Over the phone, Diana spends the next hour explaining her situation.
Shortly after leaving her home, Somchai’s followers began bombarding her. They filled her inbox with messages, some honeyed, some vitriolic, calling her to return and receive the monk’s forgiveness, else she be damned for uncountable lifetimes. The senior members kept calling her, either telling her to return and apologize to the monk or chanting secret sutras.
I suspect the sutras were more than mere words. At least she had the good sense to hang up and block them.
“Your magic was supposed to protect me!” she whines.
“You contracted with me to break the curse,” I say. “I did that, but Somchai escalated. We need to escalate too.”
“I’m going to call for backup. But there’s a few things you need to do.”
“File a police report.”
“Um… I think…”
“You want them to keep harassing you?”
“No,” she says emphatically.
“Then inform the police.”
She sighs. “Okay. What else?”
“Save all the emails you’ve received and record all the phone numbers they used to harass you. The police will need them.”
“I’m doing that.”
“Good. Consider setting up alternate emails and changing your number too.”
“Wait. We’re not going to do magic?”
“Do the mundane first. Magic, if needed, comes second.”
After hanging up, I make a couple of phone calls of my own, and pack my GoRuck GR1 backpack with everything I need.
The following evening we convene at Pepper Lunch in Hougang Mall. The waiter takes us near the back, where we can converse in relative quiet. Diana is dressed down with a white blouse and blue jeans. Eleanor is here too, dressed up in a dark blue dress covered in floral patterns. Seated next to me, wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt and olive pants, is Kang Shun Tian.
Tall and lean and stringy, Shun Tian resembles a beanpole with a dark ponytail that reaches well past his shoulders. He’s thin, verging on skin and bones, but his fingers and knuckles bear the distinct calluses of an experienced judoka.
“It’s been a while,” Diana says. “Five, six years, was it?”
“Six,” Shun Tian confirms.
His voice is as thin and strangled as his body, filtering through my ears as a pale yellow.
“What’ve you been doing?”
“I’ve just gotten my Master of Social Work from Monash University. Now I’m applying for jobs as a social worker.”
I’d met Shun Tian in my Junior College days, when I was stupid and unstable and seeking to understand the strange realms I’d found myself in. We pursued the truth in our own ways, occasionally exchanging notes over the years. Eventually he chose the path of the healer.
I was called to a different path.
“Wah, social worker, hah?” Eleanor says. “Doesn’t suit you, leh.”
“Wah lau eh! You say like that like I’m some kind of bully.”
“But you like bullying people!”
I shake my head and sip at my glass while they exchange childish insults. When they finally settle down, we get down to business.
“You’ve been keeping up with your Buddhist studies?” I ask.
“Of course,” he replies.
For over a decade and a half, Shun Tian studied under the tutelage of a Tibetan Buddhist lama. Not the lay Buddhism seen in public either; the esoteric Buddhism that acknowledges devas and asuras and demons, and the skillful use of mantras and magic.
“I’d like to hear your opinion on Diana’s situation,” I say.
“Tell me what happened, exactly,” Shun Tian says.
Diana recounts her tale again. Shun Tian takes it all in, barely saying a word, until she’s done.
“Show me your arms,” he says.
Diana unrolls her sleeves and holds out her arms. Scaly red patches run down the insides of her arm, angrier and larger than yesterday.
“Have you been scratching them?” I ask.
“How to not scratch them?” she replies.
Shun Tian rubs his chin and looks up.
“Michael broke the old curse, but the nagas are casting a new one.”
“How do you know?” Diana asks.
“I can see the energy cords tracing back to them.”
“What can nagas do?” Eleanor asks.
“Nagas are water beings. If you please them, they will bestow fertility and wealth. If you anger them, they can cause skin diseases and other disasters. Until they are appeased, they will continue to harm you.”
Eleanor turns to Diana. “Is that why Somchai’s followers like him so much? Because he gives them fertility and wealth?”
“Yeah, that’s the impression I get,” she confirms. “He does lots of pujas for wealth and whatnot. Lots of his followers have struck Toto, earned promotions, that kind of thing.”
“It sounds like a cult,” Shun Tian says flatly.
“It is a cult,” Diana says.
Shun Tian sighs and shakes his head.
“Many people don’t want enlightenment,” I say. “They just want comfort.”
Eleanor smiles. “But we’re not like most people, right?”
“Right,” I say.
The food arrives. Served on high-powered electromagnetic cookers that double as plates, our meals sizzle and smoke and fill my nose with rich sauces and meats. I remove the paper strip surrounding around my plate and mix up my teriyaki chicken and vegetables, careful not to break the egg. Eleanor delicately pours a spoonful of sauce over her salmon and saba combo, while Diana pokes at her chicken pepper rice. The only beef-eater amongst us, Shun Tian tends to his double beef patties, throwing in every condiment in sight.
As the food cooks, Diana clasps her hands, lowers her head, and whispers an extended prayer. Shun Tian performs an abbreviated prayer, so subtle and so fast he’s done in the blink of an eye. Eleanor looks on, amused. I draw positive energy from the Universe and inject it into the food, willing it to bring strength, energy, wealth and goodwill.
We’re pure, but not too pure. We lived with one foot in this world and another in the next. This is the way of the blue-collar mage and the everyday mystic.
The cookers complete their work and shut off. We all wait for Diana to finish before we dig in.
“You eat beef?” Diana asks.
“Sure,” Shun Tian says. “Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t have a taboo against beef.”
“I’m more surprised you’re not vegetarian,” I say.
Shun Tian grins. “Aiya, I’m just a layman lah. Go vegetarian for what?”
“Eh?” Eleanor interjects. “I thought you say you want to purify yourself?”
“I still am. I stay away from low-quality meat. The kind from factory farms and slaughterhouses. You know, if you eat that kind of meat, you take in the animal’s suffering too. It’s not good for you.”
“Once we’re done with the theological discussion, we still have a job to do,” I say.
“Ah, right, the naga,” Shun Tian says.
Every time I bring these people together, if I don’t keep them on track, we’ll end up wandering into strange realms.
“How dangerous is the new curse?” Diana asks.
“Potentially, it can be fatal.”
Her eyes widen. “Fatal?”
“There was this case a while back, when a property developer dug up a patch of ground inhabited by nagas. All the construction work there started running into problems. Machines broke down, workers fell sick, materials got held up in shipping. A few months later, he developed bowel cancer. Stage 3.”
Eleanor gasps. “What happened to him?”
“My lama appeased the nagas and convinced them to move on. The construction work went smoothly, the workers recovered, and the cancer went into remission.”
“Can we appease these naga?” Diana asks.
“I tried asking them,” I reply. “They weren’t amenable.”
Shun Tian smiles. “Did you ask them with sword drawn?”
“I’m not that guy anymore. And the nagas, they said they were bound by ritual, prayer and offering to support their ‘petitioner’, meaning Somchai. I don’t think appeasement will work for them.”
“That’s understandable,” Eleanor says. “They have a stronger relationship with Somchai than Diana. They won’t turn their back on Somchai so easily.”
Diana scratches her arms. “What can we do?”
“Magic,” I reply.
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