I’m standing here at the corner of 5th and Main, waiting for my client and thinking of card tricks. Patter, false shuffles, sleight of hand, palming. It’s long after midnight, and even the omnipresent 7-Eleven has closed, leaving me with nothing but flickering streetlights and the hum of cicadas in the dumpsters. I check the gun at my hip once, twice. I don’t look forward to what I have to do, but I have been left with very little choice. I took the case, so it’s my responsibility to the end.
It was a sticky evening in August when I got the job. The AC in my office had been out for weeks with no chance of it getting fixed in sight, so I had been sweating it out in my shirtsleeves. I was about ready to call it a night—to avoid the heat and save electricity, you know? When in walks this dame—and yeah, that’s the only word I can use for her—all in lavender, one of those really old fashioned getups–she even had this tiny pillbox hat, and a veil, for Chrissakes—I know I’m theatrical, and yeah, Carrie tells me that I see drama everywhere, but really—so I tell her we’re closed. She sticks one of those dainty feet in the door and wants to know who “we” is.
She had this rich husky voice that didn’t match her frame. It was interesting, to say the least. So I told her that “we” was…well…me. I couldn’t help it. When a woman looks at me with those eyes, I just spill. It was always a liability onstage. She smirked then, coral pink lips perfectly made up.
“You’re not closed,” she says, and I agree—heaven help me—and open the door wide for her.
I had been listening to Springsteen on the radio, his mumbling like an incantation set to piano and guitar, but as I ushered her in, I turned it off. It just didn’t feel right for this. She deserved blues and cigarette smoke, and I had neither. She settled in, and I was starting to think that maybe this won’t be so bad, she’s good-looking and seems to have money, and it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the black—and that’s when she told me she was a wizard.
Something in my brain—the more intelligent part, I’m starting to think now, it’s the part that takes care of rent and food and keeps me out of trouble—switched off, and the next moment I’d turned her out on her pretty lavender ass.
Wizards. Genetically modified conjurers. I won’t say freaks, no, but it’s their fault I’m working this job in the first place, rather than performing illusions onstage for a crowd. When science provides a way for anyone to be Superman or Zatanna, shooting fire from their fingertips or flying through the air as easy as breathing, no one wants to watch the kind of parlor tricks me and my kind—professional stage illusionists, that’s the fancy term, although I always just billed myself as Tracy Richards, Magician—no one cares for that kind of thing when they can do it themselves.
Not that my current job is all that bad—it keeps me on my toes, and I meet a wide variety of people, depending on what kind of thing I’m supposed to find—let me tell you something about magicians. Most of us love people. You have to, to build rapport with your crowd. So my second job suits me just fine, even if it isn’t my first choice. But lately the folks who brought us fire-throwing wizards have tweaked their formula a little. Thanks to science, pretty soon anyone will be able to be a Sherlock Holmes as well as a Superman. Super perception, even mind-reading. So they’ve been muscling in on my second job as well.
Essentially? I’m a sort of private detective. I find things. I’m good at it.
I have a knack for getting folks to tell me what they know without knowing what they’ve told me. Patter and misdirection, conversation and sleight of hand. It’s surprising what people will say when they think they have the advantage over you. People hire me when their cases don’t fall under police jurisdiction, when the situation is delicate or complicated or not entirely legal. I’m not usually picky about their reasons as long as they pay their bills.
I started my office up almost by mistake a few years back, and since then I’ve uncovered a few stolen items–rings, papers, photographs, once a piece of key evidence the cops managed to lose, two missing kids, and yeah, on the tackier side, exposed a few cheating spouses and embezzling employees. All in the name of paying the rent on time.
And pay the rent it does. But even though the work isn’t bad, my heart is really on the stage, with the dying art of stage magic. Illusion. Showing an audience something wonderful, giving back some of what science steals from them, the marvel of the everyday like a coin or a hand—or a card.
She’d left her card on the table. It was the same cool lavender blue as her dress, and it actually gave off a whiff of scent as I picked it up. (Like your mom’s clean linens. It probably was lavender, that would be just perfect.) There was no type on it, just a quick handwritten note, jagged with haste.
When did she get that out? I was watching her the whole time. She didn’t open that little clutch purse of hers, not once, and there couldn’t be anything up her sleeves—she didn’t have any. Fast little thing. Theatrical. A wizard.
I should have just thrown the card out too and made a clean rejection of the whole deal. Made a decision. But then the part of me that pays the rent decided to get vocal, so I pocketed the card and closed up the office. Somewhere between the two-hours-too-long bus ride home and the scented candles I’d been using in place of electricity in my apartment, I realized was already prepared to call the number on the card.
