The New Guy
That half the Kroger floral department consisted of dead or dying flowers wasn’t tremendously surprising. According to a sign near the automatic doors, the grocery store consistently scored top marks against the rest of the southwest region in regard to pharmacy, delicatessen, dairy, and specialty items. Assuming that “specialty” didn’t include Tyler roses and baby’s breath, floral arrangements were clearly not the store’s top priority. Still, half the stock hanging brown and listless seemed odd.
And odder still that each of one or two hundred flowers had died simultaneously, as if a cold snap had just rolled through the doors and flash frozen the flora.
The impromptu mass withering had to be connected with the itch Dave had felt in the small of his back moments earlier. Not the shiver from an errant gust of air nor a trickle of sweat rolling down his spine. The sensation was far more deliberate, a quick sequence of feathery touches, as if a spider had danced a circle around the web tattooed between his shoulder blades. Though the design was simple, the ink had been painstakingly etched into his flesh by a young woman in Ireland who, as Spec put it, seriously knew her shit. When the web signaled, Dave paid attention.
Unfortunately, the signal came just as the woman behind the deli counter began slicing his order of hard salami, and apparently the slicing wheel worked most effectively when the operator engaged in banal conversation with a lucky customer. To be fair, Dave figured if he was stuck every day with the rotisserie chickens and pickle loafs, he’d take advantage of the brief captive audiences too. Besides, the itch was just that – an itch – and not the blaze that meant imminent danger. Dave agreed with the deli woman that yes, it was quite a summer they were having, yes, heck of a rain storm last weekend, but yes, they’d really needed it. He accepted his freshly sliced salami with a smile, assured her he didn’t need any cheese to go with it, and turned as nonchalantly as he could. Whomever had triggered the warning probably didn’t realize that anyone in the vicinity possessed such a sense, and Dave thought it best to stay incognito. Hence, his quick scan took in nothing significant beyond the instant demise of the floral department’s stock. He took three steps toward the dead flowers and the itch subsided entirely.
He set a quick pace up and down the aisles, hoping he’d look like just another confused shopper while trying to pass by everyone else in the store. By the time he reached “ethnic” shelves he felt like a complete idiot; when he made it to the freezer unit on the far wall he decided he’d better pick up one more item, just in case he’d aroused the suspicion of his anonymous target. Then he cemented the “idiot” label in his head, because in the unlikely event that someone was watching, were they really going to believe he’d strolled through canned goods, bakeware, pet food, and cleaning supplies in search of frozen shrimp?
“Fuck you, magic,” he muttered.
A gasp from the direction of the pharmacy. An old woman with one of those four-footed walking canes glared at him. An actual chill ran down Dave’s spine this time. He looked closely – she didn’t seem to be Italian. According to Spec, old Italian women were second only to evil popes in regard to curse throwing capability. This particular octogenarian seemed to be more offended than Italian, however. Plus, the tattooed web didn’t itch.
Nonetheless, Dave fled the grocery store.
“Why shrimp?” asked Phil. “I saw in the flyer that scallops were on sale.”
“I didn’t want shrimp or scallops,” said Dave. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”
The shrimp in question sizzled on the Grill Master Faux Thousand, which Dave attended with an oversized grill spatula. Modeled after the Grill Master Five Thousand, the Faux Thousand differed mainly in price. Dave had built it with fifty dollars’ worth of materials from Home Depot and free stuff from Craigslist rather than spend thousands on the real item.
It stood on the deck which spanned the front of Dave’s 1972 Viking double wide. Technically, the Viking belonged to Dave’s grandparents. His grandfather, however, had vanished sometime around the Viking’s decennial, and his grandmother had willed it to him upon her own death. Along with the trailer park itself. She’d been a shrewd land investor, Grandma Hungate, and Dave was now landlord to two dozen tenants situated in an unincorporated stretch on the edge of Tarrant County, Texas.
Phil cocked his head about thirty degrees to the right, a gesture which meant he was still confused. “Why didn’t you just leave, then? Why buy shrimp?”
“Because the Pepper Web makes him paranoid,” said Gwen. “He’s probably just got dry skin, but every time he twitches he thinks there’s magic loose in the meat department.”
“There’s magic in my meat department,” said Phil.
“Yuk, yuk. Can’t you do any better than that?”
“It’s been a tough week. Not really on top of my game right now.”
