Nick and Everett emerged from the Powell Street BART station, onto the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Market Street. The afternoon sun had long passed over the city’s metropolitan skyline and headed out toward the ocean’s horizon. The time had just passed Friday’s 4 o’clock mark, so the mass of city workers were starting to pour out of the surrounding buildings and head for their cars and public transportation.
Nicolas decided to split the team in half to cover more ground. They still didn’t have their killer’s identity, but they had some clues to focus on. He decided to take Everett with him so he could field the millions of questions the officer would have, and make sure he was acclimating to the realization that the world is a much bigger and stranger place than he’d once known.
“The James Flood Building?” Everett asked. “Your contact is somewhere in the there?”
“Yep.” Alex replied, checking his text messages. “Well, they’re not exactly in the building. It’s just the best way to reach them.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Nick smiled. “It’s not suppose to. They like the screw with your head like that.” He gestured towards the Starbucks about a block away. “Go grab a Latte. I’ll meet you there once I’m finished. I shouldn’t be more than 20 minutes, Earth time.”
“Earth time? What? I can’t go with you?” Everett asked.
“Not this time. I’m lucky they’re seeing me right now. I’m not running in these circles anymore, and I’m not even sure i’ll be able to get in.”
Nick pulled back on the heavy, glass-paned door and stepped into the Flood Building’s lobby. The rustic brown architecture took him back to a simpler time. The lobby was nearly empty, save the security guard sitting at the entrance desk.
He knew the protocol. Getting access to the Top Floor required humans to jump through a few hoops.
First, you needed to ‘know someone’ who knew how to get access. That was near to impossible. To be truthful, very few people even knew of the Top Floor’s existence. It was the way They wanted it.
Second, you needed to acquire the appropriate password combination to be granted access. This wasn’t something you could fake. Each password was given specifically for one person to be used at a specific time. It could be anything from a four letter word, to a full paragraph from a famous tome. If you could obtain both of these pieces of information, you’ve achieved the impossible.
The final hurdle would be standing before The Gatekeeper who would judge your admittance simply on what energy he or she gets from your aura. This is the last line of defense at the entrance. More than a few unclean entities had tried to gain access to The Top Floor for nefarious reasons. But without The Gatekeeper’s approval, the only places you had access to were the Flood Building’s twelve floors on this plane of existence.
Nicolas approached the security front desk, which was situated opposite the three elevators and directly in-between the entrance doors on opposite sides of the building. The security guard was a heavy-set Black man with a short afro, dyed platinum blonde.
“Sign in, please.” The guard said without looking up from his computer screen.
Nicolas cleared his throat. “I have a food delivery for the Top Floor.”
The Guard looked up and stared at him for a few seconds.
Nick felt very uncomfortable. The Gatekeeper was given access to your Soul Code. That meant he could see and judge your past and present deeds. Not just what you had done, but why you did it. Every moment from the day you were born, to that specific moment was on trial.
“Hmmm.” the Guard said with a half smile. “I know you.”
“Uh oh.” Nick said under his breath.
“How’d you get access?” he asked. He swiveled his chair slightly, so that he could directly face the man asking for access.
“I called in every favor I had. It’s that important.”
“I can see.” The guard sighed. “What’s on the menu?”
Nick spoke the password. “Satsuma Mandarin Salad?”
The guard smiled. “That sounds delicious. I hope they enjoy it.”
From behind, Nicolas hear’s a loud ‘pong’, and turned to see the right-most elevator door opening. Another patron of the building was quickly walking toward the open elevator.
The Gatekeeper interceded. “No, Sir. You’ll have to wait for the next one.”
The patron, nodded annoyingly and stepped away.
Nick nodded in thanks to the Security Guard and entered the vintage lift. Among the twelve buttons that directed you to each floor, there was a white opaque button in the upper right corner. He pressed the button which closed the doors and sent him hurdling up toward The Top Floor.
The Dusty Keg was a used dive bar that sat quietly nestled alone the grimy streets of The Tenderloin. Bordering the neighborhood named Little Saigon, The Keg’s old wooden frame and entrance were easy to miss, if you didn’t venture down its narrow alleyway and around the mass of large trash cans.
Very few people frequented the Keg. At any time, you would find no more than 4 people sipping on drinks or playing pinball. The draw to his place wasn’t the crappy beer selection. It was the supernatural blind pig, or speakeasy as it’s more commonly known.
Lana emerged from a manhole cover at the other end of the alleyway. The sun was still pretty visible from the street, so she opted to travel by underground. She wasn’t the type of person to flaunt her strength, yet she climbed out of the sewer entrance, holding the 300lb. manhole cover like it was made of plastic. She replaced the cover onto the the hole, just as her partner arrived on the scene.
