Ashes to Ashes
by Bob Freeman
Ingrid van Heflin slid wearily from the limousine and gazed up at the remarkable estate that stood perched atop Old Stone Hill. Caliburn House had a reputation within the circles that Mrs. van Heflin moved. Now that she was standing in the very shadow of the weathered manse she could sense that it was a reputation well earned. She instructed the driver to wait with the car and began the climb up the steps to the eclectic structure with a brown-papered parcel, not much bigger than a shoebox, tucked under her arm. Caliburn was a conflict of styles and function. Primarily of Victorian design, there were elements of Tudor and Queen Anne architectural additions that, while seemingly implausible in theory, appeared seamless and majestic, from the elegant spires to the wraparound porch that invited visitors toward the rich mahogany entrance. Swallowing her apprehension, the woman rapped upon the front door, staring into the ruby eyes of the goat-headed doorknocker wrought of silver.
Yes, she thought, Caliburn House was everything she’d imagined it would be, and more. Its legend was such that it was often spoken of in whispers lest the inhabitants of the house take notice. She’d come to the right place…of that there was little doubt.
The door opened slowly, accompanied by a shrill creak that sent a shiver up the woman’s spine. A spritely young thing, with chestnut hair, almond eyes, and a complexion that hinted of Mediterranean heritage, greeted her.
“Good evening, you must be Soror van Heflin,” the girl said, stepping aside to allow the guest to enter. “Dr. Connors has been anticipating your arrival.”
“Thank you. I am most honored that the good Doctor has granted me an audience.”
“The honor is his, I assure you. If you’d follow me, I’ll have you wait in the study while I inform Dr. Connors that you’re here.”
“That would be splendid,” she replied. Her gaze drifted over every nuance of the entry hall as the young woman led her toward the twin pocket doors that opened into Connors’ study. All that was quickly forgotten once she was inside, for this truly seemed to be Caliburn House’s sanctum sanctorum.
The study was a treasure trove of antiquated furnishings and a veritable library of books that thrilled her curious mind. This was no ordinary collection, for it was the culmination of far more than a single lifetime of gathering together in one place a most complete assemblage of esoteric tomes, intermixed with curiosities and the sort of bric-a-brac that might be accumulated once one became submerged wholeheartedly into the fantastical world of witchcraft, magic, and religion. She was beside herself, almost giddy with fascination as she ran her index finger along the spines of these priceless treasures. She had almost set aside the feeling of discomfort that sat festering in her gut like an ulcerous cancer threatening to consume her very soul. Almost.
“I had a feeling I’d find you entranced by our little collection.”
Startled, Mrs. Van Heflin turned to see a man standing in the open doorway. She knew that Dr. Connors should be just past thirty, and this gentleman certainly had a youthful appearance, accented by piercing, hazel eyes that had such depth and compassion within them that she couldn’t fathom them belonging to one so young. There was something more to those eyes, a spark of illumination that both soothed and frightened in a way that was hard for her to comprehend. His somewhat longish hair was a golden brown with enviable body and curl, and like the well groomed moustache and goatee, peppered lightly with gray. He was devilishly handsome, fit, strong, and alluring. As he crossed the room, a slight limp was supported by a gnarled cane, as antiquated as the room’s accruements.
“Dr. Connors, I presume,” she said, offering her hand, to which he lowered himself, lightly brushing his lips across her knuckles. She was sure he noticed her blush like a schoolgirl, which caused her equal parts of embarrassment and excitement.
“Landon Connors at your service, ma’am. Come, have a seat and tell me what brings an Inner Circle Adept of the Order of the Black Spire to my door.”
“So,” van Heflin said, taken aback by his candor, “you’ve heard of us.”
“I make it a point to know my enemies.”
“Dr. Connors, surely you’re…”
“Mistaken? No, Mrs. van Heflin, far from it,” Connors said, his eyes burrowing into hers. “Not only am I aware of your Order, but I am more than acquainted with your aims. What I cannot seem to wrap my head around is what would lead you to dare cross the threshold of this house.” He leaned in close to her. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, directing her toward the chair that sat across from the his executive desk, “please… take a seat.”
