Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chapter Six: Warburg

The reading room looked exactly the way Jericho expected it to. Rich wood paneling on the walls, area Turkish rugs, and high backed leather wingchairs gave the room a plush and ancient feel. Considering the Warburg Institute’s mandate to preserve cultural history, the room seemed fitting. Ezekiel Garrott, however, looked nothing like how Jericho imagined an English professor of alchemy and occult literature. Ezekiel was a hair over five and half feet tall, thin as a reed, and very, very young. He wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt, artfully torn dark blue jeans, and black Chuck Taylors. His hair fell in a tangled mat over his plastic-rimmed glasses, and his cheeks sported a week's worth of the patchy fuzz of youth trying to masquerade as a five o’clock shadow.

“Hullo, Jericho, how’ve you been mate?” Ezekiel was all smiles and elbows as he offered a firm grip.

“Hi, Zeke. I hear your boys handled Milwall pretty well.”

Ezekiel grinned. “And looks like we’ll avoid relegation by a margin as well. Never count out the Hammers!”

Ezekiel gestured to the rich leather chairs, and the two sat, as Jericho fumbled with his messenger bag. There was a spindly end table sandwiched between the chairs, but it wasn’t large enough for anything larger than a cup of coffee, so Jericho squatted down and began laying his research out on the floor.

“So here’s the diary I was telling you about; I’ll get back to that. I’ve got some of the tarot cards here that I bought online. And here are some articles on the history of the Thoth. Oh, and I’ve the book of Thoth in my bag.”

Jericho handed the diary to Ezekiel and then pulled out a tablet. “I’ve got the relevant pages marked with sticky notes. The journal is a bit eclectic, but a lot of it has to do with Crowley’s interaction with Frieda Harris in the production of the Thoth tarot.”

Ezekiel turned the journal over in his hands. It was old and worn caramel leather, closed with an elastic band. One corner was folded over, and several nicks and pits marred the edges. There was the distinct ring of a coffee cup on the back cover. It seemed a remarkably unassuming thing to belong to one of the most egoistic showmen of his age.  “What have you learned so far?” Ezekiel asked as he thumbed the elastic off the book and cracked it open.

Jericho tapped his tablet awake and opened a file, scrolling down a few times before finding what he was looking for. “Well, he begins somewhat early talking about delays and repaints. Apparently he was a real stickler for detail. Lady Harris was working with watercolors which he mentions are a terrible medium for any kind of corrections. Oh, there are a few loose letters in the journal. One of them is a fragment in which the lady seems to be chastising Crowley for using her as his personal bank. The first half of the letter is missing. The others are all about painting design – she seemed pretty fed up with Crowley’s meticulousness. Ok, here we go. About a third of the way into the book he says, and I quote, ‘I fear this may be getting too dangerous.’ I marked that one with the red sticky. Included in that page is a letter fragment from Lady Harris. It reads in part, ‘I have done the 10 of Swords & promptly Russia takes up arms. Where are we going! You haven't sent me the notes on the Fool.’ The next few months of writing all have an interesting fascination with correlating Lady Harris’s completed paintings with world historical events. It’s funny too, because there is about a two week lag between major events and when Crowley learns of them.”

Ezekiel had the diary open and was silently mouthing words as he read. He looked up with a bright look in his eye. “Well I can’t say for sure, but this looks authentic. Crowley had a fairly unique writing style, and this sounds very much like it. It may be a very clever forgery, however. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in donating this to the Institute?”

Jericho frowned. “It’s not mine to give. I might sell it to you though.”

Ezekiel laughed. “We don’t deal in stolen goods. What else can you tell me?”

“Well, about half way through Crowley mentions that the paintings are completed. Interestingly, the entry is dated 1940.”

Ezekiel raised an eyebrow. “The paintings weren’t completed until 1943.”

“Well,” Jericho responded. “This is where things get interesting. Shortly thereafter, Crowley talks about a reading with the paintings. I marked that one with the blue sticky. This was set up as a séance and used lots to determine which paintings would be used. I guess it would be difficult to shuffle and deal a bunch of canvasses. The reading appeared to involve eleven paintings, which I thought was funny because I thought most readings used only three cards. Anyway, Crowley describes the results as “disastrous”, but doesn’t elaborate. Shortly after that he begins talking about altering the deck. Near the end of the diary he says that he has been humbled by his experience and determines that – and I quote – ‘The key must be hidden away.’ That is about all I got out of the journal. The final entry is dated 1941.”

Ezekiel stroked his chin fuzz and then pushed his glasses up his nose with a boney middle finger. “Interesting. And you are looking for this ‘key’?”

