Every time you hand off a book to beta readers, there’s a kind of lull in the life of an author. You know you’re going to get the manuscript back in a few weeks, and there’s a lot of work left, not just the joy and heartbreak and painstaking revisions after beta feedback, but work with the editor and cover artist, after which you have to produce a pair of editions — one print and one digital. I’m always reluctant to get too deep into anything new.
So I piddle. I made the image above the other weekend, more or less for fun, to illustrate the battle between light and dark in FEAST OF SHADOWS, my five-course occult mystery. Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights to use 90% of the art in the paintings, so this is just for demonstration.
Each painting illustrates a character, scene, or object from the book, with emphasis on the conclusion, “Bright Black,” in which an immortal, recruited as a spy in a centuries-long occult war, spars across decades with her adversary for possession of the most dangerous object ever created.
I’m not a visual artist, so I’m particularly proud of the shading here, both under the frames and between the light and dark halves of the hall.
Years ago, driven by greed, men penetrated the last soft places on earth. Out of the clear-cut jungle—out of nowhere—a man appeared, eyes rimmed in blue. The last shaman. A man who could make magic…
Across five stories, five victims of inexplicable events narrate their encounters with an enigmatic titan of magic, a man without a past, whose tattooed palms hold the power to alter human history—or to end it.
Agony in Violet
As his marriage crumbles around him, a brilliant medical scientist searches for the source of a horrific illness that leaves its victims ashen and wasted. With no apparent connections between them, his only clues are the strange symbols that appear near the bodies after death. When a child is stricken, old traumas resurface and the good doctor turns in desperation to a curious consultant, who reveals that not every labyrinth has walls, and that the horrors you face there are always your own.
Curse of the Red Dagger
A troubled young woman, pregnant with a billionaire’s baby, disappears without a trace. Determined to save his child, he offers her best friend one million dollars to find her. But following in her friend’s footsteps proves more difficult than she expected. Everyone connected to the disappearance seems desperate to hide the truth. As they each fall to mysterious circumstances, death closes around her, and her only chance to save her friend is to sacrifice herself to an ancient power.
To the White of the Bone
A mangled body floats to the surface of a reservoir with nothing to distinguish the victim save for a binding knot branded under her tongue. The case is routed to the NYPD’s resident occultist, an uncompromising homicide detective whose history of unusual and uncertain results has left her career in shambles. Dodging an inquiry into a fatal shooting and pursued by a homicidal witch, she contemplates a devil’s bargain to stop the killer, who just may be the Lord of Shadows.
The Song on the Green
One by one, the children of an upscale Pennsylvania neighborhood are found crippled and catatonic, their minds seemingly vanished. As the panicked community searches in vain for a human predator, they neglect the only witness, an eight-year-old boy with a menagerie of strays, who is left to stand alone against the very creature that hunts him.
After carelessly killing an innocent, a beautiful aristocrat is cursed with eternal youth. Forced to endure as waves of friends and loved ones wither and fade around her, she wanders the ages in search of meaning—from the wars of Napoleon to the Victorians in India, from the Great Depression to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Recruited as a spy in an occult war, she soon tires of blood and loss and retreats to a small village in the mountains, where an accident reveals missing memories and an unfortunate truth: that the mistakes of five lifetimes are not so easily fled.
The Winter Bureau
(from the fifth course, “Bright Black”)
That was my welcome to America.
Within my first month at Everthorn, I had a change of heart. I wrote to Anson but was told, curtly: “The offer is no longer available. Sincerely, &tc. &tc.” That was the sum of his reply. It was another two years, when dire actions prompted it, before I was considered for release.
Two years in hell.
I was given parole rather than pardon, which meant I could be returned to prison at any time. I was then placed into the custody of a man of ill health, ill fortune, and ill name: Spurgeon Fount, a parapsychologist-acolyte of Richard Hodgson, the man who, as an analyst for the Psychical Research Society, had discredited and disgraced Madame Helena. Spurgeon had no taste for politics, however, and had turned instead to vampire hunting. That, it seemed, was to be my occupation, and our time together was lively. Spurgeon was a comical man, despite his best efforts to the contrary. He wasn’t helped by his physical appearance. He was unusually short, for one, rather like Napoleon. He was also slightly disfigured. He had a harelip, and part of one ear was missing, along with the pinky of his left hand, half his ring finger, and the tip of his thumb, all the result of a mishap he repeatedly failed to mention but which clearly had dictated the direction of his life and work. He had been raised by his mother and was lustful and repressed, as were so many of his peers, and he wound up naked and drained by one of his prey after she lured him into one of his own traps. The beast traveled under cover of a circus, which is why I had been recruited. Many American circus performers were foreign, lured from across Europe with promises of streets of gold. Thanks to Durance, I was handy with a lock pick and a blade, which meant, with some training, I could perform minor feats of escapistry and knife throwing and so was inserted into the circus as an apprentice in order to discover the identity of the foul creature, who played some important role for our as-yet unidentified enemies. She also had a voracious appetite. Alas, I was a very poor spy and didn’t succeed in my mission in time to save Spurgeon’s life. But I avenged him. Our vampiress was a tumbler and quite a difficult woman to pin down. I managed to impale her on a tent pole, but only by throwing her off of me, whence I was bitten.
