First taste of Bright Black

Here is the first bite of an opening scene, which follows directly after the events of the last two. The only real spoiler is that the narrators from the first four courses of the book return in the last, which is narrated by the beautiful Milan, the chef’s enigmatic familiar.

Cover image by Esao Andrews


“Could he really smell emotions?”

Doctor Everett had walked up next to me. He’d shaved his mustache. I understood that since our encounter with the mushrooms he’d also become quite a believer and something of a savant on the occult. Judging by the missing ring on his finger, he was battling demons, just of his own devising.

We both stared at the closed casket.

I nodded. “He wouldn’t be able to stand it here. In this room. With all this grief. The whole place would reek of it. He would have waited outside.” I smiled. “He preferred his own company anyway.”

“Did he ever tell you what it smelled like? Grief, I mean.”

My eyes welled at the symbol inlaid in the coffin. One of Etude’s.

We were sleeping together. Benjamin Dench and I. I thought a man without a heart would be safe. I thought someone incapable of emotion, incapable of ever returning . . . anything, was a gift. An island in a sea of years. Silly, really.

Not that I was in love.

But it turns out I’m not nearly as heartless as he.

I didn’t want to mention it to anyone. It didn’t seem appropriate. At his funeral. Like it was a horrible invasion of his privacy. He wouldn’t have liked so many people fussing.

I realized the doctor had asked me a question. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s nothing. I was just curious.” He gave a sympathetic smile and turned.

“Rotting earth,” I said. “Like the stink of a swamp.”

Benjamin’s heart had been removed by a voodoo priestess. He had asked her to do it. Sought her out. Bargained it away. So that he wouldn’t have to carry the burden it held—some loss he never cared to reveal. The death of a child, I always suspected. But not his. Benjamin never married nor had children. I suspect it was the child he shot. While he was a policeman. And so he penetrated a deep swamp and circumambulated an ancient tree six and six and six times and spoke thrice a name.

But we should all be careful what we wish for. A trade is a trade, you see. And for every movement, a reaction. The priestess traded in turn to a hellion, for whom a human heart is like an infinite well of ink with which to write the suffering of men.

Benjamin had hoped Etude could get it back. In that way, he and I had made much the same bargain. A deal with the devil, some have warned. But Etude isn’t the devil. He isn’t savior or saint. He isn’t even a man. Not really. Not like you and me.

He found it. Of course. Benjamin’s heart. The old scratch kept it wrapped in straw inside a baked-closed pot, but rather than face the great heretic, who had come like lightning to honor his word, the hellion escaped into a pyre, as if leaping through a door, with the pot in his hands. It burned, and so it was forever kept it from its owner.

Benjamin took it well, considering. I remember he just stood and looked at the blaze for barely a minute before turning and walking away.

But then, he had no heart to break over the loss.

Without it, he couldn’t feel, and without feelings of his own, his bereft body turned its machinery outward. He became hypersensitive to emotion. Like the compensations of the blind. All of them vexed him. Every kind. But it was love that bothered him most. Everyone expects it to be floral scented. But he said no. He could never articulate it very well, but I got the impression it smelled of equal parts urine and honey. Whatever its odor, it made him retch at the slightest whiff.

I admit, knowing that my body might betray me to him turned me that much more cautious. I’m sure I seemed a horrible tease at times. Benjamin had no heart, but the rest of him was fully male, which was, I suspect, the worst part of his curse, and why we were so terribly needy of each other. What woman would choose a lover who carries a stone in his chest in place of a heart?

Etude put it there. After the pyre. To weigh him down. Without it, he said, Benjamin would one day float out of the world, like a leaf on the current.

He died so I could get away.

Benjamin Dench. Heartless bastard.

The night the bistro burned.

He sacrificed himself.

For me.

But not for me. I suspect in the same circumstance he would have done it for anyone. It was his nature. It just so happened that I was the only one there.

“Did you know him well?” the doctor asked.

I smiled and turned from the coffin full of books. “Not as well as I would have hoped.”

