Akari saw the restricted tree first.
Wrestling the Agency’s sleek sedan around the treacherous holes in Zimmerman’s pitted rural driveway held my full attention. We’d passed the mailbox fifteen minutes back, leaving me certain we’d missed a turnoff to the old man’s place—then Akari slapped the dash. “Frank! Pull over!”
Akari snapped off her seatbelt and lunged out the door into the bright summer heat before we stopped moving. Dust and ash-exhaust billowed over the car. My junior agent’s silhouette vanished in the rusted cloud. When the air cleared, I saw what she’d seen and fumbled my seatbelt off too.
“Is that a—?”
“Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’.” She stepped aside as I joined her in front of the young tree. “Weeping birch. A Level Four restricted cultivar.”
Tendrils of leaves spilled over the pale bent trunk, curtaining it like stringy hair over the face of a cowering girl. I’d only seen this species in file photographs.
My partner puffed out an awed breath. “Just . . . growing out here on the side of the road!”
“I take it he doesn’t get many visitors.”
Akari took a sample, sealed it in a ziplock baggie. She sat with it smoothed out on her lap as I eased the sedan back onto the dusty road. Would’ve been nice if the Agency had given us a four-wheel drive for this job, but they’d started phasing them out on account of how much Thaum they burned. Punishing us because the rest of the world couldn’t keep their wands in their pants.
None of us had known how hard it would be to find Zimmerman. He was just another name on a shipment list. A wrist to slap. These sorts usually turned out to be crackpots meddling in Low Magic—nutters who thought they could achieve miracles with a stick of willow.
That tree, though? We were here to investigate a shipment of wood, not living trees. That tree had come from a cutting, and it must’ve been growing here for years. It spoke to forethought. I ran my thumb over the stinging-hot vinyl steering wheel. The office didn’t expect us to check in for another six days, and we’d left mobile reception behind forty minutes back. Still, maybe we’d have some news for them earlier than expected.
Akari must have been thinking along the same lines. “D’you think we’re onto something?”
“Maybe. One tree does not a thaumaturgical terrorist make.”
“Terrorist!” She laughed. “That’s a bit racist, Frank.”
I bristled. One tree may not make him a terrorist, but Vrata Zimmerman’s scant background information, his hectares of bushland in the middle of nowhere, and his name on a list of purchasers of restricted woods sure might. “Call it what you like—I call it sensible caution. He could’ve slipped into the country with the Thaum refugees—”
“—who’ve mostly integrated without any issues.”
We’d had this argument before. The new agents were all like this, fresh out of university packed to the gills with compulsory diversity units and doublethink. It wasn’t their fault—they hadn’t even been born back when the Thaum War ended and the flood of refugees began. They didn’t know what it had been like. “Tell that to the Fed Square victims.”
The kids remembered that all right. Akari looked away. “Turn the aircon down, will you?”
My long-sleeved business shirt clung damp to my back after our little botanical excursion. The old scar on my wrist pricked with sweat. “Put on your jacket.”
My fingers tightened on the steering wheel, and then I caught Akari’s sidelong grin. It deflated my temper like a pin to a balloon, same as ever. “Latte-sipping tree-hugger.”
The kid was all right. I never had any of my own—burned through a couple of wives, but no kids. You could do a lot worse than someone like Shoji Akari. She just had to remember to stick to her timbers, and let me handle the arseholes growing them.
We almost missed Zimmerman’s place. Tucked away in a grove of eucalypts, the low-slung jumble of timber extensions sprawled in every direction like an aboveground rabbit warren.
We crunched into the yard and parked beside an ancient boxy truck, its tray bristling with shards of eucalyptus bark. Ah, the trusty old inert eucalyptus. If our antipodean woods have any special properties, nobody’s been able to tease them out yet. They call Australia a thaumaturgical desert. There’s nothing here worth warring over—a curse that became a blessing when the Old Country forests burned. We don’t have Thaum, but we’ve got green trees of the ordinary kind, and blue skies, and clean air. And now every bastard wants a piece of us because half the world incinerated the forests of their enemies into ash but us, well, we’re only cooking slowly. The lucky country.
