A cool breeze blasted Jack in the face. Shuddering, the young man shifted his merchandise to one hand and pulled his turtleneck up so it covered his chin. Better, but still cold. What was winter weather doing in autumn, anyway?
His breath came out in short, wispy puffs as he strode toward the benches. “Come on, guy,” he murmured. “Show up already. Lemme go home.” The things he did for his clients.
Funny thing was, though, he couldn’t pick his client out of the handful of people. The benches by the tracks were nearly empty. There were a couple of men and one lady, all waiting patiently for their train to arrive. But none were dressed nicely enough to be his buyer. Not rich and classy- just ordinary. Jack sighed, releasing more warmth into the morning air.
“Excuse me.” A man brushed past him, fumbling with a suitcase of his own.
Jack perked up at the voice. There was a slight accent in it, though he couldn’t identify it for the life of him. Still, he grinned and caught the newcomer by the shoulder. “Hey, Pal. Hold up. What’s your rush?”
Bloodshot eyes blinked back at him. “Why?” The man was well-dressed in a long coat and fine scarf, making his scruffy hair and unwashed face stand out. The agitation in his eyes only brightened Jack’s mood.
Very rich, and apparently on the verge of withdrawal. And the scarf was deep green, just like they’d agreed on. Target acquired.
“Took you long enough. I was beginning to think you were a no-show.”
The man gave him a quiet, careful look up and down before pulling out of his grip. He murmured something that sounded like “no magic” and stalked toward a bench, plopping his suitcase down beside him.
Oh, Jack had the magic he needed all right. But as a respectable, high-class drug dealer, Jack could understand if his new friend wanted to be subtle about the exchange. He watched the blond man slump forward and rest his head in his hands. “Tch.” That wouldn’t do. He waited for a few moments, to be sure no one was looking at them, and made his way to the same bench. “You really need to relax, huh?”
“All right, all right. I can take a hint. I’ll get out of your hair.”
The client, one Randal A. Baxter, nodded once and grumbled a “thank you.” There was more than a little relief in it, and strained shoulders began to relax. He didn’t look up.
“No, thank you. Enjoy your downtime, Sir.” Jack set the case of drugs down by his client’s feet. Then, gingerly, he took the handle of Mr. Baxter’s suitcase. When there was no response, the dealer shrugged, picked up his payment, then left.
A shout filled the air as he pushed the station door closed behind him. “Hn. Hope no one slipped onto the tracks again.” Ah well, the next train wouldn’t arrive for another hour. Nothing to worry about. Jack hummed to himself, mood lifted in spite of the weather.
There was a coffee shop nearby. He decided to treat himself to the biggest hot cocoa money could buy.
The walk was a brisk, short one, taking him down a street lined with quaint little stores of all kinds. He allowed himself the time to window shop, thinking of all that could be bought with the bundles in his suitcase.
Wait. Blast it all, he’d forgotten to check the case first. His clients all touted themselves as honorable businessmen, but this guy was new. And a good dealer always made sure. Jack swung the case onto a table outside a frou-frou café. There was no one dumb enough to eat out here either, when it was so cozy inside. He reached to undo the clasp.
It didn’t budge. Frowning, Jack pulled harder.
“He locked it. I can’t believe he locked it.” Not when a key hadn’t been included. Grimacing, Jack took another look around and slipped a set of tools from his pocket. He tugged his gloves off. It didn’t look complicated. Just an ordinary case with a stubborn lock. Sure enough, it gave a satisfying click moments later.
Hand still on the top, Jack turned to see his client charging head-long down the street. That was new. Usually customers put in a complaint if they weren’t satisfied. Jack opened his mouth, ready to offer compensation, when he saw the man reach into his coat.
Not good not good not good-
He spun on his heal and ran, vaulting away from the crazy person. But for a guy that looked ready to collapse, his pursuer was fast. Too fast. “We can talk about this!” he yelled over his shoulder. “Just keep that thing where it is- no one has to get hurt!”
The man was still trying to close the gap, desperation scrawled over his face. “Don’t open it!”
“Wha?” His boot caught on the edge of the sidewalk. “Gck!” Jack threw his arms forward to catch himself, sending the suitcase tumbling out into the street. It came open.
Sprawled over the cobbled road, Jack groaned and pushed himself up to his knees. He looked toward his case and, upon finding it, went completely still.
Something long, black, and shiny squirmed out from beneath it. The thing was about as thick and long as his arm, scuttling on tiny legs that clicked against the ground. It stopped inches in front of him and tilted its head.