Gwen leaned back in her lawn chair and propped her feet on the unlit fire pit. Though Dave generally sucked at describing people physically, he classified her as “pretty.” Her hair was chestnut and hung just to her shoulders and she had the thin but toned build of a woman who ran three to five miles every morning. His girlfriend, Heather, described Gwen as “okay if you like manly women,” but Dave chalked that up to pettiness after he’d chosen the wrong answer to, “Do you think your friend Gwen is pretty?”
She was also impressively self-sufficient. When Dave had enlisted her as one of his Idiocrum suspectors she’d decided she should learn how to shoot. One of Grandma Hungate’s best tenants was a man who’d spent five years in Huntsville for armed robbery before settling down to make dream catchers and custom jewelry, which he sold on eBay. Gwen had marched back to his lot (a 1971 Marlette, very sturdy for a single wide) and requested both shooting lessons and help purchasing a gun.
Now she pulled a bottle from the cooler, propped it against the porch rail, and slammed the top off with one blow. Dave watched enviously – last time he’d tried to do that they’d made an impromptu trip to the med center for stitches.
“Phil,” said Gwen. “You haven’t worked for three months. I’m pretty sure that any time you’re not lying around on Dave’s porch, you’re lying around on your own porch, lying around in your living room, or lying around in your bedroom. Your definition of a ‘tough’ week is having the Internet service go out so you have to imagine your porn instead of downloading it.”
“Not true,” said Phil. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“I’m getting my wisdom tooth taken out tomorrow, remember? And tomorrow afternoon they’re reading my uncle’s will.”
Gwen’s face softened. “I’m sorry, I totally forgot about the will reading.”
“And I wasn’t just lying around, you know. Growing a new foot isn’t exactly fun.”
Gwen’s sympathetic look deepened. Dave considered pointing out that losing the foot was Phil’s own damned fault, but his uncle’s death certainly had been upsetting, and he knew Phil hated dental work.
“Aw,” said Gwen, “you want me to rub your new foot for you?”
Phil eagerly set his bare foot on Gwen’s leg. She began kneading it with one hand while drinking her beer with the other.
“Can we get back to the Web?” asked Dave. “This could be important. There was definitely a presence in that store,” then he jumped as a voice behind and somewhat below him said, “A presence? What kind of presence?”
A young man stood on the ground alongside the porch. He looked to be a bit younger than Dave and his friends, maybe mid-twenties. His hair was blown back from his forehead and he sported thick framed glasses, the kind Clark Kent wore, though in this case Superman must have been flying a bit too frequently to the dessert aisle. He wore a lime green track suit with the jacket unzipped far enough to show a matching lime green t-shirt stretching to cover his belly.
“Hey, it’s the new guy,” said Phil.
The newcomer looked at Phil, looked at Gwen massaging Phil’s leg, and looked back at Phil.
“New foot,” Phil explained. “Still aches a little.”
“I didn’t hear you drive up,” said Dave.
“Oh, I rode my bike,” said the new guy.
“I didn’t hear a bike, either.”
The guy blinked. His eyes were huge behind the glasses.
“It’s a bike bike. A bicycle. Trying to get in shape, you know, for the, uh, in case…”
“A demon challenges you to a bicycle race?” asked Gwen.
“A ritual requires balancing on a unicycle?” asked Phil.
“All right, leave the new guy alone,” said Dave. “I’m Dave. That’s Gwen, that’s Phil, and these are shrimp and hamburgers. Come on up.”
The new guy hustled up the stairs. He caught his toe on the final step but managed to make the deck without face planting. Slightly out of breath, he hiked up his track pants and stuck a hand out.
“I’m pretty sure the Idiocrum requires hazing for all new guys,” said Phil.
“I’m pretty sure you’re full of crap,” said Dave. He shook the guy’s hand.
“I’m Eli. Eli Jablonsky.”
“Wait,” said Gwen. “Seriously? Eli?” She pushed Phil’s leg from her lap and stood up, reaching out. Eli offered his hand but she bypassed him, taking a plate form the side of the Faux Master and telling Dave, “Meat me.”
“I never get tired of hearing that,” said Phil.
“That’s because you’ve only heard it once, just now.”
Gwen surveyed the new guy critically while Dave loaded a hamburger onto her paper plate. “I didn’t think anyone named ‘Eli’ had been born for, like, a hundred years.”
“There was that guy who invented gin rummy,” said Phil.
Everyone turned to stare at Phil.
“Eli Whitney. Gin rummy. Hello? Anyone read a history book?”