I cannot describe what followed since I was not conscious to witness it. For the longest time, two curses waged war within me: one granting me eternal life, the other eternal undeath. It seemed neither could get the better of the other. I was wracked with tremors and night sweats that emerged between long bouts of still coma, by which I mean years. Seventeen, in total. I was kept in a sanitarium, expenses covered by The Masters, or rather their proxies. This was not done out of charity or obligation but rather because mine was a unique case deemed worthy of study. It seems no one in the world knew what would happen—or what to do. Countless learned men came and went at first, as if they were carnival-goers vying for the high score at strongman’s hammer. Gradually, however, the number dwindled and I became just another curiosity, locked behind a steel door. For many of those years, I was tended by the same nurse. She rose every day to check on me before her morning meal, returned twice during the day, and once again before bed. Not that she was devoted to me, merely faithful in her occupation, my own Florence Nightingale. And yet, I never met her. She was caught with millions of others in the influenza pandemic of 1918.
The man who woke me, who discovered the means to push the eternal battle within me towards the white curse and against the black, was, of course, an American. It seemed in those days as if suddenly everyone was American. It didn’t matter whether you were in Paris or Istanbul. They were everywhere, both on the streets and in the papers. They invented industrious processes and married old European aristocrats and earned incredible fortunes or lost them. They made motion pictures and jazz music and chemicals and machines and war. My American was Professor Henry Hunter, a classicist and scholar of ancient literature. He was not a practitioner. Strictly speaking, he was a magus, an expert on magic—lost magicks in particular—and he had pursued the conundrum of my case as a kind of intellectual past time the way a mathematician might become obsessed with a peculiar chess move or a detective, a cold case. I was a terrible mystery, it seemed. The sleeping beauty. The woman who could not be roused, who needed neither food nor drink, who simply rested—seemingly forever—in a locked cell at the end of a long hall in a basement floor of a sanitarium. A riddle of riddles.
When I awoke, he was speaking to a nurse.
“Well,” he said, looking down at me through his wire-rimmed spectacles, “there you are.”
It may seem odd to say it, but I hadn’t missed the years, at least not in themselves. I hadn’t missed them for the same reason I had fallen easy victim to opium—and probably would to heroin or cocaine if I allowed myself. I have a surplus of days. They travel quickly in the aggregate but drag in the singular. After a time, one is much like the next. I would never have minded the ability to fast-forward a bit, to use a modern phrase. Still, it was uncanny the way the world had changed in my absence. I had seen automobiles in London, but they were, much like dirigibles, little more than a novelty, a new way for the rich to spend their fortunes. I had heard a phonograph as well. As a matter of history, Thomas Edison gave one to Madame Helena before she set sail for England and thence India. She kept it in the library. The first records didn’t play music. The quality was too poor. They simply played random sounds: the honk of a buggy horn, the chirp of a bird, bits of human speech. It was a novelty, something to give the guests a giggle—that noises could be trapped in a box—and after clustering around it excitedly for a week, the bearded gurus and I never touched it again.
But when I finally awoke from my coma, cars choked the streets. Music—once the monopoly of the musician—played from every open window. There were machines to wash clothes, machines to refrigerate food, even machines to send messages through the air. It was as if the record of my life had skipped an entire song. During my slumber, our mysterious enemies had launched a major offensive. The result was total war. It had stretched round the globe. Many wizards and millions of civilians had died. I couldn’t believe it. Truly, I thought someone was trying to trick me. It wasn’t until Dr. Hunter brought me stacks of old newspapers that I began to appreciate the scale. It was easy enough to accept that a lone man could be cruel, or a handful of men, perhaps even a nation, but this insanity had engulfed the species. It didn’t seem possible. What had gone wrong?
Dr. Hunter—“Hank” to those who knew him—arranged for me a convalescence at a women’s home run by a religious charity. It seemed that most of the women there had been with child or were escaping the fists of their husbands or fathers. A few were what we would today call alcoholic. As a condition of our board, our only responsibility was to follow the rules of the house, which were strict, but no more so than what I had suffered under the Countess. Our time was otherwise our own, and I spent many hours reading and confiding in Hank, either by letter or in person, the whole of my life’s story. A cover had been invented for me while I was in a coma. I was said to be from Montana, born at the turn of the century to an immigrant family, and a victim of meningitis that I had contracted as a child. I knew that such a disease could affect the mind. I needed to say my life out loud, I think, after waking from so long a sleep, to repeat it continuously if only to prove to myself that it was real, that it had all really happened and hadn’t simply been a dream, as the rest of the world then seemed to be, that I wasn’t Dorothea, a deluded girl from Montana, but the immortal daughter of a Russian noble.
It was on one such visit—after I told him for the fifth time that I couldn’t stay in the women’s home any longer—that he admitted his own selfish ends. He needed my help. The war had surprised everyone, he explained, even the High Arcane. No one was sure what was coming next. I promise you, the followers of the dark were never stronger, more numerous, or more openly influential than in the early decades of the 20th century. As a result, a new organization had been chartered, of which Hank and I were founding members—a kind of magical intelligence agency operating under Master Crowley, whose public shenanigans were nothing but a means of keeping the public focused on a fantasy, a cartoonish magic, and so away from the truth, even as he carried it out right in front of them.
