Mr Trainor, former neighbour now living in Australia.
It was Magician's first taste of publicity, and he relished it. I can remember him buying twenty copies of the newspaper, distrib-uting them to his cronies, who in turn slapped him on the back and shook his hand, congratulating him.I remember how he smiled back with that dead smile of his, seeing through their lies, knowing how they hated him. But that was okay because they feared him. And that was what he wanted. Fear. To keep them in its arena.
(2) "He knew everything, Magician. He was omnipresent. You couldn't take a shit without him knowing its weight."
 "He instilled fear, but so subtle you hardly realised it, until it was too late, touching ya right on the shoulder, whispering goodnight…"
Death-Face Charley, a rival.
 "Had a way with lies. You just knew he was lying through his teeth, but still you wanted to believe him. Not a liar. Just a stranger to the truth."
A friend, now serving three life sentences for murder.
" Evil. Sheer evil."
 "Kind. He'd give ya his last penny. Always fed my cats. They never went hungry when he was about.
"Sadie, the ragstore lady.
(7) "Loved animals. Wouldn't hurt a fly. People? Now that's a different story…"
His cousin, Sean-Patrick.
(8) "Thought he wuz a wizard or somethin' like that. Thought he could make people disappear. I suppose, in the end, he could…"
Same class as the Magician in school. Asked that his name not be printed.
(9) "They asked me if I thought him an angel. Me? Can ya believe it? Me who don't even believe in God, let alone bloody angels!"
I wanted to stop reading, jetlag was taking its toll, but something inside drove me on, relentlessly, seeking something for myself as well as my boss. It were as if Magician was still weaving his magic, forcing me to continue, laughing at me, knowing me just a little too well.
(10) "Heartbreaking. He never realised his potential, preferring to be the clown in class to win so-called friends. Boys like him never have friends; that's the price you pay when you're a genius. People look at me when I use that word to describe him. But that's exactly what he was. A genius. Yes, sir. Heartbreaking…"
Professor Richard N. Johnson, Magician's science teacher.
(11) "The tests resulted in a distorted picture. The reason being the subject's manipulative power - something that should have been spotted by a competent psychiatrist. Unfortunately, Doctor Stoppard's ineptitude and unsophisticated method prevented a clearer, more authentic report.
It is now evident that the subject was fully in control of his state of consciousness, never losing voluntary power of action or thought, pretending to be highly responsive to suggestions and directions from the hypnotist…"
Confidential report, highly critical of the prison administration's doctor who supported the release of the accused from prison on the grounds that he believed he was no longer a threat to society.
" I hated that boy from the moment he was conceived, tearing out of me with those bloody little hands, ripping me in half, entering the world with a grin, all bloody and shit. My anger of him was equal to Eden's god. Anger, that over the years, turned to unadulterated hate. It wasn't my fault what he turned out to be. Blame God. He created the monster."
Each report that I read conjured up images I had tried to suppress. I had attempted, and failed, to erase not only the town but also, specifically, Magician and the terrible bond that united us…
He was a strange kid who kept to himself. His mother owned a shop in town, but rarely opened it due to her 'illness' – at least that's what the cardboard notice always said. Everyone else said too much cheap wine.
Initially, we called him Racoon because he would arrive each day at school with twin black eyes. No sooner had the old bruised eyes began to fade when they were quickly replaced with two newer versions. Most of us came from tough family backgrounds, so there was little if any sympathy for him. It was his problem that his stepfather had fists the size of a dog's head and used them habitually, usually two or three times a day.
He was about my age, with glass-cutting blue eyes. A large family of pimples inhabited his entire face. You just knew he'd be a horror to look at in later years.
Racoon rarely, if ever, communicated with anyone, always avoiding, so I was surprised when, one day, he whispered behind my back, "I've somethin' to show you. Meet me in Billy Ryan's, after school." He kept looking over his shoulder, suspiciously, his eyes tiny slits.
Before I could verbally abuse him, he was gone, running for all he was worth. I looked about the schoolyard, hoping no one had spotted him talking to me. I was angry that he would have the audacity to approach me. If I decided to go to Billy Ryan's – and I doubted I would - it would be to let him know never ever to come near me again.
Billy Ryan's was an old dilapidated house that was used by all the kids in the street as a hideout. It was our citadel, a place where all the cares of being a kid were ancient history in a heartbeat. A place that never let you down, never screamed or lost its temper, beat or criticised. It was everything we wanted at home and despite our youth we all understood it was something that would not last. We were forced to drink it as quickly as possible before it became only a memory, before it became like us, full of flaws and pockmarked with doubts.
