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The Initiate: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Saturday, February 1, 2020 06:25 EST



    “Damn,” said Moreno, looking around the house on Long Island. The place was empty, with big gaps among the clothes in the closets, drawers hanging open, and a pile of wet ashes in the sink where the Count had disposed of some papers and personal effects. “I think we just missed him.”

    Sam thought about where their quarry could be. The Count was somewhere inside a circle centered on this house. Right now the circle’s radius was only thirty miles or so, but that radius was expanding at about sixty miles an hour. And already it encompassed at least three airports . . .

    “Do you have any way to track him?”

    Moreno sighed. “Yeah, we could chase after him, but there’s no need. The Sage already passed sentence on him. I’ve got his blood. No reason to delay — lock the door.”

    Sam watched as Moreno gathered materials from around the house: a carving knife from the kitchen, tobacco and sparklers from the Count’s magical workroom, a bottle of rum from the saloon-sized bar in the living room, and a red cashmere scarf left at the bottom of the bedroom closet. He had Sam pull down all the smoke detectors and put them outside, then instructed him to heat up the rum in a saucepan.

    Moreno built a little fire using a steel mixing bowl for a brazier, tossing in the tobacco and sparklers. The room filled with smoke that made their eyes water. He took a little sealed bottle from his pocket and began to chant an invocation while Sam added the heated rum to the fire a little at a time. It burned with a nice blue flame.

    “By Yirthiel, Lord of Great Strength, and Nergal I send burning death to his heart. By Girra and Nusku I command it. Let the heart which held this blood burn!” Moreno emptied the bottle of the Count’s dried blood into the fire, and for a moment Sam felt the room crowd with hot, hungry spirits, swirling around the smoke. Then they sped away, leaving the two men in a sooty room.

    “What happens now?”

    “Now we clean up. Subur cops will probably be checking this place out in a little while. No sense in leaving fingerprints. Saves me a lot of trouble.”

    “I mean what happens to the Count?”

    “He’s dead, or about to be. His heart’s on fire.” Moreno put on a pair of oven mitts and emptied the bowl of ashes and rum down the drain.

    Sam was busy with a towel, wiping down handles, doorknobs, and light switches. “The fire spirits have to find him, and he’s probably got protection,” he pointed out.

    “Doesn’t matter. Your blood is your life. That’s why everyone has to give a sample.” Moreno cleaned the knife and put it back in the holder with the others.

    “No way to avoid it?”

    “Not really. Your blood is you. The Sages could wipe out all the other Apkallu in an afternoon if they felt like it.”

    “Could you?”

    Moreno shook his head. “They keep the blood, not me. There are rules. This is why we have rules, and why we have to follow them.”

    That night Sam got an anonymous email, consisting of a link to a “weird news” channel on YouTube. He followed the link and picked the most recent video: It showed a man on the Acela train who suddenly burst into flames that afternoon. The video was blurry, but Sam could recognize the Count’s face on the burning figure before he was consumed.

    The bottle labeled “William Hunter” — wherever it was right now — held nothing but lamb’s blood, but now Sam was certain that if Moreno ever got any of his real blood he would never be safe.



    The next day Sam was just finishing a little morning study at Columbia when his phone buzzed with a message from Lucas. “Meet me now. Riverside Church.” He sighed and walked the six blocks without hurrying.

    Lucas was sitting in the rearmost pew on the right, and Sam slid in next to him.

    “I told you to get away from there,” said Lucas without preamble.

    “I didn’t have time.”

    “You wasted too much time, you mean. The correct response would have been to start running as soon as you read my message. Ah, well; never mind. It worked out rather well, in the end. The Count is dead, which eliminates the only serious opposition to Stone taking over the New York Circle. And he makes a perfect scapegoat for Feng’s death.”

    “I don’t know if Moreno believes it.”

    “Damn him. That’s why I told you to run away. The ideal result would have been for the Count to kill Moreno and thereby discredit himself. Well, perhaps we can still find a way to aim him in the right direction.”

    “He wanted to see if anyone would try anything if they thought he was dead.”

    “Mm. Are you going to see Moreno today?”

    “I think we’re going to talk to Mr. White this afternoon. Nobody seems to like him much.”

    “True. Unfortunately I can’t orchestrate an attack on him without a little more time to prepare. Still . . . it would be a shame to waste the moment. Would you mind very much sending me a text before your meeting?”

