Adam Lee Binder
Adam shivered at the taste of black magic: battery acid and rotten blackberries. It mixed with the odors of cheap beer and cigarettes. Even the lake’s sweet air, wafting through the bar’s open windows couldn’t scrub it from the back of Adam’s throat. He shivered and wished he’d worn something thicker under the flannel button up he’d dug out of his closet. Forcing his fists to unclench, Adam tried to relax as he waited his turn at the pool table. He sucked at looking casual.
“I’m telling you—” said one of the two players. Keg-bellied and older, Bill took a long chug of cheap beer from a plastic cup. He wore a trucker cap emblazoned with a Confederate flag crossed by a pair of six-shooters. Greasy curls poked from beneath it. “There’s lizard men, what do they call them?”
“Saurians,” Adam muttered, watching the second player, Tanner, take his shot.
Tanner was closer to Adam’s age, around twenty-two. About six foot, a little taller than Adam, and sandy blond, he also wore a flannel with two buttons open at each end, showing off a clean wife-beater and hinting at a built chest. Tanner caught Adam looking, and his gaze narrowed.
Shit. Adam took a heavy pull from his cup to hide his face. He did not want to be read—not here, not now. This wasn’t that kind of bar, and he hadn’t driven all the way to Ardmore to get his ass kicked.
“… Under the airport there,” Bill continued.
“There are lizard people living underneath the Denver airport?” Tanner asked. He stepped back from the table so Bill could take his shot. Tanner flicked his eyes over Adam and smiled a knowing little smile.
David R. Slayton grew up in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where finding fantasy novels was pretty challenging and finding fantasy novels with diverse characters was downright impossible. Now he lives in Denver, Colorado, with his partner, Brian, and writes the books he always wanted to read. In 2015, David founded Trick or Read, an annual initiative to give out hundreds of books along with candy to children on Halloween as well as uplift lesser-known authors or those from marginalized backgrounds.
Adam blinked. Well, huh.
“Yeah, man.” Bill tugged on his cap and took his shot.
Tanner watched the results, but Adam’s eyes were on Tanner’s cue, specifically the band of jet and ivory at the middle.
Bone bound in iron, nasty work, even if Tanner didn’t seem the sort to trade in torturing magical creatures.
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“Damn,” Bill drawled as his shot missed the mark.
Tanner held the cue across his shoulders and stretched, giving Adam a peek at his heavy belt buckle and a bit of his flat belly.
“You just gonna watch?” he asked.
Adam took another gulp of beer to cover the hitch in his throat and said, “I’ll play the winner.”
“Aight.” Tanner positioned himself for another shot.
The winner was never in doubt. Lean hands gripped the cue, and Adam felt its magic stir. Adam needed that cue. Well, he needed to find the warlock who’d made it. The thing itself was vile. It had to be destroyed.
Adam cleared his throat.
Tanner looked up from beneath the rim of his ball cap.
“Thanks,” he said.
“It’s a custom job?”
“Don’t know,” Tanner said. “My dad bought it for me.”
Tanner lined up the cue, took a shot, then another, finishing off Bill in a few quick moves. Adam felt little spikes of magic as the cue did its work. It was made the same as the other artifacts he’d found, a pair of dice, a flask: bone sealed with bog iron, trapping the creature’s pain to power the charm.
Someone had maimed a magical creature so they could cheat at pool. Adam fought to keep a grimace off his face.
If that someone was who Adam suspected, then he was so much worse than the man he barely remembered.
Tanner slapped hands with Bill.
“You’re up,” he said, smiling at Adam.
“Cool,” he said, the hitch back in his voice. He reached for a cue.
“You meet Bill here?” Tanner asked. “He likes conspiracy theories.”
“I’ve never been to Denver,” Adam said.
He didn’t mention that he’d seen stranger shit than eight-foot lizard men, most of it in the Carolinas. But the Saurians were supposedly extinct. The elves had wiped them out in the Christmas War of 1983.
“It’s not a theory,” Bill said. “The government keeps ‘em secret. Five hundred kids go missing every year, and they cover it up.”
“That seems like a lot,” Adam mused.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tanner said, holding out a palm. “Pay up.”
Bill took two twenties out of his wallet. Tanner added them to a roll of bills and pushed it deep into his pocket.
“Still want to play?” Tanner asked, looking hopeful.
“Yeah,” Adam said.
The game went too quickly. Adam had expected to lose, but at least he got a closer look at the charm.
The cue held just enough magic to shift Tanner’s luck, building up a little charge as they played and altering his shots when it mattered most.
It was a subtle piece of magic, hard to spot, but that was Adam’s specialty. It didn’t hurt that the cue’s magic was similar to his own.
He didn’t cast much light, have much power, on the magical spectrum. Living under the radar, the things trying to hide there were obvious to him.
