Dark Magic by James Swain
Visiting the spirit world was never easy. The other side was a shifting landscape of light and dark, where time moved forward and backward, and often stood still. It was here that fierce battles between the forces of good and evil were constantly being waged, with the earth’s outcome weighing in the balance. A visitor could get hurt, if he was not careful.
Peter Warlock knew the risks. He’d visited the spirit world many times, and always returned unharmed. He was at home there, as much as any person could be.
Striking a match, Peter lit the three white candles sitting on the dining room table in Milly Adam’s apartment. The wicks sparked to life, and he gazed into the faces of the six other psychics sitting around the table. As leader of the Friday night psychics, it was his job to make contact with the spirit world. Clasping the hands of the two women sitting beside him, he shut his eyes, and began to recite the words that allowed him to communicate with the dead.
“In darkness, I see light, in daylight, I see night. Shadows as bright as sunshine, the blind able to see. This is the world we wish to enter. We ask the eternal question, yet no one seems to know. Who is the master of Creation? Who can explain, or from the future tear the mask? Yet still we dream, and still we ask. What lies beyond the silent night, we cannot say. Yet death is the door that leads us there, death the eternal key. This is the door we wish to open, and through it, see.”
His world changed. He found himself standing on the sidewalk in an unknown city with swirling images bouncing around him like a kaleidoscope, the scenes flashing by at warp speed. Men, women and children staggered past, all of whom were in the process of dying before his very eyes. The images were torturous, and he twisted uncomfortably in his chair.
“What do you see?” Milly asked, squeezing his hand.
Peter tried to focus. He had a job to do, no matter how painful it might be.
“I’m standing on a street corner in a major metropolitan city. Something terrible has just occurred, and scores of people are dying on the sidewalk and in the street.”
“How are they dying?” Milly asked.
“They’re gasping for breath and going into convulsions. Then they just stop breathing.”
“Is it some type of attack?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t see any guns or bombs going off or anything like that.”
“Which city are you in?”
“I can’t tell. There are too many shadows to make out the street names.”
“I think so. I see a movie poster on a building for a remake of The Untouchables.”
“That comes out next week,” Holly Adams whispered, squeezing his other hand.
“Look hard, Peter,” Milly said. “You have to find out where this attack is taking place.”
Still in his trance, Peter stepped off the curb to search for a familiar landmark. A city bus screamed past, the driver slumped at the wheel. It careened off several parked cars before plowing into a storefront and toppling over. He was just a visitor to this world, and there was nothing he could do to help the driver or the passengers inside.
Peter scanned the street. A large skyscraper with an imposing spire on its roof caught his eye. He’d seen the silver ball drop from that spire on New Year’s countless times.
“Oh, no,” he whispered. “It’s here in New York.”
Milly gasped. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Wait. Everything’s coming into focus now. It’s night time in Times Square. The theaters have let out, and the streets are jammed with people. Something awful is happening to them, and they’re grabbing their heads and screaming and dropping to the ground. Cars and buses are crashing into each other as well, their drivers dead. It’s total chaos.”
The rest of the table exchanged worried looks. To Peter’s left sat Milly’s niece Holly, an aspiring witch attending Columbia University; to her left, Reggie Brown, who used his psychic powers to pick winning horses at the racetracks and beat the casinos, and who was the largest donor to good works in the city. To Reggie’s left sat Lester Rowe, a Scottish-born psychic who lived on the Lower East Side and only traveled uptown to attend Milly’s gatherings. To his left, Max Romeo, a world-famous magician, now retired. Beside Max sat Madame Marie, an elderly gypsy who read Tarot cards out of a dusty storefront in Greenwich Village. Rounding out the circle was Milly, the grande dame of psychics in New York, who could trace her bloodline directly back to the witches of Salem, Massachusetts.
“Ask him, Max,” Madame Marie whispered. Max nodded. He knew Peter the best, having taken the boy under his wing after his parents had died, and turned him into one of the world’s foremost magicians.
