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The Initiate: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Friday, December 6, 2019 20:54 EST



    Sam began closing down his old life and creating a new one. The first step was to disentangle himself from the financial network. That meant scaling back on his credit cards. He began carrying cash again, for the first time in decades. He remembered how funny he had thought his father’s habit of carrying at least a hundred dollars in bills at all times. Now Sam did the same.

    For a week he did research using the public library computers and one of the few remaining public pay phones in Hartford, looking for a likely target.

    Then he devoted himself to charity.

    Specifically, he began to volunteer at an extended-care facility for disabled adults. When he started searching, he hadn’t known if such a place even existed, but he soon discovered they were everywhere. Even remote little hill towns had one or two former hotels repurposed to warehouse the old, the imperfect, and the damaged.

    Bright Hill Residential Care on Route 7 still had a faded Howard Johnson’s logo on the floor of the front lobby, though someone had mercifully covered the orange roof with asphalt shingles. A couple of rotting picnic tables were half-buried in the snow outside.

    “I’m here to see Ms. Varelli,” Sam told the bored-looking black woman watching television in the lobby. Two pale, withered old people were bundled up in wheelchairs beside her. One was staring blankly at the floor, the other was intent on the screen.

    “In the office,” she said after looking him over.

    The office was small and cluttered, with a portable heater doing its best to help out the radiators. Ms. Varelli was stocky and well dressed, with Kabuki-mask makeup and lacquered fingernails. She practically dragged Sam out of the office into the library, which was a big empty room with one shelf holding a dozen old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and a couple of dictionaries. They sat across from each other at a big polished table.

    “My pastor has been urging everyone in our congregation to get out and actually help people — not just write checks or buy stuff, but help others with our own hands. I saw your place here and I wondered — do you need volunteers to help the patients? I don’t have any medical training or anything but I can help them run errands, read aloud. Stuff like that.”

    “There’s three rules you have to follow, okay? First, you don’t get to change things around here. We have schedules, we have rules, and they work. People come here sometimes, they think they can liven things up, get the residents out and everyone gets magically better. That doesn’t happen, okay? Our people don’t like changes. It makes them upset. Understand?”

    “Yes. I’ll respect your procedures.”

    “Second, you don’t touch anyone, ever. Understand? You’re not trained, you’re not accredited, you’re not covered by our insurance. So you keep hands off, okay? Not even to help someone. Any of the staff see you have any contact, you’re out of here. Okay?”

    “Right. No physical contact.”

    “And third, you don’t talk about what you see and hear in the facility. No pictures or videos, okay? Some of the things we do to assist our residents aren’t very pretty to watch. I don’t want any bad publicity. And some of the residents talk about things they shouldn’t. I don’t want to embarrass them. Understand? So you don’t talk about anything.”

    “Got it. As I said, I want to help people.”

    “Sure,” she said. “Come as often as you want. I just hope you stick with it. The families start out coming every day, then they start skipping a day or two, maybe go on a trip for a while, pretty soon it’s once a week or once a month. Then it’s birthdays and Christmas, maybe. And then they just quit. Move away or just give up. So I hope you stick with it.”

    “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m willing to make the commitment.”



    The first week was interesting. He passed a background check proving he had no criminal record. He learned the rules and the schedules, and got to meet the staff. They were glad to see him; a new face was always welcome. He spent eight to ten hours at Bright Hill every day. He read to some of the more lucid residents (never “patients” or “inmates”). He helped make beds. Despite the prohibition on contact he was soon allowed to help roll wheelchair-bound residents to the dining hall, or carry trays to the bedridden.

    By his second week he offered to take over the job of updating the whiteboard. At nine o’clock in the evening, before he went home, he wiped it clean and then wrote the next day’s entry in big dark letters. “Today is MONDAY, JANUARY 27, 2014. The season is WINTER. The weather is COLD and SNOWY. The next holiday is VALENTINE’S DAY. Dessert tonight is FRUIT CUP.”

    He got to know most of the residents. There were two dozen — ten women in their eighties and nineties, four men in their seventies, two quadriplegic men, one woman in a persistent vegetative state, three men and one woman with severe cases of autism, and three intellectually disabled men and women in their forties.

    The biggest demands on his time were the old women and the two quadriplegic men. Most of the women in their nineties were perfectly lucid but too physically frail to leave their beds. They and the quads were bored out of their minds, desperate for someone of average intelligence and sanity to talk to.

