“I want everyone to behave themselves,” Anson Verhoeven warned from behind the counter.
His white Amish beard quivered when he spoke. He looked to be pushing 90. He breathed through his mouth and stared worriedly over the rim of his glasses at the three of us in his shop. There were two men at the register. Verhoeven had wrapped something for them in gray paper, like blank newsprint—a book or a box of some kind. The one on the left took it without taking his eyes from me.
“Is this a real Mexican standoff or are we just measuring dicks?” I let the door close behind me and stood in the center of the room, between the neat bookshelves.
The Barrows was always so tidy. And there was always a slight floral scent hanging over the must and vanilla of old books. I didn’t know the two men glaring at me, but I knew the look: hollow behind the eyes. They were zombies. In the old sense, that is. Men whose souls had been taken and sealed in urns. Living slaves.
They walked toward the door, one passing on either side of me. I got my weekly quota of menacing glances. But that was it. The door closed behind them with a jingle and Anson and I were alone.
“Is it Tuesday again?” he asked. “Already?”
“You know, you’re in an odd business for a man who hates people.”
“Not at all. Running this shop is an act of mercy for all mankind,” he declared proudly.
“Indeed. It’s the only thing that will cure them. Without people like me, they’re all doomed. Now, what utter calamity brought you to my door?”
There was a fountain pen, an inkwell, and an old pad of paper on the counter, and he started putting them away underneath. I couldn’t tell if he was just being tidy or if he didn’t want me to see any hint of what he’d just sold Granny.
“Does it have anything to do with the capture of a certain ghoul?” he asked.
“How’d you know about that?”
“I have a store full of books. I know lots of things. So how did you manage it? From what I heard, it was speaking Aramaic. Couldn’t have been easy.”
I held up the talisman.
He leaned his head back to see it through his glasses, which had slipped to the end of his nose. “Where did you get that?”
“From a dead man. He was strangled by it. Those carvings mean anything to you?”
He leaned in. “Arabic, most likely. Difficult to tell. They’re quite worn.”
“Then why say Arabic?”
I wrapped the chain around my wrist.
“Once upon a time,” he began in a mocking tone, as if I were a small child and this was story time, “the Arab world was overrun with evil spirits from Central Asia. Jinn, they called them. Out of necessity, their alchemists became experts at crafting wards and prisons. Where do you think the tale of Aladdin and the lamp comes from?” He looked around the shop. “There’s a book around here somewhere with the original story. Quite a bit darker. I believe Aladdin gets trapped in the lamp at the end and spends eternity as a kind of homosexual toy.”
“Homosexual?” I asked, as if wondering if that were a relevant detail.
“Yes. The Arab world then had a kind of lustful fascination. It was outlawed by Islam but had been widely practiced before.”
“You’re right,” I said, flattering him, “you do know things.”
He looked at the pendulum clock behind him. “Indeed. For example, I know that now is my lunchtime. The shop is closed. Thank you. Good day.”
“Since you know so many things,” I went on, “maybe you could identify someone for me.”
“Identify? I don’t know anyone who could possibly need identifying. And if I did, I still don’t.”
I had the printout from the Massey case, the still image from the security footage, folded in my jacket pocket. I took it out and laid it flat on the counter.
“I told you—” He stopped.
He fixed his glasses higher up his nose and tilted his head to look down longways at the paper. His expression dropped like a rock.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
He stared blankly. He pulled off his glasses and let his hands fall to his side.
“What is it?”
“I’d heard the rumors but . . .” He raised his bushy eyebrows like he’d just learned the stock market had crashed and he’d lost all his savings.
“You know him then?”
“No,” he said, pushing the paper back toward me.
“Jesus, Anson, I’m not asking you to introduce me. All I need is a name.”
“It wouldn’t mean anything to you and I wouldn’t be doing you any favors by speaking it.”
“Fuck. Cut the crap, old man.”
“Or what?” he asked indignantly. “You’ll lock me in a totem? Who made you Lord Protector?”
“No,” I said nonchalantly. “As it happens, I’m out of totems. But I might mention to a few folks that you sold me this talisman.”
He studied me. “You wouldn’t.”
“If you’re gonna be a dick, I got no problems being a dick back. Whaddya think Granny will say when she finds out? Think she’ll make a personal trip out here?”
He smacked his shriveled lips loosely like he had a bad taste in his mouth. “Joke all you like. You don’t know nearly enough to appreciate the gravity of your question, Detective.”
“I came to the right place, then. Word on the street is you know things.”
He put his hands on the antique oak counter. “This is a book shop. Not a help desk.” He pointed to the sign high on the wall behind him:
THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY
“I’d recommend Massius Crane’s seven-volume history,” he said. “At the end, you might begin to have some faint appreciation for just how immense—”
“Fine,” I said, turning to leave. “Say hi to Granny for me.”