It needled him that he couldn’t tell what kind of creature the bone had come from. Nothing immortal though, nothing too powerful. That would have brought down the Guardians. They were most concerned with their own.
“You got me,” Adam said, reaching for his wallet. Forty dollars was steep, and money was tight. Between the gas and beer, this little trip to the state’s south end was adding up.
“Keep it,” Tanner said. He glanced at the clock, then back at Adam. He looked hopeful. A tingle moved over Adam’s skin. “Another game?”
Adam looked Tanner over. He hadn’t come here for pool. But maybe he could tease a little more about the cue from Tanner.
“I’ll just embarrass myself,” Adam said. “Want to take a walk?”
“Sure,” Tanner said. Smiling, he unscrewed the cue.
Adam couldn’t help smiling back. He hadn’t expected this. He’d come for the cue, following a lead from a trucker who’d lost hard to Tanner a few weeks ago. Adam felt that little catch in his throat that popped up whenever he got interested in a guy.
He couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t think Tanner had a gang ready to jump him in the parking lot, but he checked over his shoulder as they left the bar. Just in case.
“Nice night,” Tanner said, nodding to the lake. Glossy, it caught the starlight. The sky hung broad and bright over the flat Oklahoma landscape.
Tanner slung the cue’s canvas case over his shoulder as Adam led him toward the lake.
Scrub oak and cottonwood blotted the lights from the bar. Tanner moved like he knew where he was going, like he’d been there before, and Adam watched the shadows. He had a pocket knife, but nothing else in the way of a weapon if Tanner turned out to be other than he appeared.
The sounds of the bar—the Eagles’s “Heartache Tonight” and laughter—fell away. A muddy shore of driftwood emerged. Waves tapped the shore. The lake air, wet with a little rot and water-logged wood, slid across Adam’s skin.
He took a breath and resisted the urge to hug himself. He wondered how many guys Tanner had walked down to the lake, wondered if any of them hadn’t made it back. He could feel the cue, muffled by the canvas, but still there, still evil, even if Tanner didn’t seem to be. Appearances couldn’t be trusted. There were spells, glamours, that could hide a creature’s true nature, but Adam didn’t sense any magic around Tanner.
Adam opened his mouth to ask about the cue when Tanner asked, “Where are you from?”
“Guthrie,” Adam said, surprising himself by being honest.
“Really? You don’t seem small town.”
Tanner clearly meant it as a compliment, but Adam bristled, too aware of his time-stained jeans and beaten work boots that weren’t really black anymore. Guthrie was a good place to be from, but it wasn’t a great place to live, not when you were like Adam, in all the ways Adam was like Adam.
They neared the water. Realizing he’d gone too long without speaking, Adam let his shoulder knock Tanner’s, and asked, “How about you? Where are you from?”
“Ardmore, Oklahoma.” Tanner waved to the lake like a salesman unveiling a car. “I go to school down in Sherman.”
“Ah, big city college boy.”
“Not exactly,” Tanner said. “But bigger than Ardmore.”
Pausing, Tanner peered out at the water.
“What?” Adam asked, straightening.
“Just making sure we’re alone,” Tanner said. He did that little head duck, blush thing again and Adam sort of wanted to kiss him.
“Yeah?” Adam asked. He took a step closer.
Tanner put a hand to the back of Adam’s head, pulled him in, and angled his neck to press his lips to Adam’s. A little beer lingered on his mouth. Adam didn’t mind the taste.
He didn’t even feel the cue’s magic as the kiss deepened. Adam almost broke it to sigh. It had been too long since he’d been kissed, especially by a handsome guy. Tanner’s hand slid down Adam’s arm. He laced their fingers, surprising Adam. Adam pulled away.
“It’s too bad,” he said.
“About what?” Tanner asked. He looked hurt.
“We’re not alone,” Adam said, turning to the trees. “Hey, Bill.”
The other pool player stepped out of the shadows. Tensing, Tanner stepped back towards the water.
“What are you doing here?” Bill demanded. He crooked a finger at Adam.
“Same thing you are,” Adam said, glancing at Tanner, who stared wide-eyed. “Well, not the same thing.”
“Give him to us,” Bill said.
“Us?” Adam asked. Three shapes slid out of the lake. Wet, glossy, and tall. He couldn’t see much of their features, but the smell of water-logged wood deepened when they opened mouths full of spiny teeth.
Adam suddenly recognized the flavor of the cue’s charm and wanted to slap his forehead. Not for the first time, or even that evening, he wished he was better at this.
For months, he’d been gathering dark artifacts like the cue and destroying them, trying to find their creator.
