“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” Carl Jung
Near the planet Spica, a crack opens in the vast blackness of space.
Do you think you know me?
I promise you, you don’t. If you did, you’d run away screaming.
I thought I knew myself, and I was just as wrong. Things that lie within and from generations past can surprise the hell out of us.
Not complaining; who and what I am now works for me. But if I knew you before and we run into each other again, don’t make any assumptions based on our earlier relationship – your might regret it.
As I write this, I’m in my condo in Toronto, a part-time residence that I crash in when I need to be in the city for a while.
I’m not in the best of moods, waiting for a former co-worker to arrive. Krista was unfailingly shallow and unpleasant whenever I ran into her at Tempus College. I don’t know what she thinks I can help her with, or why I’d want to, but I’ll hear her out. She left her job suddenly and disappeared a few months ago, and I’m mildly curious.
She’s late. I go to the front window of my condo and spot her, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk five stories below me.
The weather is gray and drizzly, and her shoulders are hunched up inside her red raincoat. Her long streaked brown hair, which used to be short and sculpted, looks like it was gathered hastily into a pony tail. The flirty skirt she typically wore to work has been replaced by dark leggings tucked into boots.
I watch idly, wondering if she’s going to come in. After a few more paces and some glances around the streetscape, she abruptly heads for the condo entrance.
My phone chimes; it’s the concierge calling. “Ms. Ussher, a Krista Dingman is here to see you.” I can hear a female voice in the background whinging loudly at him. He continues dryly, ”She’s very anxious to come up.”
Stephen is my favourite of all our concierges, and I don’t want to inflict Krista on him for longer than necessary. “I’m expecting her, so let‘s not keep her waiting.”
A few minutes later there’s a knock on my door and there she is, looking defiantly at me. “Thanks for getting me past the cretin in the lobby!”
I see she hasn’t matured any since I saw her last, although I’m impressed that she knows the word ‘cretin’.
Unfortunately she‘s caught me on a bad day. A few hours in the city and my head always starts to pound – all the restless energy and suppressed stress of the residents.
However, I reply evenly, “Stephen has always been the soul of professionalism, Krista. Perhaps you’d like to come in and tell me why you wanted to see me, as I have several other appointments today.” I only have one other person I’m meeting later, but it’s a good excuse to boot her out when she becomes really annoying.
She walks into my living room, looks around like it will give her clues. She couldn’t be more wrong. But I can see traces around her like a shroud – shadows, corruption, and something else that’s blocking my scrutiny. It raises an alarm in my head.
“Have a seat,” I prompt.
She removes her coat and hands it warily to me, then flips her hair back over her shoulder, tugs her pink bouclé sweater down over the top of her leggings and perches on the edge of the sofa. Crossing her feet, she lets the spiked heels of her boots dig into my carpet.
Her face is wan. She bites her lip, and constantly twiddles a piece of hair. I offer her tea, which she refuses. Pouring myself a cup, I sit down so she can get on with it. Unfortunately she doesn’t, just sits there fidgeting.
“What do you want, Krista?” What can I say? My social skills deteriorate when my head’s throbbing.
She twitches and looks defiant again. Now she does spit it out, though. “I’m in trouble. I’m hoping you can help me.”
“What kind of trouble?”
She plays with one of the tassels on her sweater. “My ex-boyfriend is stalking me. He was really sweet when we first started going out, but then he started getting me involved in this weird organization he’s part of. The meetings creep me out, and now I’m afraid of him too.” As she talks, her voice gets softer and softer until I can barely hear her.
I go to the kitchen and pull a bottle of white wine out of the fridge. Pouring a full glass, I hand it to her, but she says, “I can’t drink wine, or any alcohol. I’m pregnant.”
Well, well. I pour out some tea for her, in case she changes her mind. “How is it that you think I can help you?”
“I’ve heard that you can do things,” she says surprisingly.
Interesting. I probe further. “What kind of things?”
A couple of long minutes go by while she picks up the tea and sips it. Then she says hesitantly, “I – I heard that you can make people sick. If you can do that to Cole, maybe he’ll leave me alone.”
Does she think I practice voodoo? Still, she’s not way off base. I can sense her sliding towards despair, so I decide to talk to her for a while and find out whether I can trust her to keep her mouth shut and go away afterwards. Given what a bitch she was when I first met her, it seems unlikely, but I’ve always been drawn to helping those in need, and ultimately I can make her forget the entire visit if necessary.
I ask her to tell me more about the organization she’s referring to, and as she talks I grow still. I ask if I can hold her hand for a minute. She gives me a suspicious look, then slowly extends it out to me.
The moment I touch it I know she’s in serious trouble. There’s dark, chaotic energy inside her, swirling through the baby. It can only have one source.
I release her hand and give her a comforting pat. At the moment it’s the best I can do. Now I know why Krista wants my help; not so stupid after all.
I excuse myself for a minute, go into the bedroom and make a call.
“They’ve started Seeding.”
