Here’s Chapter 1 of Ultimate Wizard for your enjoyment. Aim to have the story out this fall.
Stuart Watson slipped into the last open seat at the bar in the Big Wheel Tavern and plunked down a dog-eared notebook. Waving to the bartender, he called, “One draft.”
He had printed and underlined INEXPLICABLE EVENTS at the top of an empty page before his beer arrived.
Ten minutes and three full pages of notes later, all in point form phrases, Stuart sipped the beer. “Folks usually come here to relax, not work,” the bartender said.
Stuart did not bother to see who along the bar laughed. He needed to compile a list on paper of the far too many bizarre occurrences in his life. The only place to write in his apartment was at the kitchen table. Moving the stacks of equipment manuals and engineering books covering it would just create more work later. A visit to the Big Wheel Tavern seemed like the best alternative. The noisy environment would not distract him.
Now that he had written down all the times during the last two weeks that he had analyzed breakdowns in machines and fixed them in ways he had not thought of before, he would search for a pattern in his new skills.
Stuart had parlayed degrees in mechanical engineering and information technology into a thriving business servicing and repairing large manufacturing machines and computer systems in the U.S. Northeast and Eastern Canada. Until the insights started, he relied on careful analysis of the operation of the equipment. Now his eyes zeroed in on trouble spots as if something wanted him to find them.
As he took a sip of beer, he noticed flickering images on a small television sitting amid liquor bottles on a shelf behind the bar. It showed people fleeing raging floodwaters. Before he could return to his notes, the newscast jumped to a volcano spewing an immense cloud of ash.
The inexplicable occurrences started two weeks earlier on the day a massive earthquake devastated a large swath of central China. This disaster came after a summer of droughts, heat waves, volcanic eruptions and massive storms around the globe, which had killed millions and driven many more from their homes. Some speculated the death toll was close to one billion.
The evening of the quake, Stuart returned to his one-bedroom apartment after a long workday. When he thought about watching his favorite comedy, the television turned on immediately and flashed through the channels to the show. As soon as he thought the sound would disturb his neighbors, the volume muted.
Stunned by what happened, he imagined the TV off and it shut down. Then he turned it back on without touching the controller or TV. He turned his radio on and off the same way. He spent the rest of the evening thinking about how he could have done that.
Since then, his ability to control machines and computer technology blossomed. He feared a connection existed between the almost daily disasters and his expanding array of talents. It’s not a rational idea and I can’t explain it but I fear there’s a link. And why wasn’t I affected by all the disasters before then. He did not write down these thoughts out of concern about who might see his notes.
The television behind the bar showed a city in ruins. Earlier in the day, the news broadcast on the radio in his truck reported a cyclone had struck southern India.
Stuart ignored the commentators who droned on about the world being under attack by aliens or suffering God’s retribution for all sorts of sins. The babblers would grasp at any excuse, no matter how absurd, to avoid acknowledging that climate change had triggered some of the calamities such as a killer heat wave that had blanketed North America all summer. Even the approach of fall had not lessened its intensity.
“Another beer?” The bartender pointed in his direction.
Stuart nodded and pulled his attention away from the TV while waiting for the refill. He glanced at his notes hoping they would provide answers before his new abilities drove him insane, if he was not already.
The entry at the top of the second page referred to the first time he saw through the steel cover of a machine. He had responded to an urgent call from Agra-Innovations, which produced industrial chemicals from plants. Repeated attempts to repair a seized extractor had failed.
As the factory foreman led him to the shutdown extractor, Stuart almost stumbled in surprise when he could see its interior mechanisms as if the machine’s cover had become transparent. Within seconds, he spotted the breakdown in the ingredient feeder mechanism.
Looking at the extractors on either side of the broken machine, Stuart found their feeder mechanisms needed realignment before they gave out. While it took most of the day to repair them, the company offered a bonus for not having the machines out of service for a week or more.
He was so puzzled by the event that he forgot to write in his notes about how seeing through the covers that protected workers from all the moving parts in the machines made him dizzy.
Next on his puzzling events list was an emergency request from Little Manufacturing. His thoughts traced sporadic shutdowns in the company’s metal presses to a virus in its main computer. Focusing his mind, he locked on the bug in the programming and squeezed it out of existence. He rebooted the computer and the presses rumbled back into full operation. Once again the experience had left him feeling shaky.
He sipped more beer while adding details to his notes. Perhaps he was delusional. Maybe he had imagined all these events. Yet his flush bank account was no illusion.
When he started down the last page of notes, it struck him how much his abilities had expanded during the last few days. He could project his thoughts throughout an office or factory searching for mechanical or technology problems.
