(Fiction) The Desire of Alchemy

The police of any country tend to take the murder of a rich man very seriously. I could only imagine the important people pressuring them for an arrest. I was clearly one of the last people to see Luke Rottheim and his bodyguards alive. There were witnesses to our altercation a day or so before, including Mrs. Suleiman. Sooner or later the police would find the cash in the safe, if they hadn’t already. That plus a million dollars’ worth of liquidated assets suggested a payoff, which suggested a very serious motive. Blackmail maybe—perhaps over the contents of Lily’s womb.

The only people who knew my deal with Rotteim were dead—except Soolkie, who, let’s face it, wasn’t much help. A lack of physical evidence wasn’t proof of innocence. It was just a hurdle for a clever prosecutor. It was only a matter of time before I was questioned again, if not detained. Next time, I figured, I’d meet someone fairly important, a senior officer maybe, and they wouldn’t be nearly as polite. My alibi already sounded like a complete fiction—so much so, I’m not sure I believed it myself. I had no idea where to find Irfan or Bastien and no idea what either of them would say if questioned by the police. The Kingfish, for his part, would be happy to tell them whatever story he figured was most likely to send me upstate, which meant—for the time being, at least—I was fucked. Whatever spell had transferred the sin to me would continue doing its work. If I did nothing, I would go to prison for Lykke and William’s murder, the case would be closed, and the city would go on as it always had.

But in the interminable hours of waiting at the police station, something very important occurred to me. Too many things had had to happen at just the right time to leave me in that much shit—up to and including my unfortunate fall from the rooftops and right into the hands of the police. I didn’t know who could orchestrate something like that, but it seemed to me there were three suspects: the Kingfish, the man he was arguing with, or the chef, who I’m certain was in the alley. Only I didn’t know why any of them would want to murder Luke. All I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going to take the fall for it. I was going to find which of them had done such a wonderful job of setting me up and do something legitimately terrible to them—so terrible, in fact, I hadn’t actually thought it up yet.

I flagged a cab outside the station and went home. To be honest, I stiffed the poor guy out of the fare. I do feel guilty about that. I ran inside to get cash from my stash, only to find all of it gone.

“Soolkie . . . Damn it.”

I cleaned up quick and changed. Fresh panties, matching socks from the clean pile, and my best vintage green Captain Caveman tee, which I only wore when I needed the extra mojo. I stood in front of the mirror. I pulled up my shirt and looked at my tattoo in the reflection. I didn’t much feel like a fenghuang, but I was looking more like her. My black eye was healing, so instead of a consistent deep purple, there were now splotches of yellows and browns at the receding edge. I had a dark red scab on my ear, around which my skin was flushed and pink. There were a litany of cuts and bruises running down my forearms that looked almost like plucked feathers from a distance, and my neck was so stiff, I could only move it slowly. But Captain Caveman, at least, worked his magic. In a desperate search of my apartment for any and all loose cash, I found an old train card I thought I had lost months ago. With the additional $1.56 in coins I found scattered throughout the mess on my floor, minus the ones from Hong Kong and the random Canadian penny, I had just enough to get me where I was going. I snuck down the fire escape, just in case the cabbie was still out front, walked to the station, and exchanged both the card and the loose change for a little paper ticket. The woman behind the window looked at the change and at my black eye and then at Captain Caveman, but she didn’t say anything.

“Can I ask you something?” I said as she handed me the ticket. “Do I smell like dung to you?”

Let me just say, Bistro Indigenes is legitimately amazing, and not just the food but the decor. There’s this big stone hearth with a raging fire looking out over an open dining room that was relaxed yet graceful and classy, just like the hostess. I had come expecting an over-made teenager with lightened hair and a pre-summer tan, someone for the old guys with money to flirt with, someone I could bully my way past, but the woman before me had such poise and maturity that I was instantly certain there was no string of words I could utter that would convince her to act against her employer.

“Ms. Song,” she said, instantly perplexed at my face.

Suddenly, I felt like I wanted to cry. “I’m in over my head,” I told her, frowning. “Aren’t I?”

She smiled then, like my grandma used to smile—patient and caring.

“He’s been expecting you,” she told me. “He got pulled into a meeting, but he should be done any moment.”

My stomach growled then. I don’t think I’d eaten in almost 24 hours.