The sedan’s engine ticked. Akari and I stepped into the oven of late afternoon. I pulled on my jacket despite the heat. Patted my breast pocket to check for my badge, an old habit. Nothing broke the stillness of the place but the shrill of cicadas and the thump of Akari’s car door.
She stared at the house, a faint crease shadowing her smooth brow. “This place doesn’t look up to code.”
“No kidding.” I frowned at the tops of trees visible over the back of the low-slung house. I knew the hulk of a willow tree when I saw one.
In the cleared area in front of the house, a charred and blackened circle of ground indicated a recent fire. Ashy scraps of paper twitched in the hot sluggish breeze.
“Look at these timbers!” Akari bounced towards the house. “The window frames on that extension there—look at the colour, the grain. Is that yew? Where the hell did he get yew? Oh my god, and I think this door is golden ash . . . ”
Waving her quiet, I knocked on the honeyed wood. I fancied a shimmer of power tingled through my knuckles. Akari brushed a smudge of dust from her dark suit jacket.
The door opened wide. An old man peered out, hunched and tangled as a stunted willow. Watery mud-puddle eyes glimmered over small spectacles curtained between a tangle of grey hair and an unkempt long moustache in the Old Country style. He gave us a grandfatherly smile. Maybe it was the smell of fresh-cut wood that surrounded him, but for the first time in years I thought of Geppetto, the old carpenter from that kids cartoon that got banned after the War.
Akari relaxed beside me. I couldn’t blame her. This guy wasn’t a danger to anything but sugar cookies.
I flipped open my badge. “Mr Zimmerman? I’m Senior Agent Francis Sawyer, and this is Probationary Agent Shoji Akari of the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency, Division of Restricted Materials. We’d like to ask you a few questions concerning a shipment of timber you received in late November last year.”
The old man’s smile brightened. “Oh! I’ve been expecting you.” His accent was pure Old Country, as though he spoke with a large marble cupped on his tongue. “Please, come in. Come. I have ginger beer.” He turned from the door and shuffled back into the cool dim of the house before I could respond. A keyring at the belt of his trousers jingled like a cat collar in the gloom. I pocketed my badge and followed him into the narrow hall at a polite half-speed, casting a glance back at Akari.
Expecting us? she mouthed.
Most of the doors in the hall were shut, bar two at the end: a cramped kitchen and the stuffy, windowless sitting room Zimmerman deposited us in before he left to fetch drinks.
If something was amiss in the house, it wasn’t in this stark room. The elderly have what Akari would call a ‘gendered’ divide when it comes to mess. If there’s a woman involved, you’ll see doilies and pointless little china figures. You’ll smell polish. And once you’re sitting down, good luck getting up again through all the cushions and rugs and crap strewn around the place. Houses like those are clean but cluttered. This sitting room told me that Zimmerman had no woman in his life. The wooden furnishings were sturdy and finely made, but nothing adorned their surfaces except a layer of dust. In the far corner, a hutch held a white rabbit splayed out in a nest of straw, asleep, breathing in that rapid way rabbits do.
Akari and I perched on the edge of a settee with wooden arms carved to resemble ocean waves, as beautiful as the pea-green upholstery was ugly. I touched the timber waves. Perhaps this was the ultimate fate of that shipment of blackthorn. I glanced at Akari to confirm. She shook her head.
“He takes his doors seriously though,” she murmured. This room had two: the heavy hallway door we’d entered through, and what must have been the back door, a sliding screen made of some kind of translucent paper over a light lattice of wood, diffusing green daylight into the dingy room. Akari inclined her head to the open hallway door. “Notice anything weird?”
I frowned at it. “Frame’s reinforced with metal.”
“Oh,” she said. “I meant the doorknob. It doesn’t have one. Just a deadbolt on the other side.”
