Marla bought a knife in a pawn shop, a short blade sharp on both edges with a bone handle and a worn brown leather sheath. The knife felt good in her hand, light and fast, even though she didn't know much about knives; her brother had never taught her to use one, and no one else had ever taught her much of anything.
It would make a better weapon than her door key, though, if the time came, and she slipped it into the pocket of her jeans before going to the club to wait for Artie Mann's car.
She got there a little early and pushed through the door into the familiar dimness. There wasn't much of a crowd yet the after-work slumming yuppies were still stuck in traffic on the bridges, coming from the more prosperous north side and Vanessa, the milk-skinned redhead with the coke problem, was absentmindedly ambling around the stripper pole in a red g-string.
Rollo was behind the bar, and Marla slipped onto a stool to wait. He sidled over. "What'll it be oh. Didn't recognize you with your shirt on." He grinned nastily, but that was his way of being friendly, and Marla just sniffed.
"I bet you don't even know what color my eyes are," she said.
"You've got eyes?" He leaned forward, put his elbows on the bar, and cupped his chin in his hands. "I hear you're going over to the boss's house."
Marla nodded. "Should I be worried?"
Rollo laughed. "After your performance in here last night, he probably wants to hire you as enforcer, go to work for a loan shark breaking people's legs. Nah, I wouldn't worry. Artie's all right. He's got the manners of an ape-man, but he's a straight shooter." Rollo belched, as if to underscore his own lack of manners.
"How much do you know about his business?"
Rollo shook his head. "I just work here. I hear things, but who knows? He owns some bars, couple of adult bookstores, the last porno theater in the city, and some dry cleaners, too, if you believe that. Maybe he's into other stuff. I don't ask, he doesn't tell me." He glanced around. "Though he did set me up with the laminating machine and such in the back. So he's got a pretty broad definition of legitimate business."
The door swung open, and a broad-shouldered Hispanic man in a dirty-looking tuxedo and a chauffeur's cap stepped in. "Rollo, how's it going," he said.
"No complaints, Ernesto. You driving tonight?"
Ernesto pointed at his head. "I'm wearing this stupid fucking hat, ain't I? You Marla?"
"Great, come on, the car's waiting." He beckoned, and Marla slid off the stool, nodding farewell to Rollo. They went into the evening, and Marla stopped on the sidewalk to stare at the long, low, sleek black car parked by a fire hydrant. Ernesto grinned at her. "Nice, huh? It's a Bentley."
Marla had never much given a crap about cars she preferred to walk everywhere, that's how you got to know a place but it was a beautiful machine, and she just nodded. Ernesto went around to the driver's side and got in, and Marla hesitated. Was she supposed to get in the back seat, or what? Ernesto leaned over and shoved open the front passenger door, answering the question for her, and she slid inside.
"I'm not a chauffeur, usually," he said, driving along the narrow, trash-littered streets. "I drive Artie around sometimes, do other stuff for him. He gave me this stupid fucking hat as a joke, and I wear it every time I drive, so he knows I can take a joke. See?
Marla nodded, wondering if this was supposed to be some kind of advice.
"I've got some errands to run for Artie tonight, so I won't be around, but you know Jenny, right? So there'll be a familiar face."
Marla shook her head, annoyed as always by circumspection, by people leaving things out. "What's the point of all this? Why does Artie want to see me? I work for him, and maybe I owe him because he helped me out last night, but what am I walking into here?"
Ernesto drove without saying anything for a while, out of the bad neighborhood toward one of the bridges that spanned the Balsamo River. Apparently Artie lived in a nicer neighborhood than the one where he kept his businesses. Well, who could blame him?
Finally Ernesto said, "I used to be just some guy. Good with cars, did some work for my uncle at his body shop. Then I met Artie. Got into a scrape, he helped me out of it. Saw something in me. Now, without going into too many details... I'm more than just some guy. Maybe Artie sees something in you, too. I don't know what his plans are for you, exactly. But keep an open mind. Hear him out."
Marla shrugged. "Not like I've got anything better going on. My job now is, I carry drinks with my boobs on display."
"I'm sure you're wonderful at it."
