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Dead Endings Book 2: Chapter 1

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #030 back issue.

The heady balm of summer was thick in the air, and the sounds of the city bled dreamily into the babble of animated walkers taking advantage of the warm weather. One particularly popular establishment flashed green and gold as passing car lights illuminated the burnished copper lamps and frosted glass façade.

“Tell me again why we had to come all the way to the East Side,” Cailen grumbled

Gabriella rolled her eyes and bent down to adjust a skewed seam on her silvery sheer tights. She straightened, the metal bangles on her wrist jingling as she seized the enormous brass handle. “You didn’t have to come, you know.”

“Duty,” Cailen sighed, smoothing back her bangs.

“Honor.”

“Booze?”

Gabriella grinned over her shoulder. “They do make good cocktails.”

She hefted the door open and Cailen slipped past it with her, a jangling pulse of music enveloping and welcoming them inside.

The interior of the bar was a bit of a shock after the dated, “1940s train station” feeling of the entryway. Cailen paused just over the doorjamb in a kind of involuntary appreciation for the sight that awaited her.

Wall to wall enameled brickwork polished to a gleam ran the length of the narrow bar. It arched in places like the infamous, secret City Hall 6-train station, the ceiling rising and dipping over dark wooden booths that lined the walls. An elegant oblong counter dominated a center space, back-dropped by hundreds of bottles of all shapes and sizes. Cailen suddenly felt the trip worth the effort.

Gabriella wove around a somber-looking group of aging hipsters and beckoned Cailen to join her at the bar.

“Looks like he’s not here yet, so might as well have a drink.” Gabriella gestured to catch the eye of one of the bartenders and grinned when he waved back. “And an introduction,” she added as Cailen slid in next to her.

“Ladies,” said the bartender as he approached.

He was older than they–perhaps in his early 30s–but his unlined face exuded a calm aura that made him seem wiser than his years. A half-smile quirked his lips as his shaved head gleamed in the lamplight.

“Cailen,” Gabriella said, “meet Jason. Jason makes excellent Old Fashioneds and…happens to be in our line of work.”

Cailen eyed the man curiously. He’s a member of the psychic ghost crowd? she wondered.

She still wasn’t sold on the “spirit community” idea. Reaching out to other sensitives had always been Gabriella’s bag–Cailen had never wanted anything to do with the other poor bastards plagued by spirit powers, just like she’d never wanted anything to do with the asshole ghosts who haunted her. But after the events of the previous fall, it was hard not to harbor a bit more of an open mind about what she could do and the people who could help her. She was maybe willing to glance past the velvet ropes to spy on Gabriella’s Afterlife Club.

Especially if it led to things she really was interested in.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Convince me.”

“Well,” Jason began. “I can see gh–”

“No, no,” Cailen interrupted. “Make me an Old Fashioned. I don’t doubt you see dead people.” She tapped her temple. “You got a sort of thousand-yard stare at the mere mention of them.”

Gabriella threw her a long-suffering look, but Jason’s smile widened. “As you wish,” he said with a flourish, and turned his back to them to mix the drink.

Cailen gave Gabriella the thumbs up. “Tell me this is all followed by a kebab guy who gets visions while grilling meat.”

Her friend sighed. “I have to work on your manners before letting you out of the house next time.”

Cailen shrugged it off. “So what’s his deal, anyway?”

“He’s an old friend. Met him at the Laundry a couple of years ago.”

“You connected with this dude over a washing machine? You sure he likes your company and this isn’t some long con for your unmentionables?”

“Not a laundry–the Laundry,” Gabriella corrected. “I’ll tell you about it later. I just figured he’d be a good candidate for Everett to interview.”

Cailen laughed. “He’s still pretty determined about all that, huh?”

“You don’t know the half of it. Everett’s been bugging me for weeks to introduce him to other sensitives, but you know what it’s like. Most people aren’t keen to talk about this stuff, and especially not to someone who wants to publish a book about it.”

“But Jason’s cool with it?”

“Pretty much. His talent isn’t what you’d call extreme, so he’s not really bothered by it all. He–”

Jason returned with two tumblers of dark amber liquid, each garnished with a flawless wedge of orange and a single, glistening maraschino cherry. Perfectly cylindrical chunks of ice clinked against the glasses as he set them down. Cailen inspected the offerings with a professional eye.

She took a sip and let the mixture of rich bourbon, citrus notes, and muddled sugars play on her tongue. Both Gabriella and Jason looked at her expectantly as she set down the glass.

