Gabriel Blackstone is a cool, hip, thoroughly 21st Century Londoner with an unusual talent. A computer hacker by trade, he is — by inclination — a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to see into the thought processes of others.
But he only does this with the greatest reluctance — until he is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find her step-son, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters.
And so Gabriel visits Monk House in Chelsea, a place where time seems to stand still. Its living room is filled with the perfume of roses, African masks line the walls and everywhere — on doors, on walls, on ceilings even — the mysterious coded symbol of cross and circle dominates.
As the dog days of summer turn into a cold and hostile winter, Gabriel becomes increasingly bewitched by the house, and by its owners, the beautiful, enigmatic Monk sisters — one of whom is a deadly killer, and who will stop at nothing to protect a terrifying secret that is as old as time itself.
From the publisher:
SEASON OF THE WITCH is an extraordinary gothic novel that takes on big themes — love, death, alchemy, the power of the human mind to transform and transcend reality — and wraps them in a thriller narrative that will beguile and entrance all who turn its pages.
In Season of the Witch I started out with a number of highly random ideas:
I wanted my hero to fall in love with a disembodied voice in a diary. Admittedly, I was concerned that this might not be a realistic scenario. Would a woman be able to bewitch a man simply with the beauty of her words? The story of Sheherezade who captivated a cruel Sultan by spinning stories is a familiar one, but Sheherezade was not veiled and one gets the impression the lady in question was rather beautiful... Furthermore, in Season of the Witch there is an added complication. The owner of the diary may be a murdereress. My hero may be falling in love with a killer.
Click on the golden icosahedron...
The search for enlightenment and the lengths people will go in order to achieve an enlightened mind, forms the backbone of the narrative in Season of the Witch. The search for enlightenment is one of the oldest quests of mankind. It is indeed the Holy Grail. Even today, people all over the world holding different philosophies and from widely different cultures pursue exactly the same goal. Martial artists partake in shugyo or fearsome rituals designed to break down body and spirit. North American shamans use meditation and drugs to achieve an enlightened state of mind. Right at this minute there are people staring at a blank wall or sitting on top of a tall pole in order to expand their consciousness. This may seem ridiculous, even laughable to many of us, but man's hunger to experience something larger than himself - a true moment of blinding illumination - is one of the most poignant aspects of the human condition. As the hero in Season of the Witch says: 'One of the crueller jokes of creation is being burdened with brains capable of conceptualising a state of higher consciousness we have little hope of ever achieving.'
A chance reading of Dale Graff's book River Dreams, gave me the idea of giving my characters the talent for remote viewing. Mr. Graff was the director of Project STARGATE before it was shut down in the nineties. STARGATE was a top secret program of the United States Government and Mr. Graff was in charge of training and using remote viewers to gather intelligence information. Even though ESP is hardly a fresh topic and a rather tired staple of many paranormal mysteries, I thought it might be fun to try and do something new with it.
The Characters in Season of the Witch
I always fall passionately in love with my hero. I dream about him, I fantasize. My husband knows all about it and has long since made peace with this state of affairs. Sadly, I confess to also being a fickle woman and when I move on to the next book, I transfer my affections very easily to the new man in my life. However, I must admit that I am especially fond of Gabriel Blackstone, the main protagonist in Season of the Witch.
Gabriel is a Londoner and very much a twenty-first century guy. A computer hacker by trade, he deals in other people's secrets. He is also a thief, which makes his values rather suspect, but he is a charming thief. I wanted a hero who is cool, hip, with a great sense of humour. A modern day buccaneer.
Does Gabriel fancy himself, just a little? Definitely. But I was careful not to make him a narcissist (after all, what woman wants to be with a guy who thinks he is more attractive than she is) but his belief in himself and his own abilities is strong. And he has an amazing gift: the gift of remote viewing. Compared to what some of my other leading men have in their arsenal, I was generous. Gabriel sets out on his journey fully armed: powerful, sexy, gifted. But will it be enough to get him through the challenges ahead? Readers who are familiar with my work know that I do not necessarily subscribe to conventional, happy endings. The reader can never assume that in the end everything will work out alright...
As for my two witches, Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk, the challenge was to create two fully formed characters, without giving too much away. The women have to remain enigmatic and ultimately unknowable. One of them is a killer and if I had made their characters too accessible, the identity of the villain would be too easy to guess.
