They met in a cafe off Union Square. To anyone passing on the street, they were two men enjoying a cup of coffee. No one noticed. They were all too busy staring at the chirping, scratching, cawing mass of birds that had gathered in the park. Every spectator assumed the feral cats had come for the birds. But I would learn later that they -- all of them -- were there to watch.
Both men were punctual. There were polite introductions but no handshake. The hostess directed them to a small table in the middle of the cafe. It was a two-spot with barely enough room. Magnus, the warlock, was in an expensive suit. He set his briefcase next to his chair.
Etranger was, like always, dressed simply but finely. He came with nothing. He left with nothing.
Magnus wasn’t what I expected. He was sharp-looking but not so exceptionally handsome as I had been led to believe. He looked like any Wall Street douche. But then that was the point, I suppose.
The men were silent at first, which is just as well. It gave me a moment to fine-tune the parabolic dish I was using to listen from the second floor of the building across the street. Thankfully the cafe had plenty of large windows, and I had an unobstructed view.
After the introductions, there were several moments of silence. A waitress delivered coffee.
Magnus turned a large carved ring on his right hand, then he lifted the hand to his face and pulled down on the lower lid of one eye. He kept the other eye closed and scanned the cafe slowly. When he was done, he blinked several times. “The old evil eye. One of the first tricks you learn as a warlock.” He took a drink of coffee.
Etude nodded impatiently. “I’m aware of that.”
“Everyone thinks it’s power is sending evil -- curses and all that -- but I’ve found it’s real value is in seeing it.” Magnus pointed. “The man in the corner with the plump face and the big smile is a husband and father of three. He tests software and likes to set fires. He’s razed several old buildings and fantasizes about burning people alive. He burned the family pet and has unfulfilled plans for a few colleagues. He wants to see their skin bubble and flake and fly into the air with the heat.
“The dark-skinned woman behind me, the one reading Maya Angelou, is a thief. Shoplifting mostly, but she’s taken from her employer before. Tens and twenties.
“Our waitress, Debbie, had sex with her sister’s husband two nights before the wedding. That was several years ago. She still likes to think about it while masturbating. Isn’t that sad? The best sex of her life was that which secretly humiliated her big sister.”
Etranger was impatient.
“And you.” The warlock motioned to his companion. “You have more black in your heart than anyone in this restaurant.”
“True.” Magnus took a sip of his coffee. “But then that was always a given.” He looked at Etude’s chest, at his heart. “How long do you think you can keep using the chair?”
“Do you really think you can keep him chained forever?”
“I will not talk of the demon.”
“Amaimon. Say his name.”
“He’s older than the pyramids, older than writing, older than us. You think he’s not patient? You think he’s not gnawing on your soul every time you sit on his throne? I can see. You have teeth marks on your heart.”
Etranger looked down at the table. It was true. He knew it. He looked into his adversary’s eyes. “But it still beats.”
"You mean unlike mine?" Magnus beamed and fiddled with his Rolex. “Etude fucking Etranger. Sitting here drinking crappy coffee with me.”
“I will not touch it.” It was true. Etude’s cup was undisturbed.
Magnus laughed. “You know, when I first heard about the Wickedary, I thought it would be bound in human skin like something from a movie.” He reached down and pulled a hardbound journal from his briefcase. He turned it in his hands. Then he set it on the table.
Etude stared. He hadn’t seen it in years. It was weathered at the edges. Some of the pages were dog-eared. Other than that, it looked exactly the same. He reached for it, but his arm stopped halfway as if frozen by a stroke. After a moment, he pulled back.
“Dragon’s tears.” The warlock was proud. “Not even the great heretic himself can open it. Not without the key.” He smiled. He was always smiling. “Sometimes it helps to be the son of a vizier.” He picked up the journal again and opened it. He flipped through the pages as he spoke. “When I first got my hands on it, I thought I’d been cheated. Then I thought you masked its true appearance somehow. But no.” He admired it. “I had it x-rayed. It’s just a journal. Paper and cardboard and a little cloth. Filled with notes and scribblings.” He looked at his companion. “Why medieval French?”
