Today’s story is by Lynne Jamneck, a South African living in New Zealand.
By Lynne Jamneck
A simple woman with tastes to match. That’s how I like to think of myself. I’ve worked for governments and secret societies, but what had been exciting then… Had I ever been so careless, taken so many risks? I’ve lived in high and low places. Flown in the great airships but I was never that fond of travelling. Feet firm on the ground, much better than wingless up in the air. I don’t think we were ever really meant to fly.
I felt guilty about lighting the cigarette and jumped when the phone rang. I quit the habit years ago. ‘Sides, you can’t smoke near books. Not the kind I work with. I picked up the receiver. A voice asked, “Rachel Buonarrotti?”
“I’m calling on behalf of someone who is unable to.”
“Alright.” It was not an eloquent reply, just the best I came up with. “What does this concern, Mr..?”
“Mr Lewis, I hope it has something to do with books. Or you may have the wrong Buonarrotti.”
A soft laugh echoed down the phone line. I waited for him to continue. The cigarette tasted good but it was strong. I put it out in a plate filled with crumbs.
“My employer has a proposition for you, Ms Buonarrotti. You will be happy to know it does involve a book. Have you the time to commit?”
“How can I say if you won’t tell me anything?” I didn’t ask questions about Mr Lewis’ “employer”. Half of this business was knowing what the right questions were not to ask.
His laugh held less amusement this time. “You will get a delivery. There will be a note. Read it and reply in an appropriate fashion.”
“Mr Lewis, I’m an historian. An academic. I reflect the general harmony of those who hold the vocation. I’m boring and I’m easily bored. I don’t like riddles.”
“Expect the delivery. Good day.”
I put the phone down. From my chair I had a panoramic view of the city beyond the window. Sometimes it reminded me of Old Paris. Sometimes it didn’t.
A delivery, whatever that meant. When I was younger I would have relished a little mystery, the potential to discover something new and exciting. These days mysteries usually panned out in one of two ways: not at all, or boring and by the book.
There was work on my desk. Now I no longer worked for the university as an archivist I could pick my assignments more carefully. My workload was less and more of my time my own. But work was the last thing on my mind now as the smell of the waking city drifting through the open window. The phone call lingered. Work would have to wait. It was Tuesday, inconspicuously.
The city was a beast heaving with people and their shadows. My office was on the ground in the fourth ring, an undersized building I shared with an accountant, two lawyers, a sign printing business and a haberdashery. Mr Lewis had disrupted my morning. Said one thing, he had, and meant another. It annoyed me that his no-words kept crowding in my head.
I’ve not lived a life devoid of strange incidents. Before being hired by the Philip H. Lovejoy University I’d spent my first stint as a freelancer for the Juno City Theosophical Society. If they hadn’t paid me so incredibly well for hunting down rare books I might have quit them sooner. I’d been up to my neck in debt then. You know what they say about money. It changes everything.
I locked my office and hopped on the maglev to ride the train three rings out, to The Lotus. My favourite café was here. It was never busy early in the morning. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to stay in business so long. I suspected it involved a little magic.
The Datura was soft and hazy; it always reminded me of being in a warm bath with the lights down low. I didn’t recognize the waitress. Did it matter? Somewhat, to me. It was always the same one who brought me coffee. I like a certain amount of structure in my life.
Today the girl was a blonde, a whippet with a lazy tilt to her head. She seemed
vaguely at odds with her height but perhaps it were simply nerves, the eagerness to please and perform well. Perhaps she was a rollover from the night shift and just tired. She stood and waited and I forgot to give her my order. I liked consistency and today I was getting none of it. “What happened to the other girl?”
“What girl?” The whippet’s nametag read EVE.
“I’m sorry, that was rude.” My smile was meant to make amends. “A coffee please,” I showed her on the elaborate menu. “Add an extra shot. Just a little milk.”
Eve touched her little electropad and it plopped like an electric raindrop. “Anything else? I recommend the mescaline salad. It’s our speciality.”
“I know. I’ll pass.”
She drifted off again.
Outside the window the maglev shot past like a poltergeist in a hurry. The weather was changing. The scrapers rubbed shoulders, Tetris-like, leaving little room for natural light. Many of the city rings made use of additional lighting. The Lotus was no exception, but the ringdwellers here had made a significant effort to replace the standard issue 500W bulbs with muted tones. A stopover in The Lotus could be jarring, disorientating even. Especially for the tourists who come in straight from the desert, beyond the outskirts of the metropolis. Juno City was never what they expected.