It was a good ten minutes later – a lifetime in my eyes – when he finally showed up, his face glistening with sweat.
"You've kept me waiting all day. Don't ever - "
He held his hand up like a traffic cop, stopping me in mid-sentence.
"You're not goin' to believe this," he said, fumbling in a navy-blue bag, the type Fleming, our greengrocer used to store onions. The blue was almost black, caused by seeping liquid.
The old house always had those strange smells ghosting in and out of it, of dampness and dust mingling with urine and crap. But this was an altogether alien stench oozing menacingly from the bag.
"God…what is it?" I moved away from the box, fearful of the reply.
"What ya think it is?" He was smiling a strange smile, one that belonged to a corpse. "Have a guess."
I didn't want to have a guess. I wanted to be in the house, away from here. "It looks like somethin' in Heany's window," I replied. Heany was the local butcher.
"Close, but no cigar. Take a closer look," he insisted, pushing it under my nose. The smell was terrible and I felt my stomach churn.
"Get it away from me! I mean it. Take it away. Now!"
The tone of my last word should have sent out a warning signal to him. But it didn't. He kept coming, like a bloodhound, relentless.
"Guess," he insisted, almost hissing in my face.
I knew what it was. I'd seen a picture of one in an encyclopaedia in school. The picture both frightened and fascinated me, branding my memory with its white-hot horror.
"A dead baby. Just like the one in the science room at school." I glared at him. "Satisfied?"
"A what? No! Don't be stupid! Where would I get one of those? It's a foot," he said calmly without a care in the world, as if carrying a foot in a bag was natural. "Good job we don't have a science test tomorrow! Old Johnson would take a buckle in his eye if he thought you couldn't tell the difference between a baby and a foot!"
He was laughing now. Not at me, but some secret that had yet to be told.
I could see the door ajar. Make a run for it. Get away from him. But I didn't, of course. The morbid curiosity of a kid will always outweigh the only sensible alternative.
In the ice, encased like a fish from the fishmonger's window, was a foot, almost perfect except for the missing big toe. I almost laughed with nerves, relieved it was 'only' a foot, not a dead baby.
"Where did you get it?"
The undertaker's grin was back on his face.
"Haven't you figured it out? Last week? Down at Copper's?"
"Copper's…" Then it came to me. "The gas explosion?"
"Yes. Two men dead, four injured," he replied, imitating a news-flash voice. "Look at the dirt between the nails. He must never have washed himself, dirty pig." He held the foot by the icy heel, angling it so that the dusty sliver of sun captured it in all its horrible loathsomeness.
"What are you doin' runnin' about the place with it? Shouldn't you give it to the priest or someone?"
"The priest?" He looked at me, bewildered. "Hasn't he enough power over us? Fuck the priest. I would never trust that bastard. He's got more tongues than the Holy Ghost. No, this is one piece of power I'm keeping, and nothing will take it from me."
He looked straight into my eyes, trying to read my thoughts on what I intended to do. The sensible thing would probably have been to tell my father – or, at least, a schoolteacher. But the way he looked at me exorcised all acts of betrayal from my mind. Tiny sparks camped at the edge of my neck, biting.
"Where have you kept it, all this time? The explosion was over a week ago."
"I hid it. In our fridge, at the shop," he replied, returning his trophy to the bag.
"In the shop? In the fridge with all the ice lollies and ice cream?"
"Yes," he said, nonchalant.
My stomach was churning. "You bastard! I bought a Strawberry-Joker from your ma's shop last week. That foot was probably stuck to it. How the hell did your mother not see it?" I asked, knowing her 'illness' was to blame.
I will never forget the look on his face, something terrible, indescribable at that moment as he stared at me, his eyes burning like acid. They resembled dead knots from a tree long gone to rot.
Years later I would know that look as the glare of a killer weighing up in a split second how he deemed to dispose of a body.
Deep down I was relieved when he ignored my questions and turned his back on me, exiting with the bag dangling to his side.
Over the coming weeks, Magician showed the foot to a select few. Occasionally, he permitted an audience in his garage, practically becoming a head-of–state.
He had been right. The foot was power, and our eyes – those betraying mirrors of the soul – reflected back to him all our fears and repulsiveness, our infatuation with something long dead, but like magic had been brought back to life by him. He was indeed a magician, but his power had only just begun.
