M Is for Magic, page 1
M is for Magic
Illustrations by Teddy Kristiansen
Writing imaginative tales for the young
is like sending coals to Newcastle. For coals.
The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Don’t Ask Jack
How to Sell the Ponti Bridge
October in the Chair
How to Talk to Girls at Parties
The Witch’s Headstone
About the Author
Other Books by Neil Gaiman
About the Publisher
W HEN I WAS YOUNG, and it doesn’t really seem that long ago, I loved books of short stories. Short stories could be read from start to finish in the kind of times I had available for reading—morning break, or after-lunch nap, or on trains. They’d set up, they’d roll, and they’d take you to a new world and deliver you safely back to school or back home in half an hour or so.
Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.
Horror stays with you hardest. If it brings a real chill to the back of your neck, if once the story is done you find yourself closing the book slowly, for fear of disturbing something, and creeping away, then it’s there for the rest of time. There was a story I read when I was nine that ended with a room covered with snails. I think they were probably man-eating snails, and they were crawling slowly toward someone to eat him. I get the same creeps remembering it now that I did when I read it.
Fantasy gets into your bones. There’s a curve in a road I sometimes pass, a view of a village on rolling green hills, and, behind it, huger, craggier, grayer hills and, in the distance, mountains and mist, that I cannot see without remembering reading The Lord of the Rings. The book is somewhere inside me, and that view brings it to the surface.
And science fiction (although there’s only a little of that here, I’m afraid) takes you across the stars, and into other times and minds. There’s nothing like spending some time inside an alien head to remind us how little divides us, person from person.
Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
I’ve been writing short stories for almost a quarter of a century now. In the beginning they were a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something, and that was what I was learning how to do. These days most of the things I write are long—long comics or long books or long films—and a short story, something that’s finished and over in a weekend or a week, is pure fun.
My favorite short story writers as a boy are, many of them, my favorite short story writers now. People like Saki or Harlan Ellison, like John Collier or Ray Bradbury. Close-up conjurors, who, with just twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, could make you laugh and break your heart, all in a handful of pages.
There’s another good thing about a book of short stories: you don’t have to like them all. If there’s one you don’t enjoy, well, there will be another one along soon.
The stories in here will take you from a hardboiled detective story about nursery rhyme characters to a group of people who like to eat things, from a poem about how to behave if you find yourself in a fairy tale to a story about a boy who runs into a troll beneath a bridge and the bargain they make. There’s a story that will be part of my next children’s book, The Graveyard Book, about a boy who lives in a graveyard and is brought up by dead people, and there’s a story that I wrote when I was a very young writer called “How to Sell the Ponti Bridge,” a fantasy story inspired by a man named “Count” Victor Lustig who really did sell the Eiffel Tower in much the same way (and who died in Alcatraz prison some years later). There are a couple of slightly scary stories, and a couple of mostly funny ones, and a bunch of them that aren’t quite one thing or another, but I hope you’ll like them anyway.
When I was a boy, Ray Bradbury picked stories from his books of short stories he thought younger readers might like, and he published them as R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space. Now I was doing the same sort of thing, and I asked Ray if he’d mind if I called this book M Is for Magic. (He didn’t.)
M is for magic. All the letters are, if you put them together properly. You can make magic with them, and dreams, and, I hope, even a few surprises….
The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds
I SAT IN MY OFFICE, nursing a glass of hooch and idly cleaning my automatic. Outside the rain fell steadily, like it seems to do most of the time in our fair city, whatever the tourist board says. Heck, I didn’t care. I’m not on the tourist board. I’m a private dick, and one of the best, although you wouldn’t have known it; the office was crumbling, the rent was unpaid, and the hooch was my last.
Things are tough all over.
To cap it all the only client I’d had all week never showed up on the street corner where I’d waited for him. He said it was going to be a big job, but now I’d never know: he kept a prior appointment in the morgue.
So when the dame walked into my office I was sure my luck had changed for the better.
“What are you selling, lady?”
She gave me a look that would have induced heavy breathing in a pumpkin, and which shot my heartbeat up to three figures. She had long blonde hair and a figure that would have made Thomas Aquinas forget his vows. I forgot all mine about never taking cases from dames.
“What would you say to some of the green stuff?” she asked in a husky voice, getting straight to the point.
“Continue, sister.” I didn’t want her to know how bad I needed the dough, so I held my hand in front of my mouth; it doesn’t help if a client sees you salivate.
She opened her purse and flipped out a photograph. Glossy eight by ten. “Do you recognize that man?”
In my business you know who people are. “Yeah.”
“I know that too, sweetheart. It’s old news. It was an accident.”
Her gaze went so icy you could have chipped it into cubes and cooled a cocktail with it. “My brother’s death was no accident.”
