I was woken from my memories by the gentle hand of the mortician. I turned to meet his eyes peering over me gently. I was lying on a steel table. He had done me the dignity of dressing me. I turned my head the other way. Next to me, just out of reach, was another body on an identical table. It was covered by a sheet.
I sat up and the man, whose last name was Bobbin and whose first name I never learned, asked if I was okay. He was aging, short, and nearly bald with a long, pert nose perfect for suspending his bifocals as he bent over corpses preparing them for their final rest. He fixed the glasses in front of his eyes and I answered with a nod of my head.
“It took some doing,” he said as he handed me a packet sheathed inside a folded plastic bag, the kind used to store food in the freezer. “It’s getting harder and harder, you know, since all this terror business.”
I took it. I popped the seal and removed the passport, tucked in the middle of a stack of neatly creased documents. I wanted to see who I was.
Annette Dunlop from Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
“Terrorism is just the excuse. They would have done all of it sooner or later anyway.”
I looked at the smiling passport photo. There was very little resemblance. But that wasn’t the end of the world. She was much heavier than I was, and people expect you to look different when you lose weight. I’d have to fix my hair like hers and dress similarly when I went to update the documents, and I’d have to don that ridiculous smile, but as long as I did so in a smaller city where they weren’t overly suspicious, then everything would go through and it would be my picture on the replacement documents and never an issue again.
I pulled out the death certificate to see how she passed.
Car accident. No next of kin.
“You might want to burn that,” Bobbin warned me. “According to the system, it never existed.”
I nodded. I had a good guess as to which day it was. I always rose three days later. And I knew where I was. Bobbin’s was just across the river in Jersey.
I replaced everything in the plastic bag as he went about tidying up the tile-lined clean room. I didn’t recognize the clothes I was wearing. I was barefoot. I looked around for a pair of shoes.
“In the corner,” he said. “I took the liberty of printing an obituary.” He nodded to the sheet-covered body.
I sat in an armless chair and dressed my feet. “Was that necessary?”
“Does it hurt?” he retorted.
I shrugged. “It might. If the wrong people take notice.”
“Yes, well, the right people would like to say goodbye, and I thought that would be more important.”
“I’m not so sure there are any of the right people left,” I breathed.
Bobbin shrugged. “Maybe you’ll be surprised.”
“When?” I asked.
“Thursday. I can only keep the body for so long before the Department of Health starts to ask questions.”
Thursday. That didn’t give me much time. I finished tying my shoes and stood. “Then I’ll see you in a few days.”
He bowed politely and I left.
I needed money, first. There was no telling when I would have to run. (I couldn’t even be sure my enemies weren’t waiting on the street to ambush me, but there was no choice but to risk it.) After that, I’d have to get my hair fixed as much like Annette Dunlop as possible, just in case I was stopped. Not that I had a car. I’d have to get one of those as well. And a cheap hotel. Worst case, both of those would only need to last me until the funeral, assuming things were quiet enough in town for me to stay that long.
I reached the street. It was cool and cloudy but bright. “Well, Annette, here we go again.”
I repeated the name to myself several times to get used to it. “Annette.”
It was all coming back to me. How to resurrect myself.
I had done it so many times, and almost always with a sense of excitement. The world tends to close in after a while, and taking a new identity had always felt liberating, like I had been absolved of a great debt and the weight of it had been suddenly lifted and I was free in ways normal people would never know, with their one and only life. Free to start over. Free to do anything. Yet with all the skills and experience I’d earned before.
“Hi. I’m Annette Dunlop. Nice to meet you.”
But not this time. This time seemed different. Different than any that had come before. I didn’t feel free at all. I felt more laden than ever. Hunted, in fact, as if I was not escaping a closing world but running just ahead of a cresting wave that would break over and drown me at any moment. I watched over my shoulder at every turn. I used back doors and side entrances. I watched for cameras and bowed my head when walking underneath.
I had money, but accessing the bulk of it required paperwork, the kind that raises questions, so I preferred to wait until some time had passed, which meant I’d be living off petty cash for a time. There was a small stack in the pack Bobbin had given me, but it wouldn’t last long.
At least the sun was shining, which gave me an excuse to cover my eyes and so extend my poor resemblance to the person on my ID. I bought a cheap pair of plastic sunglasses at a convenience store. I took a bus to the airport and rented a car. I found a hotel and washed and slept. The next day I paid cash for new clothes from a fashionable vintage shop. Annette’s hair was longer than mine, so I would have to let it grow, which was disappointing. There’s a reason old ladies like me tend to keep their hair short. And I always enjoyed changing mine when starting a new life.
