The flight from SFO to Palm Springs was mercifully short at least. We drove the rented Jeep, which was a sort of pus green color, through all the faux oasis kitsch until we finally found the freeway for 29 Palms. Took maybe an hour, all told. Laurent had set up shop a few miles of out of town, down one the innumerable dirt roads leading off into the desert and more or less out of civilization as you know it.
Driving through those backroads, Jean, it’s like driving through a land of shriveled dreams. Dreams that had been exposed, day after searing day, scorched by the heat and the dust and the wind until they became brittle and dry. An and I were silent as we drove past the remains. Here a little dream, someone who had just been trying to find themselves, or to lose everyone else. There the bleached and picked over skeleton of some grand fantasy, the founding the One True Faith, or a city of artists. We passed them all as we bumped and twisted our way in search of Lueur. Passed the crude, fading signs, the solar cells heaped and broken beneath the Joshua trees, the empty livestock pens with staked out crooked fences. The desert was not a gentle place for dreamers, my friend.
Laurent’s shop was more of compound than a shop, really. Three pristinely white adobe buildings, with mission style roofs, ringed an open courtyard. Behind these I could see a water tower, what looked like a greenhouse, and two huge windmills, at least thirty feet tall, spinning silent and steady. There were no people in sight. Unlike almost every other building we had passed, there was no gate or fence, not even a low wall. The shop itself, it didn’t even have a door, just a ten-foot-high archway. I remember thinking that the complete and utter lack of any concern for security was more intimidating in its own way than sandbags and razor wire. Although knowing Lueur, the whole set-up was probably something of a honey-pot as well.
We found Laurent inside the shop, standing on a ladder, his face about an inch away from one of the tall walls, painting with a very thin brush. There was a huge mural which looked to be about half-completed, the detail of which was almost photographic in its resolution, although about a third of it was the sort of intricate abstract pattern you see in Islamic art. The representational part seemed to be a very surreal rendition of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, although instead of a single stone turning into bread, huge boulders and rocks in the landscape were half-transformed into all sorts of things. Cornucopia, frozen dinners, what looked like a food court from a mall. I wonder if he has finished it by now. Whatever else you think of him, Jean, whatever anyone thinks, no one I know has ever questioned his brilliance as artist. Some of the most famous illuminated manuscripts were allegedly made by him, although as was the fashion he never once signed his name.
“Eight hundred years later, still living the life of a monk, I see,” I said.
“Octavian,” he said, without turning around, “it’s about time.”
“So you have told me all these years, Laurent. ‘Time, boy! It’s all about time!’ But not all of us go around stealing it,”
“You could if you had the balls, boy. You have a perfectly adequate tool, and unlike your father, the talent. But instead, you chose to die, likely before your allotted time. Just like that fool Julian,” he said, shaking his head.
Julian, my grandfather.
He turned around, finally looking at us, small eyes squinting out of that round face. He is terribly near-sighted. “Ah, you brought the girl,” he said, stepping down off the ladder and walking towards us. She waved at him half-heartedly, which elicited a thinly-bearded grin.
“You waited too long, Octavian. You should have come a year ago. Two. I am not sure if I can fix it at this point. I am not a magician,” he said.
Which, you know, was completely false.
He came up right next to me, grabbing my wrist, squeezing it, checking for who knows what. Elan vital? His hands were small, like the rest of him – oh I don’t know, 5’4”? – but the grip was implacable.
“Yes, as I thought. It bleeds you, that rotten coin. Feeds on your spirit. Off with your shirt, boy. Let me see how much damage has been inflicted by your negligence,” he said.
I hesitated for a second, but releasing my wrist, he reached out for the top button of my shirt. I pushed his hand away so I could at least unbutton myself.
Argyria. Silver poisoning. Have you ever seen it, Jean? One second. Yes, that blue-grey blob, there, on my chest. You are not the first to say that. It does look like a hand, I suppose. A six-fingered one, yes. The rest, the three circles, the pentagram, the strange letters – that is all Lueur’s handiwork. An attempt to contain the damage. I have no idea if it actually does anything, or what it is intended to stop, exactly. But if it was just argyria, wouldn’t you expect it to be around my mouth?
Lueur put his face right up to my chest, his fingers tracing the successive designs he had drawn there, years past. He stared at it for what must have been a full minute. Then he punched me right in the heart. ‘Til this day I was not sure if it was a part of the diagnostic process, or he was just pissed off at me leaving it for so long.
“Well, boy, this is going to hurt. I mean, really hurt, not like last time,” he finally said.
Last time I had fainted about one third of the way through.
“Actually, Laurent, I came here for some informa…” I started.
He cut me off. “Ink first, talk later.” And that was that.
There was a glass counter along the other wall, filled with various water pipes and bongs. Behind the counter was a small white intercom. Laurent pressed the button.
“Yes,” came a very deep voice, almost a growl.
“Beer! The Quad. A whole case. And also, the special ink, #5. No, wait, #13.” He said into it. Then he paused, thinking. “Just bring both, Simon.”
“Should I come up? It is still light, Boss,” he growled.
“Yes it is fine, come on up, we have guests, special guests,” said Laurent impatiently. “Cheese and bread also, Thank you, Simon.”
Then, turning to me, he pointed to the back of the room.
“The chair, Oct. Get in the chair,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
Then reaching into a drawer behind the counter, he pulled out several thick leather straps, which he handed to An.
“Here, you can help me strap him in,” he said.
She held them up, one dangling in each hand, and gave me an open mouth smile.