I raised an eyebrow—you need a lot of arcane skills in my business—and said, “Your brother, eh?” Funny, she hadn’t struck me as the type that had brothers.
“I’m Jill Dumpty.”
“So your brother was Humpty Dumpty?”
“And he didn’t fall off that wall, Mr. Horner. He was pushed.”
Interesting, if true. Dumpty had his finger in most of the crooked pies in town; I could think of five guys who would have preferred to see him dead than alive without trying. Without trying too hard, anyway.
“You seen the cops about this?”
“Nah. The King’s Men aren’t interested in anything to do with his death. They say they did all they could do in trying to put him together again after the fall.”
I leaned back in my chair.
“So what’s it to you. Why do you need me?”
“I want you to find the killer, Mr. Horner. I want him brought to justice. I want him to fry like an egg. Oh—and one other little thing,” she added lightly. “Before he died Humpty had a small manila envelope full o
I inspected my nails, then looked up at her face, taking in a handful of waist and several curves on the way up. She was a looker, although her cute nose was a little on the shiny side. “I’ll take the case. Seventy-five a day and two hundred bonus for results.”
She smiled; my stomach twisted around once and went into orbit. “You get another two hundred if you get me those photographs. I want to be a nurse real bad.” Then she dropped three fifties on my desktop.
I let a devil-may-care grin play across my rugged face. “Say, sister, how about letting me take you out for dinner? I just came into some money.”
She gave an involuntary shiver of anticipation and muttered something about having a thing about midgets, so I knew I was onto a good thing. Then she gave me a lopsided smile that would have made Albert Einstein drop a decimal point. “First find my brother’s killer, Mr. Horner. And my photographs. Then we can play.”
She closed the door behind her. Maybe it was still raining but I didn’t notice. I didn’t care.
There are parts of town the tourist board doesn’t mention. Parts of town where the police travel in threes if they travel at all. In my line of work you get to visit them more than is healthy. Healthy is never.
He was waiting for me outside Luigi’s. I slid up behind him, my rubber-soled shoes soundless on the shiny wet sidewalk.
He jumped and spun around; I found myself gazing up into the muzzle of a .45. “Oh, Horner.” He put the gun away. “Don’t call me Cock. I’m Bernie Robin to you, short-stuff, and don’t you forget it.”
“Cock Robin is good enough for me, Cock. Who killed Humpty Dumpty?”
He was a strange-looking bird, but you can’t be choosy in my profession. He was the best underworld lead I had.
“Let’s see the color of your money.”
I showed him a fifty.
“Hell,” he muttered. “It’s green. Why can’t they make puce or mauve money for a change?” He took it though. “All I know is that the Fat Man had his finger in a lot of pies.”
“One of those pies had four and twenty blackbirds in it.”
“Do I hafta spell it out for you? I…ughh—” He crumpled to the sidewalk, an arrow protruding from his back. Cock Robin wasn’t going to be doing any more chirping.
Sergeant O’Grady looked down at the body, then he looked down at me. “Faith and begorrah, to be sure,” he said. “If it isn’t Little Jack Horner himself.”
“I didn’t kill Cock Robin, Sarge.”
“And I suppose that the call we got down at the station telling us you were going to be rubbing the late Mr. Robin out—here, tonight—was just a hoax?”
“If I’m the killer, where are my arrows?” I thumbed open a pack of gum and started to chew. “It’s a frame.”
He puffed on his meerschaum and then put it away, and idly played a couple of phrases of the William Tell overture on his oboe. “Maybe. Maybe not. But you’re still a suspect. Don’t leave town. And, Horner…”
“Dumpty’s death was an accident. That’s what the coroner said. That’s what I say. Drop the case.”
I thought about it. Then I thought of the money, and the girl. “No dice, Sarge.”
He shrugged. “It’s your funeral.” He said it like it probably would be.
I had a funny feeling he could be right.
“You’re out of your depth, Horner. You’re playing with the big boys. And it ain’t healthy.”
From what I could remember of my school days he was correct. Whenever I played with the big boys I always wound up having the stuffing beaten out of me. But how did O’Grady—how could O’Grady have known that? Then I remembered something else.
O’Grady was the one that used to beat me up the most.
It was time for what we in the profession call legwork. I made a few discreet inquiries around town, but found out nothing about Dumpty that I didn’t know already.
Humpty Dumpty was a bad egg. I remembered him when he was new in town, a smart young animal trainer with a nice line in training mice to run up clocks. He went to the bad pretty fast though; gambling, drink, women, it’s the same story all over. A bright young kid thinks that the streets of Nurseryland are paved with gold, and by the time he finds out otherwise it’s much too late.
