Do You Believe in Magic?
Monday morning, I stood at the back bay window of our dining room and watched the wind bend and crackle the ice-covered limbs of the oak trees. March in North Carolina. Spring or winter? You never knew. Camden staggered past, heading to the adjoining kitchen. He was still in his pajamas, pale hair in his eyes. He reached in the cabinet for the box of brown sugar Pop-Tarts, his major food source. His voice sounded wheezy.
“Another client coming your way, Randall.” “Thanks.”
Great. I was doomed to deal with the screwier side of Park- land. “Lost his rabbit?”
“Not that I can see.”
Having a psychic friend can be useful sometimes, and ordinarily, news of a client for my struggling detective agency would have me turning cartwheels. I’d been hired by local socialite Sandy Olaf to track down her stolen diamond bracelet. I could easily take on another client, even a magician. However, something had happened to put an added chill on my day. I’d been cleaning out my desk, and in among all the envelopes, erasers, dried up pens, stamps, and labels there’d been a picture of Lindsey. I’d caught only a glimpse, enough to realize it was one of her last school pictures and I didn’t want to see it. I’d shoved the desk drawer in so hard, it clipped my knees.
How did that picture get in there? It must have been in one of the envelopes. I don’t have any of her pictures or her toys or her books. I don’t even know what Barbara has done with all her things. It isn’t worth the searing pain that always shoots through me.
So I concentrated hard on the scene outside—the big trees, the hedge, the outline of the neighbors’ porch and roof—trying to seal my emotions back in and freeze them as solid as the ice on the branches. People who have no idea what they’re talking about are always telling me, to give it time. Give it time. There isn’t enough time in the world. A part of me would always be at the scene of the crash, searching desperately through clouds of black smoke for the one thing I could not find.
The one thing that keeps me from going completely over the edge is, believe it or not, a dream I had of Lindsey. In the dream, she was on a beautiful playground with other children, all well and happy. I even heard her voice and saw that heartbreakingly sweet smile. Now, I’m not much on dreams. That’s Camden’s department. But every time I feel I can’t stand the loneliness, I hang on to that dream. I knew Lindsey had forgiven me. The problem was forgiving myself.
While Camden waited for his Pop-Tarts to pop up, he poured a plastic cup full of Coke. His large blue eyes were sympathetic, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. We’d been round this mountain many times.
I refilled my coffee cup and took it to the counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room. Cindy, our gray house cat, wound about my legs until I refilled her food dish. Then I sat down on one of the stools. “Is Kary going to forgive me?”
Kary and I had had our first real argument yesterday, a rip-roaring quarrel in the Camden/Ellin style. As much as I love her help on my cases, I can’t put Kary in any sort of danger, and when I found out she’d been to Murry’s bar and strip club by herself one night to ask questions about a deadbeat dad I was trailing, I lost it.
“She’ll forgive you,” Camden replied. “She just got caught up in the thrill of the chase.”
“My chase, not hers.” This past Christmas, Kary had joined the Super Hero Society, a group of ordinary citizens who liked to dress up and patrol the streets. The SHS had actually helped me catch a killer, and although Kary enjoyed the drama, the late night patrols didn’t fit with her busy schedule of classes and student teaching, and to my relief, she quit the group. “We’re not going to see the return of Wonder Star, are we?”
“It’ll work out.” He winced. “Uh, oh.”
I put my cup down. “What? What is it? Is she down at the docks wandering through abandoned warehouses?”
“Ellie’s on her way.”
About that time, Ellin Belton, Camden’s girlfriend, arrived in a flurry of squealing tires, slammed doors, and hard footsteps stalking to the kitchen. She stood in front of us, hands on hips, golden curls trembling, blue eyes flashing like emergency lights. “Cam, there is a crisis! Another woman has been hired to host ‘Ready To Believe’!”
“What happened to Bonnie and Teresa?”
“They’ve been sent back to ‘Horoscopes.’ I can’t believe this! They were excellent hosts. Now we’ve got this Sheila Kirk, and all because her husband is paying for the show. He said he’d underwrite the season, but only if his wife gets to be host of the program, which the president of the company agreed to without even asking me, and I’m the producer!”
“I thought you needed money,” I said.
She cut her eyes around to me so sharply I’m surprised my stool didn’t rock back. “But I don’t know a thing about this woman! She could be terrible.”
It was useless to point out that the Psychic Service Network’s show isn’t “Masterpiece Theater,” and the audience applauds whenever they’re told to, no matter who hosts.
