The Michigan mafia are backed by ancient black magic, and Alessia regrets having to fulfil her obligation; by David W. Landrum.
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Alessia Bernini dreaded the visit of Lucia Sandro. Her coven of strega – witches – owed the Sandro family obligation. If Lucia had been wise or even a little mature, her strega friend would not have been so apprehensive about granting her bequest. But Lucia was vain, foolish, headstrong, conceited – Alessia could have extended the list of vices. Nevertheless, when she came, Alessia was obligated to use her considerable magical powers to provide anything Lucia might ask. Really, she thought, anything she demands.
The obligation lay on her order – on the line of strega in whose succession she stood, that went back to 1116. Its millennia-long acquisition of power had established it as one of the most respected, feared, and venerated covens in the world. In every generation, one representative from the Sandro family had the right to present a demand, and the current streg was compelled to grant it: for money, fame, the woman or man of his or her dreams, power, beauty. Some, she reflected, desired revenge.
Alessia remembered. She was eleven. She had come from school that afternoon to assist her teacher, Paulina, in what she had said was an “important but odious task.” Alessia had not known what “odious” meant and had looked up in the dictionary. It meant “unpleasant.”
She recalled being dressed in her school uniform – white blouse, plaid skirt, white knee socks, black patent leather shoes, and opening the door when the knock came. Alessia recognized the man at the door as Benito Sandro. He and his wife had been guests at her family’s house more than once. Alessia’s mother said he was in organized crime. Alessia disliked his daughter, Lucia, who liked to boss her around.
“Please come in, Mr. Sandro,” she said. “Paulina will see you in a moment.”
He smiled. “Thank you, Alessia. You’re looking very pretty.”
“Thank you, sir. If you’ll sit down, I’ll go and see if she is ready to receive you.”
“I’ll stand,” he replied. Paulina did not allow Alessia to hear their discussion, but she knew now it involved a vendetta against another Mafia don who had killed a friend of Sandro. Paulina gave him information on where to find the man, and Benito Sandro killed him, took over his interests, and expanded his power and position in the local mob. Paulina had suffered considerable guilt over her role in the matter – but, of course, she had had no choice, just as Alessia would have no choice but to grant whatever Benito’s daughter, Lucia, might ask of her.
They had both attended Saint Juliana Falconiere Academy, but at grade seven the girls opted to leave parochial school and enroll in a public high. They ran track together and were friends… sort of.
Sort of, Alessia thought. While her family never had a lot of money and got by as best they could, Lucia flaunted the latest fashions, always had cash to spend and, her junior and senior year, drove an Alpha Romeo to school. She hung out with Alessia because they knew each other from grade school and were both Italian – and (or at least Alessia fancied this) because Lucia thought she – Alessia – was pretty.
Lucia always dressed well, but her face looked plain and she fought hard to get guys to notice her – a problem Alessia never had. Lucia stayed near her, hoping to profit from the overflow of boys who pursued Alessia.
You will have friends you don’t like, her father once told her. Paradoxical as this seemed, she had found it to be true of Lucia. Her shallow, mindless vanity and self-centered way of going about life repelled Alessia; but she had spent enough time with Lucia to see glimpses of a better person there. Still, the girl had always annoyed her in their school days.
She heard a car pull up and stepped to the window. She saw Lucia got out of a black Jaguar. She had brought two bodyguards along. One stayed outside near the door, one accompanied her to the house.
Alessia let Lucia in. They kissed. Lucia wore a red minidress – DYNY – and boots. Her hair and nails looked nice, but Alessia noted the same plain-Jane features that no matter how Lucia did her make-up and eye shadow always dominated her appearance. She did not have the right kind of legs to be wearing such a short dress.
“Alessia, sweet one,” she said, “it’s so good to see you. I wondered if you still lived here.”
Alessia lived in a small frame house near Fulton Street, not far from the Farmer’s Market.
“I think about moving, but it’s cozy here and it’s all I need for now.”
“You still date Vince?”
Lucia gestured. “This is Greg. Do you want him to wait outside?”
“He can wait here. He can’t come in when we consult. Can I get you some wine?”
“That would be wonderful.”
She sat down. Kathy poured two glasses of an expensive vintage she had bought at the Crushed Grape just for the occasion. She and Lucia sipped the wine and made small talk. They did not talk about Alessia’s role as a streg or about the magical help she recently given to Don Corsi, Benito Sandro’s capo. They talked about sports, school, and boyfriends. Talk like this wearied Alessia, but custom made her endure it. After perhaps an hour, Lucia said they should talk in private.
They went behind a curtain to where Kathy kept her orb (she hated calling it a “crystal ball”). She and Lucia sat.
“I am at your service,” Alessia said. “Ask for whatever you want.”
“Are there restrictions?”
“If it violates the rules of our succession of strega, I must refuse it.”