"So. Magic. I'm supposed to believe in that now?" Marla had spent the night staring at the ceiling, considering that question. She'd known people back home who believed in ghosts, who claimed to have seen them. She had a cousin who had fits and said she saw angels sometimes during her seizures. Marla herself had never experienced anything especially uncanny her life had been pretty banal, with the banality sometimes shading into evil until last night. She'd seen something, certainly. Special effects? A trick? A con? But why con her? She didn't have anything worth stealing.
"I don't know what you should believe," Ernesto said. "I wouldn't presume to tell you. But if you see something, do you trust your senses, or not? Do you assume you're going crazy, or assume the world is crazier than you ever knew? I guess that's the decision you have to make."
"What about you?" Ernesto seemed down-to-earth, grounded, ordinary. For that matter, Artie was a fat guy with a comb-over. If there was real magic, would it be so unglamorous? Or was the ordinariness just a way of hiding the magic? "You do magic too?"
"I do whatever Artie needs me to," Ernesto said. Then he turned the radio to some station with people yelling in Spanish and started chuckling, which was as clear an attempt to end conversation as Marla had ever seen.
She was annoyed by her own monolinguality. She wanted to know what was so funny on the radio. She'd have to learn Spanish. She'd have to learn everything.
After leaving the city and winding up along the coast road for a few minutes, Ernesto turned down a long paved driveway toward a black iron gate, which opened apparently by magic before them, and closed after them when they passed. "Here we are," Ernesto said, and stopped the car in the turnaround drive near the front door.
Artie Mann's house didn't look like much, just one wide low story of timber and glass, the yard tastefully landscaped, and Marla grunted. "Thought it'd be bigger."
Ernesto grinned. "Artie's house is like an iceberg. This is just the tip. I'll go in with you." They went to the front door, which Ernesto opened without a key must be a safe neighborhood, or could you even call it a neighbhorhood when the nearest house was miles away?
He opened the door and made a sweeping after-you gesture, so Marla stepped inside.
She'd expected a mansion, and Artie did live in a mansion, more or less, but her experience with such places was largely limited to movies and television, so she'd envisioned something with white pillars out front and a fountain in the middle of the driveway and servants in black-and-white lined up on the steps.
Instead Artie's house was a multi-story architectural lichen clinging to the hillside overlooking the ocean, complete with cantilevered decks on several floors. From the front door she could see across to the far wall, which was all glass, providing a spectacular view of the bay.
Ernesto led her across a sparsely-furnished living room bigger than Marla's apartment to a spiral staircase. "There's an elevator, but Artie said you should take the stairs. Down you go. Stop descending when you see some people." Ernesto patted her on the back companionably, then left by the front door.
She thought about taking the elevator, mostly out of contrariness, but decided maybe Artie was trying to see if she could follow instructions. Which she could, to a point.
Marla looked around the room. White carpet, a couch, a couple of chairs, some shelves holding vaguely erotic-looking bits of old statuary: round-bellied Venuses, intricately carved stone phalluses sitting upright and looking accusatory, and a hunk of rock painted with a petroglyph of a hunchbacked guy with dreadlocks or head-tentacles or something playing a flute. At least there weren't black velvet paintings of naked women. Artie's vulgarity was classy.
She went down the staircase, spiraling around into another room, this one paneled in dark wood and much larger, extending back into the hillside. There were a couple of leather armchairs, but most of the space was given over to reading material the walls were covered in shelves, and there were tottering piles of magazines and books, with more heaped on library tables.
"Hello?" she said. "Jenny? Artie? Anybody?" She stepped off the staircase and went to the nearest shelf. Books by Anais Nin, Pauline Reage, the Marquis de Sade, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch were mixed in with random back issues of Hustler and Juggs and other such sophisticated literary journals.
She went back to the staircase and down again, into what appeared to be a giant walk-in closet, a neatly-organized space full of hanging garments, the walls lined with shelves and drawers and full-length mirrors. Shoes of all sorts from fuzzy green slippers to thigh-high vinyl boots to strange black leather things with tiny padlocks on the straps and absurd 8-inch heels rested in pretty pairs on most of the horizontal surfaces.
Marla went to the half-shut door and pushed it open, revealing a hallway that burrowed deeper into the hill. There was the suggestion of light and voices at the end of the hall, so she stepped in, saying, "Hey, is anybody "
She sensed movement behind her (back in the closet? How was that possible?), and without even thinking she slipped her knife from its sheath. A rough hand seized her shoulder and, ow, something was poking her there, stinging her and spun her around. She added her own momentum to the spin, bringing up her elbow to smash whoever had grabbed her. Her blow whiffed harmlessly he'd dodged somehow but Marla could see her attacker now, even though he was backlit by the light from the big windows overlooking the bay.