Jericho nodded. “Well, my client is. I’m not sure if it really exists or what. I was hoping you could help me figure out if this diary is authentic, and if so, maybe what Crowley was talking about.”

Ezekiel grinned. “Well this is exciting! I don’t get to do many treasure hunts. I suggest you proceed as if the journal is authentic; it may take me some time to verify that, but it can’t hurt to get started in the meanwhile.”

Jericho nodded.

Ezekiel straightened out his left leg so that he could wriggle his hand into a pocket. It took quite a bit of effort. He finally removed his hand, triumphantly clutching a stick of Peppersmith chewing gum. He unwrapped it slowly and put it in his mouth, breaking it into several pieces in the process. He leaned back in his chair chewing for a few minutes, a look of satisfaction on his face. “So let me fill you in a bit on Crowley and his writing style.”

Friday, April 18, 2014

Chapter Five: Heathrow

Heathrow had always been Jericho’s least favorite airport. It was huge, dirty, generally unfriendly, and getting through security was an exercise in patience. After funneling through security and customs, Jericho followed a meandering mass of bodies outside to a vast tangle of roads, with a dozen incoming lanes all choked with taxis and transports. Jericho was always amazed how the higher human functions seemed to shut down during travel. People who would normally be out conquering the world strolled about at a pace that might give a ground sloth envy. Conversations ranged from the banal to downright pointless. Eyes glassed over, and a few normally upstanding citizens tried to hide earbuds pilfered from the airline in their pockets. 

Several workers in yellow vests funneled tourists and visitors toward waiting taxis. The world was grey concrete, graffiti, security cameras, and traffic. Jericho had hoped to get one of the small black retro looking taxis that London is famous for, but instead he ended up being pushed toward some kind of van. There was a large plexiglass partition between him and the driver, with a few holes drilled in it for essential conversation. The driver was something prehistoric; six and a half feet of mountainous blonde with a mohawk, goatee, and numerous piercings. He wore fingerless gloves and resembled something like a Viking raider, only more frightening. His demeanor was surprisingly humble by contrast. He shuffled his feet a bit, looking down. “Where’ll it be, gov?” He asked.

“Warburg Institute, Woburn Square.”

The driver crinkled his brow. “That’s a fair piece, sir. Cost you a penny, that will.”

“Well, we better get started then.” Jericho smiled and stepped into the van, which was almost uncomfortably empty. There was at least three feet of space between the plexiglass partition and the passenger area, covered with rubber floor matting. The passenger area was a single vinyl bench seat. Jericho sat, and dutifully buckled his seat belt. After the coach class flight from DC, he was grateful to be able to stretch his legs. The driver heaved his suitcase onto the rubber as easily as an Easter basket, and then climbed up into his cab.

Just getting out of the airport was an adventure of twisting roads, lurching traffic, and a cab driver who had apparently been  dismissed from Formula One for driving too recklessly. The A30 was busy, but flowed along smoothly enough, and after about ten minutes Jericho began to relax a bit more. He thought about striking up a conversation, but was doubtful he could shout loud enough to be heard by the driver. At Hatton Cross the traffic snarled a bit, but soon they were passing nice, upscale subdivisions, and then circling around Henly’s to link up with the A4. Jericho fell asleep somewhere on Horn lane, before the sharp right onto A40 woke him. Jericho drifted off again around Marleybone and only awoke again as they were turning onto Upper Woburn Place. He wiped some spittle off the corner of his mouth.

The gentle giant stepped down and threw the door open with too much gusto, no doubt thinking of his huge payday. Jericho forked over nearly 100 pounds, too tired to convert the currency to American dollars in his head. Jericho decided that either the British penny was of significantly greater value than the American counterpart, or his driver had been using a colloquialism when referring to the fare. “Thanks for the lift.” He smiled and tried to guess what position his driver played. He already knew the sport – rugby.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chapter Four: AML

As usual, the parking garage was completely full except for most of the first three floors, but those spaces were all reserved for physicians, so Jericho kept driving. By the time he found an open spot on the roof, the weather had changed. The sky was a bowl of lead, and gusts of frigid air snatched at the edges of buildings and chased loose trash to dance in the corners. As he stepped out of his car, the first few large drops of rain burst against the pavement. Holding a gift over his head, Jericho jogged for the elevator; as he stepped under the overhang, the rain broke in earnest, pouring down with the roar of a freight train, the occasional gust of wind driving it sideways like so many liquid ice-picks.

