24 Weeks of Bond: You Only Live Twice

Art by Paul Mann

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: You Only Live Twice, released in 1967. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Sink the Bismarck!, Alfie), who initially declined but accepted after being reminded how big of a blockbuster the 007 series was.

Most surprising to me was the fact that the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, a close friend of Fleming’s who nonetheless said it was Fleming’s worst book, and was more a “travelogue” than a movie-worthy source of material. Though he created a lot of original material for the film, he still kept an extended Japanese wedding sequence and focused quite a bit on Japanese culture, keeping in line with Fleming’s work.

The movie itself sees an American spaceship hijacked by another craft, unknown but suspected by the Americans to belong to the Soviet Union. The British believe the Japanese may be involved, and they send Bond undercover to meet with government connections in Japan to try to uncover what’s going on.

While there is plenty of positive aspects to the film (gone are the artificially sped-up action sequences of Thunderball; Japan is an incredible setting; the plot is mostly exciting; the final action sequence is flat-out incredible), I just can’t help but think how poorly the sequences of Bond getting skin pigmentation and eye surgery to go undercover as a Japanese man have aged.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns for his fifth outing as James Bond, and he looks great, although he was bored with playing the role and had a terrible relationship with the producers of the film. It was announced during filming that this would be his final turn playing Bond, although future years would see him return for one more film with Eon (Diamonds Are Forever, which I will cover), as well as a single film with another production company (Never Say Never, a remake of Thunderball, which I will not cover).

In terms of the film, there are some notable absences of Bondisms. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo, nor does he drive a car, and the martini he accepts from his host is (mistakenly on the character’s part, but intentional for the film) stirred and not shaken. He does, however, wear his Navy uniform, and he does also welcome some warm sake.

THE GIRLS: The first of You Only Live Twice’s Bond Girls that we’re introduced to is Ling, played by Tsai Chin. She doesn’t get much screen time, but she is central to an opening sequence that seemingly sees Bond killed. This isn’t the first time the films have done this to us, but it remains startling.

More prominently featured are Aki (Akiko Wakibayashi), a Japanese operative that Bond first meets during a sumo match, and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), an ninja operative who “marries” Bond to maintain his Japanese cover. Kissy Suzuki’s name is not uttered in the film.

It should be noted, too, that this is the second Bond film to end with him canoodling in a life raft, proving he really does live twice.

And then, of course, there is femme fatale Helga Brandt/Spectre No.11, played by Karin Dor. She crosses Bond’s path a number of times and attempts to kill him. Her role in SPECTRE, however, hinges entirely on her ability not to fail.

THE VILLAINS: In addition to Helga Brandt, SPECTRE is all over the place in this film.

Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada), a Japanese industrialist, works with SPECTRE to retrieve and cover up the stolen space shuttles and urge the U.S. and Russia closer to all-out war. In a neat piece of trivia, his henchman who fights Bond in his office, is played by Peter Maivia, grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Burt Kwouk and Michael Chow play SPECTRE henchmen (#3 and #4 respectively), while Ronald Rich plays Hans, Blofeld’s imposing bodyguard.

But it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld/SPECTRE No.1 who really steals the show. After spending three films visually obscured save for the occasional back of his head, and the hand stroking his white cat, we finally see Blofeld’s scarred face. He is played by Donald Pleasance, who never blinks when on screen, and his ruthlessness is on full display. His massive volcano lab, filled with secret entrances, deadly piranhas, trapdoors, armored rooms, rail tunnels, and scores of armed men cost nearly as much to build a set for as it did to make the entirety of Dr. No, Bond’s first film adventure.

Pleasance’s appearance here would later serve as Mile Myer’s visual template for Dr. Evil in his Austin Powers spoofs.

THE LOCATIONS: This is the first Bond film not to show MI6 headquarters. Instead, the film really only shows two locations: Hong Kong, China, in the beginning; and then primarily Japan for the rest of the film (Kagoshima, for the most part, although some scenes were shot in Tokyo).

While part of the fun in Bond movies is seeing all the exotic locales the secret agent is traveling to, keeping the majority of the film set in Japan allows it to have a unique flavor (Bond would say it’s like Peking Duck). The entire movie is steeped in culture, from the food to the drinks, the bathhouses and the samurai/ninja mentality and training, the nature and the customs, and even the sports. However ill-advised Bond’s method for going undercover is, the rest of the movie does exude a true love for Japan.

THE CARS: As I stated above, Bond doesn’t actually drive any cars this go-around, let alone his now-signature Aston Martin. As to be expected in a film set primarily in Japan, there are a lot of Japanese makes and models featured here: Toyotas, Subarus, Nissans, etc. You can find a full list here.

But that doesn’t mean Bond doesn’t get some exciting machinery! Instead of the streets, he takes to the SKY for a thrilling helicopter chase that was reportedly difficult to film. Bond flies the Wallis WA-116 Agile Series 1 gyroplane, nicknamed Little Nellie. Q outfitted it with offensive and defensive capabilities, of course: machine guns, flamethrowers, aerial mines, rockets, and a pair of heat-seeking missiles!

THE GADGETS: Aside from Little Nellie, most of the gadgets are relatively mundane here. There’s a flip-up trap bed (not so different from normal folding beds), a purse with a microphone in it, a camera controlled by a typewriter, and an x-ray screen built into a desk. Tiger Tanaka has a chute trap that leads to a sofa in his office.

Bond gets a couple things to work with: a cigarette with rocket ammunition built to fire from the tip, and a transportable safe-cracking device.

Most of the rest is built into Blofeld’s volcano lair: hidden compartments and collapsible bridges, armored blinds and a retractable roof to hide from the forces of justice.

Also there are a ton of samurai and ninja weapons. I wouldn’t exactly call those gadgets.

THE MUSIC: This is the fourth Bond film to be scored by John Barry, and he did so while trying to incorporate Eastern music styles, finding them elegant. For the theme, he composed “You Only Live Twice” with lyricist Leslie Bricusse. It was offered to Frank Sinatra, who passed, and then his daughter, Nancy, making her the first non-British vocalist for the 007 series. She was reportedly so nervous it took her upwards of 25 takes to perform, with the final version being pieced together from the best takes.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell both return as MI6 head M and his secretary Moneypenny, respectively. This would mark the last time Lois and Sean Connery shared a scene together, as their encounter in Diamonds Are Forever was filmed separately. Also, with no MI6 headquarters in this film, they make do with a portable office set up aboard an aircraft carrier, a hilarious and appreciated design.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the incorrigible gadget master, Q, while Charles Gray plays British contact Dikko Henderson in a small but pleasant role.

Most important to the film is Tetsurō Tamba’s Tiger Tanaka. What Felix Leiter is to the USA, Tiger is to Japan. His jovial nature and reliability in a pinch make him invaluable to Bond’s mission in Japan, and Tiger is instantly memorable for both his sense of humor and his combat prowess.

FINAL THOUGHTS: You Only Live Twice is one of the more memorable ones for me: the sumo match, the ninja warriors, Little Nellie are all stand-outs. Some folks might not like the parts near the middle that run a bit slow, but as I’ve grown older, I find I focus more on what those longer sequences add to the film it’s in. As much as I enjoy the action in Bond films, they were never really supposed to be the kinds of movie that, say, the Mission Impossible series has turned into. These films are about style and espionage, charm and culture as much as anything else.

That said, there were were action sequences that really stood out to me here. The first, obviously, is the final battle in the volcano base. Ninjas rappelling from the ceiling, police officers and terrorists shooting it out, grenades blowing up left and right, shuriken flying, Bond nearly dying repeatedly, and even getting trounced, and the explosive finale. It’s astonishing in its scale.

The other scene that comes to mind is a foot chase across a long rooftop, where Bond is being pursued by several gangsters. As he flees from superior numbers and pauses to hand out a beating or two and then flees again and then fends off the enemy the camera pans out further and further. I thought it was a really cinematic moment, and I was transfixed.

Anyway, this movie is important to the Bond mythos because of SPECTRE’s overt presence and because it’s the first time we see Blofeld really, and the first time he takes a direct hand in the conflict at hand. The slower parts in Japan mixed with the insane final battle in a massive lair almost make it seem like two different types of films jammed together, but it works more than it doesn’t.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

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24 Weeks of Bond: Thunderball

Art by Frank McCarthy

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Thunderball! Directed by Terence Young after taking a break after the first two, the fourth 007 film was released in 1965. Originally intended to be the first film, Thunderball was the focus of extensive legal battles that ran all the way until 2006 between Ian Fleming and his story collaborators. A settlement saw credit being given to a screenplay written by Jack Whittingham in addition to screenplay credits to Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins. It also led to the film being remade in 1983 as Never Say Never Again by an independent production company, although Sean Connery would reprise his role as Bond in that as well.

At the time of rewatching, I remembered very little about the film except that there were some extensive underwater sequences. It turns out that’s because there IS a ton of the film set underwater, especially in the back end, involving sharks that got dangerous close to the actors (they tried to restrict filming those scenes to low tides due to the threat of sharks), and a climactic final battle underwater involving sixty divers. In fact, water motifs permeate the film in spas and on yachts, and even in the elaborate credit sequence.

The plot is fun. The terrorist group SPECTRE enacts an absolutely audacious, complicated plot to infiltrate NATO and abscond with nuclear missiles to hold the world hostage with. They threaten to launch a missile at a major English OR American (keeping the United States box office in mind by keeping them involved) if a ransom isn’t met. Bond, recovering from a previous mission, gets involved largely on accident at first, and then requests to be officially assigned to the case. Both feeding people to sharks and holding the world for ransom would later be aped by Michael Meyers in his Austin Powers spoofs.

This film is also notable as being the first with the Bond actor performing the “turn-and-shoot” down the sight of the barrel at the beginning of the film.

By this point, the 007 franchise had become a veritable juggernaut in terms of cinematic events. Thunderball became the first Bond movie to be released in the United States before the UK.

THE BOND: This is Sean Connery’s fourth outing, and his take on the secret agent this time around skews closer to the version he played in Dr. No. The womanizing is still there (a Bond staple), but not overdone. The cruelty and comfortability with murder is present, as is the charm. Thunderball has a spy thriller tone separate from the romanticism of From Russia With Love and the occasional camp of Goldfinger.

Gambling and drinking, also Bond staples, return here, though Bond swaps out his martinis for Dom Perignon (which he also enjoyed in Goldfinger).