Alec chose to walk several blocks from BART, instead of venturing with Lana through the darkened underground corridors. They both seem to arrived at the Keg’s front door at the same time. Alec opened the door, and a rush of cool air washed over them. The smell of wood cleaner and cigarette smoke was on the air conditioner’s breeze. The smells welcomed them both. Without haste, Lana made her way toward the bar, while Alec stopped for a second to let his eyes adjust to the darkened room.
“So, a vampire and a priest walk into a bar..” the bartender smiled widely. “Ah.. I’m guessing you two have heard that one?”
Both Alec and Lana were not impressed.
The Bartender chuckled. “Tough room…” he reached down under the bar and brought up two large beer steins. “What can I do you for?”
“We’re here for the stuff in the back.” Lana replied, her face hidden behind black matted hair.
The bartender looked toward the back wall. “Ok. The pinball machine’s a little sticky, but the Pac Man machine is still…”
“You know what I mean.” Lana cut him off.
“Why would I know what you’re talking about?”
Lana sighed. “Last Tango in Madagascar.” She spoke the speakeasy password.
The bartender didn’t know what to say. Standing before him was a vampire, who somehow acquired the password for access into The Sacred Sanctum.
He chose his words carefully. “You know vampires aren’t permitted back there. It’s never a good idea to have My People and Your People in the same space.”
Alec took over, pulling out his credentials. “I believe my People talked to your People and cleared her People’s access. They’re expecting us.”
“Not the vampire.” The bartender stood his ground.
“Yes, the vampire too. And her name is Lana.”
She didn’t want him to see it, but Lana grinned behind her mess of hair.
“I suggest you talk to your people again. You’re waisting our time.” Alec continued.
The bartender sighed and then closed his eyes. When he opened them, his eye sockets were covered completely in whiteness. Alec speculated he was using a psychic connection to someone in the back to verify his appointment.
The bartender blinked once again and his eyes were normal.
“Sorry about that.,.” he apologized, looking toward Lana with a grin. “It’s the first time something like this was permitted. We’re living in strange times.”
Both Alec and Lana nodded in acceptance, as the large Pac Man video game machine rolled to the left, revealing an entranceway. The air seemed to be sucked out of the room and into the corridor that awaited them. Oddly enough, none of the current patrons were phased by the secret opening.
As they started to walk toward the entrance, the Bartender stopped them one last time. “Your conduct is key inside The Sanctum.” He warned. “Remember.. the people you’re about to meet are royalty in our circles. Because of that, they may seem to be a little..”
“Asshole-y?” Lana finished his sentence.
He smiled. “Not the word I’d choose to describe them, but… yeah. They may come off as arrogant. I suggest you just eat the bullshit and get through it. If they feel disrespected, you’ll get nothing.”
They both thanked him.
Alec pulled out a twenty dollar bill and put it on the counter. He didn’t know why he did it, but he saw the Bartender was pleasantly surprised.
They both entered The Sacred Sanctum of the Bay Area Witches.
The one thing that unnerved Nick about the Top Floor, was the complete absence of sound. When the doors to the elevator opened, there was no ‘ding‘, or sound of the doors opening. It was as if he was standing in the vacuum of space. It was so spartanly quiet, he could hear the sound of his own heart beating and the breath escaping his lungs. He scratched his arm and the sound of his fingernails scraping against his skin were eerily loud like sandpaper.
There was no space on the other-side of the elevator door. Bright whiteness shined back at him, yet he didn’t feel the need to squint. It was less of a ‘sunny day‘ brightness, and more of an ‘absence of color’ whiteness. He slowly reached out with his hand into the unknown space. There was no breeze or heat. It was as if he was touching nothingness. When he stepped out of the elevator, he could hear the harsh sound of his sneakers touching the floor that wasn’t there. The whiteness around him casted no shadows on him or anything around him.
“Hello?” he tried to call out quietly, but within the vacuumed void, his voice came back at him as if he’d pressed his ears directly to a speaker. It startled him so much, he quickly back-peddled into the elevator.
Ahead of him– maybe ten yards away, a door appeared out of the white nothing. It was less of a doorway, and more of a rectangular hole materializing before him. Inside, he could see what seemed to be a large office situated in front of a huge, wall-sized glass window, painted with clouds and blue sky.
Nick stepped forward, once again hearing his harsh footsteps along the floor of nothing. He ignored the weird feeling of intense sounds coming from his body and focused on reaching the entrance in-front of him. When he crossed the threshold into the opening, the rush of environmental sound came back to his ears as if his eardrums were emptying water. Immediately, he could hear everything around him. His footsteps, breathing and the rustling of his clothes were overtaken by the ambient sounds of the city outside the window, the crackling of the fireplace to the right, and soft creaking of the swiveling leather chair and the woman sitting behind the desk to his left.
