Ugh . . .
More knocking. Harder this time.
Then again. Over and over and over and over.
“Fuck off already! It’s busted!” I called without opening my eyes.
My fucking flat was turning into fucking Grand Central. Fucking hell.
Samir pushed in. My eyes were still shut. I couldn’t see him. But my nose caught a whiff of cologne. I sure hope it worked on gay men. I couldn’t stand it.
“What happened to your door?” he asked.
I tried sitting up but failed the first time and had to push harder than I expected to make it. It felt like my chest was made of lead, not just heavy but unyielding. It dawned on me then that I might’ve cracked a rib.
“Ow.” I opened my eyes finally and winced.
“Have anything to do with yesterday?”
“Yesterday?” Fuck. “What time is it?” I looked around for my watch.
“Yeah. Yesterday. You know, the day before today. Mom mentioned it. She saw you on the street through the upstairs window. She said she came down later to check on you but you never answered the door.” He looked at me disapprovingly. He leaned closer and did the same. “Have you seen your face?”
I touched my eye.
“Ow.” It was still tender.
I got up and went to the bathroom and whistled at myself. The prick got me good. I had a nice, fat bruise under my eye.
Plus it hurt a little to breathe. I stepped out and saw Samir fiddling with the half-installed hardware on the door.
“Cerise, what’s going on?”
“It’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Fine? You look like the frickin’ Bud Light dog. Who hit you?”
“Just some asshole. It’s nothing. I can handle it.”
He lifted his starched, pressed Sheepshead Bay T-shirt and grabbed the sheathed knife clipped to his belt. It had a black rubber handle. The blade wasn’t more than four inches long, but it looked serious enough. I don’t know if he had it because he was gay, because he was driving, or just because. He handed it to me.
“Don’t you need that?” I asked.
“Apparently not as much as you.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “Really. She’ll come wandering back in a couple days with a new dude in tow, maybe even a ring on her finger, and everything will go right back to how it was before. Fifty bucks says the new one will be richer than Lykke. Probably younger, too.”
“You said that already.” He pressed the sheathed knife into my hand.
I dropped it on the kitchen table, next to the book, which I grabbed instead. I couldn’t grip my friend in anger so I gripped her stupid book instead. It looked old, like the books at Bastien’s. It had a cloth cover, but it was machine bound. Early 1900s, maybe.
I read the title again out loud. “The Compendium of Greater Travesties. Volume Two of my life story.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s called a book. It holds words so you can see them over and over any time you want.”
“Whatever. Someone’s a bitch today.” He walked to the door. “I gotta open the shop.”
He was right. I was mad. I was mad at everyone. I was mad at Bastien for just assuming he could bat his eyelashes at me like that. I was mad at Lykke and his fucking dick squad. And my door was busted and my body was sore and I was completely dependent on the Suleiman family, even for the basics of life, and to get out of it, it looked like I’d actually have to use Lykke’s money, which was tantamount to admitting I couldn’t handle my shit like a grownup. The dude was barely ten years older than me but he was already a billionaire or something like that. I couldn’t even afford rent. I felt like I had absolutely no control over anything—my home, my career, my friends, my love life, not even my own body. Apparently I’d just slept for fourteen hours or something.
I clenched my teeth.
But mostly I was mad at Kell. I was mad at her for bailing and leaving me to deal with all this shit. Again. She was in trouble, that was clear enough, maybe even serious trouble, and completely incapable of handling it.
“Did your mom mention seeing a guy here yesterday?” I asked. “Bald, wearing a funny coat?”
“A coat?” he asked. “It was like 80 yesterday.”
“Dude . . . It wasn’t my coat.”
He shook his head. “No. Why? Did he give you the fancy word holder?” He nodded to the book.
I picked up a flipflop from the floor and threw it at him. It missed—let’s say on purpose—and bounced off the door.
“Better fix this before Dad sees!” he said, wiggling a finger through the knob hole as he left.
I looked at it. I looked at the book in my hand. I held it up. I knew she was always big into astrology and shit and that had gotten ten times worse with Bastien. But this was new. I opened it and fanned through the pages, which fell open to a full-color two-page spread—as if someone had pressed it flat there or else had read that part so many times that the spine had bent. In the middle of the picture, an oval stone, shimmering like an opal, hovered in the air between a naked man and woman whose arms outstretched towards it. Between them, under the stone, grew a flowering tree.
