By Sidney Williams
This is part three of a four-part serial published July 10-31 2014. The rest of the story can be found here.
Renalda Coates managed a hair bar—stark white interiors over a hardwood floor in Islington. Stylists aimed blow dryers, taming miles of hair while she hovered near a desk where a clerk worked a phone.
“We can do a beautiful job with those locks, Luv. What would you like?”
Aubrey smiled. “They told me you’re Renalda.”
“Right. Can I help you?”
“I’m curious about Casbah and your grandfather.”
Her features went through a moment of denial.
“Anything I ever posted about that blasted show was a warning. I don’t know how you tracked me down…”
“A warning’s what I’m interested in,” Aubrey said. “Is there somewhere…?”
Minutes later they were in a booth at an internet café a few doors away. More chai, these cups sweet and fiery hot.
“This gives us some privacy. Can’t have patrons thinkin’ I’m off my trolly, can I?”
“You wrote your grandfather was part of a Lazarev group. What did they want?”
“It was like theory to them at first. They were musicians, but they were intellectuals. They’d been through the war. You know how hard this country was hit, yeah? So what was out there? What power to be harnessed? What had Hitler and Himmler mucked around with?”
“What’d they find?”
“Ever hear of the Oszkar Manuscript?”
“That’s one thing I haven’t been asked to look for.”
“Unknown origin but old, Dark Ages. Full of text no one can read and drawings, diagrams. No one’s ever figured out the decoder ring for it, but among the diagrams there are possible maps. People have tried to figure them out as geographic locations. Others have come to think they might be gates. Doorways. ”
“What are gates ever to? Something you want to keep out, Luv.”
“Such a cute name, like a term of endearment. The real deal’s not a busty blonde in pink pajamas. Not in their true form.”
“Beings of fire and smoke. The worst of them can’t get rid of all their demonic elements. They live somewhere in the realm between light and darkness, and they’re locked out of our world by the gates, the stopper in the bottle.”
She cast a gaze down at her cup and gave a half-snort of a laugh.
“Heavy stuff for a chat over a cup of chai, innit?”
“You talk like it’s real.”
“Think it’s not?”
“Sounds like one more myth.”
“Myth from the cradle of civilization. We put a lot of stock on the beliefs that stem from there, don’t we? Found world religions on them.”
“The songs in the musical?”
“The manuscript includes what amount to what we’d recognize as mathematical equations along with the gates, a formula that someone had the clever idea could be translated to music.”
“If the songs from Casbah are that effective, why didn’t they wreak havoc in rehearsal?”
“Check. There are legends. There are some reports that there were influences. Suicides, accidents, falls off the stage and the wagon. Actors quitting. Some djinn just creep through and urge people to evil deeds or deeds they wouldn’t come up with on their own. With the psychic energy of a crowd, bigger guns can come across. The ones that can wreak more havoc. Unleash disease and darkness or worse.”
“Why would someone want that?”
“Lot of power to be had, ya make the right deals, yeah? Handshake with the shaitan? Make a deal with the new powers that be. You get to be on the winning side. Again, post-war era remember. What’s your interest?”
“What did your grandfather think?”
“After opening night? He’s the one who thought they’d made a mistake. Couple of others thought they could tweak the music and get a bigger bang.”
“The ones who took the show to America?”
“Lot of energy to draw on there. Even they got scared, shut the show. Tried to bury or burn what they could.”
“Theater folk are notoriously…?”
“Wasn’t superstition. My granddad spent his days grabbing all the remnants he could over here.”
“That’s why the sheet music’s so hard to track down.”
“He contributed to the scarcity at a time when more people were curious, stayed one step ahead of them. That what you’re up to?”
“My job’s to find things. I have a client.”
“Anyone asked him why?”
“I haven’t spoken to him directly.”
She leaned forward, hands flat on the table, gaze locked on Aubrey’s eyes.
“I can tell you who it is. I’ve been in the chat rooms and on the boards long enough. They don’t use real names, but you’re talkin’ about Djinnfan.”
“How’d you know?”
“I took up where great-granddad left off, and I’ve realized mostly it’s best to shut up about it.”
“He seems to have money.”
“And he’s out to do what harm he can if he gets his hands on anything. Reshuffle the deck. He’s mad.”
“I found one piece of a piece of music. He seemed happy.”
The woman’s face blanched. “What’d you give him?”
“Well, I sent a fax home to my boss. The buyer was excited.”
“Bet he was. What was it?”
Aubrey described it. “I’m supposed to keep looking.”
“You don’t need to give him what he wants.”
“It’s a business deal.”
“Stop looking and say you couldn’t find the rest.”
“I don’t know that I can.”
A hand slid across the table, fingers closing on Aubrey’s forearm.
“For the good of us all.”
“I’m working to support a daughter.”
That oversimplified, but this was a complete stranger.
“For her good. She’s in America? Where he’ll be playing with things?”
Pretense evaporated. “Stop now. Djinnfan is a man named Ulrich Schuster. He’s out to see what chaos he can birth. That’s all.”
“A wealthy eccentric. How far can he get?”
“With the right crowd of fanatics and savants? You can bet he’s gathered them.”
Aubrey sighed and closed her eyes, forcing calm on herself and then contemplation.
“There was a camera in the room the night of a British show. There wasn’t supposed to be, but there was a man in the audience with a Bauer 88. Ever hear of that?”
Aubrey shook her head.
“You’ve probably seen ‘em on TV. Little, flat green jobs. He got footage of what was going on and eventually it made its way to Gran. Come to my flat and take a look, and tell me you want to keep on with your quest.”
