Sci-Fi & FantasyTom The Mage: Size Matters Pt. 03

# Tom The Mage: Size Matters Pt. 03

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Different reasons motivate different people. Money, women, fame, hot women, power, and scorching hot women. For me, being a vindictive little shit is what fires up my motivation juice. Not too proud of it, but hey, not going to apologize either.

I can't point to the exact moment in life that made me like that. I think it's somewhere between my abusive dad, the projects' public schools and their abusive teachers, and the abusive fuzz who kept harassing us just because they could. Maybe there is no defining moment, just a lifetime of being told that for you, the sky is not the limit. It's two blocks away, and that's the best-case scenario. Because for you, it's probably up the river in the Ren Island Correction Center.

Some people fold and give in. Me? At some point, I started pushing back.

Take Professor Herzberg, my freshman year Introduction to Telegating-A lecturer.

"With telegating, finding the eigenvalue of the spell matrix is simple," she explained to the class as she marched me to the board for my public humiliation routine. "You have to know where you're coming from and where you're going to."

"I'm coming down with a headache and I'm going to fail," I said.

"Hilarious, Mr. Ryan. But can you solve the polynomial?"

"No."

"Can you provide us with a longer answer, Mr. Ryan?"

"Noooooooooooo."

Of course, when you're in the 2nd grade and you're the class-clown, you're the shit. When you're a 24-year-old freshman in uni, where the average freshman age is 19, and you're still the class-clown, you're pathetic.

She marched me at least once a week to that board. It wasn't funny. It usually ended with her asking how come I can't solve elementary school level problems and if I was sure that I was in the right place.

See, my mage colleagues had been solving and weaving spell matrices since the 1st grade. I was a school dropout who was never tested for magical aptitude. A stupid jarhead who didn't even know he was a mage until the Marine Corps told him so. That didn't deter Professor Herzberg from marching me to that board, every other lecture or so, for a good laugh. Different reasons motivate people. What was Professor Herzberg's motivation to humiliate me? She claimed it was didactic zeal, but I'm guessing it had more to do with her being a female canine.

Her motivation dropped when someone shredded the four tires of her Grand Cherokee Jeep. The mysterious (never got caught) douche, engraved with a knife on the paint, 'Solve this polynomial, Bitch!' She never called me to the board after that. Like telegating, when dealing with vindictive people, you just have to know where you're coming from and where you're going to. To get a new paint job, in her case. In Mr. Crowbar's case, I wasn't going to settle for just trashing his car. He tried to intimidate me. He called me a three cents criminal who's too stupid to find an angle. Hell... He couldn't have motivated me more had he offered me sex with Kate Upton.

Jessie thought that I was willing to pour my life savings into saving Lizzie's life because I have a golden heart. She was projecting. I honestly wish that I would be, one day, a bit less myself and much more like her. But I'm a vindictive little shit. Call me stupid, make me feel small, stomp on my head, and like the song says, 'You've got a fiend in me.'

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4 AM.

Sniper hasty search 101. Mark your sectors and dead spots. One dead space, a semi-trailer. I counted four reference points. First is Naxton Street, the second is Betty, my boss's car, the third is the dumpster where I saw the gobo girl munching on the kitten, and fourth is the thirty-story building on our right-hand side. Sniper training never fades. Hammered into my mind through my feet. Literally. Every time I forgot a detail, Richard Tisdale, my Camp Lejeune Instructor, made me shag ass two klicks in full gear. I may forget where I've dumped my keys, birthdays' dates, or my favorite porn site's password but wake me up in the middle of the night, and I can tell you that the point of impact at 800 meters rises 1.9 minutes at a 5000 feet altitude. I cannot stand at a high spot without slicing the view into sectors.

I wheezed in deep the night air. It had its unique quality in Southside. Smog over gobo slurry. Memories. Not half of them crappy. People think the projects are all about the drugs, the violence, and the misery. People don't know jack shit.

I jumped from the ladder I was standing on to the rooftop of the Harris Teeter supermarket. I landed lightly. Part of my training. Below me, stretched the parking lot where I left Betty, my boss' monster truck. The Crowbars were coming soon.

The billboard facing the street above my head read "Put the necklace on Ozzy," which I thought was messed up, because the picture showed a tomcat wearing a white crown. Someone mixed the picture with the wrong text. This was Southside for you. Everything was broken, messed up, or screwed up.