The waitress brought my coffee. She wavered. “You mean the girl with the numbers, right?”
“Yes. She was always here.”
The whipped scrunched her mouth. “I didn’t know her… I’ve only worked here a few days and she left right after I started.” Her brow furrowed. Then she asked, “Do you know why?”
The coffee smelled strong and sweet and bitter all at once. The Turkish blend was my favourite. “Why what?”
“All those numbers. She had them tattooed all over her body.”
“I really have no idea.”
Eve looked disappointed at my answer but it was the only one I had. Her slow nod pre-empted anything else she might have had to say. Slowly she drifted away again. I drank my coffee.
I’d wasted a day and made myself not care. Wired, I eventually ended up back on the maglev, drifting through a myriad of routes, distracted by my own inability to concentrate.
I returned home late in the afternoon. My office was dark. It looked like rain but you never could tell these days. The weather was unreliable.
I decided that a hot shower might clear my mind and wash away the wasted day. It did nothing of the sort but at least the hot water eased the tension in my neck and shoulders. Dressed again, I was determined to get something done; something read and studied from the significant pile on my desk. Then I noticed the yellow light flashing curtly above the front door. >>MISSED CALL. PACKAGE DELIVERED. BOXED MAIL.<<
I wondered if Mr Lewis was having me followed. Watched. Wait until she is unable to answer the door. That way she won’t be able to refuse. “Son of a bitch.” But it was only my own weakness for not resisting.
I opened the inside catch and retrieved the packet. It was wrapped in brown paper. Not big, good size for reading. I took it to my desk and wrestled it from inside three layers of paper.
The book was bound in worn green leather. Touching it made feel old; a peculiar sense of the past rushing on. The title was at the top in discoloured lettering.
I laughed out loud. Perdu indeed. Was this a joke? I turned the book over to inspect the back but there was only more green leather. Why would Lewis—or anyone else—send me a fake copy of Paradise Lost? In French? Franco might be considered the New Tongue in many quarters of the world but academics were souls trapped by tradition. The English would have a fit. Sounds from outside made me look toward the window but it was only the lawyers closing shop for the day. They wore the same suits, grey and striped, and moved together, faces silhouetted against the struggling sun. I returned my attention to the book.
It looked old but it still wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. Genuine copies of Milton’s most famous work no longer existed. I opened it with mild anticipation that quickly turned to surprise. It was handwritten. “But…” John Milton had been blind at the time he composed his epic poem. He had dictated his work to secretaries. I held my breath. Was this a glimpse of concrete creation?
I held the book aloft and shook it softly. Three shakes and a slip of paper feathered down onto my desk. CALL ME WITH ANY ANSWERS. LEWIS. There was a number.
Answers to what? I turned the book over in my hands, carefully inspecting the binding and spine, noting them to be old but practically intact. When my fingers had a proper moment to skim the pages I realised the first irregularity. The pages were not paper but vellum. The book could not possibly be directly connected to Milton. The printing press was well established by the time the poet wrote his epic poem. Paper was commonly used. There would have been no need—no concrete reason—for anyone to write on anything but. I was sure that the book I held in my hands had been produced recently, possibly by some antiquarian trickster looking to make easy currency.
I was annoyed. Not only that Mr Lewis (or his so-called employer) hadn’t done the simplest of research before coming to me, but that he’d wasted my time in the process. I glanced at the number on the paper and keyed it into the phone.
A voice answered before the second ring. “Yes?”
“Mr Lewis. You’re wasting my time and, I’m afraid, your own. This book is a fake, for whatever reason. You might want to get your sources reviewed.”
“Please, look again Ms Buonarrotti. Three thousand currency will be delivered to you in the morning.”
“That is very generous of you but there is nothing more for me to find here.”
“There is. I assure you.”
Once again I had a dead phone line buzzing in my ear.
I prefer not to go out at night. I like the safety of my books and the soft light of my office. I sleep there, too. I don’t need an apartment. Still, I’m not averse to the dark. Once I’m outside I feel like I belong after a fashion, if only as an observer. Everyone has their part to play.
I didn’t have to wait long for the maglev. It was on its way back inside, to the inner rings, where I needed to go.
