Desperation was the worst thing you could bring to the Emporium, but there was nowhere else to go. The Emporium was the only place that would have what I was looking for. It always had what I was looking for. So I brought my desperation with me, like an albatross around my neck, like a black spot.
You could get it all at the Emporium. But not for money; Mr. Handlesropes didn’t operate that way. Sometimes, one of the art addicts who dealt in the alley would come in and offer huge sums of stolen cash for one of his items — a piece of cured human skin bearing a rare tattoo, or the shell of a dodo egg hand-painted by a prisoner on the day before his execution — but Mr. Handlesropes would just laugh.
“You’ve got to play the game like everyone else, son,” he would say, even if the petitioner were a woman many years his senior.
During the day, the Emporium acted as a gallery of sorts, its display cases overflowing with rare artifacts and curiosities. But if you wanted to possess one of the items that Mr. Handlesropes stocked, you had to wait until closing time when he would blow out his lanterns and lead you down the narrow twist of a staircase into the cold, stone basement where his balance was set up on a circular bar table.
I was a habitué in the basement of the Emporium. I often came seeking treasures that could not be had anywhere else. But that night was different. I was all atwitch with worry and exhaustion. I hadn’t slept in as long as I could remember. I was kept awake by gallons of cheap coffee and the buzz-saw whine of anxiety. Usually there was a sense of excitement when Mr. Handlesropes led the hopefuls down to the basement, but that night I only felt panic and paranoia.
There were three others there that night. Two were regulars — Mama Alphonz-Custer and Dame Prudence Weakforce. I had seen them many times in that cellar, playing for outrageous prizes, risking priceless treasures, losing as often as they won. Sometimes we would meet up afterward to celebrate or commiserate or strategize over pints of Hogtown Peculiar at Crobbleknock Tavern. We called our little club The Aficionados. We prided ourselves on being expert at Mr. Handlesropes’s game, but we all knew that nobody was truly expert.
The third player that night was a newcomer. A small, fox-like man with sharp eyes and a glittering smile. I had never seen him in the Emporium before but I instantly disliked him. He sat in silence as Dame Weakforce and Mama Alphonz-Custer offered unsolicited advice.
“It’s all in the materials,” whispered Mama Alphonz-Custer. “Mr. Handlesropes knows how much your wager is worth, and that determines the material of the token, and the weight. You can never get away with trying to cheat him. You’ve just got to offer him a fair deal and you’ll win every time.”
“It’s more than that,” Dame Weakforce chimed in. “He knows how much your wager is worth to you. Or the tokens do, at any rate. And what’s more, he knows how much you want the thing you’re playing for. You’ve got to be honest with yourself. What would I give to obtain this tchotchke or that kickshaw? How much would I really be willing to part with?”
The fox-like man smiled and nodded. I shivered and kept silent.
One corner of the cellar was always hidden from view by heavy curtains, but there must have been a piano back there, and a piano player, because once we had all taken our seats Mr. Handlesropes snapped his fingers and music began. It was a breed of music I have never heard anywhere else, somewhere between a dissonant funeral march and a frantic, stomping ragtime. It worked its way into your dreams, that music. If you listened carefully you could also sometimes hear a low growl and the clink of chains from behind that curtain. The pianist wasn’t human; of that we were certain.
Mr. Handlesropes poured everyone the customary shots of his noisome, homemade absinth and made a toast to the balance, and to Lady Luck, and to the Gentleman of Loss.
And then the game began.
Mr. Handlesropes’s game was simple and strange: each customer in turn would name the object that he or she wanted from the Emporium, and Mr. Handlesropes would produce a circular token from his voluminous pockets with a picture of that object etched into its surface. Mr. Handlesropes knew his inventory with an uncanny precision, and it never took him more than a moment to pull the correct token from his pocket, apparently by feel alone.
The tokens were made out of all sorts of different materials — mahogany, steel, slate, iron, teak, bone, ivory, cardboard, shell — and varied in size and weight quite dramatically. The smallest were the size of small coins or shirt buttons, the largest were the size of your hand with your fingers splayed. Mr. Handlesropes would lay the token on the table in front of him, to the left of the balance.
Next, each customer would name another object — something she was willing to risk in order to gain the object of her desire. And here’s what I could never figure out: Mr. Handleropes would have tokens representing those objects too, each token bearing a precise etching of the object in question. He would pull it from his pocket as quickly as he did those representing his own merchandise, and place it before him, to the right of the balance.
