The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.
It wasn’t much of a night for it: early March, drizzling and cold but not quite cold enough for snow. It wasn’t much of a bookstore either. Quentin spent fifteen minutes watching it from a bus shelter at the edge of the empty parking lot, rain drumming on the plastic roof and making the asphalt shine in the streetlights. Not one of your charming, quirky bookstores, with a ginger cat on the windowsill and a shelf of rare signed first editions and an eccentric, bewhiskered proprietor behind the counter. This was just another strip-mall outpost of a struggling chain, squeezed in between a nail salon and a party City, twenty minutes outside Hackensack off the New Jersey turnpike.
Satisfied, Quentin crossed the parking lot. The enormous bearded cashier didn’t look up from his phone when the door jingled. Inside you could still hear the noise of cars on the wet road, like long strips of paper tearing, one after another. The only unexpected touch was a wire birdcage in one corner, but where you would have expected a parrot or a cockatoo inside there was a fat blue-black bird instead. That’s how un-charming this store was: it had a crow in a cage.
Quentin didn’t care. It was a bookstore, and he felt at home in bookstores, and he hadn’t had that feeling much lately. he was going to enjoy it. He pushed his way back through the racks of greeting cards and cat calendars, back to where the actual books were, his glasses steaming up and his coat dripping on the thin carpet. It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.
The store should have been empty, coming up on nine o’clock on a cold rainy Thursday night, but instead it was full of people. They browsed the shelves silently, each one on his or her own, slowly wandering the aisles like sleepwalkers. a jewel-faced girl with a pixie cut was reading Dante in Italian. a tall boy with large curious eyes who couldn’t have been older than sixteen was absorbed in a tom Stoppard play. a middle-aged black man with elfin cheekbones stood staring at the biographies through thick, iridescent glasses. You would almost have thought they’d come there to buy books. But Quentin knew better.
He wondered if it would be obvious, if he would know right away, or if there would be a trick to it. If they’d make him guess. he was getting to be a pretty old dog—he’d be thirty this year—but this particular game was new to him. At least it was warm inside. He took off his glasses and wiped them with a cloth. he’d just gotten them a couple of months ago, the price of a lifetime of reading fine print, and they were still an unfamiliar presence on his face: a windshield between him and the world, always slip- ping down his nose and getting smudged when he pushed them up again. When he put them back on he noticed a sharp-featured young woman, girl-next-door pretty, if you happened to live next door to a grad student in astrophysics. She was standing in a corner paging through a big, expensive architectural-looking volume. Piranesi drawings: vast shadowy vaults and cellars and prisons, haunted by great wooden engines.
Quentin knew her. Her name was plum. She felt him watching her and looked up, raising her eyebrows in mild surprise, as if to say you’re kidding—you’re in on this thing too?
He shook his head once, very slightly, and looked away, keeping his face carefully blank. Not to say no, I’m not in on this, I just come here for the novelty coffee mugs and their trenchant commentary on the little ironies of everyday life. What he meant was: let’s pretend we don’t know each other.
It was looking like he had some time to kill so he joined the browsers, scanning the spines for something to read. The Fillory books were there, of course, shelved in the young adult section, repackaged and rebranded
with slick new covers that made them look like supernatural romance novels. But Quentin couldn’t face them right now. Not tonight, not here. he took down a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold instead and spent ten contented minutes at a checkpoint in gray 1950s Berlin.
“Attention, Bookbumblers patrons!” the cashier said over the PA, though the store was small enough that Quentin could hear his unamplified voice perfectly clearly. “Attention! Bookbumblers will be closing in five minutes! please make your final selections!”
He put the book back. an old woman in a beret that looked like she’d knitted it herself bought a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and let herself out into the night. So not her. The skinny kid who’d been camped out cross-legged in the graphic novels section, reading them to rags, left without buying anything. So not him either. a tall, bluff- looking guy with Cro-Magnon hair and a face like a stump who’d been furiously studying the greeting cards, pretty clearly overthinking his decision, finally bought one. But he didn’t leave.