A wide, jagged mouth opened, sending Jack scrambling back. “G- gyuh- geh?”
“Thankssss,” it purred, eyeing him. It began to creep up his knee. “Want to help mooore?”
Before he could sputter at it again, a bright, loud shot of something slammed into the creature, sending it tumbling away. Jack looked up to see the man standing over him, aiming a pointed stick at the… whatever that thing was. “What’s going on?”
“Imbecile! Do you have any idea how hard I worked to catch that?” He snapped the stick- no, the wand- forward, and fire spiraled out. The centipede-like animal scurried out of the way. “Do you have the slightest inkling, you thieving wretch?”
“No?” He should have been picking himself up. Should have been running. Instead, Jack found his mind was flat-lining. No explanation was coming to him. He stared blankly as the creature surged forward again, meeting the next blast of light head-on.
It exploded into a cloud of buzzing insects- hundreds of them- and swarmed the other man. Wide-eyed, Jack watched the man scream and drop his wand to claw at his face.
Scores of tiny cuts opened across pale skin, blood beading like sweat. The man who was most certainly not a client tried to cover his mouth and nose, but it was too late. They slipped between his fingers and down into his throat, up his nostrils, into his ears- until he fell beside Jack, writhing in agony.
Jack could see them slithering under the skin, working their way deeper. He watched in stunned silence, unable to tear himself away. He watched until the screams had turned into muffled groans. Then, finally, the man lay still.
“H-hey.” He reached out with a trembling hand. “You still alive?”
“Wand.” There was a raspy cough. “Get it. Quickly.”
Jack staggered to his feet and scooped it up. “Got it.” Maybe it was shock, or just morbid fascination. Whatever it was, he felt like he had to stay. “Now what?”
“Help me up before they come.”
Sure enough, there was a couple peering out of a café window, looking confused as they rose. Jack crouched and forced himself to slip an arm around the man’s shoulders. “Going up. Hold on.” He got a grunt in response, and together, they stood.
“You aren’t my buyer, are you.”
The man gave him an exasperated look. “No.”
“Right. Ah, sorry about… all of this. What’s a mage doing way out here, anyway?”
“Taking a mind-eater into custody.”
“In a suitcase?”
The mage waved for him to start walking, gritting his teeth. “Magic suitcase. Had to be… inconspicuous. Keep going. We’ll use my associate’s house to set up.” He shuddered. “We must destroy it now.”
A soft chorus of shrieks came from inside the wincing mage. The mind-eater wasn’t happy to hear that, Jack guessed. “You going to be okay?”
“Probably not.” Stifling a cough, his companion held on tighter. “Walk faster.”
The mage’s associate was not home. Jack made quick work of the lock, however, and hauled them both inside. Grunting, he propped his burden against one of the many, many shelves lining the shop. “Your friend lives in a bookstore?” He had to admit it was charming, in an old-fashioned kind of way. All of the woodwork was hand-carved, and an outdated register sat perched on the check-out counter.
“Attic.” The mage squeezed his eyes shut, grasping at his throat. He’d been trying very hard not to cough this whole time. “There’s a cord in back. Pull it.”
Jack obeyed, though he paused at a particularly colorful collection of literature. He let out a low whistle. “Your friend must love picture books.”
Another muffled cough from the storefront. “Are you insinuating she’s a purveyor of erotica? Because I assure you-”
“Children’s books. Mind out of the gutter, old man. Heh.” Jack’s laugh sounded weak, even to him. This was all his fault.
Spotting the rope near a reading chair in back, he reached up and gave it a pull. A panel dropped open, and he had to jump to avoid having a ladder dropped onto his head. It thumped against the floor. “Got it.”
Steeling himself for the trip up, he made his way back to where he’d parked the mage. “So, what’s your name?” Anything to lighten the mood.
“Whit. Whit Merin.” There was another painful bout of coughing before Whit accepted Jack’s help again.
“The name’s Jack Hopper. Just take it nice and slow, and I’ll have you up there in no time.”
“Good.” Whit’s head lolled forward. “We’re nearly out of it.”
Getting a fully-grown man up a ladder was comparable to dragging a dead horse uphill. Not. Easy. But Jack bit back any complaints he wanted to make. For while he was doubled-over, sucking in air, Whit lay still and quiet over the wood paneling.
“Still with me?”
“For now.” He grabbed weakly at his head. “Once it destroys enough of… of my mind I won’t be able to… hold it. You must destroy it before that hu- … happens.” It was getting harder for Whit to string sentences together.