It was called The Winter Bureau, and its mission was to engage our enemies directly through espionage and subterfuge—even, where necessary, by means of the black arts, which were for all other persons expressly forbidden. Its aim was to discover, in advance this time, the enemy’s secret intents. Dr. Hunter had convinced Master Crowley that I was singularly qualified. I was attractive, he said, and skilled in the social arts, including deception. I spoke five (and two half-) languages, could pick a lock, use both a knife and a revolver, and quote classic poetry. I had more than a passing knowledge of magic, from books as well as practical experience, not to mention the maturity of age and almost no fear of death. Indeed, I could be killed and still return with information.
I was, he intoned emphatically, “the perfect spy.”
I remember being somewhat surprised at my own resume as it was recited to me. I hadn’t seen myself that way. I was nearly one hundred and fifty years old by then but still thought of myself as basically my father’s daughter, despite that most of the world I grew up with had completely disappeared. For his part, it seemed Hank had caused something of a stir by waking me, which no one had thought possible. Indeed, it was his success, along with some of his scholarship on the subject of the dark arts, which were largely unknown to our allies, that led to his own recruitment. My case was trickier. Technically, I was still a criminal. But then, after the Great War, everything that had come before seemed rather quaint. Hank convinced Master Crowley that, since I had fallen in the line of duty, my years in coma should count as time served and that the remainder of my sentence should be commuted if I agreed to join the Bureau.
I felt absolutely no loyalty to my superiors, but I did to the good Dr. Hunter. He was a decent man. An honest man. More than that, he was an optimist, like any good American. Americans do not see the world as it is, which often makes them seem clumsy or naive. Rather, they see the world as they want it to be, which is why they have been so successful in making it so. And in those days, I needed to believe we could win. That the world could go off and get itself into such trouble in my absence made me question my faith in our very humanity. If the 20th century proved anything, it’s that cruelty and rationality are not bitter enemies, as had been assumed at least since Plato, but in fact the best of friends. I knew that I had no chance of believing we could win, of holding on to hope, anywhere but in the good doctor’s company.
Besides, everyone else I knew was dead.
He was certainly a sharp fellow, if a bit bookish, but in a way that you don’t find much anymore. He was also an athlete as well as a scholar—a fit, vigorous, studious young man who had once rowed competitively for Harvard. He was by no means a fighter, like Durance, nor a firebrand like Wilm Castleby. He hated guns and would only use violence as a last resort. But then, Hank Hunter was no coward. He could throw a punch when he needed to, and he could rally troops to cross a beach if it came right down to it. He could read and write almost every ancient language known, and even a few that had been forgotten by the wider world. He enjoyed his old books immensely but never more than people. He didn’t drink, except for the occasion celebratory toast. Yet, if you played the right tune, he would dance like Fred Astaire.
If he had a fault, it was most certainly his naivety, which is a poor trait for a spy and one that got us both into trouble on numerous occasions. My time with Durance aside, I had never thought of myself as particularly deceitful, at least not by nature, but in Hank’s company, it became necessary—even fun—to indulge that side of me. During our many adventures through the radio era, we made quite the pair, a fact we demonstrated to the high society of Berlin on our first mission together when we came separately down a grand staircase, he from the right, me from the left. He was in pinstripes. I was in a slim lipstick-red dress. The room practically fell silent as we lightly joined the gala. That is how I will remember him always, as that dapper young man, hands in the pockets of his jacket, reaching for a cigarette to calm his nerves. He had forgone the wire-frame glasses that night at my request—we were, after all, undercover—and with impaired eyesight, he tripped and fell over a crystal punch bowl at just the right time to avoid getting shot. The crowd broke into screams and we were off on the first of many adventures: Timbuktu, Moscow, Shanghai, Baghdad. Automobiles and radios and airplanes with ghost pilots and boats that descended to a city under the sea.
As dear to me as Hank became, I made absolutely sure that we were never more than most excellent friends, and I know for a fact he was conscious of the same—because he told me so after our only night together. He didn’t say why, but he didn’t have to. We both knew we would be terrible as romantic partners, which is to say I would be terrible for him. Hank was a statesman rather than a playboy. He needed someone like him, a good woman of stout conviction with firm stature and broad hips with which to bear him many children. He found exactly that in Nancy Willard, a sweetheart from his childhood days, with whom he kept in constant contact—which once put her in direct danger from our enemies. Had I ever conspired to take her place, I could’ve done nothing but hurt him.
In its mission, our new organization was both successful and not. We missed the stock market crash but correctly reported that the seekers of the dark were orchestrating the Nazi rise to power, although that knowledge did little to alter the course of events. The Masters had paid too much attention to their enemies, to Rasputin in particular, and not enough to their allies, who failed to act at decisive moments to stifle the threat. The rest is quite literally history.