In the loft at home he would stand in front of the mirror practising and practising and only when the image winked back did he truly believe he had the 'gift'. Soon, he was learning every trick from old magic books bought second-hand down at the local flea market, making coins appear from ears and straw appear from noses. He soon progressed to even more incredible stunts such as turning birds into yellow and blue silk, making them disappear with a click of his wand. Later – much later - he would master even more profound tricks by making people disappear, though not into silk, and not in a nice way.
No, not in a nice way at all…
The jail was nicknamed Golgotha because of the skull-like qualities in its structure. Rats scurried quickly into holes as we approached the perimeter wall that was littered with the carcasses of dead birds, their fragile bones gleaming like hulls from tiny ships caught in the rocks, blending wickedly into an origami of shadows.
Within ten minutes of arriving, I sat across from a face I thought I would never see again. He reached out his hand and I took it. I felt tight, almost dreading the touch of his skin, then sat down and waited.
He didn't speak, simply stared at me with those eyes that terrified, with that face that had been the last face ever seen by many of his victims.
I couldn't think of one word to say, after all these years, and fumbled for the tape recorder bulging in my pocket, placing it between us like a protective talisman.
"Do you have a problem with this?" I asked, hitting the 'record' button.
There was hate in his eyes; not original hate but the secretive, retrospective hate anchored in memory. He was finding it difficult to control the seething anger that threatened to break to the surface.
I wondered if I was deliberately goading him or if it was something subconsciously, something that now came naturally to me as a reporter.
"Turn that off, now, you sanctimonious bastard," he hissed, so softly I barely heard him. "Never forget who I am. Never forget who you are, or maybe your memory is as convenient as those fancy clothes you wear. Now, ask my permission."
I felt my face burning. "May I turn this on?"
He grinned. "No…not yet. First, tell me what's it like for you, finally realising your dream. Was it worth it?"
"Was what worth it? Leaving all this glory behind? God, no! Look what I've missed." There was bitterness in my voice. I had become defensive, again, justifying my actions, as if they needed to be justified. He was attempting to reverse the roles, once again, as if he were the reporter and I the subject.
He reached over and pushed down on the 'record' button.
"You know your mother always waited for your return, told me every day you'd be back. But you didn't, did you – at least not while she lived. Did you hate her that much? You wouldn't come back for her funeral but you came back for my death. Is that ironic or just perverse?"
His perception was as keen as ever. His words – like himself - took no prisoners.
I was conscious of the tape's whispery whirl transforming into an airplane's propeller. At any minute it would release itself, chop my head off. He was daring me to turn it off, hoping to tease out the reluctant words that sat in my throat like stones covered in dust.
"Killing for a living. That would make a great headline for your readers, don't you think?" He smiled before leaning back on his chair. "The first is the worse and, strangely, the best. Let me explain the contradiction to your readers. Doubt, fear – religion – all play a part. Initially, it eats away at you, until the second killing comes along. That helps, a bit, because it muddles the first, slightly. The third? Even better. You've forgotten the first, practically, like alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. But it's a lot easier to obtain a fix. People are such a cheap commodity." He stopped speaking, permitting the power of emptiness to sit between us, as if it were a judge that had listened intently to each spoken word and whose testimony would come later.
He continued, but only after I had acknowledged his power by glancing away from his eyes. "Violence – in its purest form – can marry a person to it. It never betrays, never questions. It is mono-gamous. But of course, you may have an entirely different perspective to enlighten your readers with. Perhaps you would like to indulge in some youthful--"
I reached over and slammed the tape off. I was sweating. His words had become as slippery as a snail captured in the sun.
For a while, he sat like a fox in the dark, waiting, before continuing. "You're no better than me, knowing the necessity that unexpectedly forces a person, in a split second, to be judge and jury. You like to think you were running away from us, from the reality that rules this town - this tiny world – as you call it. That's the rational of a coward. Something you're not. So I've news for you, Mister Reporter. An exclusive. You weren't running away from us. You were running towards us."
I didn't need him to remind me. Every day, since it happened, I had tried to erase that terrible night from my brain. But like a stubborn, bloody stain, it refused to budge. I had tried to reconcile the fact that had I not taken a life that night so many people would still be alive, and the monster who sat it front of me, grinning, would be dead.
