I pulled a skunk out of my hat and looked shocked. The children squealed with laughter. I’d tried four times with intentionally escalating failure to produce a rabbit from my top hat. Making animals appear, even the plush-toy kind, wasn’t my favorite kind of magic, but the exhilaration of making it happen seamlessly ended up being all that mattered to me.
At ten in the morning outside the Golden Pirate Casino, the clumsy magician-in-search-of-a-rabbit routine acted like a magnet for children and their parents. The casino liked it because it attracted the child-free adults to the blinking and blaring slot machines just through the open doorway behind me. Eddie the Wiz liked it because I advertised his afternoon and evening shows in the casino theater. And I liked it because I needed the money my audience dropped into the other top hat strategically placed in front of my immodest The Great Valentina banner.
I tossed the skunk onto the pile of rejects at my feet and jammed my top hat onto my head. “Not to worry,” I told the audience while looking very worried. “There may be other forces at work here. Possibly there’s another magician present who’s working against me? Hmmm?”
I took my time to scan the audience, even though I’d been doing it automatically all along. I didn’t like the looks of the guy in the torn jeans who kept oozing out of sight into the crowd every time my gaze locked onto him. I did another quick visual sweep. No sign of Jeff. I was winding down my performance and people had already dropped bills and coins into the hat as they moved on into the casino. Jeff should’ve been there watching the hat and looking out for the questionables like Torn Jeans.
I pretended to scrutinize the children standing closest to me for signs of magical ability. I narrowed my eyes at a little girl in jeans and pink tennis shoes who giggled and gripped her dad’s hand with both of hers. “Could it be you?”
She shook her head emphatically. “No.”
I moved my gaze past a few more children. A boy, maybe nine, took a half step forward.
“Aha! It must be you!” I whipped my cape close to my body as if trying to protect myself.
“No.” His eager look said “choose me.”
I would have chosen him, if a group slumming from the Bellagio hadn’t tried to break up my show—a gray-haired man with an improbably boyish face, a blonde with equally improbable breasts, a big guy showing a lot of muscle, and a teenage girl looking like an escapee from a Japanese anime convention. She had short purple hair frozen into permanent windswept spikes above a polka-dot blouse, short plaid skirt, and white knee-high socks with lace around the top. The men wore designer sunglasses and expensive casual clothes that made the Golden Pirate folks in my audience look dowdy. They didn’t join the audience but stood to one side watching both the crowd and me.
Anime-Girl said in a loud voice, “See Dad? I told you,” and pointed at me. The audience shifted their attention to the girl. The dad ignored his daughter. He pulled his sunglasses down his nose to stare at me with a flat gaze. I’d had a lot of experience with drunks and hecklers so they rarely fazed me. I’d even had a couple of stalkers, one of the reasons I gave Jeff a percentage of the hat. But this guy wasn’t the stalker type. No, he snapped his fingers and people came to him. Why had he trekked over to the Golden Pirate to give me the once-over?
“I wanna see the rabbit,” a child whined. People shuffled their feet and a few at the fringes drifted off without leaving anything in the hat. I’d lost my rhythm and was about to lose my audience. Time to take the situation in hand. I had no idea what the party-crashers wanted, but no way would I let them break up my act. Time for improvisation.
I tossed one side of my cape back over my shoulder and announced, “I, the Great Valentina, sense the presence of another force, a dark opposing force.” I spoke louder and faster. “This dark force is hiding, but it can’t hide from…”
I gave a flourish with my right hand and a wand appeared in my left, “the Great Valentina’s dark force locater.” I pointed the wand toward the audience and moved it slowly to the left and right, making eye contact with as many people as I could. As I swung my arm at the intruders, the wand took on a life of its own, jerking my arm toward them and dragging me to where they stood. While the audience focused on the twitching wand, I palmed the flat circle of my collapsible snake from the inside of my cloak. A little marvel of sheer silk over a one-ounce titanium spring that I always kept handy as an emergency backup.
I flicked the wand back and forth between the girl and her dad. “The dark force is…” I paused dramatically “here.” The trembling wand pointed to the dad. “Don’t blame yourself,” I said quickly. “The dark force is cunning. But with my help, and with the help of this brave girl, we shall all be safe.” I stepped toward the dad and his daughter. A big man with them growled and moved to block my advance, making it clear that he was a bodyguard. I fixed my gaze on the older man. Who was this guy? His fingers signaled his bodyguard to let me approach.
The bodyguard backed off. I stepped between the dad and the daughter, jostling him slightly as I did, so he didn’t notice me drop my snake in his jacket pocket.
“We shall appease the dark force with a gold ducat.” I turned to the girl. “Give this man the gold ducat,” I commanded, pointing to her father.
“What gold ducat?” she asked.
I extended my hand toward her hair. “May I show you?” She hesitated, then said, “Yeah. Okay.”
I snatched a golden coin from her hair and held it high for the crowd to see, then turned back to her. “Now take the gold ducat.” I pressed the coin into her palm. “Do you have it?”