“I’ve got to get over there right away, Cam, and I want you to come with me.”
“Ellie. What for?”
“To see about this Sheila Kirk! You can tell what sort of person she is and what she’ll do to the show.”
“Why don’t you try it for a while and see? She could be good.” “It’s the least you can do.” She frowned at him. “Did you just get up?”
Most women find Camden’s rolled-over-in-bed sloppiness attractive, but Ellin had no time for that today.
“I wasn’t needed at the boutique.”
“Why do you insist on being a salesclerk? I could get you a much better job at the Service.”
Ellin still can’t understand that Camden enjoys working at a dull job that has no bad vibes.
“Well, get dressed and come with me.” She yanked her cell phone from her pocketbook and marched to the front door.
I watched her go because she does look good going away. “Not even a hello kiss. She loves you, all right.”
In a few minutes, we could hear Ellin’s rising voice. “But that’s ridiculous! What does she expect me to do?” A long dark pause, and then: “What do you mean, share my office?”
Camden pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Oh, lord.”
Ellin steamed back to the kitchen so fast, the coupons on the counter jumped. Her eyes gleamed like twin blowtorches. “This woman says we can share the office! My office! Camden, for heaven’s sake, get up, get dressed, and come with me now. We’ve got to take care of this.”
“Ellie, would you please calm down?”
“I can’t calm down when the future of the PSN is at stake. I have worked for months to get ‘Ready To Believe’ on the air, and now this Sheila comes along with all these ideas—get some clothes on and come help me.”
“All right, all right. Don’t panic.”
Don’t panic. She’d already blasted off and orbited the Earth three times. He went up the stairs, leaving me alone with Ellin, a situation I try to avoid. I decided not to say anything, although I agreed with Camden that this new woman might not be so bad if given a chance. Ellin fumed and paced and finally glared me.
“Don’t you have a client or something?” “Any minute now.”
“Haven’t you found a better office somewhere?” “Nope.”
More glaring. She isn’t happy the Randall Detective Agency takes up the first-floor parlor of what might be her future home. She isn’t happy the owner and operator of said agency occupies the same planet.
Camden returned, dressed in his usual cold weather attire: jeans, sneakers, and overlarge sweatshirt. Ellin sighed but didn’t comment. He owns one suit, and that’s for Sundays.
Camden took his jean jacket and the blue muffler Kary had knitted for him for Christmas off the hall tree. “The magician will call in about a half hour, Randall.”
“Okay, thanks. You kids have fun.”
# # #
In exactly half an hour, the phone rang, and a man’s voice said, “Mister Randall? Lucas Finch. I understand you can find missing items?”
“I’ll do my best. What have you lost?” Deck of cards? Couple of pigeons?
“I don’t want to discuss it over the phone, but I don’t like driving in this weather—traffic is horrible.”
“Why don’t I come to you?”
“Can you? I’m in Friendly Shopping Center. Box-It.”
I first thought this was his way of saying “Roger” or “Ten-Four.” Box-It?
“We’re in between Gremlin Cleaners and Weigh To Go.” “I’ll be right over.”
# # #
I put on my coat and went out to my white ‘67 Plymouth Fury. After three tries, she started and chugged down the driveway. Even though ice still glistened on the trees, the roads were clear, and I had no trouble driving to Friendly Shopping Center, a couple of miles from home, accompanied by my favorite jazz band, the New Black Eagles, stomping through “Old Fashioned Swing.” The shopping center started as one main road with shops on either side and has grown to become its own city, including three roads and side streets, plus a sprawl down the hill to a huge bookstore and Wal-Mart Super Store. Box-It was on the far end of road number three, signs in the windows proclaiming: If It Can Be Boxed, We’ll Box-It, and No Item Too Large Or Small. Lucas Finch met me at the door. He was a tall, elegant-looking man with a short beard and round glasses. He wore a brown suit, a white shirt with thin brown stripes, and a tie patterned in little brown and gold squares. I guess I had expected a cape
and a top hat.
“Come in, come in.”
I stepped inside. Boxes of all sizes and colors crowded the small shop. Large crates were stacked in one corner. Tiny boxes only a few inches long were lined up on glass shelves. There were even triangular shaped boxes and mailing tubes, wooden, plastic, and cardboard.
Lucas Finch wiped his glasses on a silky brown handkerchief and replaced them, his brown eyes looming large. “Thanks so much for coming over. You didn’t have any trouble, did you?”
