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The Initiate: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 20:20 EST



    “It wasn’t a bear, was it?” The voice on Samuel Arquero’s phone was reedy and precise. Whoever it was hung up before he could answer. Sam tried to call back, but got a recorded voice telling him the number was not in service. He tried again with the same result. Then he just sat there in the dark living room, looking at the fire in the wood stove. A half-empty pitcher of Bloody Marys stood on the coffee table in front of him.

    That was how Sam spent most of his evenings, trying to drink himself to sleep without incurring a crippling hangover. He made his Bloody Marys with V-8 juice, so they were almost good for him.

    Half an hour later the phone rang again. Sam had it on the couch next to him and snatched it up before it could ring a second time.

    “Mr. Samuel Arquero?” asked the same voice.

    “Who are you?”

    “I want to meet with you. Name a time and place — but it must be private.”

    “Can you come here? Now?”

    The voice chuckled a little bit. “If you wish. Expect me in half an hour. Needless to say, you will be alone.” The call ended.

    It had to be a prank call. A very nasty one. Sam was sure the joker wouldn’t show. He’d have to be crazy to do that.

    But . . . Sam turned on the porch light and tried to tidy up the living room a bit, just from habit. Since he spent most of his time there it was pretty messy, but by shoving things behind the couch and making neat piles he got it marginally presentable.

    There was nothing he could do about the front window — pulling down the pink insulation stapled over it would just expose the bare plywood nailed to the outside. Probably ought to get that fixed, he thought yet again.

    Of course it had been a bear. Probably rabid, according to the cops. It was crazy to think otherwise. Just his memory playing tricks. Sam knew enough about psychology to figure the bizarre image in the doorway (which never went away, never) was just a manifestation of his guilt. If he’d just looked through the window before opening the door, if he hadn’t frozen in astonishment that first instant, if he’d done something the house might not be so silent and empty right now. But he never spoke of what he’d seen — what he thought he’d seen — to anyone.

    Twenty-nine minutes later there was a knock on the door.

    Sam hadn’t heard a car pull up. He opened the door three inches, with his foot planted to keep it from swinging wider, and his right hand just touching the kindling hatchet he’d placed with the coats and boots.

    The man on the doorstep was nearly Sam’s height, with sparse gray hair. He was smiling, and wore dark glasses despite the late hour. Except for the glasses, his appearance was so utterly nondescript that if Sam looked away for a moment he thought he’d forget what he looked like. The visitor pulled his hands out of his overcoat pockets and held them up for Sam to see.

    “Good evening, Mr. Arquero,” he said. “May I come in?”

    “Who are you?” Sam’s mouth was dry.

    “I’m the man who has taken an interest in what happened to your family last summer. You can call me Mr. Lucas.”

    Sam shifted his foot and let the door swing open. The man on the step didn’t move. “It was probably standing right here when you opened the door, wasn’t it?”

    Then Samuel did pick up the hatchet. Mr. Lucas didn’t seem worried. “It wasn’t a bear, though,” he continued. “That’s what the police decided, and you didn’t correct them. But what crashed through this door wasn’t anything like a bear. It looked like a tall man, didn’t it? Gray skinned, with the head and talons of a gigantic crow. You stood about where you are now, too surprised to do anything. I expect your face looked about the same, too.”

    . . . He stood there frozen, for just a second, then tried to slam the door but the crow man put out one taloned arm and pushed back, shoving the door open and knocking him back into the hall.

    It slashed one great clawed hand at him but Sam ducked and grabbed the nearest possible weapon — the piano bench just inside the doorway to the living room — and swung it into the crow man’s midsection. The blow knocked two of the legs off the bench but the monster didn’t budge. It opened its beak and gave a loud call, like the noise of an electric saw. Then it shot out one claw and clutched Sam by the throat, lifting him easily and tossing him headfirst through the glass doors of the office on the other side of the hall. He broke his left arm when he hit the desk. The crow man came toward him and Sam struggled to get up, but it picked up the ruin of the piano bench and smashed it down on top of him.

    Mr. Lucas stepped inside. “I believe the rest of your family were upstairs?” he asked, glancing up the staircase. “My condolences on your loss, by the way.”

    “How do you know all that?” Sam finally managed to say.

    His throat was dry and he clutched the handle of the hatchet so hard his forearm ached.