A little spasm of suspicion shot down my spine.
Akari nudged me and pointed at the other door. “It’s fine. He’s no Buffalo Bill, and that sliding door is practically plywood and tissue paper. You could huff and puff your way out of here, Frank.”
“I knew you kept me around for something.”
“It’s your sunny personality.”
Zimmerman shuffled back into the room, clutching two chipped mugs. He pressed these into our hands and eased himself down into the worn armchair with a sigh.
“Now,” he said at last, “best we talk.”
“It’s the blackthorn, Mr Zimmerman. Your name appears on a shipping regist—” The hall door slammed shut. I sloshed ginger beer onto my shirtsleeve. Beside me, Akari laughed, hand splayed across her heart.
Only Zimmerman seemed unfazed. “Again it does this! Perhaps this house has ghosts. When you are old, always you live with ghosts.”
Biting back annoyance, I rubbed at my wet sleeve, only half-aware of the rough circle of scar tissue under the thin cotton.
“Or, perhaps I have hung the door wrong.” Zimmerman got to his feet. “The frame is solid though. That is the important—ah!” He’d reached for the keys at his waist, but they weren’t there.
That little crease reappeared between Akari’s straight black brows as she studied the sturdy facade of the closed door. “Are we locked in?”
“No, no. We can get out through the back door.” He sat back down and gave Akari a sad smile. “My memory these days is not so good. You know how it is, when you walk through a door and forget what it was you meant to get.”
I let go of my wrist and splayed my fingers, fighting the urge to make a fist as my adrenalin ebbed. “Why the security, Mr Zimmerman? Are you expecting trouble?”
Zimmerman said, with utmost seriousness, “I do not like doorknobs.”
Christ. We were stuck with a batty old bloke from the Old Country who bought in a bit of illegal wood because that’s how things were back in his day. At his age he wouldn’t even get time, he’d only waste a lot of ours.
I cleared my throat. “To the matter of the wood . . . .”
“It has a name, this effect.”
“The forgetting, made by doors. This is the ‘event boundary’.”
“We need to talk about the wood.”
“Yes.” His voice hinted impatience. “I bought it. And many more such shipments before.”
Akari and I exchanged a glance.
“Whatever I could find, I tried,” Zimmerman continued, waving a knobbled and unconcerned hand. “But blackthorn is best for my purposes, you see.”
Akari put her drink aside and leaned forward. “And what are your purposes, Mr Zimmerman?”
“Forgetting. As I have said.”
“You were building . . . doors?”
“Let me start from the beginning,” said Zimmerman. “Let me start from the war.”
I suppressed a sigh. Sure, let’s go back thirty-five years and listen to this senile old man’s life story. We TRA agents had nothing better to do with your tax dollars.
Ever the good cop to my bad one, Akari fished a notepad from her jacket pocket and studied the old man, pen poised to strike.
“In the Old Country, I was a carpenter.” He paused, his eyes moving from Akari’s face to mine. “I know what you are thinking. I was not part of the development of large-scale thaumaturgy, and I wanted no part in it. A brute goes first to force, and misses finesse. You see. This energy in the woods, it can bring light, and it can bring warmth, but the Steuernden sought only to bring fire. I lived on the coast with my family and used Low Magic to make furniture, seeking always to learn what shape the woods wished to become, and what gifts were locked in these forms.
“When we began to lose the war—when the United Forces bombed the Schwarzwald-Projekt base and killed most of the High Thaumagi—the Steuernden soon came looking for everyone else who worked wood. They were not asking.”
I pressed my lips together and raised my empty mug to my face to hide my expression. There’s not a Thaumagus alive who doesn’t squeal about how pure and innocent they were during the war. The rapt attention on Akari’s face made her seem childlike. It left me with a twinge of something like exasperation, something like affection. I bet she was one of those kids who brought home any half-dead wild animal she found and then cried when the thing bit her.
