Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2014

I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There by K J Parker

K J PARKER

K J Parker (www.kjparker.net), who lives quietly in exile in the south-west of England, has written three trilogies, four standalone novels, four novellas (two of which won the World Fantasy Award, a fact of which Parker is shamefully, embarrassingly proud) and a small hatful of short stories; all of which (as they say on Broadway) everybody loved except the public. When not writing, Parker does strenuous things in the woods. K J Parker is a pseudonym designed to conceal the true identity of someone nobody’s ever heard of.

What would happen if you could get what you wished for, or at least find what you sought? In the story that follows K J Parker gives us a look into the world of a man who wants to learn magic, but doesn’t yet know what that means.

STORY NOTE

There is an expanded version of a joke attributed to the philosopher Diogenes, back in the 4th century BC. So; Diogenes goes into a bar and he meets a man who says he doesn’t believe in magic. I can do magic, Diogenes says. You can? Oh yes. Such as? Well, using a certain special magic talisman I can make people do what I tell them to, give me stuff I want, all that. Prove it. Right, says Diogenes, follow me. So they go next door to the bakery, and Diogenes takes out a silver penny and he says to the baker, Give me a loaf of bread.

What we call what we do shapes our view of ourselves; what we do is relatively unimportant in comparison; see such concepts as good and evil, passim. If magic existed, it’d just be Diogenes’ silver penny, dull and prosaic. It’s the effect it would have on us and those we impinge on that’d be interesting.


I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There by K J Parker

“Apparently,” I said, “you can teach me how to walk through walls, stop the flow of time and kill people with a single stare.” I waited. He didn’t say anything. “Is that right?”

The cuff of his left sleeve was frayed, but had been expertly darned. His eyes were pale blue. He had a disappointingly weak chin. There was a book lying closed on the table in front of him, but I was too far away to read the title. And only a leaking roof makes that pattering sound. “Yes,” he said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

I didn’t believe him. “I’ll go for that,” I said. “When do I start?”

He frowned ever so slightly. “I’m afraid it’s not as straightforward as that,” he said.

Not what I’d expected. “There’s a problem?”

“Oh yes.” There’s a certain sort of calm serenity I find extremely irritating.

“Well?”

He hesitated; not from uncertainty or doubt, but because he was choosing exactly the right words. “I could teach you,” he said. “I have the ability. I also have the ability to jump out of the window and kill myself. I don’t choose to do the latter, but I could.”

“You don’t want to teach me?”

The frown was still there, as if I were the words of a familiar song he couldn’t quite remember. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve only just met you. Also, you may not be able to learn from me.”

Ah, I thought, here we go. The let-out clause. He will now proceed to give me some plausible but spurious reason why I turn out to be the one student in a hundred who won’t be able to do it. Only after I’ve finished the course, naturally.

“In order to learn from me,” he said, “there’s something you need to do. Most people won’t do it. A great many people simply can’t. Unfortunate, but there it is.”

“I see,” I said. “Do what, exactly?”

His face was blank, open and totally sincere. “You need to pay me one hundred and seventy-five thalers,” he said.

#

Well, he’d annoyed me. We’d played a game of body-language chess, and it had been checkmate in four. And besides, you don’t need a horse if you’re living in Town. So I sold mine—two hundred and six thalers, fifteen more than I paid for it—and turned up the next morning with the money in a faded red velvet bag. As before, he was alone, sitting in the one chair behind the chipped-and-scratched softwood desk, reading a book; no lecture in progress, no enthralled students sitting at his feet eagerly taking notes. And I still didn’t believe him.

“Here you are,” I said, dumping the bag heavily on the desk. “Count it if you like.”

He sort of squinted at it; if I hadn’t known better I’d have sworn he was counting the coins through the cloth. “I don’t know,” he said. Under the desk I could see where he’d tried to stick the uppers of his shoes back onto the soles with fish-scale glue.

“Excuse me?”

“A man walks into a cutler’s shop,” he said. “He wants to buy a knife. The cutler says, what do you want a knife for?”

“Not where I come from.”

He didn’t seem to have heard me. “Why does the cutler ask the question?” he went on. “Because, unless he knows what the customer has in mind, he can’t sell him one that’s suitable for his purpose. Or perhaps he suspects the customer wants to kill his wife.”

“I’ve got a knife,” I said. “Several.”

He smiled. “And,” he said, “if you wanted to kill someone, you’d have the means to do it. Therefore, teaching you the basilisk stare would not be an irresponsible act on my part. Fair enough. But, the cutler replies, if you don’t want to kill someone, why do you want to buy a dagger?”