I decided to splurge and at least got a color. I sat in the chair and kept thinking about Benjamin.
The next day, I sat in a coffee shop for a long time and practiced Annette’s signature. My signature. Which I would need to perform flawlessly if I ever hoped to change my documents. After three lattes, an athletic young man in his middle 20s with a close crop of brown hair and narrow, flashing eyes sat in the chair opposite me at my narrow table. He wore a T-shirt, brand name sweat pants, and sandals.
“How are you?” he asked, smiling.
I set my pen down and folded my paper full of practice signatures.
He noticed it. “Half an hour,” he said. “Half and hour I’ve been standing over there by the window trying to get your attention. I thought I’d come see what was keeping it.”
“A gentleman asks before taking a seat opposite a lady.”
He squinted his eyes in mock thought. “Hmm no I’m pretty sure we stopped doing that about 1960 or something.”
I folded my hands over my folded paper.
He leaned forward. “Know what I think?”
“That you have a chance?”
He laughed. “I think you have the hint of a Russian accent.”
“It’s faint. But my dad was Ukrainian, so I have an ear for it.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Know what else I think?”
“I’m on pins and needles.”
“You’re practicing someone’s signature.”
“People don’t practice their own signature.”
“They do if they’re recovering from a horrible accident. But thank you for reminding me how I struggle to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.”
He sat back with a serious face, as if he hadn’t contemplated that. Then the smile returned. “Oh, you’re good.” He raised a finger. “You’re really good. You’re, like, the real thing. Like, no joke.”
“The real thing?”
He leaned in again and whispered. “One of those Russian hacker identity thieves. Who’s the mark?” He whisked the folded paper from under my hands and looked at it. “Annette Dunlop.”
“Me.” I took the paper back.
“Then show me your driver’s license.”
There was no way Annette’s picture would hold up to his level of scrutiny. Not that I was worried about the cocky little shit. But I certainly didn’t need him calling some identity theft hotline and getting Annette’s name on a list. She was only two days old.
I started packing my things, careful not to let him see what weighed down my new oversized handbag.
I made a face and stood. I thought about telling the staff he was harassing me, even though it hardly qualified, but that brought some small risk of police involvement. I had a better idea.
I put one hand on the back of his chair and the other on the table and leaned to his ear. “You want to know the truth?”
He nodded with a smile. He thought I was playing with him then, that I was giving him some kind of test to see if he was worth my time. I’d like to think young women didn’t fall for his kind of bravado, but I knew better.
“Then follow me.” I walked out and put on my sunglasses.
He ran after me. “I’m Chris.” He held out his hand as we walked past a pizza and sub joint.
I didn’t take it.
“So, this is the part where you say your name,” he said with that easy smile.
“You already know my name.”
“What? Annette? Come on . . .”
“Alright, Annette, where are we going?”
“Secret identity thief stuff?”
“Something like that.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Yes. Actually. It is. Is that a problem?”
“Depends,” he shrugged.
I didn’t ask for clarification.
“You don’t say much,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be a very good criminal if I revealed all my secrets to a teenager.”
“That’s funny. I’m 26.”
“Hmm,” I said. “You don’t look it.”
“Come on! You can’t be that much older than me.”
“How old do you think I am?”
He shrugged. “About the same.”
He was smooth enough to under-guess. Most people put me at 30, give or take.
“Well?” he urged.
“Am I right?”
We turned off the main thoroughfare and onto a residential side street packed tight with pre-war gabled-roof houses. Cars lined both sides of the narrow road such that I’m not sure there was enough space for two to pass going opposite directions.
“You have a lot of secrets,” he said.
“Is that surprising for a Russian hacker-thief?”
“So you admit it!” He clapped his hands once. “Man, this is awesome. What are we gonna do? If it’s dangerous, you gotta let me know.”
“Why? Are you scared?”
He made a face. “Fuck no. It’s just, ya know, it helps if I know what I’m walking into.”
“Well, it’s just up here.” I pointed to a house just down the way. “And you’re right about one thing,” I said.
“Quite a lot of forging goes on at this place.”
“I knew it. So after we do this thing, how about you and I go somewhere—”
“First you have to meet Charles.”
