“Hm..?” I mumbled to no-one in particular before letting out a guttural grunt as my body lurched forwards. Pain shot through my stomach and I made it almost to the floor before the ageing seatbelt caught me. I fumbled at my hip and unclipped the belt, dragging myself upright and pushing the assortment of Tupperware and cardboard boxes back into their respective places around me.
“Well, you told me to wake you when we arrive”, Amber called sweetly through the Perspex partition.
I heard the distinct sound of a makeup bag being rummaged through and sighed, rubbing a hand down my face.
“Amber, please apply the handbrake before you do that”, I said, hoping I sounded authoritative rather than snarky. I looked at the pretty nineteen-year-old in the rear-view mirror as she applied another coat of lip gloss. The wheels rolled a good foot backwards before she bothered reaching for the handbrake. The ratcheting sound that followed made me wince as the wheels locked and the box containing my treasures teetered ominously before I steadied them.
“Go easy on her, alright, she’s getting on”, I said, caressing a line of black duct tape where yellowing foam had started to spill from a tear in the ageing fabrics. My 1973 Austin FX4 had its original Austin-made engine, before they were bought out and Rover came on the scene. She (for all cars of a certain age and character are most certainly a ‘she’) was truly a thing of beauty, at least from the exterior. Thanks to careful maintenance and a little magic of my own devising, she was in prime condition, except for a garish yellow bonnet. Vehicular restoration and maintenance was too costly for someone with my bank balance.
Amber smacked her lips and tossed the cosmetic back into her bag before fishing for another. “Maybe if you paid me I would.”
“Pay you? This is for your degree. You can’t buy this kind of life experience, let alone this kind of excitement. Would you prefer to spend your time working the tills at the supermarket?” She paused in her application of eyeliner to stare daggers at me through the rear-view mirror. When I picked up the antique mirror at a motor fair in Soho I’d never imagined how often it would be used for this very purpose. Had I known, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered with the two buses and three Tube stops it took me to get there.
Still, I needed her just like I had needed every one of her predecessors, each of whom I’d somehow swindled into taking on an unpaid work experience placement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t drive – I had a current and legal licence – it was just better for everyone if I didn’t. Like many drivers, I guess you could say I turn into a completely different person when I get behind the wheel.
“So, we are here? Looks completely different in daylight. You sure this is the right street?” I asked, glancing out of the cab’s tinted windows. Since I tended to travel with my most cherished belongings in the cabin with me, it was the one modern feature I had insisted upon including.
“Positive”, she said, with the confidence only a teenager with an internet-connected phone could muster. “It’s the big one on the right. Number 57.”
I grabbed a post-it note from the box of stationery beside me and stuck it to the glass partition between the front and rear seats.
“Wait, you saw him go in?” I asked, writing down the street name then adding the number 57 last.
“You mean you didn’t see?” she asked in mock surprise.
“You know I was asleep”, I said, stiffly.
“You are always asleep.”
“Well shadow me long enough and you’ll see just how tiring this work can be. Now what did you see?”
Amber wasn’t talking. She continued to look unimpressed and began texting, so I waited. She wanted attention, but she wasn’t cruel with it, at least not yet. A couple more days as my personal chauffeur might change that. I sat back and continued to wait. If I stayed silent she would crack. I had ten years on her; experience was on my side and all she needed at this point was someone to talk to. Thirty seconds, a minute tops, and she would tell me what I wanted to hear.
“Fucking tell me!” I yelled.
She jumped and I felt both awful and, I’m ashamed to admit, a little proud. “Fine!” she said, like a stroppy teenager, which I suppose she was. “A man and a woman went inside just as we were pulling up.”
“What did they look like?”
“She was thirty maybe, thin, though dressed like a complete tramp. He was old, like you. Must be loaded, I guess”, she said, extracting an invisible trace of mascara from her eyelashes.
I took a moment to decipher Teenage Girl Goggles and recover from the insult. I wasn’t made of stone, not even close. I guessed the woman was most likely in her early thirties given Amber’s description. Thin I guessed meant pretty, particularly when combined with the tramp remark. He was older but probably not old, old. I was twenty-nine but could probably add five or six years to that on a bad day. She was just being mean because I lost my temper at her and I slept all the time.
I kicked off my shoes and put my feet into the legs of a pair of blue overalls as I studied the houses to either side of number 57. The road was quiet and the houses unremarkable. Large, terraced and uniformly white, there was little to differentiate one from the next. The opposite side of the street was a similar affair, only those were detached with a small drive at the front of each house. In front of the house almost directly opposite number 57 stood a skip filled with the gutted innards of a dated peach bathroom. Judging by the conveniently placed fire escape running up the outside of the house, I figured it to be a rushed flat conversion recently sold on to new owners with more discerning tastes.