“You won’t kill anyone. Daddy told me that.”
Alessia did not reply.
“I know you did some work for Mr. Corsi.”
“I’m not allowed to talk about that, Lucy.”
“I just brought it up because you don’t seem thrilled about doing magic for me.”
Alessia saw she had let her feelings show.
“I just -”
“Just what? Tell me. We’re friends. Are you afraid I’m too immature to handle it? That I’ll do something bad or stupid?”
Alessia looked at her friend. Lucia could still read her heart.
“I’m sorry. And I didn’t just think that. Lucia, magic is something -” she stopped a moment and then went on – “very dangerous. Real magic is not like Cinderella. It’s more like Pet Sematary.” Another pause and she continued. “If I’m afraid to do magic for you it’s because you are my friend and I love you. There are dangers I can’t describe. It’s a terrible realm you will enter. It can be destructive. I care about you too much to let you go in unadvised.”
Alessia had spoken truthfully. They knew each other too well for her to get away with a lie.
“I know you think I’m flighty -”
“I don’t think that.”
“You think that because it’s true. Maybe I should say you know that because you know me. I’ve thought about this a long time, Ali. I want to make my request.”
Alessia nodded. Once, probably in anticipation of just this moment, the Power had taken her back to 1192, to the occasion that had given the Sandro family the right to demand a bequest from any strega out of the succession in which Alessia stood.
She had never forgotten the horror of that trip back in time. She found herself in a wood outside Padua. She had to climb a tree to escape a herd of feral pigs that would have torn her to bits if they had caught her. When they finally moved on, she got down, found her way out of the dark wood, and stumbled upon a rutted road. It led to the town where the Sandro family lived.
Offal of horses, donkeys, cows and sheep lay all over the road. The stench attracted clouds of flies, so many that their buzzing sounded loudly in her ears. Beggars with leprosy chanted blindly by the side of the thoroughfare. Every fifth person wore clerical garb. Monks, nuns, priests, friars, were everywhere.
People stared at her. She realized that her appearance – a clean, healthy woman, taller than most of the men, walking with vigor, without blemish – made her look like an angel to those who passed her by. And she was unescorted.
She heard a hubbub. People cleared the road. An entourage of mounted knights rode by. Alessia hid, not wanting them to see her, afraid they would take a fancy to her or think her a succubus. The hooves of their horses thundered and their armor clanked as they made their way to wherever they were going. After an hour’s walk in hot sun, she neared the city. By now several people were following her. She thought again of her appearance. Coming through the city gates, she saw a church, hurried inside it, knelt, crossed herself, and began to pray. The small crowd that had pursued her seemed satisfied with this and left her alone.
She finished praying, stood, genuflected, and turned to go when a commotion rocked the place. The tall wooden doors burst open. A group of motley people pushed a woman – a girl, she thought – she looked only eighteen or nineteen years old – into the church with such force she bounced against a pew, hit the floor, and rolled three times. She fell against Alessia’s legs, almost knocking her down. Alessia looked down and met the woman’s eyes. She realized who it was and reached down to help her up.
“Don’t touch her,” one of the men shouted. “She is a witch.”
By now the young woman had stood to her feet. Alessia saw she had been beaten. Eyes blackened, lips bleeding, blood running from a corner of her mouth, she glanced about desperately. Alessia reached over and pulled her close. The crowd of men and women surrounded them. At that moment, a tall, pretty, well-dressed woman walked up. Obviously wealthier and of higher social rank than anyone in the crowd, she spoke.
“Everyone be still,” she said.
When she spoke, the ones holding the girl seemed more subdued. She obviously had some sort of authority over them.
“Let the girl speak,” she said. “You accuse her of being a witch?”
“Aye,” one of the men in the crowd answered, his voice surly.
“I’ve never seen this girl before, but if she is a witch, how can she stand in the house of God? Witches make their pact with the Devil. If a witch enters God’s house, she becomes ill. If she remains within, she sickens and dies.”
“We caught her practicing sorcery. She was gazing into a crystal ball.”
The tall woman did not reply to this. She looked at the accused woman.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Isabella, do you know your Pater Noster? Can you say it for us?”
She licked the blood from her lip, knelt, crossed herself, and repeated quietly but clearly:
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum; adveniat Regnum Tuum; fiat voluntas Tua, sicut in caelo, et in terra. Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie; et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; et ne nos inducas in tentationem; sed libera nos a Malo.”
Though she had spoken the prayer in an even, calm tone, Alessia could tell she was terrified. The people around her listened carefully, hoping she would make a mistake. When she finished, they were silent. She had gotten the prayer exactly right.