The voice at the other end says, “Understood. Meet with me tonight, usual time and place.”
How did I become some kind of supernatural problem-solver? That’s not actually what I do, just something useful on occasion.
Anyway, more about that later.
Looking back, this story began eons before, but for me everything changed after the Goblin Ball, on a fog-filled October night a year ago.
That morning a thick fog had flowed in from Lake Ontario, blanketing Toronto for blocks inward.
The top of the CN tower hovered above the mist like an alien spacecraft. From my client’s office on Bloor Street, twenty-five floors up, it looked like we were floating on a white sea where unknown things swam below the roiling surface.
Gordon Jefferies returned to the sitting area after taking a phone call in his office and sat down beside me again, looking at the large monitor over the fireplace. I was here on a Saturday, showing him the completed digital archive I’d created for his collection of artwork, because over the past few months he and his wife had become my friends.
I liked both of them. Gordon, for all his wealth, was very down-to-earth and had a great sense of humour. Even in his usual business suits he had a rakish air, with stylish salt-and-pepper hair and a twinkle behind his glasses. His petite wife Evangeline was more than a match for him, elegant and still sexy in her 60s. She had her own small collection of music scores, and I looked forward to working on that one day.
The Jefferies were holding their annual Halloween charity ball at their mansion in Rosedale that night, and I’d been invited.
I was looking forward to it. I loved Halloween, and I’d gone to many parties with Peter, my late husband. Attending the gala, though, was going to be different – my first big social gathering since Peter’s death three years before. But my friend Lizette had offered to be my plus-one, and I knew I had to stop hanging around my brownstone so much.
At only fifty-one years old, friends kept urging me to start dating again. I wasn’t ready yet, but I was open to attending some social events, and I was happy to support Evangeline’s charitable foundation for heart and stroke research. Peter had died young from a congenital heart condition, so the cause was personal for me.
Gordon leaned in close to pick up the wireless mouse, his shoulder bumping mine. Lately I’d noticed that he seemed to be making small amounts of body contact every time we met. I frowned, but he’d moved away again to lean back on the sofa and scroll through some of the archive.
I was aware that Gordon found me attractive; he flirted mildly with all women in a cheerful, gallant sort of way. Women generally found him attractive in turn, and under different circumstances I might have been interested in dating him, but I had no desire to get involved with a married man.
“This is perfect, Romy.” He put the mouse down. “Sadly, it means the end of our business association, at least on this project. I hope that Evangeline and I will continue to see something of you, and we’re glad that you’re attending the ball tonight.”
“I wouldn’t miss it, Gordon – thank you both very much for the tickets.” They had gifted me with two tickets worth four hundred and fifty dollars each; I planned to make some form of donation at the ball, either for the raffles or the silent auction.
I stood up, gathering my coat and briefcase. “I’ll email the invoice to Helen later today.” Helen was Gordon’s hyper-organized executive assistant, and I knew she liked to process transactions promptly. “Thank you again for the opportunity to work on your collection; I really enjoyed it.”
He arose, took my hand in his and held it, saying warmly, “As I enjoyed working with you.” Just as the contact was starting to last too long, he let go and politely gestured for me to walk ahead of him to the outer office.
At the elevator he asked, “May I hug you? I’m so delighted to have the archive completed, for insurance purposes and my own satisfaction.” I chose to take it at face value and said, “Of course”. The hug was brief and business-like, and I left the building a few minutes later with most of my unease alleviated.
A couple of hours later I parked my silver Land Rover in the driveway of my brownstone, feeling tired, achy and grumpy. Fog was eddying damply around my feet as I gathered my parcels and locked the vehicle.
Cradling some fresh flowers in one arm and two bags of groceries in the other, I shoved myself through the front door and into my entryway. As soon as I closed the door behind me I felt more at peace. After fighting crowds of self-absorbed shoppers and jerks in parking lots, I was ready for solitude and some tea therapy.
On the floor at my feet lay the day’s mail, fallen through the slot in an untidy heap; I gathered it up and placed it on the sill of the multi-paned windows that lined the entryway. For the next couple of hours I could embrace the calm of my brownstone and get some rest before going out again in the evening. I picked up the grocery bags and headed through the small archway directly ahead into the kitchen, where I flicked on the lights against the afternoon gloom.
Before I did anything else, I put fresh water in the kettle and set it on the stove. While the water heated, I unbagged all the groceries and put a small Brie quiche in the microwave. The bundle of orange calla lilies, black dahlias and seeded eucalyptus went in a vase on the coffee table, where they glowed against the grey light coming in through the bow window at the front of the townhouse.
Finally, armed with a steaming mug of Assam tea and a light meal, I retrieved the mail and sat on a loveseat to see what had come in.
A couple of bills, a letter from Alistair (Peter’s uncle), and, oddly, something from the small college in the remote little town of Llithfaen that Alistair lived in. I had no idea why Tempus College would be contacting me – I’d never even visited it in the few times that I’d been to Alistair’s house.
