I considered pounding on Akbar’s door until he woke up and answered my questions. Then I conceded that is was well after midnights when I had left Club Hades. Waking someone up in the middle of the night was not a recommended practice in the care and cultivation of contacts. Instead I went to my office for some shuteye.
My plan for the next morning was to have a conversation with Akbar al Faruq. Akbar was the proprietor of Akbar’s Emporium of Wonders. He kept the front half of the store filled to the rafters with dusty books, dull brass, and an air of magical power that was tantalizingly felt even by those with mundane senses. The last was an illusion, like perfume in a shop full of old flowers. The illusion was a nice touch, as it wasn’t cast on anything in particular so that nothing sensory was changed about the goods. That way the cheap brass and arcane knock-offs might seem wonderful in the store and yet skirt every regulation on the use of magic in retail. Good thing, too, the Order of Commerce could be every bit as vengeful as the Order of Illumination when they get their dander up.
For anyone with even the most rudimentary Sight, Akbar’s little illusion was a flimsy little thing unworthy of a rank amateur. That opinion, when extended to Akbar and his shop, was exactly what he wanted. Very few who saw through the scam up front kept looking to find the real deal in the back.
Akbar also had the pulse of New York City’s black market in magical goods. He most certainly would have crossed paths with Victor. Even if Victor had not moved the hunter’s possessions through the Emporium, Akbar would know what hit the market shortly after the hunter’s death.
“I assure you, Madam,” said Akbar in full voice worthy of a bass soloist, “that what you hold there is a the Amulet of Dabhydh, an item that will protect you from hurtful eyes and spiteful words.”
It was only courteous of me to stifle the laugh I felt at the line he was giving the lady. Courteous, and that wrecking someone’s deal would not dispose that someone toward helpfulness later.
Akbar completed the transaction and turned toward me.
“Mr. Watson! How good it is to see you again!”
Akbar had a voice that was born for carrying across chaotic bazaars. In an over packed New York storefront it was more than adequate.
He closed the distance between us to shake my hand. I was amazed at how he could navigate the his considerable girth between the close spaced shelves.
“Good morning, Akbar.”
“May I offer you some coffee?”
It was one of the few surprises I enjoyed learning in my time in the city: you can count on an alchemist to brew a mean cup of Joe. This one could at least. Akbar practiced alchemy, I always heard it as al-Khemy from him, and was probably the best the city had to offer.
Akbar escorted me to a small room just behind the shop. A door in the back presumably led to his laboratory, but I had never been invited in, so I could not be absolutely certain. A staircase crowded the small room. The remaining space was covered over in fabrics and cushions around a small, circular table inlaid with various Arabic and Hebrew characters bearing a small brazier.
“Aziz!” bellowed Akbar. He might as well have conjured the lad he appeared so quickly from the back room. “Mind the store. Keep anyone who comes in entertained until I return.”
“New apprentice?” I asked.
“A nephew, he has just arrived from Istanbul. Please, be seated.”
I undid the button on my coat, laid my hat next to me, and settled into the cushion. Akbar took in my gun with a glance and without a word. The black market was a rough business. Besides, we were in his domain, and he was the one with the power there. My defense was that it was in his best interest not to get a reputation for offing visitors. The arrangement worked well enough over several deals to where I considered Akbar something of a friend.
“Tell me, Sam,” said Akbar as he poured two small cups of coffee from an ornate samovar, “how are those lovely ladies of yours?”
“They are doing well.”
“That says to me, ‘much the same’.” He gave me an appraising look. “Such a waste.”
“You’re always on the lookout to use that line.” He enjoyed letting me know what extra information he could get out of my responses. Made me glad he was on my side. I took a sip of the coffee, and smiled. Now that Joe was right.
“And I shall continue to do so until you change the situation. Two lovely ladies, absolutely devoted to you, and yet you abstain.”
“I’m bucking for sainthood.”
“I tell you that there are far better matters to occupy a man’s days.”
“And by saying ‘days’ you really mean ‘nights’.”
Akbar chuckled deep in his gut.
“And that tells me that there is some hope for you yet.”
He set aside his coffee picked up a jar bearing a hinged lid. He held up the jar and a small spoon, and he looked up at me.