“You pass,” she said magnanimously.

He bowed with equal solemnity.

“Anyway,” Gabriella cut in, “thank you, Jason. These are perfect. But the guy we discussed before isn’t here just yet, and we don’t want to hog your counter space, so we’ll send him over when he arrives. I’ll be back to chat after that, too.”

Cailen flashed her credit card. “I will also be back. For more of these. Many, many more of these.”

He grinned, accepting the plastic. “My services are yours to command.”

Jason waved them off toward the booths; they slid into an empty one away from the press of the crowd. The raised sides of the seating made conversation significantly easier to hear than when they’d been at the bar.

“You were saying?” Cailen prompted, leaning back.

“Ah, right, his ability. He’s on what you’d call the lower, passive end of the spectrum.”

“There’s a spectrum?”

Gabriella considered a moment, and then spread her arms wide. “It’s like…”

Cailen’s eyes followed the path of the hand holding the Old Fashioned. “A rainbow?” she suggested.

“More like a…T-graph thing. Here…” Gabriella liberated the napkin from under her glass and spread it out on the table. Using the condensation on the side of her glass, she drew a crude upside-down T on the thin paper. She then snagged the salt and pepper shakers from against the wall and used the salt to weigh down one half of the napkin with the pepper on the other.

“This side,” she said, pointing at the salt, “is what I’d call ‘active’ abilities. The pepper side is ‘passive’ abilities.”

Cailen sipped thoughtfully on her drink. “Let me guess–you’re ‘active’ and Everett is ‘passive’?”

“Exactly! Active abilities are ones that let you do stuff to spirits or objects.”

“Like exorcising ghosts…?”

Gabriella’s bronzed curls bounced as she nodded. “Yep. Anything that you ‘use’ per se. On the opposite end, people with passive abilities just see or hear or sense spirits. They don’t activate their ability so much as it’s just a part of their everyday perception.”

“Would that all this crap had an on-off switch,” Cailen sighed. “But,” she said, brightening a bit, “if Everett is on the passive side…”

Cailen made a small spot on the napkin using a droplet from her own drink. It was very, very close to the bottom of the graph.

“…he’s about here, and I’m, like, here, right?” She made another spot, this time well above the tiny mark by the bottom.

Gabriella chuckled and shook her head. She pointed at a space in-between the two spots and directly on the line between the salt and pepper shakers.

“Everett has probably one of the weakest…and weirdest abilities I’ve ever encountered, so you’re not far off there, but until recently you were only just above him. And now that you can do that neat little ‘cage’ trick, you get to straddle the line closer to the cool kids’ side!”

Cailen pushed her bangs off her forehead to better give her roommate an injured look.

“And Jason?” Cailen grumbled.

“Low passive,” Gabriella said, making a mark just above Everett’s spot. “He can see ghosts, but only in reflections.”

“Like mirrors?”

“Mirrors, water, metal…anything with a shiny surface, really.”

“Sweet cheesus,” Cailen said. “Seems worse than seeing them outright, somehow. No wonder he’s a bartender. I’d surround myself with wall-to-wall booze, too, if I caught creepy glimpses all the time–that’s some scary shit.”

Gabriella laughed. “It’s not that bad. Ghosts seem to like active types better, so it’s not like he gets stalked or anything. Sometimes he just sees people who shouldn’t be there.”

“I dunno, think about glancing down into the toilet before you sit to–”

“Gabriellaaaaaaaa!” cut in a loud voice over the music.

Cailen jolted at the same moment Gabriella did, losing a few precious drops of her drink. She stared regretfully at the spatter of alcohol.

Gabriella stood. “Everett!”

Everett Jung bounded over through a growing opening in the crowd. His tanned face beamed at them over the popped collar of a teal polo shirt.

“Cool spot!” he declared, sliding in next to Cailen.

“I thought bars were supposed to be kid-free zones,” Cailen said.

Everett sniffed and produced a trim little wallet that appeared to be made of some kind of scaled animal. With a flourish, he flicked it open to the I.D. window. A crisp-looking New York driver’s license with Everett’s grinning face stared out at them. Gabriella plucked it out for a closer look.

“Seems you’ve had a few birthdays since we saw you last,” she remarked dryly.

Cailen took it from her and eyed the date with incredulity. She laughed.

“It’s not a bad fake, but, uh…”

“…you barely look eighteen as it is,” Gabriella finished for her.