I shrugged. “In case someone wants to kill me.”

He sighed. “Indeed,” he said. “And the customer could quite properly say, if you’re that concerned, why do you make and sell daggers? To which the cutler could only reply, because that’s what I do.” He clicked his tongue, a surprisingly loud and vulgar noise. “A hundred and seventy-five thalers?”

“Cash money.”

He looked at the bag. He seemed to find an answer in it. “Plus,” he added, “fourteen thalers for materials and other incidentals.”

“Incidentals?”

“Bits and pieces,” he said. “I could explain, but until you’ve started the course you wouldn’t understand.”

“Ah,” I said, and gave him three five-thaler bits. They seemed to disappear into his hand, like water poured on gravel. “I’ll owe you the change,” he said.

I still didn’t believe any of it. “So,” I said, “do we start now?”

He shook his head. “The introductory class is tomorrow at noon sharp,” he said. “Don’t be late.”

I hesitated, then headed for the door. I looked back; he was reading his book, slumped back a little in his chair, frowning, in the exact centre of a large, empty room. I went back down the stairs into the street. I got a splinter in my hand, from the banister.

#

So, you may well be asking, why did I want to learn how to walk through walls, suspend the passage of time and kill people with a single stare?

Well. Wouldn’t you?

All right, but you wouldn’t sell your horse. Unless your reasoning was; if I could do all that stuff, I could stroll through the walls of the King’s Vault, fill my pockets, take out the guards with a single well-directed glare, I could buy all the horses I could possibly want; and I’d have the perfect alibi when the kettlehats came to arrest me—I was in the Integrity Triumphant playing shuttlejack with the regular crowd all that evening, ask anyone, they’ll remember me. Also, I couldn’t have killed those guards, didn’t you say there wasn’t a mark on them? You could be the greatest criminal ever.

Yes; but so far, nobody was. Put it another way; if the capability existed, surely by now someone would’ve got hold of it and misused it (because that’s what people do, whenever some powerful new thing comes along. If we’d all been born in darkness and someone invented the Sun, the first we’d know about it was when someone used it to burn his way into the First Consolidated Bank) But this hadn’t happened. The strange man sat there all day in his room over the cordwainer’s shop, purporting to teach the art, but so far there were no reports of inexplicable burglaries and impossible deaths. Therefore, it didn’t work.

And I’d paid the man a hundred and seventy-five, belay that, a hundred and ninety thalers; presumably non-refundable—do you walk up to a man who might just be able to stop your heart with a frown and ask for your money back? I don’t think so. Not unless you’re totally convinced. And I wasn’t.

I know; I haven’t answered my own question. Be patient.

#

In Cornmarket there’s this clock. Well, you know that. It’s what the city’s famous for. Ten kreuzers buys you the view from the top of the clock tower. For half a thaler, they show you the mechanism; it’s this crazy room, twelve feet by fifteen by ten, crammed full of cogs, wheels, pulleys, camshafts, escapements, huge restless circles cut with hundreds of thousands of tiny sharp teeth—for eating time with, presumably. This machine, they tell you, makes all the time used in the whole Empire. You’d think that seeing the mechanism, how it works, would take the magic out of it, but no, quite the reverse. I think it’s because the power train moves so slowly you don’t notice it; therefore, all the belts and wheels seem to be turning and spinning of their own motion, powered only by magic and some invisible sympathy with the inherent forces of the Earth.

At any rate, if you’re in earshot of Cornmarket, you have no excuse for being late. I ran up the stairs just as the chimes were sounding. On the tenth out of twelve, I knocked on the door. As the twelfth chime died away, I heard him say, “Come in.”

He was sitting exactly where I’d left him. “You’re late,” he said.

I blinked. “No I’m not.”

He shook his head just a little. “The clock is slow,” he said. “Three minutes.”

I wanted to say, that’s not possible. The clock is the time, the Emperor made a decree. Also, how the hell would you know? I didn’t. I said, “Sorry.”

He shrugged. “Try to be punctual,” he said. “After all, it’s your money you’re wasting.”

He made a sort of vague gesture, which I interpreted as, sit on the floor. I sat.

I was just starting to wonder if I’d become invisible when he coughed awkwardly and said, “I can only teach you what you already know. You do appreciate that, don’t you?”

I thought, one hundred and ninety thalers. “I don’t understand,” I said.