“No trouble. What can I do for you?” “I’ve lost a box.”
I resisted the urge to ask: How can you tell?
“A very important box. In fact, I can’t believe it’s missing. I’ve always taken such good care of it.”
I shrugged out of my coat. I took out my notebook and pen. “If you’ll start at the beginning.”
Finch cleared a stack of yellow cardboard boxes off a chair and motioned for me to sit down. On the wall behind the counter were several framed photographs. All of the pictures were of two well-dressed men, identical down to their expensive-looking shoes, posing at the pyramids, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and in front of an ornate theater, the marquee proclaiming: The Fabulous Finch Brothers. Finch saw my interest. “My brother Taft and I on our latest world tour.”
“You’re both magicians, then.”
“Yes. We belong to a group called WOW.” “Wow?”
“Wizards of Wonder. We’re a brotherhood of magicians. The missing box was going to be used for a special trick called the Vanishing Ruby. After working on this trick for months, Taft and I finally found the perfect box. We paid a lot of money for it. This box was once owned by none other than the great Harry Houdini himself. It’s irreplaceable.”
“Could you describe this box?”
He held out his hands. “It’s about a foot long and seven inches wide, four inches deep, a rich golden color with a large fancy letter H carved on the top, surrounded by rabbits, hoops, and stars. The inside is lined with red velvet.”
“Anything else inside?”
“The key to a cabinet in my house that’s filled with my collection of magic memorabilia.”
“Oh, so that’s your only key, and you can’t get your cabinet open?”
“No, I have another key. It’s all part of a bet I made with some of the other magicians. There’s a trick to opening the box. If someone finds the box and gets it open, they can have whatever they like out of the cabinet.”
“Don’t you figure one of your fellow wizards already found the box?”
“I thought so at first, but no one’s come forward to claim the prize.”
“Maybe they’re still trying to get the box open.”
“I’ve talked to all of them, and no one has found the box yet.” Before I could say, well, someone might be lying about that, he said, “I know these people. We’re all friends. They were all excited about the contest. I’m sure if anyone one of them found the box, they’d tell the others.”
“How many people know about the box?” “All the members know. Six people.”
Well, that was a relief. I could see myself hunting all over Parkland for rogue magicians. “Let me have their names.”
“Well, besides Taft and myself, there’s Rahnee Nevis, owner of the club; WizBoy, her assistant; Jilly, the bartender; and Jolly Bob, who owns a magic shop called Transformation and Company.”
I wrote down the names. “These are the only people who know about the bet?”
“Where was the box last seen?”
“At our club, the headquarters for WOW. The Magic Club.” I’d heard of the Magic Club, a nightclub downtown that specialized in magic acts for entertainment. “The one on Freer
“Yes. We meet once a week, all the magicians in town, to talk shop and share some tricks. I hid the box in a secret place in the club. When I went to check on Thursday, the box wasn’t there.”
“Who was the last one to see it?”
“I showed it to Rahnee right before I hid it. She says she doesn’t know what happened to it.”
I turned another page on my notebook. “Where did you hide it?”
He looked around as if someone might be hiding in one of the boxes around us, listening, and lowered his voice. “There’s a fake cinder block in the back wall of the storage room. I discovered it quite by accident. You can push it in, and there’s a hollow place in the wall just big enough for the box. It’s the seventh block up from the floor.”
“Why didn’t you call the police, Mr. Finch?”
“I didn’t want word getting out that this sacred item was missing. Besides the fact that Taft is extremely upset, WAM might very well take advantage of the situation.”
“WHAM? I thought they broke up a long time ago.”
Finch did not appreciate my humor, rolling his eyes. “Not the British pop group. W-A-M. Wizards and Amazing Mages, our competition in Charlotte.”
“Would WAM go so far as to steal this special box?”
“I would imagine they’d try anything to discredit WOW.”
I had no idea the magic world was so treacherous. I wrote “WAM” in my notebook. “Besides the evil wizards of Charlotte, is there anyone else in particular who wanted the box?”
“Talk to Rahnee. She knows who comes in and out of the club. I wouldn’t trouble with anyone else unless it becomes absolutely necessary. As I said, I don’t want everyone in town to know the box is missing. Please consider taking this case. I have to get that box back.”
“I’ll be happy to take your case,” I told him my fee. “That’s fine. Thank you.”
He wrote me a check, and I told him I’d get started right away.