On the corner of Market and Castro, half hidden in the shadow of a doorway, stood a vampire. Not just any vampire, mind you: one with a dark cape and four inch protruding fangs. And tons of hair gel. A few doorways down, a werewolf chatted amiably with a sickly green-hued zombie. All around them, demons and divas swirled giddily together. It was, of course, Halloween in the Castro.
But Halloween in the Castro is not entirely what it seems. On the surface it’s simply San Francisco’s largest and gayest party, a hundred thousand costumed revelers crowded for a short while into a few square blocks. Mardi Gras, condensed in time and space, a time of celebration, freedom and excess.
In past years there had been violence though, sudden and unexpected. This might well be the last Halloween party the Castro would see for many years. But another current flows underneath, less ominous. We in the magical practitioner community tend to blend in and keep a low profile. We hold jobs and go to clubs and football games just like everyone else. A few ordinary citizens who are aware we’re around, but for the most part civilian society is oblivious.
So for the practitioner community it’s the perfect time to let our hair down and have some harmless fun. Halloween has always been my favorite day of the year, and the pretend darkness hovering over the sense of gaiety is half the fun. And I was ready for some fun. I’d been through some dark days.
Dark days indeed. No money. No girlfriend. No gigs. Worse than that, no real desire to play gigs. For a jazz guitarist, that’s unthinkable. I’d even had to go back to work for Victor to pay the bills.
Sherwood my ex, was dead almost a year now. She’d been killed by a practitioner gone bad. Campbell, my most recent ex, was seeing another guy. Another practitioner. I couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse.
Victor, of course, had little patience with my moods. Even Eli, who had been so supportive, was getting tired of my deep sighs and hangdog looks. I didn’t blame him. I was sick of it myself. So I finally pulled myself out of my funk and roused myself from my self-imposed torpor. When Eli called to suggest we attend the Castro festivities, I jumped at the chance.
All the practitioners were in costume, only their costumes weren’t cloth and tinsel, but clever deceptions. The unspoken rule is to come up with the most convincing and imaginative illusion possible using the minimum amount of talent.
Eli was dressed as an Arabian Djinn, or maybe he was supposed to be a Nubian slave. Eli has been my mentor and best friend for years, ever since I was a raw teenager with no idea of my own talent. He nurtured that talent and gently introduced me into the practitioner community, and most of what I know I owe to him.
The odd thing is that although he’s a genius at theory he doesn’t have much innate talent himself, so the costume rules were easy for him – he was used to doing more with less. He has a solid template to work with, though -- African American, 6' 4", almost 260 pounds, and a former Division I college lineman. A quick spell to take the grey out of his beard and transform his thinning hair into a gleaming bald pate, another to create the illusion of scanty robes that would have left him freezing if real, and a final conjuration to transform his middle-aged body into that defined rippling mass of muscle which can only come from hours at the gym. Or so it would appear. He looked a lot like Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam, but if I’d informed him of that he might have tossed me across the street. Not all of that considerable strength is illusory.
The crowd on Castro Street was packed wall to wall, making it difficult to move even a few feet, much less an entire city block. I’d walked over from my flat in the Mission, realizing the near impossibility of parking. I stayed away from the middle of the street where the crush was most claustrophobic and tried to navigate along the edges. Lou of course had no such problem -- a one foot tall dog who weighs only twelve pounds can easily worm his way through shuffling feet.
Not that he’s exactly a dog. He’s an Ifrit. Usually Lou looks just like a miniature Doberman, black and tan with uncropped ears and undocked tail. Tonight, however, he too was in costume. I’d refused to go in costume myself -- I just threw on a short leather jacket to keep off the chill. Otherwise, I was the same old me – dark shaggy hair, brooding expression, angular face. Sort of like Jack Kerouac in the early days, before the hard living caught up with him. On my right forearm is a tattoo of two twining briars – the only outward sign there might be anything different about me, but only to those who would know that anyway.
But at least I’d made an effort to dress up Lou. I was forced to spend a lot of time on him, illusion not being not one of my stronger talents. But since most of the practitioners in the city were present, pride, if nothing else, dictated I put forth a credible effort.
