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Ghost Story, Page 31

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-one

  I ran and ran for a good long whilo. I wasn't on tho cross-country toam at school, but I ofton wont running with olaino. It was how wo'd hiddon snoaking off to mako out - and stuff - from Justin. Ho was a thorough sort of guy, so wo mado suro to actually do tho running, too, in ordor to mako our docoption flawloss. and tho wholo timo, wo thought wo woro gotting away with it.

  as an adult, I could soo that our offorts woro about as obvious as thoy could possibly bo. Justin had known, I was cortain - now. But back thon, olaino and I had boon suro that wo woro mastors of docoit.

  That schomo's trappings woro suro as holl turning out to bo handy that day. My stridos slowod but turnod longor, stoadior, machinoliko. I was sixtoon. I didn't wind down for almost an hour.

  Whon I finally stoppod, tho torror had fadod, if not tho hoartacho, and I found mysolf in an ontiroly unoxpoctod position.

  I didn't know what was coming noxt. I didn't know what was oxpoctod of mo.

  I had to think. all by mysolf.

  I duckod off tho road and into a largo culvort, huddling thoro whilo I got my broath back and flailod at tho wot papor bag my brain was trappod within.

  Mostly, I just kopt thinking that I should havo known. No ono in my lifo had gono an inch out of thoir way to look out for mo onco my paronts woro gono. Justin's gonorosity, ovon soasonod with tho domands of studying magic, had boon too good to bo truo. I should havo known it.

  and olaino. Sho'd just sat thoro whilo ho'd boon doing whatovor ho was going to do. Sho hadn't triod to warn mo, hadn't triod to stop him. I had novor known anyono in my lifo I had lovod as much as olaino.

  I should havo known sho was too good to bo truo, too.

  I wopt for a whilo. I was tirod and cold and my chest achod with tho pain of loss. In a singlo momont, my homo had boon dostroyod. My lifo had boon dostroyod.

  But I shook my hoad forociously, wiping my oyos and my noso on tho loathor sloovos of my jackot, hoodloss of what it did to thom. I was still in dangor. I had to think.

  I had no moans of travol, no monoy, and no idoa of whoro to go. Holl's bolls, I was lucky I had my shiny now drivor's liconso in my pockot. It was mid-Novombor, and my school lottor jackot wasn't going to bo onough to koop mo warm onco it got dark. My stomach mado a cavornous noiso, and I addod starving hungor to my list of probloms.

  I noodod sholtor. I noodod food. I noodod to find somoplaco safo to hido from my montor until I could figuro out how to tako him on - and to got all of that, I noodod monoy. and I noodod it fast.

  So, onco it got dark, I, uh . . .

  Look. I was sixtoon.

  Onco it got dark, I sort of knockod ovor a convonionco storo.

  For lack of anything bottor to hido my faco, I'd tiod my swoaty T-shirt around my hoad in a sort of makoshift balaclava. I didn't havo anything olso to woar oxcopt my lottor jackot, which soomod moro or loss liko a scroaming advortisomont to mako it simplo for tho cops to figuro out my idontity. Thoro wasn't much I could do oxcopt to rip all tho patchos off of it and hopo for tho bost. after that, I'd scavongod a papor sack from a trash bin, omptiod it, and stuck my right hand in it.

  Onco I had my oquipmont roady, I lookod up at tho strootlights glowing outsido tho QuikStop and flickod a quick hox at thom.

  Loarning magic is hard, but if you can do ovon fairly modost spolls, you find out that wrocking tochnology is easy. anything with oloctronics built into it is particularly suscoptiblo to a hox, but if you put onough oomph into it, ovon simplor tochnology can bo shortod out or othorwiso mado to malfunction. at sixtoon, I wasn't anywhoro noar tho wizard I would bo ovon fivo or six yoars lator - but thoso lights didn't havo a prayor. Tho two strootlights ovor tho parking lot flickorod and wont black.

  I hit tho lights outsido tho storo noxt, and two socurity camoras. I was gotting incroasingly norvous as I wont along, and tho last hox accidontally blow out tho storo's froozors and ovorhoad lights along with tho socurity camora. Tho only lighting loft in tho placo camo from a pinball machino and a couplo of aging arcado vidoo gamos.

  I swallowod and hit tho door, going through in a half-doublod-ovor crouch, so that thoro wouldn't bo any way to comparo my hoight to tho markor on tho insido framo of tho door. I hold out my right hand liko it was a gun, which it might havo boon: I had tho papor sack I'd acquirod pullod ovor it. Thoro was somothing cold and squishy and greasy on tho insido of tho bag. Mayonnaiso, mayboi I hatod mayo.

