This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI. It is also the start of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.
Magic, madness, heaven, sin…
She is sitting in her car, the stereo blaring Taylor Swift at its loudest and outside the windshield night has brought with it a heavy downpour. The rain is beating furiously against the roof of the car and though the radio is maxed up she can barely hear the music.
In her hands she holds a gun.
It’s not any gun, mind you. It’s the one she took from the ritualist called Mike on the night she rescued Chino from him and his less intelligently endowed friend Pete. The same night, incidentally, as she first found out that maybe, just maybe, the notorious Enjoyment Club is not just midwife’s tales at all – but terrible reality. And after her recent talk with Devin Murdock she’s finally beginning to understand just how terrible, and just how real.
The gun is heavy and big, and it glows like silver in the sparse light allowed through the windshield’s cascading water from the streetlamps above. She turns it over, just as she has done so many times already. The signs and symbols engraved upon its smooth surface are many and delicately executed; a true master must have etched them there. The thought doesn’t calm her in the least, as the meaning of these symbols – at least the ones she is able to decipher – do not bode well for the enemies of the gunman in question. He doesn’t have the gun anymore, sure, but it is she who has stolen it from him, and she is quite convinced that this in itself adds her to his list of prioritized enemies.
She knows that Mike, the gun’s owner, works for the Club – maybe as a hired bounty hunter. They were taking Chino to them before Vahri intervened, and she harbours no illusions that they wouldn’t throw her into the bargain as well if they ever got the chance. Therefore what she is about to do next might seem like a really stupid thing – she’s well aware of that. But right now it’s the only option she has if she’s going to stay one step ahead and hopefully alive as well.
She’s going to use the gun to find this Mike.
Oh, she’s not going to kill him, mind you. Not just because it’s really not her style – she’s just only killed one person previously and didn’t particularly enjoy it – but also because he is only the most immediate incarnation of the threat that is the Club. If he is removed, they will simply send others, she’s sure of that. He might be a dangerously skilled ritualist, but he’s not unique. She’ll definitely have more use for him as a source of information than as an unpleasantly smelling corpse and a blotch on her conscience.
She closes her eyes and concentrates, all the while tracing the gun’s intricate patterns with her fingers. The weapon carries a deep, spiritual imprint of the person called Mike. She can feel traces of his essence just by touching it. Using her inherited magical ability of scrying with the gun as a sympathetic anchor it doesn’t take her very long to locate him.
She can feel the warding rituals he has cast upon himself as another might perceive a mesh across the eyes. They don’t stop her from seeing him, but still pose a slight, annoying hindrance. She can definitely see how his wards would pose a real obstacle for a less skilled magician – but he obviously hasn’t counted on being scried by someone of her aptitude.
He’s walking back and forth in an anonymous hotel room, gesturing with his free hand as he talks to someone on the phone. She’s not able to hear him through her mind’s window, but he is clearly upset about something. Suits you well, honey, she thinks to herself as she watches him aggressively stuff an assortment of items into a bag, phone still firmly pressed against his ear.
Then he throws the heavy bag over his shoulder, opens the door and leaves the room without turning off the lights. She knows that she can follow him outside, see where he goes, but she chooses not to. Because she has seen something else. Right before Mike left the room an object fell out of his overstuffed shoulder bag and onto the distastefully carpeted floor. It is a book, and she needs to know what’s inside it before Mike returns to the room.
Vahri opens her eyes, suddenly back inside the rain drenched Ferrari with the decorated gun in her hands. She has not just been able to see Mike inside his room; she also knows exactly where to find it.
She starts the car and turns back onto the road. Hopefully she will be able to find out parts of his secrets without even having to meet him tonight.
The hotel is not fancy. Not in the least, actually. If this says something about the ritualist called Mike it is either that he’s the kind of guy who goes out of his way to stay incognito, or that ritualists simply do not make that much money. Either way the low standard of the place makes it easy for Vahri to slip past the reception and up the stairs. The institution does not even come with an elevator.
She reaches the fifth floor without running into a single soul on the way up. Or, well, not counting the unremarkable apparition of a previous suicide victim hovering solemnly on the third landing, that is. It stubbornly ignores Vahri as she passes by, and she willingly returns the favour.
Getting into the room turns out to be a bit more tricky, but nothing she cannot handle. Apart from the mundane hotel door lock (which she picks easily enough using a couple of just as mundane tools) the ritualist has also cast some kind of arcane mumbo jumbo upon it. It takes Vahri a while to figure it out, but finally the door swings open before her. As she rises to her feet again she can’t help but feeling a spell of vain pride come over her. This ritualist might be dangerous, but his wards at least are no match to her.