The elevator lurched to a halt, and Jericho stepped out on the second floor. The halls were a maze of plastic sheets put up for construction and remodeling, sterile instruments carts, laundry, gurneys, and people walking about at different speeds in different directions with no apparent rhyme or reason. It was a long and tortuous walk to the pediatrics wing, and another elevator ride to the oncology ward. The elevator doors slid open with a cheerful beep, but Jericho did not move. The elevator beeped again, and a female voice announced the floor, “Fourth floor – pediatric oncology.” It occurred to Jericho that those words should not be in any vocabulary in any language. There was something fundamentally unjust about the idea of a child developing cancer. The doors began to close, and Jericho reached out a hand. The doors lurched back open, and Jericho placed one foot in front of the other. The floor was well lit and cheery. A chill raced up Jericho’s spine as he realized that all the door knobs and hand rails were at a height for children. Colorful murals and carpets did nothing to cheer death’s specter. Jericho handed his ID across the counter. “I’m here to see Caytlyn. Caytlyn Spears.”

The lady behind the desk flashed a smile that never made it to her eyes, and clicked a few keys. “You’re on the approved list, sir. Let me get you a wrist band.”

A few minutes later, Jericho pulled back a curtain, and stepped awkwardly into a very small space. Caytlyn was eight years old and small for her age. Tubes were taped to her arms and upper lip, and her bald head throbbed red with the reflection of her monitor. Like a solitary sentinel, the monitor counted her life away, one heart beat at a time. Beep. Beep. Beep. Her eyelids fluttered, and the muscles at the corner of her mouth tightened, but she couldn’t manage a smile. Her fingers twitched. Beep. Beep. Beep. Jericho sat in the single bedside chair as Caytlyn’s eyes followed him. When he had first heard about AML he didn't know what it meant or how serious it was. When he heard leukemia, though, he thought he understood. He hadn't though, not really. He hadn't understood the needles, the pills, the radiation, the endless tests. He hadn't understood the waiting, the worry, the fear, the pain. He hadn't understood his surprising ambivalence toward hour long telephone battles with the insurance company. He hadn't understood the psychological drain of watching a child suffer weight loss, chronic fatigue, fever, night terrors, chills, headaches, and vertigo within a matter of weeks. He hadn't understood the horror of an entire building filled with similar dying children. The hospital was named after some saint. If there are saints, this one is cruel and weak. No child should have to suffer like this. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Hi Caytlyn.” His smile faltered. He had never been good at faking emotions. “I came to see you.” Of course you did, idiot. “I know this is really tough for you, girl, but you hang tight.” You sound so lame. Jericho sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You’re so young, you don’t even know what life is yet, but you’re old enough to know what death is.” When did you turn into a poet? “I guess what I’m saying is, I know you're scared. And I know you’re scared because you don’t know why you’re scared.” Jericho’s voice caught, and he took a ragged breath. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Daddy did good last week, baby. We're going to get you the best care in the world. I promise. You’re going to be just fine, honey. Just fine. Be strong.” His eyes strayed down to the rumpled wet package crushed between his nervous hands. The purple wrapping paper was running, and the bow was smashed. “I brought you something. I know you’re still recovering, so I’ll open it for you.” Jericho tore the paper away, and placed the small gift on Caytlyn’s chest. He could feel her ribs. Her lip quivered, and a tear came to her eye, but she couldn’t speak.

“It’s ok, baby girl.” Jericho brushed her tear away with a thumb. “You be strong. I’ll be back soon.” Jericho squeezed her hand, and planted a kiss on her forehead. Then he shoved past the curtain and was gone. Slowly, Caytlyn’s hand crept up her stomach to grasp the gift on her chest. Tears trickled out of the corners of her closed eyes. 

It was a hairbrush. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chapter Three: Thoth

Jericho shifted in his chair and scowled. “Magic? I know that it makes a lot of kids very happy on their birthday. I know there’s this guy in Los Vegas who tries to mix it with heavy metal performance art and basically sucks at it. I know that it can make the statue of liberty disappear on television. Why?”

Ellen’s smile broadened. “I’m talking about real magick. And whether you believe in it or not, a lot of people have down through the ages. As you can imagine, there are a great number of ‘magick’ artifacts, and they are quite valuable.”

“I’m listening.” Jericho seemed a bit uncomfortable with the topic, but was always interested in a lucrative treasure hunt.

Ellen put her tea down and pulled her cane close. She rubbed the crystal skull and stared into it, gathering her thoughts. “Let’s begin in the present. The modern practice of magick is primarily about summoning and petitioning spirits. Tarot, palm reading, fortune telling – there are carnival tricks, and then there are those who believe they are practicing the “real” thing. The most powerful of these practices is the summoning of spirits. Most of what we know and practice comes from a book called the Lemegeton.”