I turned back to number 57 and looked more closely at its exterior. It was showing its age more than its neighbours, both of which looked to have been painted in the last ten years, their windows more recently cleaned, their hedges trimmed. I could practically hear the estate agent in my head repeating phrases like “fixer-upper”, “investment opportunity” and “good bones”, all of which may well have been true, but I doubted any of those reasons had been the deciding factor in Greg buying the place. If it had, he probably would have told his wife about it.
I reached for the camera bag and paused, hearing Amber sigh. Feeling guilty about yelling at her, I stuffed the bundle through the partition at her. “It’s point and shoot. Take as many as you can and – I can’t emphasise this enough – don’t be shy.”
“What?” Amber said.
“I can’t pay you, but I suppose I can try and make things more interesting for you. There’s a fire escape on the house opposite. Find a good vantage point and fire at will.”
“What if someone sees me?”
“Pretend you are bird watching.” I smiled, enjoying the fact I had shaken that unshakable teenage confidence of hers.
I could see she was starting to blush – an unexpected but not altogether unsatisfying sight after her progressively colder attitude towards me over the last few days. I suspected it had something to do with the realisation that my day job was, at least from her perspective, much less interesting than she’d thought it would be. It was the same with her predecessors; the shine wore off sooner or later.
“Until now I sought to shield your innocent eyes from the realities of marital infidelity, but you took this job for a reason”, I said, trying to keep my tone level.
“I’m not a perv!” she said, and for a second I thought perhaps I had just lost myself another driver. Instead she stared out the window for a moment then abruptly got out of the taxi with the camera. I smiled to myself, watching her disappearing behind a hedgerow.
I checked my watch: it was almost 3pm. Too late for a lunch hour rendezvous, so I figured their meeting had been planned in advance, which meant they probably had at least a couple of hours to enjoy themselves, perhaps longer. They would take their time, and Amber would have learned a thing or two about herself before they were finished.
I zipped up my overalls and slipped my feet into a pair of black Crocs which were as comfortable as they were disgustingly unfashionable. In my mind, I’m that fabled tree falling in the woods: it’s only really embarrassing if someone’s there to witness the fall. If all went to plan, nobody would see me, not even Amber through the telephoto lens.
I popped the lid off the transparent Tupperware tub to my right and examined my treasure trove of oddities. I glanced over the mix of cassette tapes, bound letters, postcards and frayed novels and reached for the dozen or so records neatly stacked on one side. I flicked through them as gently and as quickly as my fingers allowed. Eclectic to say the least: Pantera, Gina G, Elvis, Elton, another Elvis, ELO, Brahms and Spice Girls (the movie soundtrack), to name a few.
I carefully removed a 1954 original from its sleeve, read the words Bing Crosby and Try A Little Tenderness, and smiled, dropping the ancient record (already scratched to hell) unceremoniously onto the seat without looking at it. Instead, I gazed eagerly at the faded blue ink on the cover sleeve cradled in my hands. With Amber out of sight, I savoured it like a prospector cradling a knot of gold, or perhaps more accurately, a crack-head with a big score. Even just reading the words I found myself smacking my lips and working saliva around my mouth, remembering the power they held. The confidence, the swagger old Bing had felt when he’d signed the message made my head swim.
Try a little tenderness and if Lucy still don’t forgive you, try a little more.
I almost left the car right then and there as that sudden swell of confidence washed over me. Holding that record sleeve I could talk my way into, or out of, anything I wanted. It was my golden ticket. I stopped myself halfway to the door with a great effort of will. The Crocs, which Bing would never be caught dead in, helped enormously in this regard. I carefully folded the yellowing paper sleeve until it fitted comfortably in the breast pocket of my overalls, grateful for the dulling effect the separation had. I reached for my coat which hung from a hook above the passenger side door and transferred a tobacco pouch and a lighter to the seat in front of me. I undid the sticky tab and looked down at the contents. Among the wads of sweet-smelling tobacco lay strips of paper. I chose one about the length and width of my little finger and read the message.
I’ll be watching you.
I gave a shiver and returned it quickly to the pouch. Selecting the right keepsake to draw on always reminded me of that scene in Indiana Jones where Indy had to pick the Holy Grail out from a line-up of similar cups. Choose wisely. When making magic, no truer words existed.