He sighed. “Let’s start with some breathing exercises,” he said.

#

My father, you see, was a thief. Not a bad one, because he never got caught—not once, in fifty years in the profession. Not a particularly good one, because he never made any money. He was in the bulk-stealing end of the trade. He stole high-volume, low-value—sawn lumber, bricks, firewood, sand, pit-props, that sort of thing. If there was a big heap of something anywhere in the City, waiting to be used or shipped, Dad would roll up in the early hours of the morning with his cart, load it up and take it away. It was relentless hard work, but Dad didn’t mind that, he was a grafter, a willing horse. As soon as I turned thirteen I had to go with him; I’m not a willing horse, and I take after my mother, not physically strong, so I had to compensate with extreme effort. I used to tell him; Dad, you could make just as much money—more, probably—just hiring out as a carter; you’ve got the rig and the horses, where’s the difference, except we could do this in daylight, and you wouldn’t have to punch out night-watchmen. He’d just look at me.

No money in it; not after he’d paid for feed for the horses—bloody things lived better than we did most of the time. Back then, remember, they still hung thieves. Hell of a way to make a living.

So I grew up thinking; everything is difficult. Everything; even stealing, for crying out loud, is backbreaking, merciless slog. The world is so hard, so absolutely unyielding, all human life is basically quarrying stone, millions of little chips, and each one jars your bones and makes your brains rattle, until you’re worn out, shaken to bits, steel on stone every minute of every day. Unless—ah, the dream—somehow, somewhere, hidden from the sight of all us losers, there’s an easier way, a hidden door in the rock face that leads to the perfumed palaces of the nobility—

Ever seen a blind man looking for a door? He gropes the wall, methodically, inch by inch. That’s me, looking for the easy way. Of course, I put more effort into that than I’d need to expend if I was digging coal. Just like Dad.

That’s one reason, anyhow.

#

“There now,” he said. I took that as permission to breathe out. My vision was starting to blur. “I’ve taught you something you already knew.”

The evil sadistic bastard had made me hold my breath while he counted to a hundred. What was that supposed to achieve, for crying out loud? “Quite,” I croaked, trying not to let him hear me gasping. “I’ve been breathing for years.”

“Of course you have. All living things breathe, by definition.”

I looked at him. Holding my breath hadn’t conferred on me the gift of the basilisk stare. Pity. “So?”

He gave me a sad smile and stuck his hand into the wall.

Into. Fingers, knuckles, wrist. I tried to see what the boundary looked like, the interface, the point where his arm disappeared into the pale yellow plaster, but I was too far away.

“Happy now?” he said.

“Intrigued,” I managed to say. “Hallucination. Brought on by lack of air.”

He grinned and pulled his hand out again. “Of course it is,” he said. “Now you do it.”

I really wanted to, just in case I could. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to try. I could already feel the juddering halt as my fingertips didn’t pass through the plaster and the brick, as they bent back under pressure. You could break a bone so easily. The thought made me feel slightly sick.

“I can’t,” I said.

“Ah well.” He picked the book up off his desk and opened it. “Same time tomorrow,” he said. “That’s assuming you want to continue.”

I stood up and headed for the door. As I passed him, he must’ve stuck out a foot to trip me. I fell sideways, awkwardly, against the wall.

Into the wall. Through it.

#

My mother was a silversmith’s daughter from Scona. I have no idea why she married my father. She made no secret of the fact that she intended me to atone for her mistake. I would go to school, get a good education, join either the Imperial civil service or the Studium; I could be, she told me over and over again, whatever I wanted to be. Trouble was, I believed her.

Also, I was in a hurry; and I knew, from observing my father’s losing battle with the universe, that if you play it straight you’ve got no chance. You have to cheat, and even then it’s a long, dreary, miserable slog just to stay in the same place, let alone move forward. My way out of that was to follow my mother’s advice, to the letter.

I began—Now, let’s see. I was seventeen, almost, and we were living in a sort of shed beside the main road into Ap’ Escatoy (that was before some idiot burned it down, of course). Every day, just after dawn, this fancy carriage used to trot past. It was lacquered black, with huge spindly wheels and two armed coachmen, and inside was this kid, about my age, always with his nose in a book; thin, wispy, sad face. I thought; what’s he got to be sad about? So one day I followed him, running after the coach (nearly killed me; I was sure I’d cracked a rib just panting for breath) and saw him get down outside a rich merchant’s house on Riverside. Then, quite suddenly, I knew all about him. To this day, I have no idea if any of it was true, but it was such a thoroughly plausible, convincing picture that it didn’t matter.