“Alright,” she began, fumbling for her composure. She was acting totally out of character. Ever since she first stepped onto the road of the esoteric arts, it had been with confidence and determination. But now, in the presence of this man, she felt humbled. She needed him and his expertise in the worst possible way. “I have nowhere else to turn, Dr. Connors. My brothers and sisters in the Order wouldn’t understand. In fact, I’m sure they would consider my coming here treasonous and in violation of the oaths I took when I joined their ranks.”
“Well, Mrs. van Heflin, I must say, I am intrigued.” Connors took his place behind the desk and sat down, his curiosity piqued. “You look scared and that’s not something I would have expected from one of the Inner Circle. So, Mrs. van Heflin, you have my undivided attention. What brings you to Caliburn?”
“This,” she said, shaking as she handed across her mysterious package, as much from anger as trepidation. It was not her habit to be spoken to in such a manner.
“What have we here?”
“Please, just open it,” she snapped, straining to keep her impatience in check.
Connors pulled a letter opener out from the middle desk drawer, carefully slit the brown parcel paper, and slid it away from the white cardboard box underneath. “I’m assuming this isn’t a bomb, of course.”
“You’ve a sense of humor, Doctor. I admire that.”
The doctor lifted the lid and looked inside the box. Within its confines was a rusted metal strongbox, encrusted with a black, pungent soil. He pulled it free and set it on the desktop. Connors could feel the power emanating from whatever was inside.
“Go on, Doctor,” van Heflin said. “Open it.”
“It feels like Christmas morning,” Connors said, popping the metal lid open. A small cask sat within, dark blue with gold hinges and clasps. The cask’s hinges were tight, but the doctor forced the lid open. It was filled with crematory remains.
“What is this?” he asked. “Whose remains are these?” Connors was sweating now, the magickal energy radiating from the cask nearly overwhelming him.
“Doctor Connors, these are the ashes of Aleister Crowley, the Wickedest Man in the World, living or dead.”
Landon Connors sent Mrs. van Heflin away with his assistant, Alethea Kiriakas, instructing her to keep a close eye on the woman, but to ensure that she was treated with the utmost courtesy. He had work to do, work that required his undivided attention. He’d already moved the cask to the center of the room and encircled it within a ring of salt and binding runes. He could feel the eldritch energy pressing against the arcane spells he’d cast. Connors knew he wouldn’t have much time. Even in death, Crowley’s power was unfathomable.
He knew of Crowley’s legacy all too well. He was the quintessential ceremonial magician, redefining the role for the modern age, but more than that, he was a brilliant author and poet, an accomplished mountaineer, a master of the game of chess, and the most prolific publisher of occult literature the world had ever seen. He was also notoriously self-centered and often times cruel, especially to those closest to him, and his reliance on and addiction to drugs was a challenge throughout his life. Aleister Crowley was many things, but most assuredly he was a charismatic genius who, despite his shortcomings as a human being, elevated those who survived his lightning personality to great and terrible heights of spiritual progress. Crowley’s death in his seventy-second year cast several occult Orders into turmoil and the resultant infighting was still being waged, even now, more than sixty years after his passing.
Connors lowered himself to the floor, sitting cross-legged across from the cask. In his lap was one of his father’s journals, being a sort of magickal diary, if you will. Crowley, and the Orders spawned by the man’s work, had been of particular interest to Landon’s late father, Ashton Connors. Crowley’s ashes were referred to time and again throughout the esoteric record that Landon had before him.
“I wish you were here, Dad,” Connors said, a touch of melancholy to his voice. The legacy of Aleister Crowley had been such an important part of his father’s lifework, and now, here he was, in the presence of the final remains of the Great Beast himself. He had a whole host of questions for the woman who had delivered them into his possession, but first, he had a few things to riddle out for himself.
Crowley had been cremated in Brighton, near Hastings in the south of England, in 1947, and his ashes delivered to his successor in the Ordo Templi Orientis, Karl Germer. Germer at the time had been living in America – in Lebanon Township, New Jersey actually.
Was this some kind of esoteric joke?
That had been Landon’s reaction when he’d first read of what transpired following Old Crow’s passing. It was certainly one of the last places on Earth that one would divine to be the final resting place of the Master Therion.