I had often wagered things he never could have seen: one time it was an old rocking horse that had belonged to my great grandfather. He pulled out a token made of wood — and there it was, etched onto the face, the lines filled with dark ink. Not just any rocking horse, but my great grandfather’s rocking horse, complete with missing eye and broken tail.
After the two piles of tokens were lying there on the table, on either side of the balance, the weighing would begin.
Mr. Handlesropes would place the token representing the thing you wanted in one pan of his balance; the token representing the thing you were risking would go in the other pan. If they weighed the same, or thereabouts, you got to keep both, but if the balance tilted to one side or the other then Mr. Handlesropes got to keep both.
And that was how it worked.
Mr. Handlesropes’s stock included wonders from all over the world, things I obsessed over, things I lusted after. There was a heavy skillet with gunpowder mixed into the iron that would pop and spark as you cooked, searing your meat with a thousand tiny explosions, flavoring it with acrid smoke. There was an umbrella with spokes as sharp as razors and grooves to channel rain or other liquids into a small reservoir inside the handle. There was a wallet with three secret compartments — one for liquids, one for powders, and one for spiders — each carefully designed and unmistakable in its purpose. There was a corkboard with a hundred insects pinned to it — insects that did not exist in nature, did not exist anywhere outside of the Emporium.
But that night I was not there for wonders. I was there because I was desperate. And Mr. Handlesropes preys on desperation.
Mama Alphonz-Custer was the first to play that night. She wanted a map of the city that hung above the fireplace in the secret back room of the Emporium. I had admired that map myself. It showed all the spots where people had fallen in love or seen ghosts. The map sparkled with a million pinprick dots in red and green, all over the city, but with easily discernible concentrations: Branbury Manor, Elsa’s Bluffs, Old Forking Street, Portobello Close.
Mr. Handlesropes spent a moment rummaging in his pocket, and withdrew a token of leaded glass. He placed it gently on the table, beside his balance. On its surface was a likeness of the map, etched into the glass with exquisite precision.
Mama Alphonz-Custer had nearly ruined herself countless times on such extravagances. I had seen her lose jewelry that had been passed down through her family for generations, magnificent paintings from the collection at Custer manor, valuable silverware and china, a Stradivarius-Brunel cello. She had also lost the respect of the other Alphonz-Custers, and won it back again. When she wagered too much or too little, and lost a family heirloom, they called her a wanton gambler who was squandering the family’s fortune and reputation. But when she won, she won such wonders that her family would ooh and aah in awe and all would be forgiven: “And to think, it didn’t cost her a shilling!”
Dame Prudence Weakforce was next. She was a stern woman with a kind heart. She was just as extravagant in her wagers, but was never visibly upset when she lost. She treated Mr. Handlesropes’s game with an almost scientific disinterest, apparently more concerned with the process itself than with the treasures she stood to win. That night she told Mr. Handlesropes that she would be playing for the moon chest that stood in the window. Its latches included sensitive gravitational components that kept it locked at all times, save during full moons.
Mr. Handlesropes drew a wheel of cheese from his pocket. Veins of mold patterned its surface, describing the chest in lines of blue-green.
Dame Prudence Weakforce smiled as Mr. Handlesropes laid the cheese beside his balance. She had told us once, over drinks at the Crobbleknock, that she suspected Mr. Handlesropes was teasing her, perhaps even flirting with her, through his choice of materials.
The fox-like man was the next to play. He cleared his throat with what sounded like a low growl. He spoke quietly and precisely: “I wish to play for a certain phial in your possession, Mr. Handlesropes. It is a phial on the seventeenth shelf of your third wardrobe. It contains a thick, black liquid. A drug, I believe.” The man turned to me and met my eyes, and smiled his glittering smile.
My heart stopped. My blood froze and boiled and ceased to circulate. I sweated and shivered and felt hot with sudden fever, with sudden rage. I sat silently, impaled by the fox-man’s gaze, as Mr. Handlesropes pulled from his pocket a disk of painted wood, depicting the phial in neat brush-strokes. My phial. The phial I needed more than anything in the world.
The fox-man’s smile stopped time, so I don’t know how long I sat there, transfixed and terrified, but when at last I found myself able to breathe and speak again, Mr. Handlesropes was looking at me expectantly.
