New York City was a frozen wasteland of oily despair, broken alleyways, and lost causes, a desolate icy tundra of crowded loneliness inching forward through a faux-nuclear winter.
Casey grinned wryly at her own purple-prose description of the city and blew on her aching fingers. Paying attention in English class might not be the worst thing she could do. Okay, but seriously, her fingers were going to freeze and fall off before she got back to the apartment. Then she'd have to be the Fingerless Wonder. What was with this cold snap? It was March, and even then, it would've been too cold even if it was the middle of January. Was there some kind of villain around called Snowy McChillMan running around with a freeze ray?
Someone call the Avengers before everyone in Manhattan became Cap-sicles.
Casey pulled her scarf up over her nose, muffling her grumpy curses about the weather as she trudged through the stained leftovers of grey snow, hopefully the last spit of snow for the season. Today wasn't so terrible at school. She'd aced her pre-calc test, survived art class with Mrs. Cooper the Harpy, and hadn't babbled in front of Evan Jones, her current crush.
How anybody could resist having a crush on those dark brown eyes, that curly hair, and the crooked smile combined with a heavy side of science-aptitude was beyond her. He was basically a geeky prince, and she was more than willing to become his athletic princess. They could ride off into the sunset and have a well-rounded existence at a four-year college or maybe skip college and create a start-up, you know?
If her grandpa wasn't expecting her at the shop that afternoon, she would've asked Evan if he wanted to have a study session at the café next to the school. It definitely wouldn't have been called an official date, though they could've sat real close together and shared a math book and some long, intense stares. Then after that they could have called it a date.
But no, she was needed at the shop, so all those date-study session dreams disappeared like smoke on the super freezing wind. Gramps liked to spend his afternoons binge-watching Netflix, which meant she was expected to play shop attendant to the occasional rabid sports aficionados who came into the antiques store to explore the memorabilia.
Her grandpa had been an ace baseball coach back in the day, coaching for various teams, so sometimes people came in just to talk to him. Usually business was slow, though they did well on the few sales they did make every day. While Casey loved Gramps and baseball and all that good stuff, she always loved the idea of having afternoons to herself to do normal teenage things.
Things that didn't involve sports trivia and haggling over prices.
The electronic welcome box over the door cheerfully whistled the first few notes of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' as she pushed open the door to Last Inning, her Gramps' home away from home and therefore hers as well. They lived above the shop in a little apartment, one that had belonged to Gramps for years. Otherwise there would be no way they could afford that place.
There were a couple customers examining the collection of signed baseballs as she passed by, and a man stared as if he would rather there not be a girl in the sports shop. Most people never thought there should be an issue there, but every now and then... She wished she could hurl a fastball past his shocked face but that wasn't good for business (plus she didn't have a baseball) so she settled for a sour smile.
"Hey, Shortstop," Gramps called from the cashier's counter. He already had his laptop out and was streaming one of his current favorite Korean dramas. He smirked up at her as she pulled her toboggan off her short blue and black hair. "How's the outside world?"
"Cold and unforgiving," she said, kissing him on his leathery, stubbled cheek.
"You showing it who's boss?" he asked.
Casey settled onto the tall, spinning barstool behind the cash register and pulled her AP American History book out of her bag. It was old and falling apart, but what with the budget cuts going around, her school made due with the textbooks it had. Even when those textbooks were decades old and way out of date. Luckily her teacher believed in supplementing the textbook with current articles. She opened the book and set her cellphone to the side of it so she could text her best friend Reagan and read at the same time.
She and Gramps sat in companionable silence while the customers looked around and then headed back out. Last Inning was a landmark in the neighborhood, so sometimes tourists popped in just so they could say they had been by the shop. Sometimes Casey wished she could put out a sign that said 'Vicious Dog, Eats Tourists,' but Gramps never would've allowed that. Just like he would never let her have a dog. He thought one would eat all the memorabilia and antiques.
Gramps was on his third episode of the Korean drama, and it was almost time to close the shop when the bell went off again. Casey didn't look up from the text message she was writing, but she could hear the customer moving around the store. She was startled when she felt a hand on her arm. She almost asked what was wrong, but the look on Gramps' face stopped her. Fear, resentment, disgust, and resilience were warring over his expression.
His voice was hushed and intense as he leaned toward her. His dark blue green eyes, the same color as hers, were entirely serious, lacking any of his normal cheerfulness. "Casey, I need you to go out the back. Don't stop until you get to Mrs. Jameson's place." That was the sweets shop five blocks away.
"Why?" she hissed back, "I'm not leaving you. What's going on?"