At nine o’clock exactly the big cashier closed the door and locked it with a final, fateful jingle, and suddenly Quentin was all nerves. He was on a carnival ride, and the safety bar had dropped, and now it was too late to get off. he took a deep breath and frowned at himself, but the nerves didn’t go away. The bird shuffled its feet in the seeds and drop- pings on the bottom of its cage and squawked once. It was a lonely kind of squawk, the kind you’d hear if you were out by yourself on a rainy moor, lost, with darkness closing in fast.
The cashier walked to the back of the store—he had to excuse himself past the guy with the cheekbones—and opened a gray metal door marked staff only.
He sounded bored, like he did this every night, which for all Quentin knew he did. Now that he was standing up Quentin could see that he really was huge—six foot four or five and deep-chested. Not pumped, but with broad shoulders and that aura of slow inexorability that naturally enormous men have. his face was noticeably asymmetrical: it bulged out on one side as if he’d been slightly overinflated. He looked like a gourd.
Quentin took the last spot in line. He counted eight others, all of them looking around cautiously and taking exaggerated care not to jostle one another, as if they might explode on contact. he worked a tiny revelation charm to make sure there was nothing weird about the door—he made an OK sign with his thumb and forefinger and held it up to one eye like a monocle.
“No magic,” the cashier said. He snapped his fingers at Quentin. “Guy. hey. No spells. No magic.”
Heads turned. “Sorry?”
Quentin played dumb. Nobody called him Your Majesty anymore, but he didn’t think he was ready to answer to guy yet. He finished his inspection. It was a door and nothing more.
“Cut it out. No magic.”
Pushing his luck, Quentin turned and studied the clerk. Through the lens he could see something small shining in his pocket, a talisman that might have been related to sexual performance. The rest of him shone too, as if he were covered in phosphorescent algae. Weird.
“Sure.” he dropped his hands and the lens vanished. “No problem.” Someone rapped on the windowpane. a face appeared, indistinct through the wet glass. The cashier shook his head, but whoever it was rapped again, harder.
“What the shit.”
He unlocked the front door and after a whispered argument let in a man in his twenties, dripping wet, red-faced but otherwise sportscaster- handsome, wearing a windbreaker that was way too light for the weather. Quentin wondered where he’d managed to get a sunburn in March.
They all filed into the back room. It was darker than Quentin expected, and bigger too; real estate must come cheap out here on the turnpike. There were steel shelves crammed full of books flagged with fluorescent-colored stickies; a couple of desks in one corner, the walls in front of them shingled with shift schedules and taped-up New Yorker cartoons; stacks of cardboard shipping boxes; a busted couch; a busted armchair; a mini-fridge—it must have doubled as the break room. Half of it was just wasted space. The back wall was a steel shutter that opened onto a loading dock.
A handful of other people were coming in through another door in the left-hand wall, looking just as wary. Quentin could see another bookstore behind them, a nicer one, with old lamps and oriental rugs. Probably a ginger cat too. He didn’t need magic to know that it wasn’t a door at all but a portal to somewhere else, some arbitrary distance away. There—he caught a telltale hairline seam of green light along one edge. The only thing behind that wall in reality was party City.
Who were they all? Quentin had heard rumors about dog-and-pony shows like this before, gray-market cattle calls, work for hire, but he’d never seen one himself. He definitely never thought he’d go to one, not in a million years. He never thought it would come to that. Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.
Except now they were. It had come to that. He was one of them, these were his people. Six months ago he’d been a king in a magic land, an- other world, but that was all over. He’d been kicked out of Fillory, and he’d been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just an- other striver, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth.
Plum and the man with the iridescent glasses sat on the couch. Red Face took the busted armchair. Pixie Cut and the teenage Stoppard reader sat on boxes. The rest of them stood—there were twelve, thirteen, fourteen in all. The cashier shut the gray door behind them, cutting off the last of the noise from the outside world, and snuffed out the portal. he’d brought the birdcage with him; now he placed it on top of a cardboard box and opened it to let the crow out. It looked around, shaking first one foot then the other the way birds do. “Thank you all for coming,” it said. “I will be brief.”
