Okay! I posted some of this a while ago, before I got a wild hair and took off with Peter and Matt for a while instead. So, having done a little light editing since then, I’m going to start at the beginning and repost the old and tack on the new. So, let’s call this Episodes 1 and 2 of “Phoenix Caged,” shall we?
PHOENIX CAGED – The Second of the Chronicles of Rob the Daemon
PRELUDE: GERMANY, 1916
The clean lines of the Hürtgen Forest stretched out in front of Barst Abo as he walked its spacious aisles. Hürtgen, or this part of it anyway, was meticulously kept by Abo and the other foresters, many of whom had graduated from the prestigious school at Hungen. Undergrowth was removed, dead wood hauled away, and logging supervised carefully – logging whose patterns were responsible for the straight lines through the trees, one of which lines Barst walked now, the warm summer sun on his bare head, his bare chest, a treat. No one could see him half-naked out here. The quiver of arrows slung over his exposed shoulder would have chafed another man, but Barst’s skin was unmarred.
Barst was a master at his job, looked up to and respected by the other foresters, the loggers, and the hunters who relied on the forest for their livelihoods. Some of them might mutter at his Jewish-sounding last name, but they had to nod at its aptness. Abo meant “stern or somber father,” and Barst was that indeed, protector of the woods and unrelenting punisher of its violators. It was even more apt, they thought, when he told them that it was a variant on the Arabic Abbas – the lion, the king of beasts. Few were the men who crossed Barst, daring to log more than was allowed, or taking more game than a man needed for his family, and those who had broken his rules had paid for it dearly.
“Good morning, Barst,” the rabbit said.
“Good morning to you, kleines kaninchen,” Barst replied. “How goes your day?”
Instinctively, the rabbit looked around from its position at the edge of the path, checking for predators. Then, satisfied, he said, “Nothing has come along to ruin it so far.”
Barst nodded, happy to hear it. He liked this little rabbit, had grown accustomed to seeing it on his journeys, and had watched with admiration more than once as it had outrun or outwitted one predator or another – bird, fox and man. He was almost tempted to name it, but that wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all. There were limits to how far a man should get attached to forest creatures he would soon find dead, or have to kill. Besides, the rabbit probably had a name already which he didn’t feel like sharing.
He checked the fox traps he’d reluctantly set out yesterday. Local farmers were carping loudly about lost chickens above and beyond acceptable limits. Barst blamed the war and the food shortages – a man could make a lot of money on the black market on chickens that cost him nothing but a little skulking. But that was unpatriotic to say out loud, so everyone blamed the foxes. He shook his head – human beings! Honestly, sometimes he could just scream with frustration.
All the traps were empty but one. “Reineke,” he said, shaking his head at the red fox in one of the cage traps he’d devised.
“Reynard!” the fox cried indignantly. “I am French. Do not disgrace my proud name with your gargly German!”
Barst switched to French. “What are you up to? You’re too smart to fall for a trap so simple.”
Reynard’s already narrowed eyes narrowed even further. “Indeed. That is the parable.”
Barst folded his arms. “Oh, a parable. Well, go on, then, I’ve all the time in the world for a story.”
“That’s it. Now let me out.”
Barst looked Reynard in the eye, and Reynard returned his gaze, and neither blinked. Reynard was notorious for getting away with every crime he set his hand (er, paws) to. This, here, now, didn’t make sense. Barst knew the peasant fables about Reynard, and knew that those too were a trick, had been engineered by this creature, gulling the unwary into thinking he was nothing but a trickster. Reynard played a long, deep game with humanity, and Barst was neither inclined to interfere with it nor to be a part of it.
“You don’t need my help to get out.”
“It’ll take someone’s help to get out of this trap.”
Barst sighed. He twitched the fingers on his left hand and the trap sprung open. Reynard took his time leaving the cage, and Barst noted that he’d eaten the bait, presumably with great relish as Barst didn’t poison or even drug his lures.
“You be careful in the woods, Barst Abo,” Reynard said. Then he was gone, bounding out of sight in a flash.
Barst was too smart and had lived too long to dismiss Reynard’s warning. These were his woods, he knew every inch of them as no other forester could, and if there was a danger here he would have smelled it out. But all the same, today, rather than letting his mind drift pleasantly as he normally would, he stayed alert. And he unslung his bow, holding it in one hand and an arrow in the other…just because.
He reached the end of the well-manicured lanes, where they ended in the still-wild woods. And an end it was – an abrupt transition from man’s forest to nature’s, from warm blue sky to a deep, cool, quiet darkness. You might as well be crossing a border from one world to the other as cross the line Man had made between them.
Men shuddered at the change in temperature, in light, in the very mood of Nature – brooding and sullen, it could seem here, resentful of what Man had made of the rest of it, ready at the drop of a hat, or the hesitation of an ax, to reach out and reclaim it all. Men wrote stories to frighten children, stories in which their own childish fright was reframed, and small wonder they set them here, in this place.
But for Barst, this was the best part of his world. For him, it was peaceful, because he knew its ways. He lay his hatchet down with great ceremony at the edge of the woods, careful not to let the sun’s glint reflect into the woods and alarm its spirits. Then he stepped inside.
It felt wrong. The forest had been…violated. The ground was untrodden, the branches unbroken, but something – someone – had been here. And done something. Warily, he walked deeper in, his eyes and ears more acute than any other’s. And he spotted it.
A carving, in a tree trunk. Not large, but all the same, a wound, an insult. The bark had been hacked back and a rune carved into the meat of the fir.
He recognized it – one of the Elder Futhark runes. This one meant literally “home, estate, inheritance,” if you were casting runes for divination. But otherwise, it stood for “homeland,” the sacred soil. A sense of unease fluttered under his consciousness; why? It was the work of a vandal, an idiot, a barbarian. What harm could such a person truly do?
And yet. It had been carved into the north side of the tree, and served as a pointer as much as anything else. He headed in the direction it indicated.
It wasn’t long before he found the next one.
Dawn. His nostrils flared. He had some idea who was behind this now.
Man, at his fullest potential – the Ubermensch. Bastards, he thought. Crackpot bastards. He needed no runes to tell him the way now. The little hunting lodge in the woods was well known to him.
The woods, already quiet to the ears of man, grew stiller yet, his anger shriveling the moss on the trees, the songs in the throats of birds, the trickle of water in the streams from the last of the winter runoff. Something was afoot out there in the wider world, something awful coming down the line, but wasn’t there always… It wasn’t the role of his kind to stop Mankind from being what they were, however terrible the effects.
But. Barst scowled. There will be none of that here, in my forest, in my world.
The house was oblivious to his rage, the chimney puffing contentedly, the windows open to the sun that shone in this little clearing…at least, had been shining until Barst’s rage had blossomed. Where had those clouds come from? a man a mile away wondered to himself, taking shelter from the coming storm. There was no rain in sight when I set out…
The great oak door was open, and Barst strode in…only to find himself stopped, one foot in front of the other frozen awkwardly on the floor. The windows had been open, he’d seen them open, the door had been wide open, it should be bright and pleasant in here…but the room was pitch black.
Before he could will a light into existence, a voice echoed in the darkness. “Barbatos, demon of Hell. I command you to kneel!”
His knees wrenched grotesquely, touching the floor even as his feet refused to move. But there was no pain, no outcry. The command was fulfilled, and the only feeling in him was anger that this moron was stupid enough to force him to kneel without freeing his feet first.
“Who are you?” Barst asked the darkness.
