"The Tlogwe?" I asked.
"The Tlogwe," Tara repeated. "The gift of special powers. The ultimate treasure the spirits grant to those brave enough to enter their realm."
Jean spent the night with me. And Tara. Me anyway. We awoke in the morning to find Tara in her parrot form perched asleep on her stand. Jean had to open the coffee shop and I needed to visit an old friend, my former office mate from my teaching days at the U Dub, Dr. Michael Bulgakov.
There probably is no more class stratified system in America today than university education. Regents, deans, coaches and department heads rule over a medieval fiefdom that the Borgias would be proud of. Tenured professors comprise the knighthood and baronial caste. Adjunct professors find themselves little better than the dregs of the medieval class structure. Janitors are considered more useful by the ruling elite and treated better.
The location of a professor's office gave the best visual evidence of where they fit on the medieval totem pole. Tenured faculty enjoyed offices in sparkling new glass office towers built with the avalanche of tech money flooding the campus. Non-tenured or adjunct faculty, well. . . Michael's office, my old office, lay in the catacombs of the university's cathedral to knowledge and reason, the gorgeously collegiate gothic stone Suzzallo Library, built in the 1920s, back when books and education were still an object of veneration and worship. Specifically Michael's office resided in the sub-basement. This had one advantage. From my time in these catacombs I recalled that I never had to worry about interruptions. My students could never find me.
After parking in the visitors' parking garage, with Tara perched on my shoulder, I walked across Red Square, named not for any socialist tendencies on campus but for the red brick it was paved with, and around to the back of the library to a little known and little used doorway. Thankfully, Tara drew remarkably little notice or attention as most students and staff we passed were walking bent over their mobile devices. It never ceased to amaze me there were not more accidents caused by such inattentive walking over the uneven brick surface.
I opened the unlocked door and hustled down two dark and dingy flights of stairs. A well lit and welcoming open door at the end of the drab concrete hallway indicated the professor was home. From force of habit I entered without knocking.
To stretch his stingy adjunct professor pay Michael had set up housekeeping in his office. Not kosher, but stealthy enough in these dark catacombs not to get picked up on the university's radar. I knew he kept a cot in the closet and used the university gym for showers. Michael sat at his desk with his back to the door, his black office cat Margarita snoozing on a mat at his feet.
Margarita got a glimpse of Tara on my shoulder, let out a howl that could wake the dead, and jumped on Michael's lap, knocking Michael over backwards in his chair. I managed to catch the chair before he fell over on the floor. The cat jumped onto the table and arched its back, its short black fur standing on end. Tara fluffed her feathers and dug her paws into my shoulder.
"Well, fuck all!" Michael exclaimed, jumping up and shaking cat hair off his pants. "What is this? I didn't know you got a bird." Michael brushed himself off. Medium height. Slightly chunky in all the wrong places. Could stand to spend some time in the gym working out. Short cropped brown hair thinning badly and turning white on the ends. Clark Gable mustache. Standard adjunct professor outfit. Khaki pants, polo shirt, and sweater vest.
"Mike. Meet Tara," I said. "Glad to see that Margarita is still doing well after all these years." Margarita's fur was solid black with a tinge of red, except for a white spot just above her eyes, almost like a third eye.
"Hello Tara," Michael said.
"Hello," said Tara.
"It speaks," said Michael.
"More than you know." Tara and Margarita seemed to be trying to stare each other down.
"So what brings you to the catacombs. It's been what, a year since you've come down here? You don't call. You don't write."
"Been busy roasting coffee."
"So now you're into parrots? Must be nice to win the lottery." Michael had never quite forgiven me for abandoning academia. Or knowing when to give up.
"Still no new office mate?"
"One was assigned to me, but she took one look at the place and never came back. Don't think she ever formally relinquished her claim, because no one else has been assigned down here. What brings you back, besides showing me the bird?"
"I need your help, Mike," I said. "Specifically I'm picking up some research on Northwest Coast ethnography." A bit of a lie, but I ran with it. "You know anything about something called a turndun? In the Burke collection?"
"As a matter of fact, yes I do. The Burke asked me to evaluate it for its cultural significance. Why? How do you know about it? It's really top secret. Hasn't been publicized at all."
"So what is it exactly?"
"It's a turndun. Also called a bullroarer. An ancient musical instrument with great religious significance that allowed people to communicate over vast distances."
"How does it work?"
"It's a serrated wood slat, about two feet long, attached to a long cord. You spin it around your head either horizontally or vertically and the sound it creates from its vibration can travel for miles. Long or short pulses depending on its rotation, level or vertical, can create something of an ancient Morse Code."
"I need to see it."
"Not likely. Like I said it's top secret. Seriously. The feds have stepped in and sealed access to it. Me and the museum director are about the only people allowed to handle it."
"Why would the feds care about an old Northwest Coast artifact?"
"Well, they don't say, but there's something really odd about it."
"Its antiquity for one thing. This particular turndun was excavated in the 1890s by the great Franz Boas on English Bay where Stanley Park sits today." Boas was a legendary pioneering archaeologist and grave robber. The Indiana Jones of the Nineteenth Century.
Michael continued, "Most turnduns in collections in this country are no more than a few hundred years old. Wood artifacts just don't hold up well buried in dirt over extended periods of time. The oldest turndun ever found was in the Ukraine by a Soviet archaeologist. He dated it to be about 17,000 years old, which is highly suspect. The Burke turndun. . . well, we got the radiocarbon dates back. It was twice as old."
"That's not possible," I retorted. "The Bering Land Bridge was not open that long ago."