I went for a walk around the grounds with Olafur, my charge, who only mentioned at the end that he’d had to go to the bathroom the entire time. He hadn’t said anything, he explained, because he could tell I was sad. I said we were never too sad for that.

When we returned to the parlor, the others were talking in the little sitting room at the end of the hall. I stood outside the bathroom door and listened.

The doctor had a sweet voice, but he always sounded a bit unsure. “He cursed the firm. Or got someone else to, I imagine. It was brilliant, really. That whole coven was indebted to the old man. Shah. But then, when you buy loyalty, you can always be outbid. Once he could no longer make them rich, they turned on him. Carved him up. The warlock just gave them the means. After that, he had everything he needed to plot his rise.

“I didn’t have much to do with it.” He paused. “To be honest, it kinda freaked out. Etude asked for my help. After. But I sorta ran home to my wife.”

He must have been talking to Cerise, because she spoke next. “You shouldn’t feel bad. I would’ve run. If I’d had a choice.” She stopped. “Actually, now that I think about it, I did run. Right into a trap.” Her voice was soft. “It was Mr. Dench, actually, who pulled me out.” There was a moment of silence. Then it seemed like she wanted to change the subject. “How long have you been married?”

I was happy for that.

“Six years.” The doctor paused. Always unsure. “We’ve kinda . . . Well, we’ve separated.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Since everything happened, I’ve gotten . . . Well, I guess you could say I got a little obsessed. With the occult.” He let out a deep breath. Then he laughed.

“It happens.” Harriet. Always stern. Always aloof.

“Yeah, well, not when you have a family and a job, it shouldn’t.” The doctor paused again. “I kinda got let go. Fired. Let’s call it what it was,” he said to himself. “But I don’t wanna bring everyone down.” He chuckled again.

“It’s a funeral,” Cerise consoled. “It can’t get any more down.”

“What about you?” he asked. “How’d you meet him?”

“Uhhh . . . It’s kind of a long story.”

“They were dating.” A man’s voice. That was Lóng, her dragon. Now her husband. A stunning man. Every bit the image she’d presented him to be.

“Dating?” Harriet again. “No shit? What’s it like dating a warlock?”

Cerise let out a small, desperate laugh. “Believe it or not, he wasn’t the worst date I ever had.”

Harriet snorted. That was good. They needed a little humor.

The toilet flushed and the door opened and little Olafur walked out. He looked at me. He stopped. He turned around and went back to wash his hands.

I smiled.

He was always such a darling. I had no idea why Etude insisted a child be present. I asked. Repeatedly. But all the man would say is that Olafur had always to be present. Always. And it was my job to watch him. He made me swear it in a way only Etude could.

“Shall we join the others?” I asked as the boy walked out again.

He nodded. I took his hand, still wet, and we walked into the room. I looked around at them. “So nice to see you all again. Thank you for coming. I’m sure Benjamin would—”

“Look,” Harriet interrupted. “I don’t wanna be rude, but where the hell is the chef?”

“Jeez . . .” Cerise said softly with wide eyes, looking away.

Harriet turned to her. Then back to me. “Well?”

I leaned to Olafur. “There’s some books and crayons over there in the corner.” I pointed. “Do you see?”

He nodded. I think he understood this was adult time.

He walked over and sat down, and I walked to the plush chair against the wall near a floor lamp. I sat. “I don’t know.”

Harriet scowled. “What do you mean you—”

“She said she doesn’t know,” Cerise interrupted. “Are you deaf?”

“Listen, girlie.”

“Don’t call her that.” Cerise’s dragon stepped up behind her.

“What are you gonna do, skinny?”

“How much have you had to drink?” I asked Harriet.

She turned back to me. She didn’t speak.

“I don’t know where Etude is. He left as soon as he returned. He brought the boy and disappeared. He does that.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth.

“Is he coming back?” Cerise asked. She had relied on him the most. She was the most hurt.