“When, Peter? When will this happen?” Max asked. “I can’t tell,” Peter replied. “Look around, see if you can spot something that will tell you the day.” “The shadows are back. It’s all out of focus.” Max slapped his hand forcefully onto the table. He did not tolerate anything but perfection from his student. “Look, harder, Peter. There has to be something there.” “I’m trying.” “Try harder,” Max implored.
Peter spun around, seeing nothing that would tell him the day of the week. His ability to look into the future was as much of a curse as it was a gift, and he nearly shouted in frustration. “It’s not working.” “Try the news tickers on the office buildings,” Holly suggested. “They usually have stories running across them. That should tell you.” “An excellent idea,” Max said. “Concentrate on the buildings.”
Peter stared. Times Square had become a dead zone, and he tried to block out the carnage, and determine the exact day he was seeing in the future. Taking Holly’s suggestion, he studied the office buildings, and spotted the digital news ticker that ran across the front of the ABC News building that included an ESPN ticker for sports. The score for a Yankees game against the division rival Rays caught his eye. He was an ardent baseball fan, and knew that the game was to be played on Tuesday afternoon at the stadium in the Bronx.
“It will happen in four days,” he announced. “Are you sure?” Max asked. “Yes, Max. I’m looking at the score to a baseball game that hasn’t been played yet.” “Well, at least we have some time,” Milly said, sounding relieved. Peter began to fade. Entering the spirit world was exhausting, and sapped his strength. He started to pull out of his trance, then stiffened. “What’s wrong?” Holly asked.
In the median of Times Square stood a menacing figure dressed in black. His hair was shorn to within an inch of his scalp, his face chiseled. He was unaffected by the scores of dying people, and looked like the Grim Reaper.
Peter had run out of gas. He pitched forward, and his forehead hit the table. “Oh, my god Peter!” Holly exclaimed. “Are you all right?” Peter waited for his mind to clear. Lifting his head, he looked into Holly’s sweet face. “I’ll live,” he replied. “You scared me.” “I think we’re done,” Milly declared. “Good job, Peter.” “Yes, Peter, that was a splendid effort,” Lester said. Everyone rose and patted him on the back. Each week, they gathered in Milly’s apartment and conducted a seance to see what evil was coming in the days ahead. In that regard, they had succeeded. Only as Peter knew, the hard part was now to come.
* * *
They retired to the living room, and took their usual spots. Abandoning the comfy chair he usually sat in, Peter stood at the window and gazed at the blazing lights of Times Square thirty blocks away. In four days, it would be turned into a living hell, and he wrestled thirty blocks away. In four days, it would be turned into a living hell, and he wrestled with how to deal with it. It was Milly who broke the silence. “Tell us what you’re thinking,” she said. Peter turned from the window. “We need to act quickly. The usual method of contacting the authorities isn’t going to work. We must get their attention right away.” “He’s right,” Reggie said, chewing on his pipe. “We can’t send them a letter, and expect they’ll open it in time. Something else has to be done.” “I agree,” Milly said. “Any suggestions?” “We could bombard them with anonymous emails,” Holly offered. “Anonymous emails can be mistaken as spam, and never seen,” Reggie reminded her. “You’re right. Sorry.” “How about a good old-fashioned phone call?” Lester suggested. “We can buy one of those devices that alter a person’s voice, in case the call is taped.” “Phone calls can be traced,” Milly reminded him. “Even cell phones?” Lester asked. “Naturally.” “How about running a banner behind a plane? Those usually get people’s attention.” Lester had a knack for finding humor in just about any situation. This time, no one laughed, and the living room fell deathly quiet. Down below, a police cruiser passed the apartment building, its mournful siren punctuating the still night air.
