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The Initiate: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, December 16, 2019 16:41 EST



    It was nearly two in the morning when the northbound D train rumbled into the station at 125th Street. Sam stepped aboard the last car and sat down, dead tired. Just as the train started to move again, Sam’s eyes snapped open, all fatigue forgotten. The car was empty, but he could feel a whole crowd of invisible presences.

    “Hi!” Isabella peeked over the back of his seat, grinning. “Where are you going?”

    “That way.” He pointed at the front of the train. “Shouldn’t you be at home?”

    “I like to sleep on the trains.”

    “Do your parents know where you are?”

    For an instant she looked serious. “I don’t have any. Not anymore.” But then she brightened. “Don’t worry. My friends take care of me.”

    He gestured at the air around them. “These friends?”

    “These are just the ones who follow me around. I can call others when I need them.”

    Sam looked at her, his long-dormant parental habits kicking in. She was wearing a new dress, all bright colors and sparkles. Her shoes were also new, with flashing LED lights. Her hair was gathered into two pigtails and tied with purple ribbons flecked with glitter. But he could see that her hair was uncombed and unwashed, and his nose told him the rest.

    “Your friends should give you a bath,” he said.

    “I don’t like baths.”

    “Not even bubble baths?” A dash of Mr. Bubble had always overcome Tommy’s objections at bath time.

    “Maybe. I’ll ask them.”

    “Do you need anything to eat?” he asked. She was thin, but not unusually so.

    “They bring me whatever I want.”

    “There’s a place near my stop that stays open late. I’ll get you something.”

    She laughed. “Okay, but no cauliflower.”

    “It’s a deal: no cauliflower.”

    Not without some embarrassment, Sam took Isabella to dinner at a Mexican bar and grill that stayed open all night. The waiter — who was also the bartender — was very solicitous of Isabella when they first came in, asking her name and where she went to school.

    “What’s your name?” she asked him cheerfully.

    “My name? Hector Vega,” he said.

    “Hector Vega Ishchuch. N’pkudh,” she said in a clear, commanding voice.

    Mr. Vega’s eyes unfocused for a second, and then he shook his head. “What can I get you?” he asked Sam, and gathered up the utensils from in front of Isabella, as if Sam was sitting alone.

    “One pork taco, one order of chicken fingers, and a side of rajas.”

    Isabella ate the chicken fingers and put away chips and salsa as fast as the waiter could bring them. When Sam insisted she have some of the rajas she made a face at him and pushed the squash and zucchini away from the corn and peppers, but in the end she did eat three spoonfuls.

    “How’d you do that to him?” Sam asked her after Mr. Vega refilled the chips basket for the second time.

    “People are spirits, too,” she said. “We just have bodies all the time. The other ones don’t. If you know someone’s name you can tell them what to do. I told him to forget about me.” Her voice dropped. “My friends taught me that. That’s why my real name’s a secret.”

    “That’s pretty smart. Mine’s a secret, too.”

    When Mr. Vega brought him the check, Sam brought up a subject he’d been avoiding. “Do you need a place to stay?” he asked Isabella.

    She laughed at that. “I’ve got lots of places. Sometimes I live at the Plaza Hotel like Eloise in the book. Or there’s these neat apartments in the Public Library nobody knows about. I stay there sometimes. It doesn’t matter.”

    Sam tore a page from his notebook and wrote the number of his burner phone on it. “If you ever need someplace, or if you need help, call me, okay?”

    Isabella took it, folded it carefully, and then stuck it in her sock. “You’re nice,” she said.



    About once a month Lucas left him a text message setting up a meeting. The process was never simple. Typically the text sent him someplace — never the same place twice — to pick up an envelope of written instructions. Those directions always involved at least one ferry trip, a stop in a church, a couple of changes of disguise, and multiple last-second jumps on and off subway trains. Timing was always very precise: He had to be on the boat at the turning of the tide, enter the church just before sunset, and leave it just after. At first they seemed like utter nonsense, but as he learned more Sam began to understand what he was doing and why.