I leaned forward and read the tiny caption. “The Tree of Life and the Lapis Philosophorum.”
I flipped to the next page. “Whoa . . .”
Amid the dense two-column text, a flame-tongued demon dribbled blood from his lips. Around him were various objects at the points of a pentagram. Below him was an altar covered in the blood fallen from his mouth. On one side, a pregnant woman held up a chalice. On the other, a dark-robed man held a snub blade, which someone had circled vigorously in blue ink. Their genitals were exposed. His phallus was erect and aloft at the same angle as the blade.
The caption read: The athame is the ceremonial dagger, representing the masculine principle, just as the chalice, or grail, represents the feminine.
I scowled. Why would she have this? I loved my friend dearly, but Superman fondled kryptonite more than Kell read books. Two guesses where she got it, though. First doesn’t count.
I turned the page again and something fell out as if it had bookmarked that exact section. It was a card. A tarot card. I could tell by the design on the back. I picked it up and turned it over.
The Devil. A naked man and woman stood on either side of a heavy stone, chained by their necks to a ring at its center. Standing over them on the stone was the Great Horned Beast. Bat wings stretched from his back. An upside-down pentagram was carved on his chest.
Someone had scribbled in Sharpie on the side: vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.
It wasn’t Kell’s handwriting. It looked like a man’s.
“Bastiennnn . . .” I whined. “Come on, man. Don’t fucking encourage her.”
I sat on the couch, pulled my denim jacket over my lap, and rested the book on top. I don’t know what I expected a book on the occult to be like, but it was so serious. Did you know that Isaac Newton, the supposed father of science, was totally into alchemy and Biblical numerology and stuff? Everyone always acts like he was trying to show how the world was one giant machine, but according to the Compendium, that was all invented later as deliberate propaganda. It suggested historians know it, too—like, it wasn’t a secret or anything, it’s just no one talks about it. Apparently, Newton spent the last years of his life obsessed with cracking the secret numerical code he thought was hidden in the Bible, and also persecuting some German guy named Leibniz. According to the book, Newton was part of some secret group called The Masters, and the guy Leibniz was in trouble for revealing things they said he wasn’t supposed to. That part was actually really interesting. They had this whole rivalry that went on for years, back and forth.
I turned to the cover. I lifted the Devil card from between the pages. The old goat-headed Scratch stood there with the naked man and woman chained before him. They looked like they wanted to screw each other, despite their bonds, while the devil looked straight out at the viewer wearing a douchebro smirk. Same as Lykke’s.
I slid the card back between the pages and opened the back cover. There was a stamp on the inside in red ink.
Directly above it was a blind stamp—raised letters pressed into the page, like embossing. It was three times larger than the print and said:
THIS BOOK WAS STOLEN
RETURN IMMEDIATELY TO:
Under that was a simple map that marked an underground shopping arcade just off 46th.
I looked at her lavender purse on the floor, right where I’d left it after perusing it the other day and finding nothing of use. I walked over, pulled the straps open, and took out her phone. It was dead and required a kind of charger I didn’t own, and anyway, I didn’t know her passcode. We loved each other, but every good relationship has healthy limits. Still, could be handy later, so I tossed it on the couch. After that was makeup. Lots and lots of it. And lots. Some in bags and some loose. Including the world’s smallest bottle of hair spray.
“You don’t even use hair spray,” I whispered.
I turned the bag over and dumped it. A hairbrush. An unused toothbrush still in the wrapper. An empty bag of chips. A cheap digital Naruto wristwatch, also dead. A button that said “Where’s the Beef?” Thirty-seven cents. And a bunch of old receipts and ticket stubs. I pulled one of the stubs from the pile. My mouth dropped when I saw the date. I cursed under my breath.
She didn’t even invite me.
I shook the bag again to make sure I got it all and something small and metal hit the floor.
Keys. But they were tiny—more like to a locker or mailbox than to a car or front door. There were two of them, identical, on a simple wire ring. I slipped them into my pocket and scanned the mess on my floor—all of it, mine and hers combined. Not counting rent money, I had $234 in my checking account. Plus the hundred Lykke had thrown at my head. I took the world’s fastest shower, skipping my hair, and slipped into my black Gordon Liu T-shirt—”The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” AKA “The Master Killer.” I stuffed the book into Kell’s now-empty bag along with my wallet, her compact, and a pack of tissues. I looked at it in my hand.