Jessie waited on the rooftop. She squatted on an air conditioner unit and was having a heated discussion with Aliph, my lightning spirit companion. The little imp rested her blue behind on a chimney, her short legs dangling. The og girl must have told a mint joke because the she-devil burst in to a bout of Melvin the Chipmunk rolling laughter. I swear it was the first time I ever heard Aliph laughing, and not because she had just made someone feel like slitting his wrists.

I hissed, and Jessie went wild-eyed, but relaxed as she saw it was only me. Aliph flipped me the bird. Her middle finger gets a boner whenever she sees me.

"How did it go?" Jessie said.

"Better than I expected. People still remember me here."

"Then we're fucked," Aliph rolled her eyes. "You should only hook up with old acquaintances if they have Alzheimer."

"Yeah, keep rolling them eyes, girl, you might find a brain in there. Did Jessie explain why did I gate you?"

"She said that you need help getting rid of crabs? I don't know what you need me for. You should ask Siri or something."

"Funny shit. Just buy me as much time as you can," I said.

"That will take some big mojo."

I flinched. "How much?"

Her snake tongue tasted the air. "Five gallons of your precious mage blood," she said. "Before tax."

"What?" That was low, even for Aliph. "You're mixing me up with a fucking elephant. I don't have five gallons in my entire body."

"I'm fucking with you, dummy. I'll do it pro bono."

"On the 12th of never?"

"See, Jessie? I open my heart, and give, and give, and give. He's just mean."

Jessie laughed. "Yeah, why are you so nasty, Tom?"

"Maybe because she always tries to suck up my will to live? Forget about it. At least I have half of a plan now."

"Wouldn't it be better if we negotiate your phone for Lizzie instead?" Jessie said.

"I told you already. There's no way that they went to all that trouble and they'll simply let Lizzie go. They want both the video and her."

"Tom, it's too risky."

"Some people I know in that building...," I pointed at the massive red high-rise, south of the parking lot. "They say they'll help."

"How?"

"See the door where that tall elf in the grey hoodie is standing? If I can snatch Lizzie out, we can go into that alley and into that iron door."

"What's behind that door?"

"It's a... never mind." A five-year-old from Southside would recognize a drug dealers' ATM when he saw one. "They'll let us inside, but no Crowbar will follow if he wants to keep breathing. That's all that matters. There's a tunnel from there into the old Subway System. We can take it all the way to the river. See that hopper on three bravo?"

"See what, where?"

I pointed. "Sorry, the little elf kid wearing a yellow T-shirt sitting on the dumpster under the lamplight all the way to the right. I'll give a whistle and he'll block the road with the dumpster, so they can't follow in their cars."

"I know that kid," Jessie said, "That's Konan."

"You know him?"

"He washes dishes at the Lost Panda Club."

"Where you work as a bouncer?"

She nodded. "Good kid, but it makes perfect sense now."

"That he's a good kid?"

"Now I know why he's always so dead tired. It's 4 AM, and he's playing outside. Where are his parents?"

Sometimes when I talk with people who grew up outside the projects, it feels like they've been gated from another universe. "Playing? He's working."

"How much scratching your nuts on a dumpster pays these days?"

"He's a lookout, Jess. A spotter."

"At 4 AM? Looking out for what?"

One of the things I liked the most about Jessie was her innocence. I felt a little sad explaining the birds and the bees of the drug industry to her. "See that tall elf with the hoodie, next to our door."

"Who's he?"

"Not that it matters, but let's call him Elmarisi."

"Why?"

I shrugged. "Cause that's his name. We were both once gang members. Nothing serious. Kids' stuff. He runs the corner. Mostly he sits on that iron door and makes sure no one gives trouble. He's the head chief here. See that slot in the door? It's called an ATM. The kid hopping rounds to that door is the Rabbit. He delivers the snow from the ATM to the fiends."

"Fiends?"

"Drug addicts. Gobo, Ratters and Fado addicts come out at night. This place runs twenty-four-seven. The short-stuff, the half-elf walking up and down the street, his name is Petneiros. Also an old friend. He takes the cheese from the customers, but he never touches the merchandise. That way there is never a full transaction of flake for dollars. Konan is a spotter. He makes sure the boys in blue aren't sniffing."

"So, Konan, a twelve-year-old, works as a lookout for your old buddies."

"Yeah."

"Your old buddies the drug dealers."

"You make it sound like they're Pablo Escobars. They're just simple slingers (drug dealers)." My defensiveness kicked. Southside mindset of 'us against the world', which I haven't felt in six years. "It's a business."