THE GIRLS: There are three women in Thunderball who might be properly considered Bond women. The first, Patricia Fearing (as played by Molly Peters; dubbed by Barbara Jefford, who also dubbed Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love), is a physical therapist assigned to help Bond recoup after a harrowing assassination mission. Initially cold and clinical with Bond, she becomes more intrigued and attracted to the special agent after he nearly suffers a fatal occurrence on her rehabilitation machine.

Fiona Volpe (as played by Luciana Paluzzi) isn’t just a Bond girl in Thunderball… she’s a major villain! And in my opinion, the first femme fatale in the 007 movies. Dr. No’s lady leads were mostly love interests or damsels in distress. From Russia With Love’s Tatiana Romanova was technically a double agent, though she was never outright villainous; Rosa Klebb was a villain but not the amorous and alluring type associated with “femme fatales”. Even Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, while morally ambiguous, seemed more of a flirt to Bond than an actual danger.

In Thunderball, Fiona uses her looks to manipulate targets, colleagues, and James Bond himself, and when they’re right where she wants them, she’s unafraid to resort to cold-blooded murder.

Lastly, Claudine Auger (dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, who also dubbed Honey Rider and Sylvia Ttench in Dr. No) plays Dominique “Domino” Derval, the sister of SPECTRE’s NATO target and the imprisoned mistress of SPECTRE’S #2 agent and Thunderball’s main villain. She is integral to the film’s resolution.

THE VILLAINS: This film is also jam-packed with villains, including a look inside SPECTRE’S operations, with a number of operatives in their lair giving #1 (Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played in body here again by Anthony Dawson, though there is disagreement on who provided the voice over) reports on their progress, with fatal rewards for failure.

The main villain, though, is #2, Emilio Largo. Largo is played by Italian actor Adolfo Celi, and the overlarge hands of the villain in the novel are replaced with a more visually striking eyepatch for his film appearance. Largo is an utterly ruthless fence and black marketeer who came up with the plot to infiltrate NATO with a body double and steal nuclear weapons.

Largo’s lackies also include Fiona Volpe (See Above); the henchmen Vargas (Philip Locke) and Anni (Michael Brennan); Angel Palazzi, the body double who takes over NATO pilot Franç Derval’s assignment (both roles played by Paul Stassino); and the rich and nefarious Count Lippe (played by Guy Doleman and named after Bond creator Ian Fleming’s actual count friend), also ranked #4 in SPECTRE).

While seeing so many SPECTRE operatives and the inner workings of their organization is exciting, it’s hard to understand how they keep working, with so many betrayals and sudden murders.

ALSO, actor Bob Simmons makes a brief but memorable appearance in the beginning of the film as SPECTRE assassin Jacques Bouvar.

THE LOCATIONS: Beside a brief (and always necessary appearance) at MI6 headquarters in England, the first and only time we see all 00 agents in one place, Thunderball is set primarily in two locations:

The first, France, is used only during the opening sequence–a funeral followed by a surprise reveal and a thrilling action sequence.

The bulk of the movie, though, is set in the Bahamas. Former pirate refuge Nassau and New Providence Island, specifically, and the waters around them (though shooting also took place in Florida for some water shots). It’s visually distinctive enough to set it apart from Jamaica (Dr. No) and the resorts of Miami (Goldfinger), although the true spectacle comes from the sequences set beneath the surface of the water: heists, sabotages, and a full blown battle.

THE CARS: There are some absolutely beautiful cars in this film, including a black 1962 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II, a white 1960 Peugeot 403, and a black 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable Hardtop 51A.

James Bond’s tricked out 1963 Aston Martin DB5 returns, this time showcasing its rising bulletproof plate that covers the back window, and rear water pumps with seemingly firehose level power behind them.

You can find a full list of other cars featured in Thunderball here.

THE GADGETS: In addition to Bond’s excellent car, he uses a jetpack in the opening sequence that was a REAL thing that had been developed by the army. Onlt a few people were qualified to use it, and so one of them acted as a stunt double for that scene.

Bond also utilizes a tape recorder hidden in a dictionary; a watch and an infrared camera, both with Geiger counters meant to help find the missing nuclear weapons; a rebreather for extended time spent underwater; and a homing beacon hidden inside a radioactive pill meant for consumption.

On SPECTRE’s end of things, Largo gains entrance to their headquarters via a remote control hidden in a cigarette case; Blofeld has had the chairs in his lair outfitted with lethal devices and disposal methods to take care of those who have displeased him; and Fiona Volpe’s motorcycle comes outfitted with a torpedo launcher.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returned to score for the 007 series a third time, and included dynamic pieces for the action and underwater sequences. When it came to finding a theme song, however, they ran into some difficulties.

First, a song titled, “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” was written (by Barry and Leslie Bricusse), record (Shirley Bassey) AND re-recorded (by Dionne Warwick) before being dropped entirely and remaining unreleased for nearly 30 years.

Then, Johnny Cash, of all people, recorded and submitted a song titled, “Thunderball.” It wasn’t chosen.

Finally, John Barry and Don Black then went on to write the version of “Thunderball” that would be used for the film. Tom Jones would record the vocals, becoming the first man to sing a 007 theme song.

THE SUPPORT: A lot of familiar faces return: Bernard Lee as Bond’s superior, M; Desmond Llewelyn as the gadget master, Q; Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, M’s secretary and Bond’s unattainable goal.

New is Rik van Nutter as CIA agent and Bond’s friend, Felix Leiter, appearing somewhere between the flashy version of Dr. No and the bureaucrat version of Goldfinger.

Marine Beswick has a small but welcome role as Paula Caplan, a secret agent colleague from the CIA. While her role isn’t extensive and doesn’t end well, it’s nice to see women in the field (as heroes and villains), holding their own.

Earl Cameron plays Leiter and Bond’s assistant, Binder, while Leonard Sachs plays the liaison to the Royal Air Force, Group Captain Prichard.

Lastly, George Pravda has a somewhat important role as nuclear physicist Ladislav Kuntz, who helps Largo initially but finds a small measure of decency within himself.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Thunderball probably isn’t in my top 5 Bond films, but I do like it quite a bit. I think it’s one of Connery’s finer turns in the role. The villains, though many, are genuinely exciting. The plot is ridiculous but fun. The water sequences do go on a little long but are astounding in their execution. There is a lot to like here, but it as impressive as the final sequences are, they almost wash away the rest of the film.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: Goldfinger

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Goldfinger! I love this movie. Terence Young, who directed the first two 007 movies, moved on to something else, so he was replaced by Guy Hamilton, who actually knew Bond’s creator Ian Fleming from intelligence work in the war.

Goldfinger, released in 1964, sees Bond put on an investigation of gold magnate and suspected smuggler Auric Goldfinger. Bond, unable to help himself, immediately gets more heavily involved and discovers that there is much more to Goldfinger than expected. Namely, that he seeks to infiltrate Fort Knox and destabilize the world’s economy.

This film is considered the first blockbuster Bond film, was adapted to target American audiences specifically, and also introduced a lot of Bond staples, including elaborate gadgets and the Aston Martin as his “official” car of choice.

It would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Effects/Sound Effects.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns as Bond. This particular venture sees him at his most flirtatious, it feels, and at his corniest, with some baddie-death-related one-liners. It should also be noted, though, that Bond gets thoroughly trounced almost entirely throughout this film, showcasing a vulnerability that was lost at times in the preceding films.

THE GIRLS: Shirley Eaton doesn’t get a lot of screentime as Jill Masterson, and yet is one of the most iconic Bond roles in the entire legacy. Playing Goldfinger’s employee, she went from helping him cheat at cards to cheating herself…with Bond. That would be the factor leading to her untimely demise, but it’s HOW she dies–covered entirely in gold paint and left to suffocate that creates a simultaneously horrifying and fascinating visual impossible to forget.

Tania Mallett has an equally short role as Jill Masterson’s vengeance-seeking sister, Tilly Masterson. Though her luck with Goldfinger goes no better, she does have a memorable time not giving Bond any attention despite his best efforts.

Most famously, perhaps, is Honor Blackman’s performance as Pussy Galore, an expert pilot and the leader of an all-female flying squad called her Flying Circus. Blackman had previously starred as Cathy Gale on the British spy show, The Avengers, and was chosen for her charisma and her judo talents, both of which she utilizes to great effect in this film.

THE VILLAINS: Goldfinger features two of Bond’s most iconic bad guys. Auric Goldfinger, played by German actor Gert Fröbe, has become rich dealing in and smuggling precious stones and minerals. He is greedy, manipulative, destructive, and he will do anything to win, including cheating at every opportunity. He has one of the single greatest exchanges in the Bond series, when he has 007 strapped to a table, a cutting-edge laser slowly working its way toward bisecting him:

Bond: You expect me to talk?

Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Goldfinger’s henchman is Oddjob, a monosyllabic Korean killer played by Olympic silver medalist weightlifter Harold Sakata. Oddjob’s weapon of choice is a bowler hat with a metal brim capable of breaking necks as he flings it like a circlet. Even without it, he’s a formidable foe and spends most of the film absolutely dominating Bond and beating him mercilessly. Sakata was burned badly while filming his death scene, committing to the moment even after the cameras stopped rolling.

Character actor Martin Benson plays Mister Solo, a mobster who disagrees with Goldfinger’s audacious plan; and Burt Kwouk (Cato, in the excellent Pink Panther films) plays the Chinese scientist who supplies Auric with the bomb he needs.

THE LOCATIONS: The film opens with a brief action sequence largely unrelated to the rest of the film and sees Bond disrupting a drug operation. It’s supposed to be set somewhere exotic (Serbia?), but was shot in England. Likewise the scenes set inside Fort Knox, as filming crews weren’t allowed inside the United States’ most famous depository.

The film also takes Bond to Miami, Florida (where he first encounters Auric Goldfinger), London to get properly outfitted for his assignment, the Alps and resorts of Switzerland, and ultimately to Kentucky and Fort Knox itself. While the Switzerland sequences seemed the most exotic this go-around, the sunny poolside in Florida and the impressiveness of Fort Knox gave the United States a glowing look.

THE CARS: You can find a comprehensive list of the cars in the film here, but the two most notable are Goldfinger’s beautiful (and gold) Rolls Royce Phantom III Sedance de Ville, and James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB 5. Bond mentions that his beloved Bentley is nowhere to be found, and he is instead given a modified Aston Martin loaded with gadgets. The Aston Martin would go on to be heavily tied into promotional materials and would itself become a staple of the Bond franchise.