“I am Dietrich von Faustenburg-Hohenzollern, Baron of Schweswig-Kruppendorf! And I am your master!” he finished with childish glee in his voice.
“You,” Barbatos hissed, seeing the truth, “are Mister Heinrich Glotzenspiel, of Potsdam.”
“How dare you!” the man cried, wounded. “A plague of boils on you!”
“Fich,” Barbatos hissed, as his skin erupted in pustules, as painful as they would be on a man, perhaps more so. “Fine, fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “You’re a Baron. My Lord. At your service. All that. Unplague me.”
Only now did he look down at the floor, at the symbol which held him fast:
He sighed. Solomon. The great benefit of being one of daemonkind was that there was plenty of time for old wounds to heal. Even, especially, the wounds of love. Yes, daemons loved, loved each other sometimes, but mostly loved Man. Sometimes too much. Once he had loved a man, a king, and hid his true nature from his beloved out of fear. And been discovered. And rejected.
And all he could offer in return for his crime was his undying, eternal loyalty to Solomon, King. And to all his line to follow. He smirked. This dolt, this advocate of racial purity – oh yes, he knew what these Germanenorden types were up to – this banner-waver for Aryanism, was a Jew himself. For only Solomon’s heirs could bind him.
It had been so many years since anyone of Solomon’s line had summoned him. He’d almost forgotten that he wasn’t free. But he never regretted his pledge, since Solomon went to his death knowing Barbatos was faithful…even if Barbatos never saw his beloved again after the night he’d made that pledge. Well, he regretted it a little, at times like this.
The boils receded, and he was able to stand. His knees unknotted, his body reshaped itself to the firm, sculpted, gorgeous template of beauty he chose again and again, human form after human form, moving from place to place and time to time as his never-aging appearance began to cause consternation. The face and form that Solomon had touched, had kissed, had loved.
“Heir of Solomon, I am bound to obey you,” he sighed.
“It is not in the name of the kings of vermin that I command you,” the high piping voice sneered, and at the slur against his beloved, Barbatos’ skin smoked a little, and he reckoned that he must find a way to break the terms of his oath in a manner that would ensure they were blown to bits together. It would be worth it. “I command you…in the name of Baldur!”
And with that name, the room lit up, the flames surging in the oil lamps around the room, the candles in the great chandelier blossoming warm and bright. You are a blithering idiot, Barbatos thought. A thousand years or so ago, I was Baldur, the Teutonic sun god. Worshipped by the Northmen in one of my time-to-be-worshipped phases. You’re invoking me to command me. Dumbass.
The little man was apparent to him now, a short, chubby, pink thimble of a man, sweating profusely in a heavy robe, adorned with Stars of David and Yods and all the accoutrements of the race he despised, a race of which he himself was half a member. Funny, Barst, Barbatos, thought, how the advocates of the Master Race are always the worst advertisements for its alleged qualities. Barbatos flexed his large firm pecs to taunt him. The man licked his lips at the sight of his captive’s glistening torso. And you’re a closet homo, too. Naturally.
“Great. So, what’s it to be? Riches, fame, women? The attentions of the handsome young students of Heidelberg?” He couldn’t help himself; the image had flashed through Heinrich’s, er, Baron von Pinkthimble’s mind as he’d said the word “women.”
“No! Nothing like that! No. No no.” His protests petered out.
“There is a war coming. A war between light and dark, between truth and purity against lies and corruption.”
“No argument from me there.”
“And you. You will help us rid the world of filth. To…scourge it! To cleanse it! To wipe away the stain of corruption!”
The hell I will. “As you command, my lord.”
Botasbar’s own words to Reynard came back to him as if a bolt of lightning had struck him. You’re too smart to fall for a trap so simple. Damn you, fox, you could have just told me. But that was tricksters for you – constitutionally incapable of plain speech.
“We will bring about the return of Thule! The old gods will bring back the reign of the North!”
“Thule was fucking cold. Why would you want that?”
“The cold makes us industrious! The cold separates the sturdy wheat from the decadent, indolent Southern chaff.”
Barbatos sighed. This was going to be a very long imprisonment. I still have my bow and arrow, he thought. He hasn’t commanded me to lay them down…I can’t shoot him but, there’s got to be something I can do…
But there wasn’t. His promise, his oath, to Solomon was as binding as he could make it. To break it would be to die, to dissolve. And after all these thousands of years, Barbatos knew better than to let one little enchantment spoil the rest of his indefinitely long life.
“Very well. Get your little list out and let’s get to work.”
CHAPTER ONE – IN WHICH SOL IS GIVEN A BOOK, AND A TASK, AND EXTRACTS A PROMISE IN RETURN
Like every other day, the countdown was the first thought I had when I woke up. Sixty days down. 178 to go before Dark O’Clock, the end of Daylight Savings Time and the return of Rob Sabat, my daemon lover, from his underground prison. I was breaking it up into percentages, too. 25% of my wait was over. That’s a lot, right? Don’t think about the 75% to go. Accentuate the motherfucking positive.
Easier said than done. You know what sucks? Loving and losing. But not exactly losing, because he’s coming back. But you can’t even talk to him while he’s gone. So it’s like he’s dead, but he’s not, because he’s immortal, but he might as well be dead… Even if he was in normal prison you’d get to write him and visit him. But this was daemon prison, so no, not even that.
Yeah, it’s enough to make you lose your mortal mind.
So I stayed busy. On this day, day 60, I got up and got coffee and took Gary for a walk. “Nice day,” he said, wagging his tail in the crisp early May air.
“Yeah, it is,” I said. A jogging lady looked at me funny as she crossed our path. But people see what they want to see, so I’m sure she imagined a Bluetooth thingie into my ear on the side of my head she couldn’t see. I didn’t look like a crazy person, so I must not be. Right?
“What’s the plan?” Gary asked, his tongue lolling out. To anyone else, it sounded like a huff and a half bark. But to me, Solomon Cohen, direct descendant of King Solomon the champion daemon wrangler, and inheritor of his supernatural powers, it was plain English. Of course, the talent of hearing animal speech had only displayed itself after my overeager attempts at magic got me transformed into a bird. Fortunately, it survived my retransformation into a human. The bed was mighty lonely without Rob in it, but a big Springer Spaniel snuggled up with you is the next best thing.
“Some reading on that occult Nazi book. Some shopping. A visit to Rob.”
“Nice. You need to get out in the woods.”
“Yes, I do.”
When DST had ended in March, Rob had gone back into the ground, a part of the curse he was under, doomed to lay there until November when DST started again. We’d gone together to pick a spot in the Sierras, a nice place to rest I suppose, just off Thomas Creek trail. Also, easy for me to visit him there. It was easy to get to in most weather, though I’d had to snowshoe up there a few times. Now I just needed my North Face snow boots with the grippy soles. Soon I could just wear my trail running shoes.
Because I was up there a lot, for a while. Rob could hear me when I talked to him, he just couldn’t talk back. But then one day I couldn’t get out of bed, other than to let Gary out to pee. And the next day I was “just not up for it.” And so on. Depression sucks. Then I felt guilty because I hadn’t visited Rob in a week. That made me feel more depressed. Finally this morning I was ready. Or at least more guilt-ridden than depressed.
When we got back from our walk, I tried doing my homework, but reading “Unholy Alliance” was depressing, too. The Nazis’ origins in crackpot occult groups was not surprising, I suppose. Most totalitarian endeavors need some supernatural justification, God on your side and all that. Even if it’s the “old gods” of Norse mythology, bastardized and reframed as it suited the purposes of your racial nutjobbery. And I couldn’t help but see Rob’s old master, my not-so-distant cousin it appeared, in every one of the unsavory characters involved, as they muttered darkly about Freemasons under every bed. Which one of you bastards, I thought, fuming with anger, was the one to put him in the ground?
