The Initiate – Snippet 08
After a few minutes the gray-bearded man spoke up. “Sylvia, I’d like to talk to your new student.”
“Save it for after class,” she said, and continued with her lecture.
“I didn’t come here just to –” began the older man, but his companion bent close and murmured something. The bearded man glared at his companion, but fell silent. For the rest of the class he alternated glaring at Sylvia and glaring at Sam. By a curious coincidence, Sylvia went on much longer than usual that day, so that it was well past two when she finally put down her dry-erase markers and drained the bottle of Fanta she’d been sipping from.
Shimon hurried out with a nervous backward glance. MoonCat stayed in her seat and began checking her phone. Isabella also stayed in her seat, watching everyone like a spectator at a play.
“All right, who are you?” asked the bearded man, looming over Sam, who was still sitting at his desk.
“My friends call me Ace,” Sam answered. That brought a wry chuckle from Sylvia. “Who are you?”
“I am Hei Feng,” he answered. “And I want someone to explain to me what this outsider is doing here, learning our secrets.” He turned to face Sylvia. “Why wasn’t I informed?”
She shrugged and gestured at the slim dark-haired man with her cigarette. “I cleared it with Moreno.”
“You should have consulted me first. Now I have to decide what to do with him.”
“He’s got the gift,” said Sylvia. “He’s one of us.”
“Being someone’s bastard grandson doesn’t make him anything except a curiosity. Teaching him how to use the talent makes him a problem.” Hei Feng turned to Moreno. “Why did you permit this?”
“When Sylvia spotted him he’d already called up and bound one of the lesser hafaza spirits for protection. I thought it would be dangerous to have a practitioner outside our control.”
“You could have solved the problem permanently by dropping him into the Hudson.”
“Uh, excuse me,” said Sam. “Would one of you explain why this guy wants to kill me?”
The man named Moreno turned to Sam. “You can do magic. That makes you dangerous. Sylvia and I think the wisest course is to bring you into the society of people who know about magic. Mr. Feng thinks it would be simpler to get rid of you.”
“Don’t I get a vote?”
Moreno shook his head, then turned back to Hei Feng. “We can’t afford to waste him. He’s healthy, sane — just expanding the gene pool is a good reason to keep him around. Do you have any children?” he asked Sam.
His nervousness vanished, completely annihilated by the stab of cold fury Sam felt at Moreno’s question. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said, keeping it light. “I’m waiting for Sylvia to teach me how to make love potions.”
“I think he’s nice,” said Isabella, the little girl in pigtails who had been watching the whole conversation. “I think you should let him join.”
Hei Feng ignored her, but Moreno looked over at Isabella and for a moment his eyes widened. He put a hand on Hei Feng’s shoulder. “He isn’t an initiate yet, so I can’t do anything to stop you, but if you want him dead you’ll have to do it yourself.”
There was a long silence. Sylvia stood watching them, Moreno took a couple of steps back from Hei Feng’s side, and MoonCat even looked up from her phone to see what was going on. Sam tensed — if Hei Feng tried to do anything he could at least go down fighting.
Finally Feng gave an irritated little sigh. “Well, I suppose it’s too late now.” He jabbed a finger into Sam’s face. “If you reveal anything you have learned here to anyone you will die.
Sam nodded, trying to look more frightened than he felt. “I won’t say anything.”
“Good.” Hei Feng turned to Moreno again. “If he breaks his pledge I’ll send a rabisu to tear him apart at noon in Times Square and you’ll have to do the cleanup.”
He strode out, followed by MoonCat. From the way she ignored Feng, Sam figured she must be his daughter. When they were gone Sam looked from Sylvia to Moreno, and his expression of bewilderment was perfectly genuine. “What just happened?”
“You’re not dead,” said Sylvia. “Now go learn some Egyptian or something. I need a drink.”
Sam gathered up his notebooks and headed for the exit. Isabella and Moreno followed him out. On the sidewalk Isabella waved a cheery goodbye to him and skipped away toward Fort Tryon Park.
“I’d watch out for her if I were you,” said Moreno, startling Sam, who had forgotten he was there.
“Isabella? She’s just a kid.”
“She isn’t ‘just’ anything. Where are you headed? I’ll give you a ride.”
“Butler Library, the big one at Columbia.”
“Come on, I’m parked around the corner.” Moreno led him to where a lovely old Citroen DS, painted deep maroon, sat proudly in a no-parking zone. Sam slid into the passenger seat, which smelled of leather and pipe tobacco, like an exclusive club.
As they cruised south on Broadway Moreno asked casually, “So: What’s your story?”
Sam shrugged. “I saw something weird, I started researching on my own, I tried a couple of workings, and then Sylvia found me.”
“A little man,” said Sam. He’d prepared this story with the help of Mr. Lucas; close enough to the truth that he wouldn’t have trouble remembering, but not enough to betray him. “Just three inches high. I wasn’t sure if I imagined it, but somehow I couldn’t put it out of my mind. So I quit my job and moved here to see what I could learn.”
“Could have been a jogah,” said Moreno. “Mostly harmless. How’d you go from that to doing real magic?”
“It was an experiment. I’m an engineer: You have to test everything. I wanted to see if the stuff I’d been reading was bullshit or not.”
“You were lucky. Most of what you read about magic is bullshit, and there’s people who work hard to keep it that way.”
“Are you one of them?” asked Sam, with a sidelong look at Moreno.
“Oh, sometimes, when I don’t have something more important to do. My real job is keeping the peace. You have family?”
“I used to be married,” said Sam. Even after a year the place where his wedding ring had been was clearly visible. “We broke up.”
“No. Is that important? You asked before.”
“It’s important because the gift is inherited. Genetic, I guess you’d say. If you have any kids they could carry it. We like to keep track of potential mages.”
“I guess I must have slipped through the cracks.”
“It happens,” said Moreno. “Any brothers or sisters?”
“Not that I know of.”
“That simplifies things.”
It occurred to Sam that he really didn’t know. Did he have any long-lost siblings in Colombia? Was there any way to find out?
“You keep saying ‘we,'” said Sam. “So does Sylvia. And back there you said something about being initiated. Into what?”
“I can’t tell you,” said Moreno, but then he glanced at Sam and sighed. “Look, when you have people who can do real magic, you need some way to control them. To prevent chaos. So there’s an organization. I can’t tell you the name, and it wouldn’t mean anything to you anyway. It’s been around a very long time, and it exists to keep the secret and maintain order. You’ll find out more when Sylvia decides you’re ready.”
“What if I don’t want to join?” asked Sam. They were only a block north of campus.
“Oh, everyone joins, unless they’re hopelessly inept. Plenty of them, too.”
“But suppose I didn’t. Or suppose I joined and then decided to quit. What would happen?”
They were at 115th Street, and Moreno pulled over to the curb illegally at the crosswalk before answering. “If that happened I would have to kill you,” he said, very seriously. “See you around — Mr. Hunter.”
Smart guy, Sam thought as he crossed Broadway in a crowd of students. He knew Sam’s fake name, but how much more did he know?