I’m not crazy. Something is happening to me. There has to be an answer. All the events involve technology. What about people? He closed his eyes and let his mind survey the tavern’s customers. While faint at first, his head filled with frightened and angry thoughts. He gripped the edge of the bar to steady himself.
“Everything costs so much these days,” one woman whined at a table on the other side of the tavern. “Won’t be a lot of nights out like this.”
While Stuart felt like a voyeur, he wanted to test this new ability further.
“Hard to believe we’re almost at the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” a middle-aged man said at another table. “This bloody heat is more deadly than the terrorists.”
“Don’t see any single women anywhere,” said a man sitting with his buddies close to the small stage where the band would play later.
Stuart eavesdropped at a few more tables before checking the dozen people sitting or standing at the bar. Other than an argument about a recent baseball trade, the chatter about the disasters continued until two seats away from him. He could sense nothing about the person sitting there, not even breathing. The man between them muttered about the sports highlights on the TV.
Stuart opened his eyes and leaned backward for a glimpse at the mystery person. A woman with glasses and long brown hair glared at him before looking away. Even with her indignant stare, she was attractive.
He sipped his drink and peeked in her direction again before adding two items to his list–‘can tune into conversations beyond my hearing range’ and ‘there’s a woman who can block that ability.’ He put an exclamation mark beside this line.
He took another sip of beer to cover a glance at the woman just as she dropped her gaze. There was something familiar about her.
Unlike his other abilities, eavesdropping was not automatic. He needed to think about engaging it before it took effect. He wrote a note about that in his book and underlined it numerous times. This must be significant.
Someone bellowed for music. The restless patrons wanted to party. By the boisterous hubbub, the crowd was already well lubricated. The bartender flipped on the stage lights. The band would appear shortly.
When Stuart looked again at the woman, she shifted her gaze to the TV. He racked his brain for something to say to her while hoping the Backcountry Boys played tunes she would dance to. Can I ask her to explain how she blocked me? Yeah that will sound really normal. Get your mind off her. Figure out the meaning of the events on the list.
Stuart added a note about factory visit yesterday where he realigned the links on a control bar in a packaging machine so it ran without straining any components. He moved them and tightened several control points with his thoughts–no grease-stained hands.
He broke off the memories for another drink and glance at the woman. Once again, her head was just turning away, but that was not what caught his attention. An old man stepped unsteadily toward him. He had long, stringy white hair and wore a tweed suit that made him overdressed for the tavern and the heat.
No one else appeared to notice him, which could have been because he was the height of most people sitting down. When he reached Stuart, he removed his fedora with a sweep of his arm and made a perfunctory bow. Then, breathing deeply, he struggled to straighten his shirt, jacket and lopsided bow tie.
“Good evening, Stuart Watson. Pardon the intrusion. My name is Byron. A villain with murderous intentions pursues me, and only you can put a stop to him.” The old man spoke with a pronounced British accent.
Stuart stammered, “How do you know my name?”
Byron peered over his shoulder. Another diminutive man suddenly materialized in the middle of the tavern shuffling around tables toward them. He looked equally ancient, his face a web of deep wrinkles and liver spots. His white hair stuck out in every direction. Red faced from exertion, he puffed loudly. Although his scarlet jacket, blue shirt and orange pants gave him a circus clown look, no one seemed to notice him.
Stuart rubbed his eyes. The old guys did not vanish. While he had barely tasted his second beer, he was seeing things. Stuart reached for his notes, intending to call it a night.
Before he could leave his seat, Byron slipped in behind him and pointed at the newcomer. “Vince wants to kill me. You can gain me time.”
The newcomer yelled a nasty-sounding string of words, none of which Stuart recognized, and flailed his arms. Hearing a gasp, Stuart glanced in its direction. The woman who had blocked his probing stared open-mouthed at Vince. Everyone else carried on as if the old men did not exist.
Before Stuart could say anything to her, a sudden intense itching washed over him. Squirming in his seat, he clenched his fists to resist scratching.
The stranger continued to yell and flap his arms. “Vince is causing your discomfort,” Byron snapped. “He’ll kill you too if you don’t stop him.”
Stuart’s skin itched worse than any rash or bug bites he had ever experienced. As he shot to his feet, rubbing his arms to ease the agony, he noticed the woman looking at him with a puzzled expression.
“Am I supposed to attack him Byron?”
“It’s the only way.”
“Get out of here or else,” Stuart snapped. While his anger boiled over at Vince’s unintelligible although clearly dismissive shouts, no one in the tavern paid any attention. Can’t they hear him?