The Tree was three rings out from the centre Sphere, from the Aldermen and The Ziggurat. I am neither interested in politics nor getting arrested, and the further one stays away from the hidden rulers of Juno the better the chances of neither happening. The Tree was almost close enough to that inner sanctum of authority that it made me uncomfortable to visit… but what could I do if the man whose help I now needed chose to live there?
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s beautiful. The Tree was in essence a vast, contained arboretum. A consortium of tree genii created a multicoloured wall along the rim of the ring, enormous trees shielding it from the scrapers in the third ring next door. Port Jackson Willows, Joshua Trees, Douglas-firs and Oaks, the Ash, Tamarinds and Giant Sequoias—too many to mention. Houses were built between them, beside them, in front of them, askance from them and inside hollow trunks with roots straddling roofs, or on gigantic branches straddling the sun’s rays. As the maglev kicked up fallen leaves the view outside the window rushed by in a blur of greens, oranges and golden-yellow-browns.
Dr Felix Slant lived in a cabin dwarfed by a giant Sitka Spruce. It took him a while to open the door; no doubt he wanted to be sure who it was before he did so. He closed it behind me quickly and only when the door had been locked and bolted did he look me in the eye.
“Your father,” he mused, nodding. “I wonder if he’d believe this life of yours, were he still alive.”
“What’s not to believe?”
Felix turned away to fix the kettle and some cups but I saw the arch of his eyebrow. “You were a rambunctious child, Rachel. Always breaking things. He would have been surprised at the work you chose for yourself.”
I barely new my father. Never knew my mother. “You knew him better than I did.”
“Perhaps.” Felix handed me a cup of steaming tea. It smelled of pine and bark and I probably would have turned up my nose had it been given me by someone else. Sometimes I think the trees got to people.
We sat down in the small living room and I took Lewis’ book from my shoulder bag to show to Felix. I told him my thoughts about fakery. He ran his fingers along the text, touching the lines and feeling the curve of the letters. “You’re right,” he said after a minute. “It is vellum, but it’s the ink and the method that I’m having trouble with.”
He inspected the pages. “How it was written.”
“It’s handwritten; what do you mean?”
Felix touched a few more pages before closing the book and handing it back to me. “I’m sorry Rachel, but the only thing I can tell you about this book is that whoever wrote it did not do so by traditional means.”
I felt gypped. “Felix, you’re pulling my leg. You must know more.” Then more serious, “You do, don’t you?”
He sipped his tea and I had breathed. Why get so worked up anyway? The damn book was starting to annoy me but I couldn’t ignore the promise of Lewis’ currency in my bank account.
“I’m not the ‘leg pulling’ kind.”
“But no-one knows writing better than you. For heaven’s sake, you’re a master graphologist!”
“I can’t tell you who wrote that.” He looked away from the book. “Or what.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t consider the possibility.” A chiding tone had crept into his voice. I didn’t like it. My skin was thin at best.
“And don’t tell me you’re an historian, Rachel. That’s all fair and good but do look around you. The world isn’t what it used to be. The eras ruled by rationnelle have come and gone. We are fools if we think we can cling to reason.”
“You mean magic?”
“But the man who gave me the book—Lewis—wouldn’t he, I mean—” I paused to collect myself. “If Lewis knew the book was spellmade, why give it to me? I’m not a book mage.”
At first I did not understand. Then it dawned on me. If Lewis had procured the services of one cultured in occult texts he potentially risked losing his book. Many a tradesman skilled in the art of spellcraft had disappeared with tomes and codexes that had been entrusted to them professionally. Lewis clearly didn’t know what he had yet; but he knew that it was worth keeping hold of.
I put my hands in the air, exasperation taking hold. “Well, what now? My knowledge of magic is negligent at best.”
Felix tipped his head back to empty his cup before placing it back in its saucer. “There’s someone who might be able to help you.” He hesitated. “If you don’t mind going, you know, there.”
I felt my jaw clench. “You mean the eighth ring.”
Felix had started to stopper his pipe with a sweet tobacco. “You can’t avoid things for the rest of your life, Rachel.”
A voice in my head intruded, and—
let me out, out, out—it slithered coldly.
It was a whisper this time, not a scream. Not like some times. Not like in the pre-dawn morning hours. I felt uncomfortable, closed in; not only by the small house but also by the trees outside, and most of all, Felix’s black eyes.
He spoke around his pipe. “Someone inside you will always be trying to break free.”
“I live the life I choose, Felix. There’s nothing to be let out.”
“Regret is not something you want to wake up to.”