I saw him as the younger son of some good but slightly impoverished family in the City, sent out to the sticks with a letter of introduction to a friend of the family, given a place (not too strenuous, not too demanding) in the merchant’s house, with a view to working his way up and eventually becoming a minor merchant princeling. And then I thought; I can be anyone I want to be.

So I wrote a letter. Actually, I copied it out of one of those books—the complete epistolary, letters for all purposes and occasions. A little research, mostly in inns and cockpits, gave me the names of a few leading merchants in BocBohec (thirty miles away, where nobody knew us), and there were books in the Cartulary library that told me who was related to who among the people that matter. I gave myself a suitably poncy name—Thrasamund, I think I was—and luck gave me helping hand, six kreuzers on a scrawny little Perimadeian gamecock at fifteen to one, and it shredded a bird nearly twice its size in the time it takes to blow your nose. Nine thalers bought me two outfits of decent second-hand clothes. All I had to do was the easy bit. I had to be Thrasamund.

And it really was so easy. By the time I came to knock on the merchant’s door and hand over my letter to the porter, I knew Thrasamund perfectly, I was him, and being Thrasamund was simply being myself. After an awkwardly polite conversation over weak red wine and seed cake I got a job, junior clerk. I knuckled down, paid attention, applied myself, very quickly learned how to make myself useful; three months later I was out of the clerks’ room and on my way to Beal Bohec with a letter of credit for nine hundred thalers, to buy seasoned rosewood boards and ebony dowel for my masters. I did a splendid job, though I do say so myself. In fact, if I’d gone back to Boc and carried on with my career there, instead of selling the lumber the next day at a thirty per cent profit and shipping out to the Vesani republic with the money, I would almost certainly have been a great success and made something of myself.

#

Unfortunately, it was an outside wall.

Also unfortunately, his rooms were three stories up. It’s true what they say; as you fall through the air, time does seem to stand still, and you do get to revisit crucial scenes from your past life—rather depressing, in my case. At any rate, I managed to solve one mystery that had been bugging me for years; how do they know that?

Answer; because at some point, someone must’ve fallen a very long way, and yet somehow survived to tell the tale. That’s what I did. I fell three stories and landed in a cart full of straw that just happened to be drawn up outside the stables which just happened to be directly underneath the room I’d just fallen from. Wonderful.

Straw is marvellous stuff to fall on, but it’s still a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I hit the cart hard enough to smash through the plank floor. I’d landed on my backside, so I was kind of sitting in the hole, supported by the insides of my knees and the small of my back, when he came bustling up, looking scared to death. He grabbed my wrist and hauled me out.

“Are you all right?” he said.

“I fell through the wall,” I said.

Apparently I’d stated the obvious. “Yes,” he said. “Can you move your hands and feet? Are you feeling dizzy?”

“Through the wall,” I repeated. “I just—”

“Well, of course you did,” he said, with just a hint of irritation. “You’re my student. I taught you.”

“No you didn’t.”

He was looking over his shoulder. “Let’s continue this discussion inside,” he said. “People are staring.”

He had a valid point. The owner of the cart would probably be along in a minute. Even so. “All you did was make me hold my breath. And that wasn’t it, because I looked at you and you’re still—”

“Inside,” he said. “Please,” he added.

I’m a sucker for good manners. We went inside.

“I thought I’d had it then,” I said, as I wheezed up the stairs. My back was killing me.

“Oh, you weren’t in any danger,” he said blithely. We’d reached his landing. I went in, taking great care to stay away from the walls, which I no longer trusted. And if you can’t trust walls, what can you do?

“Yes I bloody well was,” I felt constrained to say. “You might have warned me.”

“What, that you were in danger of succeeding? If you didn’t want to pass through walls, why did you enrol in the first place?”

“You might have warned me,” I repeated, but it came out sounding merely petulant.

He sat down. I did the same, only much more slowly. “You were in no danger,” he said. “You weren’t falling fast enough for that.”

Oh really, I thought. “Yes I was.”

“No you weren’t. It took you twenty-seven seconds to reach the ground.”

Bullshit, I thought. Less than a second, surely. Of course, it had felt much longer than that, but that was because of the well-known psychological effect—“You what?”

“I was counting,” he said, “under my breath, as I ran down the stairs. I got there before you did. Twenty-seven seconds.” He laughed. “For heaven’s sake,” he said. “You don’t think that little bit of straw—”

“I broke the cart.”

