When a well-dressed man knocked on my door, I assumed it was our landlord. I wasn’t sure why he was knocking on our door… We’d paid our rent this month. Nothing was broken. Alistair, my younger brother, hadn’t even been making as much noise lately so it couldn’t be because of neighbour’s complaints…
Well it could absolutely be because of that.
That said, the knocking wasn’t our landlord’s usual harsh and rapid thumps. This was quieter and almost polite.
Mum was asleep and Alistair was six, so it fell to me to open the door and face whoever it was at the door.
And thus I unlocked, unbolted and opened the door, hoping against hope that this wouldn’t become yet another in a long series of confrontations.
As I’d suspected, the person knocking on the door was not our landlord. In fact, I had never seen them in my life. As I’d previously mentioned, they were well-dressed, or at least better dressed than I could hope to be. He was also taller than me, which was generally an even easier feat for one to achieve.
“Miss Verity Pour?” the man asked. He knew who I was, that couldn’t be a good sign. That meant he was with the police or the council.
“Yes.” I replied truthfully. Perhaps not a smart move. “Can I help you?”
“May I come in?” He asked.
“I’d rather you didn’t.” Such a sentence projected far more confidence than I felt, or at least I hoped that was the case because I felt like curling up into a ball. Still, I wasn’t about to let this tall, well dressed stranger into our tiny, and currently very messy, kitchen.
The problem was more with him being a stranger than any of the other things I mentioned.
“I would very much like to talk, Miss Pour.” There was something off about the way the stranger was speaking, as if he wasn’t used to having to do it. Or more realistically like he didn’t enjoy having to be so polite. “I have an offer for you that I believe you will want to hear.”
I didn’t. I didn’t want anything this man had to offer.
“I’m sorry but we’re not interested in anything.” I said with equal, if not greater, politeness and went to close the door.
“You misunderstand me.” The stranger smirked slightly.
I closed the door.
“Who was that?” Alistair, who had successfully donned his school uniform, stood at the kitchen door. He looked worried. Alistair looked worried far too often for a six year old.
“No one.” I said. “He’s gone now.”
The knocking immediately restarted, exposing Alistair to the cruel reality that his elder sister was a liar.
We both already knew a thing or two about cruel realities.
“Miss Pour it is vital that I speak to you!” The, presumably still, well-dressed man shouted.
“I’m not interested in anything you have to sell!” I shouted back. It was about half past seven in the morning and someone was already at our door shouting at me.
“I know you have powers!”
Why did he know that? How did he know that? Alistair hadn’t moved from his spot at the kitchen door and was watching my face turn pale. The well-dressed man seemed to take my silence as permission to continue talking.
“My name is Isambard Poster and I am an acolyte of the Church of Mammon.” he continued, “I know what your powers are, and I… well I can at least partially explain them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I lied. Badly.
“Miss Pour if my suspicions about you are correct then you will never have to worry about money again.”
I hated the sensation of my heart leaping at the sound of those words. I stood in the hallway, not meeting Alistair’s gaze.
After a few moments more silence, I opened the front door again.
“I’m not letting you in.” I said.
The stranger, Isambard, nodded.
“Then I’ll explain what I can out here.” He smirked again and did nothing to conceal his amusement at my continued distrust. That tone of voice seemed to suit him better than any amount of politeness. “I should start with what I know about you, or more accurately your powers.”
“Start with why you know my name.” I demanded.
“Most information can be obtained if you know where to look… and where to invest.” He explained.
Did he just admit to bribing someone?
“Now for your powers. You’ve been controlling heat haven’t you?”
Right on the money.
One day, when I was very young, I discovered that I possessed a strange power. I didn’t realise it immediately but over time I began to notice that I didn’t feel the cold as much as others. It wasn’t that I was especially hardy, it was just that when I performed a certain action I was filled with warmth and could barely feel the cold. After many years of practice in secret I found that I wasn’t the only thing I could heat up.
The utilities of this power were mostly unimpressive. I could heat up wet clothes to dry them faster, or even heat rooms, which I did one winter when heating was proving beyond our budget. I could even boil water if I tried hard.
I rarely tried something as big as that though, the costs were…
“I thought so. You’ve been using Divitaetion.” Either my silence or my expression had told Isambard what he needed.
“Divination?” I queried his odd mispronunciation but Isambard shook his head.
“Divitaetion.” Isambard repeated. “Similar word, equally supernatural, completely different etymology.” He reached into his pocket and took out a silver disc. It took me a moment longer than it should have to realise it was a coin, though not one used in Britain. “Where did you learn to do it?” Isambard asked.
“Learn?” I blurted without thinking. Isambard raised an eyebrow.
“Someone must have taught you.” he asserted. “Someone must have taught you to perform Divitaetion at that level.” I froze for a moment, then decided against lying. Trying to deceive Isambard regarding something he clearly knew more about seemed like an inadvisable idea.
“No one taught me… I just found that I could one day.” The phrase found that I could one day could be charitably described as euphemistic.
Isambard scrutinised me for a few moments.
“If you’re lying… then you’re good at it.” he conceded.
“How do you know about my power?” I asked, hoping to move the conversation on.