I needed a hike after that, a walk in the woods at altitude to cleanse the dirt from my mind that accumulated after reading about that time, those awful people. I put Gary in the car and we drove in silence to the trailhead.
I knew right where to go off trail and hike up the steep slope to the boulder that was Rob’s temporary tombstone. I brushed the snow off it and sat down in my ski pants, the cold penetrating through the nylon and my thermal undies right into my ass, reminding me of the Snow Throne that Rob had made for me this last winter, when he’d recreated Solomon’s temple for me.
But just think how cold Rob was, I told myself, down there deep under the frozen ground. At least you can share his misery a little bit.
Gary sat next to me, solemn-looking. I took a thermos from my backpack.
“Hey Rob,” I said. “I brought you some hot coffee.” I poured some into a cup for myself, and poured some onto the ground as well. “Symbolically, anyway. It’ll warm the ground about a billionth of a degree I suppose. It’s good coffee, though, trust me.
“So, I’ve been keeping up on my reading. I finished all of the Joseph Campbell books, and The White Goddess. And I haven’t been casting any spells, if you’re wondering. Well, one or two. But garden variety stuff, a cone of silence and shit like that. And I’ve been reading ‘Unholy Alliance,’ too. Gross. Well, you know that, don’t you, you had to live with them.
“Anyway. Sixty days down. Celia says hi. She’s chomping at the bit for you to get back, I don’t know how much of that is her looking out for me and how much is her rarin’ to go for her own magical education to restart. She’s at some awful networking thing today, or she’d be here. She just realized she can visit you, too, duh, right?
“It’s fucking cold, man. Cold in my bed too. No offense, Gary, but you’re not the same kind of bedmate.”
“We’re good,” Gary replied.
“I miss you. Fuck I miss you.” A tear slipped out from underneath my Oakleys; since I hadn’t taken them off, I couldn’t pretend it was from the glare on the snow. “I’m waiting. Like you waited. Not nearly as long as you waited for…great times a billion grandpa. But it’s a long mortal wait. It hurts, you know? Not to touch you. And I’m sorry I haven’t been here for a while. I got depressed, couldn’t get out of bed.”
I sighed. “But the days are getting longer. I know that’s no comfort to you, but it is to me right now. I finally turned the HappyLight off for the year, so that’s a good sign. Anyway.”
I didn’t have much more to say than that, so I just sat there and drank my coffee. The view was gorgeous from here, down the steep valley into the bowl that held the city. The air was so crisp and clean and fresh, free of the wood-smoky, car-exhausty inversion layer that was pooling over Reno. And for some reason, and I couldn’t say if it was supernatural or just psychological, I felt like Rob was here, not just here-in-the-ground here, but with me. Like if I just turned my head I’d see him. But I didn’t dare turn it for fear that he wasn’t. If I didn’t look, everything would be okay, everything would be the way it was supposed to be, the two of us would be hiking back down this trail together and stopping at Whole Foods to pick up a bottle of wine and some fresh veg and a nice cut of meat and going home and cooking something wonderful and snuggling on the couch, fat and happy, Rob’s big wide-receiver arms wrapped around me.
“Okay, dude,” I said at last. “My ass is really fucking cold, and you’re not here to warm it up with a hot beef injection. So we’re going to head out now.” I bent down and touched the ground, where Rob had stood before the earth swallowed him. “I’m headed to Portland to see the parental units for a few days, but I’ll be back soon.
“I love you, Rob Sabat. I miss you. And as always, I’m counting the days.”
So, yeah, Portland. Gray, rainy, grim, dark. That sketch on ‘Portlandia’ where they chase a single beam of sunshine around all day, yeah, that’s a documentary. And me with SAD, right? You can imagine my dismay when Mom and Dad moved there from sunny (duh) Sunnyvale after I left home for school.
“Your father wants to take up craft brewing,” Mom said, “and I’m sick of combat driving. And people who talk about their house values all the time because it’s their hobby to check Zillow six times a day. And the heat. And the taxes. And…”
“Okay, Mom,” I said. “I get it.” And Portland’s a great town. To visit. There’s more light in Powell’s Books than there ever is outside, but hey. Portland has Powell’s Books, right? What more do you want?
The plane ride from Reno is short enough to feel more like a long cab ride. Well, it felt longer because of the guy in the row behind me. He shouted into his cell phone right until the flight attendant made him turn it off. You know, the usual bullshit: “I AM ON THE PLANE. WE ARE ABOUT TO TAKE OFF. I WILL ARRIVE SOON.” Then as soon as we landed, he was shouting in it again. “WE JUST LANDED. I AM HERE. I AM IMPORTANT. EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW WHERE I AM AT ALL TIMES.”
Then he was behind me again in the cab line (the parents had ditched their cars after the move). “I AM WAITING FOR A CAB. I WILL BE THERE SOON.” That was it. Sorry, Rob, I thought.
I turned around and looked him in the eye. “From your toes to your chin, great silence sweeps in.”
He went to say something to me and his throat locked. The look in his eyes was priceless. His wordless mouth moved frantically like a fish gasping for air. No, he could breathe, I’m not a monster. But that was it. No more hollering.
I got in a cab and looked at him. He was watching me with dumbstruck fear. I waved my hand, releasing him.
Magic was so handy sometimes.
The door to the funky old house was open, the Pixies blaring from the high-end stereo/home theater that was more expensive than all the furniture put together. It was that loud so Dad could hear it in the basement where he was making beer, and Mom could hear it in the kitchen, where she was making dinner. Why they didn’t rewire the place so they had speakers where they need them, I don’t know.
“I’m here,” I shouted from the entryway, to no avail. I followed the smell of baking bread to the kitchen, where Mom was beating the crap out of some dough.
“Hi, honey,” Mom said, as if I’d just been to the store and not as if I hadn’t seen them in six months. “Can you give me a hand?”
I dropped my bag and washed my hands, smiling. This was home, this was love, me and Mom kneading dough together.
“Any particular army coming to dinner?” I asked, looking at the loaves already cooling and thinking how many she still had to bake.
“I’ve got a stall at the farmer’s market now.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t it a little late in the day to start making bread for sale?”
“Oh, it’s a night market. Very groovy. People come out of the bars and shop drunk. Hilarious, sometimes. They’re all mad for bread, and sugar, with all the booze in ‘em.”
I laughed. Mom was almost fifty, allowing her curly hair (that I inherited) to silver a bit. Her California tan was long gone under the grim Portland skies, but paleness became her. She was trim and strong from vigorous exercise, including of course scratch baking.
“And does Dad have a stall, too, for his craft beer?”
She shook her head. “Coals to Newcastle. Also, he’s been spending most of his time designing and redesigning the label for the bottle. He’ll never get to market at this rate.”
Not that he needed to. Dad had made a pile in software when a big corporation had bought out his small game design firm, and he’d immediately retired to spend more time with his money.
“Okay,” she said at last, when the dough was thoroughly pummeled. “Wash up and go see your father.”
“Yes, mother,” I said, and she looked at me gimlet-eyed. Then she realized what she was doing and smiled.
“Right, you’re not a kid any more, I keep forgetting.”
“It’s nice to regress sometimes,” I said wistfully, and there must have been something in my voice or on my face, because her expression changed again. She debated what to say and decided it would wait.
