On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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I’d met the guy over at the bar while I was waiting to be served, and we struck up a brief conversation. It was busy, but I’d managed to get a booth by sheer luck; I happened to come in when its occupants were just getting up to leave.

I got my drink, nodded a farewell, and went back to sit down and read my book. I didn’t mind the bustle or the noise; I just enjoyed being there, having a few drinks on my own, and existing in the moment. When home time came, I’d stagger up the road, fall asleep in my clothes, and deal with the rest in the morning. The benefits of being unattached.

“Mind if i join you?” a voice said from just over my shoulder, and I looked up to see the same man from the bar. I thought about it for a moment, but it would be rude to say no, and I could see that besides his drink he was also carrying a hardback. Maybe he just wanted to read in peace too. I nodded, and he took a seat opposite me with a grateful smile.

“Military history,” he said, indicating the book I was reading about the First World War. I shrugged. It wasn’t a topic of any particular interest to me, but a friend had recommended the book, and I was willing to give anything a chance — at least for the first hundred pages. If I wasn’t enjoying it by then, I allowed myself to quit, but it had been many years since I’d had to do so.

“What’re you reading?” I asked, and the man laid his hardback on the scarred table, turning it so I could see the cover. It was a biography, of a man I’d never heard of, and it seemed that he was a pianist.

“He played a dozen instruments,” my newfound companion said. “A musical genius, certainly, but it was a byproduct of his real talent.”

I raised an eyebrow, intrigued now, setting my own book down to take another sip of my drink. “And what was that?” I asked.

He nodded, as if grateful for the enquiry, but he glanced around briefly first, like he was making sure he wouldn’t be overheard.

“He was a reappropriator of personal property,” he said. “One of the greatest. And this book makes no mention of it, because it wasn’t generally known.”

I laughed. “This pianist was also a thief?” I asked, for some reason delighted by the idea. It was so incongruous. The seemliness and refinement of musical study and performance, juxtaposed with base criminality. But it made a certain sort of sense. My eyes were drawn to the long fingers I could see in the cover photograph, laid out in stark contrast against the ivory keys of the piano the subject was sitting at. The same sort of fingers which rested on top of the book, I also noted.

“An astute observation,” my strange drinking partner said. “The fingers, I mean. And mine. I won’t deny it. And in congratulations and humility, here is your reward.”

He reached into his coat pocket and handed me my own wallet, and then my own wristwatch.

I was aware that my cheeks had gone red, first in astonishment, then embarrassment, and finally in anger. He watched me closely, and the most infuriating part was that he decided I wasn’t going to strike him or to make a scene several seconds before I decided it myself. After all, he’d returned my possessions to me without being challenged. I checked my pockets quickly, doing an inventory of what I’d brought, and nothing else seemed to be missing.

The man had lifted his longer fingers from the table, keeping the base of his palms on the surface, in a discreet gesture of contrition, and I took a steadying breath before nodding rather stiffly in acknowledgement. He then picked up his glass in a toast, and for a churlish moment I thought I might deny him, but I acquiesced. I was just too intrigued. Feeling that I needed to be the one to speak next, I cleared my throat.

“And exactly where does a person learn this… musicianship?”

He tipped his head, acknowledging the jab in good humour and understanding, but then he shook it just as quickly. “I’ve never had so much as a parking ticket, if you can believe it, much less been somewhere like prison. No; I apprenticed, much as any artist would.”

I could feel my objection to his use of the word artist balanced on the tip of tongue, ready to be thrown at him like a vial of acid, but he was a damnably apt analogy; I couldn’t deny it. I’d stood at the bar with him for all of four or five minutes, talking about inconsequential things as strangers do, and to my recollection he’d never been within a metre of me. He certainly hadn’t shaken my hand, or clapped me on the shoulder, or any of stuff you see stage magicians do in order to distract their marks. Whatever else he was, this man was clearly of considerable talent. So why not an artist?

“You’re a gracious and generous man,” he said, again displaying his unsettling habit of reading my mind, and I waved the remark away. Then I was speaking before I was even aware of what I was going to say.

“And how would someone learn a little of this talent?” I asked, and he smiled again.

“That is indeed the relevant question,” he replied immediately, and he clasped his hands on top of his book. He seemed to think for a moment, and then he nodded to himself before meeting my gaze once more.

“Well, it’s a game, really. And a surprisingly straightforward one.”

The man glanced around the room, and I could see that he was assessing and measuring and analysing, all with the most casual of looks. Seemingly satisfied, he rose from his seat.

“Let me show you,” he said.

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