THE GADGETS: Goldfinger really turned up the gadget ratio, from the seemingly mundane (an underwater breathing apparatus designed to look like a seagull) to the Aston Martin. The car was fitted with revolving license plates, a GPS tracking device, bulletproof windows, an oil slick and a smoke screen to be released from the rear, machine guns that came from the front, tire slashers that extended from the wheels (Bond inexplicably and irresponsibly uses these to try and pick up a woman), and a passenger ejector seat!

Bond also utilizes a grappling gun, a tracking device that fits in the heel of his shoe, and a larger magnetic tracking device he stashes in Goldfinger’s car.

Oddjob has hit steel-rimmed hat weapon, while Goldfinger has his industrial lab, a private plane with spy holes looking into the different chambers, and even an atomic bomb.

Though Goldfinger doesn’t have a lair like, say, Doctor No, he does have a ranch house that he’s tricked out. In addition to dungeon-like prison cells in the basement, his rumpus room is designed to completely transform. The window panels fold down, a massive map drops from the ceiling, and the floor even slides apart to reveal a massive model of his Fort Knox target.

And while that’s impressive, he also proves that it’s deadly when he uses his controls to seal the room and release a deadly nerve gas.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returns to Bond once again to score this film, including the theme song, “Goldfinger”, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. While the films have had a stylized credit sequence since the beginning, with Dr. No’s technicolor and feminine introduction, and though From Russia With Love had a bit of the theme song sprinkled in, Goldfinger really kicks off the tradition of having an elaborate credit sequence with the theme song performed over it (in this case, by Shirley Bassey). The soundtrack album would go on to top the Billboard 200, while the Goldfinger single would reach 8th in the Billboard Hot 1000.

I love that song.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell return as M and Moneypenny respectively, of course, and serve well their usual roles of giving Bond his orders and flirting with him.

New in the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter is Cec Linder. Jack Lord, who played Leiter in Dr. No, had worried some executives for looking “too cool” and potentially taking attention away from Bond. Lindner, by comparison, is older and stuffier, looking more like a bureaucrat than a slick spy peer.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the Quartermaster, but instead of being called Major Boothroyd, this films seems a transition into referring to him as Q for short. His inventiveness and surly nature is always a delight.

FINAL THOUGHTS: There is a lot to love about this film. The villain is single-minded and dismissive of Bond, and for large parts of the film, he should be. Bond’s arrogance and recklessness sees him overcome at almost every turn, even rendering him inactive for large parts of the middle and the end, a prisoner biding his time and hoping his peers will put clues enough to rescue him in the nick of time. In that sense, it’s unusual to see Bond do so little, even with the advantage of his new gadgets.

The Aston Martin’s many functions are exciting to see, as something like that was still relatively new to cinema, as was the industrial laser death weapon Goldfinger uses, which didn’t really exist at the time. The music is superb, and the many gold motifs throughout the film give a visual theme to match the title and villain.

Pussy Galore is a compelling anti-hero, a Catwoman-esque character, though I wish we had seen more of her Flying Circus. And Oddjob is perfect all around. All in all, one of my favorites.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: From Russia With Love

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

The Movie: From Russia With Love, directed by Terence Young (who also did Dr. No), adapted by Richard Maibaum, Berkley Mather, and Johanna Harwood, and with cinematography by Ted Moore (A Man For All Seasons, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, several Bond movies), the film was released in 1963. While reviews were initially mixed, retrospectives have proven this to be critically enjoyed and one of the more beloved films of the franchise.

The story centers around James Bond being sent to secure the defection of SMERSH (Bond’s fictional Soviet counterintelligence group) agent Tatiana Romanova and to secure a cryptographic device.

Romanova believes she is a double-agent for the Soviet Union, but does not realize that her handler belongs to the terrorist organization SPECTRE. Likewise, Bond does not realize that SPECTRE is seeking revenge for the death of their agent in the previous film, the titular Dr. No.

The Bond: Sean Connery revises his role as 007 and brings with his second adventure a newer sense of confidence. This film sees Bond move with surety, mingling with locals in foreign countries, engaging in spontaneous gunfights, even transitioning from his manipulations of Romanova to outright anger when he feels she’s betrayed him. This is a secret agent comfortable in his own skin and in working in enemy territory. It is also reportedly the performance that finally won Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, over on Sean Connery.

The Girls: Eunice Grayson briefly reprises her role from Dr. No as Sylvia Trench, intended to be a recurring love interest but ultimately left by the wayside. Instead, Bond spends most of the film with double-agent Tatiana Romanova, played by stunning Italian actress Daniela Bianchi. Due to her thick accent, she was dubbed over by Barbara Jefford. Tatiana, ostensibly a Russian spy, is neither particularly dangerous nor exactly a damsel in distress. Instead, she plays more a genuine love interest for the better part of the film, also assisting in the procuring of the cryptographic device. At the age of only 21, she is also the youngest “leading” Bond girl.

The Villains: This film has a few bad guys, playing up the mention of Spectre from the first film by giving us a look behind the scenes. This is the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played physically here by Anthony Dawson (who played the late Professor Dent in Dr. No). You don’t see Blofeld’s face here, but you see his hands, stroking his white cat, a move that would spawn imitation after imitation from Inspector Gadget’s villainous Dr. Claw to Michael Meyers’ buffoonish Dr. Evil. We also hear Blofeld’s voice (Eric Pohlmann), one that lets us know he is in command and that he does not tolerate failure.

We also see two of his commanders. There is Chief Planner Kronsteen, a master chess player portrayed by actor Vladek Sheybal. Vladek did not originally want to be in a Bond film, fearing that a spy/action film might hurt his career, but Sean Connery, a friend, convinced him to take the role. More interesting about Vladek Sheybal is that he lived through the occupation of Warsaw and actively fought in the Polish resistance, twice escaping concentration camps, and only deciding after the war to pursue a career in acting.

Lotte Lenya was a Tony-award winning (The Threepenny Opera) and Academy-Award nominated (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) actress who here plays Rosa Klebb, SMERSH commander-turned-SPECTRE operative.

And finally, the hitman Donald “Red” Grant, a highly trained spy and killer spent to tail and eventually eradicate Bond in order to retrieve the Lektor cryptographic device while also eliminating the threat from England that Bond poses. He’s played by Academy-Award nominated (A Man For All Seasons) actor Robert Shaw, who you may know better as the shark hunter Quint in Jaws.

The Locations: While there are a few scenes shot in England involving MI6’s involvement and Bond’s vacation, and a couple scenes (notably part of the boat chase scene near the end) are shot in Scotland to get the scenes they wanted, the bulk of the film takes place in Turkey and was shot on location in and around Istanbul.

While not necessarily as vibrant as the Jamaican scenery of Dr. No, Turkey is exotic in it’s own right, and we get to experience the culture through gypsy parties, markets, old and crumbling architecture, and sweeping hills and background scenery as Bond and Tatiana try to escape to Bulgaria.

By filming in Turkey and having Spectre as the guiding force behind the conflict, it was also a way to capitalize on the tensions of the Cold War without making the Russians the outright villains.

There is also a brief, beautiful moment set in Venice, Italy toward the end of the film.

The Cars: While there are several cars used in the film (you can find an entire list here), including a 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, this film is notable for, to my recollection, being the only Bond film where he drives a Bentley (his preferred car in the novels; a 1935 Drophead Coupe here) instead of the Aston Martins he would become famous for. Additionally, while not a car, a massive chunk of the back end of the film is set aboard a gorgeous train.

The Gadgets: From Russia With Love still stays pretty grounded with the gadgets, although they did notably have a pager-like device to contact agents in the field before the pager was actually developed.

Bond is given an attaché case that remains one of my favorite multi-purpose tools in the 007 series. Through its many secret compartments and latches, it contains two tubes of spare ammunition, a collapsible Armalite AR-7 rifle, a hidden knife, an exploding tear gas cartridge, and 50 gold sovereigns attached to the interior straps.

Bond also uses a tape recorder disguised as a camera, and a small bug detector to find that his room has been compromised.

SPECTRE has a remarkable mask-making technology that they’ve used to create Bond-lookalike masks for the sake of Red Grant practicing the kill (this predates Mission Impossible by decades and yet they never use it again, I don’t believe). Red Grant makes his kills with his own gadget: a wristwatch with a garrote wire.

Rosa Klebb has her own gadget of sorts, a shoe with a poisoned blade hidden in the toe, an assassination weapon based in reality.

And, of course, the Lektor decoding machine is the McGuffin that the whole plot centers around, as Russia, England, and Spectre all try to gain and keep possession of it.

The Music: This is actually the first Bond film to feature a theme song beside the James Bond theme. “From Russia With Love” was composed by “Oliver!” composer Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro during the film and over the end credits. John Barry took the reigns for the rest of the film’s soundtrack composition with music pieces matching many of the major moments throughout the film.

The Support: Bernard Lee returns as M., Bond’s superior. He’ll be a common name in this section. Likewise Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary and Bond’s target of doomed affection, Moneypenny. Desmond Llewelyn, meanwhile, makes his first appearance as Boothroyd/Q., replacing Peter Bothroyd as Bond’s quartermaster. Llewelyn would return to the role over the course of sever Bond actor transitions.

Bond’ major ally in From Russia With Love is the Turkish-born head of MI6’s Turkish intelligence branch Kerim Bey. He is a charismatic man with 15 children and a gypsy lifestyle and is brought to life here by the late Pedro Armendáriz. In a sad twist, Armendáriz took this role while he was terminally ill with cancer so that his family would be left financially secure. When his illness grew too severe, he shot and killed himself in the hospital. He was one of the most well-known Latin American stars in the 40s and 50s and, years later, his son Pedro Jr. would star in a Bond film of his own.

Final Thoughts: While I remembered the opening murder scene, Rosa Klebb, and much of the train sequence,I found that I had forgotten much of what made this film great. Connery really feels like he fits in the Bond role here where it felt a little stuffy in Dr. No. Bianci and Armendáriz are pure charisma as Romanova and Bey respectively, and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant cuts an intimidating figure, opening with an act of shocking violence before hovering around like a looming threat of death.

The film takes its time, enjoying its setting and earning its relationships, while brief moments of frantic action punch through periodically: a gunfight here, an explosion there, a sudden murder. And while the film ends with not just one, but two exciting action sequences (a helicopter chase AND a boat chase), it’s the extended, brutal close quarters fight on the train that really sticks in your mind. This movie has some romanticism flavored of its time, and plenty of thrills. This was a pleasant surprise to come back to, and I can see why so many people place it among their favorites.

Other Bond Breakdowns:

Dr. No

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: Dr. No

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

With that said, let’s get into it!

