When I next came to on Peggy’s sofa, I woke to find her dressed in full battle gear. Gone was the cheerful elephant in her nose, replaced by a no-nonsense silver stud. The chunky beads round her neck had been traded in for a petite choker, and the dangly earrings had turned into discreetly spiky studs. She’d managed to tone down her clothes, too; instead of a rainbow she’d opted for greyscale, black jeans topped with a grey t-shirt that loudly declared her affinity with the works of Tolkien. (At least, she assured me that’s what ‘I Last Longer Than Boromir’ meant.) It was all very militant, for Peggy. Even her hair was gelled to attention.
“Tea, Jack?” she inquired briskly.
“Please,” I replied groggily. I rubbed my eyes, stared at the clock, and groaned. “It’s seven A.M.” I complained. “Why are you up so early?” I rolled over and buried my head in the cushions.
She whipped away my blankets. “Don’t be a baby. We’ve got work to do.”
“Aye,” yawned Ang, rising from her armchair. “We’d be well up two hours b’fore dawn to work in the pit, gwas. This ain’t nuthin’.” She tried to stifle another yawn. Too long on the road with me had eroded her early-bird tendencies.
Tea and bacon sandwiches fixed our moods, and before long we were discussing our game plan for the day. Peggy solemnly handed us each a notebook and pen, as if she were handing out rifles.
Ang wrinkled her nose. “What’s this fer?”
“We’re not going to interrogate the phoenix,” I remarked.
“Honestly, Jack, you’re never prepared. Where we’re going, you never know when you might need something as simple as pen and paper.”
“I’m prepared in different ways,” I said grimly, patting the protective paper charms in my pockets.
“Jack, when have your charms ever actually worked?”
“They all work!” I said indignantly. This, at least, was true. I don’t often lie to my customers (that’s a lie, part of me pointed out), it’s just that I sometimes omit important information. I will give a lifetime guarantee, on my word and my honour as a tradesman, that every one of my protective omamori charms are in fine working order. What I can’t guarantee, however, is what they protect you against. I’ve learned over time, and through an array of consumer complaints, that my stock of charms can variously protect against finding moles in the garden, slight breezes, rains of fish, tripping over on a Sunday, burning your tongue on hot tea, sneezing in alleyways, and success – one charm so counter-intuitive that I could’ve sold it as a revenge curse if only I’d known what it did at the time. I can’t read Japanese, you see. I just had to hope one of the omamori about my person deflected sharp things or guarded against bad luck. But it was a Sunday, so I’d settle for not tripping over anything if the opportunity arose.
Anyway, we all have our own ways of squaring up to danger. We’ve all got our own flimsy veneer of defence that gives us confidence and helps us traverse the unknown. For me it’s a trench coat full of charms and cheap tricks; for Peggy it’s a severe change of wardrobe; for Ang it’s the way she straightens her shirt, buttons her waistcoat, and glares at the world. She ties her bluecap lantern to her belt so her hands are free, and the blue flame dims as if it senses our collective forbidding mood.
We exchange nods. We’re ready, and we set off.
We’re going to visit a museum.
The British Museum.
* * *
It was the closest thing to a lead we had, and it was flimsy at best. The only thing we knew for certain was that the phoenix was in London, and only for a limited time. We knew this because it was the one solid piece of information Quiet Eyes had divulged to us. She was tight-lipped on almost every question we asked her. What does the phoenix look like? Where is it now? Is it dangerous?
She dismissed our questions with wry amusement and the assertion that if I was as good as I claimed to be, then I should be able to find the answers for myself. I began to suspect that maybe she didn’t know the answers.
“Why me?” I’d asked. “Why can’t you obtain this thing yourself?”
She’d giggled and called me obtuse. “Think of it as another test, Hansard. We want to see your skills in action. Prove to us you’re worth employing.”
I pointed out that I wasn’t looking for long-term employment. With the payment for this job, she told me, you won’t need to look for it ever again.
“Once you’ve found the phoenix,” she said, her calm eyes sparking with fire, “you can keep it. Just bring me an egg. One, solitary egg. Do whatever you want with the bird. Think of all the stories they’ll tell about you.”
It was horribly, tantalisingly exciting.
No one’s ever caught a phoenix before. And based on our long night of research, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone had ever seen the thing, either.
