Excerpt: Midsummer Curse

The sky was overcast, gloomy and gray, and quickly defeating any attempts the sun made to break through. It was barely fall, but he could already taste winter on the air. The cool weather was even now leeching the bright summer colors from everything, leaving the landscape looking flat, dull, and sleepy.

Brayton loved it. He could not wait for the snow. Any season requiring temperatures over seventy was highly overrated. Give him fall and winter. Snow, that was what he really wanted. Feet of it—so much it took ’til May for it to completely melt away, just like in the mountains where he’d grown up.

Geese fussed and pecked through the dry grass in the empty lot at the far side of the deserted parking lot. Fat, city-fed geese. They’d make a decent snack, but he could smell too many humans in the general vicinity. They weren’t close enough he could see them, but too close for comfort. Not worth the trouble to shift, not when the fat geese probably tasted like stale french fries.

Instead, he lit a fresh cigarette and blew the smoke out with a sigh, leaning against the driver side of his ’67 GTO, his baby. He patted the car with absent fondness, wishing they were driving home and not moldering here in an empty, dirty parking lot next to a long-dead restaurant in the middle of fuck nowhere. His appointment had better show up soon, or he was going to tell Carl he’d wasted his favor owed, tough luck.

He was just pulling out his cell phone when he saw a man walking on the side of the road, headed for him—where else could he be headed? Young, glasses, cute enough he supposed. Even at a distance, he smelled like every other gremlin Brayton had ever met: metal and machine oil. As he got closer, though, Brayton saw he was remarkably clean for a gremlin; nary a smudge of grease or oil on him, and the jeans, t-shirt, and jacket were clean and smelled more like detergent than metal. Huh. Who knew?

Pushing off his car, he dropped his cigarette and stamped it out, then stood and waited as the gremlin approached.

Minus the fact he smelled clean, the little thing really was like every other gremlin Brayton had ever met. Brayton was only average height himself, but the gremlin was half a head shorter. Skinny, fidgety, short black hair, and dark green eyes. His t-shirt was a faded gray with an even more faded logo for some garage, a beat up but well cared-for fleece-lined denim jacket, and an old pair of jeans that fit as only old jeans could.

Brayton tried not to sneer at the fleece; he was in a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, nothing more. But the damned thing didn’t look like he had a scrap of fat anywhere on him; it was little surprise fifty-five degrees or so made him cold.

“So you’re, uh, Ferdinand?” Brayton asked.

The gremlin winced. “Ferdy, please.”

Like that was any better? Brayton didn’t voice the thought. “Brayton. Carl sent me to help you.”

Ferdy nodded and licked his lips, and Brayton didn’t need to smell him to know he was nervous, but that nervousness did not entirely keep Brayton from liking what he saw. Brayton didn’t fuck clients, though, and even if he did, itty bitty, starving-to-death-skinny, metallic smelling gremlins were not his thing.

“Yeah,” Ferdy replied. “Sorry to be a both—”

“Forget it,” Brayton said, not in the mood for pointless apologies and other polite conversation crap. “Carl said you were cursed, and I was the man to break it. What curse was put on you, and by whom?” He could smell there was a curse, though it was faint. That meant it was either poorly done, and there wasn’t much to smell, or it was very well done and someone had mostly disguised any hint of it.

Ferdy flinched a bit and gave a weak laugh that sounded rather pathetic. “Umm—I touch any machine, and it immediately falls apart. Any machine. That’s why I walked here.”

Brayton stared at him, then back at his baby, then moved them several feet away. “Touch my car, and you die.”

“Trust me,” Ferdy said, flinching again, “I won’t. I’ve already ruined two of my own cars. And everything else in and around the house.” He sighed.

“So who did it? And why, so I know just how much of a headache this is going to be.”

“I don’t know,” Ferdy said, sighing again. “It started happening yesterday. Carl was around; he noticed I was cursed, but—”

But Carl couldn’t magic his way out a paper box. The man could smell magic like a bloodhound, but he possessed not so much as a drop. “Look, anyone who can curse a gremlin to fuck up machines is obviously too damned good at what he does for anyone’s peace of mind. That means you pissed him off well enough that you should have noticed doing so.”

“I don’t know,” Ferdy repeated. “I just run a fix-it shop. Everything that’s come through my door lately, I’ve fixed or am in the process of fixing. No one has been mad at me about that, and the few times I’ve gone out, people have barely spoken to me, let alone long enough for me to manage to make any of them angry.”

