THERE was money riding on the game. The man with the bow-tie and the predatory smile assessed his options. The boy was good, no doubt about it. The cue ball was perfectly positioned to frustrate any shot he could make. The boy had made the shot on purpose.
“Dirty pool,” said the man, chalking his cue for the sixth time since the boy had begun his break. “I like your style.”
He positioned the cue almost perpendicular to the felt table top, and struck the cue ball at a slight angle. It spun in a small arc around the boy’s blocking ball and struck his own, sending it almost lazily into the corner pocket.
He grinned with one corner of his mouth, and scrutinised his opponent’s features for any flicker of fear. For a fleeting second, he felt a terror of his own as he looked into the boy’s face. It was the face of a reptile, cold and calculating, perfectly featured to strike a note of panic.
The man looked away, and assessed his next shot. It was an easy angle, with no obstructions, and would neatly set up a further two shots. Three, if he took care on the second.
He leaned to the table, and it felt like there were worms in his guts. They crawled inside him. He gritted his teeth and took the shot.
He spat a curse. The cue ball spun off into the rail uselessly.
The boy shifted slightly on his feet. The man glanced towards him, and saw the ghost of a smirk on a corner of his mouth.
“Son of a...” he muttered the last word under his breath.
The boy strode forward, and began his break.
His first shot was an easy one, which would leave the cue ball in position for another easy one. That left two balls up, and depending on his skill with the first two shots, he could easily win the game from here. The black was against the bottom rail, but depending on his last shot, that could be an advantage.
The man watched carefully, raising an eyebrow as his younger opponent flawlessly potted the first two balls. He chalked his cue so hard small chunks broke off and crunched under his heels as he shifted on his feet.
This game would not go his way. He could see by the confidence in the boy’s posture that he could not lose from here. The man’s feature’s hardened. He didn’t know how, but he was sure, suddenly, that the boy was cheating. He felt it in his gut, and he had learned to trust that instinct over the years. It had kept him alive and healthy.
He stared the boy down as he moved to his next shot.
The boy’s swagger was enough to set the tidily dressed man’s teeth on edge. He had seen this sort before, young and arrogant. More than once, he had been responsible for their ‘disappearances’. He wondered idly if this night might end in another disappearance.
The boy played a nearly impossible shot after snookering himself with his third shot. It seemed that magic guided the cue ball off three cushions, before it curved conveniently around a blocking ball, and tapped his final ball into the middle pocket. The white ball kept rolling down to the bottom rail, setting up an easy shot for the black.
The man spat a curse under his breath. He looked behind him, towards two men who were drinking slow beers and watching the game with interest, and nodded subtly.
The boy did not notice. He was too full of his last shot, and was actually skipping around the table. He positioned himself, and looked at the man, smirking, before turning back and taking a soft shot. The black rolled into the corner pocket.
He stood, smiling the smile of an easy victor.
“I believe you owe me some money,” The boy looked at the older man. “Cash will be fine. I’m afraid I must be going, my apologies. I have an appointment.”
“Kid, it’s one a.m. Ain’t no-one wants to see you till tomorrow. One more game, double or nothing…” It wasn’t a request.
“I’m sorry, is there wax in your ears? I said, I have to go.” The boy’s eyes narrowed to slits.
“The money. I believe the agreed sum was five hundred of your American dollars. Pay now, and I will be on my way…”
The man suddenly grinned. It was not a pleasant grin. He looked like he might lunge for the boy’s jugular. He softened it after a moment into an amused smile.
“You got spirit, kid. I’ll give you that. Guts too. What’s your name?”
“Meet’cha. Santino. Call me Sonny. You ain’t from around here. So where you come from?”
“Abroad? Abroad? Hey, I came from a broad too. My mom!” He laughed hugely, turning to his two slow drinking friends for encouragement. They laughed heartily, as if someone had suddenly switched them on.
Sonny’s face turned serious. He took a billfold from his jacket, slowly, looking into Tom’s eyes as he reached for it. It was in the same place a shoulder holster might be.
Tom did not flinch, merely stood waiting.
The two slow drinkers got up from their stools and walked out the door, not looking at Tom as they passed. He barely noticed them.
