The backstage room was small, gloomy and had an odour that somehow suggested damp, mould and tears. The Clockwork Conjuror sat in front of a mirror, whistling a melody that had no apparent key and scraping face paint off by the trowel-load. There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” he said cheerily.
The door opened and Sir John and Marie walked in.
“Oh hello,” said the Conjuror, looking a little surprised. “You made it to the show then?”
“Mr… Conjuror,” said Sir John, “you haven’t been entirely honest with us, have you?”
The Conjuror dropped his head a little.
“Well I may have exaggerated ticket sales a little,” he said.
“No,” said Sir John, “I mean about your… troupe.”
He gestured at the puppets and noticed that all their heads were turned to stare at Marie. He couldn’t remember if they had been like that when he came in.
“I’m not sure I follow you,” said the Conjuror, nervously.
“Boss,” said one of the puppets,” I think the jig is up. That dame there, she has some hocus-pocus stuff.”
“She is a witch!” said Sir John, proudly.
“She seems perfectly nice to me,” said the Conjuror, taken aback. “Nice to meet you, by the way!”
“Enchante,” said Marie. “Maybe you explain about this jig.”
The Conjuror sighed and began his tale.
“Well, truth be told, as well as being a mediocre magician, unfunny comedian and tuneless troubadour, seems I’m not a very successful puppeteer either. Of course, I figure this out after I’ve spent all my savings on a fine set of puppets. So, desperate and at rock bottom, I do something rash.”
Sir John looked around and tried to imagine what rock bottom would look like for the Conjuror.
“Go on,” said Marie, not unkindly.
“You know that magicians are supposed to summon spirits. Well of course, that’s just a story to sell the magic. Or so I thought. I wondered if there was some truth in the tale. So I went looking and I found it: A grimmer.”
“Grimoire?” said Sir John.
“Exactly,” said the conjuror. “So I arrange all these puppets in a circle, and I follow the instructions, and, lo and behold, they speak, they are alive.”
Sir John inhaled sharply.
“So these are… puppets possessed by… spirits?” he said.
“Not exactly,” said the puppet that had spoken before. “See, the same time the boss is doing his thing, we’re all sitting on a girder, high in the sky, eating lunch.”
“In… heaven?” said Sir John.
“Park Row Building, New York. We’re a construction crew, see? Well we were. Turns out that girder wasn’t attached so well. We all fell down. I can still recall it, seeing the ground rushing toward me, my life passing in front of me and then… BAM. We wake up in Birmingham, England.”
“Good God!” said Sir John.
“It makes sense mon cher,” said Marie. “It’s like you say about electricity, it takes the lazy path. Magic is the same. Why bother fetching spirits from the otherworld when you have 23 souls already here.”
“So here we are,” said the puppet. “We may be small puppets that are dead inside, but hey, we’re in showbusiness!”
“Ta-da!’ said the puppets at once.