Her husband put a hand on her shoulder.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Why now?” the doctor asked. “With everything. This is like the worst—”

“Because he failed,” Harriet growled. “And he’s a fuckin’—”

“Language, please.” I spoke loudly and turned my head toward Olafur coloring in the corner. “There is a child.”

“Yeah.” Harriet motioned to him. “And that’s another thing. What’s he for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “He showed up. With Etude. In Pennsylvania.”

“Pennsylvania?” Cerise looked confused. “What’s in Pennsylvania?”

“Ley lines,” Olafur said without looking up. He curled his lower lip as he colored.

The doctor nodded. “That’s true. The area was big with the Native Americans.”

“And you know about that stuff, do you?” Harriet asked.

“I’ve been doing a lot of reading.”

“Yeah, well, me too. And what’s out there isn’t like it says in the books. What’s coming, you know, it’s gonna make Revelation look like Thomas Kinkade painting.”

“Seriously?” Cerise’s husband snorted.

“Who are you again?” Harriet taunted.

“Forty days of night,” Olafur said.

The doctor turned. “What?”

“I saw it,” Olafur said. “My secret showed me. It starts in the desert, in that place that’s burning.”

“The oil fires,” the doctor said. He thought. “Black smoke could obscure the sun. Maybe I’ve been thinking too literally.”

“Huh?” Cerise made a face.

I wasn’t going to say anything. They needed to work through it on their own before they could get closure and move on.

“Forget the horror movies, where the sun, an entire star, just disappears. What would forty days of darkness really look like? I don’t mean like a horror movie. I mean for real.”

“Clouds of black smoke,” Cerise whispered.

“Rolling blackouts,” Harriet added. “Like on the west coast.”

“Think about what all of that is doing to the economy,” the doctor was pacing. “Not just investment, but to people’s sense of security. Their hope for the future.”

“That’s what he wants.” Cerise was looking at nothing. Or at something we all couldn’t see. I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her eyes were dead.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He wants people to feel like there’s nothing they can do. That these things can’t be fought locally. That they’re just too big. That there’s nothing we can do. Regular people.”

“Christ.” Harriet almost spat. “He casting a spell to kill hope.”

“Shouldn’t we go to the police or something. I mean, I know what they’ll say, but shouldn’t we at least try. Like, get it on record that this is happening.”

Cerise shook her head. “I’ve been to the police.”

Harriet scoffed. “I was the police.”

“He owns the police.” I ignored Harriet and looked politely at the doctor. “But it’s very noble. You’re welcome to try.”

“Whatever.” Harriet turned back to the window.

I think the doctor felt like he had to justify his comment. “I just can’t believe he’s gonna get away with it.” He paused. “Ya know? Like, isn’t there supposed to be someone to stop him? Isn’t that how the world’s supposed to work? Aren’t there people out there somewhere?”

Silence.

We all knew he didn’t mean it. Not really. All the saints were dead. Killed. While the rest of us sat idle.

We all knew it was just wishful thinking.

We all knew that wasn’t how things worked. We all had seen that first hand.

“Yeah . . .” Cerise breathed.

“Don’t.” Harriet pointed at her, then at the doctor.

“Don’t what?” He scowled.

“Don’t come in here with your guilt trip.”

“Guilt trip?” He made a face. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“What the hell is right. What the hell was the point of saying that?”

“I dunno.” He paused. “It just seemed like a thing to say.”

“Bullshit.” She breathed.

“Doesn’t it bother you? A little?”

“Bullshit,” she repeated. “You want us to go after him.”

The doctor raised his hands. “That’s not what I was saying.”

“Maybe we should.” Cerise looked at him. Then Harriet. “No one else is.”

“Not you, too.” Harriet turned for the window.

The doctor stepped toward her and shook a pointed fist. “You want to.”

“What?” She spun.

Standing behind his wife, Lóng watched the others, squinting.

“That’s why you went there,” the doctor explained. “As soon as I said anything. And why you’re all prickly about it. You want to, too. You’re angry ’cuz you don’t think you can and you’re taking it out on—”

“No. I’m angry because unlike the rest of you, I already fuckin’ tried.”