Sonny peeled off five hundreds and threw them on the floor. He turned and walked towards the bar, not looking back. Tom sniggered softly and knelt to retrieve the money, never taking his eyes from Sonny’s retreating back.
He slipped the bills into his pocket and turned on his heel, taking his jacket from the back of a stool where he’d left it on the way. He was not terribly familiar with this section of New Jersey, but that was not a concern. He had left his transport hidden nearby, and would be back on Manhattan island within minutes.
As he walked down the narrow staircase, and out of the pool hall, he saw one of the slow drinkers, leaning against a new Ford, picking his teeth with a match.
The man smiled at him as he walked past.
Tom walked casually by, without acknowledging the leaning figure. He had hidden his broom in an alley, a block away. He would fade into the shadows like smoke, and the muggles would never see him again.
But Tom did not see the shadow amongst shadows, in a small side lane as he passed. The shadow followed him for a short distance, before producing an object from its pocket. The sound of the object hitting Tom’s skull was a dull thump. A second thump followed immediately after.
Tom lay on the sidewalk, unconscious.
The two men quickly carried him and threw him into the boot of the Ford.
Tom was rudely awoken by a splash of water in his face. He spluttered, and shook his head, trying to clear his eyes. The water felt like ice against his skin. His head immediately exploded with pain. It felt like he’d been hit with a brick.
“Wake up, sunshine.”
Tom blinked and looked up. Sonny stood before him, grinning. His jacket was off, and his bow-tie had been unknotted. It hung limply around his neck, framing the St Christopher medallion that hung from a chain, and rested above the light patch of chest hair made visible by his opened shirt buttons. The white neck of a singlet showed underneath. Sonny looked every inch a gangster. Black braces and trousers against his white silk shirt, and a shoulder holster which had the butt of a .38 poking out of it completed the effect.
Tom coughed slightly. He looked down. His arms were tied against his sides, and he was thoroughly roped to a chair. He couldn’t move his arms, he had been bound so tight.
“Stupid,” he thought to himself, and brushed the thought away. No matter. He felt the comforting pressure of his wand against his chest. Somehow he would get the upper hand.
“So,” said Sonny. “You like to cheat at pool.”
Tom did not reply.
“What I want to know,” Sonny suddenly drew the snub-nosed revolver and clicked the hammer back, “and the reason I’m not putting some bullets in you right now, is, how did you do it?” Sonny grinned and knelt down till their eyes were level. “Tell me that and I might let you get out of here without the aid of the coroner.”
“You’re a muggle.” Said Tom, as if that explained everything.
“And you’re gonna be a dead limey if you don’t cut with the wise cracks.”
“Muggles can’t do it. Sorry.”
“Kid, you’re starting to make no sense, and I’m starting to lose patience. Explain to me what a muggle is, and I’ll decide whether to shoot you or not before we go any further.”
“A muggle,” said Tom, “is someone like you. You have no idea, and we’re right under your nose. We could rule the world, but for the ministry’s slaving to ancient rules.”
Sonny frowned. “Ok. I’m gonna shoot you now unless you start making me understand why I shouldn’t. I don’t usually give this many chances, kid. You should buy a lottery ticket, or something, if you happen to survive, which is not likely right at this moment.” He pointed the gun at Tom’s face.
“I,” said Tom mildly, not looking fazed, “am a wizard. And you are a muggle. Muggles can’t do magic, and they don’t cross into our world.”
“Nearly correct. Not quite.” Said Sonny. “I am a muggle with a gun pointed at your head. I have crossed into your world, and you have to deal with that. I know you’re scared kid, and you oughta be. But you could come up with something better than…” he chuckled, and turned to the slow drinkers, who were watching, off to the left, raising his hand for them to join in. They laughed at his command.
“Better than you’re a wizard. You’re gonna have to be one to get yourself out of this. Try again kid.”
“I have a wand.”
“Oh? I suppose you got a broom too. Ain’t that how wizards get around these days?”
“Yes, I have a broom too. If you loosen these ropes, I’ll show you my wand, and I’ll teach you a trick. It’s the truth. I am a wizard.”
Sonny looked sceptical. “Ok, I’m intrigued. But try anything funny and I promise you, the three of us are handy with these…” He waved the gun in Tom’s face.
