The Initiate – Snippet 09
It was nearly two in the morning when the northbound D train rumbled into the station at 125th Street. Sam stepped aboard the last car and sat down, dead tired. Just as the train started to move again, Sam’s eyes snapped open, all fatigue forgotten. The car was empty, but he could feel a whole crowd of invisible presences.
“Hi!” Isabella peeked over the back of his seat, grinning. “Where are you going?”
“That way.” He pointed at the front of the train. “Shouldn’t you be at home?”
“I like to sleep on the trains.”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
For an instant she looked serious. “I don’t have any. Not anymore.” But then she brightened. “Don’t worry. My friends take care of me.”
He gestured at the air around them. “These friends?”
“These are just the ones who follow me around. I can call others when I need them.”
Sam looked at her, his long-dormant parental habits kicking in. She was wearing a new dress, all bright colors and sparkles. Her shoes were also new, with flashing LED lights. Her hair was gathered into two pigtails and tied with purple ribbons flecked with glitter. But he could see that her hair was uncombed and unwashed, and his nose told him the rest.
“Your friends should give you a bath,” he said.
“I don’t like baths.”
“Not even bubble baths?” A dash of Mr. Bubble had always overcome Tommy’s objections at bath time.
“Maybe. I’ll ask them.”
“Do you need anything to eat?” he asked. She was thin, but not unusually so.
“They bring me whatever I want.”
“There’s a place near my stop that stays open late. I’ll get you something.”
She laughed. “Okay, but no cauliflower.”
“It’s a deal: no cauliflower.”
Not without some embarrassment, Sam took Isabella to dinner at a Mexican bar and grill that stayed open all night. The waiter — who was also the bartender — was very solicitous of Isabella when they first came in, asking her name and where she went to school.
“What’s your name?” she asked him cheerfully.
“My name? Hector Vega,” he said.
“Hector Vega Ishchuch. N’pkudh,” she said in a clear, commanding voice.
Mr. Vega’s eyes unfocused for a second, and then he shook his head. “What can I get you?” he asked Sam, and gathered up the utensils from in front of Isabella, as if Sam was sitting alone.
“One pork taco, one order of chicken fingers, and a side of rajas.”
Isabella ate the chicken fingers and put away chips and salsa as fast as the waiter could bring them. When Sam insisted she have some of the rajas she made a face at him and pushed the squash and zucchini away from the corn and peppers, but in the end she did eat three spoonfuls.
“How’d you do that to him?” Sam asked her after Mr. Vega refilled the chips basket for the second time.
“People are spirits, too,” she said. “We just have bodies all the time. The other ones don’t. If you know someone’s name you can tell them what to do. I told him to forget about me.” Her voice dropped. “My friends taught me that. That’s why my real name’s a secret.”
“That’s pretty smart. Mine’s a secret, too.”
When Mr. Vega brought him the check, Sam brought up a subject he’d been avoiding. “Do you need a place to stay?” he asked Isabella.
She laughed at that. “I’ve got lots of places. Sometimes I live at the Plaza Hotel like Eloise in the book. Or there’s these neat apartments in the Public Library nobody knows about. I stay there sometimes. It doesn’t matter.”
Sam tore a page from his notebook and wrote the number of his burner phone on it. “If you ever need someplace, or if you need help, call me, okay?”
Isabella took it, folded it carefully, and then stuck it in her sock. “You’re nice,” she said.
About once a month Lucas left him a text message setting up a meeting. The process was never simple. Typically the text sent him someplace — never the same place twice — to pick up an envelope of written instructions. Those directions always involved at least one ferry trip, a stop in a church, a couple of changes of disguise, and multiple last-second jumps on and off subway trains. Timing was always very precise: He had to be on the boat at the turning of the tide, enter the church just before sunset, and leave it just after. At first they seemed like utter nonsense, but as he learned more Sam began to understand what he was doing and why.