“You passed through the cart,” he said. “Like you did with the wall. That’s a common thing with novices, they don’t quite know when to stop.”

I wasn’t having that. A man is entitled to lie in furtherance of his fraud, but not to the extent of playing serious games with someone’s head. “Come on,” I told him, as I jumped up and grabbed his arm. He didn’t resist. We went all the way back down again. The cart was still there.

Its plank floor was, of course, intact.

#

For our next session, he’d said, meet me under the clock at noon.

I was there, bang on time. No sign of him. As I stood there, leaning against one of the columns of the New Revelation temple—I still wasn’t happy with walls, but I figured columns were probably all right—part of me was thinking, one hundred and ninety thalers. The other part was thinking; I can pass through walls.

Qualify that. I had passed through a wall, and a plank floor; accidentally, not deliberately. I didn’t know if I could do it again. I hadn’t tried. I didn’t want to try—or at least, not on my own and unsupervised. I can only teach you what you already know. Yes, well. Con artists’ mysticism; I’m quite good at it myself, when I’m on form. But novices don’t quite know when to stop. Suppose I tried it on my own and I couldn’t stop. Suppose I started sinking down through the earth. No, thank you very much. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I have to do it.

Ten minutes past the hour, he eventually turned up. He came out of the saloon bar of the Veracity & Trust. He was eating an apple. “You’re late,” he said.

I glanced up at the clock. “I’ve been here all the—”

“Noon precisely,” he said. “Follow me.”

He moved fast for a small, fat man. “If it’s dead on noon,” I said, jogging to keep up with him “how can I be—?”

“So,” he said, without looking round, “have you been practicing?”

“No.”

He made a tsk noise. “Poor show,” he said. “You really do have to practice, you know. Innate ability is all very well, but you have to learn how to use it. Ah, here we are.”

I wanted to ask him about a number of things, starting with innate ability, but he darted into a doorway, one I happened to know quite well.

“We can’t go in there,” I said.

I couldn’t, anyway. I’d been left in no doubt on that score the last time I tried, about eighteen months earlier. “You can’t come in here,” the man on the door had told me, and since he was six feet eight with a chest like an ox, I believed him.

One of those ridiculous misunderstandings, of course. I’d gone in fully intending to pay the asking price, not to mention a generous tip. It was only when I put my hand in my pocket and found it empty that I realised there was a hole in the lining, through which my twelve thalers forty must have fallen. I explained. I turned the pocket inside out and showed them the hole. They threw me out.

“Now, then,” he said. We were in the front parlour, or waiting room, or whatever you choose to call it. Nobody about. “We’ve done walking through walls and freezing the passage of time. That only leaves—”

“What are we doing in here?” I asked him in a loud, hoarse whisper. “You do realise this is a—”

He smiled at me. “Last time you were here,” he said.

I caught my breath; and then I thought, well, he’s been making enquiries, hasn’t he? I suppose I’m reasonably well known in some quarters in this town. He’s found out about my embarrassing history in this place, and he’s using it to try and make me think he’s a mind-reader or something. Sort of thing I’d do.

I smiled. “They threw me out,” I said.

He nodded. “There was a hole in your pocket,” he said.

“That’s right. Expensive hole. Twelve thalers forty.”

“No.” He gave me a mild frown. “You made the hole yourself, with a very sharp knife. You made the hole just slightly smaller than a six-thaler coin. The idea is that the coin gradually works its way through the hole. That way, when you come in through the door, you make a show of jingling the coins in your pocket, to let everyone know you have money. Later, when it’s time to pay, you turn your pocket out and show them the hole. But the coins have slipped through, into the little trap you’ve sewn into the lining.”

I looked at him very hard. He didn’t drop dead. I don’t know. Maybe he’d worked it out from first principles, or maybe someone else had done that, and told him. “I make no admissions on that score,” I said.

He gave me a doesn’t-matter shrug. “The doorman,” he said.

“Well?”

“You don’t like him, do you?”

I grinned. “I think he may possibly enjoy his work a little bit too much,” I said.

“You were humiliated. People you knew saw you getting thrown out into the street. It made you ashamed, and angry. You wanted to get back at him for that. You wanted to hurt him.”

I wasn’t sure I liked this. “Wanting’s not a crime,” I said.

