The ghost is screaming, the sounds cracking windows as I dive to the floor and roll. The floor of the house buckles wildly, the ghost visible in the old ballroom wreathed in chains made appliance cords, snow tire chains and scraps of the second and third floor carpets. I’ve seen ghosts do many things to scare humans, but being a fashion statement was never one of them until now.
I snarl six Words of exorcism that Dyer taught me. The ghost flickers like a tv image gone sour, only to let out another scream as the old home shudders about me. The entire home was built as part of a movie set fifteen years ago; security has been refusing to examine the property. Phone calls were made, and someone found out about me. I don’t know why: there are a lot of real exorcists in the world, and most of them are probably far better than I’d be at this. And definitely far better on less than an hours notice.
I discard exorcism and stand, reaching out with my nature. I eat gods, among other things. It generally suffices for ghosts, but this one is somehow slipping away, shifting out of my grasp. I manage to shred some of the garments the ghost is wearing and their head – explodes, reforms, exploding again like a broken light bulb as the carpets and cords form about it again.
Which is, of course, when my phone rings.
I answer it, and snarl, “I’m busy.”
“Charlie.” It’s the wandering magician. Of course it is.
“Don’t let me you lost Jay?” I say, since I rather upped and left him to deal with the kid from Outside the universe over a month ago. For all sorts of reasons, some of which even made sense at the time.
“No. We’re coming for a visit.” He pauses. “In a few minutes. You might want to be outside, since Jay’s presence hurts ghosts.”
“I might want to, will I?”
“The ghost is being hurt enough as it is,” he says simply, and hangs up before I can hang up on him.
I stare at my phone, put it away. Hurt? I pause, and feel the floor shudder about me, the creaking of the building. I don’t call up the god inside me, not for this, but I stare at the carpets – the chains – the cords – and things come together. “You’re not haunting this house. It’s keeping you here.”
I can talk to gods, I can speak to and banish ghosts. I don’t know how to talk to buildings, and now that I consider that I’m pretty happy to lack that skill. I reach up, and speak four quiet Words, a reverse exorcism trick Dyer taught me to give the ghost power. It shudders, tearing free of the bindings and lands on the ground. Thin, humanoid. A man in a bowler hat, retaining that much from when he was alive.
“Talk to me.”
“I made the house famous in the movie, was in the TV show that came after until I died of a heart attack on set,” the ghost says in a thin, whispery voice. “I haunted this place for a time, but everyone left. All the TVs, all the crews, and we’re far enough off the main roads that even hooligans rarely come out this far. I wanted to leave as well; the house didn’t want to be alone.”
“Of course not.” I don’t bother telling the ghost I have no idea who he was. I raise my voice. “House. You are going to let him go and I am going to leave now. If you don’t do this, the wandering magician is inbound to this location and he can do terrible things to you.”
The lights in the ballroom flicker out. I decide that calling the house a cliché wouldn’t be productive.
“He’s not alone. The wandering magician is travelling with a creature from Outside the universe, and I think you really don’t want to know what kind of Outsider a magician would travel with, and definitely not want to get in their way?”
The ballroom door opens at that. The ghost lets out a gasp, and vanishes into the Grey Lands. I walk out as if I wasn’t worried at all, mentally kicking myself for not looking up the movie at least before I arrived. The assignment had been in haste, but even so – I shake my head as I walk outside, heading toward the RV I’ve been using for the last few months. Had the magician not been en route, I’d have probably had to do weird things to the ghost or burn the house down. The latter probably leading to not getting paid, among other things.
Not that I’m surprised he was near, since I’m not sure the life of a wandering magician allows for coincidences. And just thinking about that is depressing enough that I’m almost at the trailer when a shape hurls through the darkness toward me in an inhuman blur to slam into my side. I draw the strength of the god inside me, brace myself, and barely stop from attacking when the figure begins speaking.
“We totally tracked you down and it was an adventure and I missed you and that’s not a good adventure and Honcho and I had adventures but it’s not the same even if it’s more fun because he doesn’t get being Jaysome and doesn’t believe I’m a princess and you didn’t have to go away and I’d kinda like to stay together lots and we’re friends and I’m all kinds of –.”
Jay gulps in breaths and presses tight against me, all of eleven, from far Outside the universe and ... my friend. Which means a lot of things, most of which I try not to think about too hard.
“You okay, kiddo?”
“I missed you!”
Nothing shatters. The house doesn’t explode. I relax a little: Jay can bind and unbind things to a degree that nothing human – not even magicians – can manage. “Jay, you had adventures with the magician.”
“But you weren’t there,” he flings out, pulling away to glare sightlessly up at me from behind dark glasses. “You’re my friend, and you went away again and it hurt!”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I manage.
“Oh! Okay,” and he grins at that, the kind of smile that every other smile is a pale echo of. Pure joy and trust.
“It’s okay, is it?” I say once I catch my breath.
“Uh-huh, Cuz I was worried but now I’m not and we can have more adventures!”