For a moment there was nothing said, just the echo of my anger. I said, “Tell me where I need to go.”
Loops of smoke curled from Felix’s pipe and drifted toward the ceiling. “She’s from the Cold Lands.”
“The Eroin tribes? I thought they feared the desert?”
“They fear little, let alone the desert. But they don’t like the heat, it’s true. And technology puts them off. They tend to avoid big cities.” He puffed on his pipe. “She’s an exception.”
“What is her name?”
My thoughts tasted the name. “Strickland?”
“From the Cold Lands.”
He gave me a knowing look. “Good thing you read all those history books.”
“The Strickland Clan? Where did you meet her?”
“I never have. I’m not even sure if she’d be any help. All I know is you can try.” Felix had a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper. He handed it to me. “Ring it. If she cares enough, she will come to you.”
* * *
Outside, in the street, I breathed in the air. I used my mobile to call the number Felix had given me.
Three rings, four, six—
“Hello?” The voice was sharp and cut.
“Is this Alex Strickland?”
“If you want money, no. If you want to give me money, perhaps.”
Tell me about it. “My name is Rachel Buonarrotti. Felix Slant gave me your number—”
“Don’t, please. Don’t tell me, because if I’m still listening to you in a minute and end up being paid by you to do something and, not impossible, everything goes horribly wrong, I don’t want to know who it is I have to go looking for—who’s to blame for giving you my name.”
“What do you want?”
I cursed, caught unaware and used to being in control. A soft laugh glided down the line. I bristled.
“Do you have skill with spellmade books?”
“I have a book. I need to find out if it’s authentic, as well as the nature of its authenticity.”
I hadn’t thought about it. “Five-hundred—if you prove successful.”
“Great. I can pay my rent. Do you know your way around the eighth ring?”
“Also not my problem. Bring your book to Nganga Park. Take the train to the station of the Burning Man. Then three blocks directly north. I’ll wait half an hour. If it starts to rain I’m going home.”
Before I could smartanswer, I was yet again listening to a collapsed phone line. Ten minutes ago I was annoyed at the trees. Now I wished I could stay and enjoy the shade, the way I used to when I was kid, dosing in the shadow of some overgrown oak. Instead, I had to brave that place, that dark place where the living and the dead played twenty-four-hour chess and more shadows than your own followed behind you. There was no time to think up an excuse. The maglev was coming.
The Casting Circle was a place where either you belong or you didn’t. Dark and gloomy, the roads were twisted and given to change. In the Circle you had to be able to read more than directions.
The maglev snaked away into the darkness. I watched it go, shooting up at a tight vertical angle and then it was gone. I checked my watch. The numbers did not move. I tapped it. Nothing happened. I looked around but there were no other people. It must have been close to midnight. Across the street a neon sign blinked red. YOU DO HOODOO? CHEAP! I found a weather-beaten map on the station wall and located the park. This way, up three blocks, there it was. I started walking.
The buildings showed little light. I realised how unchanged much of this part of the city had remained. There were remnants here from long ago, courthouses turned into coven houses and red and yellow takeout joints still selling crap. A restaurant advertised something called a “Saint Witch” as a 10-currency special.
Not a breeze stirred but I could feel the cold against my skin. My hands were cold. I hurried past shops that sold divination and invocation, dark alcoved windows that bore no signs at all and a National Bank Trust with a bold sign—CANTRIP PROTECTED.
Nganga Park was three blocks worth of burnt Umber trees, their slender, elongated branches weaving in and out one another in crooked tangles. Iron statues marked pathways and benches. Burnt light wept from the hollow eyes in their faces and burned patches of light onto the weedy, low grass.
Something moved in the shadows close by. My breath suddenly came hard and fast. Without a thought, and as if it flowed through me second nature, I spoke a charm. A simple one. Even I have tricks up my sleeve.
A quick, sharp burst of light flashed and I saw a woman. This time she cursed; the tongue was foreign but I figured her meaning well enough.
“Easy!” I held my arms out, buffering.
“You speak charms!” The voice sounded angry.
“You were hiding from me, what was I supposed to do?”
The woman scowled hard and flicked at the dark hair in her eyes. She was dressed in black, well hid in the shadows. Despite her glare having softened. Her body language was stiff and distrustful. “Buonarrotti?”
“Monarch’s blood. You scared the shit out of me.”
“I think not.” I tried to breathe normally. The park seemed quiet and our voices too loud.