Jericho shook his head. “I’m not familiar.”

“Sometimes it’s called the Lesser Key of Solomon.”

Jericho squinted. “Yeah, that sounds familiar. Medieval writing, isn’t it?”

“Sort of.” Ellen smiled. “It was compiled sometime around the 1650s, but it came from older material. Of course, it is suspected that the older material came from even older material. Pietro d’Abano, a French monk and scholar wrote a grimoire around 1300 which was the source for much of the demonology in the Lemegeton. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa created a more dashing work around 1500, after the inquisition had subsided and occultism became acceptable in the courts of kings. Of course, the Lesser key claims that this knowledge is actually much older, being passed down from Solomon himself.”

“If you want to sell books, you need good marketing.” Jericho commented wryly.

Ellen laughed. “Indeed. Whatever the source, the Lemegeton is the default source for demonology in the West. There are 72 demons listed, as well as spells for summonings, etc.”

“Yeah, ok.” Jericho interrupted. “But I’m not seeing a treasure hunt here. Is this Lemegeton valuable?”

Ellen laughed again. “You can get a copy online for thirty bucks. I’m sure there is some fantastically valuable original edition out there somewhere, unless it got burned by some zealous priest. No, my story isn’t finished. In the Victorian era, magick became a sort of hobby, especially among the well-heeled in Britain. Probably the most famous of the occultists was Aleister Crowley.”

Jericho nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. Born in 1875, Cambridge educated, a mountaineer. Some say he was a spy.”

“Whatever he was, he is pretty famous now.” Ellen chirped. “Especially among modern fans of magick and the occult. Given his natural penchant for showmanship and marketing, he was able to gather quite the following in his own time which carries over even to the present. Probably his greatest contribution to the occult was his Book of Thoth and the accompanying tarot deck he designed.”

“Wait, he made up his own tarot deck?”

“He did. He had them painted by a lady friend of his, and he took it quite seriously. He dictated what he wanted, and there are several examples of paintings which he rejected. The project ended up lasting five years, and the deck wasn’t even published until after his death.”

Jericho frowned. “Sounds kind of OCD.”

“Maybe. Regardless, it was a great work, and the accompanying book explained that this updated tarot incorporated Egyptian magick. Now as you can imagine, anything having to do with this project is absurdly valuable. The original paintings are property of the Warburg Institute, University of London. Some of the rejected paintings, however, have sold at auctions or to private collectors for millions of dollars.”

Jericho smiled thinly. “Now it gets interesting.”

“Now it gets interesting.” Ellen agreed. “Crowley’s work on the Thoth tarot was highly influenced  by the Lemegeton. Naturally, since it was basically the last word on the subject of demonology, but he also incorporated some Hindu and Buddhist ideas. Anyway, I recently came into possession of one of Crowley’s journals. There is nothing in the journal that names Crowley as the owner or author, but I have it on good authority.”

That was clearly supposed to impress Jericho, but he let it go. He was getting impatient and wanted to know how much money and adventure he could expect in the near future.

“The journal is surprisingly dull, but he does mention something about the Thoth project. It was originally scheduled as a six month project. Instead, it ended up being a five year project. The journal seems to indicate that the reason for this is that the original Thoth tarot deck was simply too dangerous to publish. The journal also mentions some artifact or manuscript that Crowley was working off of. He calls is “the Key”, so it might have something to do with Solomon’s key. I don’t know. Anyway, to make a long story short, I want you to find out what this artifact was, and recover it for me if possible.”

Jericho’s heart sank. Research projects were ok, but tedious, and he had a feeling this was a wild goose chase. “I can certainly look into it for you, but it will be expensive.”

“How expensive is the internet?” Ellen asked pointedly.

“If the internet was any help, I wouldn’t be sitting in million dollar chair in your living room.” Jericho replied, a bit too tersely. “Two million up front, plus expenses. If I recover the artifact to your satisfaction, 3 more million. Regardless, the contract shall be null and void after 24 months. If I haven’t found it by then, our business is concluded.”

Ellen nodded slowly. “One million up front, no expenses. If you recover the artifact I’ll pay you 2 million upon its safe delivery. And you only have 12 months.” She peered at him over the top of her cane. “I know I can trust you. If you run off with my money, I’l publish this far and wide. And I do believe some people in Hong Kong are still looking for you.”