I made it halfway to the door.
He had a very slight sneer of disgust. “You’re a devil whose name escapes me.”
He moved his lips again like he had the same bad taste in his mouth. Then he walked around the counter and to the front, where he locked the door and hung the CLOSED sign. He stepped to the glass-encased bookshelf against the left wall, lifted the keys from his belt, and unlocked it. I watched him remove a large text from a set, the second in a series of seven oversized volumes with old-style cloth binding. The spines all had the title, “The Reign of The Masters,” printed in metallic gold letters over the name of the author, Massius Crane. The final volume was quite a bit smaller than the others.
“When they showed up, in secret,” he said, “on a small island in the Adriatic, they would have been wearing heavy robes and John Knox caps. The local workers who lit their path with torches would have been told to tell no one of their arrival, upon pain of death.”
Anson brought the tall book to the counter and flipped through the pages slowly. “Mr. Crane suspects their aims were modest—at first. Just as Jesus did not set out to establish the Roman Catholic Church, neither did the five old men who wandered up the shore that day seek to change the world. They were merely answering the call of the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, Philip IV of France. The so-called Iron King.”
“Philip had just executed the last members of what had once been the preeminent military force in the Mediterranean, and a threat to him: the Knights Templar. The king’s men immediately descended on the Templars’ secret vault, hidden on that small island, and emptied the treasury, but they were Christian men with Christian spirits and what they found in the lower crypts both perplexed and terrified them, and none dared enter.
“So The Iron King sent for nine of the wisest men from across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. One refused due to ill health, two perished en route, and one turned back when he heard news of their deaths, which he took as an ill omen. So it was that five men stepped from the rowboat that took them ashore, where the illiterate Italian peasants who greeted them felt obliged to show respect to their superiors, as was the custom of the day. But since they hadn’t been given a proper title, they referred to the men with the simple honorific, i maestri.”
He spun the book and pointed to a black-and-white illustration, like something from the Victorian era. It was a grand stone chamber. Great columns ran along the sides and held up the heavy roof, all but a shadow overhead. At the end was an impressive stone edifice, like a tall judge’s bench, behind which sat seven robed elders, the one at the center a little higher than the others. High above them on the back wall, an eye-shaped cavity had been cut into the otherwise smooth stone. Inside it, just a bit off center, a giant crystal radiated spearlike shards in all directions.
“What’s that?” I pointed to the top of the image.
“The source of their power. The Great Eye, forged at the dawn of civilization, two and a half millennia before Christ, by the high priests of Sumer. For their lord, Annemundu, the first god-emperor in history.”
I looked closer. “What are these rays coming out?” I traced a finger along one.
“The Eye is—or rather was—a seeing stone, a great crystal whose gaze pierced all.”
“What do you mean was? What happened to it?”
He looked at me impatiently.
“Fine.” I shut up.
“Annemundu used it to discover and destroy all who plotted against him—or even maligned his name in secret. He despised deliberation and enforced a uniform order, a perfect orthodoxy without argument or dissent, where everyone agreed on everything. He called it peace, for there were none left to oppose him.
“Stone carvings from the era suggest that Annemundu’s rule was lengthy, brutal, and absolute, but that in the end, he died, as all men do. Mr. Crane believes that the Eye was smuggled out of Mesopotamia by wealthy families close to the emperor who feared another absolute despot. But all we know is it disappeared from history—completely—for the better part of three thousand years, until, in the thirteenth century, it was discovered in the Templars’ crypts. They seem to have stumbled upon its hidden resting place while on holy crusade and taken it as plunder without realizing its purpose or power. It was the five maestri, diligently cataloging all the treasures—and terrors—the knights had accumulated over two centuries of conquest in the Holy Land, who finally saw the truth. Whether they feared what The Iron King would do with it, or whether they succumbed to its lure themselves—or perhaps both—The Masters soon betrayed their lord. They sent false reports and provided him trinkets and stale relics in place of the mystic hoard they alone now possessed.
“The five forged a brotherhood pledged to protect that hoard from all who would abuse it. And so they did. But as time passed, their successors grew restless with mere custodianship. At some point, they began modestly referring to themselves as the High Arcane and took to using the Eye. At first it was simply to help those in need. But eventually, they began confiscating every magical artifact that fell into their gaze and imprisoning them in a place that erased all memory of their existence.
“By the sixteenth century, during the so-called Age of Exploration, The Masters sent agents to follow the ley lines that circled the globe, to mark their intersections, and to seal the portals that lay within, cutting us off from friend and foe alike. Ancient treatises were confiscated and buried. New ones were forbidden—or else had to be written in approved codes and cyphers.