He wore a black bondage mask with a zippered mouth, and a strange green light emerged from the eye sockets and nostril holes, with no hint of an actual face inside whatever this was, it wasn't human. Its body was clad in a leather catsuit, hands in claw-tipped leather gloves they were still digging into her shoulder, fuck and its whole body rippled and bulged weirdly.
Magic, a trick, whatever this was it didn't matter. Only her actions mattered.
Marla tore free of its clawed grip and drove her knife into the center of its chest. The body provided no resistance, and Marla fell forward, off balance, her weight plunging the knife through the leather and into the wall beyond, pinning the leather apparition to the wood paneling. Its body rippled and twitched, then the green glow faded, and it slumped...
... nothing but a suit of clothes hanging against the wall on the point of her knife. The bondage mask fell to the floor, as did the wicked gloves.
"Well, that was disappointing."
Marla wrenched her knife from the wall and turned to the end of the hall, where a boy about her age messy blond mass of hair, face of an angel, wicked curved smile leaned in the now-open doorway.
"Oh, I dunno, Daniel," Artie said, patting the boy's shoulder as he squeezed by and came down the hall toward Marla, who did not lower her knife. "That was a pretty good act of violence, I'd say."
"But it was hardly magic," Daniel said.
Marla relaxed, slightly. "This was a test?"
"Yeah, sorry about that," Artie said. "But it wouldn't have been much good if we'd warned you beforehand. You planning on stabbing me?"
Marla looked at the knife in her hand, shrugged, and sheathed it. "Not just now."
"The startle reaction, having something jump out at you from behind and grab you, sometimes it makes interesting things happen."
"When we did that to Jenny, she made the poppet explode." Daniel's voice was somewhere halfway between reproach and admiration.
Marla filed the information away, and made a mental note not to startle Jenny. "So I failed the test? Because I didn't do something magic?"
"Nah," Artie said. "Jenny was an oddball case. Lots of pent-up potential. Most people, it doesn't go that way. But magic is about will." He poked the pile of leather with his foot. "Will, kid, is something you've got."
"Great." Marla rubbed her shoulder where the claws had pricked her.
"Fetish gloves," Artie said. "For kinky types who like a little pain with their pleasure, you know? Sensation play."
Marla wondered if that was the sort of thing Artie was into it seemed likely, he had the stuff in his house but she didn't particularly want to speculate about Artie's sex life. He was old, and built like a manatee. Daniel, on the other hand, was lovely to look at, and speculations in that direction happened automatically... even if he was trying too hard to look bored and above it all.
But what did she know? He was some kind of sorcerer or something. Maybe he was bored and above it all.
"Come on, sit down, we'll talk." Artie went past Daniel into the room beyond. Daniel arched one eyebrow at her how long had he practiced that in the mirror, she wondered? then turned and went through the doorway.
Nice butt, too.
The next room was refreshingly normal, a big overstuffed couch scattered with pages from newspapers, an enormous flat-screen TV hanging on the wall, armchairs and reading lamps; this was a place where people actually spent time and lived. Artie sat in a recliner and put his feet up, while Daniel lounged with practiced nonchalance on the couch. Marla sat at the far end away from him. "Where's Jenny?"
"Out running an errand," Artie said. "She'll be back in half an hour or so. If she's later than that we'll just eat without her. What're we having, anyway, Daniel?"
"Lobster thermidor. Coq au vin. Beef Wellington. Cherries jubilee "
Artie snorted. "Come on, come on."
Daniel shrugged. "Some steaks under the broiler, I guess, baked potatoes, I'll open a can of green beans or something and heat it up. There's ice cream, I think, unless you ate it all."
"I don't suppose you know how to cook, Marla?" Artie said.
Marla shook her head. "Spaghetti with sauce out of a jar. Scrambled eggs. That's about it." Did he want to hire her to be a cook? Better than a hooker, though she wasn't particularly qualified for either position.
"Yeah, figures. Daniel's better than me and I'm better than Jenny, who burns everything that's like a joke, I know, but also true but none of us are worth a damn. Not a lot of places deliver this far out of the city, just pizza. Usually we fend for ourselves, eat whatever wherever. But, hey, you're our guest, so for you, we cook."