I could have easily made him into something wildly exotic, but the rules did call for subtlety. So, I softened up his sharp muzzle, enlarged his eyes, mottled his coat into a dappled beige, turned delicate paws into delicate hooves, and added two tiny straight horns on the top of his head. When I was done he was a perfect replica of an African Dikdik antelope. I was proudest of the horns, since they weren’t completely imaginary. They were functional, which is far more difficult to do than a simple illusion. Lou was delighted with them and even jabbed me a couple of times in an excess of high spirits. He wouldn’t stop until I threatened to change his appearance to that of a precious rainbow colored lamb.
Victor was waiting for us opposite the Castro Theater. Most of the time he’s all business; in fact, Victor at a party is much like broccoli on a birthday cake. Even his fun has to be carefully choreographed. Ever the perfectionist, he had come up this time with an cool and understated outfit. It was a standard devil illusion, complete with red skin tone, switching tail and small horns growing out of his forehead. Not as good as Lou’s horns but not bad. The neat twist he’d added was a variation on a standard aversion spell, one that produced an aura of real evil.
He was his usual dapper self, neat and compact and wiry. His dark beard, once all angles and fine lines, now covered his face. The closer you got to him, the more reasonable it seemed that he might indeed be an actual devil. Of course, considering his personality, he also has a solid basis to work with. Even with the crush of revelers there was always a space around him. People felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to get too close.
“Mason,” he said, acknowledging me with a nod. “Eli.” He ignored Lou, and Lou ignored him. We were just one big happy family. Victor is the unofficial head enforcer in San Francisco, someone who keeps an eye on the practitioner community, reining in those who occasionally step over the line. At one time I’d worked for Victor full time, one of the minions on his magical enforcement squad, but I wasn’t really cut out for the job. But someone had to do it. A rogue practitioner can cause a lot of trouble in a civilian society that barely understands people like us even exist, so people like Victor are an unfortunate necessity. It didn’t make him lovable, though.
Two young men dressed entirely in tinfoil edged by, followed by a giant sunflower. Victor glanced past them and lifted his hand in a desultory wave. I looked over my shoulder and saw Janet, a minor practitioner I knew casually. She was dressed tonight as Dorothy, complete with ruby red slippers, and her own twist was that when she skipped, it took longer than usual for her feet to return to the ground. Again, it was subtle. People in the crowd kept watching her but were unable to put their fingers on exactly what was so unusual about the way she moved. Very nice.
Lou put his paws up on my knee and gave an annoyed bark. From ground level he couldn’t see a thing except legs and he was getting bored. He doesn’t have the longest attention span. I bent down to pick him up, but Eli intervened.
“Allow me,” he said, picking up Lou and placing him on one large shoulder. Eli’s bulk and height dwarf me, although I’m about six feet tall myself, and it was a great platform for Lou. He loves a party, and now he had the best seat in the house. He certainly garnered a lot of attention. Even with the abundance of outrageous costumes he stood out, with people stopping and pointing while he reveled in the attention.
A striking figure dressed only in a loincloth with arrows sticking out of his chest and sides came up to us. I had to look twice before I recognized him as Jay, a practitioner I hadn’t seen for a while. He’d done a bang-up job on his costume, a mock up of St. Sebastian, the Christian Martyr. A folded loincloth was all he wore, and he’d glamoured his body in the same fashion Eli had, only his was wiry, toned and ripped. He was getting more than his share of admiring glances from both women and men.
The best part of the illusion was the numerous arrows that pierced his side and back, like a human pincushion. Whenever he stood in one place for too long, drops of blood dripped onto the pavement. Somewhat of a turnoff for some; an added attraction for others.
St. Sebastian is sort of a gay icon. So it was particularly appropriate for the Castro, although I wasn’t sure if Jay knew that. He’s a born again Christian, which I always thought odd for a practitioner, considering our use of magical talent. It didn’t seem to bother him though. I asked him once in all sincerity if he believed Jesus was a practitioner, what with the water into wine and all. He laughed so hard he almost choked on a hotdog he was eating. “You have a peculiar view of what being a Christian means,” he’d said, and that was all he had to say.