“Of course it isn’t.” His smile widened. I wanted to hit him, to make him stop grinning at me. “And, by the same token, neither is being in the same room when a man dies from a heart attack. Not even,” he went on, “if the man in question was someone you had cause to dislike.” His voice was getting softer and softer. “They’d never suspect it was you. If they did, they couldn’t prove it.”

I did my best to give him a horrified stare. “I don’t kill people,” I said.

“Of course you don’t. You’re afraid of getting caught, and strung up. Quite properly, you argue that it’s not worth the risk—the brief moment of satisfaction, against your life. Common sense. Like not walking straight at a wall, hoping it’ll let you through.”

“I don’t want to kill him,” I said. “I don’t want to kill anybody.”

He nodded; sharply, precisely. “You just want to be able to.”

“Yes.”

#

I could be whoever I wanted to be, my mother told me. By the same token, presumably, I could do whatever I wanted to do—walk through walls, stop clocks, kill people. The key word, of course, is want.

Ricimer’s paradox (that hoary old chestnut); political power should only be given to those who don’t want to exercise it. Apply that principle to—here comes the M word—magic. Behold, I give you the power to do anything, anything at all, so long as you don’t want to do it.

Neat trick.

At any rate, a wonderful way of gouging someone out of a hundred and ninety thalers. I had a shrewd suspicion that he’d magicked me through the wall and slowed down my descent onto the bed of the cart. Upshot; I believe I now have the power to do it, but I won’t put that belief to the test, because You Can Only Use Magic To Do Stuff You Don’t Want To Do. So, I can’t prove I’ve been cheated. So, I can’t have my money back.

Fine. Except; why is someone who can do that sort of stuff reduced to swindling people out of relatively trivial sums? Answers, anyone?

(Because he doesn’t want to make his living that way)

I could have been anything I wanted to be. Instead, I made my living by cheating people out of relatively trivial sums. I started out by embezzling the money I was entrusted with by my kind and generous employer in Boc. Using that as a stake, I went to the Vesani republic, where I discovered (a bit too late) that I was way out of my league. Not long afterwards, I left the republic in a tearing hurry, half a jump ahead of the law, found guilty in absentia of a crime I didn’t commit (no, really), and ended up on Scona, which is where the ship I was on happened to be going. On that ship, I’d undergone a transformation, the way caterpillars turn into butterflies. I metamorphosed from a penniless fugitive into the accredited representative of the Symmachus brothers, the biggest manufacturers of woollen goods in Boc. I got lucky. I found a sheet of paper and a pen in the captain’s cabin. I have neat handwriting. Incidentally, there’s no such firm as the Symmachus brothers. I called them into being, out of thin air. Of course, I didn’t really want to. Still, a man has to eat.

#

“You again,” he said, peering at me over the top of his book.

“Me again,” I said.

He marked the place carefully and closed the book. “But we’re all done. I taught you, you learned, you’ve had your money’s worth. That’s it.”

I’d thought long and hard about the mechanics of it all. A hundred and ninety thalers; let’s see. Average weekly wage of an ordinary working man, say, ten thalers. A man of austere habits could last out a long time on a hundred and ninety. He’d only have to pull the scam three, four times a year. The rest of the time he could devote to his own interests; scholarship, research.

“I’m not satisfied,” I said.

He sighed. “Sue me,” he said. “Oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t. The law wouldn’t recognise a contract to teach magic, since there’s no such thing. A contract to perform an impossible act is no contract. Look it up,” he added kindly.

I stayed where I was. “You didn’t teach me anything,” I said.

I could see I was turning into a nuisance. Good. “Strictly speaking, no,” he said, “since I can’t teach you anything you don’t already know. But I made that clear from the outset, so it’s effectively an essential term of the agreement. You have absolutely no legitimate grounds for complaint. Please go away.”

I smiled at him. “No,” I said.

I knew that look. I’m used to it. “All right,” he said. “What do you want?”

“To annoy you,” I said. “So you’ll make the floor disappear from under my feet. Like you did with the cart I fell on.”

He looked confused. “I didn’t do that. I couldn’t.”

“Because you want to?”

“No, because I can’t.”

I believed him. He was annoyed enough to be credible. “So it wasn’t you,” I said. “You didn’t make me fall through the wall.”

“That would be impossible.”

“So the magic—”

The word made him wince. “You did it all by yourself.” He gave me a pained look; why are you doing this to me? “I thought you’d understood all that. I can’t teach you what you don’t already know, remember?”

I gave him my special smile. “You’re under arrest,” I said.

#

It’s not something I like to talk about.