“I think you’re, uh, thinking of the, uh, cotton gin,” said Eli.
“No, that was Johan Dove.”
“He invented the cotton gin, then noticed that the soap he’d made floated in it, and marketed that as Dove Soap.”
Dave sighed and turned back to the grill.
“How the hell did you pass tenth grade history?” Gwen asked Phil.
“Not my fault you guys don’t know your inventors!” To Dave, Phil said, “Meat me.”
“I never get tired of hearing that,” said Gwen.
Eli looked at the double wide. “Could I, uh, use your bathroom? Before we get started?”
“Go for it,” said Dave. “Through the door, take a left, bathroom’s on the other side of the living room. Do not turn right when you go in the door?”
Eli’s head snapped to the right of the door and he gazed at the mobile home as if he were trying to see through the walls. “Is that where your, uh, vault is?”
“This is a 1972 Viking double wide mobile home,” said Phil. “It doesn’t have a vault.”
“I know what you meant. Go hit the head, we’ll talk after.”
“And don’t turn right,” said Gwen. “That’s where Dave’s girlfriend is working.” She set her hamburger down long enough to pantomime air quotes. Obviously confused, the new guy scrambled into the house, carefully turning left.
“What do you think?” Dave asked.
“I think the Idiocrum’s hard up for new recruits,” said Gwen.
“Cut him some slack. Everyone’s new at some point.”
“I don’t trust him,” said Phil.
Dave looked at him, surprised.
“Something about him makes my foot itch. My original foot. And that’s like my Pepper Web or Peter Parker’s spider sense.”
“Did your original foot itch before you lost your other original foot?” Dave asked.
Phil considered that for a second. “In point of fact, it did. I should have paid more attention.”
“Or you should have—“ Gwen began, but the door swung open again and she cut herself off mid-sentence.
“So,” said Eli, “are Gwen and Phillip—“
“Phil,” said Phil.
“Are Gwen and Phil your susceptors?”
“No,” said Dave. “They don’t know anything about the Idiocrum Arcanum. I talk about this stuff freely in front of everyone.”
Eli blinked. “But—“
“Yes, they’re my susceptors. ‘Every Principle must have two highly knowledgeable susceptors, non-practitioners whose main purpose is to safeguard the Principle’s sanity and ground him or her in the appropriate reality.’ You know this stuff, right? We’re not starting totally from scratch here?”
“Cut him some slack,” said Gwen sweetly. “Everyone’s new at some point.”
“I’ve been through the entire website,” said Eli, nodding vigorously. “Like, uh, three times. Mr. Spec told me I was going to train with the absolute best team in the country, and that I’d, uh, damned well better know my, uh, shit. So I read every entry over and over again, like I’ve got them completely memorized.”
“I like the artwork,” said Phil.
“The, uh, artwork?”
“You know, the background. All dark and full of stars, like you’re looking up into the infinite night.”
“Hey, that’s really poetic,” said Gwen. “Good job, Phil.”
“But then you’re like, wait! It’s not a night full of stars. It’s an abyss! A fucking abyss! Those aren’t stars at all; they’re the dwindling light of souls tumbling. Into the abyss.”
“I liked the night full of stars better,” said Gwen.
“But the abyss, it’s like a warning.” Phil sat up straight, suddenly. “That’s it! It’s both! The background art is sending you two messages. When you enter the world of the arcane, the possibilities are infinite, but the danger is unfathomable. The abyss.”
“So, this presence—“ began Dave.
“Did you ever notice something about that background?” asked Eli. “It’s weird, but I swear if I squint my eyes a little and turn my head, the stars seem to spell out—“
2 Flashback: Dave’s An Asshole
“So you’re in, right?”
Dave nodded, dimly aware that he was way too drunk for committing himself to some kind of mystical society. What he was really into right at this moment was a fifth of Thunderbird, which had proven every bit as nasty as Phil had foretold. Maybe Phil should be the one talking with Aaron Cohen about magic and secret societies and so forth. The guy had been a fucking prophet in regard to the Thunderbird.
“The thing is, all the other chapters use Latin for everything,” said Aaron. They sat in Aaron’s apartment, which was so small and so crammed full of books that Dave thought of it as some sort of literary womb. It fit Aaron well, though. He stood barely five foot four, weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety pounds, and darted around with an intensity that reminded Dave of the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. At least, he darted whenever he left the womb-like apartment, which wasn’t often. He’d lived there for the entire five years since they’d graduated from college and to Dave’s knowledge, rarely left.
