Good old Murphy’s Law had issued me one of those days, y’know? Late to a casting call for that sweet movie role I would commit a felony to have, I got lost on a construction detour that wasn’t in my GPS and turned the wrong way down a one-way street.
Of course there just had to be an oncoming car. We hit nose to nose as if scripted. Fortunately not too hard, the impact most likely dented my fender a bit, but when you drive a 1970s land yacht there’s got to be some compensation for the horrible gas mileage. I did a quick check of my concerned baby blues and responsible manly smile in the rear-view mirror. If he was angry, I needed the perfect sympathetic expression to calm him down. Hey, don’t judge. I’m an actor; it’s what we do. Both of us opened our doors to get out, and sure enough only my front license plate had broken off. I kicked it along with the splinters of its plastic frame out of the road with a sigh, and looked up to see the mud on the other driver’s clothes. Great, a construction worker. Probably stronger in his little finger than I was in both arms.
With my winning smile prominent, I called out, “I’m okay. You okay over there?”
The guy squeezed through the collision bounce back, pointed a short twig at me like a dueling wizard right out of that last Potter film, and shouted, “Are you from the University?”
“What the…?” I said as I put my hands up in surrender. In soft calm-the-crazy tones, I said, “Hey, sorry guy. Don’t know what you’re talking about. I got lost on a detour…”
The stick disappeared like a magician’s rabbit. “Mundane. Figures.” He backed away as he rubbed his face, and his posture wilted with exhaustion as I heard mumbled curses. To my AMDA Los Angeles-trained actor’s ear, the curses sounded vaguely Russian or maybe Eastern European. Strange that he didn’t have any accent speaking American, though.
“Hey, it’s okay, buddy.” I held my wallet up. “We’ll exchange insurance info then be on our way—” My words stopped when viscous fluid streamed from under his car onto my shoes. Like I said, it was one of those days. I cursed, because no way I was getting that pink crap out of real leather.
“We have to take your car.” The guy turned me around and shoved me toward my rust blue Impala. “Get in. Drive back to your place before they catch up and kill us both.”
I found myself sitting behind the wheel before I could even open my mouth to protest. Faster than my brain thought of locking him out, this guy opened the passenger door, picked up the pile of scripts and tossed them in the back seat then sat down next to me. When the passenger door slammed, I turned and gave him my best angry teacher expression from my last gum commercial and demanded, “Why in hell should I take you to my apartment instead of the police? I don’t know you from Adam.”
His head bowed and his right hand touched his chest. “My pardons. My name is Eric Zupan, Senior Apprentice Wizard to…um…” Tears sprung from his eyes. He wiped them away with impatience. “Damn. The late Daksha Grover. I need help. Chaos brought you and disabled my car so it’s obvious we’re supposed to take yours. Don’t take me to the police, they can’t handle this. Now, drive before they catch up and kill us both.”
The absolute certainly that blazed like hellfire in his eyes scared me enough to shut my mouth and drive. True crazy is really scary, and he had hit me with both barrels. Something inside me cried out for the missed audition, but I couldn’t deny his certainty that bad people wanted to kill him. Ancient instincts from before humans walked upright shut off my logic functions to focus on escaping. My palms broke out in fear-sweat and slicked the steering wheel, my gaze on everything all at once, including my passenger. He appeared to doze with his head propped on his hand all the way to my parking lot. Only movement I caught was the sunlight glinting off the gold stud in his left ear. At least he didn’t snore. He woke when I stopped in the turn lane to pull into my apartment parking lot. With his twig-thing in hand, he got out when I did and followed me, as nervous as that beautiful actress in a horror movie you know is about to die. All he needed was an ominous soundtrack.
Since the management of my low-rent dump hadn’t fixed the elevator yet, I led him up the concrete steps to my third floor studio apartment. Senior Apprentice Looney followed too close on my heels. He kept telling me, “Hurry up,” and while he never actually pushed me, he did get me to run up the steps instead of walk, so I made a point to pause at my door to catch my breath as I got out my keys.
Apprentice Looney turned to look both ways down the poorly lit hallway, twice. “Hurry, I don’t want to be seen!”
“Keep your shirt on,” I told him as I unlocked my apartment’s painted steel door. After he followed me in and locked it behind us, he let out such a huge sigh of relief my drama teachers would’ve had a serious talk with him about overacting. Mildly peeved he’d locked my door without asking first, I opened the bathroom door to my right, pointed inside and said, “Go take a shower. Get the mud off.” To my surprised relief, he nodded, and went in. As I turned away, he checked behind the toilet for who-knows-what, maybe TNT.
My eyes rolled, but I figured if his paranoia kept him busy enough for me to call the police, all the better. Here was my chance to pass him on to somebody with the skills to help him. Hey, just because I’ve played the hero type in commercials doesn’t mean I know what the hell to do in a real life crisis.
My finger over the send button, my back to the bathroom door, I heard his voice right behind me. “Um, do you have some clothes I can borrow? I, uh, had to leave the University in a hurry, so hadn’t…”
After my feet touched the floor once more, I turned to face him. The screen in my hand clearly showed the digits 9-1-1. He looked at the phone, then up at me with those little-brother eyes. Embarrassed, I plugged it in instead and set it on my found-on-the-side-of-the-road hall table. His hurt expression somehow made me ashamed of myself, like I’d just let a bully pick on my little brother, Brian. I really did not need him reminding me about the brother I used to protect in school.
