The Initiate – Snippet 07
Four hours after meeting Sylvia, Sam arrived on foot at the corner of Post Avenue and Academy Street, at the far north end of Manhattan. Five- and six-story apartment buildings stretched away in every direction. He wandered around the intersection for a few minutes, then finally noticed a small sign on a steel gate at the top of some steps leading down to a basement door: “Tutoring,” it said, in faded purple Comic Sans lettering. He pressed the doorbell button under the sign, and after a brief wait the gate unlocked.
Sam went down the first couple of steps, pulled the gate shut behind him and made sure it locked, then went the rest of the way down to a steel door with no external knob at all. It buzzed and popped open as he reached it, and he went inside.
Past the metal door was a short corridor lit by buzzing fluorescent tubes, with worn linoleum on the floor and peeling images of clowns and balloons on the walls. Was this the right place? Probably not. Definitely not. Coming here had been a huge mistake. He felt like a fool. And what if someone found him here, unable to explain himself? He might get arrested, or worse.
He was just about to turn around when he stopped and closed his eyes. Though he could see nothing he could feel that he was not alone in the corridor. Something was in front of him, and the powerful feeling of anxiety was radiating from it like warmth from a bonfire.
“Let me pass,” he said in a voice as steady and commanding as he could manage. “I was invited here. You have no power over me.”
As soon as he spoke, the fear and doubt vanished, along with the sense of another presence. Sam was alone in an unattractive little corridor. He walked without hesitation to the green door at the end and opened it.
“Not bad,” said Sylvia, sitting at a desk reading the Daily News. The room reeked of cigarettes and perfume. “But don’t start thinking you’re Mandrake the Magician yet. I’ve had six-year-olds here who could boss around the guardian in the hallway better than you.”
“I’m ready to learn,” said Sam. “I don’t know what you charge, but –”
“No charge,” she said. “I got demons on speed dial, what do I want money for? No, all I want is a promise: that you’ll do one thing I ask.”
“What do you mean?”
“You owe me a favor, get it? All my students owe me one — or their parents do, which is better, really. Are you in?”
“Yes. I’ll do one thing for you, whenever you ask.”
She smiled. “Good. That’s one thing you’re gonna learn: It’s all about making deals. And you need to get a lot better at it, dummy! You just gave me a blank check. Not so smart.”
Sylvia’s class for beginners had three other students: a pigtailed girl called Isabella who looked about ten, an intense boy in his early teens named Shimon, and a sullen girl of sixteen who said her name was MoonCat. Sam realized with some amusement that he was older than all his fellow students combined.
Their studies typically began around ten in the morning. Sylvia didn’t insist on punctuality, but she didn’t wait for laggards, either. The four students sat in a dingy windowless classroom while Sylvia lectured without notes for two or three hours. She kept a cigarette in the corner of her mouth the whole time, so that by the time the morning session was finished everyone reeked of smoke. It reminded Sam of his Anchorage bar-going days as an Air Force E-4 at Elmendorf.
In the afternoons they studied separately. Shimon went off back to Great Neck to be homeschooled in normal academic subjects, and MoonCat was picked up promptly at two by a silent man in sunglasses and a dark suit, who drove an armored Mercedes SUV. Sam alternated staying with Sylvia for extra instruction, or afternoons of study at the Columbia library. Isabella came and went as she pleased.
Sylvia had to help Sam catch up with what the kids already knew. Mr. Lucas had already taught him some of it, but Sam didn’t want to let Sylvia know he had another source. Besides, the review was useful, and it was interesting to get a different perspective on the material.
“It’s all about spirits,” she told him one afternoon as he sat by himself in the haze-filled classroom. “You’ll never shoot lightning from your hands, or any of that movie crapola. But you can command a spirit to call down lightning on someone, or make the wind elementals carry you through the air. They’ll even show you the way to hidden realms.”
“How do you know which spirits do what?”
“You just gotta know. Everybody collects names and formulas, and you can trade ’em around. I’ll give you a couple in a month or two. When you finally get good enough to call up one of the big-league demons, you can ask it for the names of lesser spirits.”
“But there’s a price.”
She grinned at that. “Yep. There’s always a price. The simple ones — like your invisible bodyguard — aren’t really smart enough to make bargains. They just do what you tell ’em. But the more powerful ones want something in return. You’ve gotta be real careful about what you offer, and what you agree to. And half the time you’re gonna be doing all this in Sumerian or Egyptian or some ancient language nobody speaks anymore.”
“Why can’t we just use English?”
Sylvia shrugged. “Some of them, you can. Some only speak French, or Tibetan, or whatever. It’s the same with the signs and materials — for some spirits you need a bronze dagger with Norse runes on it, for others you need a gold ankh and the blood of a white dove.” She looked at Samuel with her unsettlingly wise eyes, and pointed one coral-pink fingernail. “I know what you’re thinking.”
He kept his face still and fought the sense of panic. “What am I thinking?” he asked her, croaking a bit because his throat was suddenly dry.
“You’re thinking that you’re gonna use your modern, scientific mind to figure out the logical rules behind all this ancient crapola.
I got news for you: Everybody tries that, and it never works. Isaac Newton couldn’t figure it out, and neither could Eliphas Levi. The spirits aren’t machines; they’re alive and they’ve got their own ways of doing things. Learn their ways and you can make ’em obey you. Try to get cute and they’ll mess you up good.”
She lit a fresh cigarette and pointed at the astrological symbols on the whiteboard behind her. “Look at this stuff. You and I know that Mars is a big ball of gas and iron in space, right? There’s some kind of robot there right now, I think, driving around and picking up rocks. But for the spirits Mars is the source of masculine power, conflict, and courage. I could get all hippy-dippy and say their reality is just as true as ours, but that’s a lot of BS. Mars may not be the sign of blood and fire, but the spirits think it is, so you have to act like it’s the real deal if you want to make them do what you want.”
About a month after he began his studies with Sylvia, Sam arrived at the basement classroom to find a pair of visitors sitting at the back of the room. Both were grown men — one about Sam’s own age, slender and dark haired, the other a little older, shorter and thickset with a neatly trimmed gray beard. The bearded man wore a very expensive suit. Sam could sense spirits hovering about both men.
Sylvia was lecturing about auspicious and inauspicious days for various operations, based on the combination of lunar phase, astrological sign, and day of the week. She merely nodded to Sam when he came in and took his seat, but the two men at the back of the room were suddenly more alert.