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The Initiate: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, January 13, 2020 06:35 EST



    Sam stayed away from Sylvia’s school for a couple of days, until the pain from his cracked rib had turned from a sharp stabbing sensation every time he inhaled to a constant ache. He didn’t dare take the painkillers the doctor at the Montefiore Hospital emergency room had prescribed, for fear that someone would notice. Instead he took double doses of ibuprofen every couple of hours, and slept fitfully in his sweltering apartment.

    He had nightmares every night, about Feng. Sam had been in a few schoolyard fistfights as a kid, and one serious fight in the Air Force, when he and a couple of other airmen had been jumped by local punks outside a beer hall in Frankfurt. But even that was not the same as choking the life out of a man as he looked him in the eye.

    When he finally went back to the basement classroom, he found that he and Isabella were the only students. Sylvia was visibly nervous as she lectured, lighting up new cigarettes before the old ones were half-smoked, and her answers to his questions were sarcastic. Isabella sat with a half smile on her face, listening but taking no notes.

    Finally Sam raised his hand. “What happened?”

    Sylvia paused and looked at him. “Feng’s dead. Don’t you read the papers?”

    Across the room Isabella giggled.

    “I know that, but what happened? What’s going on?”

    Sylvia rolled her eyes, then sat down heavily in her chair. “I don’t know. Nobody knows — except whoever did it, and they’re keeping quiet. Someone whacked Feng. He had guards, including a bailong bound to his house. That’s a dragon, just so you know. It took someone with a lot of juice to get past that kind of protection. Everyone’s afraid this is the start of a major fight among the higher-ups, maybe even the Sages. Shimon’s parents took him someplace upstate. I don’t know where MoonCat is. You two are the only ones dumb enough to show up here. And me, I guess.”

    “I thought the whole point of having an organization like the Apkallu was to prevent this kind of thing.”

    Sylvia glared at him. “It is. We’ve got regular crime in New York, but that’s no reason to give up on having police, right? Same thing. Welcome to the real world.”

    “Is there anything we can do?”

    “Yeah, you can get a Great Dane and four stoners and figure out who did it in time for the next commercial.” She stubbed out a cigarette in the ashtray while taking a drag from the one in her mouth, then Sam could see her force herself to relax. “Look, the smart thing would be for you two — and me — to keep our heads down, figure out who’s likely to come out on top, and go start sucking up to them now, beat the rush.”

    “Like Mr. Stone?” asked Sam?

    Sylvia snorted. “That guy? Don’t make me laugh. If he does wind up in charge you can bet someone else is pulling his strings.”

    “Who would you recommend, then? I don’t know who most of the higher-ups are.”

    Sylvia looked thoughtful. “Well, Feng was a Master of the House, one of the Circle of the West. There are a bunch of others. Stone’s one, though I don’t know how the hell he ever made it that high. I don’t know who else would be making a play for the Norumbega Circle. Maybe the Count, but . . . I don’t know.”

    “Is — is MoonCat okay?” Sam asked. Lucas had reassured him, but he wanted confirmation.

    “Well, somebody blew the roof off her house and killed her father, so I’m guessing she might be kind of sad right now. Poor kid. Her mom’s not what you call the nurturing type, either. No crying in front of the servants.”

    “I wish there was something we could do to help,” said Sam. After Alice and Tommy died, people had brought him a lot of casseroles. He didn’t know how to make a casserole.

    Sylvia looked up at Sam, then at Isabella. “You want to help? Find out who bagged Feng.” She frowned. “Okay, kids. Class dismissed for a few days. Get the hell out of here and watch your backs. We’ll resume after the July Fourth weekend.”



    The next morning Sam was awakened by a knock on his apartment door. Through the peephole he could see Moreno standing outside, looking a little disdainfully at the filthy hallway. He was dressed in a sharp-looking mohair suit, and a turquoise stickpin shone vividly against his wine-colored tie. Sam took a breath to calm himself, and opened the door.

    “May I come in?”

    “You are welcome in this house today,” Sam answered.

    “I hear you want to help out. I’m always looking for good people. Too many Apkallu just want to bang movie stars and go shopping, or spend all their time in the Otherworld banging succubi and going shopping.”

    “Well, I heard about Mr. Feng and I’d like to do something. Sylvia said it could be the start of some kind of magical gang war.”

    “Oh, it’s definitely the start of something. This wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment thing, either. Whoever took down Feng put a lot of preparation into it. High-powered magic. He was the Master of the Norumbega Circle, which is a pretty important slot. Norumbega’s New York. So at the very least we’re going to see some infighting among people who want the job. Plus I know for sure that Taika Feng’s out for blood. I won’t lie: This is going to be ugly. You still want in?”