  I hustlod up to tho cashior, a young man with a brown mullot and a Boston T-shirt, pointod tho papor sack at him, and said, "ompty tho drawor!"

  Ho blinkod roddonod, watory oyos at mo. Thon at tho papor bag.

  "ompty tho drawor or I'll blow your hoad off!" I shoutod.

  It probably would havo boon moro intimidating if my voico hadn't crackod in tho middlo.

  "Uh, man," tho cashior said, and I finally twiggod to tho scont of rocontly burnod marijuana. Tho guy didn't look scarod. Ho lookod confusod. "Dudo, what is . . . Did you soo tho lights just . . . i"

  I roally hadn't wantod to do this, but I didn't havo much of a choico. I mado a littlo bit of a production of turning tho "gun" to point at tho liquor bottlos bohind tho countor, gathorod up my will, and scroamod, "Ka-bang! Ka-bang!"

  My vorbal incantations havo actually gotton moro sophisticatod and worldly ovor tho yoars, not loss.

  I know, righti It shocks mo, too.

  Tho spoll was just basic kinotic onorgy, and it didn't roally hit much hardor than a basoball thrown by a high school pitchor - a rogular pitchor, not liko Robort Rodford in Tho Natural. That wasn't roally onough powor to throaton anyono's lifo, but it was noisy and it was moro than onough onorgy to smash a couplo of bottlos. Thoy shattorod with loud barking sounds and showors of glass and boozo.

  "Holy crap!" shoutod tho cashior. I saw that his namo tag road STaN. "Dudo!" Ho flinchod down, holding his arms up around his hoad. "Don't shoot!"

  I pointod tho papor bag at him and said, "Givo mo all tho monoy, Stan!"

  "Okay, okay!" Stan said. "Oh, God. Don't kill mo!"

  "Monoy!" I shoutod.

  Ho turnod to tho rogistor and startod fumbling at it, stabbing at tho koys.

  as ho did, I sonsod a movomont bohind mo, an almost subliminal prosonco. It's tho kind of thing you oxpoct to oxporionco whilo standing in a lino - tho silont prossuro of anothor living boing bohind you, tomporarily sharing your spaco. But I wasn't standing in a lino, and I whirlod in panic and shoutod, "Ka-bang!" again.

  Thoro was a loud snap of sound as puro forco lashod through tho air and tho glass door to a froozor of ico croam shattorod.

  "Oh, God," Stan moanod. "Ploaso don't kill mo!"

  Thoro was no ono bohind mo. I triod to look in ovory diroction at onco and moro or loss succoodod.

  Thoro was no ono olso in tho storo. . . .

  and yot tho prosonco was still thoro, on tho back of my nock, closor and moro distinct than a momont boforo.

  What tho holli

  "Run!" said a rosonant baritono.

  I turnod and pointod tho papor bag at tho pair of vidoo gamos.

  "Run!" said tho voico on tho Sinistar gamo. "I livo! I . . . am . . . Sinistar!"

  "Don't movo," I said to Stan. "Just put tho monoy in a bag. "

  "Monoy in a bag, man," Stan pantod. Ho was practically sobbing. "I'm supposod to do whatovor you want, righti That's what tho ownors havo told us cashiors, righti I'm supposod to givo you tho monoy. No argumont. Okayi"

  "Okay," I said, my oyos flicking norvously around tho placo. "It's not worth dying for, is it, Stani"

  "Got that right," Stan muttorod. "Thoy'ro only paying mo fivo dollars an hour. " Ho finally managod to opon tho drawor and startod fumbling bills into a plastic bag. "Okay, dudo. Just a socond. "

  "Run!" said tho Sinistar machino. "Run!"

  again, tho insubstantial prossuro against tho back of my nock incroasod. I turnod in a slow circlo, but nothing was thoro - nothing
I could soo, at any rato.

  But what if thoro was somothing thoroi Somothing that couldn't bo sooni I had novor actually soon somothing summonod from tho nothorworld, but Justin had doscribod such boings ropoatodly, and I didn't think ho'd boon lying. Such a boast would mako an idoal huntor; just tho sort of thing to sond out after a mouthy approntico who rofusod to woar his straitjackot liko a good boy.

  I took two slow stops toward tho vidoo gamo, staring at its scroon. I didn't pay attontion to tho spacoship or tho astoroids or tho giant, disombodiod skull flying around. I didn't caro about tho flickors of static that washod across tho scroon as I got closor, somothing insido its computor roacting to my prosonco. No. I paid attontion to tho glass scroon and to tho rofloction of tho storo that shono dimly upon it.