“You see,” the woman said, “she is not a witch. No witch can say the prayer Our Lord taught us. Perhaps a foolish and pernicious curiosity seized her to look in a crystal. I am Fiorenza Sandro.” When she said this, the people looked truly fearful. “I know the Mother Superior of the convent here in town and will take this young woman to her for counseling. I commend you, people of Padua. Your diligence has preserved this child from a pursuit that would have endangered her immortal soul.”
Her tone indicated the audience had ended. The people nodded respectfully. Some of the women made slight curtsies to her as they exited the church. The men bowed their heads.
Alessia wanted to speak to the woman, whom she had recognized as Isabella Malivaro, third in the succession of strega in the order, but at that moment the Power returned her to her own time. She learned from reading the history of the order that Fiorenza Sandro (Lucia resembled her just slightly) had whisked Isabella to Verona, where she continued her practice and perpetuated the succession of which Alessia was a part. As was required when someone saved a streg from death, Fiorenza’s direct descendants could ask for one thing from a woman in the succession of practitioners to whose aid they had come.
Alessia’s mind returned to the present moment.
“Remember we can do no harm; and we cannot alter the past in any way.” Having said this, Alessia got up from her chair and knelt. Lucia’s eyes got big.
“Don’t kneel! For God’s sake!”
“It’s required,” Alessia said. “I have to be on my knees when you make your request. We have rules. Ask. What you ask will be granted.”
“I want the Ruby of Novara.”
Alessia looked up at her. After a long silence, Lucia spoke again.
“You heard me, didn’t you, Alessia?”
“I heard you.”
“You don’t have anything to say in response?”
“I was not expecting such a request.”
“You probably thought I was going to ask you to make me pretty.”
“Lucia, I -”
“You’re alarmed.” She smiled.
“Yes, I am alarmed. This is a fearful thing you’re asking.”
“You have to grant my request, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
‘Then let’s get on with it. I don’t have all day. I want it this instant.”
“We will have to go get it. I can’t bring it here.”
“The power it contains is too great to take it through time as a simple object. It must be worn on a human hand, and the one transporting it – that would be me – must be present while it is being transported.”
But we can go get it right now?”
“Then let’s go. I want it right this moment.”
Alessia looked at her. Lucia’s eyes showed the determination in her soul. No point in arguing or pleading. She nodded.
“Very well. Come, touch the orb.”
They put their fingers on Alessia’s crystal. It flashed and they found themselves standing in front of building with a wall around it and an iron gate. Both of them were dressed in garments appropriate to the era. A cross was worked into the masonry of the pillars on each side of the building’s gate. A plaque fastened to the iron gate read CONVENTO DI SANT’AGNESE LA PURA.
“Yes,” Lucia said, her eyes flashing with wonder. “This is where mother told me the ruby ring was kept. The Convent of Saint Agnes the Pure. This is it. Thank you, Alessia.”
They took a moment to marvel at the medieval-style garments they had been magically given and then rang the bell by the gate. An elderly nun received them. She invited them to sit down, gave them wine, cheese, and bread, and, after a suitable time had passed, asked their business.
“We have come to ask that you give us the ruby ring Loretta Bertrami stored here,” Alessia told her.
She started, her eyes wide with unbelief, and then remembered the decorum her office as a nun required of her.
“This is a strange request you bring to me.”
“As a ranking officer in the convent, you should know the requirement that the ring must be surrendered to whoever asks for it,” Lucia said.
“I’ve asked for it.”
The woman paused. After a moment, she sighed.
“I will inform the Prioress as well. Come with me.”
She led them into a courtyard. Weeds grew through the paving stones. The place looked deserted but for one white-habited nun sweeping in the cloister walk. The novice mistress went over and spoke to her. She nodded and walked off, carrying her broom. Alessia and Lucia followed the older nun through a dark, arch-shaped door. Inside, she lit an oil-lamp.
It illumined a cavernous room. Alessia guessed it might have been the dining hall or a storage room from the days of faith when the convent had prospered. Their steps echoed now in an empty space. Holding the lamp, the nun led them deeper into the cold, stone chamber. Alessia noticed the vaulted ceilings and the ancient brickwork. At last, they came to a wooden chest that took up an entire wall. Cubbyholes filled with yellowing scrolls of parchment made up half of it; the reminder consisted of small drawers with brass handles like the old card catalogues in libraries before libraries went digital.
“I have sent a sister to fetch the prioress,” the novice mistress said. “We will wait here for her. She will give you the ruby.”
While they waited, the two of them looked about. By the dim light of the lamp, they could see old trestle tables piled up in a corner. It had been a dining hall. After a moment, they heard a noise. A woman, elderly but quick in her movements, her eyes bright and sharp, came through the doorway. The novice mistress bowed to her. The woman – they assumed she was the Prioress – gazed at Alessia and Lucia.
“You have requested that we give you the ring?”
“We have,” Alessia replied.