“Bravo, Mr. Poole.” The woman spoke. “Apparently, you’re the first person to make it to the Top Floor in thirteen years.” She stood and adjusted her grey and white pants suit. “Well, I guess that would be Earth-time. For me it was just a few seconds ago.”
“Okay.” Nick replied, trying to get the feeling back in his ears.
“Your hearing will be back to normal in a few seconds. Sorry about that. The lack of atmosphere’s a byproduct of passing through the ARC.. the Artificial Reality Construct.” She made her way in-front, and then leaned on her desk, arms folded.
“The way things are built, beings from different plains of existence can’t really exist in any other reality than their own. To make it possible, you have to do a few creative thingsto bridge the gaps. That’s what the ARC’s for.”
As Nick approached the desk, she reached out her hand to greet him.
“Hello, Nicolas. My name is Axiel, the 13th Penemue assigned Earth-side.
“Penemue?” Nick was confused.
“A Watcher.” She replied with a smile. “An Angel, assigned to watch and catalog this dimension’s history, as well as be a liaison for a few fortunate mortals… like yourself.”
“Angel?” Nick froze.
“You’re… an Angel?”
“As in Winged Messengers of God, Angel?”
“You are correct, Sir.”
Nick realized he had been shaking her hand all this time. He awkwardly gave it back.
“Sorry…” he smiled. “I think I’m freaking out right now.”
“Somehow you acquired all the keys to get yourself an audience on The Top Floor. What did you think this was?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Honestly, I didn’t know. There were rumors of Angels. Some people thought it was the Pope. Steve Jobs. To tell you the truth, this whole set up is confusing.”
“That’s understandable. Sit and let’s talk.” she made her way back to her side of the desk and chuckled. “Huh.. Steve Jobs..”
Due to a trick of light, or magic or something, the long corridor Lana and Alec were walking through seemed to go on forever. They could see the exit opening ahead of them. It couldn’t have been more than a few yards away. But the more steps they took, the more the opening seemed to move farther away.
“They’re fucking with us.” Alec mouthed with no sound.
Lana, having incredible vampire hearing could decipher what he said from the air escaping from his mouth. She chuckled.
When they finally reached the doorway, it opened into an incredibly large cylindrical space. They seemed to be at the top floor, with close to a dozen floors below them. A large spiral staircase followed along the wall and headed downward.
To their right, a cloaked woman who appeared to be in her sixties stood at the start of the stairs.
“The counsel will see you now.” She said with a slight bow, and then urged them to follow her down the steps. Alec and Lana did just that.
Floor after floor, they journeyed down the spiraling stairwell. Each floor seemed to house living quarters, shops, classrooms and storage. Alec guestimated there were a couple hundred practicing witches in the space.
The half-way mark through their descent into the sanctum is when Lana first felt the wave of nausea well up from her stomach. Her skin became clammy and her legs felt a little wobbly. Alec noticed she wasn’t keeping pace with the rest of them.
“You ok?” he asked with a slight look of concerned.
Lana nodded. “I’m fine.”
“It’s the runes.” the escorting witch said, pointing to the walls around them. Around Lana, there seemed to be luminescent hieroglyphics radiating from the wall. “We have these in place to ward off any manner of creature who might attack us.”
Lana walked a few more steps downward and the nausea got worse.
“It’s not fatal.” the witch continued. “We do not practice hateful magic anymore. These are simply for protection. They only weaken our would-be enemies.”
“We aren’t your enemies.” Now Alec was deeply concerned. “We have permission to be here.”
Lana touched his shoulder. She smiled through the sickness.
“It’s ok. I can handle this.” She replied, taking deep breaths.
She nodded. “You heard the witch. It’s not lethal. If this makes them feel safe enough to speak with us, I can tough it out.”
“Ok.” Alec replied grabbing her by the arm. “You’re officially a bad ass.”
By the time they made it to the bottom floor where The Witches Counsel convened, Lana could barely walk under her own power. She collapsed by the stairs and chose not to get up. Alec went to assist her, but she waved him off.
“I’m good here. Go do your thing.” She said, sitting indian-style and cradling her stomach.
Alec looked upon the five cloaked witches who stood within the inner circle. He immediately thought the chamber looked like a set from Game of Thrones.
“Winter is coming.” he heard one of the Witches whisper in an ominous tone.
“What?” he asked a little spooked.
After a long 5 seconds of silence, the cabal of witches started to laugh out loud. Alec speculated that one of them had read his thoughts at that moment. He smirked.
“Ah.. Good one.” He replied, unimpressed.
The center Witch approached him as they all removed their hoods.
