Twelve naked, hairy, malodorous people—six women and six men of varying degrees—gathered in a circle in the courtyard of the little Sicilian villa and, hands pressed heavenward, paid silent homage to the rising sun. In the center of their orbit of flesh stood the tallest of the group. He, too, was naked, but not furry or frowzy: the nymphomaniacal disciple he called Isis having depilated his entire nether-neck body earlier that morning, and doused it with herbaceous oils. To call upon his gods, he must be clean of body, if not of spirit.
Ataturk Muhler closed his eyes against the increasing light, and thanked the universe for bringing him to this place and this new beginning. The crescendo of the performance he began five years earlier would soon be heard, and the audience was the entire world. The rising of the sun announced the first chord of the symphony written millennia ago by an old Jew, with Ataturk, the most powerful sorcerer on Earth, its virtuoso. And, when the final note was played exactly six lunar cycles from now, the world would be changed.
Ataturk’s previous existence ended in celebration the night before, when he and his acolytes, in recognition of the first full moon of spring, participated in rites of the flesh. He choreographed and directed the drug-fueled debauchery, and he himself had the pleasures of four of the women and two of the men. The ewe and the German Shepherd were left to the enjoyment of the others. The sheep bleated in protest, but the dog, after a little encouragement, seemed to enjoy the festivities. Fortunately, the Abbey of Thelema, near the town of Cefalù, was remote, so there was no one proximate enough to hear the revelries. Even if they had been aware of the depravities being performed so near to them, Ataturk knew that none of the townsfolk sanctimoniously enjoying his Easter holiday would dare approach the Abbey, since for nearly a hundred years it had been known as a place where evil dwelled. He knew that any inquisitiveness would be overcome by fear.
And that suited his purposes well, because today, as the dawn brought shadows to the intimate courtyard of the villa, his evolved existence and a new chapter in the disturbing history of the Abbey would begin: a chapter that would not benefit from the prying eyes and pricked ears of the townsfolk. Isis, along with two of her co-disciples, broke the circle and approached Ataturk, kneeling at his feet when they reached him. A pure white garment was draped over her forearms, and she held it out to him. He whispered an incantation, and waved his spindly hands over it. The trio of sycophants rose, and together pulled the robe over Ataturk’s head and the black, stringy hair disturbed by a white lock that began above his right temple. The consecrated vestment of white that now fell to his ankles would be his only garment for the next six full moons, during which time the pleasures of the flesh in which he and his minions regularly indulged would be denied him. A small price to pay for the rewards that await me, he thought.
“By the mystery of this holy vestment, I will clothe me with the armor of salvation in the strength of the Most High that my desired end may be effected through thy strength. May the power of Aiwass nourish and sustain me,” he prayed aloud and, with a nod, dismissed all of his acolytes except the Nair-do-well Isis, sending them scurrying off like a herd of impala at the leopard’s approach. Their pungency did not linger in the morning breeze, but, having more pressing things on his mind, Ataturk did not notice the freshening of the air around him.
Ataturk walked a narrow, mossy path, moist with the morning dew, through the dense wood that grew between the villa and the not-too-distant sea. He took no note of the shafts of the new day’s sunlight that pierced the branches of the surrounding trees, the aromatic combination of citronella and pine, or the wafts of mist carrying the earthy aroma of decaying leaves, deposits from the previous autumn, that rose under the morning heat. He allowed himself no indulgence of thought except for those that contributed to achieving his glorious objective.
After a little time, he came to a circle of mature umbrella pine trees creating a clearing that was so negentropic as to be obviously unnatural. The arboreal encirclement, like sentinels at attention, had the effect of challenging wayward wanderers who might stray near to the enclave, and created a canopy for further protection from enquiring eyes. The result was an intimate, shaded, and well-hidden glade, the perfect place for Ataturk to conduct his ministrations.
A small chapel stood in the center of the clearing. Ataturk’s keen and uncompromising eye had seen to each detail of the construction of the modest edifice barely large enough to house two Fiats of which the locals were so fond. Its hand-hewn stones fitted together with such precision so as to not require the aid of mortar to keep it standing plumb, and the flat roof was sealed tight so that no rainstorm could penetrate the sacred enclosure.