“How do you do it?” Dave asked suddenly. Standing and talking became abruptly taxing, so he dropped heavily onto a stack of Time/Life oversized books. He was pretty sure they hid an undersized couch.
“Do what? Join the society? Choose a name? That’s what I’m trying to explain—“
“No, how do you stay here all the time? No people, no women…”
Aaron looked at him sharply, as if he’d just realized how very drunk Dave had become. “Looks like women are really paving a happy trail to your door,” he said dryly.
“More like from it,” said Dave. He thought that one over and laughed out loud. From it. Good one.
“Besides,” he added. “I met this new girl. Gwendolyn. Can you believe that? When’d you ever meet a girl named Gwendolyn?”
“Can we get back to the Society?” asked Aaron. Apparently the question was rhetorical, as he continued one while Dave mused over the girl he’d run into at the movie theater three days ago. It was a midday feature, on a Wednesday, and one thing he loved about those midday times was that hardly anyone else showed. Except she’d shown up, and out of the two hundred and thirty six empty seats in the two hundred and thirty eight seat viewing hall, she’d chosen one ten down from him. The movie, about a guy who couldn’t create long term memories, was told in backward installments. Dave and the girl – Gwendolyn – had exchanged glances frequently during the film.
Maybe he should go back tomorrow, in case she was there and wanted to exchange more glances. But no, that would be Saturday, and if she was a weekday movie-goer like himself, she wasn’t going to show on a crowded Saturday. Besides, he knew she worked at World Fitness; it had been right there on her nametag, above her name. Gwendolyn. If he wanted to see her, he could always drop in at the World Fitness in the mall, pretend he was in the market for heavier free weights or something—
Again, the sharp look. “Are you paying attention?” asked Aaron. “This isn’t make believe. If we do this, we’re heading into some seriously dangerous territory. You need to understand fully.”
“For shit’s sake, yes, I’m listening,” said Dave. “You were saying, about the Latin…” He tried for another pull from the Thunderbird to help cover the fib, but somehow the bottle had emptied. He almost giggled aloud. Magic!
“They use Latin or Latin-sounding names for freaking everything. Like this susceptor business. What the hell’s a susceptor? I thought it was that stuff they put on a microwavable meal, that metal stuff that concentrates the energy.”
“It’s a guard,” said Dave. “Like, a protector.” That had been the coolest thing about taking Latin in high school. You learned all sorts of cool shit about legionnaires and gladiators and whatnot.
Aaron nodded eagerly. “That makes sense. A susceptor in the Society is a non-practitioner, a guardian for the Principle’s soul. Someone who can keep you grounded in your primary plane, guard your corporeal self if you have to disassociate your spirit—“
“Phil. You know Phil. Didn’t we share an apartment for, like, two years. Yeah, we did, you know Phil.” He had to give the Thunderbird credit, it might taste like vomit but it really sharpened his memory.
“Dave, Phil’s an idiot.”
“Hey, Phil’s a good guy!”
“Lots of good guys are idiots, Dave, and Phil’s one of them.”
Nobody trashed his best friend like that, not even his other best friend. “Phil’s a great guy. He’d always have your back. Perfect susceptor of whatever.”
“All right, we can come back to that. There’s a lot more about choosing susceptors; you don’t want to rush into it. Now, as far as the names go – you took Latin, right? That’s how you knew the word susceptor?”
Aaron gave him a strange look. “No, Dave, preparation for my bar mitvah somehow failed to include Latin studies.”
“Oh, yeah. Hebrew, right. Shalom.”
“Yes, Hebrew Aaron, Latin Dave. And we need a Latin name for our chapter of the Society. This is very important Dave. See, there are certain wards and protections we can set up to protect ourselves, but they’re dependent on having a name written in a Book of Permanence. It’s like, you know, like a pointer in a data stack. Except this is magic, and they seem to do it all in Latin.”
Tired drunk mode hit Dave suddenly. He liked hanging out with Aaron, despite the man’s fanatical reclusiveness, and talking about mysteries of the world or data programming theory would normally seem like a decent evening. But hell, he’d been dumped hard today by someone for whom the ring in his pocket had been intended, he’d drunk a bottle of the worst non-magical stuff known to mankind, and, well, he was tired. Maybe it was time to call it a night. If Aaron wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons or join a society of Internet geeks pretending to track down magical artifacts, they could do it when Dave wasn’t so inebriated. Or tired. Or single.