There were conflicting stories as to what happened to the ashes while under Germer’s care. One accounting, which now seemed disputed, had Germer’s wife, in a fit of rage, smashing an urn that contained the remains against a tree on their estate near Changewater. Another, now seemingly verified by the container resting but a few feet away, had Karl and Sascha Germer interring the remains within a cask and strongbox, and burying it beneath one of five pine trees on their grounds. There were some who believed a portion of the ashes had been taken to Crowley’s former estate, Boleskine, on the shores of Loch Ness.
Landon opened his father’s diary and flipped through the yellowed vellum until he came to the section he recalled from studying it in years past. Ashton Connors was eight years old when he’d traveled with his father to Germer’s “White House” where they stayed as guests for the better part of a month. The impression left on the young Connors was undeniable. It was 1955; a year before Karl Germer and his wife would sell their property and head for the West Coast.
Ashton had written: There’s no more sacred oath a boy can make than a spit shake in a graveyard. When I shook with Billy van Heflin standing over the final resting place of Aleister Crowley, I suppose sacred isn’t quite the right word.
Billy van Heflin.
Before the Germers were to move, Karl had meant to take Crowley’s remains with him. He recorded in his diary that all he could find were the rusted nails of the strongbox. Landon looked toward the discarded metal box and its broken hinges. It was clear to him what had transpired. Karl Germer had shown the Connors, Lucas and his son Ashton, the burial place of Aleister Crowley’s ashes. Ashton had shared that secret with a local boy with whom he’d struck up a friendship. After Ashton and his father returned to Caliburn, Billy van Heflin had done a bit of grave robbing.
Landon Connors stood up with a silent curse on his lips. He returned his father’s diary to its place of honor on the bookshelves that lined the north wall and had a seat at his desk. Pulling a cigar from the antique humidor, he struck a match and inhaled. He closed his eyes, relaxing his mind and spirit. It was time to have a little talk with Mrs. van Heflin.
“So tell me about your husband, Mrs. van Heflin,” Landon Connors said as he stared out the Parlor window. “I believe his name is William.”
“How did you…?”
“That is why you’re here, isn’t it? He sent you.”
Ingrid van Heflin rose from her seat by the fireplace, head down, despondent. She downed her brandy and hovered near the drink cart that the pretty young Alethea had left for them. Turning, she first fixed her eyes upon the painting above the mantle, an original Crowley that Ashton Connors had outbid the Typhonian maverick Kenneth Grant for in the early seventies. It was one of his many a self-portraits, a swirling surrealist landscape behind a demonic visage, more beast than man. The power of the work lay in the eyes, of course. They were alive, vivid and captivating. They looked down on her mockingly, and as she turned her gaze to her host, she was altogether sure the bastard’s eyes followed her.
Landon joined her at the cart, taking her glass from her and pouring the woman another drink. She took it from him, hands shaking as she raised it to her lips. Liquid courage they called it. She feared there wasn’t enough liquor in the world that could steel her resolve.
“Mrs. van Heflin? I asked you a question. Was it not your husband who sent you here with the earthly remains of Aleister Crowley?”
“From his deathbed, Dr. Connors,” she said, tears that were a long time coming snaked their way down her cheeks. “From his deathbed.”
“Come with me.” Connors walked to the far wall and pulled back the satin curtains to reveal a set of French Doors that opened onto the back patio. They stepped out into the growing darkness, a chill wind rising up out of the south. “Looks like rain, Mrs. van Heflin. There’s nothing quite as purifying as a spring shower, especially here in the Midwest. Can you smell it? That’s the smell of salvation.”
“There’s no salvation for me, doctor.”
“Don’t be so sure. I know you’ve walked the left hand path; led there I’m sure by your late husband… led into the very belly of the beast.”
“You don’t know anything, Dr. Connors.”
“Well, madam, I assure you, I’m all ears. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Mrs. van Heflin stared out at the gathering dark and breathed in the moist air. She cursed the day she met William van Heflin, cursed the road he’d set her on, not only in leading her into the fold of the Order of the Black Spire, but to this place. Her heart ached for release. As the sky opened up with a gentle mist, she raised her face to it, and prayed for it to sooth the pain in her soul.
“William came upon Crowley’s ashes as a child, but I guess you know that part of the story. What you probably don’t know is that he believed they spoke to him. That’s right, Dr. Connors, my husband believed that he came into possession of the spiritual essence of Aleister Crowley. The spirit of that damnable wizard instructed him in the art and science of magick, but of the darkest kind imaginable.”
