“Yes.” We stand over the shopping center security guard.
“She’s out cold,” says Lawrence.
“I had no choice.”
“We have to get you out of here,” he says, never thinking of himself. I wish I could reward his loyalty, elevate his sphere, show him the secret armillary, but he didn’t make the final list.
Our meeting has spilled out into the parking lot of the bar. It’s a brewing company, actually, one of the nicest in Pasadena, with leather-bound menus and tall, slender pilsner glasses. Since the foreclosure of our lodge, we’ve been coming here. The old lodge had some nice art deco touches, but its luxuries belong to another age. A new and better lodge awaits – De Selby is there now, with a few others who made the list – but in the meantime, during this necessary transition phase, I’ve enjoyed our meetings here. The wait staff is friendly and there’s a private room in back that you can rent for a reasonable price on Wednesdays. In any case, now it’s on fire.
Lawrence leads the way, limping, cape torn, tragically unaware of his fate. The brewing company burns and all around us the riot is in progress. I hear sirens. One of the old masters, a votary of falsehood, wretched and now defrocked, swings his ivory cane and catches Lawrence in the head.
I leave him and run back towards the entrance, looking for Donna, my twin sister. She is blonde and beautiful, like me, and she has the keys to the Saab. I see her by the front door, wiping blood from the lips of a busboy. Her compassion is legendary, especially on the remote island of Tristan da Cunha, where we spent five years conducting research for our unholy project. The inbred fishermen who live on that desolate rock still refer to her as “she whose radiance is ever a beacon to the storm-tossed hearts of men.” It’s one word in their strange patois, but I forget it.
The Isle of Tristan da Cunha. Yes, I would love to be back there now. The cottage by the bay, the buckets of crayfish. I spent those years dreaming of tonight, my ascension into the highest sphere and the new era I would inaugurate. I had a picture in my head of the way everything would go, but things aren’t going well.
I fight my way through several fights. Peterson, the newly deposed Grand Archon, lies face down on the pavement, reeking of my urine. I step over the pretender and make my way to the front door. Donna sees me and says, “You’ve ruined us!”
She’s a bit melodramatic. Two years studying theater in New York, on the club’s dime, and now we all have to suffer.
“Tonight hasn’t gone as smoothly as I hoped,” I say. Great leaders must admit their wrongs; at the same time, they must always press forward, like Bohemond during the First Crusade. “Don’t worry,” I say, holding up the hourglass. “We’re right on schedule.”
Typically, when Donna becomes gloomy, I become cheerful in proportion.
“I need my pills,” she says.
The injured busboy takes a swing at me, but Donna pulls him back. Nearby three defrocked sub-Archons tussle with Henry Plasil, the albino Czech who first introduced me to De Selby and his cursed congerie of spheres. With thrilling dexterity, Henry swings an empty wine bottle, caving in the smug face of McCallister, who should’ve known better. Henry, my liege, my mystagogue, you are definitely on the list.
Donna releases the busboy; he seems cool for a moment, but then spits in my face and says, “You’re the scum of the earth.”
He has a right to his opinion. Tonight, he shows up to work, thinking he’ll make some nice tips serving satay platters at our weekly function – we’re all good about that kind of thing – and instead he becomes a witness to the unspeakable. I wouldn’t expect him to understand what’s happening tonight. He hasn’t dedicated his life to mapping the sublime and invisible spheres that rule our destiny, whereas that’s basically all I’ve done since dropping out of grad school.
Donna grabs the busboy by the hair, slaps him. Though sometimes reluctant, she is always loyal, a good soldier, even if, necessarily, she doesn’t know all the details of our project. In any case, she was the first one on the list, after De Selby.
“Why didn’t you tell me what you were going to do?” says Donna.
Her naivete breaks my heart. Our childhood was a flaming hedge maze.
“I was protecting you,” I say. “I was protecting the integrity of the club.”
“You’ve got blood on your blazer,” she says.
“We have to leave,” I say. “De Selby is waiting for us.”
She rolls her eyes. She’s tired of hearing about De Selby.
So we run off and what happens next? I start crying. Hot tears down my cheeks. All because the Armillary of Antioch, “missing” for the past millenium, is now missing, really missing, from the backseat of the Saab. I had put it under a blanket, before the meeting, but someone must’ve found it.
“De Selby is going to kill me,” I say. Tonight, I’ve become a Sublime Archon of the 99th Sphere, but in my heart I know the truth. I’m a sad, blubbering excuse for a man.
“I moved it to the trunk,” says Donna, with a warm consoling hand on my shoulder. “I thought it would be safer there.”
I could kiss her! And I do, hard, on the mouth. Overall I would describe our relationship as totally fucked up, and supportive.
Henry insists on driving. He puts on his driving gloves, and his driving mask. Before leaving the shopping center parking lot we spin around and retrieve poor Lawrence. He crawls towards us, pale, bloody, shoeless. He gets up, game as ever, and I let him in the car. He thinks we’ve saved him.
“Have you been crying, Master David?” he says, getting in the back seat. I bask in his solicitude.
“I’m alright now,” I say. “Everything is going to be alright.”
My heart aches, knowing that in three days time, his soon-to-be hairless body will be consumed by yet another pascal fire. There’s nothing I can do about this. His fate was written long ago, beneath the walls of Antioch. I’m merely the instrument. I must say that a hundred times a day: “I’m merely the instrument…I’m merely the instrument.” Usually while I’m in front of a mirror, combing my hair.
Henry turns calmly onto the boulevard. Police cars scream past us in the other direction. Henry doesn’t blink. He is the coolest customer in Los Angeles, maybe the entire archonic sub-realm.
“Where are we going?” asks Donna. Always a fair question.
“De Selby’s man will meet us at the marina,” I tell her. “He’ll have the boat ready.”
“What about the others?”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “They’re not on the list.”
“Master David,” says Lawrence, brightly, his boyish face popping up between the two front seats. “Does this mean that I’m on the list?”
Silence. Henry looks at me and we both wince a little. I turn on the radio. It’s the “Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics, one of my favs. I crank it up. Lawrence slumps back in his seat, and Donna, of course, puts an arm around him. For a long time, going west on the 10, we sit in traffic.