It was my own stupid fault, needless to say. Sooner or later, everyone in this line of work gets careless. One little slip is all it takes. Sometimes I wonder where the hell we get the courage from. It’s like being a soldier, except that every day we’re on the front line, that one little slip away from disaster. If I thought about it, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Anyway, they got me. It was, what, ten years ago now. I remember sitting in a cell about a mile down under the Prefecture, telling myself that if ever I got out of there, that was it, the end, no more bad behaviour from me; but I couldn’t conceive of a way out, even with my amazingly active imagination. And then the prefect came in—the man himself, not a deputy—and he offered me this deal. Get out there, he said, and scam the scammers. You know how they think, where to find them, how they operate. In return, you get a pardon, immunity, we may even pay you. Of course, we’ll be watching you like hawks, and the very first hint that you’re playing us for fools, you’ll wish you’d never been born. But—

Time stood still. And then I said, yes, please, and the most amazing thing happened. I got out. It was like magic, as though I’d simply stood up and walked through the cell wall like it wasn’t there.

Since then, I’ve been such a good little soldier. Seventy-six convictions. Jail for most of them, and twelve got the rope, due to aggravating circumstances. Quite right, too. If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s deliberate dishonesty.

#

I went to see him in his cell. It might just possibly have been the one I was in, all those years ago.

“Still here, then,” I said.

He gave me a sort of sad smile. “Of course,” he said. “The door’s locked.”

“Ah,” I replied. “But you can walk through walls.”

He sighed. “If I could do that,” he said, “which I don’t admit, naturally, then it would prove that I am indeed a sorcerer. I believe that’s illegal.”

True. Although the official position these days is that magic doesn’t exist, there’s a fistful of silly old laws on the statute-book prescribing the death sentence for witchcraft. Nobody can be bothered to repeal them; after all, the argument runs, a person can’t be convicted of witchcraft unless he’s proven to have performed magic. Magic doesn’t exist. Therefore, it’s impossible that anyone could be convicted.

I beamed at him. I can be horrible sometimes. “Nobody takes that stuff seriously anymore,” I said. “What you’re in here for is fraud. To be exact, fraudulently professing to be able to walk through walls. If you demonstrated you could walk through walls, you’d prove you’re innocent.”

“And then they’d hang me.”

“And then we’d hang you, yes. In theory,” I added. “Unless we could do a deal.”

If looks could kill. “Go on,” he said.

“Quite simple,” I replied. “Plead guilty to the fraud, and we’ll forget about the witchcraft.”

He frowned. “You want me to lie. On oath.”

“Yes.”

“That’s perjury.”

I shrugged. “I’ll throw in a free pardon on the perjury.”

He rubbed his chin. “Let’s not forget,” he said, “you can do magic too.”

I laughed. “They’d never believe you.”

I could read his mind (which was my mind, essentially, from the time when it was me sitting on the bed hearing the terms of the deal). “You’ll drop the sorcery charges.”

“If you plead to the fraud, yes.”

“What will I get?”

“For the fraud? Two years in the galleys. I’ll put in a good word for you. Say you cooperated.”

“That’s a good deal?”

“Yes.”

#

After that, I managed to put him out of my mind. I have that gift; I can forget about people sitting hopelessly in jail cells, because I put them there, because I tricked them. Now that’s magic.

I forgot all about him, until a captain of the watch came to see me. No cause for alarm, he said, thereby scaring me to death. One of yours has escaped.

They’re required to tell you, so you can be on your guard, in case the fugitive comes after you with a knife or something. As soon as he said it, I knew. “Little short guy.”

“That’s the one.”

I felt that twitch in the stomach. “Don’t tell me,” I said. “The prison authorities are baffled.”

He looked surprised. “Yes, actually. One minute he was in his cell, the next he wasn’t. Door still locked on the outside, no hole in the wall, nothing. Not a clue how he got out. But he did.”

“Maybe he walked through the wall,” I suggested. The fool laughed.

#

Under the terms of my parole, I can’t leave town without permission from the prefect. I made an appointment.

“No,” he said.

“Oh, go on,” I said. “I haven’t left the city for ten years, and I’ve been good as gold.”

“Quite.” He gave me a big smile. “You’re the best thief-taker I’ve ever had. I’m so proud of you. Which is why you can’t leave town. Sorry.” He actually looked sorry, the liar. “I’m afraid I don’t trust you to come back.”

“There’s an escaped convict on the loose. I have reason to believe he wants to kill me.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “That’s different. In that case, I definitely don’t trust you to come back.”

