A Dubious Magic story. This takes place immediately after the events of The Wizard of Waramanga… Check out the Marketplace page to order the book!
They’d made it into Barandilla not long after sunset.
You couldn’t call Barandilla a town. It didn’t even appear on a lot of maps. On a lonely stretch of the highway running through the Central Australian desert, it had a pub, two petrol pumps – one of which had an ‘Out Of Order’ sign that had hung on it so long it had almost faded to illegibility – and a stray dog.
‘Bob’s Hotel’ served as a rest stop for passing trucks and the occasional drover, and a social hub for folks from the surrounding cattle stations.
It had been a long day. Well, that was probably an understatement. The four of them had been shot at and almost consumed by a gigantic demon from some dark Other Dimension before narrowly escaping the cataclysmic cave-in of an underground military complex. No wonder Wilko, Darren and Scarlet had just wanted to have a quick meal then go crash in their respective rooms.
John B. Stewart was still too wound up to sleep, though. Since hitting his head on a Canberra poker machine he’d found he had a strange wizardly power. His wishes came true, although not necessarily in ways he anticipated. It had been his unpredictable magic that had gotten them into danger, and admittedly out of it. Bidding his friends goodnight he went to get as good a Scotch as he could find.
As well as the dining room, there were two bars in Bob’s Hotel. John B. very deliberately chose to walk into the less well-lit option.
There was only one other customer. Sitting near the end of the bar was a dusty Aboriginal wearing the checked shirt and jeans that were almost the local uniform. He looked up at John B. then quickly looked back down at his beer, considerable surprise on his face.
Stewart sat at the bar and called to the barman, who he’d met earlier when the little group first arrived at the pub.
“I’ll have a Scotch please, Nev. Single malt if you’ve got it.”
Nev walked out of the little storeroom he’d been in and eyed his new customer uncertainly.
“Y’know this is what’s called a ‘dark bar’?” the barman said, himself clearly of at least mixed parentage. “We don’t get many white blokes drink here. They’re happier in their own bar.”
“Yeah? Their loss. I looked in there, this feels like a much better bar.”
Nev looked at the straggly haired stranger. If he had any dark genes they were well hidden. “You reckon?” he asked.
“Sure. Light’s not so hard on the eyes, better art on the walls – well, not sure about the bull’s skull mounted up there but it is sort of cattle country – this bar’s got more character.”
The barman grinned and said, “Yeah, character we got!”
The other drinker laughed impulsively. “You talkin’ about me, Nev?” he said with a smile.
“Yeah, Munna, you’re one of them!”
John B. took a mouthful of the whisky Nev had served, and then stuck his right hand out saying, “G’day Munna. John B.”
The black man was hesitant, but saw the smile in Stewart’s eyes, relaxed and shook the proffered hand.
“You wanna be careful, brother. There be a few blokes round here not happy to see you in the blackfellas bar. Blokes of both sides.”
The wizard shrugged and replied, “No sign up saying what colour I’ve got to be to drink here. Their problem, not mine. Cheers.”
The two men smiled, raised glasses and began the idle small talk that strangers do in quiet bars.
“What did ya do to yourself?” asked Munna, indicating the untidy bandaging on John B.’s left hand.
“Hit it on something,” replied the wizard casually. It didn’t seem a clever idea to explain that ‘what’ was a now-deceased US Army officer.
Munna didn’t pursue the question and the conversation moved into safer channels.
Suddenly Munna looked over Stewart’s shoulder and visibly tensed. A large man with grey hair and brown skin had walked into the bar and stopped when he saw the white fella.
The newcomer glared at the back of John B.’s purple t-shirt, then strode over to Munna and snarled into his ear. Then he snapped his fingers at Nev who promptly served up what was evidently the man’s usual large beer.
The surly figure sat at a table at the far corner of the room, directly under the skull that had earlier caught the wizard’s eye.
‘Makes sense,’ mused John B. to himself. ‘Reckon he sees himself as head of the herd.’
Stewart attempted to reignite his conversation, but Munna replied in monosyllables and grunts, staring unhappily into his glass. Eventually the nervous local got up from his stool and, head bowed, briskly walked out.