“I can’t believe I’m actually carrying a purse.”
I found my mirrored aviator sunglasses on the way out the door. I kicked them accidentally and they slid into the wall. I put them on to cover the black eye. I stopped for a moment at the door and looked at the knife on the table. It sure seemed menacing, all thick and black with a sheath of heavy nylon weave. I walked out and shut the broken door behind me.
Ten seconds later I burst back in and swiped the knife.
I took out my last $200 at the nearest ATM and headed into town. I found the “arcade” easy enough, or where it would’ve been, anyway. But I could tell from the top of the stairs that it was closed and probably had been for decades. The entrance was on the right-hand side of a landing at the bottom of a staircase that dropped from the street. An accordion gate stretched across the archway. The hall beyond was dark and silent. A homeless man sat on the floor of the landing with his back to the wall, blowing irresolutely on a harmonica. He had no idea what he was doing, but he was having fun with it all the same.
“Hey,” he called when he saw me walking down. “Hey, you, girlie.”
Normally I don’t respond to “girlie” and would’ve told him what he could go do with himself, but I recognized him. He was the sprightly guy that Kell and I saved from getting his ass kicked. He stood up from his blanket and I remembered how much his head seemed too big for his short frame. He was even shorter than me.
“There you is!” he said excitedly as he waddled over. “I hadda ask every pijjun in the city where you girls was at. Ain’t nobody seen nuthin. Like you was hidin.”
“You were looking for us?”
“Mmhmm,” he nodded. “Bad juju comin. Real bad. Omens and portents. I been telling all my hooman peoples to just get out. Don’t wait for nuttin. Just go on. I ain’t find that otha girl, but here you is. So now you know.”
“Well, thank you. I guess. But you didn’t have to do that.”
“No, no,” he said. “Now we even.”
I got a better look at him then, more than before. His face was very strange. He’d had a tuque pulled over his head for most of our previous encounter. I knew his hair was sparse—all but missing—but now I could also see his eyes were too far apart and his nose was almost child-small.
“Where are you from?” I heard myself ask almost involuntarily.
He smiled from ear to ear, which only amplified my unease, and I leaned back slightly. Enough of his teeth were missing that I couldn’t get a sense of how many he was supposed to have, but based on the others, it certainly seemed like, at one time, he would’ve had far more than he was supposed to. Like, twice as many or something.
He retreated when he saw my reaction. “Y’all have a nice day.”
I felt so bad. I said “No, no” and apologized and stepped after him, which only made him move faster up the stairs, as if he thought I might chase him. I wondered then if many people had.
“Hey, wait,” I blurted. “I have something for you, too.”
But all I had in my pockets were my favorite mirrored aviators, which I sacrificed on the altar of not wanting to feel like a jerk.
“For you,” I said, holding them up. “These will work better than the tuque, I think. Especially in summer.”
He took one cautious step down.
“Go on,” I said. “No strings, I promise.”
He reached out and took them slowly. At first he tried to put them on upside down, as if he’d seen sunglasses on people but had never tried them himself, but he corrected himself quickly and beamed at me from the other side of expensive mirrored lenses. I saw my double reflection in place of his eyes, which unnerved me more but seemed to please him immensely.
“Well . . .” I looked one more time at the locked gate. I wasn’t sure where to head next. “Thanks for the warning, I guess. If I ever find Kell, I’ll tell her.” I started up the steps.
“What was you lookin for?” he asked after I was halfway to the street. I realized then, as I heard the faint sound of traffic, that everything was quiet at the bottom of the stairs, more than it should be for such a short distance, and I started to feel very strange about the whole thing.
“It’s nothing,” I said and took another step. “I just thought there was a bookstore here. That’s all.”
“A bookstore?” he said, as if he weren’t surprised in the least. “No bookstores around here. Not any you need to see.”
“That I need to see? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what it means. You ain’t need to go in no place like that. I promise you.”
“You know it?” I removed Kell’s book from her purse and read the name from the stamp. “The Barrows?”
“Oh, I know it. We all knows it. What you want with that old goblin anyway?”
“What? No. My friend, the one you met, she’s in some kind of trouble. I thought . . .” I looked at the old book in my hand. “I don’t know what I thought, actually. But it’s closed.” I motioned to the accordion gate and started up the steps again. “So, it’s fine. Thanks, man. Enjoy the glasses!”