"Business. Buy for one dollar, sell for two. Just two blokes that are trying to make ends meet."

"Practically salt of the earth." Jessie pressed her lips together.

"Yeah, they sell acid and yayo for a living. What's your point, Jess?"

"Your old-time drug dealer buddies employ a twelve-year-old kid in their drug business. You don't see a problem?"

"I was a hopper when I was twelve. In fact, I worked as a spotter."

"And you think that's okay, Tom?"

"Jesus, you are clueless."

"I'll take clueless over a cold cynic, every day."

"That kid makes a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty dollars per watch. He makes, what? Five dollars an hour washing dishes? Even if you can convince him to stop, there are dozens of kids just as young that are dying to take his spot."

The little lightning spirit made a fart-like sound. "Tom, have you ever wondered why nobody likes you? It's a mystery solved. I solved it. It's you. You're the reason nobody likes you."

I ignored her. "It is what it is, Jess."

"It still doesn't make it right. People like your friends down there, make Southside what it is."

"Life just be that way."

"That's deep, Tom. Really deep."

I felt the blood pumping and was aware enough to control my voice. "You wanna come here and play at being Moma Theresa at the Hope and Peace hospice? That's cool. Just don't preach morals, Sister. Walk a mile in their shoes and all that shit."

Jessie gave me a dark look, and that felt awful. It felt like going again to the board in Professor Herzberg's class and failing in front of everyone.

How do you explain a lifetime experience to someone like her? She was right, of course. Twelve-year-old kids shouldn't work for drug dealers at 4 AM or any other hour. But I don't think that I was wrong either. Drugs don't make Southside what it is; they are just the symptom. Poverty makes Southside what it is. I regretted coming here. I figured I was a different person after six years of seeing the world outside. But a single night at Southside and all the lies I've been telling myself about who I was were given a nasty shake. Sparks of understanding were peeling off my shell, revealing the ugliness I buried under the mask.

I didn't want to meet the old me. So instead of scaring myself with dark thoughts I sat down to prepare my spell matrices and waited for the Crowbars.

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Someone shouted 'five-o' from the street. It wasn't the police that he saw. Three black Toyotas came rolling down Naxton Street and screeched to a halt near Betty.

There were more cries of five-o and narcos (nickname for the Narcotics Division). The NJPD (New Jerusalem Police Department) uses Fords, not Toyotas. Still, three black cars smelled like trouble to the suspicious natives. Konrad was standing on the dumpster, whistling with his fingers high and low notes, like a siren. The front of the building with the iron door, which had lots of pedestrian traffic for 4 AM, cleared in two seconds.

The Crowbars were professionals, but Southside has a learning curve.

The troll got out first. He was massive, carrying horns the size of an elk. The gnome and the salamander jumped out of the same car. The hot vix vamped out from another. Her right wrist was in a splint. The shapeshifter slid from the last Toyota. There was no sign of Mr. C. or Lizzie. She might be inside a car. They might have her chained somewhere else. She might be dead in a ditch.

Aliph clicked her forked tongue. "Here puss, puss, puss." Something furry scurried out from the shadows. Another something zigzagged between my legs, making me jump.

"Try to be less of a pussy, Tom." The lightning spirit gave me the tsk-tsk treatment. "You're already an embarrassment." Two rats, huge beasties each the size of a tomcat, were trying to scale the chimney that she was on. They looked desperate to take a bite out of her blue ass.

"You're Tom." Aliph blew a kiss at one. "You're Jessie." The rats shimmered and grew. A blink later I was looking at me and Jessie's evil twins. The Tom twin turned around, eyeballed me for a second and gave me a frightening wink.

"Wow," Jessie reached out to her image.

"Don't touch it," Aliph said. "You'll mess it up."

"Right you are. Jessie, I'm calling you now," I put on a Bluetooth headset and dialed her number. "You'll be my eyes up here. No matter what happens, you don't go there. If shit happens, you run and hide."

"I won't."

"Jessie."

She looked like she was about to cry.

"Come on. I need you to be brave."

She nodded.

"I'll get her out. Piece of cake. You'll see." I wished I'd believed my own words.

She suddenly hugged me tight and kissed my forehead. "Be careful."

"I will." Her smell was now familiar, and I felt like being hugged some more. It also made me go porcupine. I have a severe phobia of feelings that aren't skin deep.

Aliph flew over to me, and I had a 'what the fuck' moment as she kissed me as well. Her small lips tasted like rusty iron. "Be careful," she chirped, "I don't want to lose you."

