“The Enjoyment Club. What do you know about them?”
“Is that what this is about? Some glorified ghost story?”
“Don’t you go there, Devin Murdock. You know just as well as I do that there’s more to them than that. Or have I overestimated you?”
“Chill, Nessa, I just–”
“Well, okay, Vahri. I was just hoping you’d be here to see me, not to ask about some stupid deathtrap knowledge I’d rather not have in the first place.”
“Well, sorry to disappoint you then.”
“Jeez, you’re different. What happen to us, Ness… Vahri?”
“You being a fucking idiot, that’s what happened. I didn’t even fucking know what sacromancy was when they came to interrogate me about you. But I’ve understood a couple of things since then, and I’ve gotta give it to you straight: you’re not sane. Can’t be. Nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with that sick stuff. I wouldn’t even be here right now if you weren’t the only one I’m able to think of that’d know anything useful about the Club. And that’s not a compliment.”
“Wow, that was quite the telling off. But okay Vahri, or whatever you call yourself nowadays. What makes you think I’d be willing to tell you anything about that shit? It’s not like we’re close anymore, and last I checked I don’t owe you anything.”
“Sure, that’s true. But you know what’s true as well? I’ll tell you. You don’t want people to know you’re here. I apparently know you’re here, and I have a mouth. Do the equation.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t.”
“I could kill you, you know. Or do something about this mouth problem of yours. It wouldn’t be difficult.”
“I guess it wouldn’t. But I also guess you’d not be very keen on tasting the wrath of my pet djinn afterwards. I’m under the impression you’ve got quite enough on your hands already, what with the coven inquisition having put a price on your head and all that. Am I wrong?”
A moment of silence. “Okay, you win. I guess it can’t hurt. Well, not me, at least. If you want to know about the Club, I’ll tell you about the Club. But don’t come running back to me when you get your fingers burned, okay?”
“Drop the drama and just tell me already.”
“Sure, I will. But on one condition.”
“And what is that?”
“You have to do something for me in return.”
“Dev, if this is some kind of–”
“Hell, nothing like that. Shit, Vahri, is that what you think of me? No, I want you to help me with two things. They’re kind of related but not in an obvious way. First, I want you to do something about a ghost problem I have…”
Vahri sighs as she ascends the creaking stairs leading up to the second floor. Is this what things have come to? Her doing ghost busting favors for her psycho ex-boyfriend in return for information about stupid ghost stories turned reality overnight?
She has already tried asking Neferthali about The Club, but her vampire godmother either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell. “It’s just stories and myths, child. Terrible stories, but stories nevertheless. Stay clear of them and they can’t hurt you. If someone is after that djinn boy, just make sure not to get involved”, was all she had to say before trying to convince Vahri to lock herself inside a secret panic flat together with her. Just stories my ass.
Suffice to say, Vahri did not accept the bunker invitation. Instead here she is, on the second floor of the haunted villa where Devin has decided to hole up for some reason. He hasn’t told her yet what the other service required of her is going to be, but this first task in itself already feels like a handful.
She wipes dust from an old standing mirror with her hand. “Anybody here? Ghosts?” She speaks right at her own reflection, hoping for some kind of reaction. When nothing happens and she still only sees herself in the old pane of silvered glass she turns away and continues down the hall.
Grains of dust hover in the air, glittering in the shafts of sunlight falling through the cracks in the boarded up windows. The floorboards creak under her weight and everything carries a faint smell of dried up mold.
She opens a door to her right and stops dead on the threshold. She’s found one of the bedrooms. A four-poster bed occupies the center of the room, and on top of the covers lies a dead woman. She must have been dead for a long time, judging by the putrid smell that makes breathing almost unbearable in here.
“Devin, have you killed someone up here?”, Vahri yells down the stairs. But before she’s gotten an answer from below, the corpse on the bed starts rising up into a sitting position. Vahri watches the old woman slowly, slowly straightening up, until the worn pink night-gown slides off her bony shoulders to reveal more wrinkled skin than Vahri is prepared to take in.
“Fuck this”, she says and slams the door shut. She then hurries down the stairs, almost knocking Devin over on her way down.