    He spent forty-five minutes a day with each of them, which left only a couple of hours for the other residents. But it was worth it. He heard Mr. Riccioli talk about Vietnam. He read letters to Mrs. Glauber from her granddaughter in Dubai. Mrs. Cabell and Mrs. Salomon had him track down old friends and write letters. Everyone called Mr. Douglas “Hawg,” and he told Sam about runs with the Hell’s Angels back in the seventies. “Swear to God,” he said, staring up at the ceiling, “I nailed a different chick every night for two solid weeks. Probably got grandkids in every town from L.A. to El Paso.”

    Six weeks went by. One of the nurse aides quit and was replaced, and Sam realized he was no longer the “new guy.” He had the run of the facility. He could borrow Mrs. Varelli’s laptop to show Mrs. Glauber some emailed photos. He could go right into the kitchen to get cream for Mrs. Merritt’s tea. Nobody cared if he helped move patients, or washed their faces for them.

    And nobody even noticed if he spent an hour in the office in the evenings going through Mrs. Varelli’s files when she wasn’t around.

    Billy Hunter was forty-nine years old and had a vocabulary of fewer than fifty words. He could not feed, dress, or clean himself without help. He spent his days playing with Fisher-Price toys, watching animal videos, and masturbating. The staff used Hostess cupcakes as a motivational tool, with the result that Billy weighed close to three hundred pounds and had no teeth. Sam helped dress and clean Billy — it took at least two people — and read to him from Winnie the Pooh. The first time he did that, Sam had to go out to his car in the snowy parking lot and cry for half an hour afterward.



    Billy had been cared for at home by his parents until they died, then for a few months by an aunt, but she was apparently in poor health herself and couldn’t manage him. He had no other close relatives, his parents had set up a trust to pay for his care, and his only belongings were some toys.

    But he did have a Social Security number. William Phillips Hunter existed, legally — and there were probably dozens of men with the same name in the United States, making it harder to verify who was the real one. Sam copied down all of Billy’s information from the files. He set up a post-office box in Hartford, and began to adopt Billy’s identity.

    It was difficult at first. When he went to get a new driver’s license he had to tell a DMV clerk in New Haven that he’d been living in London for the past five years. He got a very funny look from a bank teller when he opened an account with an envelope full of cash. But with a bank account, a copy of Billy’s birth certificate, and a photo I.D. he could get a credit card, a passport, everything. By March, his William Hunter identity was ready for Sam Arquero to move into.

    And that meant that he had to take the step he’d been putting off all this time. Since Mr. Lucas’s visit the whole project had been almost like a game — he’d taken steps, he’d even broken the law. But he could walk away from all of it, stay with his old life. To Samuel’s surprise, he realized the hardest thing would be to leave Bright Hill. The residents there, even the staff, liked him. They depended on him. What was worse, he had come to like them. So late one Sunday night Samuel sat in his darkened house with the first pitcher of Bloody Marys he’d mixed up in weeks. After three drinks he stumbled upstairs. The room he’d shared with Alice was cold and musty. The bloodstains on the carpet were almost black now. Maybe he could just get the place redone. Pull out the carpet and get hardwood floors. Get a new job. Maybe go on a date. That new nurse aide at Bright Hill was pretty cute.

    Then he crossed the hall into Tommy’s room. The first thing that caught his eye was a drawing in purple crayon taped on the wall over the bed. Two big smiling stick figures with a little smiling stick figure between them, hand in hand. Over the three was a big blobby heart shape. The bottom of the picture was spattered with blood.

    He fell to his knees in the middle of the floor. He’d done this before, during the months after it happened. Once he had spent a full day lying on the rug weeping. This time there were no tears in his eyes. His heart was pounding. Every muscle in his body was tensed up. His fingers clutched the rug, tearing the fabric like sharp black talons. Samuel Arquero threw back his head and gave a long scream of rage. He pounded the floor. He knelt in the darkness a long time. Finally he stood up and took a couple of deep breaths.

    The Bloody Marys went down the sink, and he made a pot of coffee. It was time to begin. He had wasted too many weeks already. By dawn he had packed up half a dozen boxes. When the work day began he started making calls.

    All of Alice’s jewelry and clothing went into boxes. He shipped them off to her sister, accompanied by a brief letter explaining that he was taking a job overseas. He rented a storage unit and put two carloads of personal belongings into it, then called a used furniture store and got rid of everything else. He hired a real estate dealer and put the house on the market. The car would be the last thing to sell.