After the second armistice, thinking peace was upon us, Hank and I retired for a time. He married Nancy and started a family—a bit late for fatherhood, perhaps, but I was happy for him. I visited the couple at their home in Chicago whenever I could, but I never stayed long. Although she was only ever polite to me, Nancy was a straightforward woman from the middle of the continent and didn’t quite know what to make of her husband’s relaxed, casual joking with a foreign woman who always dressed sharply and who never seemed to grow a wrinkle. Rather than create trouble for my friend, I kept my visits brief and always withdrew without warning, as if to underline what an irresponsible person I was. Truth be known, I was furiously jealous—not of Nancy. I liked her, even if we were never close. Rather, of the both of them. Seeing the happy couple and their young children stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt before. I did my best to ignore it.
As it happened, our parting was brief. Hank and I were revived by The Masters in the middle of the century. After conventional warfare had failed and their forces scattered in secret, Hitler’s sponsors turned to more directly occult mechanisms. Casting darkness—which is to say hiding objects or people in plain sight—had always required an experienced warlock, someone with the necessary skill to perform the ritual, as well as the Book of the Nameless itself, known in wider circles as the Necronomicon, from which the spell emanated. As such, our focus in the war shifted from elimination of the book—which had eluded The Masters since its rediscovery the century before—to the elimination of the senior warlocks such that there would be too few of them to use it effectively. The warlocks distrusted each other almost as much as they distrusted us, which meant very few of them were ever allowed to set eyes on its pages—an edge we exploited. Our unity was our strength.
But after the open conflict ended, everything changed. A black magician named Zaragoza, an acolyte of Rasputin, developed the means to imbue the power of the book within specially designed objects—amulets, mostly—such that they could cast the wearer in darkness indefinitely and without need of a talented magician. Suddenly, agents of the dark, though depleted in number, could move about in secret as never before, completely invisible to the Great Eye. Almost overnight, half of my colleagues were murdered in their beds, along with their families—including many children. At once, finding and destroying the book again became our organization’s singular mission.
As the surviving members of The Winter Bureau reassembled in a secret chamber, families in tow, I remember asking the aged Master Crowley why we had ever stopped seeking it. I was told that what was done was done and that right then was not the time for questions and that the focus had to be on our own preservation. I suggested to him that in my experience, that’s all anyone ever focused on, preservation—if not life then wealth—which is why both were constantly imperiled. No one lifted their head from the counting desk long enough to see what was coming. Only I didn’t say it very nicely, and Master Crowley warned me never to speak to him that way again. His words and demeanor suggested I was to him still nothing but an accursed freak, and a criminal: a mizzen, a thief, and a heretic.
I suppose I was becoming disillusioned. I was starting to understand why it was The Masters had been so long unable to deliver the warlocks a knockout blow. They were too much like them. Still, leaving America to join the fight was convenient for me. I had no family to protect, and my adoptive home was becoming ever more hostile to anyone of Russian ancestry. But I begged Hank to stay. He was then past 50, and I tried to impress upon him the immense value of what he had. But then, one would sooner convince the tides not to turn than Henry Hunter to forgo his duty, and after seeing Nancy and the children placed safely into hiding, once again we were off.
It wasn’t the same. He was heavier and grayer and used to life as a suburban father and teacher, and our enemies were desperate and vicious and nimble as never before. (Only I was the same—always ever the same.) On our second mission, we met young Beltran, gregarious and cocksure. He kissed my hand wearing an amulet of steel and obsidian, and of course that fur hat that made him seem ten feet tall. He was barely twenty, and I laughed. We met him again a few years later when he was our contact in Turkey on the fateful trip that saw the gray-haired Dr. Hunter shot by Zaragoza himself.
“Stupid, stupid man,” I chided as I frantically tried to stop the blood from pouring from his chest. It covered his shirt and my hands and the floor.
We were in the back of a truck which shook violently back and forth as young Beltran, behind the wheel, weaved at speed through traffic to secure our escape.
“I know,” Hank said, smiling up at me. “Don’t tell Nancy—”
They were his last words. I sat stunned.
My dear friend had stepped in front of a bullet meant for me—an enchanted obsidian bullet. No one knew whether or not it would work, whether it was finally the thing that could kill me, whether it would send me into another coma, or whether it would do nothing at all. I remember pausing for the briefest of moments at the sound of the shot. I saw it coming, and a fleeting thought took me: Perhaps I wanted to find out. Of course, by the cold calculus of fate, Hank should’ve stayed put. There was at least a chance I would survive, whereas by stepping in front, his fate was sealed. But in those moments of life and death, we act without thinking. It’s when our true characters are revealed, a lesson I would see repeated some years later while in the company of a bald shaman from the Amazon.
Some part of me died with Professor Henry Hunter. I realized then that, in time, the rest of me would die as well—all the parts that mattered, anyway—and in 10,000 years, I would walk the world a zombie. Or worse, as a wicked thing who cared nothing for the mortal ants around her. I wanted desperately to deliver Hank’s body to Nancy in person, to explain that her husband had died a hero—and perhaps to let it be known that I had asked him not to leave her. I suppose I feared that she might blame me. I wanted her to know also that Hank was just as she knew him: a soldier and a gentleman to the very end. But I was denied entry at the border. Now a superpower, almost against its will, America was beginning its long turn away from the freedom of its youth. It’s still turning.