"Just do what I say," Gramps growled. She followed his stare past her shoulder to where the customer was leaning over a glass case of old mitts. He was wearing a black duster and a hat, but he didn't seem dangerous enough to make her grandpa respond the way he was. Gramps tightened his grip on her arm and pulled her to her feet even as he reached under the counter for the hidden shotgun.
"Gramps, just explain what's happening," she whispered, her heart starting to ram into her ribcage, "Please?"
"Past caught up to us, kid," he said, his eyes becoming sad. "Sorry I can't explain more, Casey, there ain't time. You gotta go."
The customer turned toward them, his face expressionless and framed by lank black hair. His eyes were a pale green, like old mint toothpaste, and his mouth was bright red, as if he had just finished a cherry lollipop. He looked like a creeper, but that still wouldn't be enough to make Casey's tough-as-nails grandfather have a meltdown.
"Hello, Kinmont," the stranger said, and his voice made the hair stand up on the back of Casey's neck. It was smooth and dark and enticing. "It's been a while."
"Cut the crap, Arpath," Gramps said, lifting the shotgun and setting it on the counter. "Get out of here while you still can."
Creepy McCreeperson laughed and walked back over to the door. "You know that's useless." He flipped the closed sign and turned the lock, his hand waving over the door handle. The metal seemed to melt together, which was definitely impossible.
"Hey, jerk," Casey said, "I think it's time for you to leave." Her voice didn't shake even though her hands were trembling. Everything about this situation rubbed at her nerves the wrong way, and she couldn't decide whether she was more angry or scared. Maybe angry? She reached for the baseball bat, her own weapon of choice, that she kept leaning back against the wall.
The man, Arpath, looked at her, his head tilted to the side, then his smile widened into a wolf's grin. "Ah, the child. Such an innocent. Naive." He glanced at Gramps. "She knows nothing, does she? You've neglected her education."
"She doesn't need to know anything," Gramps said, his voice like steel, "You just leave her out of this."
"How can I possibly do that?" Arpath said, stepping toward them. He ran his hand over one of the countertops, and it melted at his touch, the glass turning red-orange and dripping toward the floor. Well, now that was unexpected. "She's the last of the line. She has to go, just like you and the rest of your pathetic family. The way of her parents."
"Back off, you Criss Angel wannabe asshole," Casey said, lifting her bat, "We're not going anywhere." Oh, she was definitely angry now. No one brought up her parents and no one threatened her grandpa, especially not in his own shop. "Now get out of here before I go Babe Ruth on your head."
"How adorable," the creep said. He reached out a hand and suddenly the bat flew out of her hand and into his. He gave it a lazy swing, breaking a nearby display case. "Say your goodbyes and ask for my forgiveness, and I'll make this quick."
"No way," she said, looking around for a new weapon.
"Just go!" Gramps shoved her shoulder, pushing her through the swinging door to the store's workroom. Behind her, she heard the shotgun go off, the boom echoing through the shop.
No, no, no, not Gramps, he was the only person she had left. Casey looked around wildly, searching for any kind of weapon. Another bat, a lacrosse stick, a tennis racket, anything. There was no way she was going to let that guy do anything to her grandfather. She had spotted a crowbar when suddenly the air in the workroom crackled and a ring of sparks appeared.
"What the hell!" she shrieked as a tall, lanky man stepped through the ring of fire, a red cape wafting around him like there was a breeze in the room. Which there totally wasn't, and yeah, what was this LARP-ing crazy person with his fire circle doing here? Was he friends with the Arpath guy? He must've been, why would he have shown up here doing magic tricks otherwise?
"Ah," the man said, turning toward her, "You aren't Arpath."
In return to that statement, Casey dove for the work table and started hurling tools at the freak in the cape. This was when it would be nice to have Spider-Man or that Daredevil guy from Hell's Kitchen on speed dial. New York had an abundance of superheroes, but apparently you had to be out on the street to get some help.
"Get out of here!" she screamed, flinging a flathead screwdriver at the new weirdo. His cape popped up and deflected the screwdriver, just like it had guarded him against the first three tools she had tossed at him. Behind her, the gun went off again, and she heard Arpath's deep laugh before the front doorbell sang its song. Someone must have left the shop.
"I don't think you understand the situation," the new guy said as he walked over to her. "I'm here to help, not to make things worse, though I would appreciate a warmer welcome."
"And why should I believe you?" she demanded, grabbing the crow bar.
The man pulled his shoulders back, looking proud and determined and perhaps a touch exasperated. "Because I'm the only chance you and your grandfather have of surviving this evening." He nodded to her. "I'm Doctor Strange. Now follow me, Casey Kinmont."