    “I wasn’t present, if that’s what you mean. But I can sense what attacked you and I read the police report. May I ask, why did you say it was a bear?”

    “If I said I saw a giant crow man everyone would think I’m crazy. They’d say I did it myself.”

    “You never considered that you might indeed have gone insane?”

    “Of course I considered it! I still wonder if I’m nuts. But I know I couldn’t have broken my own arm. And there are these.”

    Sam put a hand on the wood molding above the doorway to the living room, feeling the deep gouges the creature’s claws had made.

    “Good. You’re intelligent enough to consider it and rule it out — and you’re shrewd enough to keep quiet about what you did see. You’ll do.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “This will take some time. Can we sit down?”

    Sam led him into the living room and turned on a lamp. Mr. Lucas sat in the old armchair in front of the boarded-up window. Sam lowered himself onto the couch and set down the hatchet.

    Lucas dug in the pocket of his nice tweed jacket, then put four gold rings on the coffee table in front of Sam. “Before we begin: Which ring is more important?”

    Sam shook his head. “I’m no antiques expert. They all look the same to me.”

    “Do they? Be subjective. Take as long as you need. Which one differs from the others?”



    Sam leaned forward and bent over the rings. They were plain gold bands, not shiny enough to be new. Two had initials engraved inside, but the letters meant nothing to him. After a moment he picked up the third one, which had no markings at all, and held it out to Lucas. “This one.”


    “It feels creepy.”


    “You said be subjective. It’s creepy.” Touching it made Sam’s flesh crawl a little, as if he was holding a big cockroach or a slug.

    “Good.” Lucas gathered up the three rings left on the table. “Keep it, if you wish.”

    Sam put it down on the table in front of him. “No, thanks.”

    Lucas pocketed that one, too. “All right. Now I will tell you what I know. What attacked you and your family was not a bear. It was a being called an anzu, which appears as a raven-headed demon.”

    “That wasn’t a costume,” Sam said. “I could see the feathers growing in the skin. I could smell its breath.” Just thinking of it brought the scent of carrion and blood into his nostrils.

    “I never said it was a mask. That is just how they manifest in the world. The anzu are magical beings, demons of sickness and death. Your injuries were rather badly infected, weren’t they?” Mr. Lucas watched Sam closely as he said that.

    “Demons.” Sam didn’t even try to keep the skeptical tone out of his voice.

    But Lucas didn’t seem to notice. “You said yourself it was no costume. What evolution could breed such a chimera? Where in the world could creatures like that survive without being photo-graphed, studied, or exterminated?”

    “Okay, demons. Why did it come here and — kill my family?” Sam’s eyes unexpectedly prickled with tears when he said that.

    “It was no accident. Someone sent it. The anzu cannot enter our world without being summoned, but there are men and women who can command demons and call spirits out of the vasty deep. One of them called it forth and told it to come here.”

    “But why? Why us?”

    Lucas shrugged. “I don’t know, but I can help you find out who sent the anzu. Maybe he can explain his motives. I suspect this was not the only incident. But uncovering the culprit will require a commitment from you.”

    Sam leaned forward, putting his hand on the sofa cushion just inches from the hatchet. “Okay, what’s the catch?”

    “Catch?” He looked genuinely puzzled.

    “How much money do you want? Or will it be my social security number? What’s your scam?”

    Lucas laughed out loud at that. “Oh, it’s not your money I want, Mr. Arquero. I just want you to devote your entire life and fortune to a quest which will probably get you killed. Other than that, there’s no catch at all.”

    “Will you cut the crap and get to the point? You sound like Yoda or something.”

    “I’m sorry. In my social circle people expect me to be cryptic and mysterious. It’s a hard habit to break. Very well, I’ll explain. Will you accept, arguendo, that commanding demons and summoning spirits is possible, and we can call that art magic?”


    “Good. It follows logically that if there is real magic then there must be real magicians, yes?” Lucas waited until Sam nodded before going on. “Then where are they? Why don’t we see people working wonders every day? Why don’t they rule the world?”

    “All right, why don’t they?”

    Lucas spread his hands, as if delivering a punch line. “It’s simple: They do rule the world. And the simplest way to preserve their power is to keep all knowledge of magic — real magic — out of anyone’s hands but their own. They have been around for millennia, gradually co-opting or eliminating anyone else with magical ability or knowledge. This task is made simpler by the fact that the talent is hereditary.”