That was unexpected. Judging from the ripple of surprise that ran through the room, he wasn’t the only one. You didn’t see a lot of talking birds on Earth, that was more of a Fillorian thing.
“I’m looking for an object,” the bird said. “I will need help taking it from its present owners.”
The bird’s glossy feathers shone darkly in the glow of the hanging lights. Its voice echoed in the half-empty stockroom. It was a soft, mild-mannered voice, not hoarse at all like you’d expect from a crow. It sounded incongruously human—however it was producing speech, it had nothing to do with its actual vocal apparatus. But that was magic for you.
“So stealing,” an Indian guy said. Not like it bothered him, he just wanted clarification. He was older than Quentin, forty maybe, balding and wearing an unbelievably bad multicolored wool sweater.
“Theft,” the bird said. “Yes.”
“Stealing back, or stealing?” “What is the difference?”
“I would merely like to know whether we are the bad guys or the good guys. Which of you has a rightful claim on the object?”
The bird cocked its head thoughtfully.
“Neither party has an entirely valid claim,” it said. “But if it makes a difference our claim is superior to theirs.”
That seemed to satisfy the Indian guy, though Quentin wondered if he would have had a problem either way.
“Who are you?” somebody called out. The bird ignored that. “What is the object?” Plum asked.
“You’ll be told after you’ve accepted the job.”
“Where is it?” Quentin asked.
The bird shifted its weight back and forth.
“It is in the northeastern United States of america.” It half spread its wings in what might have been a bird-shrug.
“So you don’t know,” Quentin said. “So finding it is part of the job.”
The bird didn’t deny it. Pixie Cut scooched forward, which wasn’t easy on the broken-backed couch, especially in a skirt that short. Her hair was black with purple highlights, and Quentin noticed a couple of blue star tattoos peeking out of her sleeves, the kind you got in a safe house. He wondered how many more she had underneath. He wondered what she’d done to end up here.
“So we’re finding and we’re stealing and I’m guessing probably doing some fighting in between. What kind of resistance are you expecting?”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Security, how many people, who are they, how scary. Is that specific enough?”
“Yes. We are expecting two.”
“Two magicians, plus some civilian staff. Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as I know.”
“As far as you know!” The red-faced man guffawed loudly. he seemed on further examination to be a little insane.
“I do know that they have been able to place an incorporate bond on the object. The bond will have to be broken, obviously.”
A stunned silence followed this statement, then somebody made an exasperated noise. The tall man who’d been shopping for greeting cards snorted as if to say can you believe this shit?
“Those are supposed to be unbreakable,” plum said coolly. “You’re wasting our time!” Iridescent Glasses said.
“An incorporate bond has never been broken,” the bird said, not at all bothered—or were its feathers just slightly ruffled? “But we believe that it is theoretically possible, with the right skills and the right resources. We have all the skills we need in this room.”
“What about the resources?” pixie Cut asked. “The resources can be obtained.”
“So that’s also part of the job,” Quentin said. He ticked them off on his fingers. “Obtaining the resources, finding the object, breaking the bond, taking the object, dealing with the current owners. Correct?”
“Yes. Payment is two million dollars each, cash or gold. A hundred thousand tonight, the rest once we have the object. Make your decisions now. Bear in mind that if you say no you will find yourself unable to discuss tonight’s meeting with anyone else.”
Satisfied that it had made its case, the bird fluttered up to perch on top of its cage.
It was more than Quentin had expected. There were probably easier and safer ways in this world for a magician to earn two million dollars, but there weren’t many that were this quick, or that were right in front of him. Even magicians needed money sometimes, and this was one of those times. He had to get back into the swim of things. He had work to do.
“If you’re not interested, please leave now,” the cashier said. evidently He was the bird’s lieutenant. He might have been in his mid-twenties. His black beard covered his chin and neck like brambles.
The Cro-Magnon guy stood up.