That night it was raining so bad we almost decided to take a bus home from the dance. We were both despondent at our lack of success in hitching up with any girls. Girls were frightened of him and so I suffered as well. Had we taken the bus, who knows how things may have turned out? Instead, it became the seminal moment of my life, changing it forever.
We decided to cut through the waste ground of burnt-out vehicles, which loomed like an elephant's graveyard of metal and glass. It would shave ten minutes off the walk home.
No sooner had we reached the yard when we spotted a figure that was dreaded by everyone in town: 'Knocker' Green, a tiny thug whose main ambition in life was to grow into an even bigger one. He terrorized everyone at school, in the neighbourhood. Even members of his own family suffered at his hands.
I stopped, almost rooted to the spot. He was nestled between the carcass of a smashed-up Ford and the rusted wall, a couple of bottles of wine at his side.
"We have to be careful of him," I whispered. "He's nuts."
Magician laughed out loud. "He's only as nutty as you let him. Isn't that right, Knocker?"
The body stirred. "What? Who?" asked the slurred voice. "Don't you girls know who I am?"
"Why did you do that?" I asked incredulously. "We could have sneaked to the other side. He wouldn't have spotted us. You don't know what the hell you've done."
But I was wrong. He did know.
"Magician never sneaks!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "I have the power!"
Knocker smiled and for a moment I thought perhaps the drink had dulled his senses, enough for us to run. But he was a reptile, and the speed at which he grabbed Magician was startling.
"You little bastard," he hissed, squeezing Magician's throat, tightening the grip as he banged the head hard against the Ford's door, causing burnt, flaky metal to land on his hair like metallic dandruff. "Where's your power? Eh? Where's your friend? Run away like a little girl?"
I hadn't run away. Maybe I should have. Magician had brought this on himself. No one else was at fault. Instead, I had hid between shadows and mangled metal, terrified, praying that a miracle would happen.
Oh, I'm sorry. Am I hurtin' you?" asked Knocker, snidely.
Yes, he was hurting him, but Magician did nothing to fight the beast, simply smiled, welcoming death. Even when his eyes were falling somewhere in the back of his skull, he believed his magic power would not fail. Authentic. Fixed in its frightening belief.
I will never forget the look on Knocker's face as he reached for an evil-looking piece of sharp metal. He was an animal going for the kill.
There was little choice. I tried grabbing Knocker by the hair, hoping to pull him away. He roared and threw me back on the ground, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was next. He hit Magician and I swore I heard his neck break.
What happened next would haunt me forever.
I stood up and slammed Knocker's head, as hard as I could, against a protruding jagged metal that had been the car's fender. I remember how his blood shot up and outwards, like ink from a fountain pen, splattering my face with force as it gushed from the impaled head, flooding my mouth. I had wanted to stop watching, but the scene was so compelling I could not draw my eyes away.
I fell to my knees, mesmerised by the horror, sobbing. There was no doubt in my mind he was dead and at that moment in my life I felt so alone, utterly, beyond redemption. I can remember vertigo spinning me, like a carousal that refused to stop, as I vomited and vomited.
Quickly, we exited the yard to the sound of the evening conveying sounds of distant traffic, insect sounds and conver-sations carried on the wind.
The death would remain unsolved. It helped that Knocker was hated by so many.
I only spoke to Magician one more time, telling him to stay away from me, forever.
He agreed, but not before thanking me for proving beyond doubt that he really did have the Power. It was the Power, after all, that had saved his life.
The plane took off and I glanced back at the town as lights came on in every home, softly, slowly turning into iridescent graffiti of sparkling black and silver rhinestones. A tourist or a stranger would love it. So welcoming. But like a beautiful marble mauso-leum, it wasn't until you looked inside, finding the horror of its contents, would you realise that you were trapped.
I could still see the eerie glow of the prison below me and pictured him sitting, watching the sky, following the plane with those terrible eyes, fooling himself that he had the power to make it crash.
I was heading home. Home to where I belonged. In just two weeks he'd be dead and I'd be 'free'. But just like Magician, I was fooling myself, also. I would never truly be free of him and what I had done. Perhaps he was right; perhaps I wasn't running away but running towards, like a never-ending circle, a dog chasing its tail.
A minute later and the town disappeared in the darkness of night clouds. To my right, the sky's canopy began to cover the moon, carpeting everything below in a dull quietness, like the hum of a light bulb just extinguished.
I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes. I am going home, I told myself, and no amount of magic will change that. Ever.