    “So who are they? The Masons? The Rosicrucians? The Da Vinci Code guys?”

    “No. Any occult group you have ever heard of is either a collection of crackpots or a deliberate fraud. The true mystic masters don’t advertise on the radio, or waste their time hiding riddles in paintings. They have many names, but I believe the real one is the Apkallu.”

    “Is that Arabic?” Sam had sweated through a three-month total-immersion course in Modern Standard Arabic courtesy of the United States Air Force back in the 1990s, but he didn’t recognize the word.

    “Akkadian, actually. From northern Mesopotamia. Five thousand years old, at least. The name means something like ‘the wise ones.’ Which is to say, wizards. ”

    “I need a drink. You want a Bloody Mary?” Sam got to his feet and headed for the kitchen.

    “Please. With a celery stalk if you have one.”

    “Sorry, I’m all out.” Sam opened the refrigerator. Nothing inside but V-8 juice, lemons, and a jar of mustard. He’d been eating diner food and takeout since the day he got home from the hospital. He took out the juice and set it on the counter, then found a clean glass for Lucas.

    Before making the drinks Sam stopped, staring into the darkness outside the kitchen window. Talking about that summer night, and reliving it, had torn away the thick scab of guilt and self-loathing. Once again he could feel the raw wound of grief for Alice and Tommy. He closed his eyes and wiped away tears, then took a couple of deep breaths, pushing the feeling down again, mastering it. Not now. This man Lucas was probably crazy, but Sam wasn’t quite ready to throw him out. Not yet.

    He got the vodka bottle out of the freezer and made two drinks. Only one of them had vodka in it.

    Mr. Lucas looked Sam straight in the eye as he took a long swallow of his Bloody Mary. Sam sipped his V-8 with Worcestershire and waited until Lucas put down the glass. “Okay, these Apkallu are magicians. They can command bird-head demons. Why did one of them kill my family?”

    “I don’t know. I can think of a dozen reasons. Perhaps the killer needed some fresh human blood, or wished to examine their livers to see the future. Or no reason at all. Why does a boy with an air rifle shoot cans off a fence? Because he can. The Apkallu can do whatever they want to. Sometimes one of them wants to kill people. As I said, it has happened before.”

    “That’s impossible! People would notice!”

    “Notice what? A rabid bear attack? A robbery gone wrong? A domestic dispute? A botched drug deal? A serial killer? There are so many ways to explain away things like this. If the attacker wanted to, he might have made it look as though you had done it — maybe even made you believe it yourself. Going along with the bear story was wiser than you knew. It saved someone the bother of killing you.”

    “A minute ago I was afraid you were some kind of con man. Now you’re sounding like a conspiracy nut.”

    “And yet it wasn’t a bear. Facts are stubborn things.”



    They sat in silence for a moment, and then Lucas spoke again. “Your choice is simple, Mr. Arquero: You can believe me or you can decide that you hallucinated that creature. Now, that is an entirely reasonable thing to conclude. After all, if you were attacked by a rabid bear and seriously injured, it stands to reason your memory of the incident might be faulty.”

    That was the explanation he’d believed. But . . . even if it was a hallucination, somehow Lucas had known about it. Was he a mind reader? If Sam could believe in telepathy, why not in magic?

    “Show me,” he said. “Prove it. Show me some magic, right here.”

    “Oh, very well.” Lucas took out the ring Sam had chosen earlier. “Here, watch.” He held it in the palm of his hand and spoke. “Prejem Ka, Prejem Willis Wayne Dean.”

    Above his outstretched hand a face appeared — it wasn’t misty or transparent like a ghost special effect in a movie. It was there, looking just as real and solid as Mr. Lucas’s, only with no neck. The face was that of a man, bald and stubbly, with an expression of all-consuming anger and hate. He bared his teeth at Sam, then opened his mouth wide and screamed. It was utterly terrifying, and went on, rising in volume, without pause for breath. Sam cowered, curled into a ball and rolled off the couch onto the floor. He covered his ears but the howl was more than just sound. It was inside his head, drowning out his thoughts. He wanted to run, to hide, to crawl into a hole, to die — anything to get away from that horrible scream.

    When the sound cut off suddenly Sam didn’t uncurl for a few seconds. Then he got to his feet, wincing when he put weight on his left arm. Before saying anything he went back to the kitchen and put a shot of vodka into his glass of V-8 juice and drank the whole thing down.