Hank’s death, along with several others, had left us critically shorthanded. We were in real danger of losing everything, not just our lives but the world itself. So it was, within days of his death, I was given new orders: an urgent mission, an impossible mission, one that made it clear both how desperate we were and how expendable I was, even to the point of damnation. Beltran, who had helped me transport Hank’s body across the ocean out of sheer respect for the man, warned me not to accept, just as I had warned Hank. He said we should run.
“We?” I asked.
It seemed so presumptuous. In my grief, I hadn’t yet noticed how Beltran looked at me. I cruelly told him there was no “we” and—mostly to save him—that there never would be. I told him I was going to complete the mission, alone, but not for The Masters. Nor even for the world. I would do it for my friend, because that’s what he would’ve wanted.
I never saw Nancy or the children again.
Winter of the following year, haggard and alone, I rode a train through the Urals. It was a ride that I will never forget—quite possibly the defining moment of my long life, the fulcrum on which it all balanced. I traveled under a fake identity and didn’t dare leave my locked compartment. In my case I carried the most wanted item in the entire world. The most wanted item in the history of the world.
A book that should never have been written.
I was rushing to meet Beltran, who, against my prohibitions, had followed me as far as he could and had acted as my distant handler and lone contact. Although our communication was minimal, he was my sole tether to the world of men. When I fled, it was unexpected and without warning. I wasn’t sure I would reach him. If I failed and was captured, our enemies would’ve indulged their art for pain. I suspect they would’ve strapped a helmet to my head and pounded a nail through it—or several—such that each time I came back, it would only be to experience the pain of it, over and over and over. And after they tired of that, they would invent something worse.
But Beltran was waiting for me, in defiance of The Masters. Impossibly, he stood on the platform of a little station south of the Urals. As I stepped down from the train, all Hell was at our footsteps. Thunder cracked at the horizon, which was dark as if at the approach of a violent storm.
The Bunny Comes or I Scream
(from the second course, “Curse of the Red Dagger”)
I woke around noon to find a strange man standing over me.
I shrieked and fell backward to the floor between the bed and the wall, claws up, ready to scratch the fucker’s eyes out. But he just stood there, hands at the sides of his black suit, while his companion, a tall, thin black man with narrow sideburns, checked the closet and bathroom and under the bed.
“She’s not here,” he said. “But the window in the bathroom is open.”
The man in the suit had a bulbous metal object in his hand, like a vajra or two-sided scepter. He slipped it into a holster under his coat—a holster for a spiritual object—and looked to me like he was waiting for an explanation.
“I took a dump this morning,” I said. “I didn’t want to stink up the place. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Check outside,” he ordered the man with the narrow sideburns, who nodded briskly and left.
My interrogator bent to pick up one of the boxes of cordials from the floor. There was a sticky cluster of empty chocolate shells inside. He counted the number of boxes around the room.
“. . . three . . . four . . . five.” He looked at me.
“I got hungry,” I said.
He tossed the box in the trash. The skin of his cheeks was pockmarked and his hair was pomaded. He looked like door security for a pay-by-the-bottle club in Midtown. He even had the requisite merino turtleneck in place of a shirt and tie.
“Put some clothes on,” he said flatly. “Mr. Raimi would like to see you.”
I looked down. I was in nothing but a Care Bears T-shirt and granny panties. “Who?” I feigned.
Bouncer-man was not amused.
“What happens if I tell him to go fuck himself?” I asked. “Or you. You look like someone who takes it up the ass.”
“Trust me.” He picked up my jeans from the floor and tossed them to me. “It’s in your best interest to come.”
“Is that a threat?”
I slipped them on and went to pee. I leaned against the wall for a moment and let my heart calm down. At least I wasn’t about to be gang raped.
“Fuck, Kell . . .”
I stuck my head out the window across from the toilet. The man with the sideburns was at the end of the alley. No escape that way. I waved and smiled and shut the window. At least she got away. I figured the best thing I could do for her was lure them away as quickly as possible. I peed and put my hair back and skipped my face and teeth. When I stepped out, my chaperon was waiting by the door. I swiped my aviators off Mr. Fluffers, who sat in a chair.
“Ready,” I said.
“Don’t you need this?” Bouncer-man lifted Kell’s purse and dug through it.
“Excuse you. That’s mine.”
He found the mace and threw it in the trash. Then he handed to purse to me. “Get in the car.”
I slung the purse over my shoulder. It was heavy. Damn, girl. No wonder your arms are toned. Then I grabbed Mr. Fluffers and carried him under my other arm.
“Is that really necessary?”
“The bunny comes or I scream.”
Bouncer-man and sideburns took me uptown via high-tech limo. They sat up front. Mr. Fluffers had his own captain’s chair. There was a large touchscreen panel in the back that controlled the temperature and the music and the WiFi and the privacy window and everything. Four of the seats had their own foldout screens, like on an airplane. I spent the whole ride rolling the windows up and down and streaming parts of various TV shows I’d never seen.
We stopped in front of an old stone-block mansion, more tall than wide and wedged carefully between a pair of brick condo towers. Bouncer-man got out and told me Mr. Fluffers would be waiting for me when I got back.