"You usually sic what did you call it? A poppet? on your guests?"
"Little test, that's all, like I said." Artie shifted around in his chair, trying to find some elusive comfortable position. "Rude, I know, but what the fuck, I'm rude."
"That's an understatement," Daniel said. "One time he dropped me in the woods for two days with no food or water, to see if I could survive. Told me we were going to a strip club."
"You lived, didn't you?" Artie sounded wounded. "And anyway, you'd signed up by then, I wouldn't pull something like that on Marla on such a short acquaintance."
"Stop," Marla said. "Explain what you're talking about. Why am I here?"
"Okay," Artie said. "I was gonna wait until dinner, but I can see how it might be bothering you, and anyway, who wants to watch me talk with my mouth full?" He sat forward in the recliner, leaning closer and looking at Marla, and suddenly the affable fat schlub of a guy seemed much more there, his eyes intense and focused, his gaze locked on her. Marla found herself leaning forward herself, listening hard, paying out all her available attention.
"There's a world behind the world," Artie said. "A hidden universe. Dangers you can't imagine, and wonders you won't believe until you see them, and maybe not even then. There are a lot of words for what I am. Wizard. Adept. Magician, but not the kind with mirrors and wires. Magus. Witch. Warlock. The word most of us use around here is sorcerer. From the Latin sortiarius, one who influences fortune and fate.
"We work our will to change the world. Some of us use cauldrons and crystal balls and chalk pentagrams on the floor. Some of us use blood and bones and hair. Some of use herbs and potions and sacred rites. Some of us just push as hard as we can against the world and watch the world move."
Marla couldn't look away. Artie's voice was simultaneously somehow in her ears and in her head. From the corner of her eye, she could see Daniel, also leaning forward, equally rapt, though he'd surely heard this, or some variation, before.
Artie went on. "But every approach, every specialty, every method is just a personal expression of the fundamental fact: if you have the will, you can change the world. Power like this isn't passed down through families. You don't find a classified ad in the paper. You can't send away for a correspondence course on how to be a wizard not one that works, anyway. People like me, we keep an eye open for people who have potential. If we see someone who looks promising, someone we like, someone we think we can work with, we sit down with them. Invite them to dinner. Have a little chat." He cleared his throat. "We ask them if they'd like to become an apprentice, and learn to work their will on the world."
Artie sat back again, and the intense moment magic, or just unsuspected levels of charisma in Artie's personality? passed. He belched, which further undercut the sense of profundity. "So that's that," he said. "Somebody like you, a teenager, living on the street without getting pulled under by drugs or booze or selling your body, that tells me you're tough as hell. Seeing you handle that guy in the club, seeing you stab Daniel's poppet without a moment's hesitation, that tells me you've got will. Does that mean you'll be able to do magic? I don't know. How'd you like to find out?"
"I don't even know if I believe in magic," Marla said, because it was simple truth. "How do I know you aren't just messing with me, for reasons I can't understand? Trying to trick me, to use me?"
"Let's show her, Artie," Jenny Click said, stepping out of the elevator on the far wall. She wore a red silk dress, simple, short, elegant, and tight, and her hair was the smooth cascading blonde of a classic screen idol's. She carried a paper bag with a grease stain on the bottom, and there was mud caked on her high heeled shoes and splashed up her bare shins. She stepped across the room and dropped the bag in Artie's lap.
"Any problems with the, ah, delivery?" Artie said.
Jenny shook her head. "Come on, Artie. Let's show her. Like you showed me, when I needed convincing."
"Aw, hell, we were going to eat soon, you must be starving, the afternoon you had "
"Dinner can wait," Daniel said. "Jenny's right. Marla wants proof. Let's give it to her."
"Okay, okay." Artie gave Marla a long-suffering look. "These kids, they push me around. But why not? So, you want to see some magic?"
"Like last night?" Marla said. "Fireballs and smoke?"
"Nah," Artie said. "I mean, that didn't really convince you, did it? I was thinking of something a little more... incontrovertible."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "Listen to this guy. Incontrovertible. Who's he trying to impress?"
"Okay," Marla said. "Convince me."
Artie nodded. He clapped his hands together, sharply, just once.
And the world changed.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 3.