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9:07 AM

 

“That’s the whole story? Really?” Sheriff Conan said with high skepticism “If I had any chance without those satellites in space, just… You’re lucky the poor bastard has a concussion and a cut cheek.”

You and me both, Conan.

Waking up to this was not how I wanted my day to start, but I had thoughts to get Robert’s lucky shovel and clobber the guy. Only thoughts.

Jaruka was lying on his back on the front lawn, holding a bag of ice to his head Katie got. “Tone your voice down,” Jaruka said, “this hangover needs attention. It might rupture a vein.”

“Attention? I’m the one needing attention here.”

“Get in line!”

See? The level of indecency and carelessness from Jaruka was toxic whenever drunk or recovering from being drunk. If me, Katie, and the totems weren’t surrounded by him, Conan could have started World War III. Or Armageddon. Or something.

I kicked Jaruka in the shoulder. He scowled at me with his gold and black eyes. Decorated and respected gunslinger of Nova Company my butt. The front of his shirt was almost covered in red wine stains. His skindreads looked more overgrown and swollen than a few days ago, several were stuck together on the left side of his head. His green skin looked paler than the deeper hue. He smelled horrible, like rotting oranges in the summer. Every day, Jaruka looked to be putting himself closer and closer to being admitted to the hospital. Katie and I couldn’t do shit about it, he refused to be helped.

“Look,” Jaruka said. “They guy had it coming. I saw him in the store minutes before Katie came. His voice irritated me, mumbling stuff so much my headache got worse. Do I want Ms. Walsh to get killed? Scott or Jonathan might blow their top. I saved her.”

“You’re missing the point, jerk. Katie was handling herself. She said so. You’re the one in trouble here,” I said.

“It’s better than him six feet under.”

“Unbelievable!” Katie said raising her arms.

The EMTs finished rolling the thief into the ambulance, but I heard one of them cringe. The thief’s right eye was covered in blood-stained bandages. Another EMT closed the doors and walked around to the front, the other stayed inside to monitor him.

“T-That’s how deep humans bury corpses, right?” Jaruka then asked.

“Wrong words,” Arana said from Katie’s shoulder. I was still not sure how Arana’s talons weren’t digging into her shirt. Or skin. My totem, Keeji, hadn’t said much. He kept on staring at the EMTs with his tongue sticking out.

Jaruka stood up fast catching me by surprise then looked down at Conan. “You humans suck. Listen, I’m done repeating my story. The thief is captured. Nobody’s dead. Let me ice this hangover for Goddess sake.”

“Call me Giorgio but I don’t buy it,” Conan said. “You might’ve felt murderous this morning, maybe Ms. Walsh annoyed you, or whatever you did in San Diego to make them angry. This could’ve been attempted murder.”

Jaruka cracked his neck. “Are you calling me a liar?”

“Are you, alien scumbag?”

Jaruka flexed his hands and balled them in fists. I then gripped his arm. “Easy, Jaruka. Remember the Spires,” Scott said.

“Damn them,” he growled with clenched teeth. He jerked his arm from me just as Conan’s partner walked up from their police cruiser.

“Conan, I found his identity,” Conan’s partner said.

“What did you find?” Conan asked but still stared up at Jaruka.

He paused before saying, “Oh, uh, can I wait?”

“Just say it, Cabral. I got this.”

Jaruka smirked.

“Name and face match a known fugitive in the database,” Officer Cabral said. “Guy’s a drug addict and four-time burglar across the county. Been unable to catch him until just now.”

Jaruka laughed and said, “Goddess granted me luck today. Conan, I’m in the bounty hunting business. Let’s talk about cashing in.”

“Oh no, not this time,” Conan said, and Jaruka’s smile diminished. “Rewarding a foreigner is not my responsibility.” The more he spoke, the more agitated he got. He was itching to start a fight. One finger on Jaruka’s green skin could prime the Titan Spires in space. One punch could fire one, or several. Conan is a stand-up guy and honorable, but Jaruka’s idiocy and shenanigans made him bitter and outspoken the past few months. The entire county police force was still dealing with high crime since The Wave, and none wanted to add Jaruka to their stress. So, it was left with Conan and Cabral to answer calls all related to him. I’d hate to hear how he got stuck with it.