I stammered. I babbled. “No, no. He can’t. That’s mine. It’s the thing I want. I need. He can’t have it. I need that phial. The one on the seventeenth shelf of your third wardrobe. With the black liquid. I need it. Please.” I turned to the man. “Please. You have to . . .”
The man’s grin broadened.
Mama Alphonz-Custer and Dame Prudence Weakforce began to whisper to one another. They had never seen two people play for the same item before. None of us knew how that worked. They saw this as an intriguing new development, a bit of vicarious excitement.
I suddenly hated them. “You don’t understand,” I told them.
Mr. Handlesropes was rummaging again. A look of slight surprise crossed his face, and he shoved both hands into his hip pocket. His old shoulders tensed as he strained at something huge and heavy. His pocket gaped wide — wider than should have been possible — and he heaved something from it that should never have fit in there in the first place.
The table rocked and nearly tipped as Mr. Handlesropes set the thing down with trembling arms. It dwarfed the other tokens, a whale among sardines, a warship among coracles. It was a slab of black iron, cracked and sloppily wrought, a hulking hunk of sheer heaviness with a sketch of the phial scored into its face.
I stared in horror at the massiveness of my need.
The others stared with me. Here was a double wonder — the largest token any of us had ever seen, and definitive proof that the weight of the token varied depending on how much the petitioner valued the object in question. The fox man’s wooden disk sat neat and compact beside my iron monstrosity, each standing in for the same prize. I could see Dame Prudence Weakforce taking shorthand notes in her game diary.
The fox-man smiled to himself with obvious satisfaction. I would have killed him then and there if I thought it would win me the phial, but Mr. Handlesropes did not abide violence in his shop. Behind the curtain, the pianist let out a low growl.
“Well well well well well,” said Mr. Handlesropes, who seemed quite amused by the whole thing. “If it isn’t an unevenly distributed double-entreaty for an irreproducible object of unknown provenance.” He gave a little laugh as if he had made a joke. “But we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it. Mama Alphonz-Custer, your wager please.”
I watched the proceedings with a peculiar intensity, like a child who finds fascination in anything that is not the horror of an upcoming exam. Mama Alphonz-Custer wagered a tapestry depicting the Alphonz and Custer family trees, with each of the noble clans represented by a different branch, each mythical ancestor by a root. I had seen that tapestry with my own eyes in Custer Museum. It had been kept updated for over two-hundred years, with successive generations adding new branches and sewing creeping chokeweed onto the tree — the weed strangling branches as family members died off or were excommunicated. A recent drought of children meant the chokeweed had nearly reached the highest limbs.
Mr. Handlesropes drew from his pocket a lump of fossilized wood, with an exact copy of that tree chiseled into it. He placed it to the right of the balance.
Dame Prudence Weakforce eyed the cheese, estimating its weight and performing mental algebra. I imagined a set of balances at work in her mind, weighing the cheese against each of her possessions in turn.
“Ariadne, my nightingale,” she said at last, “with her cage.”
Mr. Handlesropes’ hands once again dipped into his pockets. Out came a gorgeous disk of ebony, the bird and cage chalked onto its surface.
Then came the awful man. He licked his lips and paused a moment, but there was no hesitation in that pause. He knew what he was going to wager: “My good Mr. Handlesropes,” he said. “I would like to wager the pleasure I take in sneezing.”
Mama Alphonz-Custer laughed at this, and Dame Prudence Weakforce jotted furiously in her notebook. They whispered together: “No . . . he can’t . . . how?” But Mr. Handlesropes delved into his pockets and withdrew a brass token, much the same size and shape as the one with the phial painted onto it. On its face was a precise depiction of the fox-man’s wager — his pleasure in sneezing, eloquent and unmistakable. Mr. Handlesropes placed the token to the right of his balance.
And then it was my turn. I found myself staring at the lump of iron. It filled my vision. I felt its weight on my chest, crushing the breath out of me. It seemed to heave and pulse, like a living thing, like some grotesque internal organ, ripped from a giant.
