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 but he was not naked or hairy and his body emitted the fragrance of essential oils. He wore a flowing white linen robe over his lanky body and, except for the long mane the color of corn silk that hung to his shoulders, he was devoid of hair, two of his female disciples having shaved his entire body earlier that morning. To call upon his gods, he must be clean of body, if not in spirit.
This was the end of one existence and the beginning of a new one for Ataturk Muhler. His former life ended in celebration the night before when he and his disciples, 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 loudly in discomfort but the dog, after a little stimulation, seemed to enjoy the festivities. Fortunately, the Abbey of Thelema near the town of Cefalu was remote so there was no one proximate enough to hear the revelries. Nor would any townsfolk busily enjoying their Easter holiday dare to approach the place since, for nearly a hundred years it had been known as a place where evil, having defeated good, continued to dwell. How little they understand and how much they fear, he thought. Their stupid superstitions, however, would serve Muhler well.
Because today, with the rising of the sun, his new life 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. The consecrated vestment of white would be his only garment for the next six months and the pleasures of the flesh in which he and his minions regularly indulged would henceforth be denied him. “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, sustain me,” he prayed aloud and, with a nod, dismissed the twelve who scurried off like crows on roadkill when a car approaches.
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 did not notice 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 creating 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.
In the center of the clearing was a small chapel built of hand-hewn stones fitted together with such precision so as to not require the aid of mortar to keep it standing plumb. Muhler carried a bundle of olive twigs the girth of a boy’s forearm tied together with pieces of hemp string. One end of the bundle had been dipped into creosote and now burned with a stubborn flame that even the brisk Sicilian scirocco could not extinguish. 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 elaborately endowed with symbols representing his place in the cosmos, symbols that reflected the evil thing he was about to do. Symbols that would have been considered profane by the teachers who had trained him.
Ataturk walked solemnly to the altar. First, he held 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 and waited until the lamp had accepted a share of the fire. Until he had completed his task some six months from now, that lamp would never be permitted to go out. Next, he put the torch flame to the contents of the censor 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 pentagram of obsidian that was 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 at the sound of the crisp chords of Dan Fogelberg’s Part of the Plan 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 and at the precise time that the music would commence and send him the gentle, 80s indie-rock message that his day was to begin. The song was the next one cued up from his “favorites list” and Sean found himself appreciating the talent of the gone-too-young singer/songwriter as the melodies flowed from speakers installed in maximally-acoustic fashion throughout his contemporary Boston condominium. The music was almost enough to drive out his memories of the dream, vestiges of which lingered vividly in his awakening. Almost.
At 5:00am, he walked through his apartment building doors and out onto the street. Twenty-eight minutes later and two ahead of schedule, he reentered the building, having completed his daily five-mile run over a route that circumnavigated the Boston Common, and returned to his eighteenth floor flat to continue his inviolate routine.
The shock of pure white hair that hung from just above the right temple of his crop of inappropriately long, otherwise-brown locks had always annoyed him immensely. As he assessed the trait in the bathroom mirror, he knew that the anomaly was a genetic burden he must bear but, he had no idea from where the aberrant gene had come. Neither of his parents sported the oddity, after all. In fact, it was bestowed on him by one Aleister Crowley, once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world.”
Sean examined his face in the mirror in prelude to his morning shave. He well knew that his fair complexion and light beard allowed him to avoid the ritualistic facial scraping for at least three days without his looking like an arhythmic poet but 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 reflection. But it wasn’t a reflection for, when he looked to see who was standing beside him, no one was there yet the face in the mirror remained. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the visage 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 stranger’s face before and he had hoped never to see it again.
Sean completed his ablutions by rote and walked more quickly than usual from the bathroom to one of the two bedrooms of his condominium, his bedroom, and 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 Poco’s Amy, Whatcha Gonna Do? that filled the space might 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, the left of which was capable of drawing a perfect circle and straight line, were shaking.
Sean took a careful sip of the piping hot coffee and tried to think of anything except that 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 so 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? In fact, Sean Burke posited a number of theories that could explain the vision, none of which gave him any comfort, but his logical, practical architect’s mind would simply not take him to the right one.
His intellect and its commitment to pragmatism also tried in vain to deny a connection between the face in the mirror and the recurring dream that had been visiting his sleep since the day after he returned from visiting his mother in the Alzheimers care center where she was living out her days. 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 night he returned to Boston, the dream began to haunt his sleep. 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 that had been 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 the feelings which were dominated by fear and just enough of a sense of purpose to overcome the fear. It had come to him each night since—for five nights in a row now—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, frightening as it was, that was inspirational and it was that redemption that permitted Sean to go to bed each night free of the dread that would otherwise be represented by sleep.