Descriptions of it were schizophrenic, at best. The bird has gold and red feathers, they said. Or maybe it’s kind of purple. Actually, orange is more accurate. No, no, no, gold and purple, with a blue tail. It looks like a peacock. Or an eagle. Or a heron.
Heck, I was beginning to doubt it was even a bird at all.
It lives in Egypt, said some people. Or Arabia. Or India. Hell, take the whole of Asia. Maybe it dies in a burst of flame, maybe it doesn’t ever die. The earliest stories, Peggy pointed out, don’t mention fire at all. How many are there? Only one, in the whole wide world. Except when there are two. Or maybe more. By some accounts the offspring rebirths the parent in an endless cycle. By others, the bloody thing created itself.
In the end we latched onto the fact that the phoenix was in our immediate vicinity. How did it get to London? Did it fly here? Or is it already in someone’s possession, seized and removed from its native lands?
Google, I must admit, has somewhat captured my heart with how quickly it returned an answer:
Temporary Exhibition: Faith in Flames; the Phoenix and the Egyptian Sun-Cult, Oct 14th–Dec 14th.
Peggy had grabbed me by the arm. “I know about this!” she exclaimed, ignoring my expression of exasperation. “It was on the news. They’ve found the remains of a temple in Cairo – Temple of the Sun, I think they called it – and they’re touring some of the artefacts round the world. I’ve been meaning to go and see it. How cool!”
Ang and I were less impressed by the historical importance of the event, but we acknowledged that it was the closest thing we had to proof of the phoenix’s whereabouts. As a starting point – and a place for further research, Peggy pointed out – it couldn’t hurt to begin our search there.
Hurt my wallet, though.
“These are some interesting lumps of rock,” I noted sourly, staring into a glass case filled with segments of stone which, the sign dutifully assured me, were fine and significant examples of ancient architecture. “Sure glad I paid a whole ten pounds to come and look at it.”
“S’good stone, though,” offered Ang, with her tradesman’s eye. I hadn’t had to to buy her a ticket, luckily. I passed her off as a child.
Peggy was busily scribbling down notes as she read the information panels. “It’s not a waste of money, Jack. Look, there’s all sorts of stories about the phoenix here.”
“Yes, I remember reading most them online last night,” I replied with irritation. I felt the museum staff had read the same Wikipedia articles we’d poured over. The gist was this: the traditional fiery phoenix might have originated from even older stories about some sacred Egyptian heron called the bennu. This thing was the soul of their sun-god Ra, or Re, or whatever, and he was worshipped at the imaginatively named Temple of the Sun, which is where these lumps of rock had apparently been dug up from. The rest of the ‘facts’ offered by the exhibition centred around the rise and fall of some city called Heliopolis (‘City of the Sun’, another creative name).
I kicked my heels and leaned against a wall. “We’re not learning anything here, Peg. We should put our time to better use elsewhere.”
She looked over to me with a stern gaze that made me think of wooden rulers and blackboards and chalk dust. “Were you like this in school, Jack? I don’t know how your teachers made you sit still long enough to learn anything.”
“They didn’t, mostly,” I admitted. “How much longer do we need to be here?”
“At least until we’ve seen the benben stone. It’s meant to be the prize gem of the exhibition.”
“I’ll bet it’s not a gem. I’ll bet it’s a lump of rock.”
The exhibition was designed so that you’d be funnelled around it in one direction, following a corridor winding into a spiral. The idea, I presume, to present you with ever-more outlandish information the deeper you explored. At the centre was a space with dramatically low lighting and a bright spotlight on a tall plinth. On top gleamed a large piece of black diorite shaped like a pyramid. Gold inlay shimmered like liquid across its surface, picking out in fine detail the form of a heron, backed by rays of the sun.
I felt an innocuous buzzing at the edge of my senses.
“What’s so special about this one, then?” sniffed Ang, oblivious to the value of the precious metal and workmanship that must have gone into it. Gold was pretty useless, in her eyes.
“This,” breathed Peggy, with what I felt was a very middle-class kind of enthusiasm, “this is the actual benben stone from the Temple of the Sun. They think it sat on top of a pillar, or an obelisk, and it’s where the phoenix supposedly came to roost every five hundred years.” The light in her eyes dimmed as she saw that I wasn’t exhibiting the same air of excitement. “I thought you were interested in this sort of thing, Jack,” she said, with unconcealed disappointment.
