Charm 16/22

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Cabbage and Tea and Love

Wild magic is,” Rain glances at Caleb, “it’s like, everything.” He waves one hand at the scenery.

That’s wonderfully evocative and I am now suitably enlightened. Thank you.”

God, Irene.” He shakes his head. “It’s life, it’s what came before us.”

I said I’d tell her,” Caleb says drily. “Once we are safe. I keep my word.”

I want to laugh at that particular lie, but Rain’s stopped saying anything and his explanation wasn’t helping anyway. “So where are we going?” I start walking back to the car. ‘Cause I really don’t want to stand here with the storm just about ready to break, and three very mangled bodies at our feet. They’re already disintegrating. At least that’s one less thing to worry about. The cops might be an incompetent bunch of tits, but I still don’t want to be on the wrong side of one.

“Ponte City,” says Caleb when we reach the Beetle.

Ponte. The eyesore of the Joburg skyline. Great. I risk a glance to see how Rain’s taking it. Not well. “It’s not exactly Hillbrow,” I lie. “Closer to Doornfontein.”

“And the difference is what, exactly?” says Rain. He’s getting all snippy; learning from his charming boyfriend. “I know where it is, Irene. I’m not a complete idiot.”

“Let me see this addy then.” There’s nothing I can say to Rain that’s going to make him feel better about this, and anyway, when it comes to making people feel better, I fail at life.

Caleb hands me the paper scrap. “Would you rather we take you back home?” he asks Rain softly.

I turn away from them and check the address. The red woman’s handwriting is spiky and childish, but the address is clear. Ponte City, for sure. Zelda Sachs. Must be one of those old Jewish ladies who bought property in Hillbrow in the seventies when the place was on the up and up, and now can’t afford to leave. I crumple the paper and stuff it in my jeans’ pocket. She’s probably a million years old and feeble as a moth. Another powerless magician for Caleb to rub in my face. I draw myself up. Maybe this one won’t be powerless, and I can explain to her exactly what Caleb’s done to my friend, and how I don’t have a cooking clue what’s going on, not really, and even though Caleb is sure I’m magical, I’m actually not, and it’s starting to get, not annoying.

It’s starting to get scary. We could have died now. Because I am not Caleb’s secret weapon. Whatever he thinks. “So,” I say, looking round at the terrible twosome. “We should….” get moving.

Caleb and Rain are standing very close, Caleb’s head is bowed over Rain’s as they talk. Rain’s hands flutter up and down, they way they always do when he’s trying to convince himself to do something.

“I’ll be in the car,” I say over my shoulder. “When this little love-fest is over, feel free to join me.” It’s like I can’t stop myself. Foot-in-mouth disease; Irene’s speciality.

I don’t have to wait long before Caleb storms over and slams open the passenger door. Rain follows him and clambers into the back. He’s red-eyed, like he’s about to cry or something.

My throat goes rough and I have to swallow several times before it feels like I can talk in anything like my normal voice. Even if I’d prefer Rain to be away from Caleb, I don’t want him crying over it. Awkward. “So,” I say. “Uh, where am I going then? Back to Lily…?”

“Ponte,” Caleb answers me. He buckles the seatbelt and stares straight ahead. I crane around to get a better look at Rain. “You sure?”

He nods.

“Sure-sure?”

“Irene.” Rain shakes his head. “Just,” he flutters his hands again, “just shut-up and drive.” He sounds tired, not bitchy.

“Alrighty then.” My attempt at light-heartedness falls flat. We aren’t too far from Hillbrow here. The flying saucer of the Hillbrow tower is just visible, and I aim for that while keeping an eye open for a familiar road. Soon the area takes on a distinctly grimy feel, and I have to slow the car to a crawl because the streets are packed with pedestrians who can’t walk on the pavements because of the street vendors. The gutters overflow with rubbish and the heat and the rotting garbage that hasn’t been picked up in weeks combine to make a stench straight out of hell’s bowels. No nice air-conditioning to blast this stink away.

Unfortunately for us, the Beetle just has air vents that blow the smell straight into the car. Joy.

We don’t exactly need to keep an eye open for rats any more. They’re everywhere. Even at its worst though, Hillbrow’s rats don’t normally just sit on the garbage in broad daylight, or steal the tomatoes straight off the vendors’ plastic plates.

The rats all still as our car comes closer to them, and they watch us with their round black eyes, bright as drops of oil. They stay frozen until we’re past them, and then they go back to their garbage-digging. There’s an evil greasy feel to the hot air blasting into the car, and I shudder.

“Heinrich,” says Caleb.

“What?”

“He’s using the rats to watch for us,” Caleb explains.

“Can he do that?” I drum my fingers on the steering wheel. Damn, the rats are actually looking straight at me. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

Caleb shrugs. “It uses a lot of magic to charm so many. He’s wasting it.” He grins suddenly. “He’s scared,” Caleb says. “We’ve killed four of his Hunters now. He didn’t expect that.”

