Jason peered around the corner, holding his gun to one side, up at his shoulder. He was quick about it, this time. Didn’t want another stray chicken making him jump. Sam would never let him live it down.
The tack room was empty, dim, smelling of oils and leathers and a half a century’s worth of horse grease. He wanted to rub his nose, but held steady. He watched as Sam and Samantha checked the stalls down the long barn.
There was a sound behind him like flipping pages, and he frowned, bobbing his head back around the corner.
“Would you quit that?” a woman said. “I told you it was my turn.”
“You got to do it last time,” a man answered. “And last time it turned out all weird.”
“Hey, Sam?” Jason called, dropping his arm so that his gun pointed at the floor.
“What?” both of them answered.
“My Sam,” Jason said. “Hell, both of you. We’ve got something weird.”
“What isn’t weird with you people?” Samantha asked, approaching cautiously with Sam. Jason shook his head.
“Not our kind of weird,” he said, stepping aside so that Sam could see into the tack room.
“Who are they?” he asked. Jason shook his head.
“Hell if I know. They weren’t there, and then they were.”
“Ghosts?” Sam asked. “Thought we were after gremlins stalking horses.”
“What, ghosts and gremlins don’t drink together?” Samantha asked.
Jason gave her a dour look, and she wiggled her eyebrows at him. He should have left her in Atlanta.
“They don’t look like ghosts to me,” Jason said. “Look like a pair of teenagers making out in an abandoned barn.”
“Look, you guys need to go,” Sam said. “There are some dangerous things here that we’re trying to get rid of…”
“Dangerous?” the girl asked, bobbing forward. “What kind of dangerous?”
“You like getting bitten by rats?” Jason asked.
“No, you said gremlins,” the girl said.
“And I meant rats,” Jason said. She leaned to the side.
“You shoot them?”
“You still need to go,” Jason said.
“Is this a murder? A showdown?” the girl asked, looking from Jason to Sam eagerly.
“Lily, they’ve got guns. That means we do what they tell us to do,” the young man said.
“They said gremlins, and we’re in abandoned barn,” Lily said. “After everything, you’re really going to pretend like it isn’t possible?” She turned back to face Jason, her enthusiasm just a little disconcerting. “Are they gremlins like in the movies? Like, don’t get them wet?”
He scratched his head and looked at Sam.
“What do you think?”
“They need to go,” Sam said. “Simon said they mostly come out at night, and the sun’s about to go down. I still want to find them while they’re roosting.”
“Roosting,” Samantha muttered, shaking her head.
“Just you wait until you see these puppies,” Jason said. “They may not be very big, but they’re mean.”
“Uh huh,” Samantha said, turning to the girl called Lily. “Come on, I’ll walk you up to the road. Where’s your car?”
Lily shook her head.
“We didn’t come by car,” she said.
“Lily,” the young man said, sounding strangled. “Are you sure you want to just go telling people?”
“Telling them what?” Samantha asked.
“While walking,” Jason said, jerking his head at Sam. There was a ladder over there. The hay loft would be the next thing to check.
“They’re hunting gremlins, Cole,” Lily said. “Gremlins.”
“What are you wearing?” Samantha asked.
“See?” Lily asked. “They know.”
“Know what?” Jason asked, turning as Sam started up the ladder. Lily held up a large pendant necklace.
“It’s magic,” she said.
“That’s a seeing-eye sapphire,” Samantha said.
“It’s what?” Jason asked. “You’re making that up.”
Samantha huffed at him.
“I know some stuff,” she said. “Let me see that.”
Jason shook his head and headed up the ladder after Sam. There was a hiss and a shriek, and he sped up, hearing the thump as Sam’s bat made contact.
“Get them out,” he yelled back over his shoulder as he made it to the top of the hay loft and started running across bales to back Sam up. “Now.”
Sam took another major-league swing at one of the gremlins, nearly-hairless little creatures with wide faces and lots and lots of teeth, catching enough of it to ash it, but letting anther one through under his elbow, where it bit him in the armpit. He yelped and jerked, trying to get a hold of it to make it let go as Jason shot three of them before they got airborne.
He hated the flying ones. At least when they were stuck on the ground they couldn’t bite you any higher than the knee.
The three shots were enough to get the rest of them up in the air, some of them trying to flee but most of them exercising that most basic gremlin instinct: mob and bite. He pulled out his hunting knife and went after them as they got close, keeping them away with only slightly more effectiveness than Sam.
“The hatchet isn’t looking so bad, is it?” Sam asked. They’d teased Samantha for it being her weapon of choice, but Jason had to admit that it was probably better than the knife.
“Shut up,” Jason answered, ducking.