“Good luck.” he turned out to have a thick German accent. “You gonna need this, huh?”
He skimmed the greeting card into the middle of the room and left.
It landed face up: get well soon. Nobody picked it up.
About a third of the room shuffled out with him, off in search of other pitches and better offers. Maybe this wasn’t the only show in town tonight. But it was the only one Quentin knew about, and he didn’t leave. He watched Plum, and Plum watched him. She didn’t leave either. They were in the same boat—she must be scrabbling too.
The red-faced guy stood against the wall by the door.
“See ya!” he said to each person as they passed him. “Buh-bye!” When everybody who was going to leave had left the cashier closed the
door again. They were down to eight: Quentin, Plum, pixie, red Face, Iridescent Glasses, the teenager, the Indian guy, and a long-faced woman in a flowing dress with a lock of white hair over her forehead; the last two had come in through the other door. The room felt even quieter than it had before, and strangely empty.
“Are you from Fillory?” Quentin asked the bird.
That got some appreciative laughter, though he wasn’t joking, and the bird didn’t laugh. It didn’t answer him either. Quentin couldn’t read its face; like all birds, it had only one expression.
“Before we go any further each of you must pass a simple test of magical strength and skill,” the bird said. “Lionel here”—it meant the cashier—“is an expert in probability magic. Each of you will play a hand of cards with him. If you beat him you will have passed the test.” There were some disgruntled noises at this new revelation, followed by another round of discreet mutual scoping-out. From the reaction
Quentin gathered that this wasn’t standard practice.
“What’s the game?” Plum asked.
“The game is push.”
“You must be joking,” Iridescent Glasses said, disgustedly. “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
Lionel had produced a pack of cards and was shuffling and bridging it fluently, without looking, his face blank.
“I know what I require,” the bird said stiffly. “I know that I am offering a great deal of money for it.”
“Well, I didn’t come here to play games.” The man stood up.
“Well why the fuck did you come here?” pixie asked brightly. “You may leave at any time,” the bird said.
“Maybe I will.”
he walked to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob, as if he were expecting somebody to stop him. Nobody did. The door shut after him.
Quentin watched Lionel shuffle. The man obviously knew how to handle a deck; the cards leapt around obligingly in his large hands, neatly and cleanly, the way they did for a pro. He thought about the entrance exam he’d taken to get into Brakebills, what was it, thirteen years ago now? He hadn’t been too proud to take a test then. He sure as hell wasn’t now.
And he used to be a bit of a pro at this himself. Cards were stage magic, close-up magic. This was where he started out.
“All right,” Quentin said. he got up, flexing his fingers. “Let’s do it.”
he dragged a desk chair over noisily and sat down opposite Lionel. As a courtesy Lionel offered him the deck. Quentin took it.
He stuck to a basic shuffle, trying not to look too slick. The cards were stiff but not brand new. They had the usual industry-standard anti-manipulation charms on them, nothing he hadn’t seen before. It felt good to have them in his hands. He was back on familiar ground. Without being obvious about it, he got a look at a few face cards and put them where they wouldn’t go to waste. It had been a while, a long while, but this was a game he knew something about. Back in the day push had been a major pastime among the physical Kids.
It was a childishly simple game. Push was a lot like War—high card wins—with some silly added twists to break ties (toss cards into a hat; once you get five in, score it like a poker hand; etc.). But the rules weren’t the point; the point of push was to cheat. There was a lot of strange magic in cards: a shuffled deck wasn’t a fixed thing, it was a roiling cloud of possibilities, and nothing was ever certain till the cards were actually played. It was like a box with a whole herd of Schrödinger’s cats in it. With a little magical know-how you could alter the order in which your cards came out; with a little more you could guess what your opponent was going to play before she played it; with a bit more you could play cards that by all the laws of probability rightfully belonged to your opponent, or in the discard pile, or in some other deck entirely.
Quentin handed back the cards, and the game began.
