The Initiate – Snippet 25

Chapter 11

The next morning Sam rose early and spent an hour at the gym as the city was waking up. He had dabbled at aikido, krav maga, and tae kwon do, but in the end Sam found himself most comfortable in an old boxing club on the other side of the Bronx Zoo, where the locker room smelled like cigar smoke and the TV was always on Telemundo. It reminded him of his father. He jogged to the club, did his warm-up exercises, put in some time with the speed bag and the heavy bag, then walked home covered in sweat. The pain from his rib kind of blended into the aches from the rest of his body.

The temptation to call up some spirit to make his knees stop hurting and his lungs stop burning was very strong, but Sam resisted. Even before visiting Zadith he didn’t want to make himself depend on magic too much. He wanted to get his middle-aged body into the best shape he could manage by entirely natural means. He did use magic to make his rib heal faster, just to avoid explaining how it got broken.

And every time he slammed his fist into the hundred-pound bag he let himself see the bird-headed monster again. Next time he would be ready.

By the time Moreno stopped by Sam had showered, shaved, and dressed in his other nice shirt.

“Here,” was Moreno’s first word to him, as he handed Sam a business card. “This is the guy. Call him up, tell him I sent you, and ask for a job. Then get yourself some decent suits and shirts made. It’s best if you pick a place at random and don’t give a name you’ve used before. A good suit’s very personal, and you don’t want any little surprises stitched into the lining.”

“What’s wrong with this?” Sam raised the sleeve of his sport coat. “I paid good money for it.”

“A jacket like that’s for when you’re taking your third wife to see a Tom Jones impersonator at Mohegan Sun, with the surf-and-turf special afterward.” He shook his head in sorrow. “You need a bespoke suit. When you’ve got more of a rep for yourself, you can dress however you want. But for now, you want people to take you seriously. Even secret conspiracy wizards are impressed by a good suit.”

Their lunch together turned out to be hamburgers from a McDonalds drive-through at the end of an hour-long trip from the Bronx to Long Beach. Sam wondered idly if Moreno had some captive spirit making sure no Special Sauce wound up on his trousers as he ate while driving.

Things looked up a bit when Moreno pulled into the lot of the Sands Hotel on Long Island. But he parked right by the road and led Sam on a frantic sprint across all six lanes of Lido Boulevard before the two of them walked into a school bus parking lot and repair depot on the other side. Moreno waved at one man who looked out of the office trailer as they passed. The man waved back and said nothing.

“Nice trick,” said Sam.

“No magic. It’s all in the suit.”

Behind the school buses was an overgrown area with big concrete pads amid waist-high weeds. Rusting signs bore old National Guard unit emblems. Sam’s Inner Eye told him there were spirits around, watching them. “What is this place?”

“Old missile base. Air defense from the Cold War. The Count doesn’t like to meet at his house. Don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling; I know exactly where he lives. Half a mile from here, right on the beach.”

“There are watchers here.”

“Yeah, I feel ’em too. Don’t know whose they are, or how long they’ve been here.”

A thought struck Sam. “Moreno, how much does the government know about — us?” That last word still stuck a little.

“More than I like. You can always control a congressman or a judge or a general, but it’s the ordinary guys in the bureaucracy who can cause problems. There’s been a group of low-level Feds poking into magical stuff since John Quincy Adams was president. Totally informal, of course, and very secret. Moves around from department to department. How much they know about the Apkallu and magic, I can’t say for sure. Every now and then one of them pokes a little too hard and gets whacked. They’ve managed to stay hidden almost two hundred years, which is a pretty big accomplishment. Here comes the Count.”

Sam turned to see three men walking toward them through the weeds. Two were big men wearing windbreakers and sunglasses, but the man leading them was short and chubby, dressed for a day at the beach in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip-flop sandals, and a Mets cap. Sam recognized him from the initiation banquet. As before, his shirt was unbuttoned halfway, displaying half a dozen gold chains glinting in his chest hair. “Moreno!” he called out from twenty yards away. “Nice to see ya!”

“Count Cagliostro,” said Moreno when the other man got closer. “This is Ace, a new initiate who’s helping me look into Feng’s death.”

“How ya doing?” said Il Conte, displaying a surprisingly strong grip when they shook hands. The scent of cigar smoke and his overwhelming cologne clung to Sam’s hand afterward.

Il Conte looked Moreno straight in the eye, and said, “Let’s cut the bullshit. I didn’t bag Feng.”

“Somebody did. Somebody powerful enough to bind a div and smuggle it into his workroom without him knowing. That means an initiate of the House or higher.”

Il Conte shrugged. “More of them around than you think. We don’t all show up for meetings. Maybe somebody had a grudge. Feng was good at pissing people off. If I knew who did it I’d buy him a Ferrari.”

Just then Sam’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He tried to ignore it, but the “silent” vibration was loud enough to be heard over the noise of the wind and a plane headed for JFK.

“You gonna get that?” the Count asked, finally.

Sam shot Moreno an apologetic look and pulled it out. The two men in sunglasses reached inside their own jackets at the same moment, then relaxed when they saw his phone. It was a text: “GET AWAY.”

He turned off the phone, all the way off, and tucked it back into his pocket. There was no way he could run off now.

“I’d rather not have to involve the Sage,” said Moreno. “But if I have to start asking for name-oaths, I will.”

“Go ahead,” said the Count. “You go right ahead and do that. Come on, lay down those cards and let’s see what you’ve got. You think Roger’s gonna come down here and hang around while you parade the whole Norumbega Circle in front of him? Just because you can’t figure out who bagged Feng? He’s gonna find himself a new agaus who’s not fucking retarded. Hey, you — Ace, right? — you wanna get hired as a Mitum-bearer? There’s gonna be a job opening real soon.”