In his right hand, Ataturk carried a bundle of olive twigs the girth of a young boy’s forearm and tied together with pieces of hemp string. One end of the bundle had been dipped into creosote and, with a nod of Ataturk’s head, burst into flame so stubborn that even the brisk Sicilian sirocco could not extinguish it. Ataturk stepped out of the simple leather thongs on his feet, paused for a moment, and entered the oratory.
The altar opposite the chapel entrance had been prepared in manic obedience to the instructions passed down over the ages from Abramelin the Mage. Though the altar itself was of pauper’s material—locally hewn white pine—Ataturk had designed it to be replete with symbols representing his place in the cosmos. Symbols that reflected the evil he was about to do. Symbols that would have been considered profane by those who had trained him.
Ataturk stepped to the altar as erectly as his hunched posture would permit. Holding the flame of the burning olive twigs to the wick of the oil lamp that hung from the peak of the wooden ceiling and dangled over the altar, he waited until the lamp had accepted a share of the fire. Until he had completed his task 168 days from now, that lamp would not be permitted to go out. Next, he put the torch flame to the contents of the censer that sat prominently on the altar. The combination of frankincense, stacte, and agarwood that Ataturk himself had prepared followed the recipe of Abramelin, and its smoldering issued a sweet, almost cloying aroma. He backed away from the altar and knelt in the center of the obsidian pentagram embedded into the white pine floor, head bowed and silent for several moments. Rising up and looking heavenward, he began in a weak and wispy voice:
“Oh Lord, Supreme God El, in whose name I pray, make me worthy of the task set before me. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be clean; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Sean Burke opened his eyes to Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” and checked the time on his bedside clock, though he had no need to do so. It would read 4:45, just as it did every weekday morning. As he slipped into his running togs, Sean failed to appreciate the country melodies flowing from speakers installed in acoustically maximized fashion throughout his contemporary Boston condominium. The music faded into background noise, overcome by memories of the dream that had been haunting him, stark images of which lingered in his awakening.
At 5:00 a.m., he walked through his apartment building doors and out onto the brightening street. Twenty-eight minutes later and two ahead of schedule, he reentered the building, having completed his daily five-mile run, and returned to his eighteenth-floor condo to continue his inviolate routine by sending the morning run’s sweat down the drain, courtesy of a large rain-simulating showerhead.
The shock of pure white hair that hung from just above the right temple of his crop of otherwise indistinct locks had always annoyed him. The feature had not revealed itself until his towhead turned a post-pubescent brown. He assessed the albino clump in the bathroom mirror, knowing the anomaly was a genetic burden he must bear, but having no idea from where the aberrant gene had come. Neither of his parents sported the oddity, after all.
He examined his face in the mirror in prelude to his morning shave, and though, even at thirty-seven years of age, his fair complexion and light beard allowed him to avoid the ritualistic facial scraping for at least three days without resembling an arrhythmic poet, routine called for a shave, and routine must be obeyed. Just as he began to apply shaving gel to chin, Sean saw a face staring back at him from the mirror: not his own, but a second countenance. When he looked to see who was standing beside him, no one was there, yet the other visage remained. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the semblance faded away until there was only one face looking back at Sean, and that face depicted a combination of confusion and fear. He had seen the strange face before—just a few hours before, in fact—and he had hoped never to see it again.
Sean wiped the shaving lubricant from his face without touching the razor to his not-yet-visible beard, and bent to return it to the under-sink cabinet. It was full of things associated with the frequent, if not constant, presence of a woman—creams, lotions, make-up—and Sean considered disposing of them for not the first time. He picked out a half-empty box of tampons and tossed them into the waste basket, leaving the rest.
In the bedroom, Sean selected his work uniform from the “spring” section of his walk-in closet: a pair of khakis; a light-blue, starched and pressed dress shirt; and a navy blazer; all of which bore L.L. Bean labels. The smooth harmonies of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” that filled the space from his country setlist would normally have set Sean to humming along, but his senses were elsewhere. As he poured boiling water over the Italian roasted beans ground for his two-cup French press, he noticed that his hands were trembling.
