters bit deep, but he held firm.

Grimacing, Wes asked, “Who are you?”

Abraham pushed him again. Wes resisted. For a man of Abe’s size, he sure was weak.

A shimmering came from under the table. It started to give way to reveal something green and monsterish lurking under there. “By your feet!”

“Your buddy there calls me, Ape.” Seemingly fine with the thing under the table, the teen motioned at it. “And that’s a Squek.”

Abraham pointed at the kid. “Shut up!” He sounded on the verge of tears.

Wes wanted to feel bad for him, but, besides all the weird shit going on, the bald bastard was assuming ownership of his bars; one loan at a time.

Abraham mumbled something that sounded like blood. Then flailed at Wes’s face.

Refusing to let go, and not wanting to be poked in the eyes, Wes held tight, clamped his eyes shut tight, and leaned away.

The freak didn’t touch him.

When Wes opened his eyes, Hanna, the chesty Swedish masseuse waved to him from where the teen had been seated. At least, he thought there had been a teenager there… She shot him a wink.

“Now’s not a good time.” Abraham said, moving forward again.

Wes braced to keep from being pushed back.

Abraham’s sparkly silk robe slid against Wes’s hand as the big guy slipped under his arm to get behind him.

No way! Ready to swing, Wes spun.

Instead of trying to grab him from behind, Abe was back near the door. A vicious serenity played at the corner of his mouth as he straightened his robes. “Come back tomorrow.” He spun and pushed through the door.

“Come back tomorrow?” Wes repeated. “Tomorrow’s no good.” He took a deep breath to gather as much of an authoritative tone as the bizarre series of events could allow. “I need the money now!”

He shoved the door.

Instead of flopping open—as usual—to Abraham’s plush office, the swinging door opened to a kitchen. Four strips of savory bacon sizzled on the grill next to two thick hamburger patties.

He scratched his neck.

Doubt that Abe’s office had ever been through this door began to eat at Wes. He spied a second door toward the back of the kitchen, and that one looked more like it would lead to a manager’s office. He’d been so focused on getting a loan that he had forgotten about the trip through the kitchen to Abe’s office.

Wes looked back over his shoulder.

Hanna was gone.

Had she been there? Or had he only wanted her to be there? Wes tried to focus through the fog that was clouding his memory. Abe had mentioned her and maybe that was what put the cutie on his mind. Hell, she must’ve been there at one point, because she’d left her keys, tablet, and red backpack.

No. The backpack and tablet belonged to someone else. Someone… He couldn’t remember who, but someone else had been there before her. No. Wes felt silly. No one had been there besides Hanna. Right? … No, that’s not right.

Only one way to tell. Wes went to the booth. The backpack’s contents would cement things. Towels and oil would prove that Hanna had been there. He didn’t really have to look into the pack though; the booth smelled faintly of her coconut oil with a hint of pineapple.

Still, for his own sanity, Wes slid into the booh to check the bag.

As though against him and trying to force him from the building, that damned grilled onion smell crowded him; made him itch.

He only had a little more time before a full break out. Wes scratched, unzipped the backpack, and pulled the canvas apart. Inside was a book, two thin notebooks, a tablet like the one on the table, and several sheets of—what could only be—money to an unknown board game.

Glints from the corner of the bag caught his eye.

Wes reached in, grabbed one, and reeled it out. He held one of the smooth one-ounce golden pellets that Abraham used as currency.

And more slushed around in there.

For a moment, Wes wondered what—exactly—Hanna did for Abe for him to pay her so well. The idea of prostitution crossed his mind, but Abe looked and acted like the very last person on the planet to ever want to have sex with a woman. Maybe, just maybe, he would, but only if it was to preserve their species. But she had to do something because—Wes ran his hand through the oversized of pellets—damn.

The gold felt like freedom. Wes looked around for cameras. None.

His saloons, built by his father, were at risk. They were a legacy that had been handed down to him, and Wes had plans to eventually give one to each of his kids. If the bank foreclosed on the land beneath them, the plan, the dream, the legacy, would vanish.

Once everything was paid off, he could easily get a loan to pay Hanna back; and he’d rather be indebted to her than to Abe.

Wes spoke to his mounting guilt. “I’ll pay back every penny.”

Perhaps from shame, the backpack was hard to lift.

He promised again. “Every penny.”

