Chicago loomed out of the darkness, lighted windows flashing past as the car moved down I-94. Christopher, well into his third gin-and-tonic, watched as the city grew before him like a multifaceted jewel. He thought of Marshall McLuhan, who had believed electricity to represent the descent of the holy spirit. He thought of shimmering science fiction cities. He thought of Crowley. Beyond the confines of the car, the night flashed on.
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The city enveloped them, sucked them down her glowing night-black throat. The buildings grew taller, looming high above the car, blotting out the hollow sky. They turned off the interstate, took a side road that led under a railroad trestle, and emerged into a part of the city Christopher did not recognize. It seemed to be from an older era, or patterned after a bygone style of architecture. Long multi-story blocks followed the car on either side along the narrow street. Flickering neon tubes and pale incandescent lights hovered in the windows of tiny, packed-together storefronts. A hunched figure huddled under a streetlight, cupping a cigarette.
They turned again, the lights growing fewer. The road split off into two one-way streets that curved around the prow of a tall building. At the end of the road, the car halted before a tall gate. The driver leaned out of the window, punched a number into the keypad, and the gate slid open. They pulled forward into a semicircular courtyard, shielded from the outside world by vines and thick foliage.
The driver got out, opened Christopher's door for him, and led him into the shadow of the carriage house. An inner door was opened, and diffuse red light spilled out over the doorstep. The driver stood aside, nodded, and made an 'after-you' gesture. Christopher eyed him for a moment, then stepped through into a hazy red anteroom.
Inside, the room was uncomfortably warm. Smells of incense and hashish smoke lingered in the air, a miasma that seemed to form a haze in front of the red electric lamps that hung from the ceiling. Candles burned in sconces set high along the walls. Furniture- chairs, footstools, claw-footed couches- seemed arranged haphazardly, draped with oriental rugs and dotted with pillows. The decor resembled a collision between a brothel and a monastery, religious icons lying cheek-to-jowl with fetish art and too-rich wall hangings. Figures moved, indistinct in the flickering shadows.
"Welcome to the Temple," the driver-acolyte said, and motioned Christopher to follow him through the arch and up the stairs beyond. At the head of the steps, the man once again stood aside and motioned him forward. Christopher saw, gleaming from the light of a nearby candle, the bronze sigil Midian had chosen to represent himself, pinned over the eager disciple's heart.
Their eyes met.
Christopher, wordless, broke contact and followed the man's pointing hand, stepping into a hexagonal room that looked out onto the street below. Tall windows filled three of the six walls of the room, lit from without by the glow of the streetlights. Midian stood framed in one of these, his back to Christopher, hands clasped behind him.
Christopher thought: He's planned all this out. Did he rush to get into position when he heard I'd arrived, I wonder?
As if picking up on his thoughts, Midian- nee Michael Bennett- turned to regard him. His face, above a high collar, took in and reflected the streetlight, his coffee-colored skin strange under the green glow.
"Hi," Christopher said.
"So you came."
"You've been calling and e-mailing me. Nice building."
"It is, isn't it? We've been branching out, upgrading the organisation. You'd be impressed."
"Why?" Without waiting for an answer, Christopher went on. "Forget it. Why did you ask me here, Bennett?"
"Just as you say. Why?"
Midian smiled. "What, you'll just take your answer and go drive three hours back home?"
"I am seriously considering it."
"Sit down. Have a glass of wine with me. I haven't seen you in years. I'm sure we have some champagne around here somewhere."
"I'm not comfortable with this, Midian."
"What? Champagne at four a.m.?"
"This. Your cult. We've discussed this."
"Temple. And I've tried to explain. I'm a shaman, I worship my gods and teach others to do so as well, which you-"
"That's not what a shaman is, and- no. Forget it. I won't do this."
"Yeah, whatever. Jesus." The mask of warm calm wavered on Midian's features. "Look. Just sit down and drink a glass of wine with me, and we'll talk, and then you can go away and be miserable again, okay?"
"It appears," Christopher said. "That I can be miserable anywhere. Yes. Fine. All right."
Midian clapped his hands. A moment later, a face appeared in the doorway. "Yes, sir?"
"Lana, please fetch a bottle of Bollinger from the cellar."
The girl bowed and turned on her heel.
Christopher raised an eyebrow. "Just like a Bond villain."
"You ought to have more fun in life. Let's go find a table, unless you'd prefer a bed of nails or something."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.