The wandering magician comes walking onto the property, slipping through a door in the chainlink fence I don’t think existed a few minutes ago. Nathen looks ordinary: it’s one of his talents, possibly not something involving magic. He’s carrying Jay’s white cane and tosses to toward Jay.
Jay senses the binding, catches it and grins even wider. “I brought Honcho,” he says proudly.
“Jay. We did leave the car back in town.” The magician pauses. “You might getting it and bringing it here?”
“I get to drive?!” Jay asks, bouncing from foot to foot.
“If nothing breaks. Yes,” he says, and Jay is gone in an inhuman blur back down the road. I think he might be singing Queen songs, but it’s hard to tell.
“You’re letting Jay drive,” I ask.
The wandering magician actually winces at that. “It seems the easiest way to keep him occupied.”
“We are in a forest. He could have had an adventure exploring it,” I say dryly.
“Yes, and probably found several monsters he wanted to be friends with,” he says, even dryer. “I thought it best we speak in private.”
“This is private?”
“The house isn’t listening,” and because he is a magician, or at leas the kind he is, he can speak truth that another can’t mishear. He rubs the bridge of his nose and sits down on the bumper of my RV. “I have apologized to Jay, even though Jay never understands apologies. I believe I owe you far more than that.”
“I left you with Jay after my actions left him blind. You’re his friend, yes, but he is bound to be in ways even Jay may not entirely understand. He wanted to travel with me – with you as well, but if he had to choose between us ....” he trails off.
“And Jay knows you know, which hurt him since he doesn’t want to hurt his friends. He was trying to hide how much he missed me, thinking he failed because you left, but – it wasn’t only him. A ten year old boy left for you to look after with on your own.”
“He’s eleven now.” I don’t know why it’s important to say, but I say it.
“Eleven, yes.” He doesn’t look up at me, hands clasped tight between his legs. “He was blinded, and you were left alone to help him come to terms with that, to cope with that. And to deal with him being Jay, all on your lonesome. I think,” he says, and looks up, “that it was grossly unfair of me to leave you to face the amount of dinosaur movies he subjected you to by yourself.”
I snort at that. “We did see Jurassic World many times. I have no idea if that’s part of him trying to be a normal human kid, or just being Jay. I doubt he knows either, really. And you’re right: you should never have gone.”
“I know.” He stands. Not Jay-quick, but he is quicker than one would expect, and his face is pale and hard for a moment. “And I won’t again.”
“I won’t do that again,” he says, and the fact has power threaded through it.
“Magician.” I take a deep breath. “We all make mistakes. Even you, or we wouldn’t be human. You can’t make a promise like that.”
“If I don’t, I might go again. Might hurt Jay again and – not be able to – or hurt you, and do the same. I’m good at hurting others, but I also have to live with it. To move beyond it.” And then he smiles a crooked magician’s smile full of unsaid things and spoken secrets. “If you will travel with us again, of course. I’m not about to impose, not after everything.”
“You think Jay is going to let me go?” I say, half-joking.
“He will need to let us go someday,” he says gently. “But for now – he would forgive, because he is Jay, but he would not understand.”
“Point.” I open my mouth to ask where he is going next when a blue car comes skidding through the mesh fence the security company put up around the property.
The magician spins as Jay comes barrelling out of the car, and forms a ward from the wind, the strength pf the house, other things I can’t sense at all.
“Honcho, I’m kinda,” Jay begins when the explosion hurls him right into and through the wards, to bounce several times until he hits the side of my RV with a shocked yelp.
I move around the RV as Jay picks himself up off the ground. His shirt and pants are torn, but he’s not actually hurt: he’s far tougher than anything human, but looks almost comically surprised and worried.
“I totally didn’t so that,” he says. “I thought the box was a present, but the bindings felt weird as I got closer but! I was busy driving and that’s pretty hard when you can’t see at all and are focusing a lot on bindings and then I was flying, only it wasn’t proper flying at all!”
The magician just walks to the smoking remains of the car. “Next time, Jay, please pay more attention to mysterious boxes put in vehicles. Even if you think they are presents for you.”
I walk over. “What were you two doing in town?”
“Nothing.” The magician holds out a hand, and pieces of plastic snap up from the wreckage to his grip. “I can use this to find who made the bomb and track them. I doubt it was intended for me if it was that obvious, but we’ll need to find out who.”
I stare at the wrecked fence, the smoking remains of the car. “I also need to get paid. It might prove difficult, given the fence.”
The magician smiles at that. “I think I can convince your employers to pay you.”
“Ah. Point.” I walk back to the RV. “You drive; I’ll catch up with Jay.”
He nods and walks over, getting in as Jay apologizes again for the explosion. I explain that everything is fine and it wasn’t his fault and Jay realizes the three of us are travelling together again and lets out a huge several squeal of bouncing joy and then sits down at the table and pouts.
“Jay?” I say warily.
“Neither of you said how good my driving was,” he says crossly.