I’ve been slacking with the new content, so here’s a special treat for the weekend.
At the end of ‘Fade’, Paxton got out of the hospital and headed to Phoenix with Cassie. The road trip is about to go off the rails . . .
Joplin, Missouri—Monday morning
I was halfway through a stack of pancakes when the dead guy walked in the door.
Well, to be more precise — he walked through the door. I guess not having to carry keys is one of the few advantages to being dead.
Despite the fact that it was probably the tenth-weirdest thing I’d seen that week, I froze for a moment with my fork halfway between the plate and my mouth. I tried to cover for my surprise by exchanging the forkful of syrup-dripping sweetness for my cup of coffee, but my companion had already noticed the hesitation.
Cassie turned in her seat and scanned the diner behind us. A couple of trucker types in jeans, flannel shirts, and baseball caps bent over the counter, intent on their meals. One of Willy Loman’s coworkers sat primly in the corner booth, paging through a newspaper and sipping coffee. The ghost that she couldn’t see stood by the door and gave me a pleading look.
She turned back and cocked an eyebrow at me. Thanks to the fickle hand of fate, my new partner — she stomped on the concept of ‘sidekick’ with both boots — had recently gotten a full introduction into the eldritch shadows of our reality. I still ached from the experience, but for Cassie, it had been merely mind-blowing. Of course, I’d exhausted reserves I didn’t know I had to bring her back from the brink of death.
I reminded myself that I’d promised to be as honest as possible with her. I took a sip of coffee and picked my fork back up. “We have a visitor.”
She didn’t turn back to look again. My tone told her that it wasn’t the sort of visitor she’d be able to see. “Does that happen often?”
I swallowed and grimaced. The pancakes were getting cold, falling apart under their own weight. “If I’m being honest, no. They don’t usually come out in the daytime.” As I spoke, I studied the ghost. At first glance he was an average-looking twenty-something in khakis and a windbreaker. Most people that age—myself and Cassie included—weren’t translucent and didn’t have massive chunks of flesh missing from the neck.
“So, what do we do?”
I’d been starving less than an hour ago, but the apparition’s sudden appearance had spoiled my appetite. I wiped my mouth with a napkin and signaled the waitress. “We pay the check and we see what he wants, I suppose.”
My name is Paxton Locke. Ten years ago, I was a normal sixteen-year old. My interests consisted of video games, girls, and comic books — and not always in that order. My unassuming teenage life derailed when my mother began to dabble in dark magic. By the time the dust settled, she’d killed my father and left me with me a magical inheritance of my own in the form of an ability I call the push and a mysterious, leather-bound book of magic. The grimoire defied belief. The cuneiform text within not only translated into the reader’s native language, the information it displayed varied depending on the desires—spoken or unspoken—of the reader. My childish innocence meant that the first few spells I learned were useful, but benign.
The push is much more dangerous — it gives me the ability to control other people. And while Mother was a few cans shy of a six-pack, my dad raised me right. I don’t push people unless I have no other choice.
When I made the mistake of wondering what she’d sought in those ancient pages, the glimpse that I got of what she sought terrified me to such an extent that I doused the book in diesel fuel and burnt it to ashes. Suspecting that a magic book might leave behind magical — and potentially dangerous — ashes, I collected them and buried them for safe-keeping.
The ordeal that Cassie and I suffered through just a few days before was fallout from my mother’s machinations of a decade before. After we’d made it out by the skin of our teeth and perhaps a bit of divine intervention, I’d recovered the ashes. After I did so, I learned that my suspicions that they were still dangerous had been correct.
A simple spell I’d learned so long ago had restored the grimoire to an intact state. Maybe I should have left it buried, but I couldn’t risk its potential discovery. For the moment, the safest place for it was with me. Us.
Of course, the safest place wasn’t always the most convenient. I grumbled under my breath as I shouldered my way out of the diner. I had the strap of a canvas messenger bag running diagonally across my chest, and the grimoire thumped against my hip with each step. My legs were still healing from last week’s multiple beatings. The combination of the encumbrance and my own injuries imparted an awkward hobble to my movement that would have been funny if it weren’t so annoying.
These were the kind of hassles they didn’t mention in the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. What I wouldn’t give for a bag of holding. I held the door for Cassie and turned to the waiting ghost. “All right, what’s up?”
His lips moved, but I didn’t hear anything. Well, I don’t usually hear them when they talk, but in this case, I got nothing. I sighed.
“Look, I’m still fumbling my way through the rulebook here, but you don’t need a throat to talk to me, dude. Try again.”
He waved his hands and seemed to be shouting, but I still didn’t hear a thing. I muttered under my breath. “I’m so glad my breakfast was spoiled so I can play charades with a ghost. Where we going?”
He looked as annoyed as I felt, but he gave me a tight nod and pointed to the side of the diner. It was an add-on to a larger truck stop convenience store. Thankfully, it was a slow morning, or people would have been pointing and staring at the nut who was having a conversation with thin air.
“Back lot?” He nodded. I frowned, but I turned to Cassie. “Pull around, okay? I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” We’d parked my new-to-me RV in the front lot, next to the tractor-trailers that I assumed belonged to the guys at the counter in the diner. I winked at her and gave her my best Han Solo grin.
“Hey, it’s me. I’ll be fine.”
She rolled her eyes, but dug the keys out of her jacket pocket and trotted across the parking lot toward the RV. She’d been getting a lot of practice driving lately since Mother and her coven burned down my childhood home and torched my old RV—and my wallet—in the process.
All things considered, I’d rather mess with a pack of witches and their familiars than the BMV any day. At least you can shoot the witches.
I shoved my hands in the pockets of my own jacket and followed the sidewalk around the side of the building. A twenty-four hour truck stop never shuts down, really, but the parking lot was pretty much empty save for a couple of big rigs and a dusty sedan. If I had to make my guess, they belonged to the folks inside the diner.
I looked at the sedan and frowned. The sign at the front had directed vehicle traffic to separate lots — semis one way, passenger vehicles another. We’d parked out front. The sedan should have been there, as well.
The ghost popped back into view next to the car and gesticulated wildly at the trunk. “I got it, I got it. Keep your pants on.”
As I approached the car I pulled my sleeves down over my hands and wished I’d stuck some gloves in my pockets. A few magic spells in my arsenal did not a superhero make, and if the trunk held what I figured it did, I sure as heck didn’t want my prints on it.
The car bounced up and down a bit as I tugged on the trunk lid through my sleeves, but it didn’t give. I glanced up to ask the ghost if he could pull the emergency release — the suckers have thrown enough knick-knacks at me, it wouldn’t be asking too much for them to do something useful — but it was nowhere to be found. “Typical,” I muttered.
The brake lights flashed, and the door locks chirped.
I looked up and caught the brief flash of a smile on the salesman-type as he rounded a corner. He had his folded-up newspaper tucked under his arm and he strolled like a man without a care in the world.
“I’ll be glad to give you a look,” he called out, and there was something in his voice that made my knees go a little wobbly.
I’d learned my lesson about being prepared from the meathead triplets last week. I popped my hands out of my sleeves, focused, and pushed. “Stop.”
The grin on his face widened just a tad, but his heels kept clicking on the pavement. “Oh, my. A magus. You’re going to be a tasty treat, aren’t you?”
Well, shit. Here we go again.