“Hold this,” Jaruka said and shoved the ice pack into my chest. He got up to Conan’s face. “You wanna throw down! Huh? Is that it? Let’s do it. I can make a real punching bag out of you two seconds flat. Come on! Make your beer belly useful!”

Conan backed off. I caught his hand almost unclipping his sidearm.

Katie and I snatched each of Jaruka’s arms before he raised them. Keeji started barking. Arana flew off Katie’s shoulder. We were able to match Jaruka’s strength, despite my empty mana heart. Good thing the chest pains were gone.

“Drop it, man, it’s not worth it!” I yelled.

“Remember what Deryl said. Remember what Denverbay ordered,” Katie said.

“Crog them! Crog all of them! Let me at him.” Jaruka fought our grapple, but we kept at it, keeping a wide distance from Conan. I dug my heels before Jaruka leaned forward. With a grunt from both of us, we pulled Jaruka a few feet back.

“Wait ‘till I’m sober and whaling on your ass with a warhammer! Don’t you croging call me a murderer!”

“The fuck is a warhammer?” Conan asked.

“It’s not a croging joke!”

Conan shook his head and walked off with Cabral. “Forget this, we got our statements. Mr. Dunne, make sure you muzzle him with hocus pocus or something so he doesn’t chase us.”

They entered the police cruiser with Conan driving and drove through the open estate gates at the end of the driveway. The ambulance followed them with the sirens on.

Waiting outside the gate, the usual crackpots and alien fanatics that camped near Jaruka’s campsite were watching on. A mixed bag of people with what I can describe having fewer brain cells than a normal human. They followed every action of the six-foot-one Halcunac, chasing the pop-culture internet high.

“Jaruka, get a movie deal!”

“You showed that pig who’s boss!”

“Have my babies!”

One person I saw livestreamed as he spoke into a mic, wearing a big pointed tin foil hat.

Jaruka jerked away from our grasp, picked up the nearest rock from the garden, and threw it at them. “Go droll over someone else!” The rock missed one person. Jaruka then yelled when a jagged, overgrown skindread smacked his eye.

I had it and quickly slapped Jaruka on the back of his head, right over the stump behind his skull. He stopped, turned to me with a long “Ow” and a twitch in his left eye.

“Backyard. Now,” I yelled with a thumb jab.

“But those vultures.”

“Now, Jaruka! You and me. Keeji, Arana, get those guys away so Katie can close the gates.”

“Can do, buddy!” Keeji said, then ran and barked at them. Arana flew off from the yard’s embedded Wave crystal to follow Keeji. If the barks weren’t working, sharp talons were intimidating.

“You sure you can handle him?” Katie asked. “I can cast a binding spell if he runs.”

“I’m fine, just focus on the weirdos,” I said, before pushing Jaruka. “Move it!”

“Alright, alright! I’m going,” Jaruka said. Katie walked off, her arms charged with mana to create a shield to push them away.

We went to the estate’s backyard through the side path. The garden plots and raised beds bloomed with flowers various vegetables Brenda maintained. The backyard had an impressive view of the Temecula Valley and vineyards. Once out of sight from the crowd, I pushed Jaruka further in. He stumbled forward to the grass, a few feet away from the stone fire pit and lounge chairs, but kept his footing.

“Jesus, Jaruka, you had to do it again. You brain dead or something?”

“Those humans annoy me,” he said. “Every day I deal with their habitual praise and nonsense. You know, none of them contribute to your communities. Complete leeches.”

“Answer my question.”

He flipped his skindreads as he turned to me. “No. Look, just let this one go. Today’s a rough day for me.”

“Not this time, Jaruka. You’re in deep shit now. God, this is the third time we found you hungover in the warehouse. You drank five bottles. And this time you almost killed someone.”

“I saved Katie.”

“That’s not the point right now.”

Jaruka wobbled a little and leaned on one chair. “Are we done here?”

“No.”

He wanted to end the talk in any way, maybe wanted to knock me out and run to his Howler Cycle. Not now. He had respect from Nova Company, but certainly none from us. Four months of this and he was getting worse. He was supposed to help train Katie’s magic skills but never did. Keeping my spellbook to study wasn’t drawing any good conclusions why Katie and I are what we are today. Any other responsibilities he had were shoved into the dumpster for all I care.

