It had been five years, eight months, and thirteen days since Nicholas’s last spell. But as he sat at the bar of the Metropolitan, tearing up business cards, he was only a few minutes away from having another.
The layoffs were already news. “Tech Giant Axes 70% of Staff in New York,” went one headline, followed by a grim forecast of how many more jobs would be lost to automation in the decade ahead. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Nicholas had done everything right–good grades, a good college, a good job–but he had never felt more like a failure in his life.
The pile of torn cards grew. It was a heap of kindling now, flanked by a forest of empty glasses. Ten years of titles were on those cards tracing Nicholas’s jumps from junior to senior to stagnant. When had he stopped caring about work? Had he ever cared? Should he have? It was a job, a paycheck, a means to an end and that end was security. Or so Nicholas thought until that Friday morning, when he had walked into a meeting with his boss and a suit from human resources. No severance, immediate dismissal.
Good luck and fuck off.
Nicholas rose from the scratched marble bar and shielded his eyes from a brass chandelier missing one of its polyhedral shades. The Metropolitan was where he had come to celebrate his first day of work so long ago; it seemed fitting to come here again on his last. But like Nicholas it too had seen better days.
The restroom on the ground floor was out of order, forcing Nicholas to use the one downstairs. He was washing his hands when it started, a faint hiss at the back of his skull that threw off his inner ear balance, and when he stepped out of the men’s room he was somewhere else.
This time it was a library. Its book-lined walls towered towards a shrouded ceiling and stacks of hardcovers made a stubby maze that Nicholas was too short to see over. Somewhere a radio was on, stuck between stations.
I have to find it, thought Nicholas. The yellow diamond.
For the past 30 years Nicholas had experienced visions–his spells, he called them–and during these visions Nicholas found himself transported to places he had never seen before: the undercroft of a church, an abandoned movie theater, the control room of an electrical substation. Time and space hopscotched in these visions, seconds slipping into hours and miles retracting into inches, and only one thing released Nicholas from their grip. A slender, four-sided yellow diamond.
Nicholas wandered through the maze of hardcovers, the smell of old paper perfuming the air. Many books had the familiar wide spines of textbooks and some Nicholas even recognized. But this wasn’t the time for nostalgia–the diamond was somewhere, waiting. The radio’s volume jumped as it neared a station and fell away again. Nicholas took a step backwards and the station returned, muffled voices beneath static. They had the measured cadence of counting.
He used the radio’s reception to navigate the stacks and soon Nicholas could hear the numbers:
“1, 2, 3, 4…”
The count restarted whenever Nicholas found a dead end, its voices alternating between a handful of speakers, and when it was just shy of 90 the diamond appeared.
It was tall and stood in midair an inch off the library’s hardwood floor. Nicholas could barely make out his silhouetted reflection in its dull finish; the last time he had seen it, the diamond was like a polished mirror. He touched its surface and yanked his hand away. It was cold, the way scalding water can feel cold, and Nicholas looked up into the black cavity of the library’s ceiling to see that it had started snowing.
Then something hard crashed into his shoulder. “Watch where the fuck you’re going,” said a voice.
The library was gone and Nicholas was back in the basement of the Metropolitan. A bald man with a barrel chest and tattoos around his neck shoved Nicholas aside as he stormed into the men’s room and slammed the door behind him. Disoriented, Nicholas returned to the bar upstairs and found he was no longer the only patron slumped over a midday drink. Now there was another.
The woman wore a crisp blouse with a Mandarin collar and a mossy ankle-length skirt. A hooded coat hung off the back of her chair, her wavy copper hair spilling onto the coat’s jet black wool while pale hands clutched at a brocade purse. She was staring down her freckled snub nose at that purse, breathing slowly. An untouched glass of wine sat beside her. The woman pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and Nicholas froze when he saw her earrings.
They were in the shape of tiny yellow diamonds.
On Kat’s fourteenth birthday, her foster mother Barbara taught her this: early is on time, on time is late, late is unacceptable. This lesson came when Kat showed up twenty minutes late to their tea date for Kat’s birthday at a chintzy hotel on Central Park South. Before allowing her to sit, Barbara had Kat unwrap her gift of a vintage Royal Crown Derby tea cup and saucer set. Kat recognized it from Barbara’s collection, having admired it in secret for years.
“Set it on the floor,” Barbara said.
“Why?” asked Kat.
Barbara glared at the red-haired girl she had taken into her house until she did as she was told.
“Now,” said Barbara. “Raise your foot above the cup.”
Other guests looked on as the scene unfolded. With tears in her eyes, Kat lifted her foot above the cup and on Barbara’s command brought it down on the delicate porcelain over and over until only chips of ceramic remained.
“I bet you’ll never be late again,” said Barbara.
Two years later, Kat ran away from home–but not before destroying every piece in Barbara’s china cabinet, even the ones Kat coveted.