    “Sure.” Sam looked around at the church, then back at Lucas. “Moreno knew how to call up the div that killed Feng.”

    “Since we’re both still alive I assume it didn’t reveal anything. Not that it could, of course. I chose it carefully.”

    “He didn’t know what it was or what its name was, but he managed to call it up anyway.”

    “Yes. It’s dangerous but not especially difficult if you have a physical link. The risk is in not knowing what will come when you call.”

    “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    “Eh?” Lucas looked genuinely puzzled.

    “I’m sure I could find something the anzu touched. The one that killed my family. We can find out who sent it!”

    Lucas stared at him, then nodded gravely. “We can, yes. But . . . are you ready yet? The anzu are wily beings, with considerable magical knowledge of their own. They are not easy to command. I fear for your safety if you try to summon one, or seek it in the Otherworld.”

    “Sure, but you can help me. You know all this stuff — you did the div enchantment. Can you make the anzu talk?”

    “I see there is no dissuading you.” Lucas sighed. “Very well. I will help you. But!” He held up a forefinger. “I do insist on one thing: You cannot abandon our larger project. If we can find out who caused the attack on your family, I don’t want you to be satisfied with simply taking revenge on that person alone. That is irrelevant. We still need to maneuver me into a place of power within the Apkallu in order to destroy the entire organization. Agreed?”

    “Oh, sure, absolutely. But I want to know who did it — I want to know why.”

    “Don’t worry. If my plans work out, I swear to you that you will know exactly who and why. But you must be patient, Samuel.”



    “I will. When can we start?”

    Lucas smiled ruefully. “Now I know what being a parent is like. You are far too inexperienced to cope with calling up an anzu on your own. We shall have to negotiate with it. Bring me something you know it touched, and we will let that lead us to it. Can you wait until the equinox?”

    “I guess I have to.”

    “That’s the spirit. Bring something the anzu touched, and on the night of September twenty-second we shall enter the Otherworld together.”

    The meeting with Lucas meant Sam was running late as he recovered his other identity from the bank box in the Bronx. He took a cab to the grubby diner on 149th Street where he was supposed to meet Moreno, and as the car went down the Grand Concourse he looked idly at the faded buildings passing by and thought about Lucas.

    Lucas was not his friend. He needed to keep that in mind. They were allies, nothing more. Sam needed Lucas’s knowledge of magic and the Apkallu, Lucas needed Sam as . . . a weapon. A tool.

    When tools break, or you don’t need them anymore, they can get discarded. Until Sam could find the Apkal responsible for destroying his family, Lucas was his best chance. Sam had to stay useful.

    For now he’d keep sending Mr. Kim snippets of Moby Dick, but he needed to reduce his dependence on Lucas. Become more than a tool. He needed more allies, maybe a power base of his own. When Moreno pulled up in front of the diner and honked the Citroen’s horn, it was already past two in the afternoon. He drove east, passing under the expressway and over the rail yards into Hunt’s Point.

    “The cops in Lido Beach found the Count’s boys at the missile base. They’re calling it a drug deal gone bad. The dead guys were all connected so the cops will probably just let the Mob handle it.”

    “Will they do anything?”

    “You kidding me? The local capos are probably having a party to celebrate. The Count wasn’t a made man, he was a creepy outsider who pushed his way into their rackets and demanded a cut. They don’t have to avenge him.” Moreno grinned. “That would be my job if I hadn’t killed him myself.”

    It was the hottest part of the afternoon by the time Moreno parked his car — legally, for once — on Viele Avenue, right by Barretto Point Park. The park was an incongruous patch of greenery squeezed between a wastewater treatment plant and the razor-wire fortified grounds of a huge concrete warehouse.

    The two of them walked toward the little amphitheater facing the East River at the southern tip of the park. Sam slipped a hand into his pocket and took out his phone, pressed Send on the message to Lucas, then turned it off. “Just making sure we’re not interrupted again,” he whispered to Moreno.

    A naked man was sitting in the center of the first row of seats, looking out over the oily water of the East River at the Riker’s Island prison complex. His hair was wet and his skin streaked with mud and oil. Sam figured the man was just another street crazy, but then Moreno called out to him.

    “Good afternoon, Mr. White!”

    The man didn’t turn around. “Hello, James. Who’s your friend?”

    Before Moreno could say anything Sam spoke up. “They call me Ace.”

