Authors: Andrew Mayne
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Crime, #Suspense
To my parents, James and Patricia.
My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the everyday commonplaces of my business.
OU’RE GOING TO DIE
.” I tell her this not to be cruel, but out of compassion. It’s the uncertainty of things that tears our souls apart. She still thinks this is a dream, but her eyes are focused now. My words are working their way through her broken mind.
She was a pathetic sight in the rain. Standing by the Dumpster in back of the diner with her torn jeans and smeared makeup, hoping for enough money to get a fix from one of these backwoods dealers and their crude concoctions.
When she got into my truck she had to know that in at least one reality something like this would play out. Well, not quite like this . . .
The glow from the dashboard casts an orange pallor on her cheeks. She resembles a jack-o’-lantern made from the last pumpkin in the patch. Puffy, bruised, sad and, most of all, unwanted.
I’ve given her purpose. I’ve given her a role to play. What happens next will be a secret for only me to know. But her part will echo through eternity.
The gnawing at the soul by those tiny cat teeth of doubt will be soothed. This experiment will tell me things I assume, but need to be certain of. Physical things. Things of this nature. This world.
What does she see when she looks at me? A man. But it’s not the man that scares her. It’s the purpose of the man. A purpose can be larger than a man. Even if the man dies, the purpose can become a cause. If it holds on long enough, it will grow into a belief and then a religion.
This is how gods are made.
It starts with a purpose that others don’t understand.
A purpose that frightens.
I reach over and unbuckle her seat belt. Her limbs are paralyzed, so she can only track me with her eyes. There’s a shudder as I touch her.
She thinks I’m going to violate her. I’m going to set her free.
I push the door open and the wind rushes inside. Her hair flies about like wildfire. She doesn’t look outside. She knows what’s out there.
I give her a push.
Her small body falls out.
Her shoulder hits the wing. Her mouth opens, but no words come out. She vanishes into the darkness.
I’m left with the hum of the propeller and the wind.
I envy her.
Someday I will know it too. But not now.
I have purpose.
• The Eternicon
URDER IS A WORLD
away from me in the children’s hospital as I watch Elsie’s pink fist close around the red sponge ball and squeeze. The scars on her hand turn red from the exertion, but she’s not paying attention to the pain. When she opens her hand again, two large red balls appear and almost roll off her palm. Her eyes light up and she breaks into a smile. It’s a million megawatts of energy in a face half covered in waxy skin still healing from the skin grafts.
My grandfather taught me this trick. It was the first one he ever showed me. We were backstage watching my father entertain a half-full theater in some forgotten town in the Midwest. I remember the glow of Grandfather’s cigar in the dark wings as he muttered and shook his head. Tall, with a ’40s leading man mustache grayed by age and hair slicked to the side, he was always immaculately dressed in a suit and ascot, even when it was his son standing before the crowd.
“Fool doesn’t know his hands from his own ass.” He looked down at me, then took the red sponge balls from his jacket pocket. “Even you could do it better than that jackass.”
I watched and learned. I was five.
Grandfather gave me a pat on the head when the two red balls appeared in my other hand. I gave him a toothy grin. I’d been practicing sleight of hand with balls of cotton after bedtime in the dark.
I got one of his rare genuine smiles. “You’re clever. Too bad audiences would never take to a girl magician.”
It was an offhand comment not meant for me. He leaned back against a road case and puffed away at his cigar, swearing every time my father messed up a trick in his eyes.
To the audience, the show was going fine. But to Grandfather, every little missed subtlety, every less-than-perfect sleight of hand was a disaster. Watching his son, his legacy, fumble through his art was like watching someone burn down the home he spent his entire life building, room by room.
He had a penchant for the overly dramatic, but it wasn’t just his legacy either. Great-Grandfather, a rival of Houdini, really made the name for the family. And in Grandfather’s mind, it was all coming to a crashing end.
Elsie makes the sponge balls vanish and reappear again. Her eyes wait for my approval.
“Wonderful,” I tell her.
I’ve had to learn how to smile and hold in the tears every time I see her face. She’s still too self-conscious to play around the other children at the clinic. This Saturday afternoon we have the playroom to ourselves. Our audience is a nurse doing some paperwork in the corner and a wall full of cheery Disney princesses accepting kisses from frogs and cavorting with cute animals.