    “Absolutely,” said Sam. “What do you want me to do?”

    “Well, why don’t you just ride along at first. Meet people, see how I do the job. Ever been a detective?”

    “Sort of.” He’d done image analysis in the Air Force — but of course that had been Samuel Arquero, not William Hunter. “But not professionally.”

    “Just keep your eyes open, then. An extra pair always helps.”

    Sam took a quick shower and changed clothes. From the other room Moreno asked, “So: Why are you still living in a dump?”

    “Rent’s expensive in New York,” Sam called back.

    “You’re still worried about money? I’ll give you a name: Wall Street guy, more money than God. Owes me a favor. He’ll hire you for some no-show consultant job, half a mil a year. That’ll put you in a better class of dump, anyway. You can work out some other deals on your own.”

    When Sam emerged from his bedroom in his only jacket and tie, Moreno gave him an appraising glance but didn’t say anything. His own bespoke-tailored perfection was a silent rebuke.

    “Before we go, one more thing,” said Moreno. “Eresikin William Phillips Hunter iginudug Ruax. Speak only the truth to me, now and forever. Were you involved with Feng’s death, or know anyone who was?”

    “No,” said Sam, and he didn’t even have to pretend to be resentful.

    “Sorry, but it’s important. If you can’t handle being honest I’ll remove the command and that’ll be the end of it.”

    “No, I understand.”

    They drove downtown in Moreno’s Citroen, listening to classic Bossa Nova music on the car stereo. Sam thought about the music, the car, and Moreno’s Kennedy-era suits. “Mind if I ask you a question? How old are you?”

    Moreno chuckled. “Just turned forty-seven. No magic keeping me young; not yet. I haven’t decided if I want that.”

    “Why wouldn’t you?”

    The answer took longer than Sam expected. “Well . . . some things are easy enough. You can prevent diseases, get rid of cancer, maybe fix injuries. But real aging, that’s hard to stop. Oh, there are spirits which can do it, but they’re powerful and smart enough to demand payment. And they don’t work cheap. Not at all.” He was silent for a moment, then went on. “In fact, you’ll see what I mean later today. One guy we’re going to visit has been around New York since 1877.”

    “He’s a hundred and forty years old?”

    “Probably older than that. He claims to be as old as the pyramids, but he’s only an initiate of the Lodge, not a Sage, so I have my doubts. None of the Seven Sages is more than about five hundred.”

    Five hundred years old. Sam tried to imagine it: seeing the world go from the days of Cortez and Michelangelo to the city flowing past outside the car window. “How do they manage? It must be like living on Mars for them.”

    “Too true,” said Moreno. “It’s a damned good thing the higher-ups spend most of their time in the Otherworld. They’ve got no idea how things work in the world nowadays.”

    Moreno parked his Citroen in a crosswalk right in front of the building where Feng had died, and took a large metal suitcase out of the trunk before leading Sam inside. For safety the ground floor was now surrounded by scaffolding, and Sam could see that the penthouse was swaddled in blue tarps. The building manager obeyed Moreno’s command to give them complete access to the penthouse, lent them a key card for the private elevator, and then forgot all about them.

    The penthouse was a mess. The fire had set off the sprinklers, so everything was sooty and wet. Moreno obviously knew his way around, and Sam let him lead the way up to Feng’s workroom.

    The power was off, so the only light was what leaked through the layers of blue plastic on the outside. It was like walking through an undersea cave.

    “Can you see what happened here?” Sam asked as they went carefully up the iron spiral stair. “With magic, I mean?”

    “I wish. No, magic can screw with your perceptions of time, but nobody’s been able to actually travel into the past. Can’t predict the future, either. I do have some tools that the subur cops don’t have, though. When you touch something you establish a connection. All I need to do is find a mark made by whatever killed Feng, and then call it to me.”

    “Is that safe?”

    “No,” Moreno admitted, sounding alarmingly casual about it. “If you want to wait downstairs, go now.”

    “I’ll stay. Is there anything I can do to help?”

    Moreno took a folded tarp out of the suitcase and spread it on the wet sooty floor before kneeling. “Grab that brazier over there and get a fire going.”

    It took Sam a while to find anything dry enough to burn in the brazier. He noticed that the bookshelf was empty. Someone — Moreno? Feng’s wife? — had taken away all the magical notebooks. Eventually he found a blank notebook which would catch, and fed the little blaze with bits of wood that hissed until they caught.

    Meanwhile Moreno made a circuit of the room with a flashlight, looking carefully at walls and furniture. He finally gave a pleased-sounding grunt and began to pry away part of the decorative wood molding on one side of the doorway. Sam could see deep gouges in it where the div’s claws had struck the wood.