    Mr. Lucas was still sitting in the armchair when Sam returned to the living room. He tucked the ring away in his pocket again and looked rather smug.

    “That was Willis W. Dean, hanged by the State of Ohio in 1937 for the murder of two men, suspected in four other killings. I keep him bound in the ring.”

    “What in the world for?”

    “Oh, there are plenty of uses for a ghost, especially that of a hanged man. Very rich in symbolism.” Sam thought that the matter-of-fact way Lucas said it was almost as creepy as the ghost itself. “Well?”

    Sam took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, I believe you,” he said.

    “Good. Now, let me help you avenge your family. Let me tell you how you can destroy the Apkallu and bring them to justice. Are you willing?”

    “Yes,” said Sam, surprising himself a little at how quickly and firmly he said it.

    “You can’t attack them directly. They’re too powerful, too old and clever for that. The Roman Senate tried and failed, and so did Stalin. It’s like trying to fight smoke. And they can defend themselves very effectively.”

    “Then how?”

    “You can only destroy them from within. You must work your way into the organization and bring it all down. Break the links of loyalty and protection connecting them. Set them at each other’s throats.”

    “How the hell can I do that? Like you said, they don’t exactly advertise on TV, and I’m no magician.”

    “You can become one,” Lucas said quietly.

    It must have been five minutes before Sam said anything. He wanted to say “Yes! Teach me!” He also wanted to tell this bland-looking old man to get the hell out of his house. What he finally asked was “Was that what the business with the rings was all about?”

    Lucas beamed. “Very good! Yes, I wanted to see how sensitive you are. You sensed the presence of the late Mr. Dean in the ring. Only someone with the gift could do that.”

    “I can learn to do stuff like that? Talk to spirits and ride on a broomstick?”

    “You can. If you have the gift, everything else is mostly a matter of study and practice. I don’t mean to say it is easy: You will have to learn several new languages, devote a great deal of time to exercises and disciplines, and do some things which will disgust you. But if you do it, you can avenge your wife and son.”

    “So you want me to learn magic and then somehow find these Apkallu?”

    “They will probably find you, but yes.”

    “Okay, how come you haven’t done it yourself? You obviously know some pretty big-league magic.”

    His smug look faded. For the first time since he knocked on Sam’s door Mr. Lucas looked unhappy. “They know me. I revealed myself to them too soon, before I developed a healthy degree of paranoia. The Apkallu know my name, and they have my blood. That gives them power over me. I can’t act against them.”

    “Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”

    He looked smug again. “I figured out a few loopholes. You are one. Most Apkallu are initiated in adolescence; they make their vows before they know the full truth. You will come to it as an adult, with forewarning. I can help you circumvent the methods the order will use to control you.”

    “Okay,” said Sam.

    “You will need a new name, for two reasons. First, if anyone connects Samuel Arquero, aspiring magician, to Samuel Arquero, victim of an anzu attack, then your life would be measured in minutes. Second, names give power. No magician ever uses his real name. You must become a new person. Leave your old life behind.”

    “Just like that?” He’d have to leave his job, his nightly drinking in the dark living room, his . . . Sam realized as he spoke that he didn’t really have much of a life any more.

    Lucas actually looked irritated. “Yes, just like that. Are you serious about this, or am I wasting my time here? I am offering you the chance to destroy the people who killed your family, and you’re quibbling over the inconvenience involved?”

    “Sorry. This is just a lot to absorb all at once.” Sam glanced at the clock display on his phone. “I mean, you’ve only been here an hour.”

    “Yes. Having your entire understanding of the Universe turned inside-out can be a bit wrenching. With me it was a bit more gradual. I apologize for my impatience.” He looked around the room again, at the photos on the mantelpiece and on the back of the piano. Most of them were of Alice’s relatives.

    “What do you know about your family?” Mr. Lucas asked him. “I mean your parents and ancestors. As I said, the gift is hereditary.”

    “Not much, really. I was adopted from an orphanage in Colombia. Pop was from there, and when my mom found out she couldn’t have any children of her own they went down there and got me. That’s literally all I know, and it’s ten years too late to ask either one of them.”

    Mr. Lucas looked pleased. “You’re doubly protected, then. Family are a weakness.” He finished his Bloody Mary and set down the glass. “I think you should make some coffee. We have many things to plan.”

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