I didn't know what to make of that, so I just nodded and went down the fire-escape ladder.

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Marine Corps, because Hell is closed for renovation.

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I'm a sniper, not swat team. The worst thing that a sniper team can do is exposing itself. We don't carry enough firepower to handle numbers. I was taught to move slowly. By feet and inches. Plan your move in short segments, in the shadows. Never cause overhead movements like bushes or trees.

When you're crawling on a target, your adrenaline is kicking. Your senses are tuned to their max. You hear everything. The dying supermarket fluorescent light. The heavy troll steps on the pavement. Your heavy breathing. Patience is the sniper greatest asset. Wait. Listen. Move when the coast is clear. I timed my movements with the buzz of the fluorescent.

My smartphone blinked. Someone was trying to call me. Probably Mr. C. wanting to know what am I playing at.

"Jessie, tell Aliph to do her thing," I whispered.

I was crawling like a beetle under the semi-truck, so I hazarded a look. Two silhouettes came prowling up from Naxton Street. The Tom and Jessie rats. The troll's head jerked when he sniffed them out. He gave a low whistle.

The couple crept away from the shadows. Aliph was one talented girl. She even imitated my swag correctly. My twin image stopped fifty yards from the Toyotas. Jessie's continued slogging for a few yards then stopped. The Jessie magical twin, turned to search the shadows behind her back, shouted something unintelligible, turned around and started running back the way she came. The Tom rat followed suit.

Someone hollered, "Stop!"

"Jessie, what's happening?" I whispered. "Are they giving chase?"

"They look confused."

"Shit." I was hoping Aliph can buy me some time to take a peek inside the Toyotas. Maybe even rescue Lizzie.

"They're talking, Tom."

"They're not buying it," I said.

"Wait, the fox lady and the troll just went off to the left. The Gnome and his creature are running after... whatever it is that Aliph did."

That means I have only the Shape-Shifter, Jonah, to deal with. Maybe other Crowbars inside the cars. I figured I have a minute or two before they realize they were chasing shadows.

The shapeshifter back was to me. He was on his comm. The guy was fast and dangerous. He got shot once with a 45 at point blank by Al, and I hit him with a nasty spell. Enough to drop a bull. Shapeshifters are resilient motherfuckers, and their body regenerates super-fast.

Jonah must have sniffed something, because he turned abruptly, looking straight at me. But it was too late for him.

I had the Glock, the one the fox lady dropped earlier tonight, pointed at him. "Don't move," I said quietly. "Drop the walkie."

He did.

"You know I served as a sniper in the 2nd Assault Amphibian. Don't' say shit, just nod."

He nodded.

"You know what that means."

He didn't say anything, but he knew. I saw the hate. He knew because my Glock was not aimed at his head, but at the morph gland above his left leg. The Emirates used shapeshifter tactical teams. My battalion was famous for cracking them up with infrared equipment, phosphorous bullets and specialized training.

"Where's the girl?" I said.

He nodded toward the Toyota.

"You open it." I stepped back to give him room. "Slowly, slide the door, Jonah."

He gave me a crooked smile and did what I asked him to. I was expecting everything from Lizzie's corpse to a gunman and readied my defense spell matrix. To my utter surprise, I saw Lizzie sitting in the back seat. Unharmed and naked. She wasn't even bound, which in retrospective should have triggered my alarm bells. In my defense I can say that at that point I was so glad that my half-baked plan worked, I could only think about a quick escape.

"Yo," I said. "You okay?"

Lizzie nodded.

"Now, Jonah. I've just put my burn spell on you again, but it's on a delayed matrix. Stay still. Move a foot left or right and... kaboom." I think there is such thing as a delayed matrix that is activated by motion; only I have no clue as to how one goes to create such a thing.

"Let's go, Lizzie." I motioned her to move behind me and kept the Glock aimed at the shapeshifter. "Count to twenty thousand Mississippi after I leave. Should be enough for my spell to cool off. Or not. Better make it a hundred thousand Mississippi."

Jonah smiled at me and gave me a wink. Next, I felt the cold barrel of a gun at the back of my neck. "Drop the gun, boy," Lizzie said.

"What?"

"Drop it, fuckface!"

"Jessie, ru-" I managed a quick shout into my mobile before it was knocked from my hands.

"On the ground, Shitbird. Slowly, no sudden movements. Let go of the fucking gun. That's fucking right. Spread them. You know the fucking drill. If I smell spell casting, I'll put a bullet in you."

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