They started slow, trading off low cards, easy tricks, both holding serve. Quentin counted cards automatically, though there was a limit to how much good it could do—when magicians played the cards had a way of changing sides, and cards you thought were safely deceased and out of play had a way of coming back to life. He’d been curious what caliber of talent got involved in these kinds of operations, and he was revising his estimates sharply upward. It was obvious he wasn’t going to overwhelm Lionel with brute force.
Quentin wondered where he’d trained. Brakebills, probably, same as
he had; there was a precise, formal quality to his magic that you didn’t see coming out of the safe houses. Though there was something else too: it had a cold, sour, alien tang to it—Quentin could almost taste it. he wondered if Lionel was quite as human as he looked.
There were twenty-six tricks in a hand of push, and halfway through neither side had established an advantage. But on the fourteenth trick Quentin overreached—he burned some of his strength to force a king to the top of his deck, only to waste it on a deuce from Lionel. The mismatch left him off balance, and he lost the next three tricks in a row. He clawed back two more by stealing cards from the discard pile, but the preliminaries were over. From here on out it was going to be a dogfight.
The room narrowed to just the table. It had been a while since Quentin had seen his competitive spirit, but it was rousing itself from its long slumber. He wasn’t going to lose this thing. That wasn’t going to happen. He bore down. He could feel Lionel probing, trying to shove cards around within the unplayed deck, and he shoved back. They blew all four aces in as many tricks, all-out, hammer and tongs. For kicks Quentin split his concentration and used a simple spell to twitch the sex amulet out of Lionel’s pocket and onto the floor. But if that distracted Lionel he didn’t show it.
Probability fields began to fluctuate crazily around them—invisible, but you could see secondary effects from them in the form of minor but very unlikely chance occurrences. Their hair and clothes stirred in impalpable breezes. A card tossed to one side might land on its edge and balance there, or spin in place on one corner. A mist formed above the table, and a single flake of snow sifted down out of it. The onlookers backed away a few steps. Quentin beat a jack of hearts with the king, then lost the next trick with the exact same cards reversed. He played a deuce—and Lionel swore under his breath when he realized he was somehow holding the extra card with the rules of poker on it.
Reality was softening and melting in the heat of the game. On the second-to-last trick Lionel played the queen of spades, and Quentin frowned—did her face look the slightest bit like Julia’s? Either way there was no such thing as a one-eyed queen, let alone one with a bird on her shoulder. He spent his last king against it, or he thought he did: when he laid it down it had become a jack, a suicide jack at that, which again there was no such card, especially not one with white hair like his own.
Even Lionel looked surprised. Something must be twisting the cards—it was like there was some invisible third player at the table who was toying with both of them. With his next and last card it became clear that Lionel had lost all control over his hand because he turned over a queen of no known suit, a Queen of Glass. Her face was translucent cellophane, sapphire-blue. It was Alice, to the life.
“What the shit,” Lionel said, shaking his head.
What the shit was right. Quentin clung to his nerve. The sight of Alice’s face shook him, it froze his gut, but it also stiffened his resolve. It reminded him what he was doing here. He was not going to panic. In fact he was going to take advantage of this—Alice was going to help him. The essence of close-up magic is misdirection, and with Lionel distracted Quentin pulled a king of clubs out of his boot with numb fingers and slapped it down. He tried to ignore the gray suit the king wore, and the branch that was sprouting in front of his face.
It was over. Game and match. Quentin sat back and took a deep, shaky breath.
“Good,” the bird said simply. “Next.”
Lionel didn’t look happy, but he didn’t say anything either, just crouched down and collected his amulet from under the table. Quentin got up and went to stand against the wall with others, his knees weak, his heart still racing, revving past the red line.
He was happy to get out of the game with a win, but he’d thought he would. He hadn’t thought he’d see his long-lost ex-girlfriend appear on a face card. What just happened? Maybe someone here knew more about him than they should. Maybe they were trying to throw him off his game. But who? Who would bother? Nobody cared if he won or lost, not anymore. As far as he knew the only person who cared right now was Quentin.