"Precisely. The Burke has me trying to figure out how the dates got so screwed up."
"They're not," Tara said. I had almost forgotten her on my shoulder. Michael's jaw dropped to his knees.
"I guess this is where I explain there's more to Tara than meets the eye," I said.
Before Michael could reply, Tara spoke again, "Or maybe your friend can explain why Black Tara is living with him in this dungeon."
"Black Tara?" both Michael and I exclaimed simultaneously.
Michael's black cat jumped up on his desk and stood straight up on her hind legs. "It is my pleasure to serve you, Lord Tara," the cat called Margarita said to the parrot called Tara. Michael and I stood dumbfounded. A talking parrot already stretched my credulousness to its breaking point. A talking cat seemed utterly beyond comprehension.
"I'm going to sit down now," Michael said. "Either you're going to explain how you pulled this trick off, or I'm going to check myself into the university medical center."
Tara continued speaking. "The being you call Margarita is one of the twenty-one Taras, the ones who protect. Black Tara, the Terrifier, serves me as my instrument of wrath, punishing evil with whatever force necessary. With the ferocity of a tiger she devours any demons that stand in her way. With her three eyes no demon can hide from her." Parrot Tara bowed to feline Tara. "It is my pleasure and honor to find you here."
Michael stood up. "The parrot keeps talking nonsense, and you're not explaining it to me," he said with noticeable exasperation.
"It's not nonsense," I replied. "Tara is a witch." Michael's mouth gaped open. "Apparently your cat is a witch, too."
"Enough already. How are you doing this? Ventriloquism?"
"This is going to be tough to explain. Maybe you better sit down."
Tara had other plans. Tara let out a screech and Michael and I both fell to our knees with our hands over our ears. Suddenly we appeared in my Ballard apartment, but before either of us could react Tara screeched again and just as suddenly we were back in Michael's office. My head throbbed in pain as I picked myself off the floor. Michael lay curled up on the floor in a fetal position for several moments before managing to get back on his feet. I didn't think I was ever going to get used to this time space bending.
"Believe me, I went through this same state of denial when this first happened to me."
"Okay," Michael said. "Say I'm not just totally fucked up. How did you get involved with a witch? And how did I get involved with a witch?" Margarita sat hissing under his desk.
"Just a couple of historians saving the world, is all," I smirked. "We need to get the turndun. There's an evil deep within our government that needs to be rooted out. I'm also thinking the key to rooting out that evil is buried somewhere in the Boas field notes."
"The feds sequestered all the Boas field notes. Everywhere, not just here at the U Dub. The Internet has been scrubbed of any digital copies. And library copies all across the country have been seized. Can't imagine what the feds want with those field notes."
"I can," I said glumly.
"This is getting too deep for me," Michael said.
"I thought so to at the beginning. But I learned there's a reason Tara chose me. And there must be a reason why Black Tara chose you."
"Say all this is true. What can I possibly do. I have a career to think about. I don't have the luxury of winning the lottery."
"Oh come on Mike. You don't have a career, for Chrissakes. You teach Intro 101 classes. That's not a career. That's treading water." Michael looked at me glumly. "Sorry to be so blunt, but it's true. I was in the same boat. If you haven't achieved tenure by now you never will. Now we have a chance for a breakthrough that will blow the dust and cobwebs off this corner of academia all the way to Hell and back. I need your help. Tara needs your help."
"To do what?"
"We need that turndun. And I need to look at the Boas field notes."
"Well, Hell. The turndun is under lock and key in the basement of the Burke Museum. And the Boas field notes are locked in the Special Collections room on the main floor of this library. What are you going to do? Just walk in and ask for them?"
"No, I'm just going to waltz in and take them."
"You're kidding?" Michael said.
"You just saw what Tara is capable of."
"Somehow I don't think it's that easy."
"What do you know about the Winalagalis?" I asked.
"Winalagalis? The god of war of the north Winalagalis?" I nodded.
"Bad dude. Fierce warrior. His home base is on the Northwest Coast among the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples. From there he travels the world in his magic canoe making war and basically making a nuisance of himself."
"If he's just one dude, how much trouble can he cause?"
"Oh, there's more," Michael replied. "Way more."
"He has an army of ghouls in his service. Let me see. There's Toxuit. He's invincible. There's Hawinalal. He's immortal. Same thing I guess. He has monsters at his beck and call. A gigantic cannibal called Baxbakual. Baxbakual has a giant pet cannibal grizzly bear called Nanes. Though cannibal grizzly bear is probably redundant. There's Nontsistalal, a fire breather, maybe the origin of the fire breathing dragon myth? So, monsters, cannibals, dragons. Even zombies. There's a zombie called Hamatsa who turns people he eats into cannibals themselves."
"Geez," I sighed.
"Wait, there's more, like they say on television. My favorite demon hands down is Qoaxqoaxual. A giant raven who feasts on the eyes of the people devoured by Baxbakual. You want me to go on?"
I shrugged. Michael continued, "And if that's not bad enough, these dudes pack some serious heat. How about a magic harpoon which brings death to anyone it's pointed at? Burning fire which consumes everything in its path? And you can't kill these suckers because Winalagalis has got this water of life which resuscitates the dead!"
"I didn't actually say it was going to be easy," I offered.
"So say this is all true and real. How you think you're going to make a Goddamned bit of difference is beyond me." Michael sat down at his desk and buried his head in his hands. Margarita sidled up to him and rubbed her head against his leg, purring gently.
I said, "We've got Blue Tara on our side. And now we've got Black Tara as well. That must count for something."