“Yeah, that’s a damned good ward, it is,” he said, admiring the rust-worn gate like it was a work of art. “Gets lotsa folks. Ain’t nobody do them good no more. They don’t take the time.”
“Gets?” I looked again at the gate. On a whim, I walked back down and shook it. It rattled noisily. “Gets how? It’s locked.”
“Exactly,” he said with a nod, as if I’d just answered my own question. “If some fool hears about a place he ain’t supposed to hear ’bout and comes lookin and finds it closed, he ain’t gonna keep lookin, right?”
I had the sneaking suspicion I was the fool in question. I looked again. “But it is closed.”
“Only two ways inta that place, girlie. One is fulla twists and turns and if you don’t take ’em right, you liable to end up far gone. Takes skill, it does.”
“And the other?”
He seemed to study me a moment, but with his eyes behind my sunglasses, it was impossible to tell.
“With a skeleton key,” he said as he produced one from his pants.
The long arm of the key was shaped like a pair of jointed bones. Its teeth were shaped like narrow human teeth. Holding it aloft, my new friend turned to face the steel door in the wall directly across from the gate.
In the city, you pass doors like that all the time—heavy, unmarked jobs with no handles. They’re back entrances or emergency exits or maybe leftovers from prior construction or whatever. On top of that, there are countless manholes, maintenance hatches, arches of scaffolding, and doorways to nowhere left in old facades. I’d walked past enough of the above without noticing that I could not in all honesty say for sure whether this particular door had been there before or not. But whether it had or hadn’t, seeing it then made the little hairs on my arms stand up.
My unusual friend walked over and inserted the key, which I didn’t think would fit the lock, but it did, and he turned it and pulled the door open. Inside was another staircase. I stood at the threshold and peered down.
“Girlie,” he said with a tone of warning, like now he was Mr. Cool for wearing my glasses. “Go on in, do your business, and get out. Don’t let that old grouch trick you. Don’t go in the back. Stay up front where the books is at. And whatever you do, don’t linger ’round. Bookstore’s the kind of place you can get lost forever, if you’re not careful.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but it’s certainly true I always seemed to lose track of time in one.
I peered in again. “Down there? Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Take the stairs on the right, not the left, and remember what I toldya and you’ll be fine.”
“Don’t linger,” I said as I stepped in.
He nodded sagely. He seemed taller then, or maybe it seemed that the door had shrunk, and me with it, but by the time I turned to object, it shut. Standing there in silence, everything in normal proportion, I told myself to act like an adult and that it was silly to get scared over the ravings of a crazy street person. His deformities, I was sure, were not evidence of anything nefarious but simply some kind of birth defect that probably also meant his mind wasn’t quite right, and by the transitive property, mine wasn’t either if I let it get to me.
Holding that thought like a flashlight, I stepped down the second staircase, which was identical to the first. At the bottom, it split to the right and the left, as predicted. These steps, however, were older, so old that they sagged in the middle from long use. I paused for a moment, wondering then if it was better to take his advice and go right or if it was a trick and I should do the opposite. But since I couldn’t marshal a good argument either way, I turned to the right and continued down.
At the bottom, under an arched doorway, was a metal plaque in a window-shaped nook that said:
Est. 1676 (A.D.)
The letters A.D. were in parentheses and off-center, as if someone saw the original version and got worried people might get confused as to which 1676 they meant. Below that was a dedication:
at this location with
Generous Donations from
THE ROEBLING FAMILY
& H. Morton Ramsay & Sons
& Eleanor Peas
A second, smaller plaque was affixed to the wall just underneath the first:
with special dispensation from
The Archdiocese of New York
On the other side of the door was a foot-and-a-half drop to an uneven cobblestone floor. To my right and left were walled archways that suggested there was once a promenade, now absent. It was dark down there, and other than the stiff echo of my own movements, it was also deathly quiet. I would’ve turned back immediately if not for the light that shone from beyond a 1930s-style wood-framed glass door. I couldn’t see much of the interior, though, because the glass was neatly filled with gold-painted letters, rimmed in black:
All sales final
The door creaked loudly, as if by design, and right away I got that unmistakable sweet smell of must and old books. The interior looked like a Victorian library. The space was much longer than it was wide and bookshelves covered the walls on two sides. The stamped-tin ceiling was considerably higher than in a normal shop—high enough to give the space a very faint echo—and the shelving went all the way up, although not all of it was full. A pair of narrow wheeled metal staircases were attached to glide tracks in the middle of the wall so that people could slide them back and forth and peruse the higher rows without fear of falling off. To my right was an old leather chair, pulled out from the corner just enough to let someone browse snugly behind it. The cushion was stacked with books. To my left was an old brass telescope. A curved brace marked degrees horizontal while a perpendicular one marked degrees vertical in precise ticks. The worn slats of the hardwood floor were the color of rich chocolate. Light came from a simple chandelier in the middle of the ceiling. The loops and arms were brass. I was sure it had burned gas at one point but had since been fitted with electricity. Black wires wound around the arms on their way to the lightbulbs at the end, which poked from fluted glass fittings.