“When I met him, I had just completed my work for the grade of Adeptus Minor in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. William was unquestionably the most intelligent man I’d ever met, and his esoteric knowledge filled my head with all sorts of ideas. I was on a journey of self-discovery and William van Heflin held the keys to my personal Chapel Perilous. It wasn’t long before he’d burned through the Order, alienating the brothers and sisters and tearing the Temple apart. I was already his, lock, stock, and barrel.”
“We made the rounds, knocking on every door that promised illumination into the arcane, and in every instance William made short work of them all. He was a destroyer, on a mission to bring down every oasis of spiritual learning that he came into contact with. He was looking for something, that much was obvious, but it would be several years before he shared it with me. It all became clear once we’d come into contact with the Order of the Black Spire.”
“We were initiated into the Order on the twelfth of October, nineteen hundred and seventy five, the centennial of the Great Beast’s nativity. Where before, whenever we had joined a new group, William had carved a path straight to the upper echelons of Order leadership, this time, he was more cautious. I could sense the difference in him. It was like he had at long last come home.”
She paused in her narrative, stepping off of the patio and into the soft bluegrass lawn that surrounded Caliburn. She felt a great weight slowly being lifted from her. She’d carried so many secrets for so long, and now they were all spilling out, to be washed clean in the drizzle of this spring evening.
“You’ll not find this in any of Crowley’s diaries or correspondence,” Connors said. “He never spoke of it or wrote of it, but my father believed that Crowley had been trying desperately to make contact with the Order of the Black Spire. He never had any proof, but my father was confident that this was an integral part of Crowley’s ambition. One would think that it was because he wanted to learn from them, but no, my father thought that Aleister had loftier goals. My father thought that Mr. Crowley wanted to save the world from their evil machinations.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” Connors continued, “that I believe that Aleister Crowley attempted in death what he could not achieve in life. I believe that he used your husband as a vessel to strike a blow at the very heart of evil.”
Landon Connors watched as Ingrid van Heflin’s limousine pulled away from Caliburn House. He did not envy her. It was not the Order of the Black Spire’s way to allow one of their own to just walk away. Her days, in all likelihood, were numbered. He had, of course, offered his protection but she’d have none of that. Landon suspected that she was ready for death to claim her so that she might join her husband in the great beyond.
“Alethea!” he called. Soon, the Order of the Black Spire would garner his full attention, but not yet. He had other, more pressing matters to attend to.
“Please have Brooks gas up the Elan and bring it around. I’ll be in the study when it’s ready.”
“The Lotus? Are you taking a trip, Doctor Connors?”
“Of sorts, Alethea,” the doctor said. He crossed the foyer and paused before the study’s pocket doors.
“Doctor, I caught the gist of what transpired tonight. I know what she brought to you, and I’ve learned enough to know the weight of it.”
“What I don’t understand is why.”
“Why, indeed,” he responded. “I suspect that her fear of reprisal from the Order of the Black Spire pales in comparison to her love for her husband, and in the end, I believe that he, through Crowley, was working with the best interests of mankind in mind. Mrs. van Heflin knew that we alone could be trusted with the Crowley artifact, and I in turn, know what I must do with it.”
“And that is?”
“Just have the car brought around. I will tell you everything upon my return.”
Connors closed himself inside, alone with his vast library, a more important inheritance than even the house itself. Landon had been born into a Legacy, a hereditary chain of men and women in service to the forces of light, if you will. That chain stretched back through time, to a pact sworn to by his ancestors. He’d heard the story countless times as a child, of how his forefathers were raised into the Legacy, gathering within the ringed circle of standing stones in Orkney. A violent storm tore into the Scottish landscape, but within the Ring of Brodgar all was still. The pact was made, the blood oath taken before ancient gods who could still be found in the quiet places, in the shadows where most men feared to tread.
Landon Connors ran his finger along the spines of the magickal diaries his kindred had kept. It was all there within those pages, the ones writ by those who came before and the ones that came from his own hand. The battle was seemingly never-ending, and he was weary… so very weary. But now was not the time for despair. He had work to do.
“Excuse me, doctor.”
Landon turned to meet the concerned face of his faithful assistant. She was radiant, painfully attractive, and completely loyal in spite of the dangers she faced due to her close proximity to him. And she never blinked. Not once. He felt lucky to have her. Of course, he knew that she loved him, and in his own way, that love was returned. Someday, he thought. Someday.