She stands at the threshold and looks into the room. It is just as anonymous as she registered while scrying it, and the carpet is just as distastefully pink. And there lies the book, just as she knew it would. A part of her knows very well that this might definitely be an elaborate trap to lure her in – that the lock might have been easy on purpose and that the ritualist’s wards against scrying and finding might have been meant to fail all along. But as necessity knows no law, and as being careful is not really her game anyways, Vahri still steps into the room, picks up the book and quickly closes the door behind her.
It turns out to be a notebook bound in leather, the covers much more nondescript than what she would have expected from a guy whose everyday handgun looks like something drawn by a bored gothic monk on speed. But opening the book to its first pages she finds something else entirely.
Page after page is packed with scrawled notes, verses and illustrations, all done by hand in black and scarlet ink. The lets her eyes wander over the lines of the first few pages, but realizes almost at once that she will have to study the book more carefully and in peace before she’ll be able to make anything useful of it. She’s not a ritualist, after all, and many of the things that this Mike might find commonplace and self-evident she will have to decipher to understand.
She puts the notebook in her bag and starts investigating the room. The clean and impersonal state of it definitely lends credibility to the idea of a person who wants to stay under the radar, able to move on at the blink of an eye without leaving any trace. He has not left the room indefinitely just yet, however. She finds a laptop on the low table in front of the 90’s television set, and a small trunk of clothes and personal items next to the worn couch.
She opens up the lid of the computer and is surprised to see the screen immediately come to life. The computer has not been turned off by its owner before he left the room, but still requires a password to be unlocked. Not daring to sit down on the couch in fear of leaving traces of her visit, Vahri crouches beside the table and opens the screen all the way up. A yellow sticky note detaches from the slick surface where it has been sitting and falls onto the floor. Vahri quickly picks it up.
Boris Granger, the note says – and then a Nevada coded phone number.
She shrugs and puts the note inside the book in her bag, eager to get to work on the computer. The login screen has the picture of a dog in the background. Not your average stock photo, but what looks like a personal photography in slightly bad resolution. The dog is sitting on a porch and seems to be waiting for the photographer to throw it something. So Mike is a dog person, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed. She searchingly tries a couple of dog related passwords, but to no avail. This, however, comes as no surprise. This guy is not stupid. It will take more than that.
Instead she summons up the arcane forces to help her. She has done similar things before, magically “hacking” into Facebook accounts of high school enemies and internet haters, but she realizes at once that the ritualist has used more than secure passwords to protect his digital content. Just like the door, the computer is surrounded by some kind of magical ward that she cannot simply dispel using her own kind of magic. The powers practiced by ritualists are something else entirely from the forces used by mages, just as the powers of a Djinn are essentially different from those of a vampire. She’s going to need time to crack this protective spell – either that, or an exorcist.
Then, suddenly, she hears keys in the door. Someone is coming, be it Mike or somebody else. Either way it would be disaster for her to be found here. She flies onto her feet, reflexively grabbing the computer as she does. The door handle is pressed down halfway, then stops. Vahri doesn’t wait around to find out why. Instead she darts toward the window while thrusting the stolen laptop into her bag, together with the just as stolen notebook.
She pulls at the window handle, but it’s stuck. Vahri panics and forgets entirely about carefulness and magical principles stealth. She reflexively calls the magic to her fingertips as she bends the window to her will and forces it to yield. Just then she hears the door behind her start to creak open, and pulls at the window once more. This time, subdued by arcane forces, it swings up easily enough. She jumps out onto the rain coated metal landing of the emergency stairs and starts running downward.
The metal stairs rattle and shake at every step and the rain makes the stairs slippery. She hits her knee on a sharp edge but continues without pause. High above her she can hear a voice calling, but does not turn around. When she reaches the ground she continues running with unabated speed, the heavy bag thumping impractically against the back of her left leg all the while.
She does not know if anyone follows her, doesn’t dare to turn around and look. She also doesn’t dare steer directly towards her car, in case anyone actually does. Instead she takes a long and laborious detour, passing through several blocks before finally doubling back and returning to the obscured alley where she parked earlier.
Once she has thrown herself into the car and locked all the doors she hurriedly uses her magic to set up an obscuring shield around it. Anyone passing by the alley now will see nothing but crates and dumpster, and definitely not a burning red Ferrari with a terrified magician inside.
Shit, shit, shit.
She’s breathing heavily and her pulse just won’t slow down. Just thinking about what could have happened if the ritualist had caught her in his hotel room makes her want to throw up. Out on the field where she had beaten them and saved Chino, Mike and his companion had been on neutral ground. She had also had the element of surprise to her advantage there. She dares not think of the assortment of traps and advantages that could have been prepared in advance on their own home ground. Images from Devin’s horrible tale flashes before her, images of people like her being tortured, raped and eaten alive by the ritualist’s taskmasters. Images of those same things happening to her. She feels sick and has to sit there in the car for several minutes before the acute felling subsides.