The top shelves of the wall to my left held the oldest books and were locked behind glass-paneled cabinets whose polished brass fixtures were scuffed at the margins and around the keyholes. At the back was a high wood counter and an oak door, maybe to a stock room. There was a pendulum clock, ticking softly, and a long display shelf full of oddities and antiques. Hanging over them in the last bit of open space under the ceiling was a line of various ornate frames—some small, some quite large. All of them had tasteful little museum lights to illuminate their contents, but all of them were empty. I could see straight through to the brick.
In the very middle of the floor was a kind of circular podium made of polished walnut that displayed books in 360 degrees—some open, some closed. The book facing the door was large and hardbound and open to colorful illuminated pages. But it wasn’t old. The pages were white and the corners crisp. The copyright at the front said 2009. I looked at the cover. The Red Book (Liber Novus) by Carl Jung. Signed in high cursive by the author.
“Are you sure you have the right place?”
The door to the stock room had been opened and an old man with an Amish beard stood scowling at me. He wore denim coveralls on top of a simple short-sleeved, collared shirt and had wire spectacles resting on top of his head, like he’d been tinkering with a clock or something and stopped to see who was at the door.
He took one look at me and asked, “Is it Tuesday again? Already?” He turned about as if looking for a wall calendar.
“Ah, wonderful. You are excused.” He said it with relief and raised his hand to the door, as if he expected me to turn around and leave at that exact moment.
I took Kell’s book from her purse and held it up.
“I’m sorry, but I think my friend and her stupid ex might’ve stolen this.”
His face was so old, his wrinkles magnified every expression, which in this case seemed to be confusion. And disgust.
“Yes. They did.” He had a faint European accent. Not quite German. Dutch maybe, or some Nordic language.
“I’d like to return it.”
“This isn’t a library,” he said with a snap in his voice. He pointed to a small sign above the punch-key register at the back:
THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY
It hung above another small sign that said:
Both signs were next to a much larger one that said in very clear letters:
BEWARE OF TROLLS
There was some legal-looking smaller print under it that I couldn’t read, as if that sign was required by city ordinance.
“You take the books,” he said, “you buy them.”
“But I didn’t take—” I sighed at his indignant eyebrow-raise. Those suckers were like brooms. “Fine. How much?”
He walked to the counter and tossed his glasses on it. He pressed the heavy, levered keys of the antique register until a bell chimed.
“That will be two hundred and five dollars and nineteen cents.”
“For a misprinted book?”
Leave it to Kell to steal the most expensive damned book in the store.
It wasn’t really. But that’s what it felt like.
“It is not misprinted.”
“Whatever.” I didn’t want to argue. I set the book on the counter and dug in my purse.
“Your friends were clever,” he said, “hiding that one of them was mizzen.”
I handed him two hundred and ten. “What’s a mizzen?”
“I don’t have change,” he said.
“What?” I started to object. Then I took a breath. “Fine. Whatever.”
I called it a theft tax. The register dinged loudly and the drawer slid open. He put the money inside. He totally had change.
He eyed me eyeing the drawer, like I was a thief as well, and shut it hard.
“This is a respectable establishment. We don’t sell to the Dispossessed. Thank you for your business.” He raised an arm toward the door. “Good day.”
“I don’t suppose you could help me find something?”
“Dude. Can you at least pretend to be helpful?”
“It wouldn’t be very convincing.”
I held up The Compendium of Greater Travesties. “This is, like, an encyclopedia or something.”
“It’s not ‘like’ an encyclopedia,” he said. “It is an encyclopedia. Of heresies. Not proper reading for a young lady.”
“Yeah. Fine. Whatever. That’s what I said. Do you have any books on—” I stopped myself from saying ‘like’ again. “—stone tables? Or—shit, what did he call it? Covens or empty cupboards or something like that?”