I rummaged a little more and found the one I wanted, reading the words a few times to get the feel of them. The taste of them. Compared to Bing, who’s presence I felt like a physical weight at the slightest contact, the scrap I held offered very little and most likely wouldn’t until I started consuming it to make magic. Had I held it with me for a few hours perhaps something of it would have seeped through into my psyche but I didn’t have that sort of time and there were no guarantees. All I could do was repeat the words and hope my sense of the person behind them was accurate.
Even when you look at me, you don’t see me.
I folded the slip of paper and got out of the cab. The street I stepped out onto was a quiet hamlet in greater London. The street was bordered by spindly trees and thick hedgerows. I crossed the road and walked purposefully towards the house Amber had pointed out, my generic overalls hopefully hiding me in plain sight from any curious neighbours. I recognised the house as one of several potentials with the for-sale signs still up that we had cased out the day before. I walked around the rear of the house and stopped at the back door. I counted to a hundred in my head, my ear cocked for the slightest sound from inside.
After another minute, I dug my picks out of my pocket and coaxed the latch open in just under five minutes, which, given the age of the lock was a little disappointing. I could have popped the lock instantly with a little magic, but the line from the love letter I carried was, I suspected, ill-suited to the task and would have required more energy than I was comfortable forfeiting for the marginal gain in time.
I stepped onto the welcome mat and closed the door behind me, lingering in place where I stood like an awkward guest, uncertain whether or not to remove my shoes before setting foot on the kitchen floor. Experience told me the young lovers would have moved to the bedroom already, but I was not in any hurry and it never hurt to be sure.
A feminine giggle sounded from upstairs, confirming my suspicions and making my heart skip a beat at the same time. I dug out my tobacco and rolling papers and pressed the sentence, “Even when you look at me, you don’t see me”, into one of the papers before bedding it in with an even line of tobacco.
I used as little as possible. I hated smoking, always had, but it was one of the safer ways to consume magic. I put the unfiltered death stick to my lips and lit it, echoing those same words in my mind. Feeling like the worst house guest imaginable, I inhaled deeply and held the putrid mix of tobacco, old paper and stale ink in my lungs for a ten count, like a pothead trying to savour his high. A playful scream sounded from above while I counted. It was quickly followed by the groaning of springs as Greg Thomas moved to the bed with his mistress.
“Even when you look at me, you won’t see me.” I said, quietly as I exhaled, the simple incantation sending unpleasant chills down through my body.
I started coughing. Not quietly, either. I didn’t bother to cover my mouth as I doubled over, spat onto the kitchen floor and continued to hack away like a fifty-a-day, fifty-something, smoker. Thankfully the noise didn’t matter, the spell had already taken hold. It was a bitter and brooding thing, unpleasant like a grey cloud, though not entirely unsatisfying in its gloom. It felt Justified.
I walked across the kitchen floor in my mostly-clean Crocs and pulled open the fridge. It was empty except for a half dozen eggs, some bacon, a litre of milk and a pack of Cokes. I noticed the Cokes were the pricier, glass bottled kind; a detail I was certain I wouldn’t have noticed or acknowledged a few moments ago. I took one, oddly relishing in the satisfaction of tearing it from the cardboard packaging, as if that simple act of rebellion had somehow closed the class, financial and romantic divide between the owner’s life and my own. The small sense of elation lasted roughly until the fridge door slammed closed.
Forcing myself to focus on the task at hand, I listened to the noises of the house: the occasional shift of springs or the indistinguishable murmurs and moans of lovers lost in their own little paradise. God, I hated them. Why couldn’t I have this? Mr Thomas had it all, a beautiful wife, three kids and a second home where he and his mistress could meet in secret and share an afternoon of passion before drinking Cokes from individual glass bottles like movie stars. It wasn’t fair!
I was halfway to the kitchen drawers before I snapped out of it. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. This is especially important for mages. You can’t use magic without being affected by it in some way, that’s just how it works. Sometimes it’s a small thing like being a little overconfident, or in this case, depressed and jealous. Others can be far worse. The best mages learn to distinguish and compartmentalise their own feelings from those of whomever they are channelling. The real problem is, I’m an addict. All my kind are, whether they admit it or not. I can’t stop using magic; doing so would probably kill me. Equally, if I use too much or the wrong kind, that would probably get me killed too. I find it best to think of myself as a functioning alcoholic. I know I have a problem, and I take various steps to manage that problem. But the problem never really goes away.
