It was quite a lavish cellar, as cellars go.
Actual carpet on the floor, walls painted an inoffensive shade of teal. Our hosts – the three men who had cornered us in Oxford Street – blindfolded us on the way over. They hadn’t taken kindly to my comments on their very clichéd kidnapping methods.
“I don’t think disappearing a whole street of people can be called clichéd,” muttered Peggy, by my side.
“But blindfolds? And did you see that black car that picked us up? Blacked out windows and everything. No imagination at all.”
“No, Jack. Because I was blindfolded.”
“I was peeking.”
Once permitted access to our sight again, we found ourselves facing our captors as the tallest of them – who I guessed must be the leader of their merry gang, judging by how the others deferred to him – locked the door. His voice was surprisingly genteel when he said: “It was thought best for your arrival to be as discreet as possible. My young associate here has quite the talent for-”
“-showing off?” I supplied.
“What did he do to all those people?” demanded Peggy.
The man in question, perhaps too young to be called a man just yet (I wouldn’t put him past the age of twenty) languorously detached himself from the wall, moving his shoulders with an infuriatingly smug shrugging motion. The smirk on his face was one of the most punchable I’ve ever seen.
“I didn’t do anything to the people,” he declared, in a predictably condescending tone. “I did something to you.”
I butted in. “He means he unfocused himself to occupy a small gap in reality, and he pulled us in with him. Very dramatic, but not nearly as impressive as he’d like you to think. I use a similar technique when I want to blend in somewhere.”
The smirk twisted into a scowl at having been robbed of his thunder, and I felt satisfied. Take that, you little twerp.
I was impressed, though. Unfocusing is a talent anyone can learn, and I’m very familiar with the trick of fading into the background: it’s a simple matter of finding the spaces where people don’t look so hard. You become sort of fuzzy. And the world becomes fuzzy to you.
If someone is specifically looking for you, this trick is not much help – searching eyes tend to snap you back into focus. But if you just want to be quietly unobtrusive, just lurking on the edge of peripheral vision, it’s very effective.
Takes a bit of effort though. I’ve never seen someone snap into it so quickly as the lad in front of me. And to unfocus so fully that a whole street full of people couldn’t see you even if they tried?
It’s the only way I can explain the disappearance of all those people. We, in fact, were the ones who had disappeared.
The fact that he had done this to Peggy and myself against our will is an even more worrisome thing that I was trying not to dwell on. The only time I’ve tried a trick like that I stranded myself and my ill-fated companions in the nightmarish void between worlds…
“Vincent is our protégé,” said the tall guy. “He is one of our greatest aides to subtlety.”
“I wouldn’t call this subtle,” snorted Peggy. “Why’d you have those guys assault us in the pub? I was enjoying my drink!” She adopted a hard expression to match that of the gang leader. He seemed a little taken aback.
“It wasn’t our intention to start a fight. In fact, our man tells us you swung the first punch. We’d have preferred you to come quietly.”
He nodded his head towards something behind us.
“I hear you’ve been looking for me,” said a voice that made my ears tingle.
Have you ever had someone whisper in your ear when you’re not expecting it, and felt an ethereal tickle in your brain? It was that kind of tingle. It ran from my ears down my spine and into my toes.
I turned to face the owner of the voice, heart pounding against my rib cage like a lump hammer. Somehow I knew who I’d find on the other end.
“Hello, Mr Hansard,” said Quiet Eyes. She sat opposite in a large armchair of deep crimson chenille.
Now, the chair I could describe to you in intimate detail: it was clearly well-cared for, though the colour a little faded with age. The plush crimson bulk perched on four round wooden castors, and a fringe of braided silk dangled from the bottom edge to provide a tantalising shield of modesty against anyone who would take unorthodox pleasure in leering at the unders of an armchair. But the woman who sat in this tasteful arrangement of not-quite-velvet cushions? I drew blanks, even as I tried to catalogue her face right then.
“It won’t matter how hard you try,” she said, and my ears finally registered the faint Parisian cadence that lilted on each word. “You’ll never see me. Never know me.” She smiled, and though I couldn’t give you the details, I felt that it was in a coy sort of way.
“I know your eyes,” I muttered back.
“Yes,” she said, softly. “Where is the woman with the quiet eyes? These are the words that keep drifting back to me out of the shadows. Why do you want to know me, Mr Hansard?”
“You stole something of mine,” I replied, evenly. “Bluecaps.”
“Oh? Sounds like something I would do.” It was impossible to read her expression. It was if the image of her entered my retinas but skipped the optic nerve and passed right through the back of my head.
“You sold them onto another trader. Edric Mercer. Remember him?” I challenged.
