There are things magicians simply don’t do and answering phones is one of them: we have some idea of what lies inside telephones and the Internet, or what they were made to do. Enough to avoid them, which is why I don’t react when Jay answers his cell phone until he tugs my shirt with his left hand and hands it to me while I’m driving down the road.
“It’th for you.”
I stare at the cell phone, then down at him. Jay is fighting back a delighted grin, but even so I pull wards about myself formed from the general annoyance of people hurrying past in the bright darkness of the town. Jay looks to be ten, but he’s from far Outside the universe and bound himself into my service. Not being human doesn’t stop him from pulling pranks: he loves to hand over telemarketers just to see what happens. Plus he’s still sulking over not having a costume for Halloween: he wanted to go as a headless horseman and me to make him a giant glowing head from magic. I’d said no.
“What?” I snap to whoever is on the other end of the line.
“For two easy payments of 19.95 you can get a personality,” Charlie says on the other end of the phone. “Seriously, magicians and phones. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were convinced they irradiated the human brain.”
I pause a beat. “They do.”
“I almost wish I was travelling with you and Jay right now, just so that I could hit you. Point being: you’re in the north-east, last I knew. We’re in Kansas: CASPER wanted Dyer and I to look into some weird textbooks that ghost writers might be using real ghosts to write. Problem is there’s also a urgent case about a haunted house about half an hour from you, if Jay’s GPS is accurate. Last week it claimed you were in Venice and London.”
“We were.” I don’t offer up anything more.
“Right. Okay, the owners are rich, expensive, connected: that whole deal. Apparently it’s bad enough that CASPER wants to send Dyer, but we can’t get to New York from Kansas in an hour. Which even our bosses should have figured that out.”
“I don’t deal with ghosts, Charlie.”
“I know that, but I’ll owe you a favour. Even owe Jay one if I have to. CASPER can owe you one for all I care. Trust me, Dyer and I have been driving around like mad fools for over two weeks and I’m this close to quitting this entire organization anyway. Get rid of ghosts and convince people they don’t exist my ass.”
“What kind of haunting?”
“The kids wouldn’t say. To anyone. At all. One knew what number to call for help.”
“Text Jay the directions, we’ll look into it. You will come and visit Jay afterwards – I can say he’s going to ask that as a favour without checking. We’ll have it sorted out by dawn one way or another.”
“Not by burning their house down.”
“Depends on how annoying they are.” I hang up and toss Jay his phone. “Check your texts: we have a haunted house to deal with.”
“We do?” Jay blinks a few times and frowns at me as I turn down the road, following the directions he reads out. “Why?” he says finally.
“Because it will force Charlie to come visit you.”
“Charlie doethtn’t have to be forthed to vithit me,” he pouts. I just raise an eyebrow and Jay blushes a deep shade of pink. “You know I went to thee her latht month!”
“I know. This way she has to return the favour, and it gives you something more to bargain with.”
“You don’t need to bargain with friendth,” he says, crossing his arms.
I turn my head and stare at him until he squirms; it doesn’t take long. “And every time you insist I buy you new games for your phone or tablet, kiddo?”
“That’th different. You’re keeping me happy so I don’t get really thcary!”
“I could be,” he says, trying to fight back a huge grin.
I shake my head and go back to driving as he plays games on his phone between texting Charlie. We spent two weeks overseas hitting tourist spots in short trips before returning to the USA. I’d hoped for a longer trip, but magicians are needed here around Halloween here: so many children with ideas and will pushing at the edges of the universe can be dangerous. We’d dealt with a few problems over the past couple of days, but nothing that involved a secret government agency.
If I was a betting person, I’d assume CASPER had thrown this case as Charlie because she’d ask me and they assumed my talents would be better for dealing with it. Whatever it happened to be. Magicians don’t have dealings with ghosts much as a general rule: magic answers need, and the dead are nothing except need.
The map takes us down private country roads, the kind so expensive they don’t even show up on Jay’s GPS system. Vast old stone homes, properties large enough to drop entire gated communities into. Even proper mazes and gardens more expensive to maintain than some armies. Jay actually stops playing on his phone to gape at some of it, though in his case it’s probably the kind of bindings that have gone into making the properties that catches his attention.
The house we arrive at is appropriately large: wrought iron fence all around with barbed wire and sharp glass at the top. I ask the gate to open with a gentle nudge of power and it does so. Two vehicles are parked outside the main house and the entire building is dark and still, but too well made to be foreboding. If anything, it just gives off the impression of a genteel museum temporarily closed for repairs.
Jay follows me, waiting for anything I might need with a trust more complete and disturbing than anything I will probably find in this house. I relax, let my senses spread, listening to the world around me. Even to a magician Jay seems utterly human. The people in the house, not so much. Four people, three hollowed out and filled with something not quite empty that wasn’t human life at all. A sour magic saturates the air like bacon grease, a nascent magician having burned out the power to the building in a failed attempt to save her friends.
“Jay.” I reach through the bindings between us, let him see as I see. “The people who used to be in those bodies, can you find them and bring them back?”
Jay frowns, thinking that over. “I don’t know, Honcho,” he says, since I don’t like my real name being used in pubic. Or private, and Honcho is easier for him to say than magician. It started out as a joke and became something else: I’ve a theory that’s how the universe began as well. “Whatever hurt them puthhed them right into the Grey Landth. I can try and pull them back?”
