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The Initiate: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Saturday, January 25, 2020 18:44 EST



    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.”



    Sam never got the chance to answer, because a crowd of men emerged from the tall weeds around the concrete pad. They all wore faded Vietnam-era combat gear and carried old M1 rifles with bayonets fixed.

    “You bastard!” the Count shouted, then pointed at Moreno and said something in a language Sam didn’t recognize. A hideously ugly winged man appeared between the two of them, and swung an enormous iron mallet at Moreno. The blow glanced off Moreno’s shoulder, and he winced at the impact.

    The soldiers had formed a ring around them now, and blazed away with their rifles as they advanced. The phrase “circular firing squad” came to Sam, and then a realization. Ghost soldiers would know better than that.

    “They’re not real!” he shouted. “It’s an illusion!”

    If anyone could hear him over the sound of the gunfire they gave no sign. Moreno was evading the hammer blows of the grimacing winged man, while the Count had ducked behind his two guards. One of the guards was firing back at the soldiers with a big shiny automatic pistol, and the other was pointing his big gun directly at Sam.

    Sam dove for the winged man’s legs, hoping his own protective spirit could turn aside a bullet. He tackled the creature — it stank of sulfur and carrion — and that gave Moreno enough time to draw the turquoise stickpin from his tie and throw it to the ground.

    Where it struck the concrete cracked and split open as a big turquoise hand pushed up from below, followed by a massive head and shoulders at least six feet wide. Both Sam and the winged man were tossed aside as a turquoise giant reared up from the ground and reached for the Count’s bodyguards.

    At a command from the Count the winged man began to batter the giant with his hammer, but the blows only knocked away little blue-green chips and the giant ignored them. It swatted one of the guards aside, and the man flew thirty or forty feet to land in the weeds beyond the circle of soldiers. The other one turned and ran.

    The winged man took to the air and rained blows on the giant’s head. The Count took advantage of the momentary distraction to chant in Egyptian. Sam sent the blinding-spirit from his iron ring at the Count, but it simply dissipated when it got within three yards of him.

    A pair of enormous mandibles erupted from the ground and seized the turquoise giant’s left ankle. It tugged loose, but lost its balance and sat down with a thump that nearly knocked Sam off his feet. The mandibles belonged to a golden scarab beetle the size of a Greyhound bus, which shook off concrete fragments and snapped at the giant again. The giant scrambled to its feet and grappled with the beetle, gripping the golden mandibles with its massive turquoise arms, trying to force them apart. Beyond the two monsters Sam could see the Count setting fire to a slip of paper.

    Sam reached Moreno. “Are you okay?”

    “I’m gonna have a hell of a bruise tonight. Run for it; I’ll handle the Count.” He switched to what sounded like Mayan and the Count was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of rainbow-feathered hummingbirds, darting at him with beaks like needles, and completely blocking his vision. But the burning paper dropped to the ground, and as it was consumed the smoke moved in a narrow, purposeful stream toward Moreno, slipping nimbly between the feet of the wrestling giants like a snake.

    The great golden scarab knocked down the turquoise giant again, and this time crawled on top of its opponent, snapping at the eyeless blue face with its golden mouthparts. Beyond them Sam could see the Count, struggling desperately against the ever-increasing swarm of hummingbirds. His face and arms were dripping blood.

    As the smoke-serpent approached, Sam recited the spell Lucas had taught him, offering all the breath in his body to it. The sudden pressure change made his rib feel like a knife in his side, but the smoke paused. Sam didn’t think he could bind it, so he chanted a banishment in the name of the first decan of Cancer. It resisted, then gave way.

    Just then Sam heard a thunderous crack as the golden scarab severed the turquoise giant’s head from its body. It turned toward Moreno and clacked its mandibles menacingly.

    “I got this,” said Moreno. He pulled a bone-handled knife from inside his coat and slashed his left arm while chanting at the beetle in Sumerian. The thing hesitated, and past its golden flank Sam saw the Count on all fours, covered by hummingbirds. A wind came up, a real gale from all directions, swirling around the Count and dispersing the hummingbirds.

    The beetle lurched toward Moreno, halted, took another step, then turned and practically dove into the hole in the concrete from which it had emerged. Moreno dropped to his knees, the sleeve of his elegant suit darkening with blood.

    The Count got to his feet, covered in blood from hundreds of tiny cuts, and extended his arms. The whirlwind wrapped around him and he rose into the air and soared off to the south.

    “We’ve got to get out of here,” said Sam, helping Moreno to his feet and supporting him as they staggered through the circle of phantom soldiers. He looked back — where the turquoise giant had fallen was only a mound of dirt and concrete.

    As they passed from the weed-choked expanse of the old missile base to the school bus parking lot, Sam could hear sirens approaching. Had someone caught a glimpse of the battle? Staggering around a restricted area with an injured man was not a good way to meet the police. Sam helped Moreno into the office trailer at the school bus lot and commanded the man there — whose name was clearly spelled out on the ID clipped to his necktie — to drive the two of them over to the Sands parking lot in his own car, then ordered him to forget he had ever seen either of them.

    Sam got the keys from Moreno and drove the Citroen toward Brooklyn, staying rigidly within the speed limit despite any number of honks and dirty looks from other drivers. Over in the passenger seat Moreno tugged off his bloodstained jacket and called up a spirit to heal his slashed arm. Sam took the Uniondale exit and stopped at a Walmart to buy his passenger something to wear that wasn’t soaked in blood. He picked out a dark gray sweatshirt with the Batman logo on it. Moreno glared at him before pulling it on.

    “Well, I guess we know who did it,” said Sam.



