The man hurried through the streets, his head spilling sweat and wild ideas.
It was a warm night, but had been raining and the streetlights illuminated sodium-coloured pools on the black surface of the road and pavement. The man was caught up in his own thoughts and barely noticed as other people passed him by. He knew it was around here somewhere, but wouldn’t be around for long, so he had to act quickly.
Heading into a darkened alley, he paused and unzipped his rucksack. Papers erupted from within, spilling forth, some tumbling into a shallow puddle. He cursed quietly, stuffing the damp sheaves back inside before reaching down and plucking a small, black notebook from the bottom of the bag. Cracking the pages open, he pulled a pen from the pocket of his jacket. Well, he attempted to pull a pen from his pocket, what actually emerged was a bunch of colourful flowers, closely followed by link after link of seemingly endless knotted silk scarves and finally, an irate-looking, shabby white dove, which flapped up into the darkness in an explosion of feathers and squawks. The man looked up as the white bird disappeared into the black, and gave a rueful smile. Pen eventually in hand he squinted down at the pages filled with intricately scratched diagrams and spidery handwriting, and began to write.
He was close to an answer. He was close to finding the truth.
For as long as he could remember the man had been a magician; his earliest memory was of sitting on his grandmother’s knee and making a penny appear from behind her ear. And now, some thirty years later, he’d spent much of his time honing and perfecting the tricks in his repertoire, but that was all they were: tricks. Mere illusions, sleights of hand and misdirection. He wanted, no, he needed, more. And so, several years ago, he began his search - a journey to find some evidence of true magic. He’d travelled to the four corners of this world in his quest, but this world had proved to be too small for his ideas. He’d met Mexican shaman and African witchdoctors, but none had given him the answer he so desperately pursued. He’d spent time working alongside a voodoo priest in New Orleans and played apprentice to a Tibetan soothsayer, yet all these encounters had only helped him develop his act; that of a man onstage wearing a fake beard and dark cloak. Onstage he was a magician named Grimoire who could create masterful illusions using elaborate sets and fancy mechanics, and Grimoire the act was a resounding success. But being a successful stage magician just made the man feel like more of a fraud. The search for true magic was the only thing that really mattered to him so he sought ways to expand the corners of this world and reach beyond.
However, the breakthrough, when it came, happened far, far closer to home.
The train blew columns of steam as it cut through the green fields beneath the grey clouds of an English summer’s day. Heat, as oppressive as a locked oven, compressed the air between ground and sky. The sun was up there somewhere, but hidden, only its effects felt as the train’s passengers leaned beside open windows, with puffed cheeks and damp armpits.
The Arkane Express was the creation of one Alfred Reynard Kane, a celebrated Victorian conjurer, whose ability to make large objects disappear, float or change places was unsurpassed at the time. Once, during a feted performance at the Royal Albert Hall, he swapped an elephant (borrowed from London Zoo) for a passing omnibus, much to the delight of the audience (and the consternation of the vehicle’s passengers). Alfred Kane was unquestionably the magician of his age and had a dream of bringing together similarly skilled individuals from all over the globe, to share stories and experiences, and even show off a little. And so, the Alfred Reynard Kane Express was created. He used some of his vast, amassed fortune to purchase an old steam train, which he proceeded to have repaired and refitted. Painted a rich midnight blue with lush crimson velvet interiors and personally-commissioned mystical paintings, many of which featured Kane himself (he was, after all, a shameless self-publicist), the train became legend within magical circles the world over. To receive an invitation to one of Kane’s ‘Journeys Within and Without the Mind’, meant that you were one of the elite. Once every five years, at the height of summer, the train would traverse the lush English countryside. To the layman, the ordinary, the none-chosen, this train and its journey remained forever a secret; it simply did not exist. But, if you were fortunate to have a ticket, then inside was an assembly like no other. Magicians, illusionists, mystics, tricksters, swamis and conjurers would all gather together to share secrets previously untold.
Over the years the name of the train became shortened, first to the A. R. Kane Express, then the Arkane Express, which was considered rather apt. On the day that Grimoire was onboard, the interior had started to lose some of its former glory. The seats were now threadbare and somewhat ragged, and the pictures adorning the walls, faded, but the kudos of receiving an invitation had never lost its lustre. If true magic was ever to be found, the Express was as likely a place as any to find it.
Grimoire was alone in a carriage compartment, sipping iced tea from a delicate china cup, when the stranger burst in. This was the kind of character who would immediate fill whichever space he entered. He had a large, round, pink face with ruddy cheeks, a bulbous nose that was the size and shape of a lightbulb and a small, ponderous mouth that looked somehow out of place, as though it belonged to a completely different face altogether. Atop his head sat a black, velvet-lined top hat covering his hairless, shining pate, and a thinly shaved, dark, pointed beard completed his look. He had a dark green cloak slung around his ample shoulders, but the remainder of his dinner suit had seen better days and hung somewhat shabbily from his corpulent frame.