“Don’t hurt him,” I warned.
Bouncer-man walked to the front door as the limo pulled away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk with a bald man in an impressive coat.
A coat. In June.
Still, I can see why he was so fond of it. It was awesome. It was an old-style chuban, like they used to wear on the mainland centuries ago, only the buttons had been replaced. These were all different. One was stamped metal. Another was polished amber. Whatever had been printed on the fabric had long-since faded to wisps. Now it appeared as an early morning fog, or maybe smoke from a campfire. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he wasn’t particularly short either. His skin was an odd color—it had a faint ocher hue—and he was completely bald. He was staring up at the house like the roof was on fire. So I did the same.
The mansion’s first three levels were obviously part of the original structure. The block stone had dark runoff stains at the edges of the gutters that spoke to old age. A huge bay window jutted from the second and third floors, suggesting there was a single tall space behind, like a ballroom or long dining hall. The top floor was a later addition, although the architect had done a good job of blending the styles. The front of it was all windows, but they were tinted and impenetrable.
“Ms. Song,” Bouncer-man urged me from the front door.
“Yeah, just a sec,” I said with my neck craned at exactly the same angle as my odd companion. “What am I missing?” I asked.
He turned to me then with a curious gaze, like he was utterly amazed I was even aware of his presence. Come to think of it, no one else so much as glanced at him.
“Dig the coat,” I said.
“Ms. Song,” my chaperon repeated. “Now.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’.”
Pretty sure the bald guy watched me in silence as I went in. I stopped in the middle of the foyer.
“Wow. Never been in a house with its own elevator.”
“Mr. Raimi is waiting,” he said, urging me to the grand staircase that curved around both sides of the glass-walled shaft.
I followed him up. The steps were shallow and wide and covered in soft carpet, like something out of a really nice hotel. The two sides of the staircase wound like DNA strands around the elevator, which opened both ways. On the second floor, it opened toward the front, but since that’s where the stairs met on the third floor, there it opened at the back. The steps alternated randomly between the same four colors.
“Is he in biotech or something?” I asked.
“Mr. Raimi has lots of businesses.”
The fancy stairs stopped at the third floor, confirming my suspicion that it was the original top, and I was led down a hall toward the steps to the fourth floor addition. We passed several open rooms on the way. They were opulently wallpapered but empty. One didn’t even have drapes over the windows.
I stopped. The last door on the left of the long carpeted hall was cracked open, as if someone had just been inside, and I caught sight of a canopy bed, unmade, and a mess of clothes and crap. I pushed it open. By the state of it, it had to be Kell’s room. To my left was a private bathroom with an oval tub and a glass-walled shower with built-in tile seat and two shower heads, one on each side. The tub had jets—of course—and sat next to a window with a view of a courtyard below, like a little garden.
Bouncer-man reached past me and shut the door to the room. Then he took my arm, gently but insistently, and led me back to the stairs. He made me go first this time, and as I climbed to the top, I wondered what it was like to live in this house every day. The butler guy was also a pretty good chef, from what I understood, and she could just call down and say “Make me some sandwiches!” and he’d bring up a platter with a selection: one open-faced with seared ahi tuna, one with imported Black Forest ham and aioli on lightly toasted brioche, and one PB&J.
Okay, I made all that up, but that’s what it seemed like.
The top level definitely had a mid-century, Frank-Lloyd-Wright-y feel. The stairs were a single set of simple planks that jutted from the wall with open air between. The railing was solid glass. There was a waterfall in a nook at the top, near where the elevator exited, and a library-office straight ahead, which is where I was directed.
I stepped into the room, which was empty.
“Wait here,” bouncer-man said.
The formal desk was on the right side of the room so that sitting behind it, you had a clear view of the windows, the door, and the boardroom table at the other end. Interestingly, the desk was missing a chair. Over it hung a five-foot-tall portrait of a young man with brown curls standing before a bleak wall of chiseled rock. He rested an arm on it the way you might lean against a fireplace mantle. In the middle of the long room was a fancy couch and matching armchairs. Everything smelled like new carpet—nice new carpet, too. Not that stinky acrylic crap. The view out the windows was killer. You could see part of the skyline. I looked down to the sidewalk, but the bald man was gone.
Spaced evenly along the oak-paneled walls were ornate framed pages from old manuscripts. I browsed as I waited, moving around the antique occasional furniture. I was studying a very large parchment, like a poster, when Lykke rolled in. Or at least I assumed it was him. We had never actually met. But it was the same man as in the painting, just a lot sicklier. He was tall, which I’d been told, but he was confined to a wheelchair, which I had not, which suggested it was a recent development. He wore a loose padded house vest over a collared shirt. On his feet were leather slippers.
I beat him to the punch. “I told your guys like twenty times on the way over that I don’t know where she is, so if that’s why I’m here, it’s a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.”
“How do you like it?” he asked, a smidge out of breath.