I spotted the bottle opener in the kitchen drawer but instead used the edge of the oak worktop to pop the cap off my Coke. I took a swig, sloshing the over-sweet liquid around to clear the ashen taste from my mouth and smiling maliciously to myself at the abhorrent table manners of the man I was smoking. Acknowledging that it was him and not I that was the cause of my current behaviour helped immeasurably in controlling it. When using magic of any kind it was essential to get a handle on who was driving which of your actions as quickly as possible. Mannerisms, moods and personality tics not your own could all present to some degree or another, but once you could identify them, you could encourage the helpful ones, entertain the harmless ones, and ideally compartmentalise and supress the rest. It rarely worked so cleanly, but you were only really in actual trouble if you missed them entirely.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before commencing my search of the house. I checked every drawer and cabinet in the kitchen before moving into the living room. I alternated between taking measured pulls on my cigarette, just enough to keep the spell going, and washing the taste away with the Coke. I held both in my left hand while using my right to rummage through any paperwork I came across. At the bay windows at the front of the house I waved at Amber from her spot on the fire escape. She didn’t wave back, nor did she offer any indication she could see me. It wasn’t true invisibility of course, I wasn’t channelling nearly enough magic to even attempt it, and it was almost as effective and significantly less costly to make oneself unnoticed, particularly if there were no angry pets or security cameras to contend with. My cigarette fashioned me with a cloak of sorts, one which radiated concentrated bland and until it burned down to its last embers, I was the magical imbued with the power of being too boring to look at, too dull to comprehend.
I took the stairs two at a time, utterly unperturbed by the heavy creaking of the uncarpeted staircase beneath my Crocs. I glanced into the bedroom where Mr Thomas and his mistress made love on top of the covers with the curtains open for the whole world and Amber to see. I watched them for too long myself, feeling the twin pull of arousal and jealousy before managing to drag myself away. Images of their bodies writhing in pleasure as they stared into each other’s eyes clung in my mind as I pressed on to the next room.
Compartmentalise! I told myself. I was fairly confident the jealousy was all the cigarette’s doing and I pushed it to one side as best I could. The arousal, on the other hand, was at least partly my own. It had been a few months, and mage or no, I was still only human. I stepped into the second bedroom, which Greg appeared to be using as a study. Documents were spread out in piles across the desk, floor and a foldout bed. Bank statements, solicitors’ letters, invoices. They were all there. I read the first few lines of each letter and took pictures of any my client, Mrs Thomas, might find useful.
“Oh Greg…” the mistress called from the next room.
I started. I recognised the voice.
I went back to the doorway and ignored the tangled bodies entirely, and looked closely at the face of the woman with the dirty blonde hair and the athletic long legs.
“Claire, what the fuck!” I said, furiously. The weave of magic I had been absentmindedly maintaining fractured and broke away. The pair turned to me in unison, seeing me for the first time, and sprang apart in alarm. Claire dragged the covers around her and Greg stumbled to his feet on the opposite side of the bed.
“Who the fuck are you? Get out of my house!” Greg shouted.
I took a breath, trying to steady myself. Claire refused to look at me, so I turned to Greg. “Greg, give your wife what she wants and I won’t need to show her the pictures. If they come out in court, I doubt a judge will look too fondly towards joint custody.”
“You motherfucker!” Greg snarled as he started round the bed towards me, pausing only to extricate himself from the bedsheet around his ankle.
“Greg, don’t!” Claire shouted, for all the good it would do.
I sighed, dropped my Coke and made a fist around the rest of my still burning cigarette.
“Stone”, I muttered, barely above a whisper. I winced as pain lashed across the inside of my hand as if I had just pressed my open palm into the base of a searing hot frying pan.
Greg’s fist connected hard with the side of my jaw. I didn’t so much as flinch, he might as well have thrown a haymaker at a steel wall. The sound of his sudden cry of pain was not unsatisfying though the cracking of bone against my jaw that immediately preceded it made my stomach turn over. He slumped back onto the bed, examining what I hoped was a broken knuckle or two.
Nothing but ash and an angry red line remained in my hand, the cigarette having incinerated the instant I drew upon it directly. The momentary rush I experienced, of drawing power directly through my skin, was gone. It was a reckless and unnecessary display really, foolish and an utter waste of a good keepsake. The stalker-cigarette had been a secretive and passive thing, ideal for stealth based magic and utterly ill-suited to what I just applied it to. At that moment I didn’t care, I was still too angry.
Confident Greg wasn’t about to hit me again, I turned to Claire. She didn’t look even slightly abashed by my presence, the covers barely concealing her breasts and pale thighs. She continued to avoid my eye. I gathered up Greg’s clothes which had been piled neatly in a chair opposite the bed.