“It has a certain poetry.”
“Damned hard to read. One of my favorite lines though -- it’s just a little note in the margin, not even a whole sentence, scratched in pencil. It gives the definition of shaman. The original definition, from back before the Indo-Europeans conquered the world. Transliterates as ‘dream-walker’ or ‘ghost-walker.’ No difference, right? He who walks in death. But that’s just the transliteration. It’s not what it means.”
The chef didn’t respond.
“It means he who cannot die.” Magnus smiled at Etude. “I could kill you ten-thousand times, couldn’t I? It wouldn’t make any difference.”
“Why are we here?”
“I thought we should meet. Before, you know . . .” Magnus smiled again at the waitress as she passed. “Before anything else happens between us. I’ll admit, I hoped we could be something other than enemies.” He looked Etude in the eyes. “But you’re just dead-set on causing trouble, aren’t you?”
Etranger returned the gaze. The men were evenly matched.
Magnus went on. “What you did with Cerise, though . . . Even I have to admit, that was brilliant. I’m not even mad about that.” The warlock waved it off.
“Well . . .” Magnus shrugged. “Not anymore.”
“So where is she?”
Magnus smiled wider. “If you say so. But if you do ever speak to her, be sure to tell her I said ‘no hard feelings.’”
“You were going to have her ritually slaughtered so you could consume her soul.”
The waitress stopped at the table and stared at Etude. A pot of coffee sloshed in her hand. Her mouth was pursed. She was unable to ask if anyone needed a refill.
Magnus chuckled and lifted his mug. “Thank you. You’ll have to forgive my friend. He’s writing a screenplay.” The warlock looked out on the world with an easy smile, a genuine smile, as if everything and everyone were his favorite toy.
“Oh really?” the waitress turned to the chef as if waiting for more information.
The warlock leaned closer to her. “You always wear a little blue, don’t you?”
The waitress turned back. “How did you know?”
Magnus lifted a finger to frame her chin. “Because it makes your skin glow.”
The waitress flushed before walking to another table.
Magnus turned back to Etude. “You see what I did there?”
“I don’t require a lesson in magic.”
“I just made her feel good. With nothing but words.” Magnus’s fingers followed the breath from his mouth. “So tell me the spell that will make you go away.”
“Give me the book.”
“Then there is nothing else to discuss.” The chef was adamant.
Magnus made a face and sat back in his chair. “Everybody wants something.”
“This isn’t a business negotiation.”
“Everything’s a business negotiation. Because everything is business.”
“I want the book.”
“The things that are in here . . . This is geni-- You are a genius. There’s another little note. Let’s see. Where is it?” The warlock flipped through the pages again. “Here.” He read. “Gnashing of fig root tears the veil.” He shut the journal. “It took me forever to figure that one out.”
Etranger clenched his fists under the table. “Evil without name has entered this world. Because of that book. Even now, it walks free and commits unspeakable horrors.”
Magnus rested on his elbows. He was calm. Amused. “Evil didn’t come in through the book. The book is just ink and paper. It came through you, Etude. You birthed it. You gave it life.”
The chef looked away.
“Oh, don’t let it bother you.” Magnus’s voice seemed different now. Deeper. Caked in night. “Did it never occur to you that you were just a vessel? The canal through which truths wriggled in being? Or is that too much for your genius ego? Release your burden. Is a father responsible for the crimes of his children?”
“No.” Etude was resolute. He stood. “But I am responsible for that book.” The chef turned and walked out of the cafe as the menagerie in the park scattered like leaves.
from BONEWHITE, the unfinished third installment of my occult mystery series about a shaman-chef. there will be five "cases," one for each side of the pentagram, at which point they will be collected in print. each is told from the point of view of a different narrator.