The bag came to him. He cradled it under his arm and slid out of the booth.

The oniony smell intensified and chased him out.

The side of his hand lit with splinters from the old saloon doors. Wes winced, but didn’t slow to inspect the new wounds, or look back. He had salvation under his arm, and he was headed to the bank before it could be snatched away.

Ben & Abraham

Ben hoped off the cushioned massage table and tried to clue-in to where he’d been sent. Before now, he didn’t know it was possible to teleport the unwilling. Apparently, there were loopholes. Recalling a different run-in he’d had with blood magic, he rubbed his leg where he had been pricked.

The red shag carpet that was beneath his feet also upholstered the walls. A pungent, spiced coconut scent hung in the air and a real-life, lava lamp, little burgundy gobs floating in red-tinted gel—what was the foil on top for?—kicked the disco-nightmare room that he found himself in into full gear. Though much more spacious, something about the confines made him think of Papa Mojo’s wagon.

“Squek.” Ben wanted to curse the goblin, but his temper wouldn’t quite rise.

Knowing who he was acting against, the goblin had done as his master commanded, and Ben’s experience in dealing with goblinoids for the past few months recognized the merit in the dangerous act. And he’d have to be that guy now.

Ben drew his face into a scowl to take on the demeanor that ruled an army of orcs.

He reached back to his go to spells on his spellcard holder. His fingers brushed against his dress shirt and—not hitting his protruding holder—rubbed against his side. It was gone. It was on the…

Ben’s mind went back to Squek. “You little jerk!” He hoped that the goblin could hear him. “Wait until your cousins hear about this.”

He moved to the door and recoiled at the flapping bulk coming through.

Giving his mustard robes a grand flourish, Abraham stepped into his booth. “You almost caused a breach in my business, boy.” His center chakra warmed as he set his will to prepare another spell. “Are you ready to pay for that?”

The teen brandished his phone like a wand. “Let’s do this.”

Noting the determination set on the boy’s face, Abraham dropped his gaze to the phone. Apes cast spells through technology, but—until now—they’d only used laptop computers and tablets. Instead of being vulnerable, the boy felt more dangerous than before. Just in case, he shifted his mana and brought a shielding spell to mind; on the off chance that he would need to defend.

The boy shook the phone once and it doubled in width. Now, that possibly could hold a spell. Abraham asked, “What’s that?”

The boy smirked. “It’s a phone. Mundanes use them to speak over long distances.”

“I know what it appears to be.” Abraham snapped. He narrowed his eyes and, minding the boys fingers—since the primitives cast by pressing buttons and icons—flowed mana through his body as he stroked his eyebrow, earlobe, and cheek. His Telltale spell would identify all the magical properties the boy’s phone held. The boy eyed his telltale tentacles. Abraham waggled them.

Fancy ephemeral pink magic sprung from the man’s head. Ben felt energy flow through the man, but could do nothing to stop it. The smell of daisies—typical accompaniment to a divination spell—flowered the booth.

Ben began to inch back.

Once one of those tentacles touched his phone, the asshole would see it for the bluff that it was and— Ben didn’t want to think about how bad things would get from there. A sudden heat seared his butt.

Expecting Squek with a fiery poker, Ben jumped sideways and stole a glance.

Cubes of coal fell from the tin-foiled top of the lava lamp. The burning embers landed in the deep shag carpet and died there.

Since neither of them had called this a formal duel, Ben had a plan. It wouldn’t be elegant, but it could work. He waited for the right moment.

Abraham enjoyed this little game of cat and mouse, but there was nowhere for the boy to really go. Abraham knew his own weaknesses, and he made sure to keep his pride in check as he—and his tentacles—closed in on the boy and his phone.

If the youth had been a real caster, he would’ve had a bevy of spells at his disposals to mount a true defense, instead of playing for time and praying that whatever spell the small device held would be enough to get the job done.

Abraham’s tentacles had reached their full length and he halted his advance to let the spell do the work. Close to a victory, he licked his teeth.

The boy suddenly jumped to the side.

Abraham wanted to laugh. What a pathetic attempt to break a real wizard’s concentration.

Then, the boy flicked his phone. The lit thing landed between his feet.

Abraham dove his tentacles in.

As the pink power sank into the phone, and the wizard realized it was just a distraction, Ben grabbed the lava lamp behind him and swung it at the wizards face.