In February, after he began studying with Sylvia, Sam met Lucas one evening in a patch of woods under an enormous skein of humming power lines in South Amboy, New Jersey. Lucas had cleared a patch of forest floor down to bare dirt and made concentric circles of salt. Within the circles he had set up a couple of folding camp chairs.
“Come in, come in,” he said, beckoning to Sam. “Make sure you step over the salt.”
“What if someone sees us?”
“I have guards posted, and we are completely alone within this circle.”
With a start Sam realized he couldn’t feel the protective spirit he’d bound to himself.
Lucas handed him a china cup of coffee and gestured at the open box of Turkish Delight. “Help yourself. Now, tell me about your studies. What has Sylvia been teaching you?”
“Oh, the basics. Astrological correspondences, sympathetic and symbolic linkages, things like that.”
“But no actual workings yet?”
“No.” Sam didn’t try to hide the frustration in his voice.
“I thought not. Until you are initiated, she will concentrate on theory rather than practice. The idea is to keep you interested, but not reveal anything useful until you’re part of the organization and subject to its laws.”
“How can I avoid that?”
Lucas nodded. “That’s the real trick. They will want your true name, and a sample of your blood.”
“How do they know if I give the right name?”
“You will be tested. You swear by your name, and then you are commanded to do something — typically painful or humiliating, or both. They try to choose an act you would refuse if you could.”
Sam’s mouth was dry despite the coffee. “So I just have to do it?”
“You must obey as if you had no will of your own. But your name isn’t as important as the blood. With your name an Apkal can command you to your face. With your blood he can send death from afar. That is the real power.”
“How long do you think it’ll be before my initiation?”
“It will be at Ostara, the start of Arah-Nisanu, the month of the Sanctuary. For the past few years it’s been held at an old speakeasy bar in Chinatown. Hei Feng owns the building.”
“That doesn’t give me much time.”
“No. I’m going to concentrate on workings which may help you prepare: how to influence minds and command people, spirits to guard your privacy, banishings to drive away supernatural spies, and how to find treasures and secrets.”
“You know — money. A lavish bribe always enhances the effect of a spell, and some of the workings require expensive materials.”
Lucas produced a thick sheaf of photocopied pages and the two of them spent the next four hours going over the rituals by the light of a little LED lamp. As the sound of traffic on the Garden State began to diminish and a church clock in the old part of town chimed two, Sam and Lucas got up and began to clear the site.
“It’s a pity we can’t use this place again. Never be predictable. If your friend Mr. Moreno were to learn of our meetings, I doubt either of us would survive very long.”
“What do you know about him?”
“He is the most dangerous kind of man: an honest one. He genuinely believes that the Apkallu serve a valuable purpose, and he considers his work defending their secrets a necessary task.
I suspect he pities those he must kill, and dislikes doing it, but does so anyway. Avoid him if you can.”
In the quiet hours before dawn getting through Staten Island back to Manhattan took much longer than the outward trip, even without Lucas’s detours and security precautions. The sky over Long Island was turning pale when Sam reached Penn Station, so he decided to have breakfast at a diner he liked, up at Times Square.
Early morning had always been one of Sam’s favorite times, especially in a big city like New York. Before dawn there were no tourists, no hustlers looking for tourists to prey on, no young fools acting out their “I’m a cosmopolitan sophisticate!” fantasies. The men (and they were nearly all men) at the counter eating big breakfasts were trash collectors, power linemen, subway operators, cabbies, cops, construction workers, firemen — the people whose constant behind-the-scenes labor kept the city going.
“Sam?” said a woman’s voice behind him. “Sam Arquero?”
He felt a stab of cold to his core. They had found him out!
He ignored her, but she tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, are you –”
He turned, ready to deny everything, but found himself looking into a face he knew.
“Ashley!” he said. “What the heck are you doing here?”
They moved to a booth, where she propped her carry-on bag on the seat next to her.
“I just got off the redeye from L.A. It’s too late to go home and change, so I thought I’d just hang out and then go in to work.”