“What’s going on?”, he says as he grabs her by the shoulders.
She frees herself, not wanting him to see how shaken she is. “There’s a dead woman upstairs”, she says. “At first I thought she was one of your unfortunate acquaintances, but then she moved so I figure she’s rather one of your unfortunate ghosts.
He stares at her and swallows hard. “There’s a… dead woman upstairs?”
“No, it’s a paper duck. Didn’t I just tell you? This house has big problems, I can feel it just by breathing the air in here. Do you really want to stay here?”
“I don’t have much of a choice, as I see it.”
“Well, then I recommend you get an exorcist.”
“I tried that already, but he wouldn’t come.”
“Who wouldn’t come?”
“Carlos Batista. He got me this house and–”
“Carlos is a wussy nowadays, ever since he met Cornelia. I can see why he wouldn’t wanna get involved with someone like you. I’m surprised he even helped you with the house. No, I mean a real exorcist. Or a priest. I know one we could call.”
“And who might that be?”, he says. She can tell he’s starting to crank up; he’s doing that thing with his eyebrows that he always does when something is irritating him.
“Relax, Dev. Let’s go into the kitchen again. The spirits seemed to be quieter in there.” She walks before him through the doorway as she continues talking. “There’s this freelance priest from New Orleans called Seth Pasco or something like that. Found her on Craig’s List a couple of years ago when I needed to get rid of a curse some stupid bitch cast on me for sleeping with her ex. I think I still have her number.”
“No, the exorcist of course. Please tell me you’re just faking stupidity now.”
She sits down at the table and starts looking through her contacts. He remains standing, hovering in the doorway like yet another restless ghost. “And why is it I have never heard of this miracle priest?”
“Honey, please. Just accept that you don’t know everything. Besides, she’s pretty young. Ah, here she is!”, Vahri says triumphantly as she finds the right number in her loaded contact list. “It’s Seth Pascal, actually.
“Pascal? Like the philosopher?”
“Stop trying to collect intellectual points, Devin. I’m calling her, and then you’re telling me what you know about the Club, okay?”
“But there’s this other thing I need your help with too, remember?”
She sighs. “I help you get in contact with Seth, and then you tell me what I need to know. Then I’ll come back and help you with your mystery quest, I promise.”
“A promise is not good enough.”
“What do you want then?”
“An oath. A real one, with blood.”
“Dev, don’t be child–”
“It’s either that, or the whole deal is off. You choose.”
Another sigh, deeper this time. “Okay, sure, fine. We’ll do it your way. Let’s not waste any more time.” She retrieves a small knife from her pocket and draws a sharp, red line across the palm of her right hand. Small drops of blood begin to emerge as soon as her body starts realizing it has been cut.
He stares at her in disbelief for several heartbeats, before catching himself and stepping up to the table where she’s sitting. “That was… I mean, I didn’t necessarily mean we had to–”
“It’s dripping on your floor, Devin. Get to it already.” She hands him the knife while catching stray drops of blood with her free hand.
Devin grabs the knife and repeats her gesture. His movements are trained, as if he’s done this a million times before. She definitely does not doubt this is actually the case. He extends his injured hand towards her, and she takes it in hers.
“Now swear”, he says in such a cold and matter-of-fact way as to make her almost shiver. Was he always this… dark?
She looks into his deep, black eyes and suddenly wonders for the first time what she is really getting herself into. A blood pact with someone like him could very well warrant harsh punishment if somebody found out. Very harsh punishment indeed. He’s a sacromancer, which means he meddles with black magic. That’s what he was exiled for all those years ago, and back when it happened it was only her own youth, ignorance and innocence that saved her from being suspected of the same crime. But that was a long time ago, and she is neither ignorant nor innocent anymore. Especially not after this.
His grip is firm and she can feel warm blood pulsing between their palms. The morbid intimacy of the moment is strengthened by the intense hold of his dark gaze. She could not break neither eye contact nor grip even if she had wanted to. But she is determined to go through with this, if that is what it takes.
“I, Vahri, swear –“
“True names here”, he says sternly.