Everett snatched the card from Cailen’s hand and tucked it back into the wallet. “Just you watch,” he said.

Gabriella shrugged and stood. “Your funeral, kid. C’mon, I’ll introduce you to Jason.”

Cailen followed them back to the bar, where Jason was polishing glasses in a lull. Gabriella presented Everett to him. Everett shook the bartender’s hand vigorously.

“Thanks so much for agreeing to meet me,” he said. “I’m ready and just DYING to hear your story!” He knocked Jason a half-step back, possibly from the sheer force of his accompanying smile. “And I’ll have a drink as well, my good man!” he added quickly.

Cailen watched this last part of the exchange over the top of her glass with great interest.

The mention of a beverage seemed to free the bartender from Everett’s toothy spell. “I.D.?” he prompted.

Everett’s smile slipped a little, but he fished out the wallet again and handed it to Jason. Jason removed the license. He looked from it to Everett and back again.

“Arnold Palmer or Shirley Temple?” he asked.

“…Shirley Temple,” Everett said sadly.

Gabriella patted Everett in consolation. “Right, then,” she began. “We’ll leave you two to–”

“NO ONE CAN TOP MINE!” bellowed a man.

Cailen’s eyes rolled to the source of the voice.

At the opposite end of the bar, an eclectic gathering of 20-somethings listened to a towering redhead with an impressive beard. He pounded a meaty fist on the counter.

“Bet me a round of drinks if you dare!” he said smugly. “If you think you’ve survived a more deadly encounter than me, tell the story! I’ll pay out!”

Cailen went very still. She barely noticed Everett tense and Gabriella flash a guarded glance at her.

“I lost the tip of my finger to some gardening shears,” a blond woman offered. She held up an index finger whose top appeared slightly blunted. The red giant inspected it.

He shook his head. “You’d need to lose more than that to best mine. You’d need a lot more…” He raised his arms in a theatrical gesture. “…BLOOD.”

Cailen flinched slightly at the word.

“Blood…and bone and FLESSSSSH!” the man continued in rising intonation, revelling in the attention of the growing crowd.

With a trembling hand, Cailen finished her drink and set it on the bar. Gabriella gripped her arm.

“Hey,” Gabriella said quickly. “Let’s get out of here. We can have Everett meet us later. I know another good place just down the way…”

Cailen ignored her. Her gaze fixed on the redhead.

“What’s wrong?” she heard Jason whisper to Everett.

“That jerk is bringing back some bad memories,” Everett growled. “I’m gonna go give him a piece of my–”

“CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” Cailen bellowed over the din of the crowd.

All heads turned to her in a sea of sudden interest. The red giant’s mouth made an O of delight behind his voluminous whiskers.

“Full bet!” Cailen continued. She pointed a finger with its magenta-lacquered nail at him for added emphasis. “Deadliest encounter wins a round of drinks, including for my friends!”

The man ambled over, his group drifting up behind him like little boats caught in the wake of a bigger ship. He peered down at her and scratched his beard thoughtfully.

“Big talk. Are you sure? That’s a loooot of drinks,” he said, gesturing to the group around him.

Cailen scratched her own chin in imitation of his gesture. “You’re right. I guess it had better be three rounds of drinks for me and mine if I win, then.”

The big man blinked a few times, then let out a roar of laughter.

“You’re on! This oughta be good! You have no idea what you’re in for.”

Cailen saw Gabriella stare down at the floor, trying her damnedest to keep a straight face.

“Bartender,” Cailen said coolly. “My card.”

Jason dutifully retrieved the object and handed it to Cailen. She placed it carefully on the countertop. The red giant dug his wallet from the back pocket of his pants and, with equal gravity, set his credit card next to hers. They both looked expectantly at Jason.

The bartender stepped up and collected both cards. Then, as if he’d refereed a thousand of these kinds of encounters, he intoned blandly, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bet. You may begin.” He chopped a hand at the man.

The bearded giant took a deep breath and puffed out his chest. “Ben Beetle–pastry assistant, owner of not one, but TWO bearded dragons. This is my tale.”

He waited a few moments until the crowd seemed to properly appreciate this statement before continuing.

“Two summers ago I traveled north in search of challenge and adventure. I made my way across the mountains of Washington and into Alaska…” His hands moved as he spoke, recreating the peaks and valleys of the Pacific Northwest.