“Get serious here,” I said. “You really wanted to hit Conan?”

“He started it. It got personal.”

“At what part? Again, you almost killed someone. What would happen if Denverbay found out? What if the President or the press found out?”

Jaruka slapped the chair at the fire pit aside in anger. “I maimed him! He wasn’t going to die. And if he was, it would be by my sword or gun. No death, no call for quill head. If any luck, he’s got time before his tattoo shows up and erase that scar away. And he better learn his lesson to read occasionally.”

“Slim chance.” I felt my tail whip from my anger.

Jaruka belched to the side, an uncomfortable one from him. “Kid, try living in my boots. Last night was rough.”

“Obviously,” I said. “What did it this time? Another conspiracy theorist got in your grill? Something about San Diego?”

Jaruka raised a finger to pause, and said, “San Diego.”

“Haven’t watched the news this morning. Better not be what I think it is.”

“It isn’t,” he said.

“Then say it. What happened?”

And so he shared what triggered his desire to drink hundreds of dollars of Walsh Estate wine.

He was observing a San Diego community in the suburbs. The dense populace was getting too scared of terrans that it drove divisions between helping them or ignoring them. To Jaruka, he was there to record events for Xi’Tra and the Archives, how far the transformations are changing human culture. To me, it sounded like he agitated some people, offended them, and made one police officer slug him in the chin.

That activated a Titan Spire. Nobody was killed, but a small city park was composted in seconds by the beam. From green grass and fifty-year-old trees to fertilized soil. He escaped before the authorizes pursued any further.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he answered.

I shook my head. “Jaruka, Earth isn’t your speakeasy, we’re not your babysitters, and you’re not above the law here. We’re trying our best with you and you keep fucking up every time. This is the third time drinking the wine without paying. In baseball, three strikes and you’re out.”

I was tired of hearing his story and I could picture what the morning news showed to people, making it a negative narrative and such

“Get Brill on the phone,” I said sternly.

Jaruka scoffed to the side. “Seriously?”

“I am.”

“Might not work,” he said. “He and Nova might be on contract and their Slipspace drive is isolated.”

In others words, a big fat childish no in my face.

“Get. The. Box,” I pressed. “Or I will.”

“Slipspace transmitter,” Jaruka said with an irritated tone. “Can’t you remember that?”

“Still an alien Pelican case to me. Go get it. I want to talk to him.” Maybe a chance for all of us to have some peace. “I want him and Denverbay to let us kick you out. We can’t let you ruin our lives like this every day. The morning news is enough already.”

“Haven’t you heard? We’re stuck like this un…” Jaruka paused. “You know what? Let’s try. See if Brill can convince the dunderhead to change the terms or a ticket off this blasted rock.” The certainty in his voice was mixed with rage. If Denverbay does change things, he could be relocated.

Jaruka belched again, but I noticed a wave of nausea on his face. “He now, just… oh gross!” I happened to get a whiff from the burp. Rotten eggs and vinegar. I gagged but kept my composure.

“Oh no,” Jaruka said. He grabbed his stomach and belched again, but then heard a gurgle from him.

“No! Not on the grass, not on the grass!” I yelled.

Jaruka rolled his eyes, crawled to the fire pit, and aggressively puked into it. The dark red wine mixed with the grey ash and light brown chunks and slurry of whatever he ate. Pudding? Bread? Both?

“Worthless,” I said.

“Am not,” Jaruka said, then threw up again.

 


 

Hampton Inn

Alexandra, Louisiana

9:31 AM

 

Crap.

I felt like utter crap. Insomnia fed on my stressed-out mind, toppled with a temple-pulsing headache. Still terrified. My body fought with my brain for sleep, but my brain was stern, for I still thought about the ghost from last night.

The cops haven’t found me yet, or not finding me? I thought to myself.

Alex was gone. He took his gear and luggage to the airport hours ago, already on a plane to Boston by now. My second ghost hunting partner, gone. A college friend. I had nobody then.

Did I go too far? I thought that every minute also.