She catches herself, a little embarrassed for not knowing this already. Hastily she corrects herself. “Ehm. I, Vanessa Heike Riley, swear to uphold my part of the bargain and thus to the best of my ability assist Devin Murdock in his mystery quest, after he tells me all he knows about the Enjoyment Club.”
Devin nods solemnly, still not breaking eye contact. “And I, Devin Benjamin Murdock, in return swear to tell Vanessa Heike Riley all I know about the Enjoyment Club. And to take her out on a date once all this is done and over with.”
He flashes her a crooked smile, and before she has time to protest or react she can feel him sealing the blood pact. The air starts shimmering with static and the restless creaking and moaning from the house’s old residents grows entirely silent for a moment. Vahri feels the blood between their palms burning like acid. It is burning its way back through the wound in her hand and straight up through her veins. For a heartbeat her entire cardiovascular system is burning with arcane fire, and still she cannot break eye contact with him. She stares helplessly into his dark eyes as the pact etches itself into her very being, her very soul.
It is all over in the blink of an eye, but when the intense, searing pain is suddenly gone she still finds herself sitting there, gasping for air, grasping his hand and staring into his eyes. He smiles, and she hastily catches herself. She lets go of his hand and wipes the blood off her hand and onto her black jeans.
“’Nothing like this’ my ass”, she snarls and pushes past him, out into the hallway.
He takes up position in the doorway behind her again, leaning against the door frame in a casual way that she deems has to have been rehearsed beforehand. “Come on, Nessa. Don’t be like that. I’m just having some fun. You should try that too, some time.”
“I didn’t swear to go with you on any fucking date”, she snaps. “I’m here for information, nothing else.”
He sighs. “Alright, then. I’m sorry for that. If you won’t go out with me later I guess the penalty of breaking the pact is on me. No harm done to you, right?”
“Right”, she says, arms crossed. “So before you pull any more of your immature pranks, I guess I’d better call this Pascal girl and get things moving. And then comes the part where you tell me what you know.” She turns her back on him and walks into the living room, already dialing Seth Pascal’s number.
As she listens to the dialing tones she can hear Devin teasingly mutter behind her.
“You might still change your mind before this is over, though”, he says. But she chooses to ignore him.
He is sitting on the porch, smoking a tellingly asymmetrical cigarette, when she joins him again. He seems to be trying hard not to question her about the phone call right away. He waits until she is seated on the stairs next to him before eagerly turning to her.
“So?”, he says.
She takes the cigarette from his hand without being offered, and draws a deep breath from its sweet fumes. “She’ll come”, she says without looking at him. Instead she lets her eyes sweep the garden in front of the house. It must have once been beautiful, but tear and neglect has rather turned it into something that could have been commissioned for October 31:th.
“She will?”, he says when she does not elaborate. “When? And how will this be done?”
Vahri flicks away the cigarette and rises from the cold step. “She said she would catch the first plane here from New Orleans. And I gave her your number, so you two can work out the details. Now it’s your turn. Come.”
She walks down the remaining steps and onto the crusty grass. She doesn’t wait for him, but starts walking through the garden. Old dried leaves rustle beneath her feet as she passes in between overgrown bushes and apple trees gone wild. She can hear quick steps from behind as he hurries to catch up with her.
“Wait, how do you even have my number?”, he says.
“The dead girl in the living room told me”, she says. “Anyways, this is where you tell me what you know. So shoot.”
There’s a large fountain hidden amidst the tall cypress trees in the garden and it smells of decades of mold. It is filled with brown rain water and old rotten leaves. She sits down on the rock frame encircling it and pats on the mossy stone next to her. “Sit.”
He does as he is told and throws a fascinated glance around the place where they have ended up. She gets the feeling that he has not been in this part of the garden before. Maybe he hasn’t even left the house at all since coming here.
“Well”, he says hesitantly. “I don’t know how much you know already, but–”
“Pretend I know nothing”, she interrupts and tries to seem like this is not uncomfortably close to the truth.
“Okay then”, he says after a moment of silence. “The Club is nasty business and I actually wish I never heard about them. But a promise it a promise, so here goes.”