So what? Heinrich’s not the only one who’s scared. My bag is by Caleb’s feet and I lean across quickly to grab it and toss it back toward Rain. “Cigs are in there somewhere,” I say. A peace offering. And something for him to do so he’s not sitting in the back twisting his fingers in knots and freaking out about driving into Hillbrow. “Light me one too?”

There’s the click of a lighter and a few seconds later, Rain passes me a lit cig. One hand on the steering wheel, I drag in deep, letting the smoke fill my lungs. I’m calm, I tell myself. I’m calm. I wonder how much magic Caleb has left. He seemed pretty certain that as long as I was with him we could take Heinrich on, and if he’s right, and Heinrich is scared and wasting magic, that can only be a good thing. Right?

Only one small flaw in this little plan that I can really see. I still have no clue about how I’m supposed to use the magic. The golden art, or whatever Caleb calls it. We’re going to need have to have a little chat, him and I. Pretty damn soon.

This is ridiculous. I should be at home now, painting. Not out in the middle of town with the Ancient Goth, chasing down some poor old biddy who, if the reaction of Lily and the Red Magician are anything to go by, really doesn’t want to see us.

Damn Caleb for complicating my life and for stealing my best friend.

I laugh. Looking at it that way, it’s pretty dumb. Things could be worse. Some psychotic magic thief could be trying to find me and swallow my hidden power so he can let loose the magical apocalypse or whatever. Oh wait.

“Something funny?” Caleb mutters. He’s also got a cigarette, because Rain has obviously decided that I’m a closet socialist and is handing out my stuff like there’s no tomorrow.

“Nothing.” I pull out the ancient stuck ashtray and stub out my cig. My dad is going to have a hernia when he gets this car back. “Keep an eye peeled for a street called Lily. (.”) Oh, irony. We’ve moved away from the clutter of flats and little packed shops that lead off from Louis Botha, and while it’s still pretty filthy, there are trees growing here and the streets are wider, a little less cluttered.

The huge Vodacom sign rises above us.

“Thar she blows,” I say. “Ponte City, in all her glory.”

She’s huge. A cylindrical monster 50-odd stories high, with a thousand window panes bouncing the summer sun back at us.

We pull up into the parking garage with its convenient bilingual signs pointing us to the lifts. Light washes in from the open walls, doing nothing to hide the general air of decay. A group of loitering kids pauses from an impromptu soccer game and stares at us, a single multi-eyed mass. The biggest one kicks the can they’ve been using as a ball towards the car, and it skitters over the concrete.

They’re dead-eyed old men in children’s bodies. One of them is huddled against one of the blue and white pillars, sucking from an empty plastic Sterie-Stumpie bottle. Glue. Wonderful. We’ll be lucky if we come back to a car. I click the gorilla-lock on, for what it’s worth.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go pay a visit to dear Ms Sachs, before she’s torn to pieces by some semi-human monster.”

“You’re not amusing,” Caleb says.

“I wasn’t trying to be.”

#

Inside, Ponte feels like a ghost building. I’d heard rumours that they were going to renovate and they’ve been kicking out tenants like it’s nobody’s business, but it’s still creepy. Our voices echo off the walls. The whole place is painted a god-awful shade of orange and the lobby has these bizarre orange arches overhead that make the ceiling look like a train station. I can’t believe this was the height of interior design back then. Or maybe I can. The lift looks new enough though—part of the great inner-city project boom.

According to the address the red magician gave us, Zelda Sachs is apparently on floor thirty eight. We pick our way past empty apartments; the doors of some of them are ripped off, others have their locks drilled out. Above one of these destroyed locks someone has painted a sign. Dont brek the loks. Like that was going to help.

We stop outside a door still unbroken, though there are the fading marks of scribbled graffiti, scrubbed at until they are just shadows of cocks and balls, names that have no meaning. The corridor outside her flat smells like cabbage and piss, but except for those old marks, the door to Zelda Sachs’ apartment is untouched. And, unlike the others, has its locks. Actually it has three, and I’m betting she’s got another three deadbolts and chains on the other side. I would too.

Caleb presses the buzzer, and we wait.

“Yes?” The voice isn’t quavery and old like I expected. Instead, she sounds like a cantankerous hag straight from the Caleb School of Winning Personalities. I have this sudden horrible image of myself, fifty years down the line, trying to mow kids down with my zimmer-frame. Ugh.

“Zelda Sachs?”

“Who is this?” Don’t really blame her for being suspicious. If I lived here, I’d be the same. She’s probably loading a shotgun as we speak, or whatever it is old magicians do. And we know her full name, which means we have some power over her.

“Caleb Dunning.” Ah. I wonder if this is a way magicians hold their hands up in surrender. I know your name, but it’s okay, now you know mine. Or maybe, if you have no magic left, it hardly matters.

The intercom buzzes, crackling static.

“Hello?” Caleb presses the button again. “Hello?”

After a long wait, Sachs comes back on. “How did you get this address?”