Jack finished pulling the ladder up after them, dreading his next question. “How?”
“Book. Blue and yellow, top shelf… by the wind.”
Whit sucked in a breath, trying to stay awake. “Window. Third chapter circle, fifteenth fire. Use mine.”
“Use your wand, you mean?” Jack frowned. He took the lack of response as a ‘yes.’ That had gotten him in trouble once today, but he had to keep going. He stepped over to a small, much older shelf that sat beside a bed. Books were pulled out one at a time, tossed into a pile until he found the right one. It was an ornate thing no bigger than his palm. The print inside was also small. He flipped to the chapter labeled “Containment Circles.”
“Whit? Hey, Whit?”
“I’m not a mage. You know that. How am I going to set this up?”
The whites of the man’s eyes were red now, clouded by the breaking vessels behind them. “Lone… luh… loaned you… some.”
Jack straightened, book in hand. Come to think of it, he had felt tingly the whole way here. “Oh. I thought that was guilt.”
“Please hurry.” It was all he could do to whisper now.
Nestling the spell book in the crook of his arm, Jack began pulling jars off a nearby stand. They were lucky, he thought, that this other mage labeled her equipment so clearly. He uncorked the first jar, sniffed, and winced at the bitter smell. The powder inside was poured out until it made a circle around Whit. Other ingredients were sprinkled quickly, and Jack discarded them.
“Hey.” He clapped the dust off his hands and squinted at the book. “This last part. Is this Latin?” Whit hadn’t needed words, before, but this did seem like a beginner’s manual.
No response. Oh, that really wasn’t good. Jack turned.
Whit was flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling. His hands were clenched at his sides. His lips had pulled apart, and they let out short, wet sounds.
“Hey. Hey- are you choking?”
As he moved closer, Jack could see the squirming bumps surfacing beneath Whit’s skin. They were clustered at his throat, crawling toward his open mouth.
Jack swallowed and began spouting off the spell as best he could. His tongue caught on some of the words, forcing him to start over once, twice, three times… Finally, he got it. He must have, because a soft glow surrounded Whit.
The beast shrieked again through its hundreds of mouths. More, this time. Had it multiplied?
Jack tore a handful of pages out on his way to the fifteenth chapter. “Fire. Got it! Just- just hang on a little longer.” His eyes darted back and forth between the pages. It was all he could do to make sense of the words, fear buzzing loudly behind his skull. When he reached the page’s end, his breath caught.
It was exactly like Whit had said. A fire spell. The lesson was basic, yet Jack couldn’t bring himself to point the wand. “This is going to kill you,” he breathed. Realization settled like lead in his chest. “You want me to burn it inside of you.”
If the mage heard, he gave no indication. A bug peeked out from the corner of his mouth.
“I didn’t mean to,” Jack managed. “It was just a deal. I was just doing business. I…”
No. No, he couldn’t kill a man for his mistake. Jack Hopper was not a murderer. He knelt stiffly and spread the torn pages out on the floor. What was it that had caught his eye, before?
There. There, in one of the middle chapters, was a banishment spell. Whit had said to use fire, but Whit had said that with a small army wriggling around his brain. He couldn’t be expected to remember all the options. This sounded promising. Worth a try, at least. One try, and then he’d use the fire. Yeah. Just one try.
Handfuls of bugs had gathered at the circle’s rim now. They hissed and seethed, scurrying back and forth. There were still so many inside Whit, though. The man’s skin crawled with them.
Jack skimmed the passage, raising the wand the instant he found his spell. Time to finish this.
The words sprung from his lips perfectly. While he spoke, light shot from the wand and ignited the circle in a myriad of colors.
The bugs convulsed at that. As if returning to life, Whit arched up off the floor and screamed. He fell onto his side and began coughing up bugs. The coughs increased until he was vomiting thick clots of the creatures. They poured out of him, filling the circle-
And then it broke. All at once, the lights and colors stopped. The containment circle had burned out.
The wand trembled in Jack’s grip. Frantic, he tried to flip back to the fire spell.
A thousand, little laughs circled him as the insects swarmed. They pooled together at the window sill, forming the mind-eater once more. It sneered at Jack. “Wrooong chooooice,” it hissed, before slipping out.
He watched it dissipate again, bugs flying off in every direction.
Whit was moaning. Feeling colder than he ever had, Jack crawled over. He touched the man’s shoulder.
Whit stared past him, shivering. “Wrong choice,” he echoed.