He stopped. “Is that your boyfriend?” He stood on the sidewalk deciding if I was worth a fight, or a potential conflict of any kind.
“And if he was?” I said without stopping.
He caught up and shrugged. “That’s between you and him. Don’t have nothing to do with you and me.” His demeanor became much more street hustler then.
“Are you saying you’re going to try and come between us? After all these years?”
He studied my face. “You’re joking again.”
“Very good. You learn quickly.”
“So who’s this guy Chuck?”
“Charles V.” I turned the block. Our destination was on the next street over, and I wanted to approach from the back rather than from the main road.
“Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.”
“Ha. Here? A King in Queens. Wasn’t there a show like that?”
He had no idea who I was talking about. “I don’t know.”
“So what’s he doing here?”
“You’d be surprised how many of them came to the new world.”
“Poorman’s has books he can read, you see.”
“What? Like braille or something?”
“Something.” I stopped at the corner. “But like I said, it might be dangerous. There are some people who are angry at me. So I need you to do something for me.”
“Name it, babe.”
I shut my eyes momentarily at that word. “You see that house there in the middle of the street? Past. The tree. With the cast iron ravens on the porch.”
“I need you to go over and knock on the door.”
“And if an old man is there and he’s alone, ask if it’s safe. If he says yes and you believe him, signal me. If he’s not alone, or if you suspect anything, anything at all, just turn and walk away as quickly as you can. Think you can do that?”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.” He touched my arm.
I looked at his hand. “Thank you. I feel so much better.”
I stepped off the curb and stood between two parked cars and watched as he walked to the residential home of Poorman’s Rare Books and Manuscripts. He opened the gate of the half-height fence that surrounded the front yard and walked up the steps to the porch. When he passed the twin ravens, I put my hand in my heavy handbag.
He knocked. We waited. He noticed the doorbell and rang it. We waited more. He knocked again. Then he turned to me from down the street and raised his hands, completely giving me away.
“Idiot . . .” I walked to the house. It was either that or flee. I stepped up to the porch and pushed past the young man and tried the door.
It was open.
In front of me was a small entry. Just past was a narrow hall to the back and a staircase to the second floor that ran along it. At the far end of the hall was another staircase that followed the slope of the first and led to the basement. I could see the outlines of a small kitchen through the doorway at the back. To my right was a cramped but formal dining room. To my left was a narrow living room that looked like it hadn’t changed since the 30s, complete with grandfather clock, spinet piano, and radio.
I stepped inside and listened.
The young man, Chris, started to speak, but I raised my hand quickly and he stopped.
I waited a moment.
“Anson?” I called.
I kept one hand in the bag on my shoulder as I moved into the narrow living room. It had windows at the front and along the side, giving a clear view of the side of the house. It would be difficult for anyone to sneak up. At the back was a short hall, no more than a couple steps, where you could turn right and enter the kitchen or keep going to the enclosed sun room, down a few steps, which Anson used as a workspace. It was crammed with old books, boxes, wood cabinets, tools, and utensils.
I saw a shoe. “Anson!”
I hurried forward and found the bookbinder, Anson Verhoeven, hunched on the floor. He was a gray man in his 70s, and he’d been beaten squarely. He had dried blood on his forehead and a smudge on his cheek. Both his eyes were bruised, although the left was far worse. His cheeks had been slapped raw.
Chris came up behind me, but he hung back. And I noticed he’d left the front door open so it would be easy to run. “I thought you said this guy’s name was Charles.”
“Get some water and a towel,” I barked.
Anson awoke at my prodding, although he was incoherent. I helped him to his feet and slowly to the couch in the living room, which faced the piano. I dipped the kitchen towel Chris brought into the glass of water and cleaned the man’s face. Then I urged him to drink.
After ten minutes of care, he nodded to me like he understood where he was and what was happening.
“Chris?” I turned to him. “Can you give us a minute?”
“Sure. I’ll just wait in the—”
“You can wait in the basement.”
“The basement?” He scowled.
“Yes,” I said. “Charles is probably there. You should introduce yourself.”
He was streetwise enough to be suspicious, so I took his hand, folding my fingers gently between his, and led him around to the stairs to the basement. I clicked the light, but the stairway was so narrow, you couldn’t see anything but the concrete at the bottom and a bit of the front wall.