“You’re supposed to be extinct,” he said. “It’s lizard bone, isn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?” Tanner asked. He couldn’t see across the veil, couldn’t see the Saurians lingering on the Other Side, ready to cross and put their claws to use. Their tails lashed the muddy ground, their yellow eyes cut with black veins.
“It is,” Bill said. “Though we don’t like that word, monkey.”
Clueless about the situation, Tanner looked from Adam to Bill.
“Stay close to me,” Adam told Tanner. “Don’t run.”
“I tried to warn you off,” Bill told Adam. Green veins marked his face as his glamour cracked. “Tell you we were here.”
“Yeah, you did,” Adam said, squaring his shoulders. “But I missed your hint, and I’m not going to let you hurt him.”
He tried to sound intimidating, but his voice faltered. There wasn’t much he could do against four of them. Adam wasn’t powerful like that.
“He has a piece of us.” Bill pointed a hooked finger at Tanner. “Cut from one of us.”
“He didn’t know,” Adam said. “He’s just a dumb human.”
“I have a 4.0.” Tanner protested.
“He’s using it to make money,” Bill said. A thick vein pulsed along his cheek.
“Yeah,” Adam said. “Nasty piece of work, that. I’m trying to find the warlock who did it.”
“Why?” Bill asked.
“To stop him from making more charms,” Adam lied. “From doing it to others.”
Adam didn’t think now was the right time to mention he thought the warlock might be his missing father.
Behind them, the heavy tread of Saurian feet scraped against the sand. Adam didn’t know if Tanner could hear it. His own Sight was imperfect. Sounds from the Other Side came through in funny ways, but the Saurians were close to crossing.
Tanner heard something. His eyes widened, trying see what wasn’t quite there.
“What are those?” he asked.
“Give Bill the cue,” Adam said.
“What?” Tanner demanded, voice pitching higher. “No. Why?”
“Tanner,” Adam said quietly. He could take Bill. Maybe. But if Saurians were endangered, not just extinct, how much trouble would killing one get him? The Guardians would surely frown on it.
“My dad gave it to me,” Tanner protested. His eyes fixed on the shadowy figures. They were almost through.
“And it’s about to get you killed.”
Adam pushed what magic he had into the veil, trying to slow the Saurians’ crossing.
“You have to trust me,” Adam said.
He could already feel the strain. He had so little power, but he kept pushing, willing the barrier between the worlds to thicken. The headache started, telling him he was at his limit.
“Fine,” Tanner said. He stepped forward, cautiously, and handed Bill the case.
Adam stood very still, glad Tanner had stepped away from the unseen threat.
“There must be retribution,” Bill said, black veins spreading.
“Give him his forty bucks back,” Adam said.
“That’s not enough,” Bill said.
“Give him the whole roll,” Adam said.
“I won’t,” Tanner said. “I need it for school.”
“You won’t make it back to school if they eat you,” Adam said.
“It’s not a joke.”
Adam eyed the Saurians.
Tanner fished the roll of cash out of his pocket and passed it to Bill.
Adam glanced at the Saurians arrayed behind them. They did not look mollified. Adam did not trust them not to circle around. They were in a gray space. Tanner wasn’t the warlock, but he had used the charm to make money. The Guardians could see it either way if the lizards extracted retribution.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Adam said, narrowing his eyes at Bill.
“Why?” Tanner asked.
“So he and his friends don’t hurt you,” Adam said.
Adam’s gut sank when Tanner didn’t argue. That they’d shared a kiss was reason enough to be afraid. Adam didn’t have to explain about supernatural dangers as they walked back to the bar’s parking lot.
“Was this some kind of a con?” Tanner asked. He looked sad, maybe a little afraid of Adam. “Like, he’ll give you a cut later?”
“No,” Adam said. “I was worried about you. Really.”
“What were they?” Tanner asked. “Those shadows?”
“It’s a long story,” Adam said. “And we both need to get out of here.”
“Could I call you sometime? Text you?” Tanner asked. “You could explain.”
“Sure,” Adam said, handing over his phone.
“So I’ll see you?” Tanner asked, handing it back, his number entered.
“Yeah,” Adam said, not certain he meant it.
Tanner walked away.
Adam’s phone blinked. He had a text.
Call me. Please.
Area code 303. Colorado. Bobby was his best guess. Adam didn’t know his brother’s number, didn’t have it saved in his phone.
His first instinct was to ignore it, but Bobby had said please. He’d texted instead of calling, putting the ball in Adam’s court, probably scared that Adam wouldn’t respond.
“Jackass.” Adam muttered.
He couldn’t remember the last time his brother had asked him for anything with please attached. Maybe it was Adam’s imagination. Maybe it was the prickle on the back of his neck, the Sight telling him something was up, but Adam got the sense that Bobby was afraid.
Blackstone Publishing, 2020
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