I was already half strapped to the chair, my chest shaved and sanitized, when we heard a loud bang, as if a door had been slammed, from the center of the room.
“Ah, Simon, over here!” shouted Lueur.
Simon, had a case of beer in stone bottles in under one arm – yeah, Laurent has been brewing his own for hundreds of years – a huge tray of bread, sausage, fruit, and cheese in the other. He was about 8’ tall, covered from head to toe with tawny fur. Basically he looked like Chewbacca, but with a flatter, more human face.
He was a Yucca Man – a desert yeti.
An, to her credit, did not flinch at all, but just helped him with the tray, which also had two glass bottles of ink, both iridescent black.
“Simon, this is Octavian, my godson. And his friend and former student, Anisette Jones. Feel free to eat with us if you would like, my friend,” he said.
“It is nice to meet you. But forgive me, I still have work to do in the cellar. The brewing, Laurent. I am only halfway through. Plus the prisoners, they will also need to be fed,” said Simon, his voice low and guttural.
The prisoners? I raised an eyebrow at Lueur, who dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
“Trash, Octavian. Human trash. Bikers, looking for a place to brew some meth. Another guy who thought it might be fun to tag my mural. Took me almost a month to undo the damage, so I figure he can spare a few years,” he said with a shrug.
An kept her face impassive, but only barely. I could tell she was disgusted.
Lueur turned to face Simon.
“You are welcome to join us when you finish, my friend. Thank you again,” said Lueur.
“You might want to have one of these beers, Octavian. Or three,” he said, reaching for the ink.
I’ll spare you a full description of the next hour or so, Jean. I’ll confess, right before it started, I offered a veritable fire sale of hours to the tenants, in case anyone wanted to take my place. Crickets.
Ink #5, it felt like a line of fire was being burned into my chest. I tried to focus instead on the Enochian that Lueur was chanting below his breath, some of which, I recognized, although much I did not. But eventually the pain won out.
Somehow, I managed not to scream. I think. Or maybe I did. It’s all a bit hazy there at the end.
After he had finally finished, we grabbed the beer and the remaining food and retired to his main house. Simon never rejoined us. Too shy, I think. Despite the earlier heat, it was cool now, and Laurent lit a small fire. Once we were seated comfortably around it, Laurent opened a fresh round of bottles, then asked,
“So, Wells, what is it you wanted to know?”
“What can you tell me about the Labyrinth?” I asked.
“That you are about two months late in asking that question,” said Laurent, with a grunt, before taking a long swig of beer.
Anisette rolled her eyes.
Yes, as I am sure you recall from my initial report in London, the Labyrinth had already bought his silence. What they were forced to pay, whether it was in years or information, I don’t know. But I am sure the price was steep.
“So you can tell me nothing?” I asked.
“Of course I can tell you something, my boy. They were not nearly so careful,” he said, shaking his head.
“I am not up for conversational games, Laurent. I spent all morning talking with a Jinn, and you know how tricky that can be. Please don’t make me drag it out of you piece by piece,” I said.
“A Jinn? Interesting,” said Lueur. “I’ll tell you what. Tell me what happened to you this morning, and why it was so urgent for you to fly down here immediately. Then I will tell you what I can. A deal I would only make for my one and only godson.”
Sometimes I wonder, Jean. I wonder if Laurent’s ties to my family are more than friendship. If we are in fact just his great great great however many great grandkids, last of a line he begat after knocking up some fresh faced nun in a monastery gone to seed. But I have never asked.
I gave him a condensed version of what I just gave you.
“Alright, Octavian, I can tell you nothing of who they are, where they are, or why they exist, or for how long. That was the deal they struck, and I keep my word. Have…” he said.
“For close to a thousand years!” I finished.
He frowned, then continued.
“But, I can say this. They urgently seek means of speaking with the dead, or at least their imprints on the World Soul. From you, they sought to steal the Obol. They knew better with me. The Register, they offered to buy it.”
Yes, Jean, the Register of the Dead.
An whistled. “Bet that was out of their damn price range,” she said.
“Quite,” said Lueur, ”But that is not all. They also sought information about the Lazarus Crystal, about which I know surprisingly little, other than it has been lost for centuries, even though it is within one of my specialties, angelic magic.”
It wasn’t much. Probably not worth the trip. But it was more than we had. With Enigma’s full resources, I was sure we could track down the Lazarus Crystal before some band of upstarts did.
It was at this point that Jesse, who must have been listening the whole time, spoke up inside my head.
“Oct,” he said internally.
“Yes, Jesse?” I asked.
“Can I ask Lueur a question? A question for myself?” he asked.
“You know what he charges for answers, right, Jesse?” I said.
“Miss Andrews, darlin’, how much time I got in the piggy bank?” said Jesse.
“Mr. Evans has 27 days, eight hours, 36 minutes,” said Andrews immediately.
“Oct, I know it’s your life. But there is something I need to know,” he said.
Fair is fair, I suppose. Laurent wasn’t the only one who traded in time. I remember wondering if it would be enough.
“Ok, Jesse, ask away,” I said finally. I turned the coin in my mouth and gave him the reins.
An had nodded off, an empty stone bottle still cradled in her lap. Laurent was staring quietly into the fire, lost in thought.
“Mr. Lueur, this is Jesse Evans. One of Oct’s ghosts,” said Jesse out of my mouth.
Lueur raised a single white eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing.
“I have a question I am hoping you can answer. About my life, something I can’t remember, although all the other spirits can,” said Jesse.
“And that would be?” asked Laurent.
“How did I die?” said Jesse.