Then a deep but soft Voice told him to strike back before being struck with another wave of intense itchiness. He stepped toward Vince and hit him with a sidekick he had practiced many times in Tae Kwan Do training. Vince toppled to the floor. The burning itch vanished.
Stuart felt an inner glow when he should be upset for striking an old man. He looked up when the crowd cheered, but it was for the Backcountry Boys arriving on stage. The Voice returned. They didn’t see you kick Vince.
He knelt beside the unmoving figure to check for a pulse. He jumped back when Vince’s clothes and body turned to dust. His heart racing, Stuart grabbed a chair for support. The dust settled on the floor, and then faded away as if gathered up by an invisible vacuum cleaner.
“You weren’t so tough after all, Vince.” Byron wiped his hands on his jacket, and then tugged Stuart’s arm. “While I can explain this, it’ll take a while.”
The woman stepped in their direction while glancing between them and the spot where Vince had fallen. Everyone else danced or sang along with the band.
“I gotta split.” Stuart grabbed his notes, threw money on the bar and bolted for the door. Yanking it open, he staggered into an enveloping wave of heat and a torrent of flashing red and blue lights on police cars and ambulances. He halted so quickly that Byron bumped into him.
Before he could ask why he was following him, Byron said, “They’re not here for us.” He sounded utterly certain as he seized Stuart’s arm. With the touch, Stuart was enveloped in cool air.
Byron steered him past cops and paramedics rushing toward the back of the parking lot. Stuart walked quickly to keep pace with Byron, whose easy gait contrasted to the stiff-legged shuffle of most old men. They headed in the direction of Stuart’s apartment although he had not said where he lived.
“Oops.” Byron halted abruptly, and then stepped away. The heat immediately accosted Stuart. The old guy is a walking air conditioner.
Strolling casually back toward the tavern, Byron picked up a gym bag that suddenly materialized beside a utility pole.
Radios crackled in the ambulances and squad cars. The waves of their emergency lights and the repeated flash of a camera cast an eerie glow over the parking lot. A policeman strung out yellow crime scene tape while others searched the parking lot with flashlights. They showed no discernible interest in him or Byron. They don’t see you, the Voice said.
Puffing, Byron returned and the cooler air embraced Stuart again.
“I left the bag at that post because I didn’t wish to bring it into the tavern,” Byron said. “It was awkward to carry with Vince pursuing me. I rendered it invisible to normal eyes. You’re a strong young man.”
The bag was so heavy Stuart nearly dropped it. No wonder Byron was short of breath when he arrived in the tavern.
The old man lowered his voice. “The constabulary has a mystery on its hands–why five men are dead in those two vehicles.” He pointed to the back of the parking lot. “They’ll find narcotics, but not the money to pay for them.” He patted the gym bag. “Our need is greater, and no one will miss those criminals.”
“You killed them?” Stuart shook his head in disbelief.
“I stopped their hearts beating. I would’ve reduced the bodies of the drug dealers and the narcotics to dust if Vince hadn’t caught up to me. Their deaths were quick, certainly more merciful than what they’ve done to their victims.”
“For the money?”
“Yes, we’ll need it,” Byron said in a nonchalant tone.
“We! What for?” Stuart looked around, fearing the police heard his raised voice.
“I’ll tell you when we reach your residence.”
Stuart hesitated as Byron walked away taking the cool air with him. Should I have anything to do with this old guy? Maybe he’s a serial killer. Bodies don’t fade away as Vince’s had.
“You’re perfectly safe with me,” Byron called back to him. “I’ve spent a long time looking for you. Believe me, the last thing I would do is kill you. Or let anyone else hurt you.”
He’s reading my thoughts. When Stuart’s apprehension grew, the Voice whispered. Hear what he has to say. He picked you to defend him. Find out why he searched for you.
Stuart considered adding Byron’s appearance and the Voice to his list of inexplicable events. He felt no sympathy for the dead drug dealers and doubted Vince was a loss to humanity. Yet to kill them and be untroubled!
With the bag’s carrying strap settled on his shoulder, Stuart headed for his apartment. Byron kept looking behind them. “Someone following us?”
“When you have been pursued by assassins, you learn to be vigilant all the time,” Byron said.
As much as Stuart doubted a gang of killers was searching for Byron, he peered at parked cars and alleyways in case other badly-dressed oldies suddenly leapt out. “You think there are more? You must’ve really angered someone.”
Byron nodded. “Vince probably tried to kill me by himself so he could gain all the credit. The others will work as a team.”