“Can we offer you an early dinner?” she asked.

“Um.” I looked at the dining room. It was only mid-afternoon but the place was busy. And everyone was so nicely dressed. I looked down at my jeans and flower-print sneakers. I don’t think I’d ever been nicely dressed before 7:00.

Before I could answer, the hostess nodded to a heavily mustachioed Latino man, who took me to a seat at the counter that ran around the open kitchen where I watched the chefs put on a little show. They were all pretty young. And relaxed. Joking with each other. It was nice. And the cuisine . . . The menu had only two options. “Man” or “Woman.” Guests were encouraged to choose the one “with which they most closely identified.”

One of the chefs, a woman in a dark bandanna, about my age, produced a basket from under a counter. It was full of spindle-like rolls of thread. Spider silk. She put three or four of them on a wire spoon and dipped them in boiling water. Then she set the blanched, sanitized, and deflated nests under a heat lamp to dry. She took some dry ones and put them in a round machine—like those rotary tubs carnivals use to make cotton candy, only smaller—and added a spoonful of thick crystals, sugar maybe. Finally she rolled a wafer twirl, a tubular cookie, around the center of the machine so that it accumulated a filamentous layer of red-violet fluff. I have no idea what candied spider web tastes like, but for the “Men,” that was dessert. Their entree was fatty chicken. The meat was stuffed and fired in clay that had to be smashed open after cooking. The chefs brought out this big mallet. Each time they smashed a pot, it was loud, and the crowd cheered. I guess since it was cooked at such high temperature and pressure, the meat fused with the marrow and spices and melted in your mouth. I chose “Woman,” because duh, and got sliced ox penis—which was like four feet long before they cut it into individual servings. It was soaked in chili oil, grilled over open flame, and served with a cold puree of parsnip, egg white, and flowering-cactus jelly that looked suspiciously like, well, you-know-what. The palate cleanser was a tiny glass of alcoholic chrysanthemum sorbet—sweet and sour, earthy and floral. And a little buzz to boot. Almost like the chef was sending you out into the world to make a poor romantic decision.

Before I had a chance to sample the dessert, the hostess came to get me. She took me back out the front and around to a side door. We walked up the stairs and the door swung open and—BOOM. There was a head, like a giant shrunken head—nine or ten feet, all gray and shriveled and nasty. Its eyes were stitched shut. Its mouth was pursed, like it was frozen in a perpetual wail. I slid past it and stepped into the living space. The floor-to-ceiling windows had a killer view of downtown. The sun was low and the light came in beams from between the distant skyscrapers. The room was like a little museum. A metal mobile hung from the high ceiling. A pair of couches faced each other in front of the windows. At the back was a wet bar. There was a big battle club and a mummified hand and some killer art on the walls, and that great view. In between the couches was a worn Buddhist stela that he was using as a coffee table.

The hostess motioned for me to sit and said he would be out soon. I nodded and she turned to leave just as a heavy-set, blustery man with a thick comb-over walked in from a side hall, through an open pair of French doors that looked like they might have dated from colonial Indochina. He looked so out of place in his tired suit and loose tie. At the other end of the hall I saw stacked stone cubes. Each cube was deep red and capped in a different Chinese character. I recognized the radicals but I didn’t know the script. It looked like some kind of ancient calligraphy.

The man spun and yelled. “I don’t know what you expected. You can’t keep venomous spiders in a kitchen—” He stopped when he noticed me. He scowled. He took a deep breath. “Young lady, I hope you’re not here for a job.”

Then he stormed out.

I turned back to the hall and there he was. The chef.

“Ms. Song.” He was flat. Like he’d just gotten horrible news but was trying to be polite. “How nice to see you again.”

He had some folded papers in his hand. It looked serious. Like, legal stuff. You know, where the back page is blue and all that. I caught the words New York City Department of Health at the top.

“Is this a bad time?” I stood.

He handed the papers to the classy hostess.

She read them. “Again?”

“Please talk to Raul and finish the service immediately. We can begin calling next week’s reservations in the morning.”

“And the staff?” she asked.

He looked at me as he thought, as if I somehow figured into the equation.

“They may leave after the kitchen is clean.”