Barbara never went looking for her foster daughter but her lesson on punctuality stuck with Kat and today she had arrived at the Metropolitan ten minutes ahead of schedule. She surveyed the space. The staff was between shifts, the bar occupied by one lonely drunk with a confetti heap of torn paper in front of him.
Not one of Needle’s, thought Kat. Too soft.
Kat inventoried the brocade purse Madam had given her. Dummy wallet with fake I.D.? Check. Used makeup? Check. Key ring with keys that went nowhere? Check. And, buried in the middle of all this bric-a-brac, a sealed manila envelope lumpy thanks to the deformed pretzel knot inside. Along the envelope’s seams were veins of lye that if not handled correctly would leak onto the rope knot and destroy it.
Of course this boobytrap would be disarmed. That much was expected. Kat only hoped it would be enough to convince Needle of their fiction. He would be looking for the Untether–one of Madam’s mystic knots–convinced that it would allow him to do what no one else in their uncanny so-called family could: leave New York.
Kat clasped the purse shut. It won’t be long now, she thought.
Seeing simulacrums of the yellow diamond outside his spells wasn’t unusual for Nicholas. When he was younger it was a game for him to find its shape hidden in chalk murals and TV ads and on the backs of cereal boxes, its unblinking sliteye more familiar than frightening. But it had never appeared as quickly as this, just moments after a spell.
Nicholas eyed the red-haired woman. If life were a movie, she would be the career criminal casing the joint before a heist. She didn’t look like a criminal though. If anything, she looked nervous. Scared, even. Like prey.
From the far side of the bar neared the bald man who had shoved Nicholas downstairs. He was accompanied by a tall woman in a navy peacoat with epaulets and tarnished silver buttons. Her hair was lightning white, her eyes the color of a dead sky. They sat on either side of the woman in the Mandarin collar shirt and offered her sneering hellos.
The woman returned their greetings and, for a split second, made eye contact with Nicholas. She didn’t look like prey anymore. Instead she had adopted the patient look of a hunter waiting to spring their trap.
Something’s happening. Nicholas thought of the yellow diamond, how it had appeared for the first time in almost six years. You wanted me here, he thought. You want me to see this.
“Long time no see kitty,” said Serena as she unbuttoned her peacoat. “How’s the Queen Bitch doing?”
“You should go ask her yourself,” said Kat. She took a sip of her wine, one hand clenched around her purse.
“Now now,” said Serena. “You know Madam doesn’t take my calls anymore.”
“I wonder why.”
“Oh I don’t know, maybe because she’s an uppity insecure old cunt?”
“Maybe she knows better than to get too close to a rabid dog.”
“Ah yes, that old defense,” said Serena. “‘I’m not mediocre, you’re just crazy’. I keep trying to tell you kitty, your precious Madam isn’t the specimen you think she is.” Her cracked lips curled into a smile. “The sooner you admit that, the sooner you might make something of yourself.”
“Like you did?” asked Kat. Behind her Broderick burped and said something about the lack of service. “Can’t say I’m too eager to become an unfaithful lapdog for some sociopath like Needle.”
Serena laughed. “To be unfaithful, you first have to have faith in something,” she said. “And I don’t. You don’t either, despite what you probably tell yourself. Every Listener is a free agent, beholden to no one but themselves. Once I realized that I knew I had to cut ties with Madam.”
“As I recall, she cut ties with you,” said Kat. “When you tried to use her.”
“We all use each other,” said Serena, rolling her dead eyes. “We use, we take, we steal. That’s life. I’m sure you’re using Madam, in some way, and I’m sure she’s using you, just like Needle’s using me and I’m using him.” She scoped out the bar, eyeing the drunk at one end. Then she said: “Let me demonstrate just what I’ve been using Needle for.”
Serena snatched Kat’s wrist.
“What are you–”
Before Kat could finish, white hot pain exploded in her lower abdomen. It felt like a cross between a runner’s stitch and a gut punch and it knifed its way up into her chest, settling between her breasts like a hot coal burning through her skin. She wanted to claw it out but she couldn’t move, lips frozen open as she waited for a scream that would not come.
A weedy baseball field flashed before her eyes, the cries of young boys fighting thunder overhead. She remembered this. It was chilly that day and Kat was underdressed despite Barbara’s nagging. The boys loved it–of course–and Kat was too busy reveling in that love to see the ball flying towards her chest.
It landed with a pop. Then there was the gurney, the hospital bed, and Barbara’s scowl as she chided Kat for being out with ‘those sorts of boys’. But there were no tears shed. Barbara never shed tears, not for Kat, instead favoring rants on why she had wasted her life on the girl in the first place.
You’re nothing but a burden, said Barbara’s stony face. Ungrateful. Unappreciative. Unwa–
Serena pulled her hand away and Kat doubled over, catching herself on the bar to keep from falling off her chair. There was more she recognized here than just her memory.