“My wife died early in the war,” said Zimmerman. “Always she was ill, and soon the food and hospital bed shortages—well. It was only my daughter and I left when I heard the Steuernden were sending troops. So we ran, all the way to the other side of the world. I gave my life savings to a man with a ship and we came across the ocean, and your border patrols picked us up and put us in a refugee camp. For three years we—”
“Mr Zimmerman, with all due respect, we’re here to talk about a shipment of another sort,” I said. The air around Akari turned frosty, though to her credit she barely twitched. My left hand clenched in a stranglehold around my right wrist, flesh and bone tight across the numbness of the two crescent scars. “The government has the utmost sympathy for your situation as a refugee, but legal reparation was made decades ago, and that’s not—”
“My daughter,” Zimmerman interrupted, “died two nights after our resettlement on the mainland. I found her hanging from the doorknob in her bedroom.”
His words hung in the air. I’d seen a couple of short drops in my time at the camps. Nasty way to go.
Akari’s hands twisted in her lap. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” said the old man. “Pain such as this takes root in your mind. It can never be unmade. Would that I could open a door and step back to the time before I fled the Old Country, I would let the Steuernden take me.” He looked me in the eye. “If it saved my daughter, Agent Sawyer, I would set fire to the world.”
Twenty years with the TRA, and that was the first time a suspect ever said something like that to my face. “Tell me about the doors, Mr Zimmerman.”
“The doors. Yes. I had reason to think of doors, after what happened. I dreamed of them, many times. So, when the reparation money came, I bought this land, and started building my house, and I began to make doors. I made doors of golden ash and silver birch, doors of willow, bloodwood and yew . . . .”
Beside me, Akari bit her lip and made a few reluctant notes.
“Some thaumaturgical woods worked better than others. Certain dimensions helped also. To test my doors, I wrote a number of items in a list, then stepped through the door, and wrote again as many items as I remembered on the other side. The doors were working, but not enough: I would forget minutes, even an hour, but I could not forget my pain. So still, I worked.
“I learned soon that the active part was not the door, but the frame, saving me much time. I found later that I could layer the doors, pressing many frames together in a row, allowing me to combine different woods. Advancement was slow; the materials were costly and hard to get—you know this well. The risk made me economical, made me experiment with thinner layers of doorframe. This necessity led to my finest breakthrough: making the frames thinner did not make them less powerful, so I could stack many more into a smaller space. A day came when I walked through a doorway made of more than sixty thin frames. I forgot the past week of my life.
“When the forgetting grew bad enough to be inconvenient,” he said, “I started writing a letter to my daughter each time I was to test the door. I pinned it to my shirt before I stepped, so I could read it after, and remind myself what I was doing, and why. It felt like talking with her.”
I tried to catch Akari’s eye, wondering if she could shed any light on what sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. I’d never heard of thaumaturgy used like this before. Parlour tricks, yes. City-levelling explosions, absolutely. But if the old man was telling the truth, he’d created something else altogether. Something subtle and dangerous.
“You don’t believe me,” he said. Astute.
“It’s quite a story.”
“Here.” With a grunt, he pushed himself up from the armchair and hobbled to the rabbit hutch in the corner. As he unlatched it, I swallowed back a surge of unease.
Zimmerman lifted the rabbit out of the cage and carried it to the coffee table. I thought for a moment that the limp, motionless creature must be dead. I hadn’t seen it move once during Zimmerman’s tale. But when he lay it on its side on the table I saw again the rapid rise and fall of its chest, the black shining stare of its open eye.
“What’s wrong with it?” Akari’s voice was uncharacteristically flat.
“You know.” Zimmerman fixed her with those still pondwater eyes. “It’s been through the door. Washed clean. Even the motor skills, vanished. All it has now is reflex . . . to suckle, to breathe—and it can feel sensation, though I cannot say if it knows what is pleasure and what is pain. When the body passes through the door the mind is left behind.”
I touched the rabbit’s soft fur, waved a hand above the open eye. Nothing. “How does it work?”