    In February, after he began studying with Sylvia, Sam met Lucas one evening in a patch of woods under an enormous skein of humming power lines in South Amboy, New Jersey. Lucas had cleared a patch of forest floor down to bare dirt and made concentric circles of salt. Within the circles he had set up a couple of folding camp chairs.

    “Come in, come in,” he said, beckoning to Sam. “Make sure you step over the salt.”

    “What if someone sees us?”

    “I have guards posted, and we are completely alone within this circle.”

    With a start Sam realized he couldn’t feel the protective spirit he’d bound to himself.

    Lucas handed him a china cup of coffee and gestured at the open box of Turkish Delight. “Help yourself. Now, tell me about your studies. What has Sylvia been teaching you?”

    “Oh, the basics. Astrological correspondences, sympathetic and symbolic linkages, things like that.”

    “But no actual workings yet?”

    “No.” Sam didn’t try to hide the frustration in his voice.

    “I thought not. Until you are initiated, she will concentrate on theory rather than practice. The idea is to keep you interested, but not reveal anything useful until you’re part of the organization and subject to its laws.”

    “How can I avoid that?”

    Lucas nodded. “That’s the real trick. They will want your true name, and a sample of your blood.”

    “How do they know if I give the right name?”

    “You will be tested. You swear by your name, and then you are commanded to do something — typically painful or humiliating, or both. They try to choose an act you would refuse if you could.”

    Sam’s mouth was dry despite the coffee. “So I just have to do it?”

    “You must obey as if you had no will of your own. But your name isn’t as important as the blood. With your name an Apkal can command you to your face. With your blood he can send death from afar. That is the real power.”

    “How long do you think it’ll be before my initiation?”

    “It will be at Ostara, the start of Arah-Nisanu, the month of the Sanctuary. For the past few years it’s been held at an old speakeasy bar in Chinatown. Hei Feng owns the building.”

    “That doesn’t give me much time.”

    “No. I’m going to concentrate on workings which may help you prepare: how to influence minds and command people, spirits to guard your privacy, banishings to drive away supernatural spies, and how to find treasures and secrets.”


    “You know — money. A lavish bribe always enhances the effect of a spell, and some of the workings require expensive materials.”

    Lucas produced a thick sheaf of photocopied pages and the two of them spent the next four hours going over the rituals by the light of a little LED lamp. As the sound of traffic on the Garden State began to diminish and a church clock in the old part of town chimed two, Sam and Lucas got up and began to clear the site.

    “It’s a pity we can’t use this place again. Never be predictable. If your friend Mr. Moreno were to learn of our meetings, I doubt either of us would survive very long.”

    “What do you know about him?”

    “He is the most dangerous kind of man: an honest one. He genuinely believes that the Apkallu serve a valuable purpose, and he considers his work defending their secrets a necessary task.

    I suspect he pities those he must kill, and dislikes doing it, but does so anyway. Avoid him if you can.”



    In the quiet hours before dawn getting through Staten Island back to Manhattan took much longer than the outward trip, even without Lucas’s detours and security precautions. The sky over Long Island was turning pale when Sam reached Penn Station, so he decided to have breakfast at a diner he liked, up at Times Square.

    Early morning had always been one of Sam’s favorite times, especially in a big city like New York. Before dawn there were no tourists, no hustlers looking for tourists to prey on, no young fools acting out their “I’m a cosmopolitan sophisticate!” fantasies. The men (and they were nearly all men) at the counter eating big breakfasts were trash collectors, power linemen, subway operators, cabbies, cops, construction workers, firemen — the people whose constant behind-the-scenes labor kept the city going.

    “Sam?” said a woman’s voice behind him. “Sam Arquero?”

    He felt a stab of cold to his core. They had found him out!

    He ignored her, but she tapped him on the shoulder.

    “Excuse me, are you –”

    He turned, ready to deny everything, but found himself looking into a face he knew.

    “Ashley!” he said. “What the heck are you doing here?”

    They moved to a booth, where she propped her carry-on bag on the seat next to her.

    “I just got off the redeye from L.A. It’s too late to go home and change, so I thought I’d just hang out and then go in to work.”



    “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.

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