“Are you a weaver?”
“Magic—what are you, a witch? Some kind of scryer?”
“I don’t use magic. I’m here about the book—”
“You cast an illumination charm on me. You can’t just lie about that blind faced.” She took a thin rolled cigarette from a tin. The smell of tobacco made the darkness tangible and I felt better for it.
“You’re Alex Strickland?”
She sat down on a park bench, a gargoyle staring down light from behind her. “Yes, yes. Fine? Mon dieu. What is this book?” She dragged long and hard on the cigarette. Once more I took the book from my bag. She took it and flicked the cigarette away. Her hands felt the leather and the spine. She flicked through the pages. I said nothing, just watched her read pages at random. Her expression moved from vague annoyance to silent confusion.
“Where did you get this?” she asked. She gave me back the book. It felt heavy in my hands. I had an impulse to make her take it back. I put it away.
“It’s not mine. It belongs to a client. Calls himself Lewis.”
“I bet he does.”
“Can you tell me what it is?”
“Sure I can tell you.”
But she said nothing else looking. Instead se stared of fin the distance. I remembered her fee. “I don’t carry cash. I will pay you tomorrow.”
She looked ready to scowl again, but instead just sighed. “It’s a grimoire.”
“Felix was right. “It’s not Milton in French?”
“It is, at least on the outside. Whoever wrote it put a glamour on the content. You’re reading it, but it means something else.”
And that’s what Lewis wanted to know. For the first time since that morning I really stopped to think who Lewis might be. Who his employer might be. “What does it say?” I asked quietly. The crow woman looked at me.
“Why did you come to me? Why not solve your own mystery?”
“I told you I don’t use magic.”
“You mean you don’t like to use it?”
“No” I said, standing up. “I don’t.”
“But you have it in you.”
“Do you want your money? Can you tell me anything else about the book?”
“Just business then? Fine.” Alex lit another cigarette. “It’s probably important. And powerful. It mentions The Monarch.”
“The Monarch is a myth” I laughed, glad to dislodge the tension.
“How nice for you to think so.” She really was like a crow, black and like the night, moving short and sharp.
“How can I read it?”
“I thought you weren’t interested in magic.”
“I’m not,” my defences countered. “My client will want answers. If he’s to pay me. So I can pay you.”
“Right, currency. Give me the book again.” I did so. She spoke briefly, only three words at most. Then she gave me back the book. “A twenty-four hour revelation spell holds to it. Read it and the true words of the grimoire will find you.”
“And I’ll thank you for 500 currency. Make sure it’s in my bank account this time tomorrow. I will message you the details.” She turned away and I heard her say, “Don’t miss the train.” Before I knew it Nganga Park was closing up around me and the gargoyles and I were the only ones in the darkness and the night kept whispering what no one could hear.
I got home in a fugue. I poured a strong whisky and took the mystery book to my desk. I sat down and read several pages.
Paradise indeed was lost but it was not the allegory of a belief system gone astray that spoke to me. It was the dark and desolate tale of a chaotic creator, a nameless force with intentions that were neither good nor bad. A shaper of things. Of what was to come. I found the last page along with the last drops of whisky in my heavy glass. It was at the end of the book; it was the beginning of everything else.
I made a decision. I would wait for the revelation spell to fade before giving the book to Lewis. I would tell him I found nothing. The book was a clever fake, for whatever reason its creator had found to create it in the first place. I could follow him when he left—perhaps Lewis would toss it in the trash, or sell it. Perhaps I can get it back. Or maybe he would not believe me and take it somewhere else, a second opinion. I’ll still watch. But for now the spell that the dark woman had weaved on the small green leather book was still strong and I found myself back at the beginning, on the first page reading again:
The Monarch spat forth from its belly the christening light of day and the sublime colouring of night, and from his eyes he reaped the stars. And he looked at it and saw that it was neither good nor evil. But it was.
Lynne Jamneck has published short fiction in various markets, including Jabberwocky and H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. For Lethe Press, she edited, selected and introduced the Lambda Award short listed SF anthology, Periphery. She is currently writing her first speculative novel, book one in The Strickland Diaries.
“‘Magique’ is a short piece set in the world of The Strickland Diaries. As I’ve been writing the novel, I’ve discovered characters within the city of Juno that didn’t necessarily play a part in the novel (not yet anyway) but they stuck around. This story is a result of that. The protagonist from the novel, Alex Strickland, makes an appearance near the end.”