    Moreno drew the Second Sign of Saturn on the tarp in charcoal, put the scarred piece of molding in the center, then set up other items along the edge: a plastic food-storage container with holes punched in the lid, a bone-handled bronze knife, a pouch of tobacco, a bag of dried rowan leaves, and a bundle of black feathers. He handed Sam the tobacco and rowan leaves, then opened the plastic container and took out a very lively black rat.

    “Sorry about this, little guy,” said Moreno to the rat. “It’s the wrong month and the wrong day of the week so I need some extra juice.” He looked over at Sam. “I’m going to call it up. Feed in the tobacco while I’m doing the summoning, then dump in the rowan as soon as it appears. Oh, and if I tell you to run, don’t argue. Understand?”

    “Got it. Tobacco, then rowan, run away if you tell me.”

    The tobacco was some kind of high-end pipe blend, so the room filled with a pleasant raisiny smell as it burned. Moreno began the incantation in what sounded like Sanskrit, and on his third repetition he sliced the rat’s head off with a single stroke of the knife, and squeezed the blood out of the limp body onto the scarred wood in the center of the sigil.

    Sam had already seen the div, but he was still shocked when it appeared in the air over the tarp, all eyes and claws and hunger. He dumped the rowan leaves into the brazier as Moreno tossed the rat aside and brandished the bloody knife at the monster. Sam could see the thing straining at Moreno, as if some invisible barrier stood between them, but after a minute it stopped and Sam heard its voice for the first time.

    “No eat,” it said, sounding like a whisper in a cave.

    “Speak,” Moreno commanded. “Who sent you here?”

    “None sent. Bound, then free.”

    “Who bound you?”


    “What was his name?”


    Moreno gave an irritated sigh. “By what name did he bind


    “The Lord of Ruin and the child-swallower.”

    “What did he look like?”

    “Flesh in cloth.”

    “Shit,” Moreno muttered, then more loudly, “Be gone from this place, and do not return. Go!” He shook the knife at the div, showering it with the last of the rat’s blood. It lunged at Moreno one final time but vanished before its claws could touch him.

    As soon as it disappeared, Moreno dropped to his knees, utterly exhausted. After a moment he spoke, sounding a little shaky. “I think you’d better clean up. I don’t feel so good.”

    Sam did a quick but efficient tidying job, dumping the ashes from the brazier and the rat carcass into the plastic container, wiping down the knife, and stowing everything back in Moreno’s suitcase. By the time he was done, Moreno had recovered enough strength to get down to the elevator and walk to his car.

    Before pulling out into traffic Moreno took a bottle of pills out of the glove compartment and swallowed a couple of them dry. He looked over at Sam and gave him a wry smile. “Just Tylenol. That thing left me with a bitch of a headache.”

    “Did you find out anything?”

    “Not really. Whoever did this was smart. I was hoping whoever bound it used his own name, but no luck. There’s no way I can do a lineup of every Apkal in New York for a div to pick out the one who bound it, so that’s a dead end.”

    “So,” said Sam, trying not to sound pleased at Moreno’s failure, “What now?”

    “Now we go talk to some people.”

    Moreno drove west to Eighth Avenue, then turned north, veering onto Broadway at Columbus Circle, and finally hung a left on Seventieth Street. He slid the car neatly into a no-parking zone and led Sam to an older building decorated with fantastic Assyrian winged bull sculptures with bearded men’s faces. A pair of Art Deco sphinxes perched over the doorway.

    Some of the carved stone faces were watching them.

    After the physical security at Feng’s place, Sam expected another rooftop fortress with a private elevator, but Moreno led the way into a public elevator and pressed the button for one of the middle floors. As soon as the doors closed, he cleared his throat and said, “You may see some weird stuff here. Let me do the talking. Just keep quiet, be polite, and pay attention to everything. Okay?”

    The doors opened onto a hallway, nicely decorated and impeccably tidy, but otherwise unremarkable. Moreno knocked on the closest door, and the two of them waited.

    A handsome young man opened the door. He was barely out of his teens and wearing no shirt — revealing an amazing physique, like a dancer or a gymnast. “Who’s this?” he asked Moreno, nodding toward Sam.

    “New initiate. Goes by Ace. I need to talk to Zadith.”

    “The Master’s busy right now. I can tell him you stopped by, maybe set up an appointment.”

    “I’d rather talk to him now,” said Moreno.

    “That’s not an option.”

    “Can we come in?”

    “No. You’re not welcome. Now go away.”

    Moreno regarded the shirtless young man for a long moment. “If I have to come back here, I’m going to bring something with me. Do you want that? Does your boss want that?”

    “There’s no need for that,” said the young man. “He’s just not ready for people to see him right now.”

    Moreno said nothing.

    “Can I get him cleaned up, at least?”