She tilted her head. “Mercer, yes. He’s been useful at times. But he’s irrelevant to your being here, Mr Hansard.”
“Why are we here?”
She spread her hands guilelessly. “We’re here to discuss what you want from me. Why have you been trying to hunt me down? For revenge? Were your bluecaps worth that much? Are you going to kill me?” The last was delivered with a giggle. I unconsciously squared my shoulders and thrust my chin forward.
“I’m not the vengeful type,” I replied. “But I do like to look a person in the eye when they’ve wronged me.”
“Then go ahead and look.”
She let an uncomfortable silence to draw out as we remained in place, eyes locked. In my peripheral I was aware of the widening smirk on Vincent’s face, while by my side Peggy had mustered a glare that should rightfully have set fire to the crimson armchair.
“Who are Baines and Grayle?” I said, finally. The words sounded feebler in the silence than I’d intended.
Quiet Eyes leaned back in her chair. “Looked long enough, have you?”
“Are we here at your behest, or theirs?”
“That’s quite irrelevant.”
“I disagree. I like to know who I’m working for, before I accept a job offer.”
I wish I knew for certain whether she had a good poker face, or if it was just her unique invisibility that kept her expression impenetrable. Whatever the case, it didn’t extend to her lackeys: I saw Vincent’s stupid eyes widen. His associates were equally bad at bluffing ignorance.
“Who said anything about you working for anybody, Mr Hansard?” said Quiet Eyes.
I crossed my arms in front of me. “You didn’t go through all the theatrics just to get me here for a chat. Perhaps you’re concerned that I’ve been asking too many questions, so you want me out of the picture. You’ve tried that already, though. Sent some demonic parasite to try and off me, but I sidestepped that easily enough. Seems a very round-about way to assassinate someone, by the way. Why not just use a gun?” I caught sight of Peggy’s face. She looked mortified. “Anyway, if you wanted to kill me today you’d have done it already. So this has nothing to do with what I want from you. It’s what you want from me.”
Quiet Eyes smiled in that indefinable way of hers. “My employers are very concerned with image. I advised them against using the worm, you know. As you’ve learned, it’s not particularly reliable and the aftermath is far from pretty. But my employers prefer not to leave conventional traces of their activities.”
“And Baines and Grayle are your employers.”
There was a metallic click as Quiet Eyes withdrew a pistol and coolly held it level with my face. I heard Peggy gasp. I’ve never looked down the barrel of a gun before. My insides went cold.
“Unlike my employers, I’ve no aversion to guns,” said Quiet Eyes. “As you can imagine, conventional traces don’t worry me.”
“I can imagine,” I murmured, painfully aware that my ghost would be able to draw you a picture of my own murder weapon, but nothing more than a blurry shadow of the woman wielding it. In a flash, I wondered how many other people had looked down this same barrel and thought the same thing. “I notice you haven’t pulled the trigger,” I said, against my better judgement.
Again, that intangible smile. “You’ve proven tenacious, Mr Hansard. Tenacious people are… useful, to my employers.” With a delicacy more befitting a piece of ornate glass than heavy metal, she set the gun down on a tall side-table next to her. “I may not always agree with their methods, but I am happy to clean up the odd mistake made by my employers.”
“So don’t become a mistake, is that right?”
“You catch on fast.”
Peggy, who until this moment had kept her tongue still and her thoughts silent, suddenly lanced our conversation. “Why don’t you get to the point? All this posturing, you’re as bad as the show-offs back there – both of you, Jack. You,” she pointed an accusatory finger at Quiet Eyes. “Why was all this necessary? Why make a whole street full of people disappear, or make us disappear, or whatever, and go to the trouble of kidnapping us? If you really want to offer Jack a job, couldn’t you have just asked him?”
“That’s what I’m doing,” laughed Quiet Eyes. Her eyes lit up; I think she was genuinely tickled. She brought a hand to her mouth and contained her laughter. “I like her, Hansard. Fearless. Would you like to work for us as well?”
“No,” said Peggy, fiercely.
“We pay well.”
“I already have a job. You’re keeping me from it.”
Quiet Eyes nodded sagely. “Yes. You sell books. I apologise for disrupting your latest acquisition. Don’t look so surprised. We do our homework. And we’ve done business with you before.”
“No you haven’t,” she protested. “I think I’d remember someone pointing a gun in my face. Or stealing from me. Or kidnapping me and bringing me to some basement.”
“Sometimes business is legitimate,” said Quiet Eyes, sweetly.
“But not this kind,” I interjected. “Are you offering me a job or not?”
“Why don’t you sit down, Mr Hansard?”