“By the seventeenth century, five elders had swelled to seven and included representatives from all the major civilizations from the Far East to the New World. Any man who sought power on any continent—not political office, mind you, but real power—had first to earn their favor. The politicians of this world are princes only. The kings have no name. It’s no accident that the men who built the modern world were all members of secret societies steeped in the occult. Many of the Founding Fathers of this very country were inducted into the secret order of the Masons, pledged vassals of i maestri. Those who resisted, or even simply opted out—the remaining woodfolk and the free practitioners of wildcraft—were labeled witches and burned alive.” He looked to me for a reaction.
“Why?” I scowled. “Power?”
“We all want what we don’t have,” he said. “The Masters had power. What they wanted was order.”
He closed the book and retrieved another from the shelf, a later volume in the same series. He flipped to another page. “Here.”
It was like a scene from an old epic, the Iliad or the Ramayana or something. I saw an army of men carrying round shields and snub swords, a line of archers, flying monsters, an army of skeletons erupting from the earth, a giant bull raging through the clouds, a mounted king, a lightning bolt from the sky striking a giant three-tailed scorpion, a magic hammer, a blind priestess, a bearded wizard and his seven acolytes, and on and on, all locked in a great conflagration that filled a long swooping valley from mountain to mountain, while at the peaks, rings of fire—one white, one black.
“The world as it was in the beginning,” he said as I studied the page. “You think it’s an accident that every ancient civilization, from the Greeks to the Japanese, told stories of ghosts and monsters and great heroes with magic spears? How do you think Alexander conquered the world? Or Genghis Khan? With the stirrup and a handful of sweaty barbarians?
“The Masters’ great enterprise, their solution to the terror of existence, was to buy the very same peace as Annemundu. So it was, slowly but surely, bit by bit, over six long centuries, magic all but went out of the world. These days there are few left who remember it. In its place came the machines. A machine is predictable, you see. It can be controlled—measured and changed—but magicks defy periodicity. They’re immeasurable, uncontrollable. And accessible. Remember, Merlin was a peasant boy, and he anointed a king.
“There were battles and skirmishes, of course, some of them quite deadly. But it wasn’t until the seekers of the dark found their holy book that there was outright war.”
He shut the volume in front of me.
He nodded. “Written in blood on its pages were spells to cast darkness, not just over the human heart but the world itself. Suddenly, artifacts and people could be hidden from the Great Eye. Agents of the dark walked unhindered and unseen. Armed with the mad whispers of their gods, the warlocks pursued a hundred-year war to destroy the High Arcane and all who followed them. It wasn’t until the second half of the last century that they were finally defeated. And only at great cost.”
He shook his head. “I was a mere boy at the time. I only heard the stories. How The Masters’ spies had tracked the Necronomicon to Siberia, where Rasputin had hidden it. How, in an act of incredible daring, they smuggled it to the Caucases, where it was destroyed by a bastard magician from a tribe whose name is not spoken. It was the Final Battle, we were told. The End of History. And so it seemed, for a time.” He nodded to himself. “So it seemed.”
“Until . . . in the aftermath of the war, driven by greed, men penetrated the last soft places of the world. Out of the clear-cut jungle—out of nowhere—a young man appeared, half naked, with ocher skin and eyes painted in blue dye, born of a people spared the ravages of history. A man who could make magic. Not the repetition of some crusty old spell, mind you. Real magic. New magic.”
He slid the creased computer printout over the book.
“It was around then that a new book appeared. And another ‘Final Battle’—if you believe the rumors—where the Great Eye cracked. Without the source of their power, the remaining High Arcane fell to argument, their agents disbanded, and, well . . .” He motioned out the door. “The world is as you found it, stumbling back toward chaos.”
“So . . . this guy’s a wizard?”
“NO!” Anson slapped the counter. “Have you been listening? He’s not a wizard! He doesn’t build flying contraptions and anoint lusty fools with magic swords. He’s a shamanic sorcerer! A world-walker. A true agent of chaos. The very last, in fact. Which is why everyone has been happy to leave him locked away in his sanctum all these years.”
I squinted at the photo. “Then why make an appearance now?”
Anson simply shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to know.”
“But someone does. Everybody’s got friends,” I said, repeating my brother. “Or at least enemies.”
He made a face like he was going to object. Then he stopped himself. He thought for a moment. He seemed confused. Then he looked at me gravely.
“It would have to be someone older than me,” he said, “old enough to remember the war. And skilled enough to survive it. As it happens, there is someone who fits that description right here in the city. You’ve already met her, in fact.” He nodded toward the front door. “And she’s a big fan.”
I scowled. “Fuck . . .”
“Yes.” He nodded solemnly. “See? Tuesday.”
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: You wanna talk about it?
cover image by Matt Taylor