“This is a bookstore,” he chided. “Not a furniture shop.”
I waited. I hate people like that.
He pointed to the books, as if the answer were obvious.
I looked around the rectangular room. I turned my palms up.
“Ah. Of course.” He scowled, deeply, and shuffled toward the back door. “With the exception of the volumes under glass, which will be beyond you, the books are shelved alphabetically by author. Where an author isn’t known, by the Erskine Codex reference number. If you are not going to make a purchase, I will kindly ask you to show yourself out through whatever doorway you came in. Good day.”
He shut the door hard to emphasize the point.
I turned slowly in a circle. It was books all around. I had no idea what I was looking for and so started opening volumes at random. Most were giant walls of text that went on for hundreds of pages. Half of them weren’t even in English, although I did find one in Chinese. It was so old, I couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t long before I started appreciating the ones I couldn’t read. That at least gave me a reason to rule them out quickly. After a while, I heard the door to the back open again and the old man stopped with an audible exclamation. I’m pretty sure he thought I had left half an hour ago. I was squatting in front of the bottom shelf holding a very heavy book I had hoped was some kind of encyclopedia. It wasn’t. I’m not sure what it was, actually, but it described itself as a bestiary.
He cleared his throat. “This is a bookstore. NOT a library.”
“You said that. Can’t I just—”
I was turning my head to argue my case when my eye caught the title, in between all the others. I reshelved the big book in my hand and pulled out the thin hardbound volume one shelf up.
The Long-Vacant Cupboard.
“Hmpf. Should have done that the first time,” he said.
He squinted at me for some sign of recognition.
“You really don’t know anything? You’re not even a Wiccan or one of those girls who cut themselves to feed the vamps?”
I shook my head.
“How did you find—” He stopped himself. He harumphed again. “A book, young lady, is the most magical thing there is. It is the only spell”—he lifted a faded leather-bound from the shelf—“that’s patent.” He slapped the cover as if to show it was real. “A spell you can touch.”
He shook it.
“Yes. A spell. You know what that is, don’t you?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Words,” he said, “that make magic.”
“I know what a spell is.”
“They’re about the only magic left. That regular folks can touch, anyway.” He looked at the shelves. “But even they’re going away. No one reads anymore.” He started mumbling to himself as he reshelved the tome in his hand.
“If a book is magic, then how is magic different than anything else?”
“Who said it was?” he asked, as if I’d just told him people were spreading nasty rumors about him.
He started to speak again but I interrupted him. “They stole the books when you were giving her boobs the speech, didn’t they? Did you even look in her eyes?”
He walked over and snatched The Long-Vacant Cupboard from my hands.
“The books are for sale.”
He turned to put it back on the shelf.
“Fine. How much is it?”
He checked. “You’re in luck. All I have left is the third edition with the rambling introduction by Sprague. Eighty-nine ninety-nine. Plus tax.” He shelved it.
“Jeez, dude. I need to eat.”
“So do I,” he objected. “We buy books as well.”
I looked at the one by my feet. The one I’d just bought. I handed it to him.
He took it and examined it thoroughly, like he’d never seen it before. He flipped through the pages. All of the text was printed correctly—or at least I didn’t see any that wasn’t.
“Wait a minute . . .”
“I’ll give you forty dollars for it,” he said, moving it behind his back.
“WHAT? I just gave you two hundred!”
“Depreciation,” he said. “I don’t know what damage you’ve done.”
What. An. Asshole.
As if to prove his point, he took out the tarot card and handed it to me with a stiff arm.
“A hundred,” I replied.
I held out my hand. “Then give it back.”
He looked at it. “Fifty.”
“Eighty or I walk.”
He scowled. Then he turned for the back.
“Criminal,” he muttered.
“Dude, I’m not the only one.”
I took money out of my purse, added it to what he handed me, and grabbed The Long-Vacant Cupboard from the shelf.
“I’d like to buy this book,” I said all innocently.
He shuffled to the counter and retrieved a calculator with fat buttons. He tapped. “With tax—”
“With tax,” he repeated, louder, “that will be ninety-seven dollars and twenty cents, please.”
I counted out a hundred dollars in fives and twenties and handed it to him. We walked to the register where he recounted them in front of me.
“I don’t have change,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Whatever. Just give me the damned book.”