    “I guess,” said Moreno, adjusting the seat back and closing his eyes. “Asshole tried to fight an agaus. Even if he’s innocent, he’s got to pay for that.” He gave a deep sigh. “Now we know why he didn’t want to meet at his house.”

    “Get some rest while I drive. Where am I taking you?”

    There was a long pause and then Moreno said, “Jersey City. South end of Washington Street.”

    “You live in Jersey City?” Sam chuckled. “I figured you would have some fancy place on Park Avenue or something.”

    “I travel a lot. It’s close to Newark. There’s a shuttle . . .” Moreno’s voice faded away and his head slumped to one side. He slept for two hours, only waking up when Sam pulled the Citroen into the valet parking spot in front of a luxury condo tower just across the Hudson from the Battery.

    Moreno tried to convince Sam he could make it upstairs on his own, but he leaned very heavily on Sam as they walked to the elevator.

    “Thanks, man,” he said once the doors closed. “You handled yourself pretty well out there. A lot of people freak out the first time they see what magic can really do.”

    “I guess we’re not going to see Mr. White today.”

    “Nope. I’ve got to get in touch with the Sage of the West, and then tomorrow morning we’re going back down to the Count’s house. You still in?”



    They got off on the fourteenth floor — since the building lacked a thirteenth, the address would throw off some of the more literal-minded spirits. Moreno’s apartment was good sized but not immense, and was decorated in a Kennedy-era style so perfect that the modern magazines on the boomerang-shaped coffee table looked jarringly out of place. The place was perfectly tidy, though Sam suspected that was due to Moreno not having much free time to mess the place up.

    He got Moreno into a chair and fetched him a cold beer. (A Rheingold — Moreno’s taste in beer was as retro as his furniture.) Moreno took a long drink as he looked out toward Manhattan. Sam wasn’t sure if he should stay and keep an eye on Moreno, or leave him in privacy.

    “I’m okay,” said Moreno, almost reading Sam’s mind. “Look.” He pulled up his sleeve to show where he’d slashed himself just a few hours earlier. The gash was already closed, as if it had been healing for a week. “Burned up a couple of spirits fixing that. I’ll have to catch some more. Listen, on your way out, make sure the garage guys give my car interior a good cleaning, will you? Shampoo the carpet and everything. I don’t want any bloodstains.”

    “Can you trust them?”

    “Oh, sure. The whole building staff are my buddies. I tip with twenties, I buy everyone a fifth of Glenlivet for Christmas — and I run the Mitum by all of them every couple of days to make sure they’re not under someone’s control. I’m safe here. Most Apkallu are pretty terrible at influencing people if they can’t use magic.”

    Just as Sam reached the door, Moreno called after him. “Do me a favor, okay? Don’t go home, don’t get in touch with anybody. The Count may think I’m really dead, or at least too beat up to make a move. He might do something stupid.” He grinned a predatory grin despite his fatigue. Sam grinned back and nodded.

    He took the ferry back to Manhattan, rode the subway up to the bank in the Bronx where he kept his real identity in a safe-deposit box, and William (“Ace”) Hunter ceased to exist for the rest of the day. Samuel Arquero got a room at the Hyatt next to Grand Central Station, Samuel Arquero bought himself a new set of clothes off the rack a couple of blocks away, and Samuel Arquero called up Ash to see if she was free for dinner. Samuel Arquero really wanted to forget about magic for a while.

    “I can meet you at eight, if you don’t mind a late dinner,” she said.

    “No, that’s fine. I need to clean up anyway.”

    He took her to an old-school German restaurant on the East Side, chiefly because it seemed like the least likely place to run into any other Apkallu. She talked about the casino project and how she was planning to cycle gray wastewater through the landscaping to reduce the impact on the local sewer system.

    Just after the dirndl-skirted waitress took their dessert orders, Ash looked at Sam and asked, “What’s the matter? You’ve hardly said anything all night.”

    “Oh, rough day, that’s all.”

    “Want to talk about it?”

    He grimaced. “I can’t. I guess you could say it’s confidential.” He didn’t really want to tell her about seeing a huge golden scarab fight a giant made of turquoise in the middle of an abandoned missile base.

    “Sam, I don’t want to pry — but I guess I am prying. You never talk about what you do, you vanish for days at a time, and you always seem to be . . . editing what you say to me. Are you mixed up in something?”

    “Yes, that’s a good way to put it.” He sighed, angry with himself at having to make up another lie. “Remember how I used to work at Sikorsky? They’re a big defense contractor, part of Lockheed Martin now. Well, that led to some government work — and that’s literally all I’m allowed to say about it. If that’s a problem, I understand completely.”

    “No, it’s fine,” she said, and she sounded genuinely relieved. “I thought you were in the Mafia or something.”

    “I am not involved with the Mafia,” he said, glad to be able to tell her something that was true.

    For the next few hours Sam put more effort into being sociable. They had some drinks, he walked Ash home, and it turned out he didn’t need a hotel room after all. It was good to not be alone.

    When he woke in her apartment, he was alone. She had left a note on the kitchen table: “Had to be at work. Lock deadbolt and slip key under door when you go. Or keep it. — Ash.”

    Sam showered and got dressed, made himself a cup of coffee, and realized he was trying to find a reason to stay. Her apartment was small and cluttered with books and art supplies. It wasn’t really big enough for two people. Of course, if he followed Moreno’s advice he could get a place with plenty of room . . .

    No, he told himself. He didn’t want to get her involved in his other life. Sam finished his coffee, washed the mug, and locked the door behind him when he left. But he kept the key.

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