The Movie: Dr. No. Released in 1962, this movie sees Agent 007 James Bond traveling to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent. Upon arrival, he finds that he is not the only government agent with a keen interest in the goings-on in the area, and before long he becomes tangled up with the mysterious Dr. No and his privately-owned island, Crab Key. The film was directed by Terence Young, and was made for just over a million dollars.

The Bond: Sean Connery, who is notoriously very Scottish, leading to Ian Fleming’s initial disapproval of the casting. Connery donned a dark hairpiece and affected a passable English accent for the role. In Dr. No, he is both charming and effectively dangerous. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” There are a lot of nice little touches throughout the film that show Bond’s spy expertise: a hair across the closet doors to see if they’ve been opened, choosing an unopened bottle of liquor upon returning to his room instead of the opened bottle in case it was poisoned, his investigative work at the home of the missing Strangways.

The Girls: “Bond girls” are as much a staple of the franchise as anything else, ranging from love interests to femme fatales to damsels in distress. There are three women of note in Dr. No that could be suitably considered Bond girls. Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench is the first woman we meet, and its through her love of gambling that we also first meet James Bond, as he cleans her out playing baccarat against her. Zena Marshall plays Miss Taro, an eavesdropping secretary with ulterior motives that Bond seduces all the same. But, of course, the star woman of the film and the first recognized “Bond Girl” is Swiss actress Ursula Andress as the shell-collecting blonde bombshell Honey Ryder. At the time of her casting, she spoke almost no English, and so all of her lines (spoken and sung) were dubbed over by Nikki Van der Zyl.

It’s worth noting as well that all three women survived the film, although Strangways’ briefly seen secretary did not.

The Villain: Dr. Julius No, who is Chinese, as played by Joseph Wiseman, who is not Chinese. But! Wiseman does lend a fantastic amount of gravity to No. No is megalomaniacal but is muted about it, reveling in his actual scientific genius and what he perceives to be his superior sophistication. He also has metal hands. This not only makes him immediately memorable, but his ability to crush items (and people) with his prosthetic strength grants him some physical deadliness in addition to his brilliant mind.

The film also includes the “Three Blind Mice”, a trio of Jamaican killers, a corrupt scientist, and the criminal organization SPECTRE gets namedropped, a hint of grander villainy to come.

The Locations: Aside from a brief appearance in England (a casino, MI6 headquarters), the film takes place almost entirely in Jamaica. We see resorts and beaches, jungles and marshes. This was actually the first feature film to be filmed on location in Jamaica, and it was still a British territory at the time, right up until just about when the film released in theaters.

Dr. No’s mountain lair on Crab Key is also a notable location as it’s absolutely ridiculous. Part mine, part nuclear rocket station, and subaquatic, it is utilitarian in look and function with the exception of No’s own apartments and dining arrangements, which look downright luxurious by comparison. It truly set a standard for supervillain bases.

The Cars: There were several different cars in the film, including a Chevrolet Bel Air, an El Camino, an Impala, a Cadillac Eldorado, a Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special, and plenty more, including a custom-made marsh buggy contraption rigged to look like an armored dragon.

Most notable is Bond’s car. Instead of the Bentley’s book-Bond is fond of and the Aston Martin’s movie-Bond would become known for, Connery’s Bond drives a 1961 Alpine Sunbeam Series II in Dr. No.

The Gadgets: Dr No has his mechanical hands, of course, replacements for the ones he lost working with nuclear power, but Bond is relatively light with gadgets of his own for his first outing. He really only gets a Walther PPK to replace his favored Beretta. There are also Geiger counters, hidden communication devices, and cyanide cigarettes in the film, as well as the multi-tide of high-tech features in No’s lair.

The Music: Dr No is relatively light on music, although we get to hear the first occurrence of the iconic James Bond theme, written by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry. Also heard are a Calypso version of “Three Blind Mice”, “Jump Up” by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and “Under the Mango Tree”, which is the first and only song to be sung by James Bond in the films.

The Support: And finally, we come to the remaining players in the film. Bernard Lee plays M, Bond’s no-nonsense handler who gives Bond his assignment and makes sure he leaves with a more reliable weapon “The CIA swears by”. Lois Maxwell plays the ever reliable Miss Moneypenny, and her chemistry with Connelly’s Bond is delightful. Peter Burton makes a one-and-done appearance as Major Boothroyd (effectively Q’s role). Jack Lord plays Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA equivalent who will eventually become a close friend and ally. And John Kitzmiller plays Quarrel, an islander who works with both the CIA and Bond to uncover the dark secrets of Crab Key.

Final Thoughts: I had remembered Dr. No feeling overlong (it’s actually among the shortest three), and wasn’t looking forward to kicking off this project with what I expected to be a dull affair. I was pleased to find that it’s a much more charming film than I remembered. I did find that I wished Joseph Wiseman had more screen time as Dr. No, but all in all it was a strong first outing, and Connery really carried the charisma and danger of Bond. Jamaica is beautiful, No’s lair is stunning in its scale, and Bond managed to switch from stealthy spy to man of action effectively. All in all, a good movie, and I’m excited to be doing this.

Other Bond Breakdowns:

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

My Birthday, Your Story

It’s my 30th birthday today. I had a dream about a story, so I woke up and wrote it. Hope you enjoy:

On a low hill in a quaint hamlet in the center of a very small island, there sat a tree. It wasn’t a very remarkable tree, though it was tall (three man-heights) and broad (three man-widths) and its two branches, like arms, stretched out and away and upwards toward the sky. The wood was gnarled and grey, for it was old (though no one knew how old) and wise (for wisdom grows in the roots of the land, and this tree’s roots were very long and very deep).

Leaves would go on this tree, always green and always rich. When autumn came to the island and to the hamlet in the center of it, the leaves did not wilt, nor did their color fade into the yellows and oranges of the season’s sunsets. They stayed green, like raw emeralds, and they kept their wide, hearty shape. When winter came, they would simply disappear, a few at a time, until the coldest days arrived and frost coated the dirt roads and the fields, and those twisted arms of the tree and its long, grey neck stood bare. No leaves littered the ground; they simply ceased to be, until spring brought buds and those buds brought leaves, rich and green and full of life.

This tree did not have a name, but though other trees (smaller, with more color, whose leaves did what leaves are supposed to do throughout the year) existed down near the water and in the yards fenced off and tucked away in yards behind quaint little homes, when someone wanted to go “out by the tree”, everyone knew it was the tree on the hill.

Picnics were had underneath the tree, and first kisses, and hounds would be taken up to play (though even the hounds knew better than to spoil that majestic trunk). Weddings were officiated there, and vows exchanged, and new lives began. It was a good tree, and a reliable one, and a wise tree, down to its deep, deep roots.

And every so often, every five years or so, that tree, in the center of its trunk and in the dead of night, would let off a peculiar light-blue glow.

Because this was a deliberate action on the tree’s part, there was no pattern to the glow’s arrival save for the whim of the tree. Though it was a fierce and beautiful shining light, it would sometimes go unnoticed. Though it always happened at night, the tree cared not for where the moon sat in the inky black sky. It would be discussed and questioned, but no one approached. To the hamlet it was a mystery, and mysteries were terrifying.

Now, this is a story about the tree, but it is also a story about a boy who grew. And before he grew, many years ago, he was just a boy who was, acting as boys do: impulsively and confidently and with little fear at all, through the mornings and deep into the afternoons, all up until late one night when he saw a thing that he maybe wasn’t quite ready to see.

Oh, he had heard about the light in the tree. From his parents and their friends, in hushed tones over an evenly-cooked dinner. From the older boys who were certain of what they would do should they see the blue glow in the dark. From the wizened old men and women who spoke in short sentences as they looked upon the hill with wistful eyes.

But one night, long after his mother had tucked him in under the scratchy warmth of his woolen blanket, that boy crawled over the ledge of his window and into the rocky little roads of his hamlet. He ducked and dodged through the shadows, sure that no one was awake and outside but cautious enough not to take a chance, until he reached the edge of the homes, back near the base of the hill.

Once out there, his eyes searched for more. The edge of the island, perhaps, and the waves there that lapped against the shore. Or a stick, maybe, with which to draw symbols in the dirt to confound the others once they woke. Instead, his eyes found the tree, that wizened, winding watcher on the hill, and as he looked a light began to form, faint at first but swiftly growing into a brilliant blue.

Before that night, the boy had never considered what he might do should he be the one so lucky as to see the light in the tree. Truth be told, he did not even know then, and so it was fortunate, perhaps, that his feet acted on their own accord. Left foot in front of the right and then the other way around, over and over until he had climbed the hill and stood directly in front of the tree. That close he could see clearly where the glow was coming from: four lines that appeared to have been cut into the trunk. Four lines that formed a rectangle, twice as tall as the boy stood. The light pulsed with a life of its own, and then flickered as the boy reached out his hand.

It died completely as the tips of the boy’s fingers touched the rugged wood, and the four grooves had disappeared completely, as if they had never been there at all.

“No,” the boy whispered, and it was all he whispered, as the rest of the words had snuck out of him as easily as he had snuck from his own bed.

The boy walked back to his house, the ocean forgotten, the stick forgotten, the light in the tree the only thing in his mind. He climbed back over the ledge of his window, climbed back under his thick blanket, and though he was not tired, he quickly fell asleep.

He did not dream.

That boy grew. He grew into a young man who learned to fish and found he loved it. He fought, once, his only fight, over the a woman he did not truly love and came away with a purple eye and a split lip. He learned early that pride was not as important as knowledge, and he learned many things about himself.

He grew into a proper man who learned to repair homes. His hands grew calloused as he prepared houses for the storms that came late in the year. He managed his tempers and frustrations. During the days without work, be stared longingly at the waters, wanting one day to take his boat out beyond the horizon on a journey with no set end. During the nights, he would look up at the tree on the hill. It had refused him once, and it would not glow for him again.

One afternoon came along, and as he looked at the frothy waves and the fish that would sometimes jump from them through the air, he found himself joined by a woman with hair kissed by the sun. She was a farmer’s daughter with strong shoulders and soft hands, and she would become his wife within a summer’s time. They married beneath the tree.

Though he loved his wife, though she stole the breath from him every time she walked through a doorway to greet him, he looked often at the trunk during their ceremony. At the space where lines had once creased it, and where once blue light had lit upon his face. His distraction did not go without notice, but his wife knew his love for her and knew he would tell her his secret when he felt comfortable.

He tried often, but felt foolish. He worried that she would not believe him, or that she would and think the fading of the light was an ill omen. He tried often, but said nothing of the tree. He spoke often of his love, and she was content.