I also had to take care not to turn the sisters into Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It would have been very easy to make them mirror images of each other with the only difference being that the one has black hair and the other red. They had to be very different people with very different talents and tastes.
But again, as the plot of the book hinges on discovering who the writer of the mysterious diary is, they also needed to be similar enough so that Gabriel remains confused. He must be unable to tell whether it is Minnaloushe or Morrighan, who so bewitches him with her words...
He was at peace: his brain no longer blooming like a crimson flower.
Slowly he opened his eyes. Above him, a black sky shimmering with stars. A pregnant moon entangled in the spreading branches of a tree.
Vaguely he realized he was on his back, floating on water. A swimming pool. Every now and then he would move his legs and hands to stay afloat. But the movements were instinctive and he was hardly aware of them.
Click on the white lily...
A violin was singing, the sound drifting into the night air. It came from the house, which stood tall and dark to the right of him. The windows were blank and no light shone through the tiny leaded panes. The steep walls leaned forward; the peaked roof was angled crazily.
His thoughts were disoriented and his skull was soft from the pain, which had exploded inside his brain like a vicious sun. But as he looked at the house, he could still remember what was hidden behind those thick walls.
And how could he not? For months on end he had explored that house with all the passion of a man exploring the body of a long-lost lover. He had walked down the winding corridors, climbed the spiral staircases, entered the enchanted rooms and halls. It was all there -- locked away inside his damaged brain -- every minute detail. The green room with its phosphorescent lilies. The ballroom of the dancing butterflies. The room of masks where the light from an invisible sun turned a spider's web to gold. Wonderful rooms. Rooms filled with loveliness.
But inside that house were also rooms smelling of decay and malaise. Tiny rooms where the walls were damp and diseased, where, if he stretched out his hand, he could touch the unblinking eyes growing from the ceiling; eyes whose clouded gaze followed his ant-like procession through a tilting labyrinth of images and thoughts.
He knew their order. The order of places, the order of things. He had followed the rules perfectly. Why then, his mind a spent bulb, his body so heavy, was he finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat?
A wind had sprung up. He felt its dusty breath against the wetness of his skin and he wondered if the fat moon might topple from the tree.
He was becoming tired. His neck muscles were straining. He should try to swim for the side of the pool, but the one half of his body felt paralyzed. It was all he could do to move his arms and legs slightly to keep from sinking. Below him was a watery blackness. And he realized he was no longer at peace but horribly afraid.
But then the darkness was split by a warm beam of light. Someone had switched on a lamp inside the house. He wanted to cry out but the muscles in his throat refused to work. The light was coming from behind the French doors with their inserts of stained glass carefully fitted together in the shape of an emblem. Monas Hieroglyphica. See, he still remembered...
A shadow appeared behind the glowing lozenges of red, green and purple glass. For a moment it hovered, motionless.
The shadow moved. The doors opened. She stepped out into the garden and her footfall made no sound. As she walked toward him, he thought he could smell her perfume.
His heart lifted joyously. She had known he was out here all along. Of course, she did. And now she had come to save him. No longer any need to be afraid. But hurry, he thought. Please hurry.
She was still wearing the mask. It covered her eyes. Her hair was concealed by the hood of her cape. On her shoulder perched the crow. Black as coal. Even in the uncertain light he was able to see the sheen on the bird's wings.
Sinking down to her knees at the very edge of the pool, she leaned over and looked squarely into his face. A wash of yellow light fell across her shoulder. Around her neck she was wearing a thin chain and from it dangled a charm in the shape of the letter M. It gleamed against the white of her skin.
From inside the house, the sound of the violin was much clearer now and he recognized the music. Andante Cantabile. Tchaikovsky's string Quartet no 1, opus 11. The ecstatic notes struck a fugitive chord of memory. The last time he had listened to this piece of music there was a fire burning in the hearth, a bowl of drooping apricot roses on the dark wooden table and next to it three glasses with red wine waiting on a silver tray.
He was sinking. His feet pale finless fish paddling sluggishly. He couldn't keep this up much longer. But she would help him. She would pull him to safety. With difficulty he moved his arm and stretched out his hand beseechingly.
Her forehead creased with concern but the eyes behind the mask were enigmatic. She placed her hand on his face and pushed it softly into the water. The crow left her shoulder with a startled shriek. His mouth opened in protest and he almost drowned right then and there. He turned his head violently to one side, sneezing and coughing. Panic-stricken, he tried to swim away from her but his limbs were so heavy.