The hotel’s lobby had a few people including me. I had a pastry as I nursed my coffee cup. My right leg kept jumping. I had so much adrenaline in me I’d run laps around the hotel if I wanted to. No, I had to wait for my friend to come. If anybody recognized me, there would be a real problem. Nobody hadn’t yet, or else they raise the same questions about my sister and the asshole alien.

Did Renée call the cops on me yet? The military? Pro-terran sympathizers?

The paranoia within me was strong.

Tabitha knew where I was and she could’ve told her, but I also didn’t know if she was conscious or not. I felt so sorry for putting Tabitha through that. How could I know how dangerous it could be?.

She was my true eyewitness proof ghosts are manifesting from terran magic. I screwed up.

If I needed to get out of this jam, I needed real help. I called a friend in the area without saying much. He was Tabitha’s friend too.

I’m a winemaker by trade. Ghost hunting is just a hobby. I was born, raised, and studied in college winemaking. I love it. Blending is my game. But I’m also an amateur spectrologist. I call the hobby that. It’s a break from pH levels, barrel tastings, and making sure Jaruka does swim in a fermentation tank.

This issue might end my hobby and stress buster permanently.

My leg stopped shaking once I noticed him at the lobby doors.

Todd Benjamin noticed me, reacting to my current state with great concern. I’ve known Todd for years, and it was Tabitha that introduced him to me. He was a local tour guide for his day job, jazz club pianist on weekends in Derry. His blood, his jokes, flows with Louisiana history, down to preaching the family tree up to before Louisiana was a state. I relied on him for local ghost stories and haunted locations whenever interested, but more so to chit-chat with at the bar. His hair got grayer and thinner by the years, but it heightened his age. The black man always wore a black shirt, slacks, and leather shoes. His favorite denim jacket was on, regardless of the weather outside.

He approached me saying, “God, son, you look like hell. Ran into a hooligan last night?”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, standing up fast to grab and shake his hand. The table was almost knocked over. Todd caught it. “I can’t say much. Shit happened last night.”

“Okay. Might not be as interesting as your home now. The news is up and arms on something.”

I closed my eyes and groaned. Dammit, what now… NO! Not right now!

“Don’t remind me,” I said.

“Christ, Robert, you sick or something?”

“No it’s… come on. It’s not private here.”

“Oh, that big!?” He asked low. “I’m sure Tabitha was a big help.”

She was.

We entered the elevator and I hyper-pressed the number two button like a mad man until the doors closed. I exhaled and leaned forward.

“Son, you’re scaring me,” Todd said.

“I had nothing but coffee and carbs. No sleep. Been scared to shit since last night.” I slammed my palm on the elevator wall. “Come on, move faster.”

“Stop scaring me, son. Is Tabitha okay? I-Is in trouble too?”

Looking up, I had nothing secure to say, or truthful. The elevator could’ve had their security camera on.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Trouble? No, I think, or… I just don’t know.”

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. I walked out fast to the hotel room with Todd trailing behind me. I stayed in the farthest room from the elevator or emergency stairs. It wasn’t a problem booking it, but now it was a bad mistake. The walk felt slower than before if the coffee or adrenaline altered time itself.

“Wait up, I’m not as young as you,” Todd said.

“Keep it down, Todd,” I whispered.

I slid the keycard into the door handle, yanked Todd inside, and closed the door fast.

“Fucking shitting my pants for twelve hours, Todd! Shit got real too fucking fast!” I screamed and walked into my disorganized hotel room.

Todd kept his distance. I’m not a mild-mannered man like Scott or peppy as my sister, but when I’m mad, people feel it.

“Jesus, Robert, what are you talking about?” Todd asked.

“Tabitha got hurt!” Just say the truth to Todd, that’ll start everything. “ Or I think she wasn’t hurt, or… something. Todd, this is important, but I need your help. Hear me out.”

I told him everything. It was hard describing the ghost with all sense of understanding, and to be frank, Todd was a bit sick of it. Just thinking of that wide mouth swallowing my head was hard to forget.