I closed her fingers over it. “Are you sure you have it?” “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“There are strong opposing forces at work. Promise me you won’t let go.”
I couldn’t wring more cooperation out of her than that. “Excellent.” I dropped my hands and took two steps back. “Now show it to everyone.”
She opened her fist and gaped at her empty hand. “I know I had it. Where’d it go?”
The crowd pressed forward to see. I had my audience back where I wanted them.
I shook my head at her in exasperation. “You promised you wouldn’t let go. Did you carelessly drop it into his pocket?” I pointed to the dad, who stared at me fixedly. He straightened and glanced at his daughter.
“No way. I had it in my hand.”
“You’d better check his pocket. But be careful.” I took a step back. “Go on.”
She stuck her hand into her father’s jacket pocket, pulling out the flat disc which immediately exploded into a six-foot snake. She cut loose with a glass-shattering shriek and threw the snake. People in the audience screamed. I grabbed the snake before it hit the ground and shook it slightly, making it writhe convincingly. I staggered, finally wrestling it into submission. I dropped it to the ground where it lay still, turned and shook my finger at the girl. “I warned you to be careful.”
The audience laughed.
“And now that I have conquered all opposing dark forces,” I whipped my hat from my head and paused dramatically. The audience held their collective breath.
“We can now have the rabbit!”
I reached into my hat one last time, and with a grand gesture, produced a three-foot tall rabbit—another one of my titanium-spring wonders. The audience gasped, oohed in appreciation, and clapped.
“Thank you. You’ve been great.” I bowed and scanned the crowd. I spotted Torn Jeans still moving along the perimeter, but no Jeff. He should’ve been here picking up my paraphernalia before the nosy audience looked it over too closely. “Don’t forget that you can experience the amazing magic of Edward the Wizard in the Golden Pirate Casino theater.” I waved toward the wide casino doorway with one hand and bent down to retrieve the snake and the rabbit with the other. Stuffing them hastily out of sight into the bag behind my banner, I beamed at those who stepped forward to drop money in the donation hat.
Anime-Girl and Dad approached me, with the boob-job blonde and bodyguard close behind. “You’re very good.” Dad gave me a full blast smile, but no money in the hat. I couldn’t guess his age—over fifty but with very well-tended skin and hair. “Do you have a card?”
If I’d gone with my gut response, I’d have said “No.” But Aunt June’s number one rule had been “don’t lie,” and I’d promised I wouldn’t. So I evaded. “I’m glad you enjoyed the show. Are you booking acts or looking for an act to do a private party?”
“Neither, actually.” He shifted the smile to a boyish grin that probably got him his way—most of the time.
I turned to stow the rest of my gear.
“Ask her about Beth Hull, Dad,” Anime-Girl said.
I froze in the middle of rolling up my Great Valentina banner. Beth Hull, aka Elizabeth Hill. Aka my mother. Hard to believe that Elizabeth would still rely on such an old alias. Beth Hull was her version of a soft-spoken, well-bred lady. When I’d last seen Elizabeth she’d been playing Liz Heldin, the exuberant, fun-loving babe in Miami. That was nearly nine years ago, and I was twelve, fourteen, or sixteen, depending on which date of birth Elizabeth thought most useful for the current con. She changed my age, her name, and our residence as often as most people change underwear. She went by Hill only when incarcerated. I’d been searching for her for five years.
“Hey, he’s got your money!” the girl yelled.
I spun. Too late. Torn Jeans had already snatched up the hat and taken off at a sprint. I took three steps and stopped. Everyone else stood rooted to the ground, watching next week’s rent disap- pear down the street. I’d known that guy was trouble. I couldn’t catch him now, but I was going to kill Jeff when I got my hands on him. I turned back to packing my gear, jamming it in.
“Should we call the police?” the girl asked. “No point,” I said.
“So I take it that you do know Beth Hull,” the dad said the way other people said “Gotcha.”
“Take whatever you want. Everyone else has,” I said without meeting his gaze.
“You know, you look just like her,” he said.
I did know. Even nine years ago our eyes were the same pale blue, noses the same straight line, and ditto for jawlines. Both blondes, too, only my hair was frizzball and hers straight. What I didn’t know was what this guy wanted. I could only guess that he wanted Elizabeth because she’d made off with the family silver and bankroll. He could get in line, because she’d taken more than that from me.
“You do look like her. I mean totally like her,” the girl rattled on. “When I told my dad, he like, didn’t believe me. He had to see for himself.”
“Ash!” Her dad cut her off. I glanced up in time to catch the look he gave her, and it hit me why my gut had taken against him. Elizabeth used one of two kinds of men in her life, the Uncles and the Creeps. Uncles were marks, and Creeps were boyfriends. Creeps were never nice people. Deliberately and happily not nice. Ash crossed her arms and gave her dad a sullen look, but she kept quiet. So did I. The last thing I needed was another one of Elizabeth’s Creeps. Particularly not one she’d conned and robbed