“Talk to Charles for ten minutes,” I breathed. “That’s ten minutes for me to complete my business with Anson, and then you and I can go somewhere.”
I don’t think he entirely believed me, but he didn’t want to appear the coward. Part of him was clearly excited. And I suspect he felt the mere chance of more was worth ten minutes of his time.
I watched him rumble down the wooden slats in his sandals and fashionable sweat pants. Then I returned to Anson, who had finished the glass of water. It brought some of the color back to his face. I reached for the empty glass and he gave it.
“I don’t suppose it’s any secret who did this,” I said as I walked to the kitchen to refill the glass. I also took and apple from a bowl on the counter.
“They’re getting bolder,” he said from the next room. “Each time, they push a little more. And each time no one pushes back, they get that much stronger.”
I walked back and handed him the water and apple.
“Thank you.” He set the fruit on the couch and drank the water.
I sat opposite him on the piano bench. There were old framed photos on the top of the spinet.
“What else have I missed?”
“A purge,” he said as he finished the second glass.
“Do you want more?”
He shook his head. “He’s united all the covens. No one even knows how many of them there are, just that they’re acting in concert. Anyone they think is a threat has been killed or driven away. And the night market shut down. Indefinitely. The gypsies have all scattered.” He raised his eyes from the floor. “They all blame him.”
He meant Etude. “Do you?” I asked.
He tilted his head as if he weren’t sure and turned away. “Whatever else they’d become, The Masters kept the peace.”
“They did. Once. Yes. But all things are eventually corrupted.”
“Even you?” he asked with a smile. It stretched the wrinkles of his face.
“Me?” I turned sideways on my seat. “I was always bad.”
“Well. It’s all moot anyway. They’re all gone. And so is he. And the saints are dead, ad there’s no one left to stop them.”
“You haven’t heard anything?”
“About the chef? Is that why you came?”
“No.” He sat back and picked up the apple and looked at it. “I haven’t heard anything. I thought if anyone knew anything, you would.”
“We were separated.”
“I see.” He raised the fruit to bite it.
“Wait!” I stood and took it from his hand. I looked at it. Then I set it on a side table, picked up a brass lamp, and smashed the fruit with the heavy base.
Worms and cockroaches crawled from the brown center.
I knocked the apple on the floor and stomped on it.
He stared. “They’ll know you’re here. You should go. Now.”
“Ahhh!!!” Chris screamed from the basement.
Anson and I heard him bound upstairs in four thumps, which meant he was striding three or four stairs at a time. He didn’t even say anything. He just ran out the door screaming “Fucking shit! Fucking shit! Fucking shit!”
Anson smiled at me.
“Thank you, Charles!” I called to the basement. I replaced my sunglasses and walked to the front door.
“Is this goodbye?” he asked as he stepped into the entry to see me out.
He was shaky, but walking. And that’s what had tipped me off—that he was mostly okay. Anson was a decent man, but he was elderly and bookish. He would have told them whatever they wanted to know once the beating started in earnest. That meant they knocked him out for some other reason.
“You know,” he said. “When I was a young man growing up in Bruges, there were still people who believed. Nothing significant, of course. More like the last shadows of the old ways, superstitions of their grandparents people performed out of custom and habit. But now all of that is gone, and I don’t think anyone really believes. I thought it was the coming of the computer. But it’s not, is it? It’s them. It’s been them the whole time.”
“They flood the world with nonsense. Gibberish books written by crackpots. They used to try to hide the True Canon. Because they wanted it for themselves. Now they just bury it under a mountain of lies and no one knows what to believe.”
I stood in the door. “Please be careful.”
I started across the porch to the stairs.
“If I may. The library. What became of it? They say it burned, but . . .”
But he knew better. He’d forged the mock replacements that would leave just enough ash and paper to convince people the real thing had gone. To convince the followers of the dark that they were successful. So that they would pursue it no further.
But they’d discovered the truth. He was letting me know that he had told them. When they beat him. That meant the new owner was in trouble.
“The less you know, the better,” I said. And I meant it. He was a risk.
“I know it’s not my place to say,” he added quickly with a shaking, apologetic voice, “but don’t let it go to waste. Please. No one else has the knowledge. No one.”
I nodded and walked down the steps and found the nearest public phone and made a call.
rough cut from my forthcoming occult mystery/urban fantasy FEAST OF FIVE SHADOWS
cover image by len yan, used without permission because it’s too awesome.