“Madam’s Gated Knot,” said Kat in between ragged breaths. “You weaponized it.”
“Needle weaponized it,” said Serena. “But I do enjoy it better this way.”
“Enough,” said Broderick. “We know what you’re ferrying across the city. Time to cough it up.”
Kat shook her head, brow slick with sweat. Make them believe you’re trying to resist, she told herself.
Serena groaned. “Just look in her purse you moron,” she said. “Not like she can stop you now.”
And Serena was right. Kat’s body was numb, every movement fighting waves of pins and needles. Broderick grabbed her brocade purse and dug through it until he found the manila envelope. “It’s here,” he said, closing the purse. “Just like we were told.”
Almost there, thought Kat.
“Good,” said Serena. “Is everything set up downstairs?”
“Very well then. C’mon kitty, let’s get going.”
Kat’s face twisted into a grimace. She hadn’t prepared for this.
“Relax, you’ll be returned to your litter box when Needle’s done with you,” Serena said. “Until then just consider yourself our guest of honor.”
Madam had given Kat a single warning regarding their gambit: “Whatever you do, don’t be there when Needle opens the envelope.” She didn’t explain why but Madam never dealt in unnecessary cautions. If she told Kat not to be there, there was a damn good reason for it.
“And if I am there?” Kat had asked. “What do I do then?”
“You run, Katherine.”
In the five minutes he watched the redhead and her two companions, the only thing Nicholas was sure of was that they weren’t friends. They did know each other though, that was obvious, but to what end? What was the meaning behind the sudden grab or the rifling through the redhead’s purse?
The three stood and like a funeral procession marched towards the basement stairs, the redhead looking back over her shoulder. Again her and Nicholas’s eyes met. She wasn’t looking at him though–she didn’t even register him, her gaze despondent. Then the trio was gone.
Ignore it, he told himself. Whatever it is, it’s not your business. You’re not a hero.
The image of the yellow diamond burned in his mind.
It’s a coincidence. Nothing more.
On the street outside, a car skidded to a stop. Nicholas shut his eyes and fought back the surge of memory.
Next time. I swear I’ll do something next time.
The Metropolitan’s basement was deserted as Serena and Broderick led Kat towards the restrooms. She reached into her pockets, feeling for any twine or string, but Serena caught her. Of course. After all, the ghostly woman knew her tricks didn’t she? How could she not? They shared a mentor and a proxy mother in Madam, and Kat was only the bewildered little sister of their coterie.
Serena pointed towards the men’s room. “Make sure no one’s inside,” she said to Broderick. He cursed under his breath and went to investigate.
“Something you want to tell me?” asked Kat with a weak laugh, still fatigued from what Serena had done to her.
“Keep joking,” said Serena. “We’ll see how that works out for you.”
Broderick burst out of the men’s room. “All clear.”
Serena pushed Kat inside and Broderick followed behind. The heady stink of spray paint made Kat nauseous and a moment later she saw its source, a hastily scrawled sigil depicting a pink circle with more than a dozen loose squares inscribed in cyan on the tile above the handicapped stall toilet. In the center was a single neon dot. Broderick placed his hand over the dot and the pink circle began to rotate clockwise, its inscribed squares moving in the opposite direction.
“I’m not going in there,” said Kat. She looked from Serena to Broderick and back again. “It wouldn’t even work if I tried.”
Serena put her arm around Kat and pulled her close. “It’ll work just fine. There’s just a chance you won’t make it through.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” asked Kat.
“The longer you wait the worse your odds,” said Serena. “I’ve seen what happens to partials. It’s not pretty.”
“Looks cheap,” said Broderick, ignoring the women in favor of the brocade purse he had taken from Kat. “Don’t you sluts go for the luxury brands?”
It took only an instant for Serena to close the gap between her and Broderick. “Watch your mouth,” she said to him.
“I didn’t mean you,” he said, cowering.
Serena wasn’t satisfied. She latched onto his bare skull and dug her fingers in, drawing out a cry from the stocky man. Under different circumstances, Kat might have felt pity for Broderick but in that moment she was grateful for Serena’s temper–if not for that, Serena could have noticed that Kat was wearing eight hundred dollar flats alongside a Chinatown knockoff purse.
Finally, Serena let go of Broderick and he fell to the floor with five crimson fingerprints crowning his skull.
“Next time,” said Serena. “There won’t be a next time.” She turned to Kat. “Enough stalling. Get in there or I’ll shove you in there myself.”
Kat glanced at Broderick, who was still nursing his skull. Then at Serena, and then at the toilet paper dispenser. If she could stun Serena for a few moments, no more than ten or fifteen seconds, she would have enough time to tie a knot with the toilet paper that would allow her to escape.
A cracking slam rang out, like tile being hit with a sledgehammer, and an acrid white cloud filled the restroom until Kat was blinded and left coughing. She felt a hand on hers.
“Let’s go,” whispered a voice. “We don’t have long.”