I shrugged and tried to soften the blow of my disinterest. “It’s just a stone to me, Peg. It’d make a nice sale for sure, but I doubt my car would take the weight of it. It’s got a nice story and all, but ultimately it’s just a bit of building.” I could see she didn’t understand. “I mean it’s just ordinary, Peg. I’m not denying it’s a good lead; it might well help us find the phoenix somehow. But I don’t need to be interested in it.”
“Because it’s ordinary?” said Peggy in clipped tones. Her lips drew into a thin frown. I felt perplexed.
“Look, I get that all this history stuff is important to you–”
“No you don’t,” she seethed. “It’s not ordinary. Jack, sometimes I– . . . Sometimes I think you walk around with your eyes closed. You’re so bent on finding the outrageous that you miss the extraordinary right in front of your eyes. How can you be so, so, passionate about the otherworldly, but so indifferent to your own world?”
“Easy that,” I replied. “I belong in one, not the other.”
“Rubbish! The two are intertwined. You can’t just, just, escape into some other reality and expect it to be separate. They’re all linked, you should know that! How can you chase a mythical creature and not wonder at the impact it’s had on human development, on our culture? Actually, I think I know the answer. It’s the attitude you have, your safety blanket. You think you can lie, and cheat, and run forever, Jack the free spirit, and you forget that there are people out there with guns who are very much living in the real world with real tempers and real bullets and real consequences.” She subsided, and spoke a little quieter. “What happens after you find this phoenix, Jack? You get paid, you get a bit of street cred? Then what? Have you even wondered why this Baines and Grayle want a phoenix egg in the first place? What if they try to breed them? What if they’re doing something cruel?” She looked at me sadly. “Have you ever thought about what happens to the things you sell? Whether people might get hurt?”
I fought down the lump in my throat. Ang was observing me closely, her steely gaze daring me to say what was on my mind.
“As it happens,” I began. As it happens, I wanted to say, yes, of course people get hurt. That’s the entire point of at least half my stock. Vengeance hexes and potions are my best-sellers. They are designed to hurt. But I’m just a supplier. What happens after money has changed hands is none of my business whatsoever. That’s just how business works.
You did choose this business, pointed out a treacherously guilty voice in my head.
“As it happens,” I said instead, “I think we’re close to finding the phoenix right now.”
Peggy’s brow wrinkled and she took a step back, derailed and deflated. “What?”
“You hear that buzzing?”
“I hears it,” murmured Ang. She nodded towards the benben stone. “Coming from that thing.”
Baffled, Peggy watched me move past her to inspect the stone. As I honed in on the buzzing, I realised it wasn’t so much the glinting gold that gave the shimmering effect; more accurately, the whole stone seemed to shimmer in and out of focus.
“What are you staring at?” whispered Peggy. Right now we were the only ones in this quiet space.
I let her see my grin. “Do you know how to unfocus, Peg?”
“The trick that nasty twerp Vincent pulled? No. Why?”
I mulled it over. I’ve done this sort of thing before. Once. I’m sure I could do it again. I exhaled, pushed back my anticipation.
“You know about the folds in reality, right? How there are pockets of other reality you can reach, if you know how?”
“You’ve told me,” she said warily.
“This stone, here,” I couldn’t help waving my hand over it, gleefully stopping short of making contact, “it’s a bridge, Peg. A weak point. An easy way across.”
“Across to what?”
“To wherever the phoenix is!”
Ang had figured out my line of thought by now. “Y’think it locked itself away, gwas? Took itself out o’ this world, like mine own kin?”
“Or maybe someone else locked it away,” I pondered. “In any case, I think we’ve cracked it!”
Peggy grabbed my arm. “Wait. This is exactly what I mean, Jack. If it’s locked away, like you say, then, well, why? Maybe someone put it there for a good reason. Maybe it put itself there for a good reason!”
“Then we’re going to find out why,” I answered cheerfully. She wasn’t buying. “All right, Peg, how about this. What if the phoenix is harmless, right? What if, maybe, some ancient Egyptian or someone, found a way to imprison the poor bird this way. They worshipped it, right? Seems like it would be mighty handy for a priest to be able to conjure his sacred bird at will, right? Then their civilisation crumbles, and the phoenix is lost to the sand, trapped forever. What if freeing it is the right thing to do, eh?”
I could tell she knew that my heart wasn’t in that argument at all. But the way she bit her lip told me that it had struck a chord anyway.
“Okay,” she said at last. “What do we do now?”
I reached out an arm. “Both of you, just touch my hand. Try not to concentrate. I’ll do the rest.”