    He went to Tommy’s room with a box and a couple of contractor bags. The broken stuff went in the trash. The intact toys he scrubbed in the bathtub with bleach, and when they were dry he packed them all up in a big box addressed to Billy Hunter, Bright Hill Residential Care Facility. He wrote a letter to Mrs. Varelli explaining that he had been offered a job in Texas, and thanking her for letting him volunteer at the facility.

    Three weeks later it was all done. The house was empty, and he handed the keys over to the real estate agent along with a power of attorney to sell it. He dropped off his car at the dealership and collected the check.

    He got a cab from the dealership to Bradley airport north of Hartford, where he tipped the driver and then walked through the terminal and took the escalator down to the baggage-claim level, where he boarded a shuttle to the car rental lot. There he took possession of a newly washed Honda compact. He signed the paperwork “William Hunter” with a flourish, and paid with his new credit card.

    William Hunter got a one-room apartment on the fourth floor of a crummy building in the Bronx. He signed up for martial-arts classes four nights a week to get back in shape. He bought a pristine new computer and set up new accounts for “willhunter1231.” He put Samuel Arquero’s credit cards and phone into a safe-deposit box.

    He started doing research. Every morning he woke, had a long hot shower to get the soreness out of his muscles, dressed, and took the subway to the New York Public Library. Springtime became summer as he worked his way through their occult collection.

    From time to time he varied his routine with trips to Columbia’s library, or train excursions to Yale and Princeton. On weekends he took long walks in Greenwich Village and Soho, visiting the used bookstores and New Age shops.

    He filled notebooks, organized neatly under headings like “ALCHEMY” or “RITUAL SPACE” or “SPIRITS.” At first he noted down almost everything, but as the months passed he gained greater sensitivity to quackery and nonsense. He tore whole pages out of his notebooks and burned them.

    By autumn he knew he needed professional help. He signed up for classes in Greek and Akkadian at Columbia, switched to morning boxing lessons at a gym near his apartment, and began attending “occult workshops” in the evenings. There were dozens of them around New York, and Sam tried to sample each one.

    At a meeting of Theosophists in Brooklyn he was the youngest person in the room by twenty years, and the entire session was devoted to obscure political maneuverings among the club officers. At an Umbanda service not far from his apartment he was the only non-Brazilian present, and nobody spoke to him the whole time. In a grand apartment overlooking Central Park he listened to a very erudite lecture on the worship of the Peacock Angel. In a slightly seedier apartment in Hell’s Kitchen two weeks later he attended a Satanic Mass. He greeted the dawn on the autumn equinox with a group of “sky-clad” worshippers on the beach at Sandy Hook.



    Some were so blatantly fake they made him angry. One “psychic sensitive” did such a clumsy cold reading he stopped her halfway through and told her to stop embarrassing them both. A seminar on “personal alchemy” attracted some visitors in very expensive suits who listened very attentively when the speaker told them that a sufficiently advanced soul could indeed transmute lead into gold, and afterward all of them placed crisp new twenty-dollar bills into the donation basket. Sam dropped in a nickel.

    In a rented hall in the Hotel New Yorker a self-proclaimed “spirit talker” charged fifty dollars a head to let the audience watch her talk to the air. Sam stood patiently in line until he reached the front of the room. The spirit talker, an overweight middle-aged woman with glittery eye shadow, looked him over. “I sense great sadness,” she said. “You’ve lost someone close to you.”

    “My sister,” he said. He had no brother or sister that he knew of.

    “Yes,” she said. “I’m getting an image. A woman, possibly younger or . . .”

    “We were twins,” he said.

    “Yes! Twins. You were very close. I’m getting a name, it could start with M, or possibly a vowel . . .”

    “Sarah,” he said, just to be mean.

    “Yes, Sarah,” said the medium without batting an eye. “I can feel her presence near you.”

    “Can she hear me?”

    “The spirits watch over us all the time,” she said, and he heard satisfied murmurs from the audience.

    “Sarah!” he called out. “Forgive me!” With no idea how to end this charade, he covered his face and sobbed, and let himself be politely shoved out of the way so the woman behind him could get her turn.



    That December he tried his first magical operation. It was a fairly simple one: calling up a spirit of protection. The actual working was adapted from one in the Clavicula Solomonis, which Mr. Lucas had identified as holding a nugget of truth, modified by elements from the Picatrix and the Occult Philosophy of Agrippa. Preparations took most of the month, but on the night of the winter solstice Sam had everything ready in his room.