He was younger than I expected. I mean, I already knew he wasn’t that old, but in person he seemed barely older than me, which made me angry—that someone so young could have so much money, that a half-furnished mansion like that wasn’t even his primary residence, just the place he crashed when he was in town. He nodded to the page in front of me. Most of it was handwritten text. The scratch was so old that the once-black ink had faded to pale brown. Some of the letters were all but invisible, to the naked eye anyway. I knew from school that you could resurrect stuff like that with infrared imaging, and that they often found older texts underneath visible ones.
“It’s from the eleventh century,” he explained with a little bluster. “Nearly a thousand years old.”
If he had an accent, it was faint enough for me not to catch it. But then, I don’t always with non-native speakers.
“Is that when the eleventh century was?”
Most of the framed pages were walls of indecipherable text with little hand drawn diagrams, but the sheet in front of me was a full-page illustration. A naked man, crudely drawn and out of proportion, stood under a gallows. The rope that had held him had snapped and part of it dangled from the wood. He held a flaming staff and there were symbols all over his body that matched those in the circle on the ground around him. Three long knives, each different than the other, poked up from the foreground.
Lykke pointed to the symbols. “Remind you of anything?”
I squinted. The UV-protective glass preserved the document inside but made it a little difficult to see with the glare from the big windows behind me.
“Sort of looks like a circuit diagram.”
There were zigzags and T-junctions, all of which ended in a small circle, just like you’d see on an electrician’s layout.
“People forget that modern science grew directly out of alchemy,” he explained. “Properly understood, there’s no difference.” He motioned to the pair of chairs in front of the desk. “Please have a seat.”
I stood in place. “This is kidnapping, you know that right? According to the good detectives of the SVU, you’re looking at 20 long.”
He tossed his phone to me with a smirk, as if urging me to call the police. I caught it, but I just as easily could’ve missed. It was the latest model. Very light. Very slim. And there was no case, as if to underscore that he was rich enough not to care.
I made a face and laid it on the desk as he slid some files from the top into a drawer. When it shut, I heard a slight rattle, as if from a bottle of pills. Or three.
“Please. Sit,” he repeated.
I ignored the chairs by the desk and walked to the couch. It was soft and I sank in comfortably. I put Kell’s purse on the seat next to me and my flower-print Keds on the coffee table and made myself at home.
“Fair enough.” He rolled over to me, grabbing his phone on the way. His hands seemed a tad too small for his body. “How was your trip to Coney Island?”
“Good, actually. I had never actually been. It’s one of those things you always say you’re going to do but then never do. But now I did, so we can scratch that one off the bucket list.”
“I figured you were busy.”
He smiled. “We haven’t met before. Have we?” He extended his hand.
I ignored it. “I’m sure I would’ve forgotten.”
“You’re the best friend.”
“So she tells me. But I have my doubts.”
“You’re not an easy person to find.”
“Seems like your guys did alright.”
“But you’re not where the government thinks you are, are you? Do you even have a lease with the Arab or is it all under the table?”
“The Arab? His name is Abdul, thank you. And since you seem to know everything, you tell me.”
He took out his phone and read the screen. “Ce-Lei-Zi Song. Hong Kong native. Granddaughter of Wai-Ling Lau, a local restaurateur of some renown, it seems. Merit scholarship out of high school to the Bruxton School.” He glanced to me. “Impressive.”
“Dropped after your second year, shortly after being arrested for assault?”
He glanced over me again. I think the idea was that I’m hardly big enough to assault anyone.
“Charges were dropped. Second arrest for vandalism a few weeks ago. Charges pending.” He put the phone back in his vest pocket. He was breathing just a little too hard. And there was a bulge underneath the skin of his neck near the back of his skull. “Still here on student visa. How’s that work?”
USCIS hadn’t quite figured out that I’d quit. I might have encouraged that misunderstanding.
Lykke nodded to bouncer-man, who was standing silently off to one side, and the man slapped a stack of cash on the coffee table hard enough to shake the glass. It was brand new, by the looks of it. Even the little paper band around the middle was crisp. The label had a bank logo and said $10,000.
I sat up. I’d never seen that much money. I took it and flipped through the bills. They were stiff and had the pleasant feel of fine stationery. The smell of fresh cash hit my nostrils.
“Damn,” I said with a snort. “Now I know why rappers are always making it rain.” I sniffed again. And again. “Fuck. Someone should bottle this.”
“I believe they’ve tried.” He sat back, smirking. “You know, I was never cool like you and Kelly Ann. But then, that’s probably very clear.”
I set the cash back on the table.
“I didn’t go to a party until I was in college. By then, it seemed everyone else already knew what to do. How to behave. I felt so awkward and left as soon as I could.”
“Is that your excuse for kidnapping? You’re too much of a dweeb to know better?”
“I just want what’s best for Kelly Ann. Did she tell you what happened?”
I shrugged noncommittally. “Haven’t seen her.”
He smiled again in that casually amused way and leaned back. “You don’t have to lie, Cerise. We’re on the same side. I promise.”
“I’m not lying,” I said as earnestly as I could. “Until your goons showed up, I thought she was still crashing on the princess bed downstairs. So what happened? You hit her or something?”
He stiffened a little then. “Ah,” he said, as if everything was suddenly clear. He thought for a moment. “The only reason I sent William”—he motioned to bouncer-man—“to fetch you was because this meeting is urgent. I’m going out of town again this afternoon and I was sure you and I would want the same thing.”