“There’s no getting around it,” Peter said. “We need to make direct contact with the authorities. Since I’m the one who saw the attack, I should do it.” “You can’t go to the authorities,” Milly said. “Look at what happened to poor Nemo.” Peter knew perfectly well what had happened to Nemo. Once the government had discovered that Nemo was psychic, they’d stuck him on an estate in Virginia, where his handlers put him through vigorous interrogation sessions in an effort to find out what the government’s enemies were plotting. It was a wretched existence, and Peter hoped it never happened to him, but that still didn’t change the situation.
“I still have to do it,” Peter said. “But why risk direct contact?” Milly asked. “Isn’t there some other way to tell them?” “How do I pass along information that I don’t understand? I saw people dying in Times Square, but there was no blood, or gunfire, or explosions. Did some kind of bomb go off? Or was it something else? The authorities are experts at figuring out puzzles like this. I have to tell them what I saw. It’s the only way to prevent a catastrophe from happening.” Milly sprang off the couch and crossed the room to where he stood. She grabbed his forearm and gave it a healthy pinch, just like she had when he was a little boy. “They will never let you go, Peter. Once you start talking, they’ll realize you’re not normal, and then it will be over for you. Is that what you want? Never to see any of us again? And what about your career? Are you willing to toss that away as well?”
Peter said nothing. An uneasy silence fell over the group. Madame Marie cleared her throat. Everyone shifted their attention to hear what the old gypsy had to say.
“I know you like my own son,” Madame Marie said. “You are a headstrong young man, and prone to making rash decisions. Think about this before you act. You have four days in which to make a decision. Use them wisely.” “Yes, Peter, do think about it,” Max added. “There’s a lot at stake here.” “A good night’s sleep will do the trick,” Lester joined in. “That and a hot toddy always worked for me,” Reggie added. They were the closest thing to a family that Peter had, and he would weigh their words carefully. Tomorrow was Saturday, and he had a matinee in the afternoon, and another show at night. He bid them goodnight, and Milly walked him to the door.
“Please let me know what you decide to do,” she said. “I will, Milly. Thank you for your advice.” “Like you ever listened to me.” “I’ve always listened to you.” “But have you ever obeyed?” Hardly, he thought. He kissed her on the cheek. “Goodnight.” “Be safe, Peter,” she said. “And you as well,” he replied.
* * *
His limo was idling at the curb, waiting to take him home. He spent a moment trying to clear his head. A little voice was telling him to go to the police, and tell them what he’d seen. It was the right thing to do, only it would lead to questions that he wasn’t prepared to answer. His friends were right. He needed to sleep on it, and come up with a better plan of attack.
A chill swept through his body. He looked up and down Central Park West, sensing another presence. Was Nemo trying to contact him? His friend could do that, and without thinking, he stepped off the curb. In the clouds was a translucent face that looked like Nemo’s.
“Peter, watch out!” A city bus hurtled toward him. He jumped back onto the curb, then gazed into the sky. Nemo was gone. Holly stood behind him, her teeth chattering from the cold. He draped his leather jacket over her shoulders.
“What were you doing?” she asked. “A little star-gazing. What’s the mood upstairs?” “Not good. They’re afraid you’ll do something rash.” “Me? Perish the thought.” “You need to be careful. No one wants you to disappear. Especially me.” A single tear ran down her cheek. Growing up, he’d babysat for Holly, and shown her magic tricks to keep her entertained. She was the little sister he’d never had, and one of the few people he ever confided in. He hated to see her so upset.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. “You’re not crossing your toes, are you?” “Toes and fingers are uncrossed.” “I worry about you. Were the things you saw really that bad?” “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Could it have been terrorists?” “I don’t know. That’s why I have to contact the authorities.” “You know best.” She slipped out of his jacket and kissed his cheek. “‘Night, Peter.” “Goodnight.”
He watched her go back inside and climbed into the limo. Herbie, his African-American driver, put down his newspaper and glanced into mirror. “You look wiped out, boss. Ready to call it a night?” “Yeah, Herbie. Let’s beat it.”
Peter poured himself a Scotch from the limo bar. He didn’t drink often, and when he did, there was a reason. The drink burned going down, and cleared his head. “Do you have something to write on?” “Pen or pencil?” “Pencil, please.”
