Paco, a Transit Authority employee, waited for Garbol at the overpass entrance that led to the Weinberg train station. He was a short man, big ears and a mustache, his bright blue uniform and hat making him look like a character out of Mario Brothers.
The wizard drove up in a light blue Chevy Metro with a maroon door on the passenger side, the engine whining like it never left first gear. The front tire bounced over the curb, and he parked on the side walk, the back driver-side wheel still on the street.
Garbol climbed out. He had long brown hair, tattered bluejeans, and an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert T-shirt, pool stick in his hand. He reminded Paco of one of his Dungeons and Dragon buddies after a twenty-three hour run—but with a hint of cray-cray.
Paco looked at his watch. “Is this precisely when you intended to arrive?”
“Everyone’s a wiseass,” said Garbol.
“You… are you a real wizard?”
“Yeah.” He glared down at Paco. “You a real smurf?”
Paco laughed. “I never hear that one before, Mister Garbol.”
The wizard’s glare softened.
Paco started to babble about how much he loved the Lord of the Rings.
“You’ve got something?” asked Garbol.
“Yes, sir.” Paco beckoned him to follow into the overpass. “We never seen anything like it.” The entryway was clear, tall windows on each side gave them clear view of traffic going underneath. “Some kind a dragon thing.”
Garbol stopped and turned to him. “A dragon?”
“Nothing very big. Gandalf could handle them with a hand tied behind his back.”
“Them?” The wizard leaned over, nose-to-nose. “How many?”
“Not sure. Maybe a dozen or so?”
“Yeah. That’s why animal control refuse service.”
“Anyone down there with them?”
“An employee and some customers. Don’t know how many, but they’re okay. Locked in utility room.”
Garbol straightened. “Okay.” The way the wizard’s eyes blazed reminded Paco when Gandalf lost it in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole in the first movie. “Power and magic are fluctuating like mad around here, so we’re very close to a parallel world. They may have come through a rift.”
As they walked over the highway, a thirteen-foot crocodile belly crawled in from the station entrance, except his eyes were the size of saucers, he had a back fin like a spinosaurus, and smoke poured out his nostrils.
The wizard stopped.
“Oooh, Mr. Garbol. You know what you have to do.”
The wizard looked at him. “What the hell are you talking about? What is this thing?”
“C’mon, man. It’s like the Mines of Moria—you know what I’m saying.”
Paco thought Garbol was going to swat him with the pool stick, but he couldn’t help himself.
“You know. Against the Balrog. You… shall….” He held his hand out toward the lizard.
“If I do it, will you stop distracting me with Tolkien stuff?”
Paco smiled and brought up the video camera on his iPhone. “Sure, man, anything you say.” Paco stepped back to get a good side view of the wizard, pointed his phone at the monster, then back to the wizard who held up his arms, waving his pool stick.
“You shall not pass,” boomed the wizard.
The video thrilled him enough, it could even go viral, but when Paco felt the air around him stiffen, he knew this was for real.
The fire-crock snarled and blew fire strait at them, and Paco, startled, fell on his cola, but the flame stopped halfway to them.
Paco picked himself up. “You got to fight the balrog, man.”
Garbol pointed his stick forward and muttered. “Not today, pal.”
“What you doing?”
“Warding the other end of the overpass so that thing doesn’t escape on the north side.”
Garbol walked toward the fire-crock.
“Hey, man—you sure we should do that?”
“Would you question Gandalf?”
Paco grumbled. He sure had him there.
Paco hurried up next to him to keep the wizard between him and the beast. They turned into the turnstyle area. The wizard hopped over it and stepped up to the down escalator. At the bottom a five foot fire-crock tried to high walk up, occasionally lunging to get ahead, but immediately falling behind.
Garbol took the stairs. Four more little dragons prowled around the platform.
“Where are the rest?” asked the wizard.
“I don’t know half of them half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of them half as well as they deserve.”
Garbol glared. “Really?”
Paco cowered. “Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgement. Even the very wise do not see all ends.” He grinned as he winced.
“How many times did you see those movies?” Garbol waved him off. “I feel the nearness of the other world, but I don’t see anything. Something disturbed them. Brought them through.” He looked around the platform and the track, keeping a fair distance from the fire-crocks. He stared at the track and shrugged. “We might as well get the people out.”
Paco took him to the big door at the back of the escalators and opened it. His buddy, Jerry Strickler, huddled in the back with three girls, a guitar busker bulging with muscles in an orange tank top, and a man in a gray suit. They crowded in next to some cleaning equipment and a big barrel of salt.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Garbol. “I’ll escort you out of here.”
“That’s right,” said Paco. “We will not abandon Jerry and Rippin’ to torment and death.” He jutted his chin toward the busker when he said ‘rippin.’ “Not while we have strength left. Leave all that can be spared behind. We travel light. Let’s hunt some pork!”
“You’re out of control,” said Garbol. “Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always good to wantonly display your nerdly passions.”
Paco didn’t care what the wizard thought. He was on a roll.
The wizard turned and took a sudden step back. Paco looked to see what startled him and saw several of the dragons now surrounding the storage room door.
“They don’t look that hungry,” said Garbol. “Why are they closing on us?” He looked at Paco as if expecting an answer.
A demented squawk pulled their attention back into the room at the same time the lizards trumpeted and blew fire. The busker croaked out a vaguely western tune completely off key, his guitar jangling hideously.
“What are you doing?” asked Garbol.
“Do they pay you not to sing?”
The busker scowled. “I get a lot of compliments.”
“You’re delusional. That cacophony is obviously what upset them and made them cross over.”
Paco stepped up to him. “Fool of a mook! Throw yourself on the track next time and rid us of your stupidity!”
Garbol clenched his free hand and looked at the sky. “You do realize, little man, I can turn you into a sewer rat with a blink of my eye?” He dropped his fist and turned to the busker. “They’ve got your scent. I have to wrap you in a perception shield.”
The wizard stepped to the salt barrel and pulled off the lid, then pulled out a pocket knife to cut the cardboard around the metal rim. When the metal ring pulled loose, he handed it to Paco.
“I wish the ring had never come to me,” said Paco. “I wish none of this had happened.”
Garbol scoffed and let a wry smile escape. “You are a committed man, and you should be committed.”
He grabbed a handful of salt and sprinkled it into a circle, then grabbed the ring and set it on the salt.
He snatched the buskers guitar, handed it to Paco, and pulled the busker into the circle by the arm. He mumbled something and pulled the ring up and around the busker, over his head, and then twisted it around as if tying off an imaginary baggie.
“All right,” said the wizard. “That ought to do it. You play here again and I’ll turn your tongue into a caterpillar.”
They watched the fire-crocks, which had quieted, their noses smoldering lightly.
One by one they turned and wandered away. Garbol followed the last one, and Paco stayed with him. They turned the corner toward the front of the escalators and watched him belly-crawl just past the elevator, the outside of the shaft covered with green tiling. The fire-crock touched his nose to a tile, and the front of him shrank as the wall seemed to suck him in, slurping him up until he was gone.
Garbol strolled up to the wall and squatted, then ran his hand over a tile near the floor.
Paco went on one knee next to him to get a closer look. A hairline fracture split the tile on a diagonal.
Garbol smirked at him. “It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.”
“Yes!” said Paco. He jumped up and punched his fist in the air.