I pointed to the door, like I was happy to show myself out, but the chef was already walking toward those red stone doors, which swung open as he approached. I looked to the hostess. She nodded and I scurried after. It was so quiet up there. I passed the open door of a small office and bathroom. I think he lived up there.

I stopped in the stone doorway. “Wow . . .”

There was a high vaulted ceiling. And a tree! Like, a whole live tree inside! And this giant wall of books behind faintly tinted glass. Étranger walked to a semi-circular kitchen that arced around the tree trunk. It was raised a step above the floor. Around it were piles of reclining pillows. To the left were huge windows covered in symbols and writing.

But I barely saw it. My eyes went right to the chair.

No, not a chair. A throne. A bone throne.

It rested inside an arched brick nook under the wall of books, which was flanked on both ends by cast iron spiral staircases. It was made out of skeletons. The arms were arms. The feet were feet. In the middle of the back, which was an array of spines, sat a human skull, wedged between the vertebrae. It stared out at me through empty sockets. Like a sexual predator.

“Thank you for coming.” Étranger washed his hands and wiped them on a towel.

I was frozen. I couldn’t move my eyes. “That chair . . .”

He turned. “Hm?”

“It looks like it wants to kill me.”

“It does.” He was serious. “Don’t worry. It is quite secure.”

He was right. It was chained crosswise to a hexagram chiseled into the slab underneath. One continuous chain stretched over it and looped through grasping metal hands that erupted from the floor at all six points of the star. They were made of copper that had long since tarnished to a spectral blue-green, as if they belonged to ghosts reaching through the rock, and they seemed to be gripping the chains with force, holding back the chair, as if it were constantly struggling to break free.

There was a Japanese screen resting against the nook, and he walked over and stretched it across the opening, hiding the chair.

Something moved out of the corner of my eye and I turned. “Oh!”

Behind me, next to the doors, was an upright, man-sized terrarium with ferns and a few large branches. It was full of spiders. But not just any spiders. Fiddlebacks. Black widows, too. I stepped back when I saw the red marks. I could actually feel the absence of the terrarium’s front panel. It was completely open. I could’ve reached out and touched them as they perched silently on their silk.

“Won’t they crawl away?”

I had visions of sitting down to talk business and finding one crawling up my leg. One of them moved just then, and I fought the urge to shiver.

“Only if I stop feeding them.”

I didn’t want to ask what they ate. I turned away, but my eyes didn’t know where to go. There was something amazing in every direction. There was a mask and a colorful feather suit and writing on the windows and a stained glass in the ceiling and on and on. I turned around slowly. There was a tray on a reclaimed wood table.

“Are those . . .”

“Vulvas. Yes.”

He said it unflinchingly. I cringed a little on his behalf.

It looked like fine chocolate, a whole tray full. Each piece was different and extremely detailed, as if molded the real thing.

“Chocolates?” I asked.

“Yes. They were meant to go with the evening service: a light salted custard with chocolat avec de l’essence de la femme,.”

“Essence of woman?”

I looked skeptically at the chocolate vulvas, which had a light sheen to them.

“You’ve been having me followed,” I accused to change the subject. “Haven’t you?”

He didn’t deny it.

The big guy with the hunch wasn’t one of Luke’s. Luke was too busy getting brutally murdered.

The chef walked to the other side of the kitchen area and looked in one of the cupboards. “That was Mr. Dench. An associate of mine.”

He reached down and lifted my bag—or Lily’s bag, I guess.

“Fuuuck me,” I blurted. Then I covered my mouth. “Sorry.” But I couldn’t believe it.

My phone was dead. Big surprise. But everything was there, even the unopened tarot deck I bought at Sour Candy.

“Ms. Song,” he said. “Do you know what is happening?”

“A little. I think.”

He looked out the window to the city. “Great houses are warring.”

“Houses?”

“One of them is nearly as old as civilization. They fighting to sit at the head of the stone table.”

“Is that why Luke wanted the dagger?”

“Yes.”

I thought there would be more coming, but there wasn’t.

“I hadn’t thought about it at first,” I said, “but when I went to see Luke, he had a picture on his wall. He was very proud. It was from an old manuscript. A man stood in a circle surrounded by all these daggers impaled in the ground. There was a noose around his neck and a gallows above, but the rope had been cut.”

Still he didn’t say anything.