Before you get the wrong idea, the candles were a gift from the neighbor girl, Carrie. She’s an alright sort, just out of college, heading off to the Peace Corps next year. Tie dye shirts and khaki shorts and long scrapmetal earrings. We spend afternoons together sometimes, when she’s off work, bickering over the tabloids, which are almost as out of work as magicians, these days. There’s no need for urban legends when the monsters are real, but by God the writers do try. They target the Genome Clinics a lot, which is unsurprising, considering just who put them out of business. Exclusive expose: Monday it’s zombie bioweapons, Wednesday, Frankenstein creatures created to test out the gene modification treatment, on Sunday a special feature covering a trade agreement with a Nazi communes in the jungles of Brazil.
Carrie loves it. Perhaps I lack professional camaraderie, but I just can’t read those things. An old magician standby is to trust none of what you hear and less of what you see. It served me on the stage and it serves me on the streets. I try to tell her this, and she tells me I’ve lost my sense of wonder. Me. Honestly.
Anyway. The candles. Much like the tabloids, Carrie thinks I’m “neat.” A relic of a past era. Retro. So one day she shows up with these beeswax candles, tall, caramel-brown tapers that smell like musk and cinnamon. She’d bought them at an antique store. For me. I’d have been offended—first of all, candles really aren’t a great gift for a guy, any of you ladies reading, and second…really, I don’t need to be reminded that I’m so “out” I’m “in.” But in spite of all that , they do kind of smell good.
I really hadn’t planned to use them, just kept them in the back of my closet in their box, but last month I did some calculations and realized I really needed to cut down on something—it had been a very slow month for private detection—and because I really did want the heater and the AC in my office fixed sometime this century—because of that, it became the electricity in my apartment.
So I got back and saw that Carrie’s candles were almost burned down. And that was it. I needed a job and I needed it bad. I pulled out my cell and punched in the number, and there was that husky voice of hers, answering with familiar ease. Of course she’d know who was calling, ID or no. Telepathy came into vogue last season.
“Mr. Richards, I’d like you to find a person for me.”
“Well that is in the job description, ma’am.” I bit my cheek, waiting for her to continue. I hate to ask for more details. I hate it I hate it I hate it—“Could you give me some more details? A man? A woman?”
She made me wait. “I can’t say who…or what it was.” A pause, static on the line. “I’m looking for my husband’s killer.”
I don’t miss a beat. I know she’s listening for my reaction. “Normally this kind of thing would be handled by the police.”
“I know. And they are handling it, slowly. But I want my own kind of justice.”
“I don’t deal in justice. If you’re looking for an assassin—”
“I’m not. I believe…I believe that if you find him, things will work out on their own.”
I agreed to meet with her again, offered to buy her coffee to make up for booting her out of the office. She swallowed my apology, and the next day we were sitting in the café beneath my office, talking business.
“So I only have to locate this person, and you’ll call the cops on him, is that it?”
Essentially. “One more question.”
I tapped my finger against my temple. Old stage habit. “You said ‘who or what it was’. Is there a reason for that?”
A long pause while she fiddled with the lid on her honeyed tea, hiding her eyes. “It’s the same reason why the police are taking so long. The body…well…”
I waited. Comforting a woman who is about to cry usually makes it worse.
“Mr. Richards, have you seen a mummy before?”
“I’ve seen sarcophagi.” Worked with them, actually. My variant of Sawing Through A Woman called for one. She probably read it on me.
“No, I mean. An embalmed body.”
Oh. “A magic killing?”
“Yes. We were both wi—spliced. We met at the Clinic, actually. He was the lab aide that gave me my treatment.”
“How nice for you both.” I hid my tone with a sip of coffee, and she politely ignored it.
“We married last July…he was killed on the night of our anniversary.” I could hear the effort she was making to hold herself together in her voice. Wizard or no, I caught myself reaching for her hand, barely stopped myself in time. Neither the time nor the place, Trace. Or the person, really.
I got up, ordered her some more tea, gave her the time to compose herself. By the time we’d both finished our drinks and she’d calmed down, I had a fairly solid read on the situation. Her relationship with her husband had been good, he had no enemies that she knew of, nothing dangerous in his work that would have resulted in a spell backfiring. His desiccated body was found in their home, clearly the result of a wizard’s power. Fluid manipulation. Sucked dry. The police had checked her out, yes. As far as she knew she wasn’t a suspect, in spite of her own abilities, which centered mostly on empathy—as I had guessed—and speed. She had paid for the ability to further her own career as a private investigator, always loved literary telepaths, yadda yadda.
Then, the moment of truth. I was clearing the Styrofoam mugs and recycled paper napkins from the table when she asked the question.