Language,” I repeated sternly. I moved my eyes to Olafur and back.

Harriet ignored me. “It can’t be done. Trust me.”

Unlike the rest of you?” Cerise scowled. “What’s that supposed to mean? Like you’re so much stronger than anyone, that if you failed, there’s no point in anyone else even trying?”

Harriet blinked hard. “That’s . . . Wait. That’s not what I—”

“Well, then what?” the doctor interrupted.

Harriet looked at him. Then Cerise. Then her dragon. Then me. “You’re telling me that y’all are serious?” she asked. “You wanna take on the warlock? THE warlock. Just like that? The man bred by the worshipers of darkness to be the vessel of eternal night. What do you think is gonna happen?”

Quiet.

“Yeah . . .” The doctor turned back for the couch and sat. “I know. Okay? I know. It just feels like someone should.”

“Feels? What the fuck does feeling have to do with it?”

I sat up. “Speak like that again and I’ll ask you to leave in a way that you won’t find pleasant.”

The doctor didn’t look at his accuser. His eyes were on the floor. He spoke softly. “Sometimes we know more than we can say.”

I looked around at my companions, each dressed in black, each lost in thought. Even if we hadn’t just come from a funeral, right then it would have seemed so.

Doctor Everett raised his hands. “It’s not like we’d know where to find him anyway.”

“What do you mean? He’s not hiding.” Harriet paced in front of the window. Like she was keeping watch. “Why would he? Who is there for him to be afraid of? They’re all downtown. All of them. Every one of his minions, gathered from all over the world. Just off Wall Street.”

“So let’s go check it out.” Cerise’s dragon was the only one among us who hadn’t met Etude. He was still feeling for his place in the group. “We’re in town for a couple days.”

“And do what?” the doctor asked. “You heard her. Sounds like there’s a ton of people there protecting him.”

“So we see,” the dragon said. He wanted to see the man who had killed his wife. “If it’s like she says—”

“And if not?” the doctor asked. “What? We just walk in the front door and . . . ? Shoot a man in cold blood in front of a dozen witnesses?”

Lóng stiffened. “If you could go back and kill Hitler, wouldn’t you do it?”

“Well—” The doctor stopped. “Anyone could say that. Of course. But it’s pointlessly academic.”

“Only if there isn’t really a Hitler.”

“You’re talking about cold-blooded murder.”

“Are you really worried about killing Hitler? Really? Or are you worried about jail?”

The doctor gave a desperate laugh. “I would actually like to see my daughter again, if that’s what you mean. So, yeah. And I don’t feel bad about saying it. You’d feel the same way if she was pregnant.” The doctor nodded to Cerise.

She touched her husband’s hand before he could respond. She was tactfully letting him know she wasn’t a fan of his plan either.

“We’re not having kids now anyway,” Lóng explained. “Not until they find a vaccine for that new baby disease.”

“Jesus. Who cares?” Harriet shook her head. “It’s all fucking moot. This whole stupid discussion. You can’t just shoot this guy.” She turned to Lóng. He was the only one as stout as she. “I already tried. He’s protected.”

Protected?

“His spells of protection will flow from the book,” I explained softly. I’d been chasing The Wickedary long enough to have picked up a few things. “They’ll be the most powerful. You’d have to destroy it first.”

Harriet shook her head again. “See? Can’t do that either. Book is sealed with dragon’s tears.”

“Shit.” The doctor lowered his head.

“What does that mean?” Cerise asked.

“That means it’s, like, basically invulnerable. None of us would even be able to open it. Let alone—”

“Bullshit.” Lóng hadn’t seen what the others had. I could tell he still wasn’t sure he actually believed everything she had told him.

“I saw it.” Harriet said sternly. She wasn’t going to have anyone question her. “He brought it. To their meeting. At the cafe.”

“You saw it?” the doctor almost seemed jealous.

Harriet nodded.

“The Wickedary? You saw the actual Wickedary? The blackest grimoire ever penned. You sure it wasn’t a fake?”