And he starts talking. Starts telling her about an organization so old and so ruthless that it has slowly rotted from the inside. He tells her about mad men and women with endless resources and one goal in life and one goal only: to attain pleasure at the expense of others, and often at the expense of people like her and him; creatures above and beyond the ordinary. Supernatural creatures.
He tells her about mages, vampires, werewolves and changelings falling victim to these madmen’s singular tastes, to their novel sexual urges and their sadistic needs for knowledge and domination. He gives her horrific accounts of wolf-bloods being cooked and eaten alive, of vampire kindred being locked up and used as toys, of magicians being tortured and mutilated for fun and later murdered, cremated and turned into powder subsequently used as expensive cocktail components.
The day is warm but Vahri can’t help shivering as she sits there, listening to Dev’s morbid horror story that alas is not a story at all but a report of true and terrible events. By the time he is finished she feels sick, and the putrid stench from the murky water behind her suddenly summons entirely different images to her mind than it did before he began talking.
She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Fuck”, she says quietly and he only nods. They sit there in silence for a while, Devin seeming almost as pale and nauseous as she is feeling, even though he has been the one telling the story.
He clears his throat. “So… What’s your business with the Club?”
She suddenly has a desperate urge to say ‘nothing’ and actually mean it. She wants nothing to do with this lot, Neferthali was right. But she can’t say that, because it is not true. She has business with these people. She has provoked them through their lackeys, and they have seen her. They know what she is, which makes her a target just as much as that djinn guy, Chino, is. She has to act before they do. Has to find out more and learn how she can avoid them, hide from them or fight them off.
“That’s none of your business”, she says instead. This, at least, is entirely true. She starts to rise to walk away from him.
“Well”, he say, and now that sly tone is back in his voice like it was never gone in the first place. “It is my business insofar as your keeping of that pact of ours is. I’m starting to get used to having dead people around, but I don’t think you’ll be of much help to me if you are dead. Or a trophy on someone’s parlor wall.”
She stops and turns around to face him. She had almost forgotten about that part of the deal. Suddenly she doesn’t feel especially confident about their pact at all anymore. He is a sacromancer after all. What will he have me do? She swallows hard and tries to keep the insecurity out of her voice. “And what is that shit really about then, Dev?”
He smiles, must have seen the nervous look on her face after all. “I have recently lost someone dear to me”, he says. “Someone really important. I’m in town to find and claim his… well, his heritage. Books, alchemical potions, enchanted artifacts, you know the drill. And I have to do it before my, well, let’s call him my brother, does.”
“And you need my help with this estate distribution because…?”
“Well, this dearly departed person lived a rather reclusive life. Hidden away, if you will. And I don’t exactly know where the estate to be distributed has been… ensconced quite yet.”
“So you need me to help you find it, is that it? It’s a geocaching quest?” She is not in the least excited by the prospect of going with Devin Murdock on a treasure hunt that could potentially take several days. But she also knows the potential consequences of breaking a blood pact. She has read about them, and they are not pretty.
“Yep”, he says.
She shakes her head and starts walking away again, but immediately turns back to face him. “And who is this important person who has passed away, really?”
He gives her a tantalizing flash of teeth. “Do you remember Teneo?”, he says and waits for her reaction.
She blinks. Once. Twice. She knows who Teneo is – or was. And suddenly she also understands who this brother of Devin’s must be. The one who now seems to be their rival to the loot. Fuck.
“I fucking hate you”, she says, turns and walks away through the garden.
Devin Murdock remains seated at the fountain, laughing silently to himself as he watches her go. He had forgotten how much he used to enjoy her company back then, their constant battles and their passionate fights that more often than not ended in passionate other things. And now she is back in his life. It is not something he has planned for, but now that she has found him he is going to make the most of it. And it is going to be fun, oh yes.
Maybe being back in Los Angeles isn’t going to be just struggle and drab after all, he thinks.
And then his phone rings. Unknown number.
Usually he would never answer such a call, but today is not an ordinary day.
He hopes for a priest and answers.
Chris Smedbakken, 2017-10-22
You can find the next part here.