The larger brown man got up and followed him out. Through the frosted glass of a small window, John B. could briefly see the two figures illuminated by the flame of two cigarettes being lit.
Nev refilled Stewart’s glass.
“That’s Yuruku,” the barman said. “He’s bad medicine. He knows a lot of the old ways and he’s not ashamed to use ‘em to get what he wants. Got a lot of the blokes round here treating him with – well, he calls it respect.”
“You mean fear.”
“Reckon so. Got to admit, I’m a bit afraid of him and I’ve got more schoolin’ than most.”
“Bad medicine. Like kadaitcha?”
“Different name round here, but yeah. Everyone knows he carries an old bone round in his pocket that he reckons was his grandfather’s finger. Catholic priest that used to come through every so often called him a witch doctor. Said he was doin’ the devil’s work.”
The barman almost smiled as he continued, “Yuruku didn’t mind that. Thought it was cool that the white priest was afraid of him too.”
“What do the other white folks think?” asked John B.
“Well, there ain’t many. Most just keep out of his way and hope he’ll do the same. Bob don’t like him, but he knows if he tries to ban him from the pub it’ll only mean trouble.”
The wizard nodded. He and Nev looked out the window to the two shapes just visible in the glow of the hotel’s only outside light.
“Old bugger’s probably threatening to point the bone at Munna for talkin’ to you,” said the barman. “You know what that means?”
“Heard about it. Whoever the bone’s pointed at is marked for death. Lot of times it works by people willing themselves to die because their belief is so strong.”
“Yep. That’s what Yuruku relies on. Like you said, fear.”
Cigarettes finished, the two men returned to the bar. Nev handed each of them a drink and both returned to their places. Both sat wordlessly watching the white man – Munna with some concern, Yuruku with undisguised contempt.
John B. stood up holding his Scotch in his good hand, walked over and sat opposite Yuruku. The grey-haired man stared at him in surprise.
“I hear you do magic,” said Stewart casually.
Yuruku didn’t reply. He was clearly uncomfortable.
“So do I,” John B. continued, in a voice loud enough to be clearly heard by Munna and Nev. “I reckon mine’s stronger than yours.”
“Hah! Your magic any good you fix dat hand o’ yours, eh?”
“I’m not much on fixing bones. I’m better at breaking them.”
Yuruku laughed harshly. He pulled from his shirt pocket a thin package wrapped in brown paper and string. Carefully he laid it on the table and turned it to point squarely at the middle of the purple t-shirt.
“You know what dat means?” he asked.
John B.’s voice didn’t drop a decibel. “It means I’m gonna die.”
The brown skinned man smiled evilly but Stewart’s calm expression didn’t change.
“But I already knew that. I’m going to die, you’re going to – we all do, sooner or later. But your little parcel won’t have anything to do with it. My magic is stronger than yours.”
The wizard drank the last of his Scotch in a mouthful. “I wish you could never use that thing again!” he said and gestured sharply at the package on the table.
Yuruku presumed the gesture was aimed towards him, and perhaps momentarily expected a bolt of fire or something from the white man’s magic. Instinctively he jumped back. His chair and his own substantial weight crashed into the wall behind him.
The force of the impact jolted the bull’s skull off the nail it hung from. The grisly ornament landed heavily on the table, right on top of the brown paper package.
Yuruku blinked in astonishment. Stewart pulled the parcel out from under the cracked skull, tore open an end, and poured the powdered bone into his empty glass.
Without a word to the grey haired man he stood up, walked to the bar and handed the glass to Nev.
“Put this down the drain, where it belongs,” he said.
“With pleasure,” Nev replied, and put action to the words.
Nervously at first, then with increasing enthusiasm, Munna began to laugh. It was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. There was a grey pallor beneath Yuruku’s brown skin as he hurried out of the bar, giving no backward glance to anyone.
“Another Scotch please, Nev. A drink for my friend here, and one for yourself if you want.”
The barman’s smile as he poured was genuine but puzzled.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“I didn’t. He did it himself. I just had more faith in myself than I did in him. Not a bad way to be.”
The three men smiled and raised their glasses.