“It’s an allegory, isn’t it? Like with alchemy and all that. Cutting the noose. That’s what all this is about somehow. The escape from death. Immortality.”

“The desire of alchemy,” he said softly. “The desire of man,” he corrected himself.

“The Fountain of Youth and the Holy Grail and all that.”

“Not exactly. There are two universal principles, whose union begets all things. Light and dark. Yin and yang. Male and female. Matter and antimatter. One, symbolized by the chalice or fountain, is the source, as a womb gives life. The other is—”

“An athame,” I interjected.

“Not an athame,” he corrected as he walked back around the counter. “The athame. The original sacrificial blade, carved from the dome of the earth and gifted to the first dark priest. Cain, if you’re Christian.”

“I’m not.”

He nodded solemnly, like he was thinking.

“But what is it?” I asked.

“By intent, our destruction. One of three unholy relics, gifts from gods so old their names have been lost.”

“Gifts?”

“Sent to tempt us. I believe the idea was that if they gave us a big enough sword, we’d cut ourselves down and spare them the trouble of doing it themselves. Much of its history is lost, but we know the Spanish took it from the Aztecs. Where they got it is less clear. It may have been carried by Easter Islanders, fleeing the destruction of their home. They likely found it in the wreckage of an imperial Chinese trading vessel, blown far off course by unnatural winds. Before it was banished by the emperor, sent to be dropped into the deepest trench in the sea, it came to the Chinese from India, where it had been enshrined at the temple of Kali. Before that, it had been buried in a tomb in Bactria by the priests of Alexander, just before his great army—which nearly conquered the world—fell to chaos and turned back. Alexander himself took it from the Persians, who took it from the Hyksos, who took it from the Pharaohs, who took it from the Hebrews, who took it from the Babylonians, who took it from the Akkadians . . . And everywhere it went, ruin followed. The fall of the Aztecs. The Muslim conquest of Hindustan. The death of Alexander. The plagues of Exodus.”

There was a long silence.

“Wow,” I said. “Good job. I mean, I was expecting something like that but I totally got goosebumps.”

“In the sixteenth century, after the mighty Spanish Armada—whose ships stretched from horizon to horizon—was decimated in a freak gale that swept across the North Sea, the High Arcane had finally had enough.”

“The Masters,” I said.

He nodded.

“Who were they?”

“A secret society that traced its lineage to the fall of the Templars. Their agents wrested the blade from the Inquisitors, who thought the strength of their faith could contain its evil. But no one can. The blade has but one purpose. And since it could not be destroyed—at least, not without releasing, at once, all the evil it had accumulated—it was buried. In a place of forgetting. And left to diminish over the eons.”

“Apparently someone remembered.”

“Yes,” he said softly. “Unfortunately, the magic of that place was broken. Many years ago.”

I looked up at the tree behind him. I hadn’t noticed before, but there were tiny red fruits, like berries, peeking from between the leaves.

“Lykke Rottheim is the child of two great houses,” he explained, “who trace their origin to the first financiers. He was made to be king. But life has a certain cruel irony, and he has lost the favor of his gods, who are fickle and unforgiving. They have selected another.”

“The Lord of Shadows.”

He nodded.

“Who is he?”

“That is what I have been trying to ascertain. He has found a way to . . . hide himself from me.”

“How?”

“He is in possession of a book. The last of the three gifts. Only the dagger can counter it and return the House of Rottheim to the head of the stone table, where it has sat for three hundred years.”

“But he’s dead,” I said. “They killed him. Or someone did. And they’re trying to pin it on me.”

Étranger pressed his lips together and looked down. “Then once again, we are too late.”

He looked out the window and sighed.

“Ms. Song,” he said with some hesitation, “it is unfortunate I must be the one to tell you this, but you are in far greater danger than you know. Death has already marked you. Such a stain cannot be scrubbed clean. Courtesy dictates I suggest immediate retreat, if only to put your affairs in order and say goodbye to your loved ones. But in truth . . . we must recover the dagger—at any cost. Even our lives. If the Lord of Shadows walks with two unholy relics, he will be unstoppable.” He paused. “Do you know where the dagger is hiding?”

“No.” I said. “But I know who does.”


Snippet from Part One of my occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Get it here.

Cover image by OzumiiWizard