Read an Excerpt
Where We Are Right Now
I work in the magic industry. I think you’ll agree it’s pretty glamorous: a life of spells, potions, and whispered enchantments; of levitation, vanishings, and alchemy. Of titanic fights to the death with the powers of darkness, of conjuring up blizzards and quelling storms at sea. Of casting lightning bolts from mountains, of bringing statues to life in order to vanquish troublesome foes.
No, magic these days is simply useful, useful in the same way that cars and dishwashers and can openers are useful. The days of wild, crowd-pleasing stuff like commanding the oceans, levitating elephants, and turning herring into taxi drivers are long gone. We had a rekindling of magic two months ago, something we called a Big Magic, but unlimited magical powers have not yet returned. After a brief surge that generated weird cloud shapes and rain that tasted of elderflower cordial, the wizidrical power had dropped to nothing before rising again almost painfully slowly. No one will be doing any ocean commanding for a while, elephants will remain unlevitated, and a herring won’t lose anyone on the way to the airport. We have no foes to vanquish except the taxman, and the only time we get to fight the powers of darkness is during one of the kingdom’s frequent power cuts.
So while we wait for magic to reestablish itself, it is very much business as usual: hiring out sorcerers to conduct practical magic. Things like plumbing and rewiring, wallpapering and loft conversions. We lift cars for the city’s clamping unit, deliver pizza by flying carpet, and predict the weather with twenty-three percent more accuracy than SNODD-TV’s favorite weather girl, Daisy Fairchild.
But I don’t do any of that. I can’t do any of that. I organize those who can. The job I do is Mystical Arts Management. Simply put, I’m an agent. The person who does the deals, takes the bookings, and then gets all the flak when things go wrong—and little of the credit when they go right. The place I do all this is a company called Kazam, the biggest House of Enchantment in the world. To be honest, that’s not saying much, as there are only two: Kazam and Industrial Magic, over in Stroud. Between us we have the only eight licensed sorcerers on the planet. And if you think that’s a responsible job for a sixteen-year-old, you’re right—I’m really only acting manager until the Great Zambini gets back.
If he does.
So the day this all began, it was once again business as usual at Kazam, and this morning we were going to try to find something that was lost. Not just “Misplaced it—whoops” lost, which is easy, but never-to-be-found lost, which is a good deal harder. We didn’t much like finding lost stuff, as in general lost stuff doesn’t like to be found, but when work was slack, we’d do pretty much anything within the law. And that’s why Perkins, Tiger, and I were sitting in my orange Volkswagen Beetle one damp autumn morning at a roadside rest area six miles from our town of Hereford, the capital city of the Kingdom of Snodd.
“Do you think a wizard even knows what a clock is for?” I asked, somewhat exasperated. I had promised our client that we’d start at nine thirty a.m. sharp, and it was twenty past already. I’d told the sorcerers to get here at nine o’clock for a briefing, but I might as well have been talking to the flowers.
“If you have all the time in the world,” replied Tiger, referring to a sorcerer’s often greatly increased life expectancy, “then I suppose a few minutes either way doesn’t matter so much.”
Horton “Tiger” Prawns was my assistant and had been with Kazam for two months. He was tall for his twelve years and had curly sandy-colored hair and freckles that danced around a snub nose. Like most foundlings of that age, he wore his oversized hand-me-downs with a certain pride. He was here this morning to learn the peculiar problems associated with a finding—and with good reason. If the Great Zambini took more than two years to return, Tiger would take over as acting manager. Once I turned eighteen, I’d be out.
Perkins nodded. “Some wizards do seem to live a long time,” he observed. This was undoubtedly true, but they were always cagey about how they did it, and changed the subject to mice or onions or something when asked.
The Youthful Perkins was our best and only trainee wrapped up in one. He had been at Kazam just over a year and was the only person at the company close to my age. He was good-looking, too, and aside from suffering bouts of overconfidence that sometimes got him into trouble when he spelled quicker than he thought, he would be good for Kazam and good for magic in general. I liked him, but since his particular field of interest was Remote Suggestion—the skill of projecting thoughts into people’s heads from a distance—I didn’t know whether I actually liked him or he was suggesting I like him, which was both creepy and unethical. In fact, the whole Remote Suggestion or “seeding” idea had been banned once it was discovered to be the key ingredient in promoting talentless boy bands, which had until then been something of a mystery.
I looked at my watch. The sorcerers we were waiting for were the Amazing Dennis “Full” Price and Lady Mawgon. Despite their magical abilities, Mystical Arts practitioners—to give them their official title—could barely get their clothes on in the right order and often needed to be reminded to take a bath and attend meals regularly. Wizards are like that: erratic, petulant, forgetful, passionate, and hugely frustrating. But the one thing they aren’t is boring, and after a difficult start when I first came to work here, I had come to regard them all— even the really insane ones—with a great deal of fondness.
“I should really be back at the Towers studying,” said the Youthful Perkins fretfully. He had his magic license hearing that afternoon and was understandably a bit jumpy.