“Go on, then we’ll get dinner and then you can help me at the booth tonight.”
I padded downstairs to see Dad. As Mom had predicted, he was not working on the beverage itself but was frowning at his computer, moving graphics around, sighing heavily.
Dad didn’t look like a video game designer, a supermassive Star Wars nerd, or a software millionaire. He looked like a Brooks Brothers model, all square-jawed and handsome as fuck even now, pushing fifty. Mom and Dad had discovered outdoorsiness late in life, and actually looked great in those skintight bike shorts and Lycra shirts. It boded well for my own aging process, I thought. I mean, Rob would “outlive” me but at least, if genetics won out, we’d have another good twenty to thirty years together before I started to crumble.
“How’s the label going?” I asked him, hugging him from behind.
He patted my hand idly and sighed. “Yesterday I put a comma in, today I took it out,” he paraphrased Oscar Wilde. “How’s it going, Sol?”
“Congratulations by the way, I hear you’ve graduated from editing jobs to getting 100% of your income from writing. That’s fantastic.”
“Thanks,” I said guiltily. In truth, about half my income was from writing, and the rest was a generous grant from the Rob Sabat Foundation for Sorcerous Instruction. Rob and I had agreed that some of his fortune (unguessably enormous, I imagine, after all these years of careful shepherding) would be best spent freeing my time up to learn how to free him.
“I don’t know about these mountains in the background,” he said. “I keep feeling they look too…you know…Coors Light.”
“Ouch,” I said. “That would be bad, yeah. I mean, I don’t see it. They look like awesome mountains. But I see your point.”
“God, you know, marketing this shit is about a thousand times harder than making it. When I had the company, I had people to do this for me.”
“You know, you could hire someone to do this, too, Daddy Warbucks.”
He laughed, the lines around his sparkling eyes crinkling up. “Yeah, but that’s kinda sorta the point of this, is to do it all myself. To make it work.”
“You should just put Gary on the label. You can’t go wrong with a Springer Spaniel.”
He pondered this. “Hmm. Do you happen to have…”
“All those pix are in the family Dropbox folder.”
“Right,” he nodded. “Hmm…”
I smiled and crept away, knowing I’d lost him for now to the machine.
“We can get a great burrito at the market,” Mom said.
“What about Dad’s dinner?” I asked her as we packed the Outback with bread.
“Oh, you know your father, once he’s on the computer…”
“I put his dinner at the top of the stairs so he’d trip over it on his way to the bathroom when he has to pee. He’ll eat then.”
The night market was pretty cool. A street was closed off in the drinky section of town (well, the drinkiest; like most gray places, Portland’s a pretty drinky town), and tables and tents had been set up to take full financial advantage of the impulsive nature of people who are full of alcohol. You could hear the clashing sounds of bands playing in bars up and down the street.
For some reason, unlike his beer label, Dad had no problem whipping up a cool graphic for Mom’s bread bags. And “Internal Sunshine Bakery” was doing a booming business tonight. I hardly had time to make change, let alone talk to Mom.
Finally the traffic died down and we had a minute. “So what is it?” Mom asked me.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a little…down. Depressed. Trust me, I live in Portland, I know depression when I see it.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I bet. It’s complicated…”
“Of course it is,” Mom said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be depressing.” She reached into the cooler she’d brought with us, mostly full of jam she sold to go with the bread so that drunks could put sugar on their carbs. She pulled out two (unlabeled) bottles of Dad’s beer and popped the tops off. “Drink up.”
We clinked bottles and drank. It was good, with a touch of sage in it. Rob would approve.
“Well, I met this guy.”
“Yeah, it is. But he…well, he’s not around for a while. Not of his own choice. And I can’t communicate with him while he’s gone.”
“He’s not in prison, is he?”
“Ha. No.” Not exactly, I thought. “And it’s fucked up, you know? I love him, he loves me. But it’s almost worse than not having anyone, to have someone and then not have him, but not lose him so that you can move on, but just be…waiting.”
She nodded. “Yeah, but only until he comes back, right? He’s coming back?”
“Then it’s worth it. It feels bad now but think how great it will feel when he comes back. If the two of you are true, and that moment comes…my God, the violins.”
“Right. I just wish…I don’t know. I don’t wish it wasn’t like this, because it has to be like this, for it to be this with him.”
She took a pull off her beer. “It’s magical, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, when we’re together…” I laughed. “It’s literally magic.” If only she knew.
“So is he a spirit? Undead? Werewolf? Or…daemon?”
I choked on my beer. “What?”
She smiled. “It’s alright, dear. It runs in the family, you know.”
We packed up the stand and sat on the edge of the Outback, the hatch sheltering us from the slight drizzle, working our third beers.
“Your uncle, my brother, was a magician. A stage magician, that is.”
“Yeah, Uncle Ethan, I remember. He used to entertain us kids at birthday parties. He was a big deal, he played Vegas all the time.”
“Right. See, he had these tricks. Nobody could figure them out. Nobody has figured them out yet. They’re some of the last secrets of magic that haven’t been blabbed all over the Internet. Because…they were magic. The real deal. You know, you pull one bird out of a hat, big deal. But ten? Where do you hide ten live birds? Or he’d cut a lemon in two, show you the inside, yep, definitely a lemon, and then he’d put that half on a juicer and twist, and pennies would come out of it instead of juice.
“And your great uncle Jonas, he was a dowser in Texas. Could find water anywhere it could be found. And your great-great uncle Albert, he led a squad into Germany that had a zero percent casualty rate between D-Day and V-E Day. Do you know what the casualty rate was in World War II? Upwards of 200% on some companies, counting replacements. He had an uncanny ability to know where the shells and bombs would fall next, where the bullets were going, where they were coming from…
“So,” she said, “I was wondering what you’d manifest, and when. It comes down the female line, but only to the men. Which I find terribly unfair, but that’s genetics, I guess. Or the will of King Solomon, or Yahweh or whatever,” she said airily, dismissing any religious explanation with the family atheism. “So, what is your particular talent?”
“Magic, I’m told. Not stage magic, the real thing – sorcery. I need to be trained, but I’m learning to do some things already. Basic stuff. Rob doesn’t want me to do much without him. I had, uh, an incident when I tried to do something big when he was out of town.”
“So can you do something little?” Her eyes were eager, childlike, waiting to be astonished. How could I deny her?
“Sure,” I said. “Drink your beer.”
She lifted it, her eyes widening as she felt the weight of a full bottle. She drank it. “It’s your dad’s beer.”
“Open the cooler. Find the empty.”
She found and extracted the empty bottle, the cap still on it. “Wow. And that’s something little?”
“Yeah. The big stuff is more complicated, obviously. I couldn’t have moved the beer from, say, the keg in our house into your bottle. Well, probably not without blowing something up. But the exact same amount from the bottle in there to the bottle in your hand, yeah, I’m good enough for that.”
“And this curse, that’s the final exam, I suppose. Lifting that.”
“That would be the goal of all this, yeah.”
She nodded. “So November, then. We’ll be meeting Mr. Sabat at Thanksgiving?”
I laughed, relieved beyond compare. Not only did Mom know my secret, not only was it no surprise, but she embraced the crazy truth, the existence of my daemon lover and my sorcerous potential and everything I thought I’d have to hide from my family for the rest of time.
Well, from part of my family. The next thing Mom said was, “Now, whatever we do, we can’t tell your father.”
We had another beer. And another. One of the other night market sellers saw our beers, and traded us Jager shots for them. Then we had to call Dad to have him bike on down and drive us home.