“You have to give it to us,” Lucia broke in. “There are no requirements on possessing the ring. The agreement made by the nuns on the day it was delivered here stated that whoever asked for the ring would get it.”
“That is so. But the ring is filled with evil. The cruelty and rapaciousness of John Hawkwood is embedded in it, as is the hate and ruthlessness of the families that decimated this country for so many years. It will transfer those things to whoever wears it.”
Alessia knew that John Hawkwood was an English mercenary who had lived in the Middle Ages. His cruelty and rapaciousness were legendary.
“Our convent, as you can see, is deserted now,” the Prioress said. “The ring has a way of turning good into evil. The evil in it has blighted our fellowship. No novices come here. Soon the site will be deserted. The ruby has such power to destroy. I don’t see why you would want to possess it.”
“I really don’t have to give you a reason for wanting it, do I?”
“You do not. Yet duty and a concern for peace compel me to inform you of what wearing the ring that carries the ruby will bring about. All the violence of John Hawkwood, who owned the ring – his years of war and pillage, his massacre of the people of Cesena – are contained within it. If you put it on, the evil it imprisons will invade your soul.”
“Why are you lecturing me? I know all of this. I’m not a child you can scare with stories. I also know if you refuse to give the ring to the one who asks for it, more evil will result. I don’t think you want that.”
The Prioress regarded her a moment.
“Of course. I will get the ring for you.”
She walked over to the wooden cabinet, opened a drawer, a took out an object wrapped in cloth. She gave it to Lucia.
“Thank you, Lady Prioress,” Lucia said as she took it.
The woman nodded. “May God bless you,” she said, her voice grim.
Lucia slipped the ring on her finger.
They crossed the grassy courtyard and exited the convent. Just after they stepped through the gates, they saw cars and traffic lights. They were on the corner of Ottawa and Monroe Center in their home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both were in their modern clothing once more.
“Let’s have a latte,” Alessia said, her voice smug, her face flushed with pride. They crossed the street and found a table in Mad Cap, a coffee bar they both liked. Lucia looked down at the ring. Gold, with the large ruby, it sparkled in the light that came through the plate glass windows of the place. She smiled up at Alessia.
“Okay, I’m wearing the ring. Have I turned green like the Wicked Witch of the West? Do I have horns and fangs? A tail?”
Alessia glanced down. “Just the tail you’ve always had.”
They laughed. They ordered and found a table. The two of them chatted until the barista called out their order. Lucia went over to get it. Alessia registered surprise as she watched her friend. She seemed taller. Her legs looked longer – in fact, she filled out her short, tight dress very well now. (Despite what she had jokingly said, it was not the tail Lucia had always had.) She had not undergone morphological transformation exactly, but Alessia saw a change in her friend’s posture and stance. When she came back, her face – still the same features, not changed – looked prettier, her eyes brighter, her look sassy and sly. But Alessia also saw a new cruelty and calculation in her friend’s face.
“I feel great,” Lucia said. She looked at ring. “And don’t tell me this will be a Lord of the Rings scenario – that I’m going to become a monster due to its influence.”
“Why did you ask to get the ring?”
Her face went hard. “I asked for it because I’m tired of our family’s status in the organization. I’m tired of Daddy having to be the errand boy for Mr. Corsi. Corsi gets payments from Grand Rapids and Lansing. What do we get? We get the vast, lucrative income from operations in those huge, wealthy cities of Muskegon and Grand Haven. Our family deserves better. We could be rich and we could cover a lot more territory than what Corsi gives us. If I have anything to say about it -” she held up her hand and pointed to the ring “- and if this really does have power in it – we’ll start to get what we deserve for a change and not the leftovers from two little podunk towns on the shore of Lake Michigan.”
They drank their coffee. Lucia, she knew, would get more than she had bargained for. The things imprisoned in the ring would overpower her. She would always want more territory and a bigger share of the organization’s monies. She would have the cunning, determination, and skill to get them. Yet her climb to the top would mean destruction, dozens killed, disorder in the community, and it would make Lucia into someone different – someone Alessia would not know. She had circled her finger with death. Her family might rise to the top of the heap in the organization, but in the process Lucia would transform herself into someone as cruel, rapacious, and implacable as the purveyors of misery in northern Italy in the 1390s. The ring would transform her into a wraith, a ghoul, a Lorelai.
Lucia smiled at her. Her eyes blazed with energy. She did not know it was evil energy. The power coursing through her had made her beautiful, but it would also soak into her soul like slow-acting poison. Alessia had had no choice but to grant the request. She sipped her coffee. It was cold. She used her magic to warm it up. Lucia took her hand.
“Thank you, Alessia. I think this is the beginning of something completely new for me.”
Alessia felt empty. For all her power – power that had accrued for a thousand years – she could not save her friend from destruction. She looked out the windows, sadly watching the traffic passing on the streets.