“You know Full Price suggested you come along to observe,” I reminded him. “Finding lost stuff is all about teamwork.”
“I thought sorcerers didn’t like teamwork,” said Tiger, who enjoyed questions more than anything other than ice cream and waffles.
“The old days of lone wizards mixing weird potions in the top of the North Tower are over,” I said. “They’ve got to learn to work together, and it’s not just me who says it—the Great Zambini was very keen on rewriting the rule book.” I looked at my watch again. “I hope they actually do turn up.” In the Great Zambini’s absence, I was the one who made the groveling apologies to any disgruntled clients—something I did more than I would have liked.
“Even so,” said Perkins, “I’ve passed my Finding Module IV, and always found the practice hiding slipper, even when it was hidden under Mysterious X’s bed.”
This was true, but while finding something random like a slipper was good practice, there was more to it than that. In the Mystical Arts, there always is. The only thing you really get to figure out after a lifetime of study is that there’s more stuff to figure out. Frustrating and enlightening at the same time.
“The slipper had no issues with being found,” I said in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. “If something doesn’t want to be found, then it’s harder. The Mighty Shandar could hide things in plain sight by simply occluding them from view. He demonstrated the technique most famously with an unseen elephant in the room during the 1826 World Magic Expo.”
“Is that where the ‘elephant in the room’ expression comes from?” Tiger asked.
“Yes; his name was Daniel.”
“You should be taking the magic test on my behalf,” remarked Perkins gloomily. “You know a lot more than I do; there are whole tracts of the Codex Magicalis I haven’t even read.”
“I’ve been here three years longer than you,” I pointed out, “so I’m bound to know more. But having me take your test would be like asking a person with no hands to take your piano exam.”
No one knows why some people can do magic and others can’t. I’m not good on the theory behind magic, other than knowing it’s a fusion of science and faith, but the practical way of looking at it is this: Magic swirls about us like an invisible fog of energy that can be tapped by those gifted enough, using a variety of techniques that center on layered spelling, mumbled incantations, and a burst of concentrated thought channeled through the index fingers. The technical name for this energy is “variable electro-gravitational mutable subatomic force,” which doesn’t mean anything at all—confused scientists just gave it an important-sounding name so as not to lose face. The usual term is “wizidrical energy,” or simply “the crackle.”
“By the way,” said Perkins in a breezy manner, “I’ve got two tickets to see Jimmy ‘Daredevil’ Nuttjob have himself fired from a cannon through a brick wall.”
Jimmy Nuttjob was the Ununited Kingdoms’ most celebrated traveling daredevil, and tickets to see his madcap stunts were much in demand. He had eaten a car tire to live orchestral accompaniment the year before; it had been a great show until he nearly choked on the valve.
“Who are you taking?” I asked, glancing at Tiger. The “Will Perkins build up the courage to ask me out?” issue had been active for a while.
Perkins cleared his throat as he built up the courage.
“You, if you want to come.”
I stared at the road for a moment, then said, “Who, me?”
“Yes, of course you,” said Perkins.
“You might have been talking to Tiger.”
“Why would I ask Tiger to come watch a lunatic fire himself through a brick wall?”
“Why wouldn’t you ask me?” asked Tiger. “Watching some idiot damage himself might be just my thing.”
“That’s entirely possible,” agreed Perkins, “but as long as there’s a prettier alternative, you’ll always remain ninth or tenth on my list.”
We all fell silent.
“Pretty?” I swiveled in the driver’s seat to face him. “You want to ask me out because I’m pretty?”
“Is there a problem with asking you out because you’re pretty?”
“I think you blew it,” said Tiger with a grin. “You should be asking her out because she’s smart, witty, mature beyond her years, and because every moment in her company makes you want to be a better person. Pretty should be at the bottom of the list.”
“Oh, blast,” said Perkins despondently. “It should, shouldn’t it?”
“At last!” I muttered, hearing the distinctive dugadugadugaduga of Lady Mawgon’s motorcycle, and we climbed out of the car as she came to a stop. She was wearing her “I’m about to harangue Jennifer” sort of look. Of course, being harangued by Lady Mawgon was nothing new; I was often harangued by her at lunch, dinner, and random times in between. She was our most powerful sorcerer, and also the crabbiest. She was so crabby, in fact, that even really crabby people put their crabbiness aside to write her gushing yet mildly sarcastic fan letters.
“Lady Mawgon,” I said in a bright voice, bowing low, as protocol dictated. “I trust the day finds you well?”
“An idiotic expression made acceptable only because it is adrift in a sea of equally idiotic expressions,” she muttered grumpily, stepping from the motorcycle that she rode sidesaddle. “Is that little twerp attempting to hide behind what you jokingly refer to as a car?”
“Good morning,” said Tiger in his best Gosh, didn’t see you there, I wasn’t really hiding voice. “You are looking most well this morning.”
