Fred Johnston was dying. His body was failing but he was cheery, grateful for his family, his friends, and his threescore and eight years. He wasn’t showing us a brave face, it was his face--the face of the optimist, the good friend, the caretaker. Fred was making his passing easier for everyone around him.
I sat at his bedside and listened to the stories, waiting for punchlines I knew by heart. My inner despair and frustration were boundless. I could cure his illness. I could restore his vitality. I could, but I couldn’t. It’s not allowed.
Yes, the Order of Merlin has reasons for the prohibition, but the pleading eyes of his family were almost too much to bear. “Please, can you do something?” his wife and daughter asked. I could only shake my head, adding to my feelings of guilt and betrayal.
My car was in the visitor lot at the end of the long low building and I resigned myself to a miserable slog to reach it. As I stepped out from under the roof, the sleet attacked my skin like a swarm of biting insects. I pulled up my collar and hunched inside my coat to protect my face and ears. The snowy slush splashed with each step. Another wonderful night in paradise.
As I turned down the main aisle of the parking lot, a short broad man wearing a dark watch cap and parka stepped out from a row of cars. I altered my path to give him a wide berth but he moved to cut me off.
I really don’t need this tonight.
I raised my shields and stood in the middle of the aisle, waiting for the inevitable confrontation. At least the shields protected me from the sleet. I sighed loudly and activated the recording system. The paranormal device in my coat would capture full video and audio even under these crappy conditions.
The man stopped a few paces from me and glared upward, radiating fierceness. I waited, hoping the sleet would freeze his eyeballs.
We stood there, mano a mano for a minute or so before he broke the silence. “Gimme your wallet and car keys.”
I sighed again and shook my head. “You don’t want to do this.”
“The hell I don’t!” he challenged. “Hand them over or I’ll shoot your sorry ass.”
“Look, don’t screw with me tonight. I’m cold. I’m tired. And my friend just died in there,” I said, nodding toward the low building.
The man pulled a black automatic from his parka, holding it sideways, ‘gangsta’ style. “You’re gonna join your friend in about ten seconds. Wallet. Keys. Now!”
I considered several options for ending the confrontation peacefully but this guy was pissing me off. Screw it, he can choose his own fate. I gestured and a shield spell blocked the pistol barrel just in front of the cartridge. I shook my head and walked away.
The enraged gunman pulled the trigger and the pistol disintegrated with a red-orange flash. The man staggered as flying steel carved bright red gashes across his parka and face. He stood there for a moment, stupidly staring at his ruined hand before collapsing in a heap. Blood and hot metal steamed in the slush.
“Another Darwin Award winner!” I muttered as I resumed my uncomfortable trek toward the car. As I walked away, my thoughts oscillated between guilt and grim satisfaction.
As I crossed the next aisle, my shields were rocked by a blast of paranormal fire. Shield tattoos flared in crimson fury as the flames washed around me, vaporizing ice and blistering paint on the nearby vehicles. Flashing auto lights, shrieking alarms, and the newly created fog created a surreal tableau. When I turned to confront my attacker, I was surprised to see a wand-wielding teen hurling bolts of fire and lightning against my shields. I watched her curiously, evaluating her efforts to turn me into charcoal. Level three ability. Not much control. Excellent stamina, though. Why hasn’t the Order found her?
I used a spell to silence her wand and the girl looked at it impatiently, flicking her wrist to make it work again. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Shaking it won’t help.”
The startled girl realized things weren't going as planned and she turned to run. I shook my head and created a patch of black ice. Feet flew backward and her yell of frustration cut off abruptly when she slammed into the back of an SUV.
I moved quickly across the aisle and grabbed the back of her coat, dragging her upright. She was a foul-mouthed fury, punching and kicking at my shields. I slapped away a flip knife and slammed her against the SUV to quiet her down. “Are you stupid? Blasting at me will earn you a mindwipe in any paranormal court!”
“You killed my brother!” she yelled, pointing to the gunman.
“He’s not dead, you twit! And you should be helping him not fighting with me.”
“I don’t know how,” she said defiantly, still kicking and fighting. I stood there, holding the furious teen as she continued to curse and struggle.
I considered her words. This unlicensed adept was clearly living outside the strictures of the Order. Could this be an opportunity to bring paranormal medicine to the Normal population? I released the girl and she landed in the slush with a yelp and a curse.
“Grab your stick and follow me. It’s time you learned a socially acceptable skill.”
I turned and walked toward the gunman. The girl picked up her wand and moved in the opposite direction.
“If you run, your brother will die.” I said without turning. “Your choice. Your conscience.”
The girl hesitated then followed resignedly.