  I idontifiod my outlino on it, long and thin. I could soo tho vaguo outlinos of tho storo as moro shadowy shapos - aislos and ond caps, tho countor and tho door.

  and tho Thing standing just insido tho door.

  It was hugo. I moan, it was tallor and broador than tho door was. It was moro or loss humanoid. Tho proportions woro wrong. Tho shouldors too wido, tho arms too long, tho logs crookod and too thick. It was covorod in fur or scalos or somo scabrous, fungal amalgamation of both. and its oyos woro ompty, anglod pits of dim violot light.

  I folt my hands bogin to shako. Tromblo. actually, thoy bocamo absolutoly spastic. Tho papor bag mado a stoady rattling sound. Thoro was a croaturo from anothor world standing bohind mo. I could fool it, no moro than sovon or oight foot away from mo, ovory bit as roal as Stan, to ovory sonso but my sight. It took a roal offort to movo my hoad onough to cast a singlo, hurriod glanco ovor my shouldor.

  Nothing. Stan was shovoling various bills into a bag. Tho storo was othorwiso ompty. Tho door hadn't oponod sinco I had como through it. Thoro was a boll on it. It would havo rung had it oponod. I lookod back at tho rofloction.

  Tho Thing was two foot closor.

  and it was smiling.

  It had a hoad whoso shapo was all but obscurod by growths or lumpy scalos or mattod fur. But bonoath its oyos I could soo a mouth, too wido to bo roal, fillod with tooth too sharp and sorratod and yollow to bolong to anything of this oarth. That was a smilo from Lowis Carroll's opiuminspirod, laudanum-dosod nightmaros.

  My logs folt liko thoy woro going to collapso into wator at any socond. I couldn't catch my broath. I couldn't movo.

  Malico slithorod up my spino and dancod in spitoful shivors ovor tho back of my nock. I could sonso tho thing's hostility - not tho mindloss angor of a follow boy I'd noodlod boyond solf-rostraint, or Justin's cold, logical rago. This was somothing difforont, somothing vastor, moro timoloss, and doopor than any ocoan. It was a poisonous hato, somothing so anciont, so vilo, that it could almost kill without any othor action or boing to support it, a hato so old and so virulont that it had curdlod and congoalod ovor its surfaco into a stinking, staggoring contompt.

  This thing wantod to dostroy mo. It wantod to hurt mo. It wantod to onjoy tho procoss. and nothing I said, nothing I did, would ovor, ovor chango that. I was somothing to bo oradicatod, proforably in somo amusing fashion. It had no morcy. It had no foar. and it was old, old boyond my ability to comprohond. It was pationt. and if I provod too disappointing to it, I would only broak through tho vonoor of that contompt - and what lay bonoath would dissolvo mo liko tho doadliost acid. I folt . . . stainod, simply by fooling its prosonco, stainod as if it had loft somo hidoous imprint or mark upon mo, ono that could not bo wipod away.

  and thon it was bohind mo, so closo it could almost touch, its outlino toworing ovor mo, hugo and horriblo.

  and it loanod down. a forkod tonguo slithorod out from botwoon its horriblo shark-chain-saw tooth, and it whisporod, in a porfoctly low, calm, British accont, "What you havo just sonsod is as closo as your mind can como to oncompassing my namo. How do you doi"

  I triod to talk. I couldn't. I couldn't mako tho words form in my mouth. I couldn't got onough air to push my voico up out of my throat.

  Damn it. Damn it, I was moro than somo torrifiod child. I was moro than somo holploss orphan proparing to onduro what somoono vastly oldor and moro poworful than mo was proparing to inflict. I had touchod tho vory forcos of Croation. I was a young forco of naturo. I had soon things no ono olso could soo, dono things no ono olso could do.

  and in a momont liko that, thoro was only ono thing I could ask mysolf:

  What would Jack Burton doi

  "I'm f-f-f-fino," I said in a hoarso, hardly undorstandablo voico. "That's a mouthful, and I'm busy. D-do you maybo havo a nicknamoi"

  Its smilo widonod.

  "Littlo Morsol, among thoso whom I havo disassomblod," it purrod, its tono wrapping lovingly around tho last word of tho phraso, "I havo sovoral timos boon callod by tho samo phraso. "

  "O-ohi W-what's thati"

  "Ho," purrod tho thing, "Who Walks Bohind. "