Among the things that 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, 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 it had its origin in 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 though suspended from the flat woolen hat the color of fresh spinach that sat precariously atop his head. Sean realized that it wasn’t the face that caused the dread he felt but rather the overwhelming sensation that it was familiar to him and not just from its appearance in the dream. More than that, he had a vague realization that he had been anticipating the appearance of that face and somehow knew that it meant that his life was never going to be the same.
“I just talked to the MEP guys on the Yale dorm project,” the young woman said as she walked into Sean’s office and approached the desk. She was surprised to see that Sean, who was normally sniper-focused on one assignment or another, seemed distracted by the distant clouds to which he was giving his attention but her entrance diverted it.
“What?” Sean responded as if a victim of sleepus interruptus.
When he arrived at his office that morning, Sean could not remember a single step of his ten-minute walk from home, so absorbed he was in the attempt to reconcile his perception of reality with the morning’s shaving experience. As an architect, and a very good one if his recent promotion to shareholder at his firm was any indication, the strange face in the mirror required an explanation that squared with rationality. Unfortunately, despite devoting much of the day to the effort, he still could not come up with one.
“I said, the MEP guys are going to be late with the Yale CDs by at least a week,” she repeated.
“Okay, then,” Sean said turning to the subject of the associate’s interruption, “just get the structural documents out to the bidders and tell the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing bidders that they’re going to have one less week to put their bids together.”
“Right,” she said and started for the office door.
“Oh,” Sean said stopping her cold, “and tell the MEP engineers that they have five extra days, not a week.”
The rest of the day was more of the same architectural firm stuff and, by the end of it, the impact of the morning fright had mostly worn off and he was able to cast his thoughts in other directions. Sean decided that he would attribute the morning incident to stress at work and loneliness in his private life, the latter condition having begun six months ago when his former live-in girlfriend and almost-but-not-quite fiancée, Rachel, dumped him claiming that 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 first husband. 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 get up 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 using work on a new hotel project in Philadelphia as his excuse. Being around people, especially ones 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 contemplated how he would wash it down with a 2007 brunello he had been saving for some 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 Mogen David concord Passover stuff that 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,” he 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 said, clearly embarrassed.
“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 fellow. “Quiet tonight?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Not much going on.”
“I guess that’s good, huh?” Sean said.
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“Well, you have a good night, Sid.”
“You too, sir.”
He entered the elevator at the lobby level of his apartment building and pressed the button for the 18th 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, especially you to follow, but you’re going to have to work with me here.” The voice was coming from inside the elevator, from someone standing right beside Sean, 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, more startled than frightened, pasted himself against the side of the cab’s interior, attempting to put as much space between him and this creature as possible, though the elevator gave him precious little of it. At five feet, ten inches, Sean had his cabmate by at least a foot-and-a-half but he instinctively knew that, in this case, his height advantage was no advantage at all.
“Look,” it said in a most non-threatening manner, “Sorry about this but I thought the best place to introduce myself to you 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,” it admitted. Sean glanced at the elevator control panel that contained the emergency telephone. “The phone is completely out of order,” the little fellow said with the tiniest glint in his eye. Sean believed him.
“So, what do you want with me? Wait, but first, what are you, anyway? 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 Sean noted the swallowed consonants hinted at Gaelic origins. “Okay, I’ll answer your first question first and then I have one for you. The answer to your other questions may be a bit difficult for you to handle so we’ll save those for later. Deal?”
“Okay, deal,” Sean agreed once he realized that he had no other option. “Now, why are you here? I mean, what do you want with me?”
“I was sent here to ask you to help save the world,” it said most matter-of-factly.
“Save the world,” Sean repeated as if to confirm that he had heard them accurately.
“Right,” his cabmate responded. “Well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it, yeah.”
“Save the world,” Sean re-repeated. “And that’s the answer I’m supposed to have no difficulty with?” Sean said, his voice reaching a pitch just below that reserved for a Frankie Vallee impersonation.
“Sorry, but you asked. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. We have a lot to talk about, you and I, and I would much rather be sitting on the sofa in your living room while we go over this stuff, 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?” He paused as Sean considered his options. “The alternative is we spend a lot of 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. 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 cabmate seemed to be. At least his condo would offer him some maneuvering room if he needed it, though he inexplicably knew that he was at no risk from his odd elevator companion. “Okay,” he said, “the apartment it is.”
Instantly, the elevator began to rise toward its destination at the 18th floor landing.