He would grow into an old man with children of his own–two daughters and a son, all of whom were as impulsive and confident and with little fear as he had been. He nurtured them into adults and taught him what he knew of fishing and love and temperance. They asked him about the tree and he repeated the same stories he had heard as a child. A handful of people in the hamlet claimed to have seen it over the years, in the middle of the night. None had approached. It was a wive’s tale, and a husband’s tale, and a tale for children that few truly believed. His children had children, and he enjoyed afternoons bouncing them on his knee by the fire and carving for them small wooden toys with joints so that they moved and rocked and posed.

One winter the farmer’s daughter passed away. She was warm when she went, and sleeping, a half-finished scarf draped across her lap. Her knitting needles had fallen from her hand to the floor. One had rolled up against the side of her foot. The boy who grew found her as he prepared to bring her to bed. Though his heart fell, like the knitting needles, and though his hand shook, he simply bowed his head and ran his fingers through her hair.

The ground was difficult to shovel, but her funeral was nice. Warm in the cold winter day by the bodies of the hamlet, who had all turned out to pay their respects.

The winter was hard and dark. The children of the boy who grew checked on him but spent most of their time with their own young boys and girls. The days passed, and the weeks, and the spot in his bed that had belonged to the farmer’s wife grew no less empty.

The boy who grew would stand in his doorway in the middle of the night, skinny arms wrapped across his chest. He looked up at that gnarled tree, gray and wise on that hill, and he begged often with his eyes.

“Why?” his eyes would ask. “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you come back for me?”

And the tree was silent in its wisdom, and patient, and it waited. The days passed, and the weeks.

The boy who grew would weep sometimes at night, though he was filled with love. His children were strong. His wife was at peace. The bed was still empty and the oceans still called.

One night, when the skies were at their clearest and the stars were bright and smiling, he left his home and walked up the hill to the tree. He had had picnics there and married the love of his life. He had seen his children and his grandchildren play with the hounds. He stood before the tree and placed his palm against the rough bark of the trunk.

“I am tired,” said the boy who grew. “And I am cold. And for my mistakes–the ones I know and all those I don’t–I am sorry. But for all that, I have lived a good life to the best of my ability, and I am proud of those in it. Through it all, through every dark night and bright day and all of both that fall somewhere in the middle, you have been there. Thank you.”

And the tree was warm. And it knew it was time.

Lines began to form in the trunk: four, forming a square, with the hand of the boy who grew touching square in the center. It was not so big a square this time, as the boy had become taller and the tree had stayed the same, but the square was still large enough for him.

The light flickered to life, blue like orchids, blue like forget-me-nots. It washed over his face and his chest, warming him in the winter chill. The creases in the trunk, he realized, hand on the wood, formed a door. Should he knock? wondered the boy who grew. Or was the return of the light in the tree, now, in his twilight days, welcome enough?

He pushed and the door swung upon. The light grew brighter. As the boy who grew looked beyond, a single tear trailed down his cheek to catch on the turn of his smile.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and that’s all he whispered, for the rest of the words had walked away from him as confidently as he had walked up the hill.

He stepped inside.

The next morning, the hamlet wondered at length where the old man (once a boy, many years ago, who grew and grew and grew) had gone. When he never again turned up, they went on to grieve and to place a little marker down by where the farmer’s daughter lay. And up on the hill, that wise, gray, twisted tree sat with its roots deep down in the ground.

Stray Dog Rut

The beginning of the end kicked off in Belize City courtesy of a little cabana bar down by the ocean. The water there wasn’t the crystalline blue you might see in travel advertisements. It was brown and frothy, slapping at the thick plastic barriers that kept it from engulfing the sidewalk just beyond. Not much to look at, really, but I was lost and I was hot and the sign outside the little hut promising cheap beers just spoke to me.
The interior was nicer than I expected. Several low tables spread around a medium-sized room. A short bar off to the right with a handsome black man tending it. He smiled at me, shining teeth standing out. I smiled back. It wasn’t a bad start.
The windows — really just clear plastic stretched over and bolted into wooden frames — were all open, rippling softly in the afternoon breeze. Records hung up on the wall next to the bar, paired with portraits of the reggae artists who recorded them. That same music, easy and relaxing and very Caribbean, played through speakers I couldn’t spot.
At the bar I ordered a bottle of the local beer. There were signs every ten feet throughout the city advertising it, so I figured what the hell? When in Rome. I asked for a shot of one of the local rums as well, and the tender slid a plastic cup full of light gold liquor next to the beer. A small bowl with two salt and two slices of lime followed.
“What, am I supposed to drink this like tequila?” I asked.
“You drink it however you like, my man. It is your drink.” He leaned across the bar and extended his hand. “Rámon.”
I took his hand in my own and shook it. His palm was coarse, callused. He did more work than pour drinks. I liked it.
“Jack,” I said, which was close enough to the truth. “This your place, Rámon?”
“My father’s place. He and I take turns here and on the boat for fishing tours. Do you fish?”
“I do not.”
I held up a finger to pause the conversation and took the shot. It went down smoothly but tasted a little too sweet for me. I left the salt alone but bit into one of the lime slices.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I’ll stick to the beer.”
Rámon laughed and grinned at me again. I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought I was genuinely funny or he liked me or he was just doing his job. I was a pretty decent. Picking up hints coming the other way? Whole different story. Two more hours and twice as many beers only made the issue fuzzier.
And then the storm hit.
Now, tropical storms aren’t unusual in Belize, and especially not at that time of the year. Blue skies turn to dark gray clouds at a second’s notice. Rain starts pummeling down. Perfectly normal, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. This storm, while not particularly ruinous, was one of the latter. I helped Rámon close and strap shut the windows; the plastic wraps fluttered violently in the wind but held tight.
“These going to be good?” I asked when we were finished.
“They will hold. Thank you for helping. Next round is on me.”
“Suits me, because I’m not planning on walking out in that shit.”
My idea wasn’t original. Even as I posted back up at the bar, a group of people rushed in looking to escape the rain. There were six of them: four women, two men, all tourists like me. They were too bright-eyed for a place like Belize City. Hadn’t had enough strangers yell at them yet.
It was impossible not to eavesdrop on them when they shuffled up next to me at the bar; if proximity hadn’t been an issue, the decibels would have sufficed. They were American — again like me — and young, though I suspected most of them were able to drink legally back home. They were a diverse group, vacationing down from some college I had never heard of. I raised my beer in a toast.
“Wait ’til we get ours!” one of the young men shouted excitedly. He had a pronounced nose and slicked-back hair. A real partier by the sound of him.
Rámon loaded up a mixture of cocktails and beers for the group. They each took turns tapping my bottle and then filed off to a table in the back corner. One of the girls — blonde curls and full lips — walked backward, her eyes on me.
“Why don’t you come join us?”
“I don’t want to be that creepy older guy crashing the party.”
“You can’t crash the party if you’re invited. You’re American, right?”
“More or less.”
“Well, it’s pouring rain outside and you look lonely, so why don’t you come over and tell us where you’re from?”
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe in a few.”
My beer was empty. What number was this one? One less than was necessary at the very least. I ordered two more.
“Looks like you’ve made new friends, Jack,” Rámon said. He placed the two beers down, one in front of the other.
“I don’t know about all that.”
“Maybe you should take another look.”
I turned around and gave the group another glance. The blonde was staring right back. She crooked a finger. She gave a wink. Rámon might have seemed a mystery, but even a clueless idiot like me could pick up what she was throwing down. I grabbed my beers and headed over.

*****

“Do you want to see a magic trick?”
The words came out of my mouth mumbled, more for myself than the groggy girl nestled in the crook of my arm. The words were habit. A welcoming call to strangers on the street approximately 120 seconds before I hustled them out of some cash.
The room around us moaned in response. I had stayed in worse places, but not many. The chipped turquoise walls sucked the light out of the single exposed bulb on the ceiling. The ceiling itself angled inexplicably downward, creating a hazard for even the average-heighted person. But the girl (Jennifer? Jessica? No, Jennifer.) hadn’t seemed to mind, so neither did I.
“What did you say?” she murmured into my chest.
“Magic trick. You want to see one?”
“Mm. Mmkay.”
She placed her palm equidistant between my nipples and used it to help herself up into a sitting position. I reached down to the floor — there was no room for any kind of nightstand — and snatched up my pack of cigarettes. I tapped one out for myself, then offered her one.
“I thought this was a No Smoking room.”
“It is.”
“Won’t you get fined or something?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was true: I didn’t. It wouldn’t take much for me to get rid of any lingering smoke or smell, but considering how much I had paid for this shithole, I thought just as much about setting the whole bed on fire.
Jennifer took a cig and placed it between her lips. I scooted my ass a bit so I could face her better and then touched the tips of my middle finger and thumb together in front of her cigarette. She looked at my hand, bemused, going a bit cross-eyed in the process. I checked a chuckle.
“You ready?”
She nodded.
“Alright. Presto fucking amazo!”
I snapped and a light purple flame danced at the tip of my thumb. I was disappointed. Outside, in the dark of night, it would have looked beautiful. With the shitty paint job of my hotel room as a backdrop, it came off washed out and muted instead. She gasped all the same, and I used it to light her smoke and my own.
“Blow it out,” I said. When she tried, I willed the flame away. She sat back, any trace of the lethargy she had shown vanished just the same.
“How’d you do that?”
“Trade secret.”
“Butane?”
“Sure.”
“It’s just like the movies!”
*That* made me laugh. “Yeah. Just like it.”
The next couple hours went like that: her asking what kind of things I could do and how. Me politely deflecting. She talked. I listened.
No, I didn’t. Who was I kidding? I was too busy asking myself why I showed her the flame trick in the first place. Was it just out of sheer boredom? Or, even worse, *nostalgia*? It was a blessed relief when she finally lay her head back down, this time on a pillow.
“Goodnight, Jennifer,” I said.
Several long beats of silence passed. She slowly rolled over so her back was facing me.
“Jessica.”
Dammit.
I kept still until I was sure she had fallen asleep, wary that jostling her might provoke a stronger rebuke. My mind wandered, away from the room, away from the country entirely. I found myself missing home. New Orleans. The Big Easy, though I never called it that. Found the nickname insulting, if we’re being honest, to everybody who had to scrape through the days.
I had been one of them once upon a time, back during the best years of my life. Hustling catty-corner to trumpet players crooning for bead-bearing tourists. Keeping track of just how much more money I had to earn for a cheap bowl of gumbo and to kick up the line for permission to keep using the gift. I missed the hot weather, the beautiful women.
I glanced down at Jessica. Belize checked off those last two boxes at least.
But what had happened back home? How did things go so wrong? Now it seemed like everyone I knew was either trying to kill me or were ratting me out to the people trying to kill me. What the hell happened to friendship? Pinky swears used to mean something. Blood pacts used to mean a whole lot more.
“What’s the matter, tiger? Can’t sleep?”
“Uh.”
Jessica’s voice startled me. I hadn’t registered her waking up, and she had spoken in a lower octave with some gravel in it, like she was trying to tell a campfire ghost story. I turned to look at her and she slowly rolled my way until she was laying on her back, only her head turned my direction. Her pupils had dilated so far that I couldn’t make out any other color in her eyes, just two black pits in little white seas.
“What’s the matter, Jacob? You look concerned.”
That voice again. I could feel goosebumps rising.
“It’s Jack,” I said dumbly. “Wait, is this because I called–”
“Your name is Jacob. Or tiger, if we’re feeling frisky.”
And then suddenly something clicked in the back of my mind with all the subtlety of a grenade going off. The words came out of Jessica’s mouth, but it wasn’t her saying them.
“Milo?”
“Ding ding ding!”
Jessica (or her body, anyway) tried to smile. Her lips slowly spread apart, exposing her teeth. Her cheeks retracted. Instead of the inviting expression that hooked me at the cabana bar, I got a rictus grin.
“What the fuck?”
I didn’t mean to, but I could feel myself drawing out each of those words as if I were speaking in slow motion. It had nothing to do with the hinky hoodoo going on in my room; I was just shocked because I had only heard of the spell I was witnessing the results of, and it didn’t work out well the last time someone tried it.
I rolled out of bed and began scrambling for clothes. Pants? Necessary, check. Shirt? Got it. Socks? I’d buy more later. I did a quick pat over my body to make sure I had my wallet and passport, then reached for the door.
“Jake,” Milo croaked through Jessica. “Meet me at the big studio. You know the one. One hour. One hour, tiger.”
I damn near ripped the door from its hinges.
#
There isn’t a cool story behind my discovering magic. No candle-lit basement sacrifices. I didn’t wander into the back room of a Santerían shop and meet a skull-faced death goddess. No blood moon on my birthday; it was a waxing crescent, the week before Thanksgiving. How boring is that?