I breathed slowly, tried to not let exhilaration get the better of me. I’m going to be the first to find the phoenix, I thought.
I unfocused myself, let my edges blur, and let them expand to encompass Peggy and Ang. We aren’t here, I told myself. We’re insubstantial, part of the background, inconsequential, fuzzy. Fog seemed to slither forth from the benben stone. Dreamily, I placed my hand on the cool surface, fingers splayed across the glimmering gold on black. The whole world glimmered, became golden mist, and then settled. The world came back into focus. It was dark, and silent.
Next to me, Ang and Peggy breathed heavily as they adjusted. I pulled away my hand and doubled over, wheezing. Damn. That really . . . took it . . . out of me . . .
“You all right, Jack?” asked Peggy, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“You look pale.” Then she stopped, and went pale herself. Her eyes fastened on something over my shoulder. My eyes fastened on something over hers. Turning in a circle, I discovered it went all the way around the horizon.
The sky, if that’s what you could call it, was a sheet of obsidian stretching over our heads and to the edges of vision. At the horizon it met what at first appeared to be an unending pane of black glass, until a few tell-tale ripples proved it to be liquid.
There was no source of light that I could see, though clearly there was some kind of light to see by. It felt thin, as if the light itself was filtered and weak. So was the air, for that matter. The whole place felt thin, of little substance. Even the rock we stood on, though solid beneath our feet, felt eerily delicate.
Ang crouched down and stared at it with a blank, impassive gaze. “No rock I recognise,” she muttered to herself. “Looks like granite here, limestone there. Could be both at once.”
It seemed we were on some kind of island, blank and grey and rocky, rising out of an infinite, inky sea. There were only two landmarks as far as I could see. Here, a shoulder-high pillar topped with a duplicate of the benben stone – though of course in my mind, I knew it wasn’t really a duplicate. It was the same stone, existing in two places at once.
As for the second point of reference, it lay in the far distance at the highest point on a crest of rock. It looked a bit like a nest. I indicated it to the others. “Jackpot.”
We started to climb, cautiously. It was hill all the way, in some places deceptively smooth and slippery, in others jagged and unsubtle. Ang surged past us, unfazed by the difficult terrain or the weak light. Her bluecap lantern lit her footsteps and I got the impression, by the way it strained against the glass, that it guided her towards the safest path over the craggy ground. Peggy and I followed as best we could. Our eyes struggled against the light, fighting to pick out the edges of one rock from another.
We mounted a ridge and rested. I guessed the nest to be about half a mile away, though the slope made it seem further. I leant against a boulder and caught my breath.
Ang wrinkled her nose. “Now this mightn’t be stone I recognise, right enough, but I knows fer certain that no rock nor clay, nor loam, nor sand ought to smell like that.”
My own nose caught the scent, a pungent, perfumed sort of smell. It seemed to be the boulder I was leaning on.
“Smells like myrrh,” said Peggy, puzzled. “And it does have a slightly orange hue, don’t you think? Kind of stands out against all the grey. So smooth, too.”
I gave it an experimental tap. With surprise, I caught the echo that told me it was hollow.
“Fancy that. Reckon it’s a geode or something?”
Ang looked at me with disdain. “Ye know nuthin’ of geology, twpsyn.”
“I’m surprised you know the word ‘geology’.”
A tapping emanated from the boulder.
“Did you hear that?” said Peggy, aghast.
“D’you reckon . . . D’you reckon it’s an egg?” I ventured.
“Don’t be daft! What bird lays an egg big as that! Pentwp.”
“Actually,” said Peggy thoughtfully.
“I think I remember reading something about the phoenix making eggs out of myrrh . . .”
I began to cast around for something useful.
“Daft!” Ang spluttered.
The knocking came again, more insistent. It was followed by a muffled cry.
“That sounded human,” gasped Peggy.
I found what I was looking for. A big, sharp rock. “Stand back,” I said.
I hefted it with both hands, then swung as hard as I could against the myrrh boulder. It cracked; another swing, another crack; third time lucky, the crack split down the middle and one half of the egg slid away, throwing perfumed dust into the air. Inside was a human figure, curled into a foetal position. It unfolded itself, stretched painfully, revealing a red leather duster and a broad-brimmed hat with a bedraggled feather stuck in it.
The occupant of the coat and hat looked up into my eyes and swayed.
“Hansard?” he said blearily.