“I’m going to be so hung over tomorrow,” I groaned from the back seat, where I had the window open to the cool damp air.
“No, you won’t be,” Dad said cheerfully. “There’s a secret ingredient in the beer!”
“And even if there wasn’t…” Mom said, then caught herself about to say something like, even if there wasn’t, there must be a spell for headaches. But she could hold her booze, and finished with “…you’re at a lower altitude and the oxygen will make it all better.”
“Right,” I said.
At home, Dad went back to the basement and Mom wiggled a come-here finger at me. “I have something for you.”
In their bedroom, she rummaged through the closet, moving shoes and boxes until she could open an old steamer trunk. Inside that was a little chest, like a stereotypical pirate’s booty chest. She reached inside her blouse and pulled out a key on a chain.
“Your uncle Ethan left this for you. He said, ‘give it to him when he gets it.’” She shook her head as she unlocked the box. “I couldn’t understand what he meant for the longest time. Then I figured out that if you had ‘it,’ if you were the one in this generation who had the power, the box was for you. It could have been one of your cousins, my sister’s boys, you know.”
I snorted. “Alex and Brian? They’re as dumb as a box of rocks.”
“True, but you didn’t hear me say that, and if you repeat that to Meredith, I’ll kill you.” She opened the box and handed me its contents.
Even though it was heavily and carefully wrapped in parchment paper and sealed with wax – the seal of Solomon, no less, of course – it was obviously a book. A fairly big and heavy book.
“Open it,” Mom said. “I’m dying to see what’s in there after all these years.”
“Well,” I said hesitantly. “That might not be a good idea. Books like this have power, and seeing how well sealed up this one is, I don’t think I should open it till I get home. Where I can open it in my…”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “Your sorcery lair? Your secret chamber?”
“Yeah, pretty much. These things have a smell, for lack of a better word. They attract…things.”
“Daemons. Not the fun kind.”
She sighed. “Okay, but I want a full report. Now off to bed with you. We have a big bread baking day tomorrow.”
The next night, Saturday night, we didn’t bring any beer with us. Not that Dad would have minded another night bike ride to come get us, but tying one on two nights in a row was not our idea of a fun time.
Besides, I had to keep my wits about me now. I’d thought coming to Portland would be a little “sorcery vacation,” but no go. I could feel the book humming from underneath my bed where I’d stashed it. It wanted to be opened, it knew I was the one who would open it. Like a passenger cramped into a coach seat for too long with the seat belt sign on, it wanted to get up and stretch its legs, shake off the cramps, get some air.
No way, buddy, I thought grimly even as I smiled and made change and restocked the table from the Outback. I had not forgotten the lesson I’d learned when I’d summoned Phoenix, a daemon who, it turned out, had a very large bone to pick with Rob, and who turned me into a raven for longer than was fun for me. I would not get ahead of myself again, and end up like Mickey Mouse, chased by a thousand pissed-off brooms. And Rob was not around this time to save my ass from becoming a permanent bird-brain.
“I’m getting coffee, you want anything?” Mom asked during a lull when the bands started playing in the bars and the streets cleared off a little.
“You got it.”
Mom headed off to get beverages, and I looked around at the people, the street, the whole environment. Portland was great…if you didn’t have SAD. I could totally live here if only there was a sun in the sky, but without that daylight, I would be inconsolably miserable in weeks.
Suddenly the bands in the bars were silent, as if the power had been cut. The people were silent, because there weren’t any around. I was alone in the dark and the silence.
And then a figure walked down the row of tables towards me, red hair flaming in the night.
“Fuck,” I whispered, my blood going cold. It was Phoenix.
“Not tonight, thanks,” he said in a hoarse voice that shocked me. Could daemons catch colds?
I blinked a couple times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, because Phoenix looked…well, he looked like shit. His smooth perfect ginger skin had wrinkles, he was wrapped up in layers as if he, a fire spirit, was feeling the chill. And most disturbing of all, his beautiful emerald green eyes were…orange. Like, Sith Lord orange.
My last experience with him kept me from blurting, what happened to you? But the question on my face was obvious.
“That bread looks good, how much?”
“On the house,” I said quickly, handing him the sandwich sized loaf he’d indicated.
“Thanks.” He held it in his hands for a moment and it warmed up, and I could smell it, one again fresh from the oven. He took a bite and sighed. “That is good. Compliments to the chef.”
“I’ll pass that on.” I noticed that the sounds were coming back, the music, the people, the lights. It had clearly drained him to make such an entrance, but for some daemons, style is everything.
I let him finish eating, waited on some other customers while he stood there, just another night crawler in a street full of them. Mom came back with our hot beverages.
“Hello,” she said warily to Phoenix, sensing something a bit amiss.
“Mrs. Cohen,” he nodded politely. I thanked my lucky stars that he’d managed to minimize the scary orange of his eyes to a dull brown before they made eye contact.
“This is Phoenix,” I said. “Phoenix, Mom, Mom, Phoenix.”
“How do you do,” she said, extending a hand, and she twitched just a bit at his warm, gossamer, seductive touch.
“Sol, can we talk?” Phoenix said.
“Sure. Mom, you okay to hold down the fort?”
“I’ll be right here,” she said, not blinking as she met Phoenix’s eyes. “Waiting.”
We strode through the night market, and I finally said, “You don’t look so good.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m here. I need your help.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. I owe you a favor, but it’s not due until…”
He waved that away. “I know, not due until you’re fully officially ensorcelfied or whatever. Well, I need it now.”
“I’m not ready. I’ve summoned one spirit – you. And that didn’t work out so good for me.”
He stopped in his tracks, and I nearly ran into him. “You don’t need to summon any spirits for this. And besides,” he smiled, “you have The Book.”
Dammit. Just taking it out of the chest must have sent the message out in Glorious Odorama. “What’s in The Book?” I asked.
His eyebrows popped. “You haven’t opened it?”
“No. I’m waiting to get home. To open it in my sorcery dungeon. When Rob gets back.”
“What a good boy you are,” he smirked. “Waiting for Big Daddy Rob to come supervise your first baby steps. Who’s the master and who’s the servant?”
“Rob’s not my servant. He’s been released from the binding to Solomon’s line. I released him.”
He looked at me, trying to keep a poker face, which itself told me how astonished he was by that. “You shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Well, I guess I’m full of surprises.”
He sighed. “All the more reason you’re the one I need. Look. Here’s the deal. I’ve got a problem with this guy. A sorcerer. A pretty good one, unfortunately. He’s draining me. That’s the reason I’m…not looking so fresh. He drains me for a month, I die, I’m reborn, phoenix from the ashes blah blah, it starts over again. It’s getting on my fucking nerves.”
“Wow. So he sounds a lot more skilled than I am. And, if he’s chock full o’ daemon, a lot more powerful.”
Phoenix laughed. “Chock full o’ daemon. Breakfast of champions! Yes, he’s powerful, but in cycles. You see, when I die, he’s got about a week of dragassery before I’m reborn and he can start sucking on me again. During that week, you can kick his ass.”
“I promised Rob…”
“I know what you promised Rob,” he snapped. Then he recovered his manners. “Look. You can do this. We’ll go through the book together and I’ll…teach you things. You know what the Lemegeton says of me.”
I sure did; I had that puppy memorized. “ ‘He will speak Mervellously of all wounderfull siences.’ And I assume that includes the ‘wounderfull sience’ of magic.”
“You assume correctly.”
Well, that was tempting. And I wouldn’t be summoning daemons…just fighting another sorcerer. When he was down. And with Phoenix’s help.