“To help Kelly Ann.”
I reached for the cash and flipped through it again. It was so much denser than I expected. Like it could stop a bullet.
“That what this is for? To buy my ‘help?’”
“No,” he said with a half-annoyed grin. “The money is for your trouble. And any expenses you might incur.”
“You’re unemployed, aren’t you? Call that a gift. From a friend of a friend.”
I tossed the money to the couch. “No thanks.”
“Kelly Ann trusts you,” he said. “You might be the only one, actually.”
“I doubt it.”
He looked at me seriously, as people do when sarcasm stops being funny. “William, will you give her the book, please?”
Bouncer-man retrieved a scrapbook from the desk. It had a padded, brightly patterned cover, like something you’d buy at a university bookstore.
I took it. “What’s this?”
I opened to the middle. Both pages were full of overlapping magazine clippings of models and couture fashion. I hadn’t seen the book before, but the implication was clear. It was Kell’s, which irked me—that I didn’t know it—and I slammed it shut.
“I’m keeping this,” I said.
I stood and lifted her purse.
“What about her ex-boyfriend?” he asked sternly. “The one with all the rings.”
“What about him?”
“Surely you don’t have any loyalty to him. After what he did.”
I shrugged. “Not really. Why?”
“Any idea where we can find him?”
He thought Bastien would be Kell’s second stop. He was probably right.
“You got your way, rich boy. I came. I listened. Next time, I’m pressing charges.” I started for the stairs.
He stood from the wheelchair. I couldn’t see it but I heard it. I got the sense it was a struggle.
“How much?” he called.
I just shook my head and kept walking. Bouncer-man stepped forward like he was going to block me, but Lykke stopped him.
“No, William. Cerise!” he yelled. “Please, you’re not being creative.”
I stopped. It was a helluva thing for a monied douche like him to say that to an artist. I tried to come up with an absolutely devastating reply, but it took half a second too long.
“There must be something you want,” he said. “Use your imagination. If not for yourself, then a large donation to charity perhaps? Save the environment or something. Or perhaps an endowment for young artists. Once word gets around, people all over the city will take note of your art. You’ll be making it on your own steam in no time, with no debt to me.”
“Dude.” I laughed. “Maybe this is news to people like you, but you can’t buy a friendship. Okay? It’s not even a question of money.” My mouth hung open as I searched for a better explanation. Not having one, I just shook my head like my brain had short-circuited from the nonsense. Bzzzt.
“I’m not asking you to betray your friendship,” he said.
“Whatever’s going on between you and Kell is her business.” I started to leave again.
“Jesus, Cerise, just tell me what you want.”
It was the way he said it—so quick and so loud, like he was just throwing words at me, like he hadn’t actually listened to a single thing I’d said, like he was convinced everything truly was for sale and I was simply being a petty little thing, too much of a coward to own up to whatever it was I really wanted, that I was nobody and how dare I stand in his way.
“A million dollars,” I joked without breaking stride. “In non-consecutive, unmarked bills.”
Isn’t that what they say on TV?
He paused. “Okay. Deal.”
I went to flip him off from the door, if only for making a joke of it. But then I saw his face. He wasn’t joking. At least, he didn’t seem to be. He was back in his chair, looking down at the carpet with a scowl as if contemplating how to pull it off.
“It would take a few days,” he said. “An instrument other than cash would make it considerably easier.” He leaned with a grunt and lifted the ten grand from the cushion. “The United States government is very particular about large withdrawals. But then, something tells me bonds aren’t an option.” He snorted at his own joke.
“I’ll need assurances from you,” he said flatly. “Guarantees. For that much money, I need to know you can deliver.”
“Wait.” I stepped back into the room. “You’re gonna give me a million dollars to tell you where Kell is.”
“No,” he corrected. “I’m giving you a million dollars to find the child she’s carrying in her womb. As I understand it, it’s a package deal.”
“So get a private detective. As I understand it,” I said, mocking him, “a good one won’t cost you anywhere near a mil.”
“You’re funny,” he said looking down, like he was talking to himself. “You think I came to you first.” For a moment, it seemed like he was fighting back a cough. “I’m not proud of my behavior, Cerise, but let’s not pretend we don’t know what she’s like. Time is critical. Kelly Ann is distraught. Understandably. And my doctor tells me the first few weeks are vital. We need to find her before she does irrevocable harm. Crack. Or meth. Or whatever the cool kids are doing these days. She trusts you. Implicitly.” He nodded to the scrapbook in my hand. “You know her hangouts, her friends, where she buys her drugs. You think any of those people are going to open up to some burly PI? Would you?”
“I’ll find her, of course,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how soon. I’d rather one of her friends profit from it than a stranger.” He paused for emphasis. “I’m not the bad guy here, Cerise. I’m just trying to save my child.”
I was scowling in disbelief. “A million dollars,” I repeated, incredulous.
He nodded. “In nonconsecutive unmarked bills. That was the order, correct?”
I nodded absentmindedly.
He shuffled over and held out a hand. “So. Does that mean we have a deal?”
Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes this spring with Part Two.