“The Wolf Maiden,” Caleb replies.

Zelda Sachs mutters something in Yiddish. I’ve lived in Norwood long enough to know what it sounds like. Don’t have a clue what she’s saying. Probably cursing us all to some terrible death.

“Come in,” she says. “And don’t you let anyone see you.”

We look around the deserted passage. It’s a narrow brick-walled corridor with a major creep-factor, but most definitely empty. “Do they all go mad eventually?” I say. “Or does the magic just pick the weirdos?”

Caleb gives me a black look as we wait for Zelda to unlock her thousand and one bolts. Metal scrapes on metal, and the door is pulled open.

Zelda Sachs is a raw-boned woman with her grey hair cut in a sharp, almost military style that makes her angular features pop out. Around her is the now-familiar smudgy look of someone who’s lost their magic. Other than that, she looks pretty normal, even if she is wearing a slacks and blouse combo that she’s probably owned since 1950. “Get in,” she hisses.

The walls in her apartment are carpeted straight from the seventies and all the bad taste contained therein. She’s tacked pictures up to hide where the shaggy carpet has been stained with mildew. They’re old sepia prints of someone I soon realise is Ms Zelda Sachs, once young and beautiful in the way that strong-boned handsome women are beautiful.

Caleb Dunning,” she sniffs. “We heard of you. Didn’t think we’d ever meet.”

“I suppose not,” he says. “I had no intention of returning to Johannesburg.”

“So why did you?”

“One of the Egyptian magi heard Heinrich had come back here.”

“Ah.” Zelda nods. “For Hestia’s girl, of course.” She clicks her bony fingers at me. They’re knobby and warped with arthritis. “You’ve come into your power, then? Heinrich must have felt it.”

I shrug, fiddle with the strap of my bag. I hate hearing these people—people I’ve never met or heard of—talking about my mother like they knew her. Because they did.

And I didn’t.

Not really.

Against my chest, the tiny blue eye feels cold, steadying. I concentrate on that.

At my silence, Zelda grunts, an irritated noise. “Sit down, all of you. I’ve nothing but soup to offer.”

Cabbage soup, by the smell of it. Then again, all I’ve had so far today is that crappy garage-shop pie and coffee. I’d eat pretty much anything.

Zelda leads us into a lounge with old floral couches patterned with dog-roses. The smell of cabbage competes with Chanel No 5. I really hope this isn’t turning into a vision of my future. One whole wall is a window, but the curtains are drawn and the air is heavy and cloying. On one wall is one of those hamsa things—the hand with eye. It’s a dark blue ceramic, glazed shiny and it catches the faint light in the room. I step closer, ’cause I’ve always loved this kind of thing. There are tiny stylized fish on the fingers and I want to trace the designs, find a way to incorporate it into my own art.

Sit,” Zelda commands, and I leave off staring at her décor and obediently take a seat. The others obey her with the same alacrity, so I guess there’s something to be said for the power of age.

She makes us weak rooibos tea with no milk. As far as I’m concerned rooibos tastes like dishwater with delusions of grandeur but I sip at it anyway.

“Now,” she says, and balances her little white porcelain cup on her knees. “You think you can take on Heinrich, more fool you. So what do you want me for? There’s no help I can give you. You know that much.”

Caleb, who hasn’t touched his tea, leans back and eyes her warily. “You were once one of the most powerful magi in the Southern Hemisphere, you were at the height of your power when Heinrich came back the last time,” he says. “So how did Heinrich trick your magic away?”

There’s an awkward silence. Tact is not exactly Caleb’s strong point.

“He was a very handsome man,” she says, eventually.

I groan and put down my tea. “You gave him your magic because you thought he was hot? Are you people for real?”

Caleb kicks my shin under the little coffee table. “So you knew him well?” he continues, as if I hadn’t just opened my fat mouth and shoved my foot in it. Again.

“Well enough.” Her eyes narrow.

“I just need to know if you’ll help us find him.” Caleb says. “I had heard the rumours about you and Heinrich, of course, but I’d never believed them.” He shakes his head. “Such weakness.”

“People do stupid things for love, and I won’t deny I was a fool.” I know she’s talking to Caleb, but somehow it feels like the words are meant for me too. “We are not all of us immune to the twist of a knife in the heart. Least of all you.”

I catch the quick look Caleb gives Rain before he scowls.

“I need a cig.” I stand and grab my bag. “Is there somewhere here I can smoke?” It’s not like she has a balcony.

“Outside,” Zelda says, and waves me away with her bony hands.

“Rain?” I incline my head. “You want to come join me?” I need to talk to him, find out what exactly is going on between him and Caleb so I can make my plans and work out exactly how to approach Zelda for help. A smoke break is as good an opportunity as any. Rain never turns down freebies.

“I’m just going to chill here,” he says, raising his tea cup for emphasis. Except Rain hates rooibos even more than I do.

“Fine,” I say. “Whatever.”

 

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cat_hellisen

I write.