“The car’s ready and waiting.”
“Thank you. I trust you’ll take care of Caliburn while I’m gone.”
“Of course, doctor,” she said, a saddened smile on her lips. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you headed?”
Landon Connors crossed the room and placed his hand on her shoulder. Leaning in, he kissed her cheek ever so gently.
“New Jersey,” he said. “I’ve a funeral to attend.”
Connors powered the Lotus Elan through the winding curves of Lebanon Township. With the top down, the black roadster made for a pleasant drive through the early spring chill that wrapped itself around the New Jersey countryside. Landon reflected on his journey as his headlights resolved to cut a wake through the night. Distance and longing, attached at the hip, in his thoughts collided, wrestling playfully with the melody drifting up and out into the open air. For the briefest of moments, he was one with the road, within and without. Nick Cave’s voice resonated from the car stereo, mournful and wracked with such emotion that it twisted Connors’ stomach in knots. Behind the haunting vocal, Current 93 created a surreal landscape of despair. There must be no resting in the meantime… A distant rumble of thunder accentuated the final verse like an exclamation point, cold and unrelenting, a hammer that creates or destroys on a whim.
When Landon was a boy he had traveled with his father to Cairo, staying at the Nile Hilton, and whiling away countless hours in the Museum of Antiquities. It was the Stele of Revealing that had drawn his father there, of course. His obsession with Crowley, the man and magician, knew no bounds, and he was able to use his credentials as a prominent archaeologist to be given time alone with the wood and plaster artifact. That the twenty-sixth dynasty funerary stele of Ankh-f-n-Khonsu was labeled as Exhibit 666 was surely no coincidence. For a man who was superficially a Thelemite at best, Ashton Connors was diligent in ferreting out the deeper mysteries of Crowley’s communication with the entity that called itself Aiwass, heralding the New Aeon as transcribed in The Book of the Law. Landon understood his father’s compulsion, though he himself had always been more fascinated by the Amalantrah Working in 1918, but still, Crowley’s Liber AL was a testament of and fitting legacy to his genius.
The stereo was playing the title track from Current 93’s All the Pretty Little Horses, a child’s lullaby, again given voice by the incomparable Nick Cave. It took Landon back even further into his childhood, to vague memories of his father singing the song to him as he was laid down to sleep. When the lights were out and his child carried off by Morpheus, the senior Connors would retire to his study and invoke the Holy Powers, to tread the astral realms and arm himself against the darkness.
Landon placed his hand atop the newly purchased strongbox that held the remains of the Great Beast. He had fretted over these damnable ashes, nearly manic to embark on the course he was set upon, and it just now dawned on him what fueled his mania. He pulled the Elan to a stop by the side of the road and collecting the cask and a shovel from the trunk, walked solemnly toward the five towering pines that greeted visitors to what had once been called The White House.
It was his father that led him here. Crowley had been the primary focus of Ashton Connors’ lifework and these remains acted as a bridge, drawing his father close to him once more. Landon’s spade tore into the fertile earth, black and rich beneath a bed of yellow-orange pine needles. In time, he had a sizable earthen maw that waited hungrily for its meal. This was it, he thought. The threshold. Time to ante up and pay the Boatman for your ride across the Styx. It was the great and terrible equalizer, felling every being who drew mortal breath. Death was a cold mistress, and her kiss was final, in a sense.
Landon Connors had watched his father die just more than a decade before, but he’d been robbed of a final goodbye. There had been no knowing smile passed between them, and there was certainly no corpse to cremate or inter in an earthly grave. He had been consumed whole, as much by his obsessions as by the unholy creature they’d come up against in the frigid arctic. He’d thought he put it behind him, but now, this gift from a dying adversary had reawakened the old wounds.
There was a power that emanated from the bits of bone and ash that had once been the corporeal form of Edward Alexander Crowley. Power enough to raise the dead, or at least awaken old ghosts. That much was sure. Landon Connors, with tears in his eyes, lifted up the strongbox that housed the deceased’s cask and lowered it into the waiting soil.
“Rest in peace, Old Crow,” Landon said as he buried the Thelemic Grail. “Give my regards to my father and tell him I love him.” Brushing dirt from his hands, he added as he turned to leave, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.”