Grimoire barely raised an eyebrow.
Although, in usual circumstances such an eccentric character might have provoked open-mouthed stares and even a pointed finger or two, on the Arkane Express such sights were ten-a-penny. In fact, it wasn’t the look of the stranger that caught Grimoire’s attention, rather it was his behaviour.
Placing the china cup down carefully on the narrow side table beneath the window, he sat back and watched as the stranger slid the compartment door closed with a slam before shifting the faded curtain to one side with the silver tip of his battered wooden cane and peering through. He blinked a couple of times and shuddered with such a sudden ferocity that the hat wobbled free from his head and fell towards the floor. Without turning to look, the stranger kicked out a heel, caught the tumbling headwear and, in one single, smooth motion, flicked it back upon his head.
That’s a pretty neat trick, Grimoire thought, applauding internally.
Satisfied that there was nobody outside, the stranger stood upright and plucked a crimson handkerchief from his top pocket, flamboyantly dabbing at the sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip. He looked outside the compartment one more time before letting out an expansive sigh.
“Do you need any assistance?” Grimoire ventured, leaning forward in his seat.
The stranger span around and let out such a high-pitched squeal that Grimoire glanced sideways at the fragile china cup to check it hadn’t shattered. The stranger cleared his throat. “You shouldn’t creep up on a chap like that,” he replied, his voice actually a rich baritone rather than falsetto. “You near terrified my blood to ice!”
“Creep up?” Grimoire glanced down at the seat in which he’d been sitting the whole time and smiled. Looking up once more, he shrugged to say sorry. “Please accept my most humble apologies.”
By this time the stranger had flopped down theatrically into the seat opposite and was glancing nervously left and right. He took a newspaper from the large suitcase he’d been carrying and began to read.
Grimoire noted the date on the front of the paper and coughed politely. “I don’t think that’s today’s edition,” he said. The stranger paused his rustling. “In fact, I don’t even think it’s this century’s edition.”
Slowly the newspaper lowered and a pair of beady eyes peered over the top. They frowned. “What on earth do you mean?”
Grimoire pointed at the date on the front and raised his eyebrows. The stranger frowned once more and flipped the paper round, then plucked a pocket watch from his waistcoat and snapped it open. He peered at it closely, shook his head and mumbled something under his breath, before shaking the timepiece beside his ear, mumbling something else and staring at the watch face again.
Although he couldn’t see it clearly Grimoire realised that the pocket watch was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. The face leapt with multiple changing colours as the hands span and twisted backwards and forwards, inside and out. Instead of the expected ticking it emitted a strange hum that subtly rose and fell in frequency, and every so often a quiet alarm bell would chime. For several long moments it felt as though all the time in the cramped and humid train compartment was being absorbed into the watch, until the stranger snapped it closed. “Well, here’s a pickle,” he exclaimed.
“Is there a problem?”
The stranger fixed him with a stare that was at first quizzical before turning more accusatory.
“When am I?” he demanded.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand, did you ask, when are you?”
“Yes, yes, when? Hurry, hurry, I don’t have all day.” He paused and pondered that statement. “Or perhaps I do. Oh – oh no...” He froze in his seat. “They’re here,” he said in strangled whisper.
Grimoire leaned forward. “What do you mean? Who’s here?”
Suddenly, the carriage cut into darkness and a deafening noise surrounded them, pushing from all sides. The stranger gave another high-pitched scream and leapt awkwardly to his feet, frantically stuffing the newspaper back into the suitcase, before diving towards the compartment door.
Grimoire followed, trying the calm him down. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” The stranger turned to him, his eyes wide, dark ‘Os’ of fear, his face a plump, pale smudge in the darkness.
“The shadows,” he gasped. “I can’t let them get hold of the map. If they have the map and the notebook then all is lost, all will be over.”
“What shadows?” Grimoire asked, gripping the stranger by the lapels. “There are no shadows, it’s just a tunnel. Calm down, it’s a train tunnel,” he yelled, as daylight once again flooded the compartment and the sound returned to the much quieter ‘clickity-clack’ of the wheels on the steel rails.
The stranger stared around the carriage before taking a deep breath. “Thank you, dear boy,” he said eventually. “Sometimes my imagination...umm...I thought there was something...lurking...watching... anyway thank you, thank you.”
They both returned to their seats and sat in silence for several minutes. Grimoire watched the countryside streak by through the window, while the corpulent stranger tapped out an irregular rhythm on the top of his suitcase, until at last he spoke. “Do you enjoy stories?” he asked.
Grimoire turned and shrugged, but there was something about the stranger’s demeanour that intrigued him. He smiled and nodded.
“Splendid, splendid. Well, sit back and prepare yourself, because what I’m about to tell you is utterly fantastic, totally impossible and, above all else, completely true!”