“We just need a name?” he asked. “In Latin?”
Again, the eager nod. “Something mysterious, with a sense of purpose. And it has to be unique. Our Book of Permanence is linked to all the other Books in the Society, and it won’t allow a non-unique entry.”
Dave thought for a moment. Or rather, he shut his eyes and hoped something resembling a thought would wander into his head, hopefully replacing the deep throb which was gaining momentum in the back of his brain.
“I know,” he said. “Idiocrum Arcanaum.”
“Idiocrum? That sounds like—“
“I know, but don’t worry about it. Idiocrum actually means a something different. Like, um, elevated, or important. I think. It’s an elevated group of people. Probably with a purpose of some sort. Think, like, idiot savant. Also Latin.”
Aaron considered that. “And Arcanum for ‘magic,’ right?”
“Okay. I like that.”
“Good. So it is written, so it shall be, right? I gotta get home—“
Aaron waved him back to the couch/books, which was just as well because Dave seemed to be having trouble reaching an upright position. “Let me get this recorded,” he said.
He swiveled his chair, dropped to one knee on the floor, and cleared a stack of books away from the wall. Dave watched, bemused, as Aaron produced a key from chain around his neck. Though the wall panel looked perfectly smooth, Aaron found some sort of recessed opening and stuck the key inside. A twist, a click, and what appeared to be a wall safe swung open.
“That’s pretty cool,” said Dave.
Aaron ignored him. He pulled a metal strongbox from the safe and set it on the ground, then spun the dials on it to enter a five digit combination. The lid popped open. Carefully, almost reverently, Aaron withdrew a thick, leather bound tome from the box. He shut the box and set the book atop it.
“The Book of Permanence,” he said, voice dropping.
“It looks old,” Dave whispered. Aaron gave him a look that clearly said, No shit.
Still handling the old book as if it were a Gutenberg Bible, Aaron located an empty page. He reached up to his desk, found a Sharpie, discarded it, and opted instead for a steel-tipped pen. It was old, too; he actually had to dip it in an inkpot before carefully inscribing the blank book.
“There,” he said, exhaling slowly. “We are now officially the Idiocrum Arcanum.”
“Awesome,” said Dave. He tried again to stand. “I’m outta here.”
“We need names for ourselves, too.”
“I kinda like ‘Dave.’”
“No, think of it like a code name. A way you’ll be recognized and referenced by the Society, unique from everyone else. This’ll be the name used for incantations that somehow affect you, an artifact is bound to you, that sort of thing.”
“So, is ‘Dave’ already taken?”
Aaron ignored him. “I tried to name myself Oculus, but I guess someone already uses it. I wrote it in the book and the ink just disappeared.”
“Yeah, like a spyglass, all seeing eye, that sort of thing. I figured, I’m an Architect, not a Principle, I need a name that has something to do with vision, knowledge, that sort of thing.”
“Well, shit,” said Dave. “Go with ‘Speculum.’”
“It’s a synonym for ‘Oculum.’ In Latin.” The headache was definitely gaining steam. He was willing to bet Aaron didn’t have any aspirin. How a guy who didn’t top three digits on a bathroom scale could also be a health nut was beyond him.
“It sounds familiar.” Aaron sounded dubious.
“I think it was the code name for the sniper in Saving Private Ryan. Like you said, eye in the sky, that kind of thing. ‘This is Speculum, I got eyes on the target, permission to fire, sir.’ All the bad asses have Latin names like that.”
Aaron resumed nodding, his enthusiasm seeming to return. “I like that. ‘Base, this is Speculum. Mission is a go.’ That’s cool.”
“Well, give it a try. In the Book of…whatever.” If this pounding was another gift of the Thunderbird, Dave was swearing off the stuff forever. Even through the drunken fog he was anticipating what a miserable hangover was in store.
“Book of Permanence.”
“Right.” He didn’t care. Aaron could write his new code name in his Book of Permanence, in his senior year dissertation, or Hop On Pop. Just as long as he wrote it down and shut the hell up so Dave could pass out and marshal his resources to deal with the incipient Morning After.
Apparently Aaron did just that. The pen scratched at another page in the old tome, there was a pause, then Aaron’s delighted voice: “It worked! I guess no one else thought of that one yet!”
“Guess not,” Dave mumbled.
“Okay, now we need one for you…”