The Initiate – Snippet 01

The Initiate

James L. Cambias

Chapter 1

“It wasn’t a bear, was it?” The voice on Samuel Arquero’s phone was reedy and precise. Whoever it was hung up before he could answer. Sam tried to call back, but got a recorded voice telling him the number was not in service. He tried again with the same result. Then he just sat there in the dark living room, looking at the fire in the wood stove. A half-empty pitcher of Bloody Marys stood on the coffee table in front of him.

That was how Sam spent most of his evenings, trying to drink himself to sleep without incurring a crippling hangover. He made his Bloody Marys with V-8 juice, so they were almost good for him.

Half an hour later the phone rang again. Sam had it on the couch next to him and snatched it up before it could ring a second time.

“Mr. Samuel Arquero?” asked the same voice.

“Who are you?”

“I want to meet with you. Name a time and place — but it must be private.”

“Can you come here? Now?”

The voice chuckled a little bit. “If you wish. Expect me in half an hour. Needless to say, you will be alone.” The call ended.

It had to be a prank call. A very nasty one. Sam was sure the joker wouldn’t show. He’d have to be crazy to do that.

But . . . Sam turned on the porch light and tried to tidy up the living room a bit, just from habit. Since he spent most of his time there it was pretty messy, but by shoving things behind the couch and making neat piles he got it marginally presentable.

There was nothing he could do about the front window — pulling down the pink insulation stapled over it would just expose the bare plywood nailed to the outside. Probably ought to get that fixed, he thought yet again.

Of course it had been a bear. Probably rabid, according to the cops. It was crazy to think otherwise. Just his memory playing tricks. Sam knew enough about psychology to figure the bizarre image in the doorway (which never went away, never) was just a manifestation of his guilt. If he’d just looked through the window before opening the door, if he hadn’t frozen in astonishment that first instant, if he’d done something the house might not be so silent and empty right now. But he never spoke of what he’d seen — what he thought he’d seen — to anyone.

Twenty-nine minutes later there was a knock on the door.

Sam hadn’t heard a car pull up. He opened the door three inches, with his foot planted to keep it from swinging wider, and his right hand just touching the kindling hatchet he’d placed with the coats and boots.

The man on the doorstep was nearly Sam’s height, with sparse gray hair. He was smiling, and wore dark glasses despite the late hour. Except for the glasses, his appearance was so utterly nondescript that if Sam looked away for a moment he thought he’d forget what he looked like. The visitor pulled his hands out of his overcoat pockets and held them up for Sam to see.

“Good evening, Mr. Arquero,” he said. “May I come in?”

“Who are you?” Sam’s mouth was dry.

“I’m the man who has taken an interest in what happened to your family last summer. You can call me Mr. Lucas.”

Sam shifted his foot and let the door swing open. The man on the step didn’t move. “It was probably standing right here when you opened the door, wasn’t it?”

Then Samuel did pick up the hatchet. Mr. Lucas didn’t seem worried. “It wasn’t a bear, though,” he continued. “That’s what the police decided, and you didn’t correct them. But what crashed through this door wasn’t anything like a bear. It looked like a tall man, didn’t it? Gray skinned, with the head and talons of a gigantic crow. You stood about where you are now, too surprised to do anything. I expect your face looked about the same, too.”

. . . He stood there frozen, for just a second, then tried to slam the door but the crow man put out one taloned arm and pushed back, shoving the door open and knocking him back into the hall.

It slashed one great clawed hand at him but Sam ducked and grabbed the nearest possible weapon — the piano bench just inside the doorway to the living room — and swung it into the crow man’s midsection. The blow knocked two of the legs off the bench but the monster didn’t budge. It opened its beak and gave a loud call, like the noise of an electric saw. Then it shot out one claw and clutched Sam by the throat, lifting him easily and tossing him headfirst through the glass doors of the office on the other side of the hall. He broke his left arm when he hit the desk. The crow man came toward him and Sam struggled to get up, but it picked up the ruin of the piano bench and smashed it down on top of him.

Mr. Lucas stepped inside. “I believe the rest of your family were upstairs?” he asked, glancing up the staircase. “My condolences on your loss, by the way.”

“How do you know all that?” Sam finally managed to say.

His throat was dry and he clutched the handle of the hatchet so hard his forearm ached.

“I wasn’t present, if that’s what you mean. But I can sense what attacked you and I read the police report. May I ask, why did you say it was a bear?”

“If I said I saw a giant crow man everyone would think I’m crazy. They’d say I did it myself.”

“You never considered that you might indeed have gone insane?”

“Of course I considered it! I still wonder if I’m nuts. But I know I couldn’t have broken my own arm. And there are these.”

Sam put a hand on the wood molding above the doorway to the living room, feeling the deep gouges the creature’s claws had made.

“Good. You’re intelligent enough to consider it and rule it out — and you’re shrewd enough to keep quiet about what you did see. You’ll do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This will take some time. Can we sit down?”

Sam led him into the living room and turned on a lamp. Mr. Lucas sat in the old armchair in front of the boarded-up window. Sam lowered himself onto the couch and set down the hatchet.

Lucas dug in the pocket of his nice tweed jacket, then put four gold rings on the coffee table in front of Sam. “Before we begin: Which ring is more important?”

Sam shook his head. “I’m no antiques expert. They all look the same to me.”

“Do they? Be subjective. Take as long as you need. Which one differs from the others?”