The others were all staring at me, but they quickly looked away when I met their gazes. The magnitude of my need was embarrassing to them. I tried to think like Dame Weakforce, to treat this as a game and nothing more, an exercise in logic and judgment. All I needed to do was name something that I valued as much as that little black phial and it would be mine at no cost. But what else was so important? What else did I need so utterly? I found myself unable to think of a single thing that I owned, as if all my worldly possessions had been repossessed by the agents of my panic. That iron slab filled my head, blotted out all else save the phial on the seventeenth shelf of Mr. Handlesropes’s third wardrobe.
The words came without my willing them. For a moment I thought they had been spoken by someone else, the fox-man perhaps. But then I felt their aftertaste on my lips, I recognized the echo of my own voice, and I realized that I had indeed spoken the words.
“My son,” I had said. “I wager John Magpie, my son.”
The whispering and scribbling began again. The fox-man’s grin broadened and I slumped back miserably in my chair. I had a sense that Mr. Handlesropes and the others were conspiring against me.
Mr. Handlesropes reached into his pockets and again he strained against something big and heavy, something that should not have fit in any pocket. It was another behemoth, a slab of silver and mother-of-pearl, with chrome bolts driven through it around its circumference, and there, in its mirror-surface, I saw not my own reflection, but my son’s face staring back. I let out a whimper as Mr. Handlesropes heaved it onto the table opposite the black iron slab.
Mr. Handlesropes snapped his fingers and the pianist played a sustained trill, like a circus drum-roll, perpetually almost-finished, one step away from resolution.
“The weighing,” announced Mr. Handlesropes, grandly.
In the left-hand pan of his balance he placed the piece of fossilized wood that represented Mama Alphonz-Custer’s family tapestry; in the right, the leaded glass. He held the balance steady, and then released it to gravity. It swayed on its fulcrum as the weights fought one another, then settled at a slant. The fossilized wood was heavier, the tapestry worth more to her. The piano trill resolved to a heavy, minor chord — the sound of failure.
Mama Alphonz-Custer let out a hiss of disappointment and her face turned red. “I knew it,” she breathed.
They say you are never really surprised by the outcome of Mr. Handlesropes’s game.
Mr. Handlesropes passed the disk of leaded glass to Mama Alphonz-Custer. A reminder of her debt. “I expect delivery of the tapestry by noon tomorrow,” he informed her. She nodded sullenly. She would bring it. Nobody ever tried to cheat Mr. Handlesropes.
The piano began its trill again and Mr. Handlesropes cleared the balance. He placed the wheel of cheese in the left-hand pan; he placed the ebony token in the right-hand pan. When he released the scales they barely moved at all. The moon chest cheese and the nightingale ebony weighed the same. Dame Prudence Weakforce smiled to herself. Once again, she had succeeded.
The piano resolved to a triumphant major chord. Mr. Handlesropes gave her the cheese. She would turn it in upstairs, during regular store hours, in exchange for the chest.
Then it was the fox-man’s turn. The piano began again. Mr. Handlesropes took the wood and brass tokens in his wrinkled hands and placed them in the pans. As he released the balance, a tremor shot through his old muscles. The balance swayed crazily, and for a moment, I tricked myself into believing they would not balance, but with each sway the thing shed energy and my hope withered. It reached equilibrium with its arm as straight as the tabletop. The piano sounded a major chord and Mr. Handlesropes handed over the brass token.
“The phial has been won,” announced Mr. Handlesropes. “All further wagers are canceled. I bid you goodnight, ladies and gentlemen.”
I sat numb and shaking. The lump of iron and the glittering silver disk sat on the table, useless and inert. Unweighed. The others packed up their things and headed up the stairs. Dame Prudence Weakforce placed a hand on my shoulder as she passed. A small gesture of compassion. Though I had lost nothing, she seemed to understand the extent of my tragedy. There it was, laid out on the table for all to see.
I was still sitting there when Mr. Handlesropes left the basement. I found myself alone, with my two huge tokens on the table, the balance between them. I reached for them, my hands shaking. A low growl came from behind the curtain, the sound of something straining against chains. I withdrew my trembling hands with a gasp but I resisted the urge to flee up the stairs. I had to know.
I reached forward again, ignoring the growls, and lifted the two huge tokens onto the scales, not knowing what to hope for.
When I left Mr. Handlesropes’s shop the sun was just beginning to rise. I felt very tired. I had been tired for as long as I could remember, but until now sleep had been incomprehensible, like a foreign language. Now I felt a tremendous urge to curl up in the doorway of the Emporium and fall asleep on the cold, hard cobbles.
