Finnegan Morley, an unimposing young man, average in every way, browsed the aisles of the “antique” store. As he gazed upon the dismal array of cloudy crystal decanter sets, broken old dolls, and yellowing boxes of dusty board games, he wondered what the difference was between vintage items and just plain old crap.
Finnegan volunteered his time as a magician in the children’s ward at the local hospitals, and sometimes scored a paying gig for birthday parties and the such-like. He often found second-hand magic kits and accessories in places like this, but it didn’t look like today was going to be his lucky day.
He sighed with disappointment, and went to leave the shop … which was when he saw it.
The polished blue-black satin top hat shone in the dim light, drawing Finnegan closer in breathless wonder. He reached out and gently stroked the smooth material. It felt almost hypnotically warm to the touch.
“Why don’t you pick it up, have a good look at it.”
Finnegan jumped into the air, looking wildly around. For a hysterical moment, he thought the hat had spoken to him, then he noticed the beady-eyed proprietor of the store standing behind him, chewing on a toothpick.
Finnegan gently lifted the top hat with twitchy fingers, amazed at the solid weight of the object. There was a discreet bronze plate attached under the brim, with the words “Merlin’s Hat” etched in beautiful script.
Finnegan snorted with laughter. “Oh come on, really? I thought Merlin’s hat was blue and pointy, with stars and moons all over it. I don’t remember seeing any pictures of him in a top hat!” He placed the hat gently back on the shelf, but the proprietor picked it up again and placed it back in his hands.
“It’s not a hoax, son.” Saul Kelly, the owner of this fine establishment, winked conspiratorially. “It belonged to a fellow by the name of Thomas Merlin, one of the finest illusionists around back in the 1940s. Legend has it that he was a descendant of the great magician, Merlin himself.”
Finnegan looked at the hat with renewed interest. “What happened to him? Thomas Merlin.”
“Well,” said Saul, looking to the cobwebby ceiling for inspiration. He made a mental note to maybe clean up there one of these days. “He just disappeared, didn’t he! No-one knows what happened to him. His hotel door was locked from the inside, all his belongings were in the room, including this here hat, but no sign of Thomas Merlin. A mystery to this very day.”
“So you’re saying that the original Merlin was a real person, with descendants?”
“Hell yeah, he was real! Legend has it that he made a deal with the devil and that’s how he come about his magic powers. And I’m talking real magic, mate. None of this illusionist nonsense. Yep, real damn magic.”
Finnegan turned the hat over and stared into its depths. The hat seemed bottomless, and he felt compelled to poke his hand down there to reassure himself that there was, indeed, a bottom. His fingers came across a barrier of sorts, but he found he could easily push his fingers through to the space under that. He figured it was some kind of false bottom, which made sense, but he couldn’t shake a sudden uneasiness as he quickly removed his hand and wiped it on his trousers.
“So how much do you want for it? I mean, it’s a good tale and all, but I’m guessing there’s no certificate of authenticity.” Finnegan adopted an air of vague disinterest, and hoped his desire to possess Merlin’s hat didn’t shine too brightly.
Saul rubbed his whiskery chin and gazed skywards. Dammit but he needed to take a cobweb broom to that ceiling! “I guess in one sense, it’s priceless,” he murmured. “But as you say, there is no way to prove or disprove its provenance. Even so, it’s a fine quality top hat, and you’d be lucky to find a finer one.”
Finnegan fidgeted while Saul pretended to crunch numbers in his head.
“I guess I could let it go for, say for five hundred.”
“Dollars?” Finnegan gulped. “I’d be lucky to scrape up two hundred.”
“Well, you seem like a nice enough fellow. Tell you what, let’s call it two-fifty. You’d be robbing me blind, but sometimes I’m just too nice for my own good.” Saul sighed sadly. He’d bought the hat for twenty five bucks on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell deal, so he didn’t feel too badly about it. Besides, genuine or not, the damn thing gave him the creeps and he would be glad to see the back of it.
Finnegan had to beg, borrow, and drain his life savings, but he was back the next day and thus became the proud owner of Merlin’s hat.
He hurried home so he could admire his behatted self in private. He looked very fine indeed, he decided as he twirled in front of his fly-spotted cheval mirror. The new hat shone under the fluorescent lights, setting off his black pants and crisp white shirt. His purple-lined black cloak billowed satisfyingly. Oh, he couldn’t wait until his next magic gig!
This reminded Finnegan to investigate the false bottom in the hat.
He took it off, and placed it crown down. The darkness inside made the hat seem much deeper than it actually was.
Finnegan gently pushed his fist against the bottom, feeling the sponginess suddenly give way. His hand and then his arm went impossibly deep into the hat and he pulled back, afraid of what might live in that thick darkness.
Curiosity finally got the better of him, and he gingerly plunged his arm back into the hat, hoping and dreading that he would find something.
His hand landed on something warm and soft. Something that moved under his hand. He screamed and pulled his arm out so quickly he half expected it to detach from his body and fly across the room. Just what the hell was that??
Heart pounding, Finnegan tried again, groping over the soft body until he came to a set of long ears. Could it possibly be … he grabbed the ears and hauled the body out of the dark and into his modest lodgings. The large rabbit sat quite calmly on the carpet, bits of grass still sticking out of its mouth. It didn’t seem in the least bit interested in Finnegan.
He gently lowered it back into the hat and sat back on his heels. This was, indeed, real damn magic.
Finnegan grabbed a torch and shone the light into the hat. It was like looking at a country landscape through black gauze. He watched as the rabbit moved out of sight, then spontaneously moved the hat until he caught up with it again. The hat seemed to be some sort of tube between worlds, except you could move the tube to different locations. Interesting.
He moved the tube over a group of what looked like birds, their heads bobbing up and down as they pecked at the ground. Finnegan put his hand through the hat and gently lifted one of them, delighted to pull out a pure white dove. The dove flew off, circling the room once, twice, before landing on Finnegan’s shoulder and nibbling his ear.
He carefully returned the bird to its habitat before moving the hat around some more, desperately curious to see more of this strange world. A mischievous imp in his brain wondered how much of his body he could actually fit through the hat. Maybe he could fit his entire body through, hmmm?
Unseen, the demon formerly known as Merlin crouched in the big dark and waited for his time to come.