Dumpty started off with extortion and robbery on a small scale—he trained up a team of spiders to scare little girls away from their curds and whey, which he’d pick up and sell on the black market. Then he moved on to blackmail—the nastiest game. We crossed paths once, when I was hired by this young society kid—let’s call him Georgie Porgie—to recover some compromising snaps of him kissing the girls and making them cry. I got the snaps, but I learned it wasn’t healthy to mess with the Fat Man. And I don’t make the same mistakes twice. Hell, in my line of work I can’t afford to make the same mistakes once.
It’s a tough world out there. I remember when Little Bo Peep first came to town…but you don’t want to hear my troubles. If you’re not dead yet, you’ve got troubles of your own.
I checked out the newspaper files on Dumpty’s death. One minute he was sitting on a wall, the next he was in pieces at the bottom. All the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men were on the scene in minutes, but he needed more than first aid. A medic named Foster was called—a friend of Dumpty’s from his Gloucester days—although I don’t know of anything a doc can do when you’re dead.
Hang on a second—Dr. Foster!
I got that old feeling you get in my line of work. Two little brain cells rub together the right way and in seconds you’ve got a twenty-four-karat cerebral fire on your hands.
You remember the client who didn’t show—the one I’d waited for all day on the street corner? An accidental death. I hadn’t bothered to check it out—I can’t afford to waste time on clients who aren’t going to pay for it.
Three deaths, it seemed. Not one.
I reached for the telephone and rang the police station. “This is Horner,” I told the desk man. “Lemme speak to Sergeant O’Grady.”
There was a crackling and he came on the line. “O’Grady speaking.”
“Hi, Little Jack.” That was just like O’Grady. He’d been kidding me about my size since we were kids together. “You finally figured out that Dumpty’s death was accidental?”
“Nope. I’m now investigating three deaths. The Fat Man’s, Bernie Robin’s, and Dr. Foster’s.”
“Foster the plastic surgeon? His death was an accident.”
“Sure. And your mother was married to your father.”
There was a pause. “Horner, if you phoned me up just to talk dirty, I’m not amused.”
“Okay, wise guy. If Humpty Dumpty’s death was an accident and so was Dr. Foster’s, tell me just one thing.
“Who killed Cock Robin?” I don’t ever get accused of having too much imagination, but there’s one thing I’d swear to. I could hear him grinning over the phone as he said: “You did, Horner. And I’m staking my badge on it.”
The line went dead.
My office was cold and lonely, so I wandered down to Joe’s Bar for some companionship and a drink or three.
Four and twenty blackbirds. A dead doctor. The Fat Man. Cock Robin… Heck, this case had more holes in it than Swiss cheese and more loose ends than a torn string vest. And where did the juicy Miss Dumpty come into it? Jack and Jill—we’d make a great team. When this was all over perhaps we could go off together to Louie’s little place on the hill, where no one’s interested in whether you got a marriage license or not. The Pail of Water, that was the name of the joint.
I called the bartender over. “Hey, Joe.”
“Yeah, Mr. Horner?” He was polishing a glass with a rag that had seen better days as a shirt.
“Did you ever meet the Fat Man’s sister?”
He scratched at his cheek. “Can’t say as I did. His sister…huh? Hey—the Fat Man didn’t have a sister.”
“You sure of that?”
“Sure I’m sure. It was the day my sister had her first kid—I told the Fat Man I was an uncle. He gave me this look and says, ‘Ain’t no way I’ll ever be an uncle, Joe. Got no sisters or brothers, nor no other kinfolk neither.’”
If the mysterious Miss Dumpty wasn’t his sister, who was she?
“Tell me, Joe. Didja ever see him in here with a dame—about so high, shaped like this?” My hands described a couple of parabolas. “Looks like a blonde love goddess.”
He shook his head. “Never saw him with any dames. Recently he was hanging around with some medical guy, but the only thing he ever cared about was those crazy birds and animals of his.”
I took a swig of my drink. It nearly took the roof of my mouth off. “Animals? I thought he’d given all that up.”
“Naw—couple weeks back he was in here with a whole bunch of blackbirds he was training to sing ‘Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before mmm mmm.’”
“Yeah. I got no idea who.”
I put my drink down. A little of it spilt on the counter, and I watched it strip the paint. “Thanks, Joe. You’ve been a big help.” I handed him a ten-dollar bill. “For information received,” I said—adding, “Don’t spend it all at once.”
In my profession it’s making little jokes like that that keeps you sane.
I had one contact left. Ma Hubbard. I found a pay phone and called her number.
“Old Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard—Cake Shop and licensed Soup Kitchen.”
NEIL GAIMAN SERIES:
Other author's books:
- American GodsCoralineThe Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Graveyard BookNeverwhereNorse MythologyAnansi BoysStardust
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