No, what happened is I was lucky enough to be born with the gift — more people are than you might think — and I stumbled ass-backwards into it about the time I hit puberty. Most with an innate ability to use magic go their whole lives without tapping into it, or they don’t even notice when they do. See, some spells require ingredients to prepare, while others need a clear verbal invocation. Some spells just need intent and the right gesture, but you still have to do it correctly.
My experience was… well, you know how some kids would pretend to telekinetically bring something closer or throw something away? It was basically that, but after getting my ass kicked for wearing a purple windbreaker. Eighth graders are savages.

I remember getting up from the field, mud dropping off the front of me in chunks, mixing with the blood I had spit all over the ground from two split lips. I made a gesture with my arm, awkward because my whole body hurt, where my fingers curled and my wrist turned at an odd angle. The gang of hooligans saw none of it as they walked away, thank God; their laughter would have finished what their fists and feet started. They also didn’t notice the filthy puddle next to them until it rose up and drenched them head to toe.

I ran as fast as I could in the other direction, saving my laughter until I was home.

By the time I got there, though, I had almost talked myself out of being responsible for the splash. The thought persisted anyway, keeping me up late into the night: what if I *had* caused it? The day had been calm. The puddle had been deep but still. I couldn’t come up with any other explanation, so I caved to my ego. I decided I needed to recreate what happened.

That weekend I went back out to the field. The mud had dried but the puddle remained, and I stood still next to it until I was certain no one else would be wandering by. Two straight hours of failure followed as I flailed, gesticulated, and windmilled to no effect. I clenched my jaw and squinted at the water. I tried to project my mind at it.

Nothing. I trotted home, dejected.

I would learn later that I was off base in more ways than one and just had no idea. I was missing intent, for one. For another, my gestures were completely wrong. But my biggest misconception? I thought I had affected the water and tried to do so again. It was actually the *air* around it.

I spent the next month nearly mindless. My schoolwork suffered. I suffered, too, at the hands of the same bullies. In times of boredom or loneliness I would fling my arm out again, always in a different arrangement, but my heart wasn’t in it. By the time the semester ended, I was thinking about what I would need to do to drop out of school without anyone getting on my case. My dad was dead and my ma might as well have been, so it was just the school and the state I had to worry about. Plots and schemes to get aroune them were going through my mind when I heard my name from the front of the class.

My science teacher, Mister Artur Cormier, held my test paper up. Even from the back of the room I could see the fat red F he had drawn in the middle of it. He was saying something about how unbelievably poor I had done, that it must have been deliberate, and then he began to read off some of the answers I had written.

I didn’t hear anything after that. Rage consumed me. My temples pounded. My arms shook. I flung one of them out and muscle memory I didn’t knew I had contorted my limb into the proper gesture. A gust of wind rose up in front of Mister Cormier’s desk, scattering the tests of my classmates and ripping mine from my teacher’s hands.

As the papers floated down to settle on the floor, the classroom was stone silent. Most of the kids had turned to stare at me. A few had turned to look at the windows, which were closed. Sorry, guys. It was me.

I reached down to grab the backpack slumped against the front leg of my desk. I didn’t say anything as I walked out and nobody said anything to me. That was the last time I stepped foot in a classroom.

Instead, I devoted the bulk of my newfound free time to scouring the library and the internet for anything and everything I could find on telekinesis, element manipulation, and — eventually — full-blown motherfucking magic. I read for hours at a time, sifting through nine parts bullshit to find that one part goldmine. I memorized rules and legends from the worlds of magic and visited every hoodoo, voodoo, and black crafts store in the city. I discovered new spells and practiced the ways to move my body so I could cast them. All of this I did alone, mostly in secret. It was a lot like masturbation, sure, but more fun and informative.

I learned, for example, that air magic was the most accessible for beginners because air is all around us. I branched out from there into related magics and then sub-branches of *those*. That’s how I discovered illusory crafts. My first love, the one that pulled me fully away from the tatters of my old life and moved me into my new one.

If you head into any city with a lot of foot traffic, you’re bound to find a hustler or two working a crowd. ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is an expression for a reason. It isn’t always stupid people that fall for it, either: there are a healthy amount of bright, brilliant people that believe they simply *can’t be tricked*. Their wit and observation is greater than your petty sleight of hand. Your base deception. Sometimes they’re even right! But most times, people can’t outfox a hungry thief with thousands of hours of practice.

So I bought a half a dozen decks of cards with money I pilfered from my ma while she was on one of her benders. I got a bag of marbles and some red plastic cups. I practiced. I got good, *really* fucking good. Then I tossed some magic in the mix.

First it was basic illusion work. You’re looking for a Queen of Hearts, but suddenly it looks like a Ten of Clubs. You think you saw the marble roll under the left cup, but did it really ever move at all? From there, I graduated to full on displacement magic and moved the card or the marble wherever the hell I wanted it.

Sleight of hand stacks the deck against you. Magic yanks the carpet out from under your feet. I left school when I was 13 years old. I left home three weeks before my 15th birthday. I celebrated Christmas that year by tricking nearly three grand out of drunk tourists with no sense and no better place to be.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. The money was good but seemed to disappear just as quickly as I made it. Fancy meals, designer clothes. Nice hotel rooms when I didn’t feel like camping outside somewhere, tucked away just off the street, in an alley that smelled like spoiled milk. It sounds bad, but even that had its charms. There was a three-circle Venn diagram I found myself a part of: the street people, the street hustlers, and the street practitioners. All of them had a magic about them in some way, and they became the family I had lost when my father passed.

I narrowed my studies to refine my craft. I was no wizard or warlock, no sorcerer. I wasn’t a magician with a pretty assistant and a collapsing rod or a hat with a bunny in it. I was a young man with a gift and a vagabond life. I was a grifter guru and, “You want to see a magic trick?” was my mantra.

“You want to see a magic trick?” And people did. And they put their money on the belief they could outwit me. And I twitched the right fingers, turned the right palm, put the right feeling into it and came away richer for it. Things were good.

Then, for better and worse, Milo came along.

I was still learning what it meant to be a man with the gift in Louisiana. I had learned a lot but knew next to nothing. So, eighteen months or so before Uncle Twist and Inchpatter dragged me through a bone tunnel, read me the Cold Word, and drew my blood, all I saw was a handsome mark making his way toward my table and me.

Milo had three days’ worth of stubble — the perfect amount — when I first met him. His dirty-blond hair was cut short and messy near the back. A cowlick he could never quite tame. I noticed his gray eyes and enjoyed them, but it was the devil in his smile that I picked up on most.