“Savage!” Abraham damned the boy. Against all rules of dueling and civility, the youth had lashed out at him with a physical attack.

An attack that he couldn’t dodge.

And attack with the Nexus Node.

The lamp should have shattered against the bridge of the bald wizard’s nose. It didn’t. Instead, the hookah swung through him; turning him into pure crimson, blue, and gold energy.

Not meeting resisting, Ben spun a circle, then set the lava lamp down.

Admitting defeat, Ben bowed his head as he knelt. His gut went cold at the idea, but there was no way he could beat a being made of pure power. And, even at with his personal reserve at full, he had no spells with which to fight. Ben didn’t’ want to think about all he’d be losing. About the orcs suffering under this guy, the belt transferring, the—

Ben cut of the thoughts. He had amassed a significant amount of holdings since his last birthday. If his surrender was accepted, all ownership would transfer to this jerk, but his life would probably be spared.

As he knelt, Ben risked voicing the question on his mind. “Seriously though, what is it with creepy casters and shag carpet?”

Ben dared to look up at the man he knelt to.

The tri-colored man was slowly evaporating.

At the same rate, the building began to go dim.

Knowing he’d be commanded back down to his knee if the other guy claimed victory, Ben stood and once again lifted the lamp.

Like an angry trick of rock-show lighting, the light-man that had been Abraham lashed out at him with impotent rage.

Moving around the flailing arms, Ben moved to the door that Abraham had come in through. A set of carpeted stairs led from the booth down into a cozy lounge. At the far corner of lounge, he spied the 21 and over sign. While in the restaurant, he’d always seen a wall, but from this side, everyone—if anyone was there—could see what was going on in the restaurant.

Motes of dust shook from the ceiling as the light dimmed further.

The dust came down in such a way that it settled on objects to look like it, and the objects it covered, hadn’t been disturbed in years.

Ben took the stairs two at time. He weaved through the dust-gathering tables and chairs in the lounge and up into the restaurant.

His backpack was gone. “Squek!” He scooped up his tablet and keys from the booth.

The sizzling in the kitchen died and the delicious aroma of grilled onions, turned rotten.

“Oh, no.” The light flicked in the restaurant, and then it, too, started to dim. As in the lounge, dust motes stated to fall in the restaurant.

Ben rushed to the tiki—

“No…!” The floating ice cream scoopers oxidized and fell from view. The crystal-clear glass that had shielded the tubs of ice cream grew mold and a crack spidered from the lower right corner; making a fine home for the dust to settle in.

Ben backed through the saloon doors. They squeaked as he pushed out, but flapped close without a sound. Dust chased the shine from the wax floor and pooled on the welcome mat with unearthly speed.

He looked at the lava lamp, the only remnant of his favorite hangout.

Still dumbfounded, Ben moped to his car and put the lava lamp in the back.

Kevin pulled into the lot and screeched to a halt. He then rolled up to Ben while he put down his window. “Man, this place closed again?”

Ben could only muster a faint smile. “Should’ve gotten here faster.”

“Eastly snagged us as we were leaving.” Kevin laughed. “I snuck away. The other guys weren’t so lucky and got cauldron duty for trying.”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t even want to know what you guys did.”

“It’s pretty epic.” Kevin grinned. “Anyhow, want to go get burgers from Artic Oasis?”

Ben shrugged. “Sorta wanted a double Hakram.”

“Chin up.” Kevin tried to cheer him. “This place will be back in action. Either the owner will come back to town or someone will eventually brave the building and blow on the pipe.”

Ben asked, “Blow on the pipe?”

“Yeah, this place is a node. Someone’s going to be power-hungry to try to claim it. And then, the forever fights start up again because everyone wants to take it over.” Kevin kicked a thumb over his shoulder motioning back down the strip. “You know. Like what happened at Pepperjacks back in October.”

“Oh yeah.” Ben pretended to recall what he couldn’t forget. “So,” He leaned in. “How would someone hide a node so others don’t try to hunt it down?”

“Beats me, but whoever has the node to Pepperjacks knows the trick.” Kevin drummed on his steering wheel. “Look. I’m hungry. Are we going to roll or what?”

“No, I’m out.” Ben glanced at the lava lamp in his back seat. In the sunlight, he could see that it was a hookah. He looked back to Kevin. “I’ve got some stuff to take care of.”

Kevin shrugged, waved, and tore off.