He took a careful sip of the piping hot coffee and tried to think of anything except the extraneous and inexplicable face in his bathroom mirror—the hospital expansion project in Pittsburgh or the office building in Boulder—but his mind could not be turned. Instead, he decided to confront the occurrence head on, using the powerful capabilities of a mind that could engineer a skyscraper. Maybe when I banged my head on the kitchen cabinet door the other day it caused some brain malfunction, he thought. Maybe it’s an aneurysm that’s causing hallucinations. What did I have for dinner last night?
Sean’s theories neither explained the vision nor gave him much comfort, but his logical architect’s mind could not deny a connection between the reflection and the recurrent dream he had experienced since visiting his mother in the Alzheimer’s care center. He always took advantage of long holiday weekends to make the trip back to his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, to see her, and this past Easter weekend was no exception. But the comfort that routine brought him was interrupted by the arrival of the vivid nightly visions. His recollection of a dream was typically no more than an image here, an impression there, like a scrap of paper torn from the page of a comic book left out in the rain. This recent dream was different, however, in that he remembered it from beginning to end: the sights, the sounds, and just enough of a sense of purpose to overcome the fear. It had come to him each night since, regardless of what or how much he had eaten or drunk, and left him awake, shaken, and wishing it were the last time he would be subjected to the experience. And yet there was something in the dream, terrifying as it was, that was inspirational and it was that lingering feeling of redemption that permitted Sean to go to bed each night free of the dread that would otherwise be represented by sleep.
Among the visions the dream had shown him was the face he had seen in the mirror that morning. It was an old man’s face, with creases deep as canyons but not weather-worn, as though its skin had only been exposed to moonlight. But the eyes were young as a child’s and clear as a glacial stream, and the wrinkling around them seemed not the result of aging so much as gaiety, caused by years of smiles, laughter, and merry song. The hair was red, the color of blood-orange pulp, and thick bangs of the stuff covered the forehead as if suspended from the flat woolen hat the color of fresh spinach that perched atop his head. Sean realized that it wasn’t the face that caused his inner dread, but rather the overwhelming sensation of familiarity.
The offices of EarthKind Architects, LLC were located in Boston’s pricey Financial District, a testament to the success of the firm that specialized in environmentally sensitive building design. The firm’s earliest clients had seen the commitment to sustainable development as an extravagance. But what had once been a fad became a mainstream trend, as businesses, the health care industry, and educational bodies began to recognize the cost savings of energy-efficiency; the environmental advantages of using sustainable materials; and the health benefits of reducing employee exposure to the harmful chemicals in paints, carpeting, and other construction materials. EarthKind was on the leading edge of these design strategies and in demand by developers and institutions across the country, and newly minted partner, Sean Burke, was one of its shining stars.
As far as days at the office went, it was routine: engineers informed his team that they were going to be late delivering construction drawings for the Pittsburgh project, contractors had misread plans for the Yale dormitory building, and all of his clients were changing their minds about something. Typical. At 6:45, Sean packed his briefcase and left his office. He decided to attribute his morning fright to stress at work and loneliness in his private life, the latter condition having begun three months ago when his almost-but-not-quite fiancée, Rachel, dumped him, claiming his need to understand everything about everything and his aversion to spontaneity were making her crazy. That and she wanted to move in with Edward, the lawyer who represented her in her divorce from her husband the previous year. The abrupt departure of the woman he fully expected to marry was an emotional gut punch, one from which Sean still hadn’t been able to rise from the canvas.
Luciano’s Italian Deli was on his way home. Sean’s friend, Alec, had invited him to join his family that night for their Passover Seder, but Sean declined the offer, using work as his excuse. Being around people, especially those who were genuinely concerned for him, was at the very bottom of his “things I want to do tonight” list. He ordered a generous slab of Luciano’s homemade vegetarian lasagna to take away, and anticipated washing it down with a 2007 Brunello he had been saving for a special occasion.What could be more special than sitting alone in my apartment and wondering why that’s actually what I want to do, he thought. At least his meal would not be accompanied by the syrupy kosher stuff he would have been drinking at Alec’s.