“Truly, I cannot say. It is like a magnet to a computer disk. Or like a fire to a shrub. It does something to the mind. Takes the tangled pathways you’ve grown in your head over the years and burns them away.” Zimmerman gathered the limp rabbit in his puckered hands.
“It’s cruel,” Akari said.
I made a mental note to talk to my junior agent about emotional overinvestment when all this was over.
“Life is cruel, young lady. This creature is at peace.” The old man walked to the hutch but seemed reluctant to let the rabbit go. His bony hand smoothed, smoothed the long white ears. He lingered, half turned away in the corner of the room where the shadows gathered. “I put them down humanely after the tests. This one, I kept alive to show you.”
He’d implied knowledge of our arrival before, too. “What made you so sure we were coming?”
“I’ve been buying restricted wood for thirty years, and never have I been on a watch list until now. Why do you think this is?”
“You wanted the TRA to come.”
“You’re very close to the truth of it, Agent Sawyer.”
I wondered if it was as simple as him needing his story heard. Or perhaps after thirty years of work he realised he could sell his door; profit might satisfy him more than artificially induced dementia. Hell, maybe when he’d finally faced the reality of wiping himself out of existence, he just chickened out.
I remembered the burned papers out front and realised I wasn’t wondering—I was hoping. Some thought scratched at the back of my mind like small fingernails clawing at me and I couldn’t let it through, not yet. Not that memory.
Zimmerman spoke again, almost too low to hear. “As the door grew stronger a strange thing happened—I no longer wanted to forget. You see, her death had begun to recede into the past over time, but the door washed away those years, day by day. The past—her death—crept back towards me, and so did my rage. Forgetting her wasn’t enough. I had to avenge her.”
“Avenge her? How?” Akari’s voice tremored.
“It’s already done.”
Akari jolted to her feet. I put my hand on her arm and moved her behind me. She stumbled on the coffee table, clung to my wrist. Not for the first time, I wished they gave us TRA agents sidearms, or even truncheons. My hand itched to close around a truncheon again. All that had stopped after the fuss over the refugee camps.
Zimmerman looked over his shoulder at last, his eyes malevolent, his eyes clear. His eyes so very young. “My daughter was too ashamed to tell her Vati much of what happened to her in the camp, but I knew enough to know when. She was not the same, after. Once the reparation trials released the guard duty rosters, I knew who.”
Akari clung to my wrist, her frightened eyes piercing me “Frank? What is this?”
I remembered another pair of frightened eyes. They’d been the colour of pond water. My dry throat clicked. “You’ve made a mistake. I never knew any Zimmermans.”
“Our name was Janus,” he said. “Perhaps you don’t remember that, but she left you with a reminder, didn’t she? My daughter had a crooked front tooth. What is on your wrist, Frank Sawyer?”
I jerked my arm away from Akari, but I knew she’d touched it through my sleeve as she clung to me, felt the two rough crescent scars of the bite I’d never had treated. I saw the terrible knowing in Akari’s eyes. I turned away. “Christ. I don’t know how it happened. I was young and angry.”
“So am I,” said the old man. He settled the rabbit against his chest, stroking it with his free hand.
“You can’t do this. She hasn’t done anything wrong.” I reached back for Akari’s arm. She recoiled from my touch.
The old man watched us, eyes bright and clear in his seamed face.
“You can’t keep us here!” I snarled.
“You are not prisoners, Agent Sawyer. On the contrary, you should not linger. I may have forgotten to turn off the oven. My memory these days is not good.” He slid open the flimsy screen door.
With a dull, shocked understanding I knew what the odd thickness of the frame behind it meant. I knew the meaning of the strange texture of the wood, the fine ridges pressed together dense as the grooves on a record. Thousands upon thousands of sliver-thin frames. Beyond the doorway, sunset filtered through narrow bars of bone-white birch.
The old man turned away from us, cradling the rabbit on his shoulder like a sleeping child. “You are free to leave whenever you please,” he said, and stepped out into the light.