Herbie passed him a yellow pad and a pencil. “Which way home?” “Through the park. It’s usually quiet this time of night.”
Herbie entered Central Park through the 72nd Street entrance. The park was empty, save for a die hard jogger and a man walking his dog. Switching on the reading light, Peter stared at the blank pad. The key to stopping the catastrophe in Times Square would be finding the man he’d seen standing in the median. If he could get a drawing to the police, they could track the man down, and avert the disaster. He wouldn’t have to talk to them – just get the drawing in their hands, and call the man a threat. It sounded like a plan, and he began to sketch.
He was a passable artist, and the man’s face slowly took shape. Square chin, a scar on his left cheek, another beneath the hairline on his forehead. Flat nose, possibly broken a few times. Soulless eyes. Whoever he was, he’d lived a harsh life.
Peter appraised his work. It was a decent likeness, only something was missing. He added a scowl to the man’s face. That did the trick. He’d captured the thing about the man that was so unnerving. He could watch innocent people die without caring. They’d reached the 72nd Street exit on the east side of the park. Herbie got onto Fifth Avenue, and headed south to 62nd Street, where he hung a left. They pulled up in front of a nondescript brownstone on a street of quiet elegance.
“So what are you drawing?” his driver asked. Peter passed the sketch through the partition. Limo drivers saw hundreds of faces every single day. Maybe Herbie could help.
“Ever see him before?” Peter asked.
Herbie had a look. He shook his head, and passed the pad back.
“If I gave you copy of this sketch tomorrow, could you email it to other drivers you know, and tell them to be on the lookout for this guy?” “Sure,” Herbie said. “Good. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Peter climbed out of the limo. The driver’s window came down, and Herbie stuck his head out. “If you don’t mind my asking, who is that guy, anyway?”
The pad was clutched in Peter’s hand, the face staring up at him. The harsh streetlight accentuated the man’s utter callousness, and Peter could not help but shudder.
“He’s the devil, Herbie, and we need to find him.” “Got it, boss. See you in the a.m.”
Peter climbed the steps to his brownstone. The downstairs lights were burning brightly. Liza had stayed up. A warm drink was waiting, and something good to eat. She was wonderful that way, and made him happy in ways that no one had ever managed to before.
He hurried inside.
New York’s meat-packing district was not where people went to see live theater. Located on the West Side, the district’s once gritty meat-packing plants were now occupied by nice restaurants, late-night clubs, and fashion boutiques. The neighborhood had found new life, and a soul all its own.
Peter had chosen to stage his full-evening magic show in the district for this very reason. By avoiding bustling Times Square, he did not have to compete with the musicals, revivals, and serious dramas that fueled New York’s Theater District. He was the new kid on the block, and his fans ate it up. Each night, they flocked to his shows, desperate to find out what this young miracle-maker would do next in the abandoned meat-packing plant that was his stage.
Peter stood inside his dressing room. It took longer to get ready for a magic show than it did to perform one. He was nearly done with his preparations, and he adjusted the elastic pull that ran up the right sleeve of his jacket. The pull was one of his favorite props, and let him make small objects disappear in the blink of an eye.
He stood in front of the mirror and tested the pull. Picking up a playing card, he secretly attached the card to the pull using a small clip. By extending his arms, the card raced up his sleeve.
To the mirror, it looked like real magic. “Hey, Peter, can you talk?” It was Liza, speaking through the inner-canal earpiece that he wore during his show. Along with being the love of his life, Liza was his assistant, the best he’d ever had.
“As well as the next guy,” he said into the tiny microphone sewn into his shirt collar. “Very funny. Everyone’s in their seats. It’s a good crowd.” “Sold out?” “Yup. The last tickets got bought right before the doors opened.” “That’s great. Is Snoop there with you?” “He’s standing next to me. Ready to go over the details?” “Let ‘er rip.”