The intensity was unsettling, like Takis and possibly as mad as Amil’s client, whether or not he was Ulrich Schuster.”
“I have business…”
“Won’t take a few. Don’t live far.”
“Okay. A few.”
The thought of Takis seemed to have drawn him. He waited across the street when they stepped from the café doorway.
“Do you know that man?” Aubrey asked as they took a left.
Renalda gave him a surreptitious glance.
“Never seen him. Have you?”
“He told me to be careful.”
The projector was old but kept clean. Renalda threaded film into the mechanism before dimming the lights. Then the soft grind began with the underlying soundtrack of an internal fan’s labor.
“No digital version?”
Designed to make it seem more authentic.
“Duplicating it risks it getting out. Digital’s web ready, innit?”
Renalda moved a bit of artwork just as black-and-white images flickered on the wall. At first , the pan was jumpy, a grainy and bobbing sweep of an auditorium. People in evening attire that seemed period appropriate milled about, standing amid rows, chatting, folding playbills. Aubrey squinted to see if she could read a cover, but she couldn’t make that out.
“This could have been…”
A wave from Renalda’s hand cut her off as an abrupt cut took them later into the evening. The audience, now seated, faced forward. The stage, a white blur of light, slowly came into focus. Players wore Middle Eastern costumes.
“No announcement about photography before the show?”
“Maybe it wadden a problem yet.”
Aubrey leaned in as the film cut again. Later in the show, and dancers in sheer chiffon executed graceful, swaying arm movements, shimmers and spins sprinkled with hip movements probably scandalous for the time.
If she hadn’t been watching closely, she wouldn’t have noticed that the numbers of the bodies on stage seemed to increase during a whirlwind of fluttering scarves. The audience would have thought it some trick of choreography, but she wondered.
As more spins were executed, the camera bobbed again. She thought it might be the camera operator noticing the numbers and reacting, but then the lens panned, to the left and upward.
In the grey frames, Aubrey thought she was seeing smoke, but then she realized the ripples were something dark, different, profane—throbbing, bulbous hallucinatory distortions, like negative frames spliced in, giving a view like melting clouds.
As the center of the clouds parted, she came to understand better the impressions she’d read about, those that seemed to violate reality. What she was seeing couldn’t be described.
Her mind summoned words, some that didn’t really serve—words that only hinted at what she was seeing: reptilian, scaled, foul, deviant, infected, unclean.
Or words that were more like symbols, the best words English and her thoughts had for what writhed on the other side of the black and cloudy rift. Twisting tentacles, horns, wings, fire. They were like those things but not exactly those things.
“Some would say it’s akin to that.”
She wanted to look away as her gut tensed and the temperature of her flesh rose, but she kept staring, overwhelmed and fascinated. Thoughts of realistic-looking Bigfoot footage and UFO photographs refused to console her.
“What is it?” she got out this time.
“If you had to pluck a name from legend, you might use Ifrit. It’ll do, but it’s just a name. Some believe the djinn legends and hierarchies are just one set of labels for something else, and that the threads used in the compositions from the old manuscripts were found in other books, grimoires. You’ve prolly heard the name of one of ‘em like it was something from pulp fiction. ”
The film finished its journey through the projector, the last of it spooling onto the uptake reel then fluttering until Renalda stilled it, leaving the fan breathing.
Aubrey hands were vices on the chair arms until she needed them to rub her face and the throb in her forehead.
“Was that what happened in New York?”
“They opened that hole just a little bit wider. A bigger crowd? A little different energy? No one one’s sure, but you had people actually losing it. Can you imagine if that Whatever wasn’t just something you were looking through the portal at? If some part of it reached through?”
Aubrey tilted her head back and pulled in a long drag of breath. Not as calming as she wished.
“If you have this footage, why…?”
“Just make some people want it more. Hit the piano keys or slip the bow just right to see what happens.”
“This is insane. It’s just music.”
“A mathematical sequence fueled by the psychic energy in a crowd. As people panicked and ran, the energy flow was interrupted. What if you had the music and the assembled will of a group, working and thinking in unison?”
“That’s what’s supposed to happen if I finish my job?”
“It’s very possible.”
Was it just a legend? The payout was so promising. One step closer to Delilah. Why should she give that up for a crackpot theory and some fake film footage?
“The man on the street. He’s not part of your group?”
“I don’t know him.”
“He wears Eastern clothes.”
“Right. I need to go soon, but could we take one more look at the film?”
“Need to see that again?”
“Not the …whatever. I want to see the dancers.”
“Trying to figure out how that little trick was pulled off?” Renalda asked.
“Looking for something else.”
The chiffon fluttered again. Bodies swirled, and in almost an instant there were more bodies. They were small to the camera lens, but she studied the forms, looking for confirmation of the impression she’d had the first time. Rising, she got closer to the wall as the moment neared.
“Could you freeze it there?”
“Just for a sec. It’ll burn.”
Reels ground to a quick stop, and the dance was suddenly a snapshot. A female dancer was locked in mid-spin, one arm extended with a flag of fabric stretching from her fingers. Just beyond the chiffon tendril, a male dancer raised his arms as well.
She could have sworn she looked at Baraz and Hadia.
Sidney Williams (@Sidney_Williams) is a creative writing instructor and the author of several paperback horror thrillers, graphic novels, and comic book mini-series. His latest novel is Midnight Eyes from Crossroad Press, and he is finishing a book called Dark Hours also to be published by Crossroad Press. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Cemetery Dance, Under the Fang and Hot Blood: Deadly After Dark, and he has written young adult thrillers under the name Michael August. He can be found on the web at Sid is Alive.