Eric pointed over my right shoulder at a picture of my dad. “Hey, that’s my Uncle Allan.”
I turned to look at the photo next to my American Musical and Dramatic Academy diploma. I took a moment or two and straightened both the faded color picture and the AMDA sheepskin while I got a handle on my roiling emotions, but my voice still came out grumpy. “That’s my dad.” With eyes narrowed, I turned to face him. “How in hell do you know his name?”
“He’s my uncle. My parents and I lived next door to him and he used to let me come over to play with his kids. He had two boys named…” His eyes fogged in that can’t-quite-remember look.
“Robert and Brian.” I put my hands over my eyes. Why God, why? Being related to this looney was the last thing I wanted right now. Dad always told me God loves a good laugh now and again. Guess the old man knew what he was talking about.
My newfound cousin said, “That’s it. Yes, Brian was my age. Robert was older. I remember Uncle Allan giving us piggyback rides.”
“Yes, he loved to give us piggyback rides,” I said through my fingers, but Eric must not have heard me.
“I used to play there every day, until my parents divorced. Mom took me back to Slovakia to live with her family.” He looked so sad. “I found out as an adult that Uncle Allan’s house burned down a few years after we left.”
I did not need to be reminded of that either. My current shrink calls it PTSD. In the new house, I had to have fire extinguishers in every room, including the closets, and I still lay awake in bed, worrying. I’ve gotten better though. Nowadays, I only have nightmares about fire when stressed.
My butt leaning on the hall table, I crossed my arms and grumped, “Yeah, we’re cousins.” My next words overflowed with snark. “Yay. Lucky me. I’ll get an old t-shirt and jeans and toss them in. I hope you wear a 32-36. Just get in the damn shower already.”
“Thanks, Robert,” Eric said with a happy grin as he turned back to the bathroom. As he removed his shirt, he muttered to himself, “Imagine literally running into my cousin. Chaos is a powerful thing.” Once passed the door, he moved onto his pants.
I hurried away to my dresser before I saw much. I got what he needed out of the drawer, then walked to the window to put my gaze on the picturesque view of Harbor Freeway until the shower turned on. Actors may have a rep for being gay or bi, but I’m hetero; thanks for the offer. I’m flattered really, but no. Also, I was definitely not into relatives. Even the thought of that particular kink made me shudder.
When sounds of running water came from the bathroom, I tossed the clothes on the toilet seat and shut the door, since my long-lost cousin hadn’t bothered. Next, I made a beeline for the fifth of Canadian in the cupboard above my stove and poured myself a highball glass of good whiskey. That first sip felt wonderful.
As he showered, I lounged at my kitchen table, glass in hand. My body turned to face the window on the left, my gaze on the highway traffic as it sped along. I made a point of not thinking about what my agent would say about that missed audition. Avoiding that thought meant the other pressing issue was Eric, my long-lost cousin.
The more I thought about him, the more he matched the hazy memory of that boy I used to play with, dammit all. I let my breath out in a deep sigh. Heaven only knew why he thought I could help him.
The sounds from the bathroom stopped, but I didn’t move from the chair. Shortly after, my newfound cousin came and sat on the other side of the yellow Formica table.
My yard sale Mickey shirt hung loose on his shoulders beneath his dark mop. Hands clasped on the table before him, shoulders slumped with guilt, he glanced at me, then away. “I am in your debt. Thank you for rescuing me, cousin.”
“That was a sweet little part I could’ve auditioned for.”
“You were going to an audition? Was it an acting part or a singing part, or on stage or in a movie?” He waved his hands to dismiss that question. “Regardless of what it is, I will make it up to you.” He looked at me, eager-to-please.
I took a sip from my almost empty glass. “It was for the lead in Vincent Ward’s next film.” The loss of a part that would’ve put me on the A list made me want to cry, scream, or break something. Instead, I tipped an ice cube from my glass into my mouth and crunched it. “How can you make it up to me? Know anybody in Hollywood making a movie? Are you somebody around here? Gonna give my name to Victoria Burrows over at Disney?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t know anyone here, but to manipulate odds is a simple thing for a Chaos Mage. As soon as I can clear my name, you will have the success you deserve for helping me.”
I upended the last of the liquor into my mouth; the alcohol buzz made this insane crap easier to take. Glass empty, I looked him right in the eye. “I go by Robert B. Thompson in my career. You better remember this promise when it’s time to pay up, cousin or no cousin. So who the hell are you running from anyway?”
His face flushed. “Since you are family, I can tell you the truth.” He took a deep breath. “Have you heard of Mathetmagia University?”
I got up out of my chair to splash more liquor into the glass. “Nope. Can’t say I have.”
“Thought so.” He frowned as if deciding where to start. “Chaos magic is a discipline wherein practitioners can affect reality. Nudge it, if you will. Mathetmagia University trains people from all over the world how to do this. Every government and most corporations hire graduates to promote their goals and increase success.”