I should have known then that it was trouble and called it a day right there. I used to have good instincts for that, back when I was getting my ass kicked into my throat three times a week. But I was 20 and I had magic and I had yet to discover my talent for fucking up a good thing.
#
I moved through the Belizean night like a phantom, sticking to shadows where I could and pushing a little magic out for cover when I couldn’t. What scattered lights there were cast a pale orange shroud over the street. I was careful to watch each step, though the ground wasn’t uneven.
In fact, the sidewalks were actually pretty well built, thick concrete squares settled into the sides of the road. It was just that every so often, one of those blocks would be missing completely, leaving a two foot drop into filthy water for the unwary. All matter of gross stuff could be found in those holes: plastic bottles and chip bags, holey socks and dead animals. I saw a condom floating in one; that was enough to convince me to pay attention.
My hotel shrank behind me as I moved and disappeared from sight completely after the first corner I turned. I felt kind of bad about leaving Jessica there, but I didn’t know what Milo would have done to her if I had stuck around. I didn’t even know he could pull off what he did! It was best just to leave and hope she would wake up before checkout to do the same.
The buildings around me leaned in conspiratorially. Unlike the sidewalks, these were crooked and wore their years like a bad suit. Doors had slivers missing from them. Windows were just holes: the glass, the frames, everything was just gone. Where there was paint, it was chipped. Hell, the buildings themselves were chipped and crumbling.
In the daytime, there would at least be a little life in the area, people sitting on steps, blaring music from their yards, walking to and from work or school. It might not always be fun in Belize City, but it was certainly busy. The quiet and empty streets now were, dare I say it, spooky. I felt like I was about to be mugged.
As if sensing my fear, a small figure darted out from behind a car on my right, and I nearly shat myself. I reeled backwards into some kind of shoddy fence, not wanting to fight but ready if I needed to. Which confused the sad-looking mutt standing in the middle of the road.
“Oh,” I said. “Hey. What’s up, dude?”
He cocked his head at me and then trotted back in the direction I had come from. A half dozen vehicles back, he tucked himself under the bed of a truck and lay down. Stray dogs were rampant in this city, drinking out of gutters and picking through garbage. I would feel worse about it if I hadn’t felt so much like a stray myself lately.
“He scare you, white boy?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Jesus fuck!”
I whirled around. The fence I had been propped against was a horrendous alternating mix of chain link and slats of corrugated metal. A man with skin like charcoal stood on the other side in an empty lot, looking at me through the links. His hair was draped over his shoulders in two long gray dreads. He gave me a gap-toothed grin.
“So now what is scarier? The dog? Or me?”
“You, old man. What the fuck?”
“Someone who smells the way you do should be careful of the language they use.”
“I just had sex, that what you smell? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
The man laughed at me. It sounded like a wheeze and held no mirth as far as I could tell. He pointed a gnarled finger at me. “You people, you are halfway to an animal.”
I didn’t know if he meant white people or Americans, but it didn’t matter. “That’s rude,” I said. “But true. I never had to flip off a child for aggressively panhandling before I came down here, though.”
“And you were a good child?”
“I wasn’t bad!” I thought about that for a second. “Grew up to be a bit of a bastard adult, I suppose.”
The old man wheezed again. “That must be why you smell, then. Not sex, boy, but, like bad magic.”
“That ain’t me,” I said, trying to ignore the chill in my blood. “I don’t *do* bad magic.”
“You just the type that dance near it.”
“Not if I can fuckin’ help it.”
“But you can’t help it, can you?”
I bit the inside of my cheek while I tried to come up with a good answer. None came to me. “Apparently not.”
“Get on, then. And after you do what you are set to do, maybe you leave the city.”
“Maybe.” I started to turn away, but one last thing was bugging me. “Hey, you scary old dick. What’s this trashy fence even for? Of all the eyesores in this city, this monstrosity circling nothing might be the worst. What was here before?”
“This place?” He grinned at me again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Was a house. Not for everybody, only a few. It was a place for the in-between.”
“What, like ghosts?”
“Meaner.”
“Meaner than ghosts. Alright.”
“Twenty years ago, just about, two men come. White, like you. Stink of bad magic. Like you. They tear the house down. Then they leave, but you people? You are not very smart. The building? Gone. The power remains. This fence, it is a warning, not an obstacle: stay out or you might catch the Bad Wind.”
It was like every thing he said found a new way to creep me out. “You know, I don’t really like it here.”
“What a coincidence. We don’t really like you here, either.”
“Yeah, fair enough.”
That was enough of that. I left the man and his lot behind, feeling no better but suddenly clear on one thing: I wasn’t skipping town. Not yet. When I had left the hotel, it was to try and keep Jessica out of the line of fire, but actually going to meet Milo had been up in the air. If I really whiffed of bad magic the way the old man said, though, I needed to address the issue. I had already let it go three years since Milo put me in the shit the first time.
Belize City was never going to be home to me, but I had got to know it pretty well. It was my routine any time I wound up in a new place to walk around as much as possible, no matter how many people offered a taxi ride by yelling at me. You get a better feel of the culture by walking, and the people, and you get a passing familiarity for the layout of the streets which could really help out in a pinch. That’s how I knew which turns to make and roads to follow to get to the studio Milo mentioned. Yeah, I did know which studio he meant.
After all, it was my favorite building in the city.
The studio had seen better days. Not a single one of the windows — glass set in twenty-four gridded slots per frame — had all of their squares intact. A railed staircase running along the side of the building up all three stories was littered with buckets and bags full of trash. A second staircase wrapped around the side and back with no railing for support and wood that looked like it could go at any moment. A third staircase rose directly into the building to the second floor through a hallway painted red. The rest of the building was mostly purple-black, meant to signify outer space, with huge chunks of dirty white wood clawing through like old bones. The painted stars dotting it had faded almost completely away.
I loved it all. The dance studio must have really been something in its heyday.
Now Milo was up in there, waiting. It had been three years since I had last seen him. My friend. My lover. The son of a bitch who used bad magic on a poor girl who just wanted to sleep with a degenerate.
My heart sailed its way up under my Adam’s apple and set anchor.
#
Regulations on magic are kind of a shit show, but they’re something you need to know if you have the gift and plan on using it. Groups band together. Organizations… organize things? Territories create clearly defined boundaries, some with rules and restrictions to moderate magic use, some without. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear Texas is without and that things get more than a little hairy out there among the cacti and casual racism.
Louisiana has the Cold Word, an 150 year old creed scrawled, for some reason, across a preserved sheepskin. I mean, Jesus. But the rules are solid, even smart, and breaking them within Louisiana territory was grounds for consequence up to and including execution. Being cut off from your gift was on the table, too. Some spells could do that, known only to a few, and many considered that to be a punishment worse than death. Once you have access to weird powers, forced normalcy is like getting chemically sterilized.
The only problem with regional restrictions, of course, is that people with the gift are *people*. Outside of the higher-ups in a territory’s regulatory council, nobody gives a shit about catching anyone up on all the Dos and Don’ts. They see someone who can do the same things they can and either want to hang out or have a piss fight.
That’s pretty much why I wasn’t introduced to the concepts of acceptable magic and *bad* magic until I was 22. Milo, a couple years older, was equally oblivious. We had been friends for a year and a half at that point–since he correctly called me out when I tried to game him with the cups and marble–and been a couple for nearly a year. Milo was the first man I ever slept with. He had treated me with patience and respect, and I loved him for it.
As we got to know each other more, the gift became a frequent topic of conversation between us. He wanted to know how my illusory magic worked in detail; I refused him. I demanded he help me branch out in elemental crafts, but the most notable thing he did was arm me with my little purple lighter trick (which, admittedly, I would get a lot of use out of). Typical couple spats.
It was on one of those many evenings we were together–in every sense of the word–that we were rudely interrupted by a sharp rapping at the door. We took our time dressing as a passive-aggressive Fuck You to the knocker, one I would never think to try again with the man at the door knowing what I know now.
Besides his signature wide-brimmed hat, it’s impossible to describe Uncle Twist. Or you’re not supposed to. Or you really can’t, I’m not quite sure. His illusory magic is on an unfathomable level, mostly because it’s literally designed to leave you staggered. I had met a good number of people with the gift on the streets of New Orleans, but none of them began to touch the power of the man at my threshold.
“Uh, hi,” I said. The clothes I put on made me feel no less naked.
“May I come in?”
“I mean, sure.” As if there were any other answer.
“My name is Twist, called Uncle Twist by some of the youngers. Are you two…”
“Together?” Milo asked. “Yes.”
“That makes this easier. No secrets, and I can cut to the chase: you both have the gift and have been using it for some time without any oversight.” He held up a hand before either of us could say anything. “Don’t worry. I didn’t come here to be an earth-shaker or bear any bad news. Y’all are fine. That said, it has come to my attention that nobody ever ran y’all through the ropes, told you what would fly and what wouldn’t. It’s best for all of us if we fixed that. Does that make sense to you?”
“I… yeah?” I managed.
“There’s an oversight committee?” Milo asked.
Uncle Twist shifted his weight to one leg and put his hands on his hips. “Son, you could start a fucking forest fire with your hands. You don’t think oversight might be a good thing?”
“When you put it that way…”
“Right. You boys from around here?”
“I am,” I said.
“Oregon,” said Milo.
“Alright,” said Twist. “Very good. If you’re planning on using your gift, at least in Louisiana, there are some guidelines you need to follow. So’s I can get an idea of where y’all stand on magic in general, why don’t you tell me exactly what you know already?”
I offered Twist a seat while Milo and I spoke, but he declined and leaned against the wall instead. Still on edge about the intrusion, we did our best to come clean about everything, backtracking and correcting each other when necessary so no detail was left out. We covered our individual discoveries of the gift, our first times using it, my con jobs and Milo’s accidental arson as a teenager. We rattled off the books we read and were reading, the areas we were dabbling in, the areas we wanted to pursue next. Twist just listened, nodding to himself until we were finished. He took his hat off and held it in front of his belt buckle.
“Well, it seems like you boys have a pretty good handle on things. We’re pretty lax on most activity here in Louisiana. There are a couple big things I just want to cover: don’t use flagrant displays of magic in front of people without the gift. Your card and cup tricks seem fine, but setting a car on fire, something like that, that’s not good. Don’t use your gift to kill anyone, accidentally or otherwise. You want to commit murder? Use a gun and don’t tell me about it. Most importantly, absolutely no use of bad magic is tolerated.”
“What the hell is bad magic?” Milo asked.
Twist blinked in surprise. “You ain’t never heard of bad magic? Alright. It’s any type of spell, enchantment, or other kind of general mumbo jumbo that directly affects the control of a person’s body. So no mental intrusions, no possessions. Stay the hell away from any kind of necromancy or post-mortum divination.”
“You can do those things?” Milo asked, eyes wide.
“They’re possible, but you *can’t* do then. That’s my point.”
“Understood,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, alrighty then. Just one last thing.” Twist fished around in his back pocket and came up with a card, which he handed to me. It was the darkest black I had ever seen and completely blank, save for an address printed in maroon. “Meet me there in a couple days, say around five. We’re just going to have you sign a few papers basically covering what we did here. We file every agreement to the Cold Word. Think of it like visiting the customs office when you land in a new country. Easy as pie. Oh, and there is sort of, hm, let’s call it a membership fee for using the gift in Louisiana. We’ll go over that when I see you next.