Tiger was lying. Lady Mawgon looked terrible, with lank hair and a sour, pinched face. Her lips had never seen a smile and rarely passed an intentional friendly word. She was dressed in a long black bell-shaped crinoline dress that buttoned up to her throat in one direction and swept the floor in the other. She didn’t so much walk as glide across the ground in a very disturbing manner. Tiger had once bet me half a moolah that she wore roller skates; trouble was, neither of us could think of a good, safe, or respectful way to find out.
She greeted Perkins more politely, as he was of the wizidrical calling. She didn’t waste a salutation on Tiger or me. Yet despite our low status as foundlings, Tiger and I were crucial to the smooth running of Kazam. It was how the Great Zambini liked it. He always felt that foundlings were better equipped to deal with the somewhat bizarre world of Mystical Arts Management. “Pampered civilians,” as he put it, “would panic at the weirdness, or think they know better, or try to improve things, or get greedy and try to cash in.” He was probably right.
“While you’re here,” announced Lady Mawgon, “I need to run a test spell later this morning.”
“How many shandars, ma’am?”
“About ten megashandars,” said Lady Mawgon sullenly, annoyed at the ignominy of having to run her test spells past me first.
“That’s a considerable amount of crackle.” I wondered what she was up to and hoped she wouldn’t attempt to bring her cat, Mr. Pusskins, back to some sort of semi-life, an act not only seriously creepy but highly frowned upon. “May I inquire as to what you are planning to do?”
“I’m going to try and hack into the Dibble Storage Coils. It may help us with the bridge job.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. This changed matters considerably, and she was right. We had agreed to rebuild Hereford’s medieval bridge on Friday, and we needed all the help we could get. That was why Perkins was taking his magic test today rather than next week. He’d still be a novice, but six licensed sorcerers would be better than five—magic always worked better with the wizards in use divisible by three.
“Let me see,” I said, consulting my schedule. Two sorcerers spelling at the same time could deplete the crackle, and there is nothing worse than running out of steam two-thirds of the way through a spell. A bit like running out of gas within sight of a filling station.
“At eleven o’clock the Price brothers are moving the zoo’s prize walrus, so anytime after eleven fifteen would be good—but I’ll double-check with Industrial Magic just in case.”
“Eleven fifteen it is,” replied Lady Mawgon stonily. “You may observe, if you so choose.”
“I’ll be there,” I replied, then added cautiously, “Lady Mawgon, please don’t think me insensitive, but any attempt to reanimate Mr. Pusskins on the back of the Dibble Storage Coil hacking enchantment might be looked on unfavorably by the other wizards.”
Her eyes narrowed and she gave me one of those stares that seem to hit the back of my skull like a dozen hot needles.
“None of you have any idea what Mr. Pusskins meant to me. Now, what are we doing here?”
“Waiting for the Amazing Dennis Price.”
“How I deplore poor timekeeping,” she said, despite being almost half an hour late herself. “Got any money? I’m starving.”
Perkins gave her a one-moolah coin.
“Most kind. Walk with me, Perkins.” And she glided silently off toward a roadside snack bar at the other end of the rest area.
“Do you want anything?” asked Perkins.
“Eating out gives foundlings ideas above their station,” came Lady Mawgon’s decisive voice, quickly followed by an admonishment to the owner of the snack bar: “That much for a bacon roll? Scandalous!”
“Since when is a roadside snack bar eating out?” said Tiger, leaning against the car. “That’s like saying listening to the radio outdoors is like going to a live show.”
“She is an astonishing sorceress of considerable power and commitment, so don’t be impertinent. Or at least,” I added, “not within earshot.”
“Speaking of live shows,” said Tiger, lowering his voice, “will you go to Jimmy ‘Daredevil’ Nuttjob’s stunt show with Perkins?”
“Probably not,” I said with a sigh. “It’s not a good idea to date someone you work with.”
“Good,” said Tiger.
“Why is that good?”
“Because he might give away your ticket, and I’d like to watch someone with more bravery than sense being fired from a cannon into a brick wall.”
“Is there a warm-up act?”
“A brass band, cheerleaders, and someone who can juggle bobcats.”
We turned to see a taxi approaching. It was the Amazing Dennis “Full” Price, another one of our licensed operatives. He and his brother, David, known as Half Price, were famous as the most unidentical twins on record. David was tall and thin and would sway in a high wind, while Dennis was short and squat like a giant pink pumpkin. After I paid for the taxi, he climbed out and looked around.
“Sorry I’m late,” Full Price said, demonstrating the difference between him and Lady Mawgon. “I got delayed talking to Wizard Moobin. He wants you to witness an experiment he’s got cooking.”
“A dangerous one?” I asked with some concern. Wizard Moobin had destroyed more laboratories than I’d had cold and inedible dinners.
“Does he know any other?” Price replied. “Where’s Mawgon?”
I nodded in the direction of the snack bar.
“Not with her own money, I’ll bet,” he said, and after giving us a wink, he strode off to talk to her.
As Tiger and I stood there smelling the faint aroma of frying bacon on the breeze, a Rolls-Royce whispered to a halt next to us.