Again she leaned forward and pushed him down. And again. Each time he broke the surface, he gasped for breath, aware only of her white arms and the chain with the initial M hanging from her neck. Her movements were gentle, but laced with steel. As his head bobbed in and out of the water, he knew he was about to die.
Exhaustion. His lungs on fire. He made one last enormous effort to free himself but she was too strong.
She had relaxed her grip, but he could no longer find the strength to push himself upward. As he started to sink, he kept his eyes open and through the layer of water he saw her get to her feet. She looked down at him and lifted her hand: a gesture of regret.
Air was leaving his mouth, rippling the water, dissolving her figure, her masked face. And as he slowly spiralled downwards, he wondered with a strange sense of detachment if he might not still be on a journey, still searching for the path that does not wander...
Was there anything as cool as rush hour traffic on a hot day?
The light turned red. Gabriel Blackstone brought his bicycle to a stop at a crowded intersection. Balancing himself with one foot on the pavement, the other still resting on the pedal, he half-turned and looked around him. He was surrounded by cars and he could sense the expectation -- the barely tamed aggression -- lurking in the hearts of the motorists sweating gently behind the wheels of their vehicles. They seemed relaxed; elbows pushed through open windows, heads casually cradled against the headrests of their seats. But he was not fooled. When the light turned to green, he would have to move quickly. In this part of the City of London, cyclists were barely tolerated. That was part of the fun, of course: moving in and out of tight spaces, taking chances. Still, the possibility of getting squished was rather high. In front of him he could see a cab driver's eyes -- puckered and creased with lines -- watching him in the taxi's rear view mirror. Behind him a TV van was already inching closer with unnerving stealth.
It was hellishly hot. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. Summer had come early. The tarmac underneath his foot felt soft. The air tasted like paraffin. But he liked the city this way: sticky, unkempt, the pedestrians moving languidly. People's emotions were closer to the surface, not muffled by scarves and thick coats or hidden by hats turned down against a freezing rain.
A flash of red caught his attention: a girl walking on the sidewalk next to him, swinging a fringed bag and wearing a crimson skirt and blouse. Her navel was left bare and he could see the tattoo of a butterfly on her flat stomach. She walked with such devil-may-care insouciance that he smiled with pleasure. Life was good. Four o' clock in the afternoon in the Square Mile... and the City was his.
The light turned to green. The traffic bulleted forward. A rapturous roar of sound ricocheted off the steep walls of the buildings, making the ground tremble. He pedaled furiously across the intersection, dodging a green Mercedes whose driver seemed more intent on shouting into the cell phone in his hand than keeping his car on the road.
It was on days like these that he was also acutely aware of that other -- secret -- dimension to the city. Mingling with the car fumes, the layers of noise and the haze of heat was something even more ephemeral. Digital stardust. As he pedaled past the looming facades of London's banks, insurance companies and businesses, he imagined himself moving through an invisible but glimmering cloud.
Humming quietly behind the walls of the city's skyscrapers were machines filled with dreams. Dreams of money and power. Dreams broken down into binary code. Data. The most valued currency of all in this city where the foreign exchange turnover equalled 4637 billion dollars every day. Hidden in the brains of the computers were files, memos, research documents. A treasure trove of information protected by locked doors, computer firewalls and killer passwords.
But nothing was impossible, was it? He smiled into the wind and curved his back as he made a sharp turn into a narrow side street, leaving the worst of the traffic behind him. Doors can be knocked down; walls can be scaled and the magic of encrypted incantations dissolved. Secrets were meant to be broken. You only needed focus and determination -- and wasn't it fortunate that he was he was gifted with both.
Today he was on a scouting expedition. His client was Bubbleboy, a toy company specializing in toys for the six to ten year old age group. His target was Pittypats, Bubbleboy's biggest competitor. In this bunny-eat-bunny world, the way to gain the edge was to know your rival's secrets. Companies can glean a great deal of information about the competition by studying reports by the city's financial analysts and by trawling through newspapers and trade journals. This modus operandi is boring, unadventurous but -- to be fair -- not ineffective.
Public documents, however, will only allow you a partial reading of the tea leaves. Ultimately, a more innovative approach is necessary. And that was where Gabriel came in. His scouting expedition today would be only the first step in an elaborate operation designed to give Bubbleboy deep access into its main rival's secrets.