    White stood — he was indeed quite naked except for a sopping waist-length beard, and didn’t seem concerned about it. His torso was decorated with tattoos that Sam recognized as planetary sigils. “Should’ve brought your dildo, Jimmy. I’m not going down like the Count did.” He turned to face the water again and extended his arms.

    “Whoa, whoa!” Moreno shouted. “We just want to talk about Feng.”

    White lowered his arms and turned to face them again. “So talk.”

    Behind him, dead people were coming out of the water. At least a dozen of them, some just skeletons, others that looked almost alive except for their grayish pallor and the filthy water streaming from their mouths.

    Moreno stood calmly, though Sam could see the tense set of his jaw. “Was the Count working with anyone?”

    “You’re wasting your time. I didn’t have anything to do with Feng or the Count.” Behind White the dead people reached level ground and began walking forward, fanning out as they did so, so that the line grew wider as it moved.

    “I don’t know that. Convince me.”

    “Killing customers is bad business.” The dead in the center of the line halted next to White, but those on the ends continued to advance, curling around to flank Sam and Moreno.

    “I need a little more than that.”

    “Like what? An alibi? I was busy buying puppies for orphans with cancer the night he died. Good enough?”

    “Someone sent a div after him. You’ve used them before.”

    “I’m not the only one. You’re grabbing straws here, Jimmy.”

    Sam and Moreno were now in the center of a circle of standing corpses, perfectly spaced about five yards apart. White stood between two of the dead. Sam wondered for a moment whether any outsiders could see what was going on, but decided that this scene was a lot less weird than some of the things he’d seen in New York. Of course, the thought that nobody would call the cops wasn’t very reassuring at the moment. He glanced at Moreno, who was still ignoring the corpses.

    Just then a pigeon — which Sam could see was a spirit in bird form — circled them and landed on White’s shoulder. It whispered to him, and for a second he looked startled. Then his eyes narrowed and he smiled. “Hey, Moreno! Guess what? Taika Feng and Stone are mixing it up in broad daylight over at Trinity Cemetery! Maybe someone ought to check it out before the subur cops and media show up?”

    Moreno pulled out his own phone, looked at it, and grimaced.

    “I’m going now, Mr. White. Thank you for your help. I’ll be in touch.”

    He turned and led Sam out of the park. The circle of animated corpses parted to let them through, but behind them White laughed and laughed.



    Moreno had a gremlin bound into a laser pointer, which changed traffic lights to green as the Citroen approached. They made the trip from the Bronx to Trinity Cemetery on upper Broadway in fifteen minutes, which had to be some kind of record for daytime driving in New York.

    The gate was open, which was a good thing as Sam suspected Moreno would have simply driven through it anyway if it had been shut. Once inside it wasn’t hard to spot the magical fight going on. Up at the Broadway side of the cemetery, a big black-winged bull stood atop a granite outcrop, holding off a swarm of long-haired women with the bodies of snakes. Stone, looking terrified, cowered behind the bull, while down among the graves at the base of the outcrop, Taika Feng stood holding a big plastic bucket. As the bull gored or trampled the snake-women, she called forth new ones from the bucket.



    “The hell do those two think they’re doing?” Moreno snarled as the car screeched to a stop. “Hand me that baggie in the glove compartment. The big one.”

    Sam opened the glove box to find it full of little jars, ziplock bags, plastic storage tubs, and paper envelopes. The biggest bag held a dried dead bat, but when Sam touched it he felt such intense power that his hand instinctively flinched back, as if it was red hot. He grabbed the bag, careful not to touch the bat, and handed it to Moreno as if it was a bomb.

    Moreno tore open the plastic and shouted “Hualmonochilia Camazotz!”

    The dead bat came to life and fluttered into the air. With each wingbeat it grew — first as big as a pigeon, then a hawk, then man sized, until finally a midnight-black bat the size of a small plane skimmed low over Taika’s head and soared up to the battle going on. It caught one of the snake-women in its bloody fangs and dispatched her with a single bite.

    It circled around and dove at the bull, which gave a bellow of rage and took to the air itself, charging with horns forward and legs tucked up neatly for streamlining. But the bat continued to grow, so that the winged bull simply vanished into an open maw like a tunnel entrance. The bat then wheeled and scattered the remaining snake-women with a gust of wind from its mighty wings.

    And then a little dried dead bat fell to the grass.

    “Okay, what’s going on?” Moreno shouted. He and Sam got out of the car and walked across the graveyard toward the rock outcropping. Sam spotted Isabella perched atop a tombstone a few yards off to one side, eating a very drippy ice cream cone and watching the battle with glee.