A magician’s assistant wore many hats. Liza and Snoop worked as ushers, and chatted with the patrons as they were led to their seats. Any valuable information they gleaned was passed to Peter before the show began. Magicians called this pre show work. It allowed them to know intimate details about the audience before ever stepping foot on stage.
“Here we go,” Liza began. “Row A, Seats 5 and 6, are an older couple from Battle Creek, Michigan named Wayne and Marilyn Barcomb. Their son, Michael is about to graduate from NYU Medical School. Michael’s sitting in Seat 7. He was talking on his cell phone as they got seated. I think there’s a young lady in the wings.”
“Engaged?” Peter asked. “It sounds that way. She’s going to meet the parents on Sunday.” “Did you get her name?” “Suzanne.” “Another med student?” “Yes – how did you know?” “Just a guess. Great job.” “Thanks, Peter.”
Snoop went next. Before joining the show, Snoop had been a computer hacker, and had gotten his nickname because he enjoyed sticking his nose into other people’s business.
“You’re going to love this,” Snoop said. “Row F, seats 8 through 12, are five ladies who could be stand ins for Sex and the City, but actually work in the media department of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency here in New York. One of them is celebrating a birthday, but I couldn’t find out which one.”
“The birthday girl’s sitting in seat #10,” Peter told him. “Cut it out.” “I’m serious. I’ll bet you lunch.” “No thanks. How do you know she’s in seat #10?” “Simple deduction. Five ladies are out on the town, and one is having a birthday. The birthday girl will sit in the middle so none of her friends will feel left out.” “Wow. I’m impressed,” Snoop said. “Merci. Keep going.”
Snoop recited the rest of the things he’d overheard while taking patrons to their seats. One lady had a poodle who’d eaten a box of chocolates, and nearly died. Another woman was worried that a passport for a trip to Paris might not come through in time. And one poor man was a recent victim of identity theft, and had been forced to cut up his credit cards. It was just enough information for Peter to open up the door to a person’s psyche, and plumb their thoughts. “Want to add anything, Zack?” Peter asked.
Zack handled ticket sales and worked the door. He was a muscle head, and cut an imposing figure. Zack had once handled security for a heavy metal band, and had sixth sense when it came to spotting trouble. “Sure do. A strange guy with a British accent approached me in the lobby, and asked if you still accepted challenges during the show. He had this way about him that bothered me. When I asked him what he had in mind, he told me to piss off.” “Was he drunk?” Peter asked. “I don’t think so.” “Stoned?” “His breath was clean.” “Off in the head?” “No, he acted pretty normal.” “Think he’s a trouble-maker?”
“He sure came across that way. Want me to give him a refund, and ask him to leave?” Everyone in show business had to deal with hecklers. Throwing the guy out on his ass was an option, only there was always the chance he’d file a lawsuit, and cause bigger headaches.
“Leave him alone,” Peter said. “You sure?” Zack replied. “Positive. Tell me what he looks like, so I can be on the lookout.” “He’s in his mid-thirties, about six-foot tall, real athletic-looking, with a snarl on his face like a junkyard dog,” Zack said. “He’s got a bad vibe.” Lying on his dressing room table was the sketch Peter had drawn after last night’s seance. He picked up the pad and stared at the man he’d nicknamed the Grim Reaper. “Is he dressed in black?” “Yeah. He looks like a funeral director. How did you know?”
Because I saw him while talking to the dead. He continued to stare at the pad. What were the chances of the same evil man buying a ticket to his show? About one in a million. He tossed the sketch onto the table. “Where’s he sitting?” “Last row, on the aisle,” Zack said. “Keep an eye on him. Any sign of trouble, throw him out.” “You still didn’t tell me how you knew what he was wearing.” “I guessed.” “You’re going to have to tell me how you do that someday.”
A backstage buzzer went off. There were five minutes left before the curtain went up. They had a show to do, and Peter put the strange man out of his mind. “Good job, everyone,” he said. “Now, let’s go make some magic.”