Maybe he was doing it himself—maybe his own subconscious was
Reaching up from below and warping his spellwork. Or was it Alice herself, wherever she was, whatever she was, watching him and having a little fun? Well, let her have it. He was focused on the present, that was what mattered. he had work to do. He was getting his life back together. The past had no jurisdiction here. Not even Alice.
The red-faced guy won his game with no signs of anything out of the ordinary. So did the Indian guy. The woman with the shock of white hair went out early, biting her lip as she laid down a blatantly impossible five deuces in a row, followed by a joker, then a Go Directly to Jail! Card from Monopoly. The kid got a bye for some reason—the bird didn’t make him play at all. Plum got a bye too. Pixie passed faster than any of them, either because she was that strong or because Lionel was getting tired.
When it was all over Lionel handed the woman who’d lost a brick of hundred-dollar bills for her trouble. he handed another one to the red- faced man.
“Thank you for your time,” the bird said.
“Me?” The man stared down at the money in his hand. “But I passed!”
“Yes,” Lionel said. “But you got here late. And you seem like kind of an asshole.”
The man’s face got even redder than it already was.
“Go ahead,” Lionel said. He spread his arms. “Make a move.”
The man’s face twitched, but he wasn’t so angry or so crazy that he couldn’t read the odds.
“Fuck you!” he said.
That was his move. He slammed the door behind him.
Quentin dropped into the armchair the man had just vacated, even though it was damp from his wet windbreaker. He felt limp and wrung out. He hoped the testing was over with, he wouldn’t have trusted himself to cast anything right now. Counting him there were only five left: Quentin, Plum, Pixie, the Indian guy, and the kid.
This all seemed a hell of a lot more real than it had half an hour ago. It wasn’t too late, he could still walk away. He hadn’t seen any deal-breakers yet, but he hadn’t seen a lot to inspire confidence either. This could be his way back in, or it could be the road to somewhere even worse. He’d spent enough time already on things that went nowhere and left him with nothing. He could walk out, back into the rainy night, back into the cold and the wet.
But he didn’t. It was time to turn things around. He was going to make this work. It wasn’t like he had a lot of better offers.
“You think this is going to be enough?” Quentin asked the bird. “Just five of us?”
“Six, with Lionel. And yes. In fact I would say that it is exactly right.” “Well, don’t keep us in suspense,” Pixie said. “What’s the target?”
The bird didn’t keep them in suspense.
“The object we are looking for is a suitcase. Brown leather, average size, manufactured 1937, monogrammed RCJ. The make is Louis Vuitton.”
It actually had a pretty credible French accent. “Fancy,” she said. “What’s in it?”
“I do not know.”
“You don’t know?” It was the first time the teenage boy had spoken. “Why the hell do you want it then?”
“In order to find out.”
“Huh. What do the initials stand for?” “Rupert John Chatwin,” the bird said crisply. The kid looked confused. His lips moved.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Wouldn’t the C come last?”
“It’s a monogram, dumbass,” pixie said. “The last name goes in the middle.”
The Indian guy was rubbing his chin.
“Chatwin.” he was trying to place the name. “Chatwin. But isn’t that—?”
It sure is, Quentin thought, though he didn’t say anything. he didn’t move a muscle. It sure as hell is.
Chatwin: that name chilled him even more than the night and the rain and the bird and the cards had. By rights he should have gone the rest of his life without hearing it again. It had no claim on him anymore, and vice versa. He and the Chatwins were through.
Except it seemed that they weren’t. He’d said good-bye and buried them and mourned them—the Chatwins, Fillory, plover, Whitespire— but there must still be some last invisible unbroken strand connecting them to him. Something deeper than mourning. The wound had healed, but the scar wouldn’t fade, not quite. Quentin felt like an addict who’d just caught the faintest whiff of his drug of choice, the pure stuff, after a long time sober, and he felt his imminent relapse coming on with a mixture of despair and anticipation.
That name was a message—a hot signal flare shot up into the night, sent specifically for him, across time and space and darkness and rain, all the way from the bright warm center of the world.