    “That disgusting man killed my husband!” Taika called back, setting down her bucket, which smelled of seawater.

    “She’s mad!” Stone put in. “I was just looking for new ghosts to collect when she attacked me!”

    “Both of you cut it out. Mrs. Feng, the Count killed your husband, and he’s dead now.”

    “I got a message that he” — Taika pointed one thumb over her shoulder at Stone — “had been working with the Count. And when I confronted him he admitted it!”

    “I said I wasn’t sorry Feng died, which is simply the truth, and I said the Count was my friend and I regretted his death.

    Which is also true. But I had nothing to do with what happened to your husband. If you ask me, she’s making a bid to succeed him as Master of the Circle by eliminating any rivals.”

    “I didn’t ask you,” said Moreno. “Now listen up, both of you. This stops, now and for good. Taika, your husband’s death has already been avenged. The Sage agrees. Stone, don’t make accusations unless you can back them up. Right now it’s no harm, no foul. Let’s keep it that way — because if anything happens to either of you, I know who’s at the top of the list of suspects. Understand?”

    Taika glared for a moment, then kicked over the bucket of seawater and began walking toward the cemetery gate. As she passed close to Sam and Moreno she stage-whispered, “Don’t trust him!” Isabella slid off the tombstone and trotted after her as she left.

    Stone, with some effort, scrambled down off the rock and tried to salvage some dignity. Once Taika was out of earshot he approached Sam and Moreno and extended a hand. “Thank you for showing up when you did. As I said, I think she –”

    “Never mind about that,” said Moreno. “Can you get back to your home safely?”

    “Of course,” said Stone. “I have other protections in place. She caught me by surprise. I’ll be all right.” He strolled off, looking deliberately casual — but Sam noticed he walked in the opposite direction from the one Taika had taken.

    After a minute Sam looked at Moreno. “What was that all about?”

    “No idea. I guess people are more scared than I realized.”

    The two of them went back to Moreno’s car and drove out of the cemetery more sedately. At the corner of Riverside they passed Taika and Isabella getting into an old Å koda limousine.

    “That’s not good,” said Moreno.

    “How come?”

    “That’s Miss Elizabeth’s car. If those three are working together they could be a problem.”

    “Taika, Miss Elizabeth, and . . . Isabella?”

    “Bingo. They can do a classic triple. Maiden-Mother-Crone. Big juju. Draw down the Moon, crap like that. I hope they don’t try anything stupid.” Moreno steered north on Riverside as he talked.

    “So . . . what’s up with her? Isabella, I mean.”

    “She’s a big pain in the ass for me. Her family were Apkallu. Both old lineages — second cousins, I think. Wizards are like European royalty; everybody’s related, and a lot of them are kind of funny. Anyway, her parents died exactly a year after she was born — Halloween, no less. A working went wrong. Called up something neither of them could handle. Tore them to bits, knocked down the house. Nothing grows on the property any more. It’s out in Montauk. Getting her away from the subs was quite a job. I finally had to control a judge and get a court order.”

    Moreno got onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, still going north. “Feng lined up another Apkal family to take care of her — remember that kid Shimon? His parents, the Zobris. They had Isabella for a couple of years. Cute kid, very smart. Started walking and talking early. Then she started running off. It got harder and harder to find her. They called me in to help, but even I had trouble. She’d go off for a day, a week, then two, then a month. And finally . . . we all just kind of gave up. I know it sounds cold, but even when she was just five or six she could take care of herself. Kid’s got serious magical juice, more than most grown Apkallu I know. Now she lives wherever she wants. Sylvia tries to keep tabs on her — and I’ve heard she’s taken a liking to you, too.”

    “I worry about her. I know she’s got spirit protection, but is that really enough? New York’s got some bad people in it.” Sam remembered his own little boy, not much younger than Isabella. Just the thought of Tommy alone in the city gave Sam a panicky feeling even two years after his son was dead and gone.

    Moreno actually laughed at that. “Don’t be a dope. No sub can do anything to Isabella. It’s cleaning up after her that gives me problems. She’s always doing magical shit in public — showing off for kids on the playground, taking stuff she wants, sometimes just messing with people for the hell of it. That’s one reason I pushed to get her initiated early. Now she’s oath-bound. If she harms another Apkal I’m gonna crack down on her as hard as I can manage.”

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