Jericho ignored the threat. There was no contract, no paperwork: no proof. That was how his line of work went. “Wire the money to the same account as last time. As soon as it clears, I’ll begin.”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chapter Two: Jericho

The living area was as lavish and unkempt as the rest of the house. Slate floors were covered with faded, antique Persian and oriental rugs that cost more than some homes. The room was crammed with an eclectic collection of antique furniture, from a turn of the century Wernicke book case to a jade and ebony round oriental table. Its legs were carved ebony dragons, each one unique, one of which clutched a pearl in its claw that must have been nearly two centimeters across. There was a fireplace along one wall, with an elaborate stone mantle. Every horizontal space in the room was covered with papers, books, magazines, figurines, snuff-boxes and trinkets, and the occasional piece of horribly juxtaposed contemporary kitsch, like a bright purple fibre-optic miniature Christmas tree that slouched over a mountain of nature magazines on the corner of a Goddard and Townsend writing desk. In the corner of the room was a monstrous black and white patterned reclining wing chair that had probably been purchased from a big-box outlet in the early 1990s. The monochrome Bote Jeghe motif was nauseating. Beside the chair sat a metal walker, two tennis balls carefully sliced open and shoved over the rear legs to allow them to glide easily over the floor. Within the chair sat a shriveled old woman. She sat as erect as a poker, directing a piercing gaze over a crystal-skull topped cane. She wore bright metallic purple parachute pants and a tie-died muscle shirt, forgoing the courtesy of a bra. When she saw the man, she smiled. It was a beautiful smile. Her eyes crinkled back into happy crows feet, and her surprisingly full lips revealed a sliver of yellowing but original teeth.

“Young man, you are a sight for sore eyes. If only I could see you. Where did I put my glasses?”

Her glasses were heavy, cat-rimmed things bedecked with a gaudy smattering of rhinestones and beads. They hung heavily against her chest, suspended by purple and gold ribbons.

“Hello, Ellen.” The man’s voice was kind, but guarded.

Ellen carefully placed her cane to one side and plucked a small silver bell from the nightstand beside her chair. She rang it cheerfully. Almost immediately, a tall fat man in a black suit appeared. He looked like an English butler, or what might happen if a mafia button man was trying to pass for an English butler. It was probably the alligator shoes that had that effect, but in the surroundings he looked surprisingly normal.

“Hey, ma, whaddaya need?” He was sweating somewhat profusely from his receding hairline. He raised his hand to wipe his forehead, revealing a gaming console controller snug in his feverish grip.

“Harry, get some tea for our guest, and then make yourself scarce. The grownups need to talk.”

Harry rolled his eyes and then glared at the visitor. “Yeah, sure, ma.”

The visitor sat down, selecting a sparsely padded Chippendale corner chair that was, as might be expected, not in a corner. Ellen looked at him passively, but said not a word until Harry returned, bearing two tall glasses. “Tea” meant not a hot beverage served on a saucer, but thick, sweet iced tea, served in oversized sweating glasses, a welcome respite from the spring heat. A mint leaf and slice of lemon were crushed between bricks of ice.

“Thank you, Harry; now do leave us.” Ellen seemed to be well past the point of caring what people thought about her.

“Now then young man,” Said Ellen, setting her tea untouched upon the nightstand. “You did fine work on that Tillya Tepe job; fine work indeed. Now I have something much more interesting, but I didn’t dare communicate through our contact; no, this is far too important. That is why I asked you here.” She smiled and added, “Thank you for coming. Now our contact always called you Jericho. I assume that is a professional flourish?”

The man smiled, but it came out more like a smirk. “Nope. It’s my name. Jericho Slade. My parents had a unique sense of humor.”

“But I don’t see the humor.”

“I said it was unique.”

Ellen smiled and grasped her tea, pulling it close to her nose. She closed her eyes and relaxed, a smile spreading across her face. She exhaled deeply from her nose, the warm air causing steam to rise from the icy brew. It curled up lazily before wreathing into the shape of a unicorn and then scattering almost as soon as it had begun. Ellen opened her eyes, and they were blazing.

“Well you seem like a perfectly capable agent, Mr. Slade. And you are what – some kind of archeologist?”

Jericho laughed at that, but it was a kind of short, defensive laugh. “Not hardly. I’m a high-school history teacher. And sometimes I’m a treasure hunter.”

“I see.” Said Ellen in a disapproving voice. Jericho suspected she wanted something more glamorous. “Well, there is no denying you get results. Are you interested in a job?”

“Depends.” Jericho responded. “Tell me about it.”

Ellen sat back, sipped her tea, and smiled, peering out over her glass with a lupine stare. “What do you know about magick?” She asked.