Then it occurred to me what I could ask for in return – something even more valuable than what he was offering.
“Okay, but on two conditions. One, this fulfills my favor owed to you.”
“Two. You help me find the way to undo Rob’s curse.”
“Aaarrgh,” he hissed, more demon than daemon for one frightening moment. “Fuck. Fuck that guy.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Never you mind. No. No way.”
I shrugged. “Okay.” And I broke one of Rob’s commandments – never turn your back on a daemon – and walked away.
“Wait.” A huge sigh. “Fine. Have it your way.”
I turned around. I rolled my sleeve up to show the Seal of Solomon tattoo on my forearm. “Put your hand on it and swear.”
“Seriously? Isn’t my word good enough for you?”
He laughed. “You’re learning.” He put his warm hand on my arm, and I nearly creamed my jeans. I think at that point any good looking man’s touch would have set me off, to be honest, but a daemon’s touch, so like and so unlike Rob’s… I wanted to fly home, race up to the mountain, hump the ground where Rob was buried.
“By the power in your bloodline, that of Solomon King, I, Phoenix, swear that in exchange for your success in freeing me from this sorcerer who binds me, I will teach you many wondrous things about the powers within you, and that I will help you in your quest to free Rob Sabat, Barbatos who was and is, from the curse that lays him in the ground each year.”
“You will help me in that quest to the best of your abilities.”
He sighed. “I will help you in that quest to the best of my abilities. What a fucking lawyer you’re turning out to be.”
He wasn’t proud of me this time. “And that this act releases you from the favor promised when I unbirded you,” he said darkly.
I nodded. “Good enough.”
“Now,” Phoenix said, and I could see some of his beauty returning to him along with his hopes, “let’s go have another of those loaves of bread.”
INTERLUDE – IN WHICH CELIA MEETS A MAN OF MYSTERY, WHICH IS A NICE CHANGE OF PACE FOR HER
It was about a half hour into the luncheon when Celia decided that she was going to have to find a way to get the contents of her flask out of her purse and into her drink. “Soporific” was a kind word for the speeches that were dragging on, and she had pretty much rearranged the peas on her plate as many times as she could.
A spell would come in handy right now, she thought. She wanted to get up and shout “Expelliarmus!” at the woman at the podium, whose speech had been cobbled together from the Encylopaedia Corporatic, all about the empowering challenges of offshoring bandwidth. That the people around her were nodding and smiling was even more irritating.
Her antisocial nature would have been a distinct liability, had she taken her law degree and tried to practice law. Fortunately, her skills in the writing department were head and shoulders above those of most attorneys, and her writing samples had served as an online resume that prevented her from having to do the aggressive networking usually required to find employment. She now made a comfortable living retooling legal forms, and had recently gone into editing briefs as well, all for people she was content to never meet.
All the same, even she had to leave the house sometime. And while the postcard from SANE made her smirk, she didn’t throw it out. Single And Networking Exclusively! was a pretty good idea, really – a luncheon for single professionals to network, where nobody would be looking for your wedding ring as a sign of your “stability” and fitness for a job. Nothing frosted her Twinkies like hearing people with kids saying that the single and childless were free to travel for work or change jobs because they had “no responsibilities.” Ha! She thought. All day I work and not a single cup gets rinsed if I’m not there to do it. Well, maybe when I’m a sorceress I can get some magic elves to come in at night and do the laundry for me.
And of course the “Networking Exclusively” bit was a sham. The idea was that it was not, not, not a dating pool, but of course anywhere there were young horny single people, it was a meat market, right?
Young, horny, good-looking single people, she thought, her eyes drawn to a man a few tables away. And drawn was the right word – the way a movie star draws your eyes from everyone else on screen around them, this guy had that going on in spades.
She wasn’t usually attracted to that type. Dark blond hair, blue eyes just crinkling around the edges, sort of foxy-faced – Russian or something. He had those fantastic Slavic cheekbones, and really good skin. Celia could tell the condition of a man’s body from his jawline, and this guy was ripped. He had a little smile on his face, that the ignorant might think meant he was enjoying the speech, but that she could see was actually amused boredom.
He didn’t turn his head, but his eyes met Celia’s. Piercing blue eyes, crystal blue eyes, that held hers. She blinked and looked away. Stupid! She thought, why did you look away? Damn, he is hot. H A W T Hot. She looked back. He was still looking at her, still smiling, waiting for the return of her gaze. She smiled back. He nodded.
Suddenly the woman at the podium ran out of gas, stopping in mid-sentence. “That’s it, thank you,” she said, surprising herself as much as the room with her abrupt conclusion. Scattered clapping, from an audience thrown off guard by the absence of the usual boilerplate summary.
People were getting up now, including the foxy guy, heading for the bar. Well, “bar” was a misnomer, when there wasn’t any booze being served. A Coke would go well with the Jack Daniels in her flask, if she could find a way to get it in there…
“It’s just wrong, isn’t it?” a voice asked from behind her, and she knew it was him. It was too smooth, warm, and confident to belong to anyone else in the room.
She turned to face him. He was taller than she’d expected, six two at least. And wow, that tailored shirt really showed off those sturdy shoulders and that little waist. She could feel the heat coming off him from three feet away.
“A bar with no booze?” she said.
He nodded. “Yes. Criminal. Shall we remedy that?”
“I have a flask in my purse.”
He raised an eyebrow in surprise and appreciation. “I was going to suggest we make a break for it.” He extended his hand. “I’m Phil.”
“Celia.” She took it.
Little earthquakes inside her ensued. His hand was big, warm, with some serious weightlifter calluses. Like she didn’t already know the dude worked out. Celia had been seduced by the best, and without exception it had taken more time and more effort than this until now. She struggled now to make it a challenge for him, for her own pride’s sake as much as anything else.
“So you, uh, network much at these things?” she asked, her meaning clear enough.
He laughed. “No, no. I’m here as a favor to a colleague. In my profession I don’t really need to be waving business cards around.”
“And that would be?”
“I’m a doctor.”
A flicker of irritation crossed his face, to Celia’s satisfaction. Like a lot of male doctors, the very fact of his doctorage was supposed to make women swoon. But Celia didn’t like smugness, and besides, he could be a chiropractor for all she knew.
“I’m an MD. Gynecologist. And, I have a PhD in Philosophy. So a real doctor, and a fake doctor.”
It was Celia’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Impressive.”
“You don’t seem too impressed,” he said, the charm back on. How did a man with such cool blue eyes use them to project such heat, she wondered? They felt like blue laser beams, directed with precision at the, um, horny cortex or whatever part of her brain ran that stuff. He surely knew what it was called, what with being a doctor and all.
“I’m just a J.D., myself, so actually, yeah, I am in awe. That’s more schooling than I would want to endure.”
“What kind of law do you practice?”
“I don’t. I hate the actual practice. I’m a writer for hire. Never see the inside of a courtroom.”
“You will,” he said, before catching himself. “That is, you never know. What the future holds.”
“Well, right now, the future holds a stiff drink. Shall we?”
CHAPTER TWO – IN WHICH SOL ACQUIRES (OR IS ACQUIRED BY) THE MANDATORY FAMILIAR AND LEARNS OF THE GREAT AND TERRIBLE JEFF
I picked Gary up from the Doggie Spa, where he’d been pampered and played with like a lord while I was gone. He sniffed my suitcase and looked up at me. “Ruh roh,” he said.