“Ok, show me your wand.” He motioned for one of the slow drinkers to untie the boy.
Tom rubbed some circulation back into his forearms, smiling. “Thank you,” he said.
“So where’s this wand, kid? You better not be bluffing…”
“I’m not.” Said Tom. His expression was calm. He reached into his jacket and slowly produced his wand.
Sonny whistled. “That’s a beauty… hand it over.”
“I’m sorry, wizards don’t hand their wands to muggles. If all of you give me your guns, I won’t kill any of you with it.” Tom laughed.
Sonny laughed. The slow drinkers joined in, this time on their own.
“Let me show you a trick,” said Tom. He turned in his seat towards the slow drinkers, and raised his wand.
Their guns, which had been pointed in his general direction, flew from their hands like they had been jerked with wires. They clattered on the floor ten feet away.
He turned back to Sonny to find the barrel of the .38 pressed into his cheek.
“Nice trick kid. Now I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. Give me the stick, now, and I won’t blow your brains out the back of your head. Do I know how to make a deal, or what?”
Tom hesitated. Though he was a wizard, his flesh and blood could be damaged like any creatures. Disapparating might not be fast enough. The bullet was an inch from his brain.
“Ok. But it won’t do you any good. You’re a muggle, remember?” Tom gave up the wand to Sonny.
Sonny took the wooden rod, and examined it closely. “Nice.”
“How do I use it? It’s magic, right? I want money, fifty thousand in cash. Right here in small bills.” He pointed the wand at the floor. Nothing happened.
He pointed the wand again and shouted “Abracadabra! Fifty grand!”
Nothing happened once again.
“You’re a muggle.” Said Tom. “Muggles can’t do magic.”
“Ok, wise guy, you do it. Magic me up fifty grand and I’ll let you go.”
“It’s not that easy,” said Tom. “If I could magic up cash I wouldn’t have needed your five hundred. But I can show you other things…”
Sonny sneered, and smacked Tom in the side of the head with the pistol, a glancing blow which set the throbbing in the back of Tom’s head off again. Blinding white pain left him senseless for several seconds.
“You better find a way kid. You got three minutes.”
Tom thought quickly. Yes, there was a way.
“Alright.” He said. “But I can’t make small bills. Only hundreds.”
“Ok, hundreds are good.”
“I’ll need to be untied.”
Sonny nodded. “No funny stuff. Remember where the gun is pointed. Carlos, get your gun and untie Tom, here.”
Carlos retrieved the guns and handed the other back to his companion. While Sonny held the gun to Tom’s head, Carlos untied him. Tom stood, and walked to a bench against the wall. They were in a warehouse of some kind. Large sodium lights threw shadows in between the stacked crates that were littered haphazardly around the large space.
Tom took the five hundreds from his pocket. Placing them side by side on the bench, he pointed his wand and muttered “Geminio.”
Five more hundreds appeared next to them.
Tom took the original five hundred and pocketed it once more. Then he turned to the new bills, and produced nine more stacks. These he bundled into one stack, and produced nine more identical stacks.
He turned to Sonny.
Sonny raised an eyebrow. “You’d better not be playing with me, kid.” He walked over and inspected the bills.
“Ok we got a problem.” He pointed the gun at Tom again. “These are the same five serial numbers, what do you think, I’m an idiot?”
Tom nodded. He wondered if Sonny would be sharp enough to pick that up.
“Look again,” he said. He waved his wand at the stack of bills, and muttered something Sonny didn’t catch.
Sonny checked the bills. The serials had become random. He held one to the light and nodded.
“Ok, I’m impressed.” He pointed to the door. “You can go… before you do though, here, my card…” He handed Tom a white business card.
“You ever need some work, I got stuff you can help with. Nice doing business with you, kid. Sorry about the headache.”
Tom rubbed his head. “Perfectly fine, I assure you. Enjoy your money. And I’ll enjoy mine.”
Tom smiled and walked out of the door that the second, nameless slow drinker had unlocked.
It was late, and he needed to find his broom. New Jersey looked gloomy and dead in the naked sreetlights. That was alright. There were hundreds of cities, hundreds of opportunities. And he had learned a good lesson tonight.
Never trust a muggle to be stupid.