He scowled again. “Language.” He handed it to me.
“Manners,” I retorted with bug eyes. “Can I sit? Or are you gonna charge me for that, too?”
“It would seem so.”
“So it’s alright if I move the—” I stopped.
The chair had been cleared. The books had all been stacked on the floor.
I looked around. I didn’t see or hear anyone.
“Thank you, Charles,” the old man called sarcastically. “Always did have a thing for young girls,” he muttered. He turned for his workshop, then snapped back to me. “We close promptly at 5:00.”
“Five? Who the hell closes that early?”
He looked at his watch. “That’s one hour and forty-seven minutes.”
I flashed the clock on my phone. I waggled it and pursed my lips like “Oooooooo, a magic lighted timepiece!” That was when I noticed I didn’t have a signal. Nothing.
He just squinted in disgust and retreated to his work room.
So, the book pretty much said the same thing the old man did—that there was a time when magic was part of the world, same as anything else, which is why every pre-modern culture everywhere believed in it, but that there are only bits and pieces left, that everything else has been obscured by this group called The Masters, also sometimes called the High Arcane, who were like a council I guess, made of the most powerful practitioners of every age. They’re the ones who said no one could talk about magic and stuff directly. Like, it was forbidden, and if you did it anyway and got caught, they locked you up someplace really bad. Some really talented people were allowed to write about it, but they had to use “keys and ciphers” to keep everything esoteric.
Alchemy, for example, wasn’t actually about turning lead into gold, even though that’s what everyone thinks. It’s really about the deep structure of creation. Not like atoms and stuff—that’s regular old chemistry—but below that. Resolving the conundrums of existence. The whole thing with lead and gold was a cipher, a riddle to throw off the greedy and foolish. Those who were too stupid to realize it, who got bewitched by the lure of wealth, got hung up there and wasted their lives chasing after a fiction. The truth was much simpler. Gold is bright, like sunshine. It’s a light metal that’s easily made into different things. Lead is heavy. Dull. Dark. Impenetrable. Not even Superman could see through it. In the symbolism of turning lead into gold, gold represents wealth of knowledge and all that. And lead is ignorance. So, alchemy is the transmutation of ignorance into knowledge—ultimate knowledge. That’s what it was all about, the search for Truth.
There were lots of different alchemical investigations, but the big thing everyone wanted to produce was the lapis philosophorum, the “stone of truth” or something like that. But not like a rock—more like an opal or a gem, like how all the old sutras refer to the teachings of the Buddha as a jewel. That’s what the lapis is, the “jewel” of ultimate knowledge—namely, how to be like God, a return to the divine state pretty much every religion says existed way back at the beginning. Before we were corrupted. Immortality, I guess. Sounds like heresy, right? And it is. Which is why these guys, The Masters, worked for hundreds of years or whatever to suppress any investigation into the “sacred marriage,” which, the more I read, I imagined to be sort of like combining matter and antimatter. To keep the knowledge from falling into the wrong hands, the steps and ingredients—the recipe—for marrying the male and female principles were encoded in alchemical ciphers, like the athame and the chalice. The old Taoist sorcerers were the real masters—mixing yin and yang and all that through a process that could only be grasped, never articulated—which is why there are so many bearded sages in Chinese mythology. The famous Eight Immortals, for example, who each rode a dragon and who could transfer their power to a relic or tool that could be wielded by ordinary men and whose tiny fat statues now adorn pretty much any Chinese restaurant anywhere.
Only nobody knows how to do it anymore. Supposedly.
I heard the scuff of the old man’s feet on the floor. At first I thought he was coming to shoo me out. But when I lifted my head to defend myself, I saw he had a teacup and saucer in his hand. He set them carefully on the broad arm of the chair.
“Charles thought you might like some tea.”
I looked at the time on my phone. It was almost 5:30. Shit. It didn’t seem possible that much time had passed. There were no messages from Kell on the lock screen, which kinda sucked because I really wanted someone to talk to about everything. I wanted my best friend. I checked my messaging app, like we all do obsessively on the ridiculously off chance it had failed to display, but there was nothing. I still had no bars.
I looked at the tea. It was hot.
“Ceylon,” he said from near the rear door. “I’m afraid it’s all I have.”
“I thought you closed at five.”
“We do.” He nodded to the front.
It was shut and a shade pulled over the glass. I scrunched my brow. I hadn’t even noticed.