Vincent placed a chair behind me. I remained standing.
“You can tell me who Baines and Grayle are, first.”
I swear she tried to stifle another laugh as she replied: “Oh, Hansard, you are stubborn. Or perhaps stupid.”
“Tell me, or I walk away.”
“How?” she gestured to the locked door and three guards, though I felt they were more decoration than anything else. Quiet Eyes could handle herself.
She fingered the gun in a playful kind of way. “You’re not going anywhere, and not just because we’ll stop you. And you will accept our generous offer, and not just because the money’s good.”
She leaned forward and crossed her long legs. “Because I’m going to offer you a score so big it will make men like Edric Mercer green with envy. I’m offering you bragging rights of the highest order. The actual acquisition is just icing on the cake.”
I hesitated, but I knew she’d caught me, hook, line, and sinker. Judging by the way Peggy was looking at me as though I were a drowning carp, she knew it too. “I’m listening,” I said.
Quiet Eyes smiled. “Sit down, Mr Hansard.”
* * *
“And ye just let the flamin’ ast walk away?” screeched Ang.
“Technically, she let us walk away,” I replied, calmly.
“That stinkin’, thievin’– and ye took a deal off her? Are ye thicker in the head than I thought, gwas? I knew ye were a bit touched an’ all…”
“It does seem rather dumb, even for him,” agreed Peggy. “But I can’t say they gave us much choice. Anyone for tea?”
She set down three steaming mugs on the table, though there was barely room for them. Like every other surface in her shop, it was covered in books.
We were seated in the back room – every bookshop has a back room – away from the prying eyes of customers. Not that there would be any customers. In the traditions of all truly independent bookshops, Peggy kept erratic hours and closed the shop when it pleased her.
The shop was also (in the spirit of tradition, Peggy duly assured me) an utter mess. Sure, the shelves had some loose organisation – there were labels professing to categories as narrow as Autumnal Gardening and as broad as Science – but whether the books you wanted actually lay on the labelled shelf or wedged in one of the many stacks that took up floor space, well, your guess is as good as mine.
However, Peggy tells me this is a purposeful design of bookshops and it’s an important aid to increasing the buyer’s satisfaction. Thinking about it, I can see where she’s coming from. It’d be no fun if you found your long sought-after publication on the weird sexual kinks of early Cold War dictatorships just by glancing at the Politics shelf. It becomes a bloody achievement once you’ve had to dig through a pile of seemingly random titles to discover they represent a bizarre floor-based cross-referencing system, culminating in a bout of creative thinking and subsequent discovery of the stack that cross-references leadership self-help books with military history.
Ang grumbled into her tea. “An’ ye never even got her name.”
“Wrong,” I said. “She told me. Her name is Rien.”
Peggy slumped onto the ratty sofa next to me. “She was pulling your leg, Jack.”
“Didn’t you notice her accent?”
“Yes,” I said proudly, and turned to Ang. “She’s French!”
Peggy shook her head. “Jack, ‘Rien’ is French for ‘nothing’. She literally told you nothing about herself.”
There was a beat, and then Ang’s guffaws filled the room.
“Well, at least we know she’s French,” I muttered.
“Sure, that narrows it down.” Peggy rolled her eyes, then grew thoughtful. “How does she do that trick? Of not being remembered, I mean?”
“I’ve got some ideas,” I lied. “Maybe she’s permanently unfocused, so our eyes can’t see anything but the blurred image.”
I knew that wasn’t right, though. If you’re unfocused, the sheer act of someone looking at you should be enough to bring your appearance back into sharp relief. If you’re skilled enough to remain unfocused even under a person’s direct gaze, then the alternative is that you shouldn’t be seen at all – that had been Vincent’s trick.
It’s not just plain invisibility, either. I’ve sold spells and potions that make you disappear (and for a short while the market was flooded with invisibility cloaks, after those books about the magic kid with the scar got popular), but the point is that they make you disappear. Not what Quiet Eyes does, to be there and not there at the same time. How can she be hidden while in plain view? Couldn’t figure it out.
“What do you think about this job, Ang?” asked Peggy, brightly. “I know it’s come from an unpleasant source, but it does sound exciting.”
Ang sniffed haughtily and drew herself up in her seat (she sat on the table rather than in a chair – fed up of being looked down on, she said). “Don’t see what’s so int’restin’ about some bird. What’s so special about eggs this feenix lays, then? Good omelettes?”