“Ah well I’m currently doing an investigation on behalf of another member of the Church of Mammon.”
“The Church of Mammon?” I repeated it as a question.
“My… employer.” Isambard smirked again. He certainly loved to do that. “Our leader won’t want to miss out on his chance to give you the full sales pitch, but let’s just say for now that we are the keepers and practitioners of the art of Divitaetion.” That word again. The name he’d given my powers. “We’ve been having some issues lately and I, and some of my peers, have been sent out to find its source.”
“Did you?” I asked on autopilot. Isambard grimaced.
“One of us did. Not me.” His grimace disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. “But when I was monitoring the city I noticed a powerful surge of Divitaetion from this area. I continued monitoring for a few days and was able to narrow it down to you.” Isambard paused as if he was considering a question. “How much money were you spending? I wouldn’t have thought your family had much to spare.”
“Money?” I asked once more on autopilot before I could stop myself. Isambard’s eyebrows raised up again. His expression was constantly shifting. Was it all for show or did he have a truly terrible poker face?
“Miss Pour… Do you mean to suggest that you have been producing heat without spending money?” That was indeed what I had just inadvertently suggested, because that was indeed the case. The fact that Isambard had taken a coin out of his pocket, which he was not fiddling with in one hand, made a little more sense.
Admittedly not much sense though.
“Is that what you have to do?” I asked.
Rather than responding, Isambard dropped his coin. It fell to floor and he stamped on it before it could bounce. He quickly lifted his foot off it.
“Stay back.” He warned.
Before I could blurt out another single word question the coin leapt up from the ground to above both our heads. Even in my limited experience of money, this wasn’t something it tended to do. Isambard caught the coin on its way down. Moments later the coin turned to dust.
“Divitaetion is magic cast from money.” Isambard explained as he brushed the remains of the coin from his hand. “It requires payment. You can’t cast a thing without money.”
I thought for just a moment before making a huge gamble.
“I haven’t used any money.”
“Show me.” Isambard demanded. His expression was intense.
“I can only make heat…” I stammered a little.
“Then heat up my hand.” Isambard held his hand out. I hesitated then, against my better judgement, took hold of it.
It had taken me a while to get to grips with generating heat on command, but I’d had many years to work on my craft. There’s no way for me to describe the process in a way that makes sense. It was an intuitive action, like moving a limb or breathing. Whatever it was that I did, I did while holding Isambard’s hand.
Isambard’s eyes widened as he felt my hand heat up.
“Miss Pour… I most certainly have an offer for you.” He half whispered.
Isambard was now sitting in our kitchen. My mum had already been woken up by a very worried Alistair and possibly by my shouting. The two of them were also sitting in the kitchen.
Isambard looked excited. Alistair looked worried. My mum also looked worried. Worried and tired.
Isambard was talking, his voice laden with even more politeness than it had been when he’d first knocked on our door.
“Your daughter will be well looked after and provided for,” he was saying, “and she and you will be well compensated.” I saw my mum stiffen.
Isambard was trying to convince her, and convince me, that I wanted to go with him to this Church of Mammon he worked for, and train in the art of Divitaetion. If it wasn’t for my own powers, and the power Isambard had demonstrated, I would have thought it was a scam. I still wasn’t sure if I believed it wasn’t a scam.
“You expect me to believe that Verity will be safe at this cult of yours?” my mother spoke acidly.
“Not a cult, Ms Pour.” Isambard shook his head. “We are technically a religious organisation, but many of our members do not ascribe to any particular belief system. As long as they work towards our goal, they can believe what they like.”
“And what is that goal?” My mum looked tired, but her voice was strong.
“To ensure that power belongs to those who deserve it.” Isambard gave a broad smile that I didn’t believe for a second.
There was a long silence. I could tell that my mum also wasn’t convinced.
It seemed that Isambard had a trump card up his sleeve.
“Would it help if I gave you some idea of the average stipend of an acolyte of the Church of Mammon?” he asked.
Turns out it would.
A taxi carried the two of us towards the airport. I’d never flown before, I didn’t even have a passport. Isambard had phoned ahead to someone who could apparently sort that out for us by the time we arrived. In the taxi’s trunk was a small suitcase with my meagre possessions.
I watched the scenery pass by as we drove, not speaking to Isambard. Warrington, my home for eighteen years, flew by. Soon I’d be on a flight to Los Angeles of all places. I’d always wanted to go when I was young but this wasn’t really how I’d expected it to happen.
Before we’d left my mum had hugged me tight.
“You don’t have to do this.” she’d whispered.
But I did. The amount Isambard had quoted was far more than either of us could hope to earn here. Alistair didn’t say anything. He just held on to me in silence until it was time to go.
“Divitaetion without money…” Isambard murmured. “Yes… Mr Guyard will be thrilled to meet you.”
I didn’t ask who Mr Guyard was. I was too busy feeling slightly ill.
I had taken an almighty gamble based on nothing but a sense that it would make me even more desirable to whatever this Church of Mammon turned out to be.
Isambard had said many things this morning, but he was absolutely right on at least one account.
I was good at lying.