I’ve been working on this theory ever since I binged watched supernatural amateur videos after New Year’s. Mostly terran videos. Like their health, their tails, the fashion, like everything. Not much with the magic, Katie displays that every day. It was hard to sift through the xenophobic videos, burying the good ones with smear campaigns and utter dumbassery.

Several of them were gaining attention in blogs and charts, but not getting mass media attention. The terrans—some teenagers and one man that lost his fortune—were accidentally summoning ghosts. Real ghosts. Just so you know, ghost videos before the Wave exist but are mostly fake or inconclusive. I noticed patterns across all of them.

Terran charges up.

Terran’s mana burst of their tattoos by some unknown force.

Ghost manifests from the mana.

Terran feints.

Some ghosts were disfigured. Some could speak. Some did it both, like last night. Mine was a rare one, the violent kind.

Here’s the part I’m mad about. The major media hasn’t acknowledged it. No one. There was one newscast long ago of a specialist demonizing magic, and as he mentioned ghosts, the anchors cut the interview mid-sentence, straight to commercial. Later the specialist was gone. He tweeted he was escorted out as the studio threatened to sue for spreading slander that wasn’t true, even though he was there only to spread lies upon lies about terrans.

I couldn’t take it. I was too into it and I wanted real answers.

In comes Tabitha.

She was the only one willing enough to help support my theory. I heard she transformed weeks ago and then hid from her community, she was into blending terran magic with her voodoo practice for good intention, with insane and spectacular results, like blessings, rituals, and ideas for wedding ceremonies.

“…I drove her home unconscious with Alex, Todd,” I continued explaining. “The hospitals wouldn’t allow Tabitha in with that ban in place, and the terran hospital at the community center was full. I had to take her home. Reneé was there, and she freaked out seeing Tabitha in my arms. I left her on the porch couch with Reneé, then we had to speed out of the town before the whole neighborhood caught us.”

“Good Lord,” Todd said. He was quiet as I shared the story.

“Yeah. Thank God you came—”

“You’re a real dick!” He startled me. “Come on. Using Tabitha for this hair-brained theory of yours. What the hell were you thinking?”

“Everything! I thought of everything, Todd. I did not expect it’d be that fast.”

Todd looked he wanted to strangle me. “Robert, this is Tabitha you’re talking about. I should be up there seeing her, not seeing you.”

“Telling the truth was a risk and you know that.” Todd knows very well about me, my family, and him. “Please, Todd, I need help.”

“Nah, uh, not me.” He shook his head fast. “This is way out of line for you. So unlike you. Good luck explaining this to the cops.”

I stopped him before he got closer to the door. He pushed, and I pushed back. “Come on, Todd. This is important.”

“How? What’s important? Tabitha might still be in a coma.”

“Exactly. We don’t know, and I need to find out,” I said. “Look. Hear me out. Just go to Tabitha’s house and ask her to call me. Even check if Reneé called the cops and somehow call it off. I stuck my nose out for you plenty of times. I know I messed up, so just do this for me. Keep her and the neighborhood off my back until I’m in the air. You do this,” I choked before saying something I wanted to avoid since I woke up, “you and Tabitha will never hear from me again. I promise.”

Todd was the kind of man that would do anything for him. I knew him for years to gain his trust, but I had to give it up.

“I’m not your carrier pigeon,” he said.

“This one time, man. That’s all I need. I can’t go near the neighborhood and I’m certain people will recognize you. Come on, Todd, just this one last thing and I’m out of your hair for good.”

Money was an option. Community service was an option. Todd owed me a favor from way back debunking an old woman’s “haunted” house, but it was an unbolted copper water line hitting the frame and taking her to the hospital after noticing how bad her cognitive skills were. We saved her life.

Todd considered my offer. “This is it? We’re ending this here and now?”

“Yes,” I said. “You have my word.”

He thought for a moment, shaking his head. “Fine. I’ll do it. One time and done, Robert. Anything else, the first chance you call Tabitha, her sister, or me, then boom, off to jail. You clear?”

I nodded and shook my head vigorously. “Crystal.”

Todd then left without another word. I had hours before my flight home that night. The odds of it all turning against me were too great.

My paranoia came back and I had to sit on the bed to breathe. I wanted to sleep. My body refused.

“Please, just this once,” I said with teared-up eyes.

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