Peggy’s face lit up. I don’t think she gets enough opportunity to show off all that knowledge she stores up from being around books all day.“Well, the phoenix is a mythical regenerating bird that’s said to live forever. Or rather, it begets a new phoenix from the remains of the old, so it’s either asexually reproducing or rising from the dead. Most people think it dies in a burst of flame and is then reborn in the ashes. There are phoenix stories from all over the world and throughout history. ” She paused for breath. “There’s the Greek historian Herodotus, who says the phoenix is native to Arabia but flies to Egypt to be reborn. Pliny the Elder claims to have seen a live phoenix specimen sent to the Roman Emperor Claudius (but that one’s probably a fake). It crops up in all sorts of medieval bestiaries, and of course in religious imagery and symbolism; you know how popular the idea of rebirth is–”
“Myffical, ye said,” Ang pointed out, flatly.
“That’s the interesting part,” I interposed. “Despite all the stories, nearly everyone agrees that the thing doesn’t exist. You’d think it’d have turned up on the Black Market by now, if it did.”
“Hasn’t anyone tried to find out?” said Peggy, curiously.
“Of course. Every so often some snot-nosed layabout like Edric Mercer will announce he’s off to capture the fabled such-and-such, off on a grand adventure to Egypt or India or some other exotic, mosquito-ridden place. And then we never hear of him again. Unless he’s Edric Mercer.”
“Mercer went looking for it?”
“Yes. He made a big palaver about phoenixes some years ago. Came back empty-handed I presume, seeing as he quietly forgot all about it a year later.”
Peggy gave me a sidelong glance. “So it’s not worth asking him how far he got?”
“Not even if you paid me,” I said.
Ang scrunched her mouth into a frown. “So does this bird lay eggs, or what?”
“Rien- I mean, Quiet Eyes seems to think so. That’s the job: find a phoenix egg. Are you certain she was joking about her name?”
“Certain,” said Peggy, dryly. “C’mon Hansard, don’t be that guy. She’s not going to be your femme fatale.”
“Excuse me? Are you suggesting I’ve got a thing for her? I don’t even know what she looks like!”
From the table I could feel Ang’s scrutinising glare. “Ye do seem awful willin’ t’do her dirty work, gwas,” she said.
“Because it’s our dirty work!” I exclaimed. “The Black Market is all about taking shady deals with people you openly distrust. It’s my entire living.“
“What about my kin?” said Ang, eyes narrowing. “Did ye forget about them? We was tracking those Baines and Grayle nasties to find them, gwas. How’s your cosying up wi’ that ast going to help? Bradwr.“
I’ve picked up a bit of Welsh (particularly the swear words) having suffered Ang’s company for so long, but I didn’t know what that last word meant. Ang’s crossed arms and dark, suspicious silence told me it was probably something like ‘traitor’.
Peggy delicately cleared her throat. “Ang, you should hear what Jack asked for as payment.”
The coblyn squinted at me. “Out wi’ it.”
I steepled my fingers – classic mastermind pose – and grinned. I like to think I’d be good at chess, if I ever bothered to learn how to play.
“Our end goal is Baines and Grayle. Quiet Eyes is our way to get to them. What we need is her trust… and a way in.” I leaned forward. “We do this job, Ang, and it proves we are worth her trust. In payment, I’ve asked for more jobs… a contract, if you will.” I held up a hand to silence her objection. “And a meeting with our new, mutual employer. Baines and Grayle.”
“I ain’t never workin’ for them!”
My shoulders slumped. “You’re missing the point, Ang. It’s just a lie to get close to them.”
“You’re all about lies,” Ang muttered. “But I s’pose this’un’s worth it.”
“Good. Glad we’re finally on the same page,” I said. “Now we just need to catch a phoenix and steal its eggs.”
“Just, ‘e says.”
Peggy rolled her shoulders, stretched her arms, and cracked her knuckles. “Right. Time for some heavy-duty research then.”
I grinned. “Knew I could count on you, Peg.”
“I’ll just get the laptop.”
“What?” I looked at her blankly. “You’re not going to use the internet, are you?”
“Whassat?” said Ang.
Peggy raised an eyebrow. “It’s a lot quicker this way.”
“But this is a bookshop!” I spluttered. “This is what it’s for. You’re meant to haul down some big, leather-bound book and dramatically blow the dust off the cover–”
“My books aren’t dusty,” said Peggy, with a glacial calm that skimmed over my head.
“–and then spend hours pouring over the cracked pages–”
“They’re in good condition, too.”
“–going ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’, and making notes in the margins–”
She removed my mug of tea in an aggressive motion and replaced it with a slightly battered laptop. She snapped it open and shoved a mouse under my hand.
“Welcome to the twenty-first century, Jack. Today, you’re going to learn how to use Google.” She brought her mouth level with my ear. “And if you ever make a single mark in any of my books, I will cut you.”