“Very funny. You can smell it, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.” The book seemed to weigh ten times what it should, and I thought for sure my suitcase would be over the weight limit when I checked it in at the airport. The hunky check-in guy looked perplexed, too, when he hoisted it off the scale – it had come in well under 50 pounds, so he picked it up as such, only to have a bag of cinderblocks nearly dislocate his shoulder.
“I’m getting weak,” he smiled, even though there was no chance of that. One of his bright blue eyes winked at me before he turned around and I watched his powerful back in his tight white uniform shirt strain to move my luggage onto the conveyor. Rob, I thought, dammit, I’m so frustrated…
He caught me looking, too. “Anything else I can help you with?” he grinned.
“N…gack. Uh, no. Thanks.”
Another wink. “Thanks for flying with us. Hope to see you back here soon.”
“Thanks, me too.” Gack!
Well, let me tell you. If there’s anything worse than being in the desert for ages, it’s coming to an oasis, where you drink deeply of its fresh cool water, nap under its shady trees, eat your fill of dates and coconuts…and then get expelled back into the desert again, with nothing. I could barely walk, I was suddenly so horny.
Then there was the hot flight attendant, who kept bending over in his tight blue pants where I could see his ass. Then there was the cab driver, who kept looking at me in the mirror, his dark eyes flashing. What was this all about? Suddenly now that I was unavailable, everyone wanted me.
When I got home, I set these thoughts aside. I had to unpack right away – just a thing I inherited from Mom, the need to get everything back in its place before I could feel like I was really home. The book was at the bottom of the suitcase, and when I took it out, I felt its supernatural weight like a millstone. The oiled parchment that bound it was marked with strange symbols, and the wax seal was emblazoned with the familiar Seal of Solomon:
I frowned. I’d done enough reading to know that the rest of the symbols weren’t real magical symbols, but rather the kind of made-up mumbo jumbo that stage magicians of old used in their posters. Of course, that’s exactly what Uncle Ethan had been, so no surprise there. Maybe that was the point, to make it look like a big phony book so people would lose interest.
So why did it weigh so much if it was phony? Maybe it wasn’t a book after all, but one of those tricks in old movies where the pages were cut out to make room for a gun or something.
All the same, safety first. My encounter with Phoenix and my brief stint as a bird had taught me that one. So I put on what I thought of now as my “sorcerer scrubs,” the loose cotton pants and shirt with no unnatural fibers that Rob had prescribed, tucked my wand in my pocket, and took the book down to the basement.
Rob had built me a magicking room down there, transforming a dingy walk-in closet into a wood-paneled haven. I put the book on the cedar altar and composed myself.
Magic, or magick, really, to distinguish it from stage tricks, is a highly misunderstood science. You heard me – science. You’re doing things to alter nature, generating energies, moving things around. All the laws of nature still apply; it’s just that there are more laws of nature than some people acknowledge or understand yet. The thing most people get wrong is this idea that it’s all about the mumbo-jumbo, that you have to chant “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho!” or something in Ye Olde Englishe, as if spirits were somehow still mentally stuck in ancient Egypt, or the Renaissance at the latest.
That’s probably because there haven’t been many books on magic, real books on magic, written since the Renaissance, and the charlatans hide behind the Dost Thou Appeareths and whatnot because it makes gullible people think it’s more authentic. It’s really no different from all the drab apartment complexes with names like Quail Pointe; as if that extra “e” is the Mark of Quality that magically transformed your paper thin walls into an aristocrat’s hunting lodge.
But I can vouch for the fact that spirits, daemons, walk among us now enjoying all the benefits of modern times, and have no desire whatsoever to return to the days of old when you couldn’t even get a decent glass of water without using sorcery to remove all the lead and bacteria. Which also means you can summon them in plain English, though it does take a little rhyming to get their attention. You don’t have to be Lord Byron, but they appreciate it when you make an effort.
So, not knowing what spirits might be summoned by the cracking of the wax seal, I pulled out my wand, put the tip of it on the Seal of Solomon pressed into the wax, and closed my eyes.
I Solomon, having been chosen to receive this gift of learning,
(Technically I should have called it a grimoire, but nothing rhymes with that. Not much rhymes with book, either. Or tome. So yeah, even though you get to use plain English, casting spells isn’t as easy as you might think.)
I Solomon, master of all that lies beneath my seal,
This work is justly mine, for I am not of the undiscerning,
Let any who doubt it try me, and fall under Solomon’s heel.
The seal cracked in half with a neat snap, startling me. Nothing else happened, though, which was good at this point. I gingerly unwrapped the paper to reveal the book. I half smiled as I thought of the scene from “The Mummy” where Rachel Weisz starts reading some old spell out of the big black tome, and the little guy jumps up screaming “NO! YOU MUST NOT READ FROM THE BOOK!”
But “The Book” wasn’t what I expected. Like, at all. It was a cheap paperback – more of a fat pamphlet really, with a lurid black and white cover. Well, more black and yellow, as the pages were made from old pulp magazine paper.
THE WORLD’S GREATEST MAGICIAN
THE DARK LORD MELVIN
SECRETS OF THE ANCIENTS
GOVERNANCE OF SPIRITS
THE KEYS TO WEALTH, PROTECTION FROM HARM, AND CONQUEST OF ENEMIES
The cover drawing was of an Edwardian-looking old fud with a twirly moustache, wearing a tuxedo covered in Hebrew letters and Egyptian hieroglyphics, with a Mason’s chain of office around his neck. He had one foot on top of a globe, the other perched on a pile of old books, with a wand in one hand and a sword in the other. All of which was a pretty magical balancing act in itself.
I gingerly turned the pages, skimming the “autobiography” of The Dark Lord Melvin. It began with his alleged birth under the sign of Saturn on the banks of the Nile, to a father who was “a magician of note from Chaldea” and a mother who was “the last in a line of Egyptian priestesses of Isis.” Then there was his kidnapping by Arabs, his secret initiation into the mysteries of the Ethiops, his discovery in the Himalayas of the lost books of Albertus Magnus, etc. etc. Finally, halfway through, there were a hodgepodge of spells that would allegedly curse enemies, make women fall in love with you, help you find buried treasure, and fulfill all the other usual petty human desires.
I sighed. Dammit, Uncle Ethan, you must have lost it in your old age. This was junk. I knew from my reading that this kind of thing had been wildly popular in the 1920s and 30s, and its spells for finding love and destroying rivals and unveiling buried treasure all called for the use of various roots, oils, and candles…which just happened to be the same products sold in the “hoodoo” stores that would also carry the book. The publishers of these books and the providers of the associated products had mostly been white men preying on the African-American community, charging a dollar for this “learning” to the gullible and desperate, who would then spend even more to acquire the ingredients necessary for the useless spells.
The only thing I noticed that was odd was that the edges of the paper, which I’d originally thought raggedy with age, were cut strangely. Down each page’s edge was a series of about two dozen cutouts – half circles, triangles, half squares, all in a random order that indicated far more labor expended than a printing press devoted to this kind of cheap trash would have gone to. It was as if someone had taken three of those reward-card punchers, you know, buy 10 sandwiches and get one free, and gone to town on the paper.
I lifted the book, nearly sending it sailing across the room – I’d budgeted enough energy to hoist a heavy object, but now it was as light as, well, as the yellow crumbly paper it was printed on. All the “weight” had been in the spell around it.
A slip of paper fell out and curled lazily to the floor. I picked it up. It was a typewritten note from Uncle Ethan.
I know it doesn’t look like much, but there are diamonds in here! I always knew you’d be the one to inherit this, little buddy. Use it wisely, Solomon King…
I swallowed. How did he know then what I’d learned so recently myself – that I was the descendant of King Solomon, and inheritor of his sorcerous gifts as well as, even better, the boon companionship of Rob Sabat, aka Barbatos? And how, knowing that, could he be so very wrong about the book?