“It was there in the wilds of Katmai National Park that I set up camp, seeking enlightenment in the pristine beauty of Mother Nature. And it was there that I encountered…the bear…”

His rumbling tenor died away into hushes tones. The gathered crowd leaned forward to catch the trailing end of his words.

“She was huge. A beast of mythical proportions. A mama grizzly!” Redhead Ben raised an arm to indicate his foe’s size. Considering how tall he already was, it must have been an impressively large bear.

Cailen oohed audibly. She rather liked bears.

“Her roar was so loud, it knocked my hat right off!” he declared, sweeping his hand over his head. “I was in her territory and she was not happy. So what do you think I did?”

“Punched her in the face?” suggested a bookish onlooker.

“Killed her with your bare hands?!” a woman shouted excitedly from a nearby booth.

Ben looked horrified. “Fuck no. What’s wrong with you people? I like bears. I just did what any sane person would do–I ran like hell! And as I ran she gave chase, and she caught me…”

He paused and studied Cailen’s face for signs of defeat. What he saw there–or didn’t see–seemed to push him to reveal his ace in the hole.

Standing as tall and straight as possible, he seized the front of his shirt with both hands and gave a mighty tug. Buttons shot off in all directions like miniature rockets, pinging against the bar and onlookers.

Ben the pastry assistant, ragged flaps of his shirt spread wide, puffed out his bare chest. Crisscrossing from collarbone to left shoulder were pale, ragged scars so thick and numerous that they merged into one another here and there.

The sight caused some in the crowd visible discomfort. Gabriella clapped appreciatively at the display.

“So you see…” Ben continued into the awed hush. “She caught me, and I learned that I have a very high-pitched scream! Lucky for me, too, since she got one earful of my manly shrieks and took right off!” His laughter boomed out over the bar. Several joined him, but the moment was punctuated with many raised eyebrows.

Cailen found she liked this guy. Shame I’ll have to take his money.

“And that,” Ben concluded, “is my story.” He dropped his arms and looked expectantly at Cailen.

She nodded and cleared her throat. The space around them quieted in anticipation.

With a swift, vicious movement, Cailen yanked up the hem of her shirt until her entire torso was bared. The healed but raw pink scar from where the butcher knife had pierced her stood out in stark contrast to the fish-belly white of her skin. It was only about the span of her hand, but something in the clinical straightness of the line–and the way it trailed over her ribs to disappear just under the plum lining of her favorite bra–gave it a sinister edge that Ben’s wild slashes didn’t have.

The crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of it, but she did get a wolf whistle from someone in the back. Ben looked puzzled.

“Butcher knife,” she declared. “Drugged and kidnapped. Serial killer.

“BOOM,” she added as an afterthought.

The bar erupted into a cacophony of voices as Cailen demurely lowered her shirt.

“Serial killer?” exclaimed a military-looking kid with a buzz cut. “Scoooooore!”

“But he screamed at a bear,” said someone.

“There are lots of bears, though,” said another. “What are the odds on serial killers?”

Several people broke out phones to scour the Net for statistics. The results were decidedly mixed.

“We may have to hold a vote,” Jason said solemnly.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Ben interjected. “How do we know that came from a serial killer–or from a butcher knife, for that matter? I mean, that scar could be anything!”

Cailen raised an eyebrow. “Are you doubting my story?”

“Well, we only really got seven words,” he said wryly.

“Eight,” she muttered.

Gabriella stepped forward. “There’s a very easy way to resolve this.” She turned to Cailen with her hand out. “Wallet.”

Cailen handed it over. Gabriella wrestled the license from it, then handed the card to Jason.

“Run that name along with ‘Lonely Heart Butcher’ for news articles.”

His eyes got big. The “Lonely Heart Butcher,” as the media had dubbed Elizabeth, hadn’t exactly made national news, but it was a familiar name to New Yorkers. Her spree the previous year had been in all the local papers. Consequently, her last and only surviving victim had also received a bit of coverage.

Jason typed in the name and information, and a moment later held up his phone to Ben for inspection. The big man peered at it, as did those close enough to read the tiny screen.

“Well, shit,” he muttered.

“She might have you,” a tall woman at Ben’s elbow said.

The redhead threw his hands in the air. “All right, all right! I concede. I still say it’s pretty close, but that is a DAMN good story! I’ll pay up.”

Everett, eyes shining, turned to the bartender.

“Another Shirley Temple it is,” Jason said dryly.

Proceed to Chapter 1, page 2–>

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