    “Sure. Can we come in?”

    The young man sighed and stepped back. “You’re welcome in this house today.”

    “Thank you,” said Moreno, and led Sam inside.

    As they passed through the door, Sam felt a sudden flash of vertigo. The apartment beyond was huge, extending off in every direction, filling the entire floor. He realized the hallway outside had been an illusion — a very convincing one, too. Even his Inner Eye hadn’t noticed anything amiss.

    The young man led them to a big living room, with a wall of windows covered by heavy curtains. The other three walls were bookshelves. Whatever flaws the Apkallu might have, they certainly were a well-read bunch, Sam thought. He remembered an old joke: Knowledge is power, power corrupts, therefore school is evil.

    The two of them waited for about ten minutes before the young man returned, now wearing a collarless linen shirt. “The Master will see you now,” he announced.

    He led them to an interior room lit by a single dim lamp. The floor was covered by layers of Persian carpets and heaps of silk cushions. In the far corner where the light was weakest, a man wearing silk pajamas and an embroidered skullcap reclined in a kind of nest of silk cushions.

    He wore white gloves and stockings, and had a scarf wrapped around his neck, so that the only part of him exposed to view was his face. It was incredibly withered and shrunken; the hairless skin was papery and drawn tight over the bones, and his closed eyes were sunk in hollows. He was brown all over — not the normal color of a dark-skinned person but more like a sheet of paper just about to burn. The teeth in his lipless mouth looked too big.

    The young man hurried to the old man’s side and took up a position behind him, partly supporting him. With one hand he took up a jar and used his other to gently rub lotion on the old man’s face on the cheeks and around the mouth.

    “Who are you?” the old man whispered.

    “Moreno. Initiate of the House. Agaus and Mitum-bearer.”

    “He doesn’t have it,” the young man murmured as the old man stirred nervously.

    “I come begging your help, Master Zadith,” said Moreno. “Hei Feng is dead. Someone was able to get a beast strong enough to overcome his bailong protector into his house. You were his teacher. Do you know who might have done this?”

    “He was disloyal,” whispered the paper-skinned man. “Disobeyed me. Impatient. Made enemies. I warned him.”

    “Who were his enemies?”

    “The man with you. Who is he?”

    “This is Ace, a new initiate.”

    “I want to help find out who killed Mr. Feng,” said Sam. Zadith looked at him, though his papery eyelids were still tightly shut.

    Moreno made a quick palm-down gesture to Sam. “Who were Feng’s enemies?”

    “White. Il Conte. Taika. None of them did it.”

    “Wait, Taika? His wife?”

    “None of them. Too obvious. Find the least likely.” The old man gestured and his young helper rubbed more lotion onto his mouth.

    “That could be anyone.” Moreno sighed, then bowed slightly.

    “Thank you, Master Zadith, for speaking to me. I’m grateful for your help.”

    Zadith’s young servant led them back to the door. “What about you?” Moreno asked him at the last moment. “You hear anything about Feng?”

    The young man shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Zadith makes me forget everything I hear. Next time you come I won’t remember you.” With that, he shut the door behind them.

    “He didn’t tell us much,” said Sam as the rode the elevator down.

    Moreno chuckled. “Are you kidding? I learned all kinds of interesting stuff. First, it really wasn’t Zadith. I was waiting for him to make a big show about avenging Feng’s death. He didn’t care. Second, he really doesn’t know anything. If he did, he’d have tried to trade for it.”

    “Who were those other people he named?”

    “White and the Count you’ll see tomorrow. Taika’s Feng’s wife.”

    “You think she did it?”

    “She’s too smart for that.” The elevator doors opened and the two of them remained silent until they reached Moreno’s car.

    “So what’s up with Zadith?” Sam asked once the car doors were shut. “How old is he, really?”

    “My guess is that he’s about two hundred. Acts older, but everything he knows about Egyptian history before Napoleon sounds like he got it from a book. His problem is that he’s dead.

    Other Apkallu make deals to stay young, stretch their lives out to four or five hundred years. Zadith’s got another plan. He’s done a kind of spirit-binding to keep his spirit attached to his body, and he’s done everything he can to preserve it.”

    “Like a mummy.”

    “Exactly like a mummy. There’s rumors — you’ll hear them — about old Sages still alive in the Sahara or the mountains around Kermanshah. Living mummies like Zadith. Might be true.”

    Sam was only half listening. He had glanced out of the window as the car turned onto Central Park West, and saw a little girl in a sparkly purple dress perched on the low wall around the park. She waved at him.

    “Are we done today? You said I’d meet some people tomorrow.”

    “Not quite. One name Zadith didn’t mention. We’re having lunch with Miss Elizabeth. Then I’m going to knock off for the day.”

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