“Okay. Work on that; I’m going to chat with –.” I pause, pulling her name out of the fear in the air, “Tasha.”
Jay sits down cross-legged on the ground, eyes unfocusing. I’m not worried: he’s tough enough to survive a shotgun to the chest and has a very, very good sense of when to run away. Spending your whole life before you entered the universe with things trying to eat you does that.
I walk into the house: there are wards on the door: a magician’s will turned to fear. I move through them without breaking them, letting my magic touch the house. It wants to be whole, and I answer that need by bringing the power back online. Lights flare, computers burst into noise, and Tasha tries to stop that but all she has is fear. It suffices to blow up two computers and murder six tvs but the power remains on. I head into a living room larger that some homes to find three unconscious people on a couch. Two males, one female, all just old enough to own cars. Tasha is thin and nervous as she paces in front of them, calling out their names in a voice that cracks with the effort of forcing power into it.
She doesn’t know what she is doing; even if she did, I’m not sure it would help her undo what she’d done. The coffee table is a mixture of wood and glass in some postmodern fusion. I’d generally melt it on principle, but it is already half-slag, with the remains of an ouija board having fused into the top of it.
I swear. Softly, but I can’t help myself.
Tasha spins, eyes wild and wild, and hurls her fear at me without thinking.
I catch it as a ball, squeeze my left hand tightly. She shudders at the invasion of her self, but some sanity returns to her face as she pants for air and stares at me in confusion.
“Who are you? How did you get here?”
“Can you help my friends?” I put in unkindly, and she jerks back as if slapped. “What happened here?”
“I don’t know! We were just playing with the ouija board and the pointer turned white and then everyone screamed and I don’t know what happened,” she says, fighting back tears with an effort.
“How badly did you hate them?”
“How much did you hate them?” I ask, threading some power under the question.
“I didn’t,” she says, the truth jerked out of her.
Jay? I prod, and he comes in, holding a cats cradle of gleaming gold and silver strands in his hands and beaming with joy. He’s exhausted but hiding it well.
“We – we don’t have treats here,” Tasha says, mind trying to scramble for normal.
“That’s Jay. He’s a friend.”
“I can do trickth,” Jay says proudly.
“But not right now,” I say, pulling Tasha’s gaze back to me. “What happened?”
“I –.” She closes her eyes, calls up her magic and brings the past to life around us as an illusion, the effort leaving her shaken. Four friends, underage drinking and the board, and magic waking – something. Not a ghost, but a way for something from the Grey Lands of the ghosts to manifest. Her magic woke and lashed out, blasting the minds of her friends far outside their bodies entirely by accident.
“Ouija boards are a board game,” I say, keeping my voice as even as I can. “You’d have more luck using them to call up spirits of deceased bankers with Monopoly.”
Tasha glares at me. “We’re not stupid. I knew what number to call for help and I know it’s just a game, okay?”
Jay walks over, thrusts out his hands and the strands flow out into the bodies, mind and flesh binding together again. The kids being to cough, shaking their heads, waking in slow confusion.
The ouija board burns with black flames as something begins to manifest. I step forward and shove my left hand onto the board as Tasha lunges in front of her friends, telling them everything is fine and wanting, so much, for them to forget she’s not as normal as they. The magic inside her dies, taking their memories of anything strange with it, and I am not certain she understands knows what she has done.
Jay lets out a soft, wounded sound as Tasha’s magic dies, eyes stricken at the sight of so many bindings ceasing to exist, so much potential shattering into nothing. It hurts to know it happened. It hurts to feel it. I shove the hurt aside to deal with later, focusing on the black fire.
Whatever is using the board can’t enter me. I have no idea if it is the wards I have drawn up about me or if I am missing something the kids here have or if Tasha’s actions damaged it. I don’t much care what the reason is: I grab the death of Tasha’s magic – it hurts my magic, hurts me, to touch such a thing, but I throw it into the link between the board and whatever is on the other side. The fire dies out, the coffee table crumbling into a pile of dust and ash.
I walk out, leaving the kids to explain the coffee table and their confusion to each other.
“Tasha died, Honcho,” Jay says as we reach the car, his eyes wide and scared.
“The magic in her did.” I pause. “I notice you only had two colours of bindings for those three kids, you know.”
Jay nods. “The oldest one, Keith, he found hith own way back once I thhowed them the way. Ith he a small magithan?”
“I imagine so. His magic woke something. I don’t know what he saw or believed, but he woke something and woke Tasha’s magic far too early to try and stop it when his couldn’t. Hers died too soon, his survived: he might never recover from what he’s done.”
Jay scratches his head as he gets into the car, and waits until we reach the road. “Honcho? Two people in one houthe being magithans is weird, right?”
“I don’t know. Boredom can sometimes be a path to smaller magics. Text Charlie and let her know it’s dealt with. Make sure she knows it involved an ouija board.”
Jay nods and does so; I figure Charlie’s responses alone will make his evening. I drive, faster than the speed limit, trying to ignore the feel of a magicians magic dying in front of me.
I need a drink. I don’t dare have one. In time it rains. I stare at the rain, losing myself in it.
“Pull over,” Jay says, intent, not quite frantic.
I do. “I forgot to turn the wipers on.”
“It’th not raining, Honcho. You’re crying,” he says softly.
I swear, softly and bitterly, and Jay keeps silent in the way of friends until I feel ready to continue.