Something moved close by. Someone was waiting for me.
The fox-man spoke in his small, precise voice: “I have something that you want.”
“Yes, you do,” I said. My exhaustion left me all at once, driven off by sudden adrenaline. I knew the exhaustion would return later, stronger than before, but for now I had all the strength I needed. My fingers tightened around the handle of the knife that I always carried in the seam of my coat.
The fox-man kept his distance, perhaps guessing my intent. He held his hands up to show he did not want trouble.
“What are you?” I hissed. “How did you do it? Why? How did you know about the phial?”
The fox-man smiled his awful smile. “I am a thing of business,” he said. “An entrepreneur.” He made it sound like the name of an animal. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium provides fertile hunting grounds for those such as myself.”
Stitches snapped as I pulled my knife from its seam. “Give it to me,” I demanded, taking a step toward him.
“A thing that is correctly valued is worth nothing,” he continued, as if I had not said anything, but he held up his hands again and this time his posture was threatening, warning me not to come too close. His fingernails were talons. “You always have to pay full price and you can never trade it for more than it is worth, so profit is impossible. But when a thing is misvalued — now that’s a different matter entirely. Mr. Handlesropes stocks nothing but misvalued goods. His currency is mistakes. He lives on them, trades them on the error markets.”
“I did not make a mistake tonight,” I told him, raising my knife. “And I would advise you not to make one either. Give me the token.”
He pulled the brass disk from his pocket and held it up, taunting me with it. “I live on a different kind of currency,” he said. He flashed me his hideous grin, and all at once I realized he was not human.
“How much do you want for it?” I asked, suddenly weak again, my courage fading. “I don’t have much money.”
“I believe you would give me all the money you possess,” the fox-man said. “I believe you would kill for it. I believe you would kill me.”
“I would,” I told him.
“But I am not interested in money. And I am certainly not interested in killing or in being killed over a drug.” He snorted. “The phial is worth as much to me as my pleasure in sneezing; it is worth as much to you as your own son. A mutually satisfactory price will therefore fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Clearly you are desperate and willing to resort to violence. I wish to avoid violence and so this gives you some leverage over me. If I set my price too high you might judge it worthwhile to risk an attack. This, of course, depends on your judgment of my ability to defend myself. Hmmm. It’s all very complicated isn’t it?” He pondered this, or pretended to ponder it. He tapped a fingernail against his teeth, whistled a little tune, mumbled some arithmetic.
Then he named his price.
My son’s brow was very hot. His room stank of sickness. I hadn’t noticed the stink before. This was the first time I had spent any length of time outside his room since it had begun, all those weeks ago. I leaned over him and pressed my lips to his burning brow.
“I have it,” I whispered, unsure whether he could hear me. “I have the antidote.”
His eyelids flickered as I poured the sludgy, black liquid down his throat. I winced at the effort it cost him to swallow. He coughed and spluttered but I made sure he drank it all. Then I gave him some water with sugar and salt. He was too weak to eat, too weak to speak or open his eyes. I could barely remember a time when he had been strong, could barely imagine him running red-cheeked through the playground or climbing the apple tree.
I leaned over him and kissed his forehead again. “You’re going to live,” I whispered, smiling, my cheeks wet with tears.
Then I did what I had to do. I took my son’s laughter from him. He was far too weak to resist. I don’t think he even noticed. I took it from him and wrapped it carefully in tissue paper, then in brown packing paper. Then I tied it with string and slipped it into the inside pocket of my coat.
“I had to do it,” I repeated to myself, over and over until the words lost their meaning, as I walked back toward Fumblers Alley.
I wondered if he would understand. I wondered if he would forgive me.
About the Author
Julian Mortimer Smith is a writer of science fiction and fantasy based in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Terraform, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and other venues. He is currently working on a fantasy novel for young adults.
About the Narrator
Wilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of 4 and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud.
He started narrating stories for a wider audience than his wife and children in 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to become PodCastle’s most prolific narrator.
He’s also narrated for many other podcasts, including all of the Escape Artists casts, StarShipSofa, Tales to Terrify, Beam Me Up, Cast Macabre, Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, and the Journey Into… podcast. He fits in all this narrating between his day job as a web developer in Vancouver, Canada, and being the director of a community show chorus called The Maple Leaf Singers.