“I’m sorry.” she said. “I couldn’t resist.” She stretched her hand out. “I am Wanda. Liaison to the counsel.” He should her hand.
Alec received it. “Alec Murrow, representative for The Order of Apotheosis.” He turned about pointed to his partner. “And that’s Lana, here by order of Queen Vassiliadis, of The Vampire Nation.”
Lana waived slightly, still clutching her stomach.She didn’t notice the young girl approaching her with a little trepidation. She carried a stone bowel filled with some type of green liquid.
Wanda spoke. “Drink it. It should calm your stomach. We didn’t feel removing the runes would be prudent. But we understand that you have come here under a flag of peace, Vampire.”
Lana slowly took the bowl from the young girl with a smile and nodded toward Wanda in gratitude.
The young girl scurried away without a word.
“Walk with me.” Wanda gestured to Alec to follow her. They slowly venture along the bottom courtyard which was decorated with string lights that lined the walls and wrapped around the mass of trees. Alec thought it must be like Christmas everyday down here. The cobblestones along the ground were clean and shiny, resembling some medieval village. On the wind, the sweet sounds of Motown soul were playing from one of the upper shops. This was not the witch den Alec expected.
“Amazing place.” he Said.
Wanda laughed. “You were expecting cauldrons? Bats? Pointed hats?”
Alec was embarrassed. “No. Just not what I was expecting. Does that make me racist? Witchist?”
“No, just ignorant.” Lana said from behind. She had caught up with them, once the herbs from the bowl had started doing their magic.
“All better, my sweet?” Wanda asked her.
“Yes ma’am, much better.” Lana responded from behind her mess of hair.
There was a picnic table and benches situated in the middle of the underground courtyard.
It was weird. Alex knew they were underground, but looking up and seeing tall trees growing up and disappearing into a hazy fog above home gave the impression of being in the woods on a foggy morning.
Wanda sat on one side, Alec and Lana on the other. As if on cue, two young girls approached the sitting group. One had a large bowl of fruit, which they put in front of Alec. The other had a ‘sippy’ cup which was given directly to Lana. She could smell the strong aroma of the blood through the plastic container. She did her best to keep her composure.
“When we knew you were coming,” Wanda spoke to Lana. “..we took up a collection. We offer you our life blood as a sign of respect. We recognize who and what you are, and we offer this to you in the spirit of friendship.”
“Thank you.” Lana replied and gently sipped through the straw. She felt the roar of hunger welling up from inside her. She thought she heard herself growl in ecstasy when the rich, mixed blood splashed against the walls of her throat. But she did her best to stay calm. The last thing she needed was the scare their sponsors.
“Why don’t you explain why you’re here and what can The Witches Counsel can do for you?”
Alec pulled a small stack a papers from his pocket. They had been tri-folded to neatly fit in his inside coat pocket. He neatly unfolded them and slid them across the table to Wanda.
“We’re part of an independent investigative group looking into a series of otherwordly and human murders…”
“The insect attacks in the tunnel?” Wanda butted in as she skimmed the papers. “The yuppy vampires in Merced Heights?”
“You know?” Lana asked.
Wanda shook her head. “We felt it. Whatever it is, it’s using something with a magical discharge that’s off the charts.”
Alec turned a few pages for her. “Yeah. Some type of hulking rock monster with a giant hammer. We have an eyewitness sketch in the back.”
Wanda shuffled to the end pages and stared at the detailed artists rendition of the monster. The drawing was filled with every detail Officer Everett James could remember. Even through his extensive Apostate training, Alec still had no clue to what this Thing was.
The witch shook her head. “It doesn’t look familiar. I’ve spent the last four years steeped in The Witch’s Archives and I’ve never come across anything like this.”
She handed the papers back to Alec who was visibly discouraged. But Wanda wasn’t done yet.
As he started to pull the papers back across the table, she grabbed his wrist.
“We may not know who or what it is.. but we do have it’s magical signature. Every being has a magical identification.. kinda like a fingerprint. No two are the same.”
Wanda called over one of the youngsters and whispered in her ear. The child happily nodded and then ran off into the village.
She turned her attention back to Alec. “We have the creature’s Magic ID from it’s recorded attacks. We might be able to do a locator spell to determine where it is right now.”
Alec’s face perked up. “If it’s not dangerous…”
Wanda smiled as she saw four of her sister witches approaching. “There shouldn’t be. The spell is typically omni-directional.” She turned to Lana. “After the war, Queen Vassiliadis reached out to The Witches Counsel in order to open a dialogue of peace. She has honored all of her promises toward the counsel. Her word now carries weight. She has asked for our assistance, and in the spirit of friendship, we give it.”
Lana smiled in acceptance.
The Witches prepared their spell…