"I thought St. Sebastian was just for Catholics,” I said. Jay pulled on one of the arrows to get a little more blood flow.
“No group has a monopoly on suffering. But I’m surprised you even know who St. Sebastian is.”
“I saw him on a postcard once.”
“As I thought. A deep thinker.” He turned to greet Eli, who was uncharacteristically brusque.
“Where’s Pook?” Eli asked. Pook is Jay’s Ifrit, a sweet and small soot gray cat.
"She’s at home, sleeping probably. She hates crowds, you know.” Eli relaxed, almost imperceptibly. But Jay picked up on it. “You still worried about Ifrits?”
"No, just wondering,” Eli said.
He was worried, though. Not about specific Ifrits, but about ifrits in general. He insisted there were fewer of them of late -- not that ifrits were disappearing, but that no new ones were appearing on the scene . He thought it might be a sign of something more serious, sort of a magical global warming problem. I hadn’t noticed that myself, but since it’s not that common for a new Ifrit to appear anyway, maybe I was missing it.
Jay wandered off through the crowd, and Eli watched him, distracted. Eli didn’t seem to be having as much fun as you might expect. He kept glancing at his watch every few minutes and frowning slightly.
“You expecting someone?” I finally asked. He nodded abstractedly.
“Sarah. She was supposed to be here an hour ago.”
Sarah. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. Sarah and I went out for a while some years ago on a semi-serious basis. She spent at least half of her time on her cell – she was one of those people who simply have to be in constant contact. Like if she weren’t talking to someone, she didn’t fully exist. She was a practitioner, a very smart women, and very sweet, but unaccountably insecure. If the cell phone had never been invented I don’t know what she would have done We didn’t last long. It would be nice to see her again, though. I had been very fond of her.
“Sarah, late?’ I said. “Isn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse, like the Cubs winning the World Series?”
“It’s certainly not like her,” Eli said.
That was an understatement. Sarah had an almost pathological sense of responsibility. If she said she’d call, she called. If she said she’d be somewhere at nine, she was.
“I’ve called her, several times. All I get is the recorded message.”
Ordinarily this wouldn’t mean much of anything. But it was so out of character for Sarah that it was somewhat worrying. And after last year’s events, all of us were hypersensitive to anything out of character.
Victor added something that didn’t make me feel any better.
“She called this afternoon. Said she’d come across something odd that she wanted to talk to us about, so she was going to meet us here.”
Now I wasn’t having any fun either. We watched as the crowd eddied around us, protected from the crush by Victor’s unsettling persona. Every few minutes Eli checked his watch again, took out his cell, and hit the redial button.
“She was supposed to be here at nine,” he said. It was ten thirty at least. Eli’s concern was contagious. I didn’t like the feel of this.
“Maybe we should go looking for her,” I said.
Eli reached up to touch Lou, still happily ensconced on his shoulder, and gave me a questioning look. I nodded. “He remembers her well, I’m sure.”
One of Lou’s talents is his ability to track people. He’s not exactly a dog – he’s an Ifrit, after all. That’s just what we call them, since nobody knows exactly what they are or where they come from. If you’re a lucky practitioner, though not necessarily a deserving one, sometimes one will hook up with you. I have Lou. Victor has Maggie, who manifests as a relatively unpleasant Persian cat. Once they show up, they’re with you for life.
Lou has two limitations in tracking someone, though. One is that he has to start somewhere reasonably close – he can’t just waltz out the door and find someone wandering around in the Oakland hills.
The second is that he has to know the person. The better he knows them, the easier it is to find them and the farther away they can be. Lou could locate me if I were halfway across the planet, but that’s different. It’s a shame I can’t return the favor.
“Any idea where Sarah was when she called you?” I asked. “We could start there.”
“Marina Green,” Eli said. “She was watching a volleyball game with some friends.”
“Let’s stop at my house first,” Victor said. “I need to pick up some things. Just in case.” . . .. .