She then starts the car and drives far away from the hotel. She doesn’t stop until she reaches a quiet suburb where she parks behind a closed down pizza restaurant. Not until now does she open up her bag to look at the items she’s retrieved from the hotel room.
She knows that all of the objects, but especially the computer, might be traced – if not by mundane means, then with the help of the arcane. Therefore the first thing she does is to secure and isolate them using the same magic techniques as those she has previously used on the stolen gun. The forces weave themselves around the items, one by one, and effectively shields them from scrying and tracking. Vahri hopes that this will prove to be enough.
Knowing that she will probably not be able to crack the computer tonight, she then picks up the notebook. The sticky note falls out, and she sticks it to the panel of the car for the time being. She’ll have a closer look at it later.
The notebook is, as she has already concluded, full of hand written notes, verses and messages – all to do, of course, with strange and complicated rituals. Vahri recognizes some of them, knows at least a couple of them to be warding and binding rites to be used upon the undead. On vampires, for example. She herself would not be able to use these rituals – not without long and extensive training, at least. Just like a fiddler will not be able to simply switch over to playing the cello – at least not Vahri, and she actually tried once – a magician, however talented, cannot just switch over to conducting the rituals of mortals. It just doesn’t work like that. Thus she is beginning to think that she won’t have much use for this notebook after all.
Well, I guess I could sell it back to him and earn some well needed cash, she mused sarcastically.
But then, turning through the pages at random, the suddenly comes upon a name she recognizes. Walter. There is a page in the notebook seemingly entirely dedicated to notes about someone who goes by that name – or Walter Isher, to be more precise. Stuck to the page with a paperclip is a black and white photo of a middle aged man dressed in coat and hat. It must be an old photo, she thinks. And when she turns it over she actually finds the numbers “1923” written in a faded, elaborate hand.
There is also a list on this page where every row is a piece of information about this man. “Grey hair, 7ft 20 tall, sharp nose, red eyes…” Wait a second. Red eyes? Vahri realizes suddenly that this Walter must be a djinn, just like Chino. And she remembers now exactly where she has heard the name before, as well. The ritualist was pressing Chino for information about this man right before Vahri had rescued him. It must be the same guy.
So these people are really after an even bigger and badder djinn, and Chino and I just came in the way?
She relaxes slightly, daring for a moment to hope that this shitstorm just might pass above their heads if they’re really lucky. If the bounty hunters are after someone else, maybe they’ll leave once they find him. A disloyal thought, sure, but the Club really scares the shit out of her.
Beneath the list there is a short note, written hastily with another pen. “As soon as we have anything to report on this man, or if we manage to locate him, call B.G.” Then a drawing of a symbol that Vahri knows all too well by now – the symbol of the Club. Vahri’s eyes instantly go to the sticky note on the car’s panel. B.G. Boris Granger. So Boris works for the Club – or might he even be a member? Anyway he definitely seems to be the one who has hired these ritualist bounty hunters and sent them here.
An opening, finally. She has a name and a number to a person who is probably part of the Club in some capacity. This might be her way forward in her quest to find out more about this organization and hopefully outwit them before anyone she cares about comes to harm.
As she puts the book down in her lap and lets go of it to look at the sticky note, the pages fall open upon what seems to be the last entry up until now. Vahri reflexively looks down, and instantly freezes.
The entry is dated earlier this very day, and details a ritual with text and illustrations. But not just any ritual.
“We used the hair found in the djinn’s apartment. We mixed it with the blood of an early bird and murky waters from a restless sea. Then we said the secret words and drew the hidden symbols and uttered the djinn’s True name: Caesar Lino Salinas. It has been done. I will now be able to see and find him wherever he hides.”
Vahri starts trembling and the book falls back into her lap. The ritualist called Mike has performed a ritual directed at Chino in order to spy on him – not unlike the magic she used earlier to locate Mike himself. This is bad, really bad. Chino might lead the hunters to his friend Ivers, who will certainly in turn lead them to Neferthali and then straight back to Vahri herself. And her family. And in any case it’s just a question of time before Chino himself is attacked again. And this time the hunters will be prepared.
I have to do something. The ritual must be undone. Now.
And Vahri realizes that the only person she knows who might be versed enough in ritualist magic to actually undo it is in fact not that far away right now.
Gods bless you, Devin Murdock and your fucking ghosts, Vanessa thinks to herself as for the second time that day she dials the number to Seth Pascal.
Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-01
You can find the next part here.