On a scale of one to ten, the little gremlin was already proving to be at least an eleven. Brayton bet by the end of it, he’d be more like a seventeen. “I guess we’d better scope you out,” he said at last. “Breaking a curse isn’t so simple; the person who cast it has to break it more often than not. I can’t do much until I know more about the who and the why.” He glanced at his car, then sighed and turned back to Ferdy. “I guess we’re walking.”

“Sorry.”

“Forget it,” Brayton said and led the way from the desolate parking lot.

They hadn’t been walking more than twenty minutes when the wind abruptly shifted, and Brayton halted in his tracks. “No one told me a pack lived in this nowheresville town of yours.”

Ferdy frowned. “Why does the pack matter?” His eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Are you a werewolf?”

“What do you mean, am I werewolf? What do I look like? Yes, I’m a werewolf. Carl should have said that, and he should have told me there was pack here. They tend not to like stray wolves just wandering in unannounced.” Especially wolves like him.

“Um—the Midsummer pack is pretty laid back. I’m sure they’d understand. Carl might not have known about them; they’ve only been here about a year, and he only passes through a couple of times a year.”

“No pack is so laid back they just don’t care when a lone wolf trots into their territory,” Brayton growled. “No help for it, at this point. They probably smelled me long before I smelled them.” Shrugging, resigned, he resumed walking.

A few minutes later, he realized he was either going to have to figure out how to walk slowly, or carry Ferdy the rest of the way if they wanted to get there any day that year. He scowled at the little gremlin, nose twitching at the mix of detergent and metal and sweat, a sharp, sour hint of anxiety and unhappiness, and a faint whiff of lingering sexual interest. There was something else, too, Brayton realized, now he was paying closer attention. He couldn’t quite catch what it was, though. Not unappealing, exactly, but decidedly strange. Spicy? No. Not sweet either. Too hard to pin it down. Didn’t matter, he supposed, but it bugged him.

“So where exactly are we going?” he asked.

“I live on the outskirts of Midsummer, about another two miles,” Ferdy replied. “I own six acres of land with my house, shop, and garages on two acres; the rest is all field and a little pond.”

“You say the curse started yesterday?”

“Yeah, but not right off. I’d stopped for lunch and went into town to Skip’s diner. I was just starting to eat when everything went wrong. My stuff just fell apart—my watch, my mp3 player, my phone, my mini flashlight. Nothing but scrap and junk now. Ruined the first car, some other stuff; I’m afraid to go into town anymore.” His shoulders hunched, and he stared down at his scuffed boots, kicking at the dirt. “Life has really sucked.”

“I guess it would,” Brayton said. “You can’t remember anyone who might be pissed off at you that much? What about your boyfriend?”

Ferdy blanched. “How—”

Brayton bared his teeth in amusement. “I’m a wolf, itty-bitty; I can smell things.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Ferdy said, voice low, face red with humiliation. Then he said bitterly, “He’s my ex now, and he wouldn’t go to that much trouble.”

Brayton grunted at that, but left it alone for the moment. In his experience, though, that kind of ex-boyfriend would be willing to go to a lot of trouble to hurt. “Alright, not the ex. Doing anything special, little gremlin? Some project that someone might not be thrilled you’re working on?”

“Huh?” Ferdy said, looking up, flushing pink. He jerked his gaze hastily away again. “Um—just the old town hall clock tower. It’s been busted for some fifty years. The whole building was practically condemned, but enough funds were recently raised. In the last week, the tower was made safe enough I was allowed in to start tinkering with the clockwork.”

“What are you being paid for that out of the funds raised?”

“Huh?” Ferdy said again, looking up, and Brayton noticed his cheeks were still a bit flushed, and it wasn’t really all that bad a look for the little thing. Kind of cute, really. And there went that stranger scent again; it was going to drive him crazy until he figured it out.

“I said, what are you getting paid for fixing the clock tower?”

“Nothing? I rarely take money. People just barter and stuff. The clock tower work is volunteer across the board. No one is getting paid.”

Brayton frowned at that. He didn’t know much about such things, but he knew enough. Repairs on an historical building? That included a clock tower at least a century old?

And what sort of pint-sized idiot traded good, hard, honest work for ‘barter and stuff’?

“So no one would resent the cut you’re getting. Sure it’s not the boyfriend?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Ferdy snapped, showing real anger for a moment. Then it just seemed to go right out of him, and he only looked humiliated. “He said—” He stopped, and clamped his mouth shut in a cute, stubborn little pout.

Brayton realized he’d just thought the gremlin cute again. It hadn’t been that long since he’d gotten laid, surely.

“So, out of curiosity, if they were paying you, how much would work like that go for?”

“I don’t know,” Ferdy said, brow furrowing in annoyance.

It was almost—

God above, he was not going to think that word one more time. It was stricken from his vocabulary, starting now.