“But if he—”

“Rest assured,” he said, and gave me that sincere, reliable look that the voters keep on falling for. “We’ll catch him and we’ll string him up, and that’s a promise. Even if I have to put the noose round his neck personally.”

I sighed. “You don’t understand,” I said. “He’s a sorcerer. He can walk through walls. He can stop clocks. He can kill you just by staring at you.”

The prefect looked at me. “Now that’s just silly,” he said.

#

He came to see me.

He came in through the wall, though the door wasn’t locked—why bother? I was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, which was empty apart from one other chair, which I’d left for him when I cleared out all the rest of the furniture. I’d also taken down the wall-hangings, exposing the bare red brick. The room looked like a cell.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” he said.

I looked at him. It didn’t work.

“Sit down,” I said. “Please.”

He glanced up at the ceiling, then sat down. “I’m assuming there’s no hidden trapdoor,” he said.

I had actually considered that; even went so far as to get a quote from a carpenter. Seventeen thalers forty, just for cutting a simple hidden trapdoor in a floor. For that money he can damn well kill me, I said. “What can I do for you?”

That seemed to amuse him. “You could beg for mercy.”

“Would that do me any good?”

“No.”

I nodded. “Would it help if I apologised? I really am very sorry for the way I treated you.”

He sighed. “All this,” he said, “the melodrama. It really isn’t me, you know. All my life, all I’ve ever been is a scholar, a researcher, a scientist. Do you really think I’ve come here for revenge?” He made it sound so utterly absurd.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, I’m not. I’m here to conclude my experiment, that’s all. Once I’ve done that, we’re finished. Over, the end. Really.”

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I persist in thinking I’m smart. Just shows how dumb I am really. “Experiment,” I said.

“Quite so.” He smiled at me. “An experiment to ascertain whether paranormal powers can be acquired and exercised by someone with no innate paranormal ability.”

“Meaning me.”

He shook his head. “Meaning me,” he said. “That was the first phase. The second phase was whether I could then pass on those abilities to another equally untalented subject. Meaning you,” he added helpfully.

“So you weren’t—”

He shrugged. “You were my first student,” he said. “I guess nobody else was gullible enough to believe they could actually learn magic, for only a hundred and seventy-five thalers.”

“A hundred and ninety.” I stared at him—not like that, which was probably just as well. “You used me,” I said. “You took me for a mark.”

“Ah well.” He smiled again. “Actually, of course, no, I didn’t. There was no confidence trick. I really did teach you to do magic.”

“Just the once.”

“Indeed,” he said. “Which is why I’m here. Now, then. I’m going to count to five. On five, I’ll give you the basilisk stare and kill you. Assuming,” he added pleasantly, “you’re still here. If you make good your escape by walking through the wall, I shall go away and never bother you again. One.”

“Screw you,” I replied and tilted my chair back, thereby triggering the secret trapdoor I’d had installed under his chair. Well, quite. But I’d managed to beat the bloodsucker down to eleven thalers fifty.

The trapdoor swung open and the chair vanished. He didn’t. He just carried on sitting, on nothing, eighteen inches off the floor.

“Two,” he said.

Oh for crying out loud, I thought. Still, what can you do?

I walked through the east wall. The west wall was the outside, and I’m seven stories up. The east wall connects with the stairwell. I didn’t hang about. I ran down the stairs, burst through the front door and rushed out into the street, where four kettlehats from the Watch arrested me and charged me with witchcraft.

#

I did a deal.

I am no longer a thief-taker employed by the prefect. These days, I work directly for the Duke. I go where he sends me, and I look at people he wants looked at. Sometimes these people are hard to get to, which means I have to walk through various bits of architecture first. Occasionally, I look at guards, though I do try hard not to have to.

I frequently wonder why the hell I do this stuff, which is hateful to me. With my abilities, which long practice has perfected, I could simply refuse to carry on; I could go away, and make myself very hard to find. But I keep on doing it, because the Duke has a terrible power over me. Each time I go and look at someone for him, he pays me an obscene amount of money. You just can’t fight something like that.

My mother once told me I could be anybody I wanted to be; meaning thereby, I could be rich, buy anything I wanted, never have to do hard, grinding manual work, like my father did all his life. Having considered all the facts in the case, having given them a great deal of careful and objective thought, I’m inclined to the view that she was wrong. I think I could’ve been anyone—anyone at all—I didn’t want to be; which is how it seems to work, for some reason.

↑ back to top