    The air was scented by aloe resin and cedarwood burning in a couple of jade bowls — the smoke detector, batteries removed, was in the refrigerator. The Third Pentacle of Jupiter drawn in cobalt ink covered most of the floor. Sam himself wore a linen tunic he had laboriously hand sewn, and held a wand cut from an oak branch as he chanted the formula invoking the power of Mendial, ruler of the thirty-third decan. The whole thing began at four in the morning, just as Jupiter rose behind the rooftops of the Bronx to the east.

    The hardest part of the whole ritual was overcoming the lurking sense that Sam was making a complete fool of himself. He read the phonetic transcription of the Hebrew formula aloud, but it just seemed like meaningless gabble. All his careful preparation and ritual materials suddenly looked like a lot of foolishness.

    Sam stopped, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He focused on his memories. Of the ghost Mr. Lucas had called forth from a ring. Of the crow-headed Anzu. Of Alice and Tommy.

    He opened his eyes again, clear and intent. When he spoke it was loud and commanding. He willed the spirit to appear as he repeated the words, again and again.

    And then it did appear.

    Unlike the ghost of Willis Dean this was a vague shape, little more than a ripple in the air, but Sam could make out a head, eyes, arms — and nothing more. Below where its waist should be the thing trailed away into nothingness.

    Sam’s heart pounded with fear and excitement. He took another deep breath and spoke to it. “I command you, by Mendial, Lord of Power, to accompany me and guard my body from all harm.

    I bind you to this task by the Name Yiai for a year and a day. By Enlil I command you to obey.”

    Its voice was as vague and blurry as its appearance, and Sam realized it was a distorted version of his own. “By the Names I obey.”

    The thing moved toward Sam, who tensed, ready to fight or flee, but aside from a slight static-electricity feeling all over his skin, here was nothing. Was the spirit encasing him? He hadn’t expected that. He had imagined leading the thing around like a supernatural guard dog, not wearing it. It was disturbingly intimate, and Sam fought the urge to banish the spirit from his presence forever.

    Once it was all done, his body rebelled. He was exhausted and needed sleep. Cleaning up could wait until morning. He did dig out his spare anonymous burner phone and send a text message to the number Lucas had given him.

    “Did it! What now?”



    His answer came four days later as he sat in the grand reading room of the New York Public Library, taking notes on a copy of Father Sinistrari’s Demoniality. Someone took the seat next to him, and after a moment Sam heard a raspy, cigarette-scented whisper. “You aren’t alone.”

    Sam looked over, keeping his face blank. A short, heavyset woman occupied the next seat. She might have been anywhere from forty to eighty, and the unnatural orange of her hair didn’t match the slight salt-and-pepper mustache at the corners of her mouth. But the eyes, watching Sam from behind rhinestone-studded avocado cat’s-eye glasses, were sharp and wise looking.

    “You’re here,” he said quietly.

    “You’ve got a friend around you,” she whispered back. “Most people can’t see it but I can. Who are you?”

    He hesitated. One thing Lucas had drilled into him was not to reveal his name. But if he told her the false name he was using, that would make him look like a naive poser. He needed another layer of alias. “Ace,” he said.

    She regarded him skeptically for a moment. “You look more like a deuce to me. I’m Sylvia. You’re interested in magic. How come?”

    “I’ve had some . . . experiences,” he said. “I’m looking for answers.”

    He closed his notebook, and as he did he noticed something odd. When he looked directly at Sylvia she seemed to be just a dumpy woman like fifty thousand others in Manhattan. But when he looked away, in his peripheral vision she wasn’t alone. There were vague shapes looming behind her, and small flitting presences around her.

    She glanced at the books on the table in front of him. “Most of this is crap, you know.”

    “Yes. I’m trying to pick out the bits that aren’t. I’ve been looking for a teacher, but all the ones I’ve met are fakes or crazies.”

    Sylvia almost smiled, then rummaged in her enormous mustard-yellow handbag and handed him a business card. He took it. Under a smudgy graphic of a rainbow and a cartoon cat wearing a mortarboard were the words:


    Private Tutoring

    There was no address or contact information.

    “How do I find you?” he asked.

    “You look like a smart guy. Figure it out.” She stood up — she wasn’t much taller standing than sitting — and headed for the stairs.

    Sam stared at the card. Was it some kind of magical guide? He closed his eyes and tried to feel any supernatural pull, but there was nothing. He looked at it again, then his eyes narrowed and he smiled.

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