“Unless he’s not,” I heard a sultry female voice say, and I nearly had skin failure. I whipped around but there was nobody there.
“Reveal yourself,” I commanded.
She sighed. “I am revealed. I’m just outside. I can’t get into your little magic box on my own.”
I dashed up the stairs and flung open the back door. I remembered to set the wand down before going outside – I didn’t want any neighbors seeing me being a totally crazy person, especially since I was already talking to invisible women.
“Where are you?”
“Down here,” she said, and I felt the whisper of fur against my leg.
I looked down to see a sweet, innocent-looking orange kitty cat looking up at me with wide green eyes. “Meow?” she said.
Behind me I heard Gary making threatening noises. “Oh stuff it, dog,” the cat said scornfully.
“Bad news,” Gary growled. “Bad kitty.”
She raised an eyebrow (well, it looked like she did, even though cats don’t have eyebrows) and licked her paw.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
She finished her ablutions before answering. “I am Lucy. Phoenix sent me to help you learn the Secrets of the Ancients.”
“Oh brother,” Gary groaned. But something about the term she’d just used bothered me – where had I heard it before?
She didn’t answer, just walked inside, and Gary let her, backing away as if her orange fur would burn him if it touched him.
“Phoenix sent you. That means, I take it, that Phoenix isn’t coming himself?”
She jumped up on the kitchen counter and started licking the faucet, lapping at the drops of water on the end of it. “He said he’d help you. He didn’t promise to move in with you.”
“Stop that,” I said, picking her up. She hissed at me as I plopped her on the floor. “You touch your butt with that tongue.”
“My butt,” she said, “is cleaner than your kitchen.”
“Well, the maids are due to come in this week,” I replied in my own defense. She went to drink out of Gary’s bowl but a more serious growl from him gave her pause.
I could tell what she was thinking. “He is bigger than you,” I reminded her.
“Yes. But I’m your familiar.”
“All witches need familiars.”
“I’m not a witch. And I have Gary.”
She laughed. “Oh, a dog as a familiar. Oh, that’s rich. You don’t know much, do you?”
I filled a second bowl with water and set it down. “There. That’s yours.”
“Thank you,” she said, rubbing against me. “I can see I’ll be very happy here.”
“Shit,” Gary said, skulking off.
“You really should have him put down,” she advised me.
I grabbed her by the scruff and lifted her. She gave a squawk of surprise but biology trumped her struggle – cats automatically go limp when you pick them up that way, because it’s how their moms picked them up as kittens. You’re not supposed to do it with grown cats, especially one as big and heavy as Lucy, but I had a point to make, and besides, she wasn’t a normal cat.
I held her in front of my face. “Let’s get something straight. I am Kitty #1 in this house. Gary is Kitty #2. That makes you Kitty #3. Get it?”
She held my gaze, the backs of her eyes orange with rage. But then, finally, she looked away, the kitty sign of submission. “Yes, my lord.”
I checked for sarcasm in her tone or face. There was none. I put her down.
She licked herself as if to repair the damaged to her injured psyche. When she was finished she jumped up onto the back of the couch, made herself comfortable, and said, “Okay then.”
I sat down on the couch, turned to face her. “So. Tell me about this great and terrible sorcerer who’s draining Phoenix.”
“Oh, you want to know about Jeff.”
“Jeff?” Gary barked with laughter.
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Jeff the Sorcerer? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. Jeff Faustus is not a joke.”
“Okay fine. So what’s the story?”
She yawned. “It’s time for my nap. Why don’t you Google him and we can talk after that?” She put her head down, and closed her eyes.
“Wow, you’re a great help already,” I said, but she was out cold. “Fine. Come on Gary, let’s do some computing.”
Gary was glad to follow me into the office and take up residence on his dog bed while I Googled. A search on Jeff Faustus brought up a surprising number of news articles.
Another win for Faustus; VC whiz scores another hit IPO. Faustus corners market on soybeans for one hour; SEC to investigate. SEC clears Faustus. Who’s got the biggest one now; Faustus’ new yacht is nine inches longer than Larry Ellison’s. Jeff Faustus is America’s second youngest billionaire – and he’s available, ladies!
“Hmm,” I said, checking out pictures of Jeff at play. He was tall, lean, fit…hot. If I wasn’t with Rob, yeah, I’d totally do him. He looked like a bad date but a great lay, if you know what I mean. He had that “dark preppy” thing going, the floppy blond Brideshead bangs and aristocratic face, but with something more…feral, more savage in his eyes than you usually saw in the scions of privilege.
That was because he wasn’t from privilege, I discovered. Jeff had grown up hard in Pennsylvania, his father a steel worker and his mother a…hmm. A fortune teller in Germantown.
Locks started tumbling in my head. Now, Germantown, PA may not mean much to you, but for a while in this country, it was quite the hotbed of occultism. It was founded in the late 1600s by followers of Johann Zimmermann, a German mathematician, astrologer and mystic, who with the usual millennial fervor thought Christ would be returning at the turn of the century and who decided that the American wilderness would be a suitable place to await Armageddon. He died before making this dream come true, but various crackpots took his dream in hand and emigrated to found a community of celibates (a doomed deal if ever there was one, but then, if you think the world is ending in a couple years, you don’t exactly have to plan for the future of your community).
After the world didn’t end in 1700, celibacy lost its charms for most of them and they moved away; the remainder channeled all that repressed sexual energy into occultism, mysticism and exploration of things that would have probably gotten them burned at the stake back home. Eventually Germantown got a reputation as a center for magic, alchemy, divination, geomancy, et cetera.
The majority of images on Google Image Search seemed to be of Jeff with various women – sexy women. More than one, usually. But something looked…off about them. I clicked on a few images, blew them up onscreen. It was their eyes. They looked hypnotized. I started digging deeper.
Shalaya Retires! Diva’s Shocking Announcement! Shalaya was a megastar, a singer who’d just branched, promisingly, into acting, before she suddenly declared about six months ago that she was done, finished with all of it. Then, there she was in a grainy paparazzi photo, laying as if dead on a chaise lounge on the bow of Jeff’s yacht.
Vanity Fair party pictures seemed to feature Jeff every month, his gorgeous face the centerpiece of the collages of short fat bald hideously evil billionaires and their social x-ray wives. Pediatric Cancer Foundation benefactor Jeffrey Faustus seen here attending the Foundation’s gala with Dr. Jane Scott, lead researcher. Wow she was hot, even for a girl – she looked like Denise Richards, but it was Denise Richards with a giant brain. She had that giant Denise Richards smile, too, the smile of someone totally happy and satisfied with life.
I Googled her and found a more recent article. Family befuddled by doctor’s retirement, withdrawal from public life. Then there she was again, seen not in a dazzling designer dress but in a short little “drunk chick” dress stumbling out of a nightclub behind Jeff. And those eyes…the same eyes as the others, dead, flat, stoned.
“I’m starting to see a pattern here,” I said to myself.
I jumped, knocking Lucy off the back of my chair where she’d crept up on me. “Don’t do that!”
“Well,” she said. “You’re not as dumb as I thought. Even if you are thick as a brick about the book.”
“What do you mean?”
“God, if you can’t figure that out, I give up.” She walked out again.
“Fucking cat,” Gary said.
“Stop that,” I told him. “It’s not permanent, you know.”
“Oh yeah. I totally promise.”