I nodded, and he poured a small spoonful of purple crystals into the brazier. Light blue smoke billowed outward. Akbar reached into the spreading cloud and snapped his fingers. I heard nothing. The smoke filled the room with a sweet scent reminiscent of fine tobacco and amber. Akbar snapped his fingers again, and that time I heard it.
It was during an earlier meeting that he first explained that the incense held sounds within its bounds. It was also the sign that the small talk was over and it was time to get to business.
“So,” he asked, “what is it you are seeking?”
“First of all, a top off of this coffee.”
“Of course, and if there is a first, then it stands to reason that there shall be a second.”
“Certainly. The second is that I need to know about a quantity of specialty items hitting the market a little more than two months ago.”
Akbar’s brow furrowed and he brought a finger to his lips.
“Specialty in what way?”
“Hunting. Supernaturals,” I added the last to interrupt the question he had forming.
“I believe I know what you are asking about. Why your interest?”
“I need to know what he was hunting.”
“That knowledge did not seem to do him much good. Regardless, the hunter had a number of small Christian relics, several ampoules of water, and a small collection of books. And that was just what my contact had to offer.”
“Would that contact have been Victor Caretti?” I asked.
Akbar gave me a speculative look.
“Sam, you know that I work in the strictest confidence with my clients.”
“If it was Caretti, then I would say that you don’t need to worry too much about losing any business.”
“Caretti was an agent for his patron, a patron that I do not wish to risk losing. Particularly the quality merchandise.”
“Then Victor had a good reputation for selling quality?”
“So this hunter’s gear was the right stuff?”
“I should say it was. Three of the four relics he had were authentic, however minor, and the fourth had enough resonant faith to pass. The water was sanctified and potent enough to have been from the River Jordan itself, and I would be hard pressed to part with the tomes.”
“What was his choice of reading material?”
“Your basics, Malleus Maleficorum, The King James Bible, and so on. The Malleus was a seventeenth century reproduction, but breathtaking nonetheless. The prize of the collection would have to be Renfroe’s Compendium of Nocturnal Horrors. Very rare, and allegedly quite accurate.”
“What would the table of contents look like?”
“Ghosts, spectral visitors, succubi, vampires, and dhampiri.”
“Do you have it?”
Akbar leaned back.
“Aah, yes! And before you ask, no, you may not take a look. You and your accursed wizard memory.”
“What are dhampiri?”
“You are not familiar? Perhaps I should make you buy the book.”
“Cut me some slack, Akbar.”
Akbar thought for a moment.
“Very well, it is but one of many interests the tome holds.”
I waved a circle with my hand to hurry him along through the sales spiel.
“Dhampiri are half-vampires. Either they were born as such as the result of the mother being attacked by a vampire, or by the reversal of the typical order of vampires drinking human blood, namely humans drinking vampire blood. The blood acts like a potion that grants great strength and vigor without the vulnerabilities of vampirism. The cost of the practice is that the blood is addictive. For that reason, dhampiri are almost always bound to the service of their patron vampire.”
I thought back to Paulie and the flight I took in Allison’s apartment. Blinking was still an annoyance.
“What else beyond the esoteric?” I asked.
“Nothing much worth speaking of, aside from being nice antiques. A short sword and a silver cross were the only things of real value.”
I had a feeling deep in my gut that I knew where the question of what Dunkirk was heading, but assumptions can get you killed in this here Empire.
“One more thing,” I said. “I have something I found at the hunter’s residence.”
I opened my handkerchief and showed him the wood shavings.
“I need to know what type of wood this is.”
Akbar gave me an incredulous look.
“It is clear you have mistaken me for a gardener, Sam.”
“Just think of it as an unknown substance. And since when have you gone looking down on wood?”
“It is not a pure element, but I might be able to learn what you need. This should only take a few moments.”
Akbar disappeared into the back. I poked around the front under the watchful eyes of Aziz. Some of the knick-knacks had some flash value, but I wanted to get my hands on that book.
My time in the Corps was designated for warfare. It came from having a knack for Fire greater than my skills in Thought or Space. We spent more than a few months training in mundane methods of killing the not mundane, and what folklore I had absorbed gave me the answer that I was looking for Akbar to confirm.
It only took him ten minutes to return with his answer.
“It is oak.”
“One last thing, how do I kill a ghost?”