“Corporations hire you guys? For what?” I demanded from what the landlord joking called a kitchen. A set of cupboards in a corner with a tiny sink and stovetop and an RV-size refrigerator below the burners meant I mostly ate microwave food. My glass refilled, I leaned against the end of the counter and faced him.
“Well, we reduce the odds of bad chance. Most people in my class trained for two years to become Chance Wizards and were hired directly to oversee day-to-day operations. Those few with more talent train four years to become Chaos Managers and get hired on a consultant basis to oversee more important projects to ensure their success, such as a new factory from planning stage to first product produced.”
“So, you guys make businesses more successful?”
“Yes.” He nodded.
“Was that where you were headed?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. I had a higher goal. Only those of the highest talent,” he put his hand to his chest and bowed in his seat, “are chosen by the Senior Wizards as apprentices to explore the boundaries of our discipline and talent, and eventually earn the title of Professor of Magical Arts and teach the next generation of Math Wizards.”
My weight against the edge of my thin particleboard kitchenette counter began to hurt my butt. I straightened. The ice clinked in my empty glass when I pointed it at him. “So, you as what’s-her-name’s apprentice were going for the right to teach?” He nodded.
I decided I had enough of a buzz and went to my refrigerator to grab my almost-full two liters of Coke. My mother’s good host lessons reminded me I hadn’t shared with my guest yet, so I snagged another glass for Eric on my way back to the table.
“Then who the hell are you running from?” I asked as I tried not to drop a glass or the bottle.
His mouth drooped and his eyes brimmed with tears. “Yesterday…Gods, it was only yesterday.” He put his head in his hands and sobbed.
I sat back down in my seat and held out the whisky for him. He pushed it back. I offered the two liter and he accepted that.
While wiping his eyes he said, “Thank you. Alcohol impairs control of the magic, so it’s not a good idea to drink now. I need to be alert, in case—”
A knock on the door stopped him like a wall-switch. I got up to answer the door, and found two men with matching black tunics and unpleasant expressions standing in the hall.
“Yes?” I leaned against the doorframe, all casual boredom.
The one on my left asked in a growl, “Did you pick up a stranger at an accident today?”
Neither guy had flashed me a badge, so I said, “Nope, don’t know what you’re talking about. My car’s parked in my spot downstairs,” and closed the door in their faces.
When I sat back down across from a worried Eric, he opened his mouth to say something, but instead seized my left wrist in a death grip, shouted gibberish, and pulled us through the closed window. I yelped. My front door exploded into my apartment, with two dark forms behind the fireball. My whole body tingled like when your foot falls asleep, right before I landed hard enough on rough ground that it knocked my breath out of me.
Prickly summer-dry weeds poked me through my shirt. I took a gasping breath and felt the heat from a raging fire wash over my right side, hot enough to bring up memories of when my home burned down. Then the heat stopped as if an FX tech turned it off.
Dazed and fighting off a PTSD attack, I watched a piece of ash drift down past my eyes. I closed them and focused on breathing. My body felt okay, but I lay on my left shoulder in barbed yellow-brown grass, not pavement. When I opened my eyes, I found Eric in about the same position a few feet away. With a curse, I jerked upright. Cross-legged, I found that I sat in a field not far from a sprinkling of far-off city lights, opposite a range of brown rocky hills deep red at the top from the sunset behind them. Little brown birds began their morning songs, and I did a double-take. The sun’s crescent edge had peeked over the summit; this was sunrise, not sunset.
“What the hell!” I shot up onto my feet. “What happened? How come it’s dawn again?” I stood over Eric and shouted at him, “What the hell did you do?”
He backed away as he rose, then put his hands up. “Now calm down. I’ll figure out where we are in a moment. Right now, be thankful you’re alive.”
“What?” I screamed and flapped my arms as if trying to fly.
“Calm down, please?” He looked both ways. “We don’t want someone to call the authorities.” He took another step back. “At least until we know which authorities we will be dealing with. Just a moment, Robert. Please.” He reached up over his left shoulder, pinched the earring on his earlobe, then stuck his hand backward into nothing. Seriously, I watched his hand disappear over his shoulder as if hidden by an invisible bag. Believe me, I wasn’t that drunk. He stuck it into something, but there was nothing there.
“Aha, here it is.” He pulled out and began messing with what looked to me like a six-year-old’s art project. Feathers and string hung off three polished wooden dowels of various lengths, making a square.
I shook my head. My eyes needed to be checked, because a square had four sides, not three. From my high school geometry, I knew that contraption should make a triangle, not a square. I took a close look at it in his hands, focused in on each rod, and carefully counted to three, but when I pulled back my gaze, the damn thing made a square. “What the hell?”
Eric glanced up at me and then back down to the contraption. “This? Oh, it’s a triangulator. It will tell me where we are. Ah, yes.” He looked up at me with the biggest grin and said, “We’re in Tibet, near Lhasa.”
“Tibet?” My voice squeaked. “Like next to China, Tibet?”
“Well, technically it is a part of China. The Chinese government claims—”
That’s when I punched his lights out. I couldn’t help it.