“Go home”, I said, stuffing the bundle into his arms and shoving him towards the door. I went to the window and waved to Amber, then pointed back at the taxi. She looked pale even from this distance. She stuffed the camera back into the bag and set off down the fire escape. Once I heard the front door slam and Greg climb into his BMW, I turned back to Claire.
“How long?” I asked.
“Why, are you worried about me?” she said, her voice teetering somewhere between playful and hurt. “I’ve not seen you in months.”
I knelt on the bed beside her and turned her face towards me. She flinched.
“Show me.” For a moment, I thought she was going to bite my hand but she just stared up at me with wide blue eyes like a hurt animal and slowly complied. I tilted her gently towards the light. Her gums were swollen and red, with blood spots on her back teeth.
“Fuck”, I muttered to myself, staring deep into her eyes. “How long? Do you even remember?”
“A few days, not that long”, she said, pushing my hand away from her jaw and sounding like a girl half her age. “You’re one to talk. Bloody hypocrite.” She looked at the palm of my hand where a red line stood out among the ash.
“I was protecting myself. You know that’s different.” I said, though quietly I didn’t entirely disagree with her. Eating and consuming directly through touch, both channelled a keepsake’s power more quickly than smoking them. Each had their place, but equally each could be misused and exacerbate the mage’s decline.
“Sure it is.”
I shook my head, she didn’t sound like Claire. “Well, where is it?” I looked around the room. A plate, the kind used to burn incense, stood on the mantel but I couldn’t smell any on the air. That and the swollen gums told me she had been exclusively eating her keepsakes for probably a week or more. Most mages, myself included, rarely ate their keepsakes, especially when using the types of magic I suspected she had been using.
I found her handbag and rifled through it until I found what I was looking for. I withdrew a small leather-bound diary, the kind a teenage girl just leaving her pink phase might use to record her most secret and intimate of thoughts. I flipped through a few pages and it was near enough what I expected. A secret crush, feelings of a sexual awakening. I bit my lip to stop myself from shouting at her. Passion and secrecy was like heroin to a mage – dangerous and addictive, particularly when eaten raw. I was furious but I kept my anger contained. Expressing it to Claire wouldn’t help because it wasn’t just Claire in there at the moment, and if she was this far gone she wouldn’t listen to me. Not until I got her clean.
I turned to confront her, but Claire was already standing, one hand still holding the bedsheet up to her chest. The sheet was too thin, barely concealing the disciplined runner’s physique she had spent years sculpting. I glanced down at her body, unable to stop myself, and felt a longing not my own. I scratched at the ash in my hand, wishing I still had some power left to draw from. I dragged my eyes back to hers, expecting to see disgust and anger, only to find her face turned up to mine, her expression open and accepting. I gave my head a shake, giving the other party inside a shove, forcing his influence to the wings of my mental stage.
Magic was always like that. Sooner or later the power burned out and all you were left with was trying to pick apart them from you. Isolation helped, but large groups were better. One other person to feed off and to be fed upon was almost always a disaster. She was so low right now, she just wanted to be held, and at that moment, I was more than willing to oblige. Her eyes were glassy as they searched my own. That was Claire. Her shame was gradually drifting to the surface, fighting to restore her control over the impassioned teenager.
Perhaps we could just lay down and hold one another, he told me. Perhaps it wouldn’t spiral this time, perhaps we wouldn’t need to make love or tear away at one another’s spirit until there was nothing left. My inner stalker was already thinking of a dozen desperate questions to ask her. Why don’t you love me? Why did you choose him and not me?
It was Bing that saved me, and not for the first time. Remembering the sleeve, I slipped a hand into my pocket and felt the touch of power. I kept a finger on it while taking a step back and using his confidence to clear my head. I let out a deep breath and looked Claire square in the face. She needed me, but not in the way the shadow fogging my thoughts wanted her.
“Why don’t you go take a shower and get dressed?” I suggested.
She looked at my breast pocket and reached out a hand towards it, perhaps sensing what it held. She was more sensitive than most, but then again, Bing was my most powerful keepsake. He was my failsafe. If I treated him right he might last me another twenty years. I caught her hand and squeezed gently, letting her finger touch the outside of my pocket before drawing it away. Even that briefest of contact with Bing’s aura, was enough. Confidence alone would have been a problem, but there was more than enough pride there too to help her remember. It was enough, Claire had always been strong, she had just needed to be reminded of that.
I occupied myself by looking out the window of the bedroom as she gathered up her clothes and padded into the bathroom across the hall. I heard her run the shower and pretended not to notice how red her eyes were when she found me on the stairs drinking another of Greg’s Cokes. I handed her a fresh one. I figured she needed it, and Greg wasn’t going to miss it.
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