“The chef was. He turned pale at the sight of it.”

“And?” Cerise asked.

“And he couldn’t even touch it,” Harriet explained. “He tried.”

I lowered my head. That was bad.

Cerise stood. “Fuuuck! You all are such a bunch of downers! If we can’t destroy him without destroying the book, and not even Etude could do that, then why are we even talking about this? Jesus, stop getting my hopes up already.”

“Exactly,” Harriet said. She pointed again. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“The doctor is right.” I tried to reassure them. “You’re all better off going home and looking after your families.”

Cerise’s dragon looked right at me. “And when He comes for us? For her? What then?”

It was a fair question.

Cerise had escaped once. It was only a matter of time.

I saw her place a hand over her belly.

A long silence took over. I didn’t have an answer. No one did. I thought that would be the end of it. Right there. Not just our little after-funeral party, but the light of the world. With Etude gone, there was no one left to keep the candle lit.

Or so I thought.

But I was wrong. Wonderfully, wonderfully wrong.

There was still one. One lone candle in the dark.

“I can open it.”

Olafur. Beautiful little Olafur.

All the adults turned. He was coloring in the corner. His hand was rubbing a sky blue crayon back and forth over a printed page. He didn’t look up.

“What do you mean?” I was closest.

“The stag gave me a word. A new word in a old language. Older than dragons even. A word that’s never been used, so it still has all its power. If I say it, the book will open.”
We were all silent as the little boy ran his marker back and forth across the page.

After a moment, he noticed the silence, stopped, and looked up at us all looking down at him. “What?”

He had the most beautiful eyes.

“I don’t think that’s something for a child,” I explained. “It will be very scary. There will be bad people who will want to hurt you.”

“I know.” He nodded. “The stag told me to practice. Because when I had to say it, there would be lots of scary things and maybe if I got scared I wouldn’t say it and more bad things would happen. But I’m not supposed to practice out loud, because then it would lose its power. So I’ve been saying it in my head. I already saw lots of scary things. My secret showed me. So I practice in my head and think about that.” He stopped. “But . . .” He glanced at his coloring book and looked back at me.

“But?”

He thought. “Do I have to say it alone?”

My heart broke. I stood and walked to him. “Oh, no, sweetie.”

“Damn straight,” came a whisper from the center of the room. Harriet stood like a rock, fists clenched, just looking. I’m not sure what she expected. From a child. But that wasn’t it.

“Damn straight,” she repeated softly.

If Olafur would fight, then so would she.

“So that’s it,” the doctor said with a smile. He looked at Cerise.

“Jesus, we could totally do it,” she said softly, clutching her beloved’s hand. “He totally wouldn’t expect it. We could surprise him.”

The doctor stood. “They’re not hiding. So we just have to get in. Kid says the word. We burn the book. And then—” He turned to Lóng.

He and Harriet were looking at each other.

“I shoot that fucker in the face,” she said.

The dragon nodded.

Cerise’s eyes were far away.

I saw it. “What?” I asked her. I thought she was worried about her husband, but that wasn’t it.

She turned her gaze to me. “He won’t keep the book with him. Not if it makes him vulnerable. It won’t be that easy. He’s not that dumb.” She turned to her husband. “He’ll keep it hidden.”

“Shit.” The doctor lowered his head. “That’s a good point.” He walked to the sink to get a drink of water.

After a moment, something occurred to me. I hadn’t wanted to get involved. I wanted to go home and wait for Etude to stop pouting like a child and come out of hiding. Get on with life. Such as it would be in the warlock’s new world.

But they were all so excited. It felt like a crime to stay silent. When I knew.

“I know someone who might know where to look.”

“Who?” Harriet was skeptical. Always. Everything was an investigation. I don’t think anyone ever really stops being a cop.

“A sin-eater,” I explained.

Fergus.

Sin eater?” Cerise was skeptical as well. “Is that really a thing?” She asked looking at me but immediately turned to the doctor.

He nodded.

I looked at the clock. Almost dinnertime. “And I know where we can find him.”

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