“So you’ll take my case, Mr. Richards?”
I thumbed over the lavender card still in my pocket, thinking of the figure written on it. She was messing with me, but to be fair, I had been sending her nothing but negative vibes throughout our entire meeting. The rent-paying half of my mind said Jump!, and I said, “I’ll look into it, yes.”
It was a barren case. I visited all the usual places, swung by the local Clinic, looked into some police records (some of the records flunkies still owe me over that missing evidence), but found very little. It wasn’t until my weekly meeting with Carrie that everything clicked into place. She was just unfolding her weekly dose of mental junk food when it hit me. I excused myself, made a half-dozen calls before finally getting in touch with my client to tell her I had found the killer. I was strapping on my gun when I realized she really had been very fair. She did give me the “what” option.
“Mr. Richards?” She’s behind me.
Ladies and gentlemen. I would like to call your attention to the card in my hand.
I pivot, drilling myself on an old trick—summoning a card from the deck.
This is the Queen of Hearts.
She’s a shrewd one, the Queen.
But she has a special power.
“I checked with the local registry. Wesley Brown was not married.”
She finds things.
“W-we were lovers.”
Now, if I may have a volunteer—you, young lady.
“I don’t doubt it. Brown’s coworkers all witnessed the two of you together.”
Pick a card, any card.
“I have contacts with the police, Miss Brown. No murder or missing person was reported.”
I’ll show you—I’ve got nothing up my sleeves.
Wind rattles the telephone lines. She stares at me.
Palm the card you need and wait for your moment.
“And, pardon me if I’m wrong, but I keep tabs on my competition. There are no private investigators currently in the city going by the name of Lily Brown. I can understand a pseudonym, but no one answering to your description even works in this area. None of the Clinics had your name in their records, either. I don’t doubt that you’re an empath, but you didn’t gain that ability conventionally.” I rest my hand on the holster at my hip with all the confidence I can muster, definitely not thinking of bullets. Or the lack thereof.
After a moment, she smiles.
“Very good, Mr. Richards. I assume you were a good citizen and called the police?”
“Creating a perimeter as we speak.”
“I see. Excellent work.”
“Honestly, lady? You left a trail a mile wide. The cops would have been onto you soon enough anyway. So why?”
And now the Queen will show me your choice.
“Why? Which why?”
Help me, milady.
“All of it. Why kill Brown? Why this…elaborate method of being caught?”
She’s a great lady, you know. One must be polite, even someone like me.
Her veil casts crosshatched shadows on her face as she turns towards me. The streetlamp gleams orange against purple satin, sunset after dark.
“The Queen of Hearts, Mr. Richards? How apt. Let me tell you about another trick. Sawing Through A Woman. The trick calls for a man. A box. A saw. And a woman.” Something in her physiology changes as she walks towards me. I back up, my hand going to my hip again. She raises the veil, and I realize there’s something downright insectoid about her face.
“He puts her in a trance. Cuts her in three. Pulls her apart, turns her around and puts her back together again. Sets her free. They smile, bow, make their exit.” Clicking noises from her joints as she walks. There was no way that was there before. “Telepathy comes from the hivemind, you know. Insect genes. They had to test it on someone.”
She eyes me, purple all over now, not just her dress. Dragonfly iridescence. It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep myself from wondering where the cops are. Just like before, she politely ignores the errant thought.
“Five years in a laboratory cage, Mr. Richards. Wes, dear Wes, was my keeper. He pitied me. Set me free. Tried to bring me back. But deep down, you know, there wasn’t much he could do. I’m at least fifteen percent insect. We eat our mates. Is it really that surprising?”
Is this your card?
“But let me tell you about a different kind of magic. It even comes with an incantation. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The human conscience. What could I do? I didn’t want to be caged again. I didn’t want to die. But I couldn’t leave. And Wes is in my head, all the time, asking for justice. But the police don’t investigate the Clinics, you know. Payoffs keep their mistakes quiet. Which led me to the private sector. You.” She’s gotten far too close to me, close enough to touch my cheek with one clawed finger, but I can’t move.
“If I could fool a normal human, then I would go free. That’s what I’d promised myself. After all, one can’t help one’s nature. But you rose to the occasion splendidly.”
“What—what are you?” Some kind of tabloid monster?
She smiles, and dear God how did I miss the mandibles the first time? “You really should trust more of what you hear, Mr. Richards.” She raises her hands, and the special ops finally move in.
Thank you to our lovely volunteer. Take your bow.
I sag against the street lamp, watching the booking. Carrie will have a field day with this when it hits the papers. I hope she appreciates it, because I hate to be upstaged. And I’m certainly not getting paid for this.