“It seemed a shame to break the spell,” he said without facing me.
I looked at the tea. It was steaming. The scent was heavenly. You can get really good tea in America, but generally you have to go looking for it or make a special trip. This smelled amazing. I took a sip. It was warm, and I realized how safe I felt there, curled up in an old chair with a dust-and-vanilla-scented book. But my eyes were getting tired. I’d been reading for a while and I was losing concentration. I shook my arm and watched as the pale triangle floated up to the window of my watch.
I took another sip and thumbed to the back of the book, to the index, past a bunch of text-heavy tables that seemed to have been assembled in old movable type, with strong lines and a highly serifed font. There was nothing about a stone table, but the word “scapegoat” had two page numbers after it. ‘Mizzen” had about two dozen. I looked up the easier first, although it was about what I expected—an animal ritually burdened with the sins of others. There was a quote from the Bible, the book of Leviticus, where some guy named Aaron cast lots—magic, it sounded like—on two goats, one for God and one for Azazel, and then drove them into the desert. I didn’t think there was magic in the Bible, or that holy men made sacrifices to appease dark powers, but there it was in black and white.
Finding a definition for “mizzen” proved much more difficult. The book never came right out and said. At times, it sounded like an occupation, like blacksmith, but then it also seemed to be the name for an ethnic group derived from the same. All I got for sure was that they were people whose ability to cast magic had been removed—by force, it seemed—and lots of people didn’t like them and they were often persecuted.
I flipped to the back again but stopped at the tables. I turned from one to the next: Schools of Magic; Classical Symbology; Mystical Doctrines; the six basic summoning circles; several timelines, including a list of all reigning Masters, minus a handful of gaps, “from the fall of the Templars to the destruction of the Great Eye;” and so on. I stopped at a chart labeled Orders of Practice. It had script titles in the first column and block descriptions in the second, with a third reserved for notable examples, not all of which were filled. A Magician, it said, is any practitioner of magic. However, it also said that term tended to be avoided because it didn’t distinguish from the stage magician, who offers nothing but mechanical sleight-of-hand. A Conjurer is anyone who brings forth that which was not there. A Summoner, then, is a Conjurer that brings forth a creature from another realm, such as a demon or evil spirit. SEE: FAUST. Diviner is the formal name for fortune teller. This includes the “low” variety like palmists and tarot card readers as well as the more specialized schools: anything with the suffix -mancy in the title. Most of what historians know about the ancient Shang dynasty, for example, comes from their widespread practice of plastromancy, where they inscribed questions on turtle shells before piercing them with hot irons and interpreting the cracks that ran through the characters.
A Seer is anyone who has visions, which don’t always have to be of the future. Most of your run-of-the-mill psychics fall into this category. SEE: CASSANDRA. Similarly, a Medium is anyone who carries messages from one place to another, such as between the dead and the living. The table also noted that Mediums, also called Sensitives, are also particularly prone to possession since they’re basically living receivers.
A Witch is any practitioner of witchcraft, which got a bad rap because it never bothered to separate light from dark. Despite the common misconception, though, a witch isn’t necessarily evil, or female. Rather, it’s simply that “earth magic” attracted more women than men, first, because women were historically excluded from the more arcane schools, and second, because the Druids, the founders of the art, had no such chauvinist proscriptions—at first, anyway.
A Warlock, on the other hand, is specifically a servant or priest of the “Old Ones.” They are typically male but occasionally female and organized into different schools, called covens, whose high elders sit collectively before a stone table. SEE: RASPUTIN.
Here there was an asterisk pointing to a footnote at the bottom of the page where the author admitted to omitting “the Shamanists and Witch-doctors.” As practitioners of the most ancient form of magic, he said, there was no agreed-upon definition, nor did the shamans themselves adhere to one or another school but preferred instead to “salt and pepper their practice” with bits from every tradition “like leeches.”
On and on it went: Wizard, Sorcerer, Thaumaturge, Alchemist, Magus, Malefactor . . . to the second-to-last entry: Enchanter/Enchantress.
I read it aloud.
“A master of mind-magic; a caster of charms, often with the help of sprites and other spirits, whom they keep as fam—” I stopped at the word, just as Bastien had. “Familiars. SEE: PROSPERO.”
I got up and practically ran out the door, nearly spilling the tea, which wobbled precipitously before righting itself.
from “Curse of the Red Dagger,” the second mystery of FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Santiago Caruso