Elsie had us sit in the pirate section of the playroom. A mural behind her depicts a valiant battle between lost boys and a haggard crew of buccaneers. The first time she sat me down here, I thought it was so she could look at the princess murals. After several magic lessons, I realized she’s an adventurer at heart and likes being close to the action.
So much potential, ruined by the burns . . . I have to stop myself. I’m already prejudging the rest of her life. I’m deciding what she can and cannot do, which is what everyone did to me. That’s what Grandfather did. That’s what Father did. Even Mother, God rest her soul, even she did that.
“Can I learn how to do the next part?” Small teeth bite the edge of her lip expectantly. A lock of dirty blond hair falls in front of her eyes and I have to resist an inborn motherly urge to brush it aside. The skin is still healing and sensitive. I can smell the balm the nurse rubbed on it before my visit.
“Of course, Elsie.” I show her the move I used. She watches every minute detail.
I think more and more lately about what it would be like to have my own child. Apparently that happens when you’re closer to thirty than twenty. I’d sworn it off when I was younger. I didn’t want to put anyone else through the fractured childhood I had. I was loved, to be certain, but loved by people who didn’t know how to love themselves.
I feel guilty when I see Elsie sitting there on the colored carpet, struggling with the magic trick. My dysfunctional family has nothing on hers. The scars I have are only the ones I hold on to. She has to go through life with hers visible to the world.
A little while later she’s able to do the trick. Crudely, but she has the idea. She’s eight but has the patience of a much older girl. She’s got the drive of nobody I’ve ever met. I wish I could have known Elsie before her mother threw the pot of boiling water in her face. Was she this strong before that?
I was introduced to Elsie two months ago when I showed up at the children’s hospital and volunteered to teach magic tricks as a form of therapy. It’s something I’ve done since college and continued all the way through my career in law enforcement. It’s probably the only part of me I haven’t tried to reinvent in some way.
I try not to think about how she ended up in the burn ward as I help her practice the magic trick. The first two lessons I’d given her had to end early so I could go cry in the bathroom. I’d felt guilty. My pity wasn’t helping her.
I don’t know if doing this is any more helpful than the physical therapy she’s getting. What I do know, because I’ve seen it before, is that magic gives kids something they didn’t have before, a kind of confidence. Pricked and prodded a dozen times a day, always being talked down to in an infantile voice; sick kids begin to regress and feel helpless. A magic trick, even one as simple as making a red ball vanish in one hand and reappear in another, gives them the upper hand in a small way when they interact with adults.
For a girl like Elsie, who is too afraid to look in the mirror, much less let other children look at her, magic gives her a special ability the other children don’t have. Scarred, unloved, she’s still magical.
“Remember to keep it a secret,” I remind her. I avoid giving her the long speech my grandfather would give. He didn’t ask you to keep it a secret, he commanded it. Even the smallest trick, the kind you might find on the back of a cereal box, he’d admonish you to protect, lest you met an untimely end like a handful of others who dared to reveal how our world worked.
He called it “the Secret Library.”
Elsie nods her head. I’d already explained to her the importance of the secret. The real power of a trick is its mystery. If you reveal all your mysteries, perhaps because you think it will make people like you, the power is gone and you’re back to being just as normal as them. It’s a power trip for sure. But I think Elsie can use whatever power trips she can get.
Her hands make the balls vanish and reappear again. “I can’t wait to show Mommy.”
The words are a kick to the stomach. That urge to forgive is so strong in Elsie, making the act even more evil.
I’m not supposed to know the details of how Elsie ended up here, but I can’t stop thinking like a cop whether I wear a uniform, a suit or yoga pants. When I see a hurt little girl, all kinds of instincts rise up.
Her mother is a piece of trash that moved from one drug-dealing boyfriend to another. She’d had a number of minor arrests for possession and an acquittal. She has never been convicted of dealing, although that’s what she obviously does. The court system looks at her like a troubled addict and will probably reunite Elsie with her sooner or later. Her daughter’s disfigurement will be remembered as an unfortunate “accident.” No one wants to believe a mother could really do that. They’ll all embrace the fiction and send Elsie back.