“Uh, okay,” I said. “Two days.”
“So are you, like, basically the guy who runs Louisiana’s magic department?” Milo asked.
“Oh, I got my bosses, too,” Twist said. He put his hat back on and headed for the door. “People just seem to prefer meeting ol’ Uncle Twist.”
#
I can tell you one thing: signing an accord with the Cold Word was not like going to a fucking customs office. Customs employees don’t meet you in the basement of a butcher shop, for one, nor do they bag your head until you’ve fully entered a secret second basement, then lead you down a tunnel packed with bones for support structures. There aren’t rules written on a piece of dead animal, and they sure as shit don’t cut your arm open and make you sign your name in blood.
That’s how we met Inchpatter for the first time. Uncle Twist described him as one of Louisiana’s enforcers. Break the rules, you might find Inchpatter ringing your bell. It was funny to think about because he didn’t look like much: wiry figure, terrible haircut, and not much more than five feet of length to him. His eyes, though, that’s where he sold you. They were flat, hard. Once, Twist called him “the funniest sumbitch” he knew. I never saw that side of him.
After all the skull and dagger, secret society ritual shit was over, Inchpatter helped us up from our knees. Twist bandaged our arms and handed us a pair of pamphlets.
“That’s basically an FAQ right there. It should clear up any lingering questions you might have.”
Milo slapped his into an empty palm. “Couldn’t you have just handed us this and had us sign the papers, instead of…” He gestured around the room. “The spectacle.”
“Welcome to magic for adults,” Inchpatter deadpanned.
“Christ.”
And that was pretty much the end of it. What had been a terrifying, nearly traumatic hour for Milo and me had been routine for our two companions. They sent us on our way with what basically amounted to well wishes and a pat on the ass.
We took turns showering when we got back to the apartment, then changed each other’s dressings. The cuts were shallow and would heal quickly, but we didn’t want to risk getting any blood on the bedsheets. Then, clean and proper and tucked in, my boyfriend and I went through one of the pamphlets together.
To be fair, it was a lot more than an FAQ. It was actually a pretty handy resource for two young gifted like us. There were lists of magic shops and relevant bookstores. A glossary for magic terms and techniques we had never heard of. Even a two-page spread that went into further detail on what was prohibited under the definition of bad magic.
I hadn’t noticed Milo’s expression when Uncle Twist said those words to us for the the first time. If I had been more observant or less self-absorbed, maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. As it stood, warm in bed, I was oblivious to the fact that even though Milo and I were reading the same pages, we were seeing vastly different things.
#
I stood facing the door to the studio, annoyed. The steps leading to it had all groaned loudly as I walked up them, announcing my arrival as effectively as screaming from the street. I wasn’t sure how much of a point there would have been to sneaking up on Milo, but I had been hoping for at least some time to deal with my thoughts and feelings when I saw him.
Still, I had come this far.
The doorknob didn’t fight me when I twisted it, so I stepped inside and closed the door gently behind me. The first thing I noticed about the interior was that the air was *old* despite all the broken windows. It hung in the halls and doorways, full of dust, pressing down on my clothes. I waved a hand in front of my face before taking a breath and hoped there wasn’t asbestos or something similar in it. No magic in the world had figured out cancer yet.
I found a long hall that curved to the right and walked down it carefully, avoiding empty bottles and unidentifiable pieces of scrap metal. Posters advertising dance performances from years ago hung from the walls and littered the floor, faded and tattered. A room — some kind of office — sat on my left. The door was missing and the space was empty except for a desk that leaned heavily to one side.
Everything opened up once I rounded the corner, and I found myself in the massive hexagonal practice room you could make out from the ground. Papers and glass were strewn everywhere. Mats once meant for dancing and tumbling on were stacked in one corner, ripped, their color dulled. At the back of the room, peering out through a shattered window, stood Milo. He waited a few seconds of awkward silence before turning around, but when he saw me, he smiled.
His hair was lighter than I remembered, but his skin was more tan. Signs of good time spent in the sun. He had lost weight and his toned frame spoke to a primal, sexual part of me. The eyes, though, I had a hard time recognizing, and the bags beneath them; they were a little too dark.
“Hey, tiger.”
That’s all it took. Two goddamn words and I found myself traveling through time.
Our first kiss, on the boardwalk after a movie. We had been flirting for some time, but I never would have made the first move. It was dark, and I was looking over his shoulder, admiring the moon on the water. He leaned in and I froze until our lips touched, and then my legs nearly abandoned me completely.
Watching him sleep. The way his mop of dirty-blond hair fell over his eyes and the light snoring that accompanied his deep rest. The way he couldn’t fall asleep unless one foot stuck out from beneath the blankets.
That last vacation we took, just before everything went to shit. The concert in Portland and how everything was so vibrant, how we felt the music in the marrow of our bones, how the lights painted us with colors we didn’t have words for. Not because of magic, but because we bought some ecstasy off some kid that hadn’t showered for three days.
I went on that journey just on the inflection of Milo’s words. Like the concert, no magic was at play. Just the tricks of an aching heart and a whiff of the Good Ol’ Days. Like any good thing, it passed quickly enough.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” I said.
“Really, Jacob? Three years and the first thing you say, you call me an asshole?”
“I’d have told you sooner, but I was busy hoping I would never see you again.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
My jaw dropped. “You framed me for *bad magic*! You put a girl in a goddamn coma the last time you tried the trick you pulled tonight. I can’t go home, Milo!”
“You wouldn’t have had to leave at all if you had just trusted me.” He stepped away from the window and held his arms out. I went nowhere near them. “Things were bad for you, sure, but they would have blown over. I was working on a solution. You leaving… complicated things. Considerably. Inchpatter is dead.”
I felt my throat go dry. “How?”
“Several gunshot wounds. A random act of violence as far as anyone’s concerned.”
“Right. And now you’re here to, what, bring me home? Clear my name?”
Milo look confused. “No, I’m here to kill you, Jake. I could have cleared your name years ago, but you didn’t trust me. Me! That torched my heart, tiger. Then you pissed in the ashes when you left me behind.”
“Fuck you! What you did–”
“Nobody has ever hurt me like that,” he interrupted. “But now, now if I bring you back, the council’s investigation ends. Their culprit is dead after being on the lam and any suspicion lingering on the guy that brought him in slowly fades away. Like magic.”
What I was hearing was so unfathomable it might as well have been a different language. I had loved this man, and here we were… here I was. On my own. Of all the things I had imagined for tonight, fearing for my life hadn’t even been on the list. But what else could I have expected once Milo reared his head? Some people find a limit when they break bad and retreat from it. Milo had always been too curious for that.
“Speaking of magic, you bring me back reeking of it to Twist and the gang, it’s not going to do you any favors.”
“Did you not hear what I said about Inchpatter?” Milo reached into his pocket and came out with a neat, shiny little revolver.
I’ve had my ass kicked more times than I can count. Had a few knives pulled on me, even got stabbed in the leg once. This was the first time I had ever had a gun pulled on me. A small voice in the back of my head was telling me that of course it was going to be someone I knew, someone I cared about. You spend your life cheating people, you’re going to wind up on the wrong end of a bad play.
The thing is, I had spent three years being persona non grata in the only home I had ever really known. I had been drinking my way through cheap bars and fucking my way through cheap hotels, but my head was always on a swivel. You don’t spend that kind of time being hunted by others and not learn a few things. Everyone thought I cast bad magic? Well, I didn’t, but I could still get a little dirty if I had to.
“If that’s how things are,” I said, “can you at least answer a question for me? It’s been eating me up.”
“Of course, Jake. As long as you know how this is still going to end.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve made that clear. I just want to know… you want to see a magic trick?”
I was almost too cheeky for my own good. I saw Milo’s eyes tighten, concerned, and I saw him raise the gun to fire. I had been working my spell while I was talking, though, and I came out just ahead.
My air magic had improved considerably since my middle school days. Though the effort took a lot out of me, notably in my shoulders and the square of my back, I was able to use the thick air in the studio to raise and hurtle the mats from the corner to the space before me. Milo’s gun roared. A sound somewhere between a rip and a thud came from the mats and I was quite relieved to not be dead.
My next move was even trickier as I cast two spells nearly simultaneously. I snapped my fingers and brought up the purple flame on my thumb. A swift gesture and a hard blow on the fire essentially turned it into a flamethrower, lighting the mats ablaze. Immediately after, I brought the tips of my fingers into my palms and thrust my arms out in front or me; a gust of wind pushed the thick, flaming mats and sent them flying in Milo’s direction. He fired again, again to no effect.
Those weren’t easy spells to cast. They required physical energy and a certain level of precision that had never been my forte. I had taught myself the basics but hadn’t had much opportunity to practice them. I was proud to have pulled them off.
That said, I am also kind of an idiot and had not considered the consequences of setting a fire in a condemned wooden building.
The studio *erupted* in flames. I darted back down the hall, around the corner so I wouldn’t be an open target if Milo was still set on shooting me. Smoke spread like ivy, tendrils twisting and wrapping through the room. Though my eyes stung and my tears made it difficult to see (whether I was crying from the smoke or Milo’s newest betrayal was a mystery to me), I peeked around the corner, looking for a glimpse of my former lover.
A glimpse, I got. Milo staggered toward the hall, his arm pressed over his eyes, the gun still in his hand. Then he disappeared as the floor collapsed beneath him.
I turned and ran for the door. Ripped it open. Bolted down the stairs, gulping for air, clean air that felt like barbed wire when it mixed with the smoke and dust in my lungs. I rounded the corner, angling for the ground level entrance, hoping I could still reach Milo. The door was already aflame. Fire belched out through the windows next to it. What little glass had remained in the studio was blowing out and raining down. There was no entry. There was no escape.
My mind was having trouble processing everything that had happened and was happening. The drinks from several hours ago were a distant memory. The sex, with the girl, in the hotel… that was all gone. My favorite building in the city was collapsing in on itself with my favorite person in the world inside. I tried to remind myself that he had framed me, hung me out to dry, and tracked me down just to kill me. I still felt terrible; love is a bitch.
I walked backward, eyes on the inferno, until I reached the sidewalk a safe distance away. It wasn’t long before a sizeable crowd joined me.
“You got a big way of dealing with bad magic, white boy.”
I turned to look over my shoulder. The old man from earlier was standing a few feet behind me, tugging at his dreads. He grinned at me. Some of the teeth that had been missing had miraculously returned. I was exhausted.
“You ain’t going to scare me like you did before, Grandpa.”
“You know the man you met in there?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“But you deal with him anyway. Maybe I misjudged you, boy.”
I turned away from Milo’s funeral pyre to face the old man. I just couldn’t get a handle on the guy. He was slippery, like Uncle Twist, but with airs of a magic I had never encountered before.
“Tell me something,” I said. “Does BelGuatamala territory have any rules against accidentally killing someone with magic?”
“No, boy. Nothing for that.”
“Then I don’t really give a shit what you think of me.”
The old man wheezed his laugh at me. I turned and started walking away, what energy I had left spent pulling the shadows of Belizean night closer to my body. Sirens sounded in the distance. Whatever the fire department managed to save, I knew a healthy chunk of me wouldn’t be included.
As I walked, a runt of a mutt fell in step beside me. Droopy ears, watery eyes, tail tucked down near its legs. I didn’t know what it wanted and I didn’t care. Right then, it was my only friend in the world.