It took them maybe thirty minutes, but they eventually emptied out the loft and went back down to the cement floor of the barn aisle, following it out toward the gravel road where they’d left the Cruiser. Samantha was hunched over something, and Lily and Cole were looking around like the place was interesting.
“Some of them got away,” Samantha said without looking up.
“They looked like bats,” Cole said.
“You think you could have done better, Samadora?” Jason asked. She glared at him, then looked up at Lily.
“Where did you say you got this?” she asked.
“Someone just sent it in the mail,” Lily said. “I work at an auction house.”
Samantha shook her head, glancing once at Sam and Jason, then looking back at the pendant.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“I’m beginning to get a little worried about ever getting home,” Cole said.
“It takes like six hours for it to work again,” Lily said.
“And then you just… teleport to another place?” Samantha asked.
“Apparently,” Lily answered. Samantha shook her head.
“Six hours sounds like plenty of time to go get a shower and then grab a few drinks,” Jason said. “We can worry about this,” he said, taking the pendant from Samantha and handing it back to Lily, “once we don’t all still stink like manure.”
“You know what that is?” Samantha asked.
“Glittery bit of shine,” Jason said. “Come on. Shower. Change. Worrying about dangly necklace. In that order.”
Samantha threw her hands up, but Lily grinned at him.
“I like the way you think,” she said. He grinned back.
“I like the way you look,” he answered. “The car is that way.”
“Oh, I bet you get all the girls with that line,” Lily told him with a coy smile. He shook his head.
“No, I promise, I do a lot better than that. The car really is that way.”
He winked, and he heard Sam, behind him, sigh.
C’mon. It wasn’t like he didn’t do this every night.
“Cars with strangers,” Cole warned.
“Sorry, we haven’t made any introductions,” Jason said.
“She’s Sam, he’s Sam, and the one who talks too much is Jason,” Cole said, smiling. “How do you guys know each other?”
“Picked her up off the side of the road in West Virginia,” Jason said. “Sam’s my brother.”
“Doesn’t talk much at all,” Cole observed, offering Sam his hand. Sam shook, then shrugged.
“Between the two of them, there isn’t a lot left to say.”
“I could see that.”
“You guys have a car?” Jason asked. “Sam can pull up directions on his phone and we can meet you somewhere.”
“They’re serious,” Samantha said, deadpan. “They came here by magic jewel.”
Lily nodded. Cole shrugged.
“And I’d really like to know we’re going to get home,” Cole said. “In one piece would be nice.”
“Oh, come on,” Lily said. “It’s not that bad. We never would have seen anything like this, if someone hadn’t sent it to us.”
“That’s the part that makes me nervous,” Samantha said. “That you don’t know where it came from.”
“We’ll drop them off in town and I’ll ask Simon to do some digging,” Sam said. “There’s got to be an explanation.”
“I promised the lady a drink, and I’m going to get her a drink,” Jason said, offering her his elbow. She put her arm through his and grinned.
“I think that’s a great idea.”
Jason had also been serious about the showers, so they stopped at the little motel where they’d taken a room and all three of them got in showers while one of them sat outside on a bench with Cole and Lily.
“So you’re seriously just wandering across the country, living out of a backpack?” Lily was asking Samantha as Jason came out, running his fingers through his hair.
“Was, until I stumbled across the two of them,” Samantha said.
“That’s so cool,” Lily said.
“Yeah, until you stop to count the last time you slept in a bed with sheets and you can’t remember,” Samantha said.
“You’re sleeping in the back of the Cruiser, now,” Jason observed, and Samantha tipped her head to the side.
“Thanks for that.”
Cole helped her to her feet and they packed into the Cruiser again, going to the only diner in town, where they had to push two tables together to fit the five of them.
They sat and ate for a while, then sipped at beers for a lot longer after that, talking around each other while Samantha puzzled over the pendant. Lily asked a lot of point-blank questions, and Sam and Jason artfully dodged them, while Jason continued to hit on her. Sam checked his phone, but it didn’t appear that Simon had figured anything out, yet, so Jason stood.
“So you like your pizza and you like your beer. How about dancing?”
The speakers blared some awful country music, but there was enough space at the end of the room for dancing, and a stage for live music that probably happened every Tuesday night, or something like that.
“No, not really,” Lily said, looking at her hands.
“That’s even more fun,” Jason said. “Come on. There’s no one left.”
It appeared that this was the first time Samantha had noticed.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Two,” a waitress said tactlessly as she came by with a redrafted check.
Samantha pushed the pendant away from her.
“It’s live. I thought I noticed something…”
Lily reached across the table at the same time that Cole put a hand up to take possession of the pendant, and their hands landed on it at the same time. Lily appeared to be losing her balance – maybe she really wasn’t much of a dancer, after all – and she fell against the table.
“Shoot. I think I just…”
And then there was the sound of rustling pages, and the two of them were gone.