“Hi, Sid,” Sean said to the aging, affable doorman as he entered his apartment building.
“Hello, Mr. Burke,” Sid responded, making an unwise attempt to snap to attention, a move that caused one of the faux-brass buttons on his tighter-by-the-day uniform jacket to pop off and land with a tinkle at Sean’s feet. “Sorry.” Sid’s already-ruddy cheeks deepened to crimson.
“No worries,” Sean said with a touch of compassion. Both Sean and Sid had been at the building since it opened three years ago, and Sean had taken a liking to the hardy grandson of Irish emigres. “Quiet tonight?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Not much going on.”
“I guess that’s good, huh?”
“You have a good night, Sid.”
“You too, Mr. Burke.”
Sean entered the elevator and pressed the button for the eighteenth floor. The doors slid noiselessly closed and the cab began its ascent with Sean its only passenger. Sort of.
“Okay, now this is going to be a little tough for you to follow, but you’re going to have to work with me here.”
Sean startled. The voice was coming from inside the elevator, from someone standing right beside him—well, beside and a little below him. But when he looked, he saw no one there. Then the elevator car stopped somewhere between floors ten and eleven, and the face in his bathroom mirror appeared next to him, this time in three dimensions and accompanied by the rest of his diminutive body.
Sean pasted himself against the wall, attempting to put as much space between him and this invader as possible, though the elevator cab gave him precious little of it. At five feet, ten inches, Sean had his cab mate by at least a foot and a half, but instinctively he knew in this case, his size advantage was no advantage at all.
“Look,” the fellow said in a most non-threatening manner, “I’m sorry about this, but I thought the best place to introduce myself was somewhere, you know…”
“Let me guess,” Sean said with just a touch of desperation in his voice, “some place where I couldn’t escape, right?”
“Something like that.”
Sean glanced at the elevator control panel containing the emergency telephone.
“I think you would find the phone out of order,” the little fellow said with the tiniest glint in his eye.
Sean believed him. “What do you want with me? Wait, but first, how do you do these, er, these tricks?”
“Wow. You get right to it, don’t you?” The manner of speech bore no obvious accent, but the swallowed consonants hinted at Gaelic origins. “Okay, I’ll answer your first question, and then I have one for you. The answer to your other questions may be more difficult for you to handle, so we’ll save those for later. Deal?”
“Deal,” Sean agreed, once he realized his negotiating leverage was, well, he had none. “Why are you here? Why do you keep sneaking up on me?”
“I was sent here to ask you to help save your race,” he said most matter-of-factly.
“Save my race? And, what race would that be?”
“I mean mankind, the human race.”
“So, you’re here to ask me to save mankind?” Sean restated to confirm that he had heard the words accurately.
“Right. Well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it, yeah.”
“Look, Mister, er, whatever,” Sean stammered, “if mankind is in trouble I guess that’s not good, but you need to be talking to the CIA or the FBI or Homeland Security, not to some architect. How about I take you to the police station and you can tell them your story?”
“Wow! You don’t even patronize very well, do you?” the little guy said. “I’m serious. You need to listen to me. And before you write me off as a nut, try to explain away seeing me in the dream you keep having or in your bathroom mirror this morning. And now I have a question for you. We have a lot to talk about, you and I, and I would much rather be sitting on the sofa in your living room, maybe even drinking some of that Italian wine you’re planning on opening, than standing in this tin box. If we go to your apartment, will you hear me out?”
Sean attempted to rationalize his previous sightings of this stranger and then considered his options to allowing him into his home, but his furiously firing neurons came up empty on both counts.
“The alternative is we spend the evening in these cozy confines, where I will have a captive audience, and you’ll be trying to figure out how to eat that lasagna with your fingers without getting tomato sauce all over your shirt. Whaddya say? Upstairs?”
Sean decided that he was no more interested in remaining cooped up with this strange messenger, if that’s what he was, than his cab mate seemed to be. At least his condo would offer him some maneuvering room if he needed it, though something told Sean he was at no risk from his odd elevator companion. “Okay, the apartment it is.”
Instantly, the elevator began to rise.