The Initiate – Snippet 10
“What are you doing nowadays?” he asked her. “Last I heard you were going to architecture school.”
“I did, and I got my degree. Then I started working for a developer, just as a temporary gig until I could pay off my loans. Except I found out I kind of liked it. We rehab old factories and warehouses. It’s fun. What about you? You went off to the Air Force.”
“I did, and then I got an E.E. at UConn. Married, worked for Sikorsky. Now I’m here.”
She glanced at his hand as he raised the coffee mug to his mouth. “Still married?”
“She died last year,” he said. He didn’t mention his son.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“A bear attacked her.”
Ashley’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. That’s horrible.”
Neither said anything for a moment. Sam tried to break the silence. “It’s been, what, twenty years?”
“We graduated in ’94, so pretty close.” She smiled. “I still remember that last summer.”
“It was pretty great.” Sam was a little surprised by the surge of desire he felt. The summer of 1994 had been a wonderful three months — he’d had a secondhand motorbike and an afternoon job, and he and Ashley had spent almost every evening screwing like, well, a pair of horny teenagers.
Thinking about Ashley and Alice at the same time gave Sam a very odd feeling, a mix of desire and guilt and regret and . . . maybe a little spark of hope?
He checked his watch. “Listen,” he said, “I need to get moving. It’s been wonderful bumping into you like this.”
She pulled a card out of her shoulder bag. “Let’s stay in touch.”
He took it and glanced at it. “You go by Ash now?”
“Ever since college.”
“It suits you.” He pocketed the card and left some bills on the table. “Let me buy you breakfast.”
“Okay, but next time’s my treat.”
“I’ll think of someplace very expensive.” He got up, and there was a moment when he thought about whether to kiss her good-bye. But it had been a long time, and a noisy diner off Times Square didn’t seem like the right place to try it. He gave her a cheerful wave and headed for the door.
Sam spent the next three weeks studying the rituals Lucas had given him and tracking down special materials all over New York. On the night of the spring equinox he was up on the roof of his building just after sunset, sitting in the center of the Third Seal of Mars drawn in white paint on the tarpaper. He was nude, his body covered in protective signs. Getting them onto his back had required taping a marker to a stick and working with a mirror, and he still had the nagging fear that he had drawn them reversed. He fed elm leaves and sandalwood into a small fire before him, and invoked the Lord of Perfected Success, ruler of the third face of Pisces, whose reign was set to end at dawn.
He held up the ring he had made by hand at a metalworking shop in Brooklyn, and began to chant in Sumerian. It was a dangerous undertaking: He was calling harmful spirits to him, gambling that he could bind one into the ring before it could hurt him.
After his third repetition of the chant, just before Mercury sank into New Jersey, Sam felt a crowd around him — shapes like serpents or jellyfish. Or were they spirits of disease in the forms of gigantic bacteria and viruses? They pressed inward, as if they could overwhelm his protections by sheer numbers.
Sam began to recite the ritual of binding, focusing his will on one angular shape which was straining directly at his face. He held the ring directly in front of it and concentrated, commanding it into the metal. But the thing resisted, and reached past the ring to Sam’s head. The rooftop around him and the sky above blurred, dimmed, and then disappeared. He could see nothing.
But he could still sense the spirit before him. Once again he chanted the binding, feeling its will strain against his own. It was like arm-wrestling with his mind: For a time the two of them were balanced in opposition, but then it weakened just a fraction and Sam pressed his advantage. Bit by bit he forced the spirit into the ring and then spoke the words to lock it in. As soon as he was finished his vision — his physical vision — returned.
He put on the ring, then stood and chanted a banishment. The spirits he had called to him moved back each time he repeated it, and finally flew off in all directions.
Sam raised his left hand and looked at the iron ring. “How are you doing in there, buddy?”
It didn’t speak, but he sensed its anger and hunger as a kind of repetitive chatter. “Eatyoureyeseatyoureyeseatyoureyes . . .”
“Just be patient. When I need your help, you can go wild. Until then, sleep.”
Two days later he sat in his apartment, reading and rereading one of the sheets Lucas had given him, trying to work up the nerve to use it. Calling spirits was frightening, in the same way as working with high-voltage power systems or live ammo was. He had to be careful to avoid killing himself. But this list of simple phrases was dangerous in a different way. According to Lucas they could be used to control the minds and emotions of other people. Until he actually started getting ready to use them, Sam hadn’t really thought about what that really meant. Could he really control someone’s mind? Should he?
It was a little scary, once he started thinking about what he could do. Very scary, really. There were some limits, thankfully. All spells of commanding required the victim’s true name, and most worked best with certain talismans and materials present. Still, just imagining how he might use this power made Sam realize how much influence the Apkallu must have in the world. Tycoons, politicians, officials — someone with “the gift” and a single sheet of instructions could make the most powerful people in the world into puppets. This was a lot bigger than summoning spirits. Now Sam understood why Lucas had been so insistent that he take on a new identity.
Twice he laid the sheet aside, and once he actually crumpled it up and tossed it into the wastebasket. But then he got up and fished it out, and smoothed it flat again. It was just too damned useful. He could get people to tell him the truth, make them forget things, perform tasks for him. For a man who needed to protect his identity and take on a whole organized secret society of wizards, it would be stupid — it would be insane — not to learn how to use this kind of magic. Today was a Tuesday, a good day for it.
He promised himself that he would only use it against the Apkallu and their servants. Never for personal gain. But even as he made that vow he felt tainted.
And with that, he rehearsed a couple of the phrases until he was sure he could repeat them from memory, put on a red silk tie, pocketed a few items, then went down the badly lit staircase to the street.
A block away on Bedford Park Boulevard there was a “multiservice” store — a combination tax-preparation outfit, currency exchange, money-transfer service, Internet access by the minute, mail drop, utility-bill payment center, and phone-card vendor. It was one of thousands of little storefronts in New York where people with no credit, no green card, or no fixed address could dip a toe into the digital economy. With a cash surcharge, of course. Sam used it regularly.
He waited in line patiently, staring at his phone as if engrossed by a video of cats jumping onto things. He was actually keeping an eye on the woman in front of him. She had a phone bill to pay, and by the time the two of them had moved up to just behind the head of the line, Sam knew her full name.
“This is taking too long,” he muttered, as if to himself, and abandoned his place in line. Outside, he lit a cigarette. It tasted awful but tobacco helped the magic work. After about ten minutes, the woman came out. She was a tiny, very old black woman with a colorful scarf knotted on her head; Sam guessed she might be from someplace in the Caribbean.
He put his hands into his pockets, one crushing the scarlet poppy blossom he’d ordered from a supplier in Belgium, the other holding a steel arrowhead. “Eresikin Elizabeth Calder Richardson iginudug Ruax. Hand me your purse. Segah.”
The old lady turned to look at him, and as she did he had the odd sensation that he was the tiny woman looking at the dark-haired man wearing a red tie. She/he held out the purse and the man took it.
He handed it back and said “Elizabeth Calder Richardson Ishchuch. N’pkudh.”
She blinked at him then, as if waking up. “What you say?”
“I said do you know if there’s a barber shop around here.”
She shook her head. “Ask somebody else,” she said, and walked away, a little more quickly.
Sam walked away in the other direction. He realized he was trembling. His emotions were a weird mix of triumph and disgust.
The cigarette in his mouth suddenly tasted vile and he tossed it away. But the folded sheet in his shirt pocket stayed where it was.