“Okay, Squek.” Ben got into his car and activated his ‘find my tablet’ app. “Let’s see where you took my stuff. Then, we’ll have a little talk.”

To have total surprise, he retrieved his anti-divination ring from his ashtray and slipped it on.

 
* * *

Ally

Ally blinked at the sudden end of the thread that had grown the thickest. The last thread was flying away from her.

She leapt out and caught it.

 
* * *

Wes

Exiting his bank, Wes loosened his tie, shifted the stolen backpack, and took a deep breath. The first burden-free one that he’d taken in a year. It seemed fitting that his saloons were saved on the first day of spring.

Enjoying the sun, Jack Bigelow’s Magic is Real came to mind and he bopped along to the song in his head.

And froze.

Abraham’s hookah was on the hood of his car.

Wes looked around the parking lot, but no one—particularly not a tall, bald man in silky robes—was paying attention to him.

Cautiously, he eased closer.

A note twisted in the slight breeze.

Wes looked around again before pulling the folded paper on a string. As a symbol of my not meaning you any ill will, I gift you this: a Nexus Bar & Grill hookah. Please enjoy and clean thoroughly before use.

It wasn’t signed.

Hoping to find Abraham giving him a Chuck Norris-styled thumbs up, Wes scanned again.

No one paid him any mind.

“Thanks.” Wes spoke loudly. Whoever delivered this was probably keeping an eye on it, to make sure no one else walked off with it.

He loaded the backpack and hookah into his passenger seat.

When he got behind his wheel, he found a silver ring dangling from his rearview with a smaller note. Inlaid in the amethyst, were two crossed axes. It wasn’t his style.

He read the note. Oh, and one more gift. Take care.

Wes considered the ring. He didn’t like it. It was sort of tacky, but he was getting off scot-free. Whoever had kept an eye on the hookah was probably keeping an eye on the ring, too.

He rolled down his window and said, “Thanks.”

Wes held up the ring so whoever was watching could see him put it on.

 
* * *

Ally

Ally nearly fell backward. She’d been shunted twice from the spell and there were no more threads to grab onto to continue the magic. “Crap!” Her shoulders slumped. Knowing what was coming she tried to loosen her body. Tightening up was the wrong thing to do because without a thread—

Her Temporas Illum Orchalance spell arced out and drove into her chest; knocking her from her shoes.

When she came to, Ally lay ten feet from her shoes.

The sun had crossed the sky and begun to set, the building was still closed, and the pong of burnt daisies filled her nose.

Her head and chest felt like they were on fire. They weren’t. She knew that, and that the pain from the rebounded spell would fade in a couple of days. It always did.

What hurt more was the loss of the intimate knowledge of what happened.

The spell hadn’t left her empty-handed; she recalled the conversations, as though she were a fly on the wall. She knew the teen—Benja—was a technocaster, the wizard—Abraham—was a snatcher, and the mundane—Wes—was a thief.

No, what she lacked were the inside-their-head details. Their inner attitudes. Their opinions.

Abraham wasn’t too common of a name. If she ran that, coupled with the fact that he was a snatcher, through the Census Agency, there’d probably only be a few hits. Not that it mattered. Ally was pretty sure that Abraham was now a part of the ether.

No one at the Agency wanted to acknowledge, no less deal with tracking, technocasters; so the teen might as well as been a ghost. And the mundane?

Ally laughed at the idea of trying to track a mundane with only a first name.

The movement made her chest flair.

“Ooh, Ally.” She lay there to recover and be with the pain. While she didn’t have all the details, she now had a personal project. That teen wasn’t just a technocaster. He couldn’t have been.

He knew to hide from divination, and had a way to do it. He could best a snatcher, and knew how to hide holdings from officials. And he was willing to use everything available to him; even mundanes and the Mystique.

In total, all the makings of an Agency nightmare.

No one would believe her. They never did. Again, she’d have to do this one on her own.

Planning a couple of career moves and thinking about who owed her favors, Ally set her mind to getting stationed nearby—if not in—the Clark/Navaho prefecture. With that teen running around, bad things were going to be coming as he entered into adulthood; and she had to find a way to stop him.

But first, she had to heal. And she would.

Copyright © 2016 by Ezekiel James Boston
Published by Elsewhere Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 Elsewhere Publishing
Cover art copyright © EyeMark | Depositphotos.com

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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