Mystified, I looked at the fine vellum envelope, and the college logo in the bottom left corner caught my eye. It was more of a crest than a logo, actually, with a thick round silver ouroboros – a scaled snake eating its own tail – encircling a sea-blue trident head. The letters T and C in gold Old English script straddled the tips of the prongs on either side of the snake’s head. Cobalt blue Copperplate lettering along the bottom curve of the snake spelled the words Tempus omnia dabit, which meant ‘Time gives all’. Cute wordplay with the college name.
I slid a folded piece of cream vellum paper out of the envelope. It was a letter from the president of the college:
Dear Ms. Ussher,
I was given your name by Alistair Tredwell. He sings your praises highly in terms of your skill at archiving, and your in-depth knowledge of ancient manuscripts in particular.
We have an extensive library that we would like to begin digitally archiving. In addition, our college has the privilege of offering a variety of courses in esoteric subjects, and we would like to add courses in your specialty to our curriculum. We would value your input, as well as perhaps asking you to create and teach some of them.
I understand that you’re currently contracted to Haswell Archivists in Toronto, but I’d like to invite you to visit our unique institution and show you the many benefits of living and working here.
If you’re interested in exploring this opportunity, please contact me directly and choose a date that works well for you. I look forward to discussing this career move.
Pres. Adriano Ferri
Well, that was unexpected! I sipped my tea and pondered.
I’d received a couple of proposals to be a teaching professor over the years, but those were from larger institutions that had the breadth to offer less mainstream subjects. That this one came from a small and obscure college implied a very different approach then the twenty-four main colleges in Ontario. I’d have to check out Tempus’ programs online when I had a minute.
My association with Haswell’s felt comfortable and settled, something I’d needed since Peter’s death three years ago. I hadn’t been looking to change my work. The idea of teaching had some appeal, though: introducing students to the intricacies of ancient typefaces and pigments, the fascinating stories of the earliest reading materials and their transmission from monks’ hands to dukes’ libraries.
Still, I wasn’t sure I was ready to take that leap. My beloved brownstone, which Peter and I spent several years renovating, felt like one of his old sweaters, cozy and comforting, even as much as I was beginning to find other aspects of big-city living really irritating. I’d have to think over President Ferri’s offer and decide how to respond.
My mind flipped back to Gordon’s behaviour that morning. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but it still bothered me. Well, there would be over a hundred people at the ball, along with Evangeline herself; I figured I could enjoy the event and then keep a polite distance afterward.
I looked at my watch and realized it was time to get ready. The gala was a formal affair, so I’d pulled out an elegant costume I’d bought when Peter and I were in Paris a few years before but had yet to wear.
The gown was soot-coloured velvet, dropping from a sweetheart neckline touched with black and rust feathers to my hips, where gauze flowed downward like dissipating smoke to a pale ash colour at the bottom. I’d put on some weight since Peter’s death, but luckily the strapless bodice cradled my breasts well without overflowing and there was enough structure from there to still give me an hourglass shape.
There was a magnificent headpiece as well, featuring a pale ash headband from which a pagan-looking spray of black feathers radiated back and down across my bare shoulders. My burnished gold and brown hair was pulled back from my forehead and under the headband, letting it fall loosely across my shoulders and back.
I looked at myself in the full-length mirror in our – my – bedroom. I’d planned on wearing this to a gala event with Peter one day, and I knew he would have told me how beautiful he thought I looked. Tears began to stream down my face and I sat on the end of the bed, weeping heavily.
Peter had known from childhood that he had a heart defect, and it was one of the first things he told me when we started seeing each other back in university. I’d always understood that we might not grow old together, but I’d hoped fate would be kind to us. His sudden passing three years ago without warning had been a deep shock. My brother Max had come home from South America for several months to keep me from retreating into a bottomless pit I might never have been able to climb out of.
I’d needed a grief counsellor to help me stop reliving that awful last day with Peter over and over again, and to start moving forward without him. These days I’d learned to live with the pain while I doggedly kept going.
My old acquaintance Lizette, who I’d also met at university around the same time, had grown into my closest friend after Max had to return to work. She’d seen me through many a tear-filled night, and it helped that she was going to the Ball with me. Maybe one day I’d be able to consider dating again, but right then it still felt like a betrayal, even though I knew that Peter would want me to move on and be happy.
Finally I ran out of tears. I gave a shuddering sigh and went into the bathroom to reapply my makeup. To cover the redness I dramatized my exotic-looking amber eyes a bit more with black liner and charcoal shadow, dusted some glitter across my cheeks, and put on an onyx necklace and earrings. Looking myself over in the mirror, I decided that was as good as it was going to get.
Putting on black high-heeled shoes, I pulled out a velvet cape from the closet and grabbed my glittered clutch purse. Then I stepped out into the chill night air, hoping for an entertaining evening to shake me out of the rut I knew I’d fallen into.
Be careful what you wish for.