Pittypats City offices, he was interested to see, were located in two modest, if charming late eighteenth century houses complete with Venetian windows and scalloped arches. Very unassuming for a company with an impressive global reach. The offices sat quietly at the end of a narrow street, dwarfed by a sixties concrete tower that was unashamedly ugly. A steel railing ran the length of the building. He chained his bike to the railing and as he straightened, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the plate glass window. Ankle boots, jeans, grubby T-shirt with the words 'City Couriers' emblazoned on the front. Leather satchel slung across his back. Clipboard clenched underneath one armpit. Good. He looked the part. Security at Pittypats front door was basic: the ubiquitous security camera and a buzzer and voice intercom unit. He placed his thumb on the button and almost immediately the door clicked open.
Inside it was a different matter. Against the ceiling were motion detectors and the door leading from the tiny reception room to the rest of the building was equipped with a magnetic key card reader. No cameras in this room. Although no guarantee there weren't any somewhere deeper inside the building.
A girl, sitting behind a green and gold leather inset desk, looked up as he walked in. Her hair was coiled primly behind her head, but her lips looked as though they belonged to one of the replicants in Blade Runner. The gloss was stupendous and her mouth seemed to glitter. Quite stunning, actually. But also somehow forbidding. You had the feeling that if you kissed those lips you might lose some skin.
'Can I help you?' She was looking at him coolly, one eyebrow lifted to form an impressive arc.
He smiled at her and swung the leather bag from his shoulder. 'Package to deliver.'
She waited while he opened the bag, her fingers clutching a pencil and tapping it softly on the old-fashioned blotter in front of her.
'Here you are.' He extracted a small package wrapped in brown paper, placing it along with the clipboard on top of the desk. 'Package for Mr. Peake. And it needs signing for.'
'Peake?' She frowned. 'No. There's no-one here by that name.'
He knew there wasn't. He had made sure of it beforehand, but now he spoke with exaggerated patience. 'Yes. Peake. See. It says so right here.' He stabbed a finger at the clipboard. 'Mr. Donald Peake.'
'No.' She pushed it back at him, irritated. 'There must be a mistake.'
'This is Pittypats?'
'Yes, it is. But--'
He peered at the address on the package. 'Mr. Donald Peake. Human Resources.'
'Oh.' Her face cleared. 'Our human resources department is out in Croydon. You"ve got the wrong office.'
No, sweetheart. I haven't, he thought silently but continued, 'Would it be possible to leave the package here -- for you to send it on to Mr. Peake, like?'
She looked uncertain. He watched as she worried her lower lip between her teeth. Surprisingly, the lipstick showed no sign of smudging, staying preternaturally glistening and smooth. Amazing.
'Maybe you could just ask?' he prompted. 'Please, love. Help me out.'
For another moment she hesitated. Then she opened the drawer of the desk and took out a small square of plastic. 'Wait here.'
She turned and swiped the key through the electronic scanner. The tiny red eye at the top of the scanner turned green and she pushed the door open. He caught a brief glimpse of a well-lit but completely bland hallway. There was no indication whatsoever as to what went on inside the building.
As the door swung shut behind her, he dropped to his knees and opened the bag wider. Inside was his iPAQ. Small, discreet, it was still his favorite tool for this kind of work. It was already powered up and as there were no cameras around, he would be able to sneak a quick peek.
The screen blinked and what it showed him made him smile with delight. Oh, great. The path forward would be relatively easy. This commission was not going to require any athletics, thank God. With his last job he had had no choice but to break-and-enter and he had found himself crawling around false ceilings, fighting his way through phone lines, air-conditioning equipment and fire sprinklers, all so he could bypass some truly maddening security controls and gain access to a restricted research area. This time around, he would be able to pluck the information from the air, so to speak.
The door opened. It was the girl. He got to his feet and closed the leather bag without fuss.
'Yes.' The girl nodded. 'You can leave the package here. We"ll take care of it.'
'Actually,' he shook his head regretfully and hitched the bag onto his shoulders. 'Looks like it has to be Croydon, after all. Just spoke to my boss.' He gestured at the cell phone clipped to his belt. 'He says Mr. Peake has to sign for it personally. Sorry for the trouble.'
She sighed with exasperation, but he could tell that she he had already lost interest in him. 'Just shut the door on your way out, please.'
He opened the door and looked back. It had been a brief visit. No more than ten minutes had passed since he first walked in here. But the trip had been a definite success. Apart from everything else, it surely would have been worth it just to see those lips. He was going to have fun describing them to Isidore.****
Outside in the street, he unclipped the cell phone and speed-dialed Isidore's number. Isidore didn't answer his phone, but that did not mean he wasn"t at home.
The answering machine kicked in and for the next few moments he was forced to listen to Isidore's newest outgoing message. Isidore's idea of humour was to record Bible verses of the muscular kind -- painful penance and eternal damnation -- before inviting his caller to leave a message. Gabriel waited impatiently for the beep.
'Isidore, pick up. Now.'
A click. 'Gabriel, my man. Where you hanging?'
Gabriel sighed. Isidore had been to Eton and Cambridge but was hopelessly in love with black street rap and every so often he would sprinkle his conversation with a highly personalized version of American street slang. As his accent remained stubbornly upper-crust, the effect was startling to say the least.
'I"m still in the City. Guess what? Bluetooth.'
Isidore chuckled. 'You don"t say. Well, we be good boys. We due a break. See you soon?'
He closed the cell phone and found himself smiling. This job was going to be a breeze.
His iPAQ had told him Pittypats was making use of wireless technology. Very cool. Wireless technology certainly made for lovely uncluttered work environments with computers talking to each other without being connected by a rat's nest of hardwire cables. But there was one problem. Wireless electronic emissions can be picked up if you have the right equipment. And he and Isidore most certainly did have the right equipment.
He unchained his bicycle and took off the black-framed glasses, substituting them with a pair of Ray-Bans. The sting of the sun was easing slightly, but the glare was still considerable. He glanced at his watch. 4.30pm. Another twenty minutes at least before he'd get to Isidore's place.
Isidore lived close to Smithfield meat market and he liked it there, something Gabriel did not understand. The sight of bloody rib cages was too reminiscent of a horror painting a la Francis Bacon. Meat had been sold at Smithfield for eight hundred years and for close to four centuries it had also been the site where witches, heretics and traitors were burned or boiled alive as so many pieces of meat themselves. Probably another reason why Gabriel was immune to the stunning architecture of the marketplace with its ornate ironwork and imposing arches and pillars.
Isidore lived in a narrow up-and-down semi, squeezed in between two abandoned houses with boarded-up windows. Just as well he didn't have any neighbors: Isidore preferred his music loud. As Gabriel walked up the shallow steps leading to the front door he could hear music pulsing through the double-glazed windows. It was a good thing he had a key to the house: there was no way Isidore would be able to hear the doorbell over this racket. He turned the key in the lock and braced himself for the onslaught of sound.
It was even worse than he had expected. Rap was Isidore's poison, but it seemed his friend was in a nostalgic mood. Vintage Guns n' Roses was the choice du jour. 'Welcome to the jungle!' screamed Axl Rose with enviable lack of inhibition. With his hands over his ears, he mounted the steps two by two and walked rapidly through the wide-open door at the top of the flight of stairs. Without pausing, he continued over to the wall unit and pressed his thumb hard on the power button of the CD player. The sudden silence was a shock.
He turned around. In the swivel chair in front of him, blond hair falling untidily across his forehead and eyebrows raised in pained surprise was Francis James Cavendish, a.k.a Isidore. Isidore was a nom de guerre, chosen in homage of Jack Isidore, the dysfunctional hero of Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist. The fictional Isidore believed the earth to be hollow and sunlight to have weight. The real-life Isidore was able to come up with theories easily more off the wall than that.
He now threw his hands in the air in mock surrender; the long fingers calloused from hours of slamming the keyboard. 'Hey, bro. What's your problem?'
'I don"t want to go deaf, that's my problem. Shit --' Gabriel paused and looked around him. Every available surface that wasn"t taken up by computers, screens, keyboards, tech manuals, wires and other computer detritus was cluttered with empty pizza boxes, chocolate wrappers, soda cans and greasy chip packages. 'It stinks in here. You're turning into a cliché, you know that? This is the stereotypical hacker hell. Why not try for a little originality for God's sake.'
Isidore managed to look hurt. 'Like you? Driving a Jaguar and listening to Chopin. Oh, yeah. That's original. I"m waiting for the day you start smoking cigars. Besides which, five years from now you"ll still be paying off the mortgage on that fancy flat of yours and I'll be rocking in the sun sipping mai tais.'
Gabriel knew that Isidore's plan was to retire within five years to Hawaii and spend his days surfing the waves off Banzai beach. Which would be a good plan, except that he had never surfboarded in his life. And the idea that he would actually be able to break his addiction to the computer screen and leave the keyboard for the great outdoors was even more ridiculous. But Point Break was Isidore's favorite movie and the Patrick Swayze character his hero.
Gabriel sighed. Isidore was an ass but he was also a genius. No one could hack together code more robust and elegant.
'OK.' Gabriel sat down on the edge of a pumpkin colored velour chair, pushing two empty beer bottles out of the way. 'Here goes. I wasn"t able to see inside the offices themselves, but there"s no doubt Pittypats are using wireless technology. I think it could be because they"re situated in a protected building. Regulations probably prevented them from installing cables and disturbing the structure.'
Isidore nodded. 'Don"t you just love planning permissions. What about WEP?'
'Yes. It looks as though their CTO is doing his job on that front.'
Isidore grunted but as Gabriel expected, didn't look in any way concerned.
WEP was a cinch: it could be cracked by anyone with half a brain using freely available software. Isidore had more than his share of gray matter to begin with and seldom used anything but his own custom-designed software anyway.
It was amazing, Gabriel thought, how cavalier companies were when it came to computer security. High-tech companies and the biotech industry were more cautious, but in general very few companies scanned their network regularly or even ran an integrity checker to see if their system files had been altered in any way. And very often with wireless networks, WEP encryption wasn"t even enabled.
The bottom line was that the only way Pittypats could protect itself from electronic penetration, would be to install layers of steel inside their offices. And one thing was for sure: that house didn't have any steel walls. So it was only a matter of fishing within the pond of electronic emissions and hooking a password, the name of a file, or a project handle and he and Isidore would be home free.
Gabriel yawned suddenly. For the first time today he was feeling tired. He glanced at his watch. 'I have to get home. I wanted us to work out the surveillance schedule today but let"s wait until next time.'
'Heavy date tonight?' Isidore was watching him sardonically. 'Is it still ...what"s her name...Bethany?'
'Briony. And no, it"s not.'
'She dumped you, huh.'
'You could say that. I"m pretty cut up about it.'
'Oh, give me a break. You dated her only so you could get close to her friend; the blond with the cute lisp.'
Gabriel frowned. 'Not true. Well,' he amended, 'maybe at first, but that"s all changed. Briony broke my heart.'
'Heart? Man, you have no heart.'
'Sso maybe hearts are overrated.'
'Essential equipment for most of us, bro.'
'Not me. I get by on sex appeal alone.'
Isidore scowled. 'Get out of here, you smug bastard. I have to get ready for a date myself.'
'Don"t tell me.' Gabriel grinned. 'some digital babe in the kingdom of Dreadshine.' He was referring to one of Isidore"s regular haunts on the Internet: a multi-user domain of the more surreal kind. Here, in a cyberworld entirely built-up of words, Isidore regularly turned himself into a medieval knight slaying gremlins and demons with ruthless gusto. Isidore and a host of other Dreadshine residents -- all equally dazzled by the products of their own imagination -- had a grand old time amazing one another with their cleverness and virtual feats of daring. But never any face to face contact. Romance and adventure via keyboard. It was all a little sad.
Gabriel gave Isidore an abbreviated salute. 'So have fun.'
'Always.' Isidore grinned wolfis, the music started up again. Belinda Carlisle, this time. Good grief.****
Contrary to what Isidore thought, Gabriel did not have a date tonight. He was looking forward to a glass of 20 year old Scotch, some spicy stir-fry and a long soak in his cedar panelled and very expensive bathtub.
As he walked into the loft, the light was blinking on his answering machine but he ignored it. After hanging the bike on the wall, he walked across the huge room with its beautiful jarrah wood floor and pulled open the sliding door that gave access to a narrow balcony. His apartment was the biggest in this converted warehouse and the balcony ran the entire length of the loft space. It was close to Tower Bridge and the view onto the Thames never failed to make him feel deeply content.
He loved the river. He loved it in winter with the fog hanging still and white, shrouding the gold-tipped Bridge with its high walkway so that it looked like a ghost. He loved it in summer, when the river became a lazy brown snake and the smell of wet earth hovered in the air.
The loft apartment with its radiant views was not merely a pleasant place to live. It was much, much more. It represented to him everything he had hungered for as a child. The Bristol neighbourhood in which he grew up had been dreary and joyless. His father had been a long-distance haulier, while his mother added to the family income by making beds and cleaning loos in a hotel. The family wasn't poverty-stricken, but their lives had very little grace. Seared into his memory was the house in which he had spent the first seventeen years of his life: the paper thin walls, the cramped rooms and low ceilings. The television forever tuned to some or other Australian soap; the house smelling of macaroni cheese and his brothers' dirty woollen socks. His mother's pantyhose and bras dripping from the shower railing. The dreadful feeling of claustrophobia, of never having enough air to breathe.
His parents barely tolerated each other; their relationship worn thin through the repetitive strain of their daily routines. Some of his earliest memories were of the toneless bickering they kept up with mindless, dogged intensity: a despairing white noise. They were not cruel parents -- no abuse or intentional neglect -- but they did not seem to like their offspring very much and had very little interest or energy to invest in them.
By the age of twelve, he was running with a group of boys whose behaviour hovered perilously between obnoxiousness and outright hooliganism. He might have found himself in serious trouble if it hadn't been for a teacher who had managed to find him a scholarship to a school where the emphasis was on hard work and high standards. The school ironed out his accent, gave him an excellent academic grounding and he'd been offered a place at Oxford. Then, six months shy of graduation, he dropped out. His friends were aghast but he never sought to explain his reasons to anyone. He simply packed up and left for London. And became a thief.
He had no illusions about his chosen field of endeavour. He had turned an aptitude for computers into a lucrative, but criminal enterprise. Isidore, he knew, subscribed to the romanticized version of what it is to be a hacker; seeing himself as a caped crusader in cyberspace where corporations were fat-cat exploiters of the little man and fair game.
Much as Gabriel loved Isidore, he had no patience with this kind of bumper-sticker libertarianism. Theft was theft: whether in cyberspace or in the real world. Just because the medium was different, didn't mean the principle was. If you download a piece of copyrighted music from the Internet without paying, you have just walked into Tower Records and pocketed a CD on the sly. If you hack into the research data of a company and peddle it to the competition, you're affecting the research and development budget of that company, stealing from them years and years of effort and monetary commitment. And although the bigger corporations might be able to survive the loss of trade secrets, smaller companies could be devastated. So he never fooled himself. For ten years now he had been making a living -- and a very good one at that -- illegally leeching off the creative endeavors of others.
He stretched his arms wide -- he had a knot in his back from the hours of cycling -- and placed his hands on the railing of the balcony. As he stood there, suspended between sky and water, he experienced a profound sense of well-being. Dusk was his favorite time of day. He loved the feeling of the city letting go, kicking back. The glitter of lights on the other side of the river. The softer glow of the street lamps reflected in the dark water slapping gently against the muddy bank.
It was as he turned away from the water, walking back into the apartment, that he spotted it again: the flickering light on his answering machine. For a moment he debated with himself whether to leave it until the next day -- it was Friday evening after all -- but then he walked over and pushed the play button.
The voice on the tape was unfamiliar. It was a male voice; rather thin, the words uttered with measured precision. The message was innocuous: a request for a breakfast meeting the following Monday to discuss a business proposition 'that could be to our mutual benefit.' The caller did not give his last name, identifying himself merely as William and specifying that he would be sitting in the booth farthest from the entrance.
The caller's reticence at identifying himself was not unusual. Prospective clients usually acted coy, at least initially, and it was quite understandable considering the kind of services they were hoping to procure. So the message seemed perfectly normal. Nothing out of the ordinary here, certainly nothing that could have set off an alarm bell inside his mind.
But months afterward he would think back on this moment when he had stood inside his beautiful apartment, his finger still on the button of the machine, the light fading outside the window, the sound of voices and laughter drifting upward along with the smells from the kebab house on the corner. He would look back on that moment as though it were frozen in time and search for some sign that might have indicated that his life was about to change completely. On that warm summer evening, when he had felt in absolute control of his destiny, was there not something that had served as a warning? Surely he should have sensed something. Surely there must have been an omen.
He lifted his finger from the button, unconcerned, merely making a mental note to himself to rise earlier than usual on Monday in order to get to Piccadilly in time for the meeting with his new, and as yet unknown, client.
But as he walked toward the kitchen, whistling tunelessly under his breath, a cool wind suddenly lifted one of the silk hangings on the wall. And in the wine red sky a fat moon was rising slowly.
A few years ago, I read a book called River Dreams written by Dale Graff, the former director of Project STARGATE. STARGATE was a top secret program of the United States Government and Mr. Graff had been entrusted with training and using remote viewers to gather intelligence information. His viewers also searched for high-profile objects and people. Notable successes included tracking down a missing Soviet plane and assisting the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA.)
I was instantly hooked. ESP is, of course, hardly a fresh topic. Many non-fiction writers have given it their full attention. Second sight, the shining, telepathy, call it what you will, is also a staple of paranormal mysteries and horror stories.
But STARGATE was something else. Here was a project, which had received federal funding; a project that had passed the scrutiny of hard nosed military types. I liked the fact that this was an endeavour that had adhered to rigorous protocols. This was never a forum for tracking down the abominable snowman or channelling the spirit of Elvis Presley.
After reading River Dreams I continued doing research on remote viewing and my fascination grew. I was chilled to read that a group of remote viewers had foreseen 9/11 four years before it happened. They had posted scribbles on the Internet of planes flying into tall buildings and had written an open letter to the FBI warning that something like this was about to happen in the future.
And so - inspired - I decided that my hero in Season of the Witch would have at his disposal the gift of remote viewing. And what a fantastic gift to have. What could be more empowering than having the ability to surf the thought processes of others? Characters with second sight are usually portrayed in novels and films as miserable, tormented beings. I wanted to break away from the stereotype. Despite a few skeletons rattling in his closet, my hero is no tortured psychic forever at the mercy of his dark gift. He relishes the amazing talent that had been hardwired into his brain.
Of course, it would be hardly fair to give my hero such a powerful tool for his fighting arsenal, while my villain has to plod along doggedly with only the normal five senses at her disposal. A suspense novel requires deadly conflict. I therefore decided that my killer would be a remote viewer herself... and that she would have some other tricks up her sleeve as well...
We live in a point and click culture. We surf the Internet and we are surrounded by millions of bobbing bits of random information — accessible by a mere tap of the finger.
But do we remember the information we access? Or have our memories become flaccid? How do our memories compare to those of our ancestors who lived a thousand years ago?
Click on the monk in the Memory Palace...
Watch your typical teenager at work:
Chad is driving his X-box while simultaneously downloading music onto his ipod. He is also surfing the Internet for information, which he needs in order to complete his homework assignment. In the midst of all this activity, he manages to sneak in text messages to his girlfriend on his cell phone.
Impressive? Certainly. This is multi-tasking at warp speed. But what about Chad's memory? Well, compared to the memories of the citizens of Ancient Greece and Rome, Chad's memory is feeble. Your ancient Greek or Roman would sneer at his capacity for recollection.
Simplicius was able to recite Virgil backwards. Seneca the Elder, who was born in 54 BC, could hear a list of two thousand names and then repeat them in exact order. Before the printing press people had to remember everything. Students listened to their teachers and would pass on knowledge gained by word of mouth. Their memories were muscular.
In contrast, modern man is increasingly incapable of internalising knowledge. Our memories are shallow. We surf the Internet obsessively, but forget what we've read almost as soon as we've read it. Information in newspapers and TV is fed to us bite-sized for easy consumption. We receive enormous doses of information every day. But it is in one ear and out the other. We are experts at skimming. We are failures at remembering. The Internet, the TV, the photo-copier are props we rely on as our memories continue to weaken. We are becoming adept multi-taskers but our growing multi-tasking ability is a facile skill, allowing us to skim the waves of chaos, not swim through them.
We are all born with natural memory but instead of strengthening that memory throughout our lives — training it the way you would your body in a gym — we allow it to become flabby.
It is a path we walk at our peril. Without a highly robust memory, we lack the ability to get a handle on the turbulent universe we live in. Without a flexible memory, we cannot draw connections between widely differing concepts...because we are unable to even recall those concepts. A weak memory precludes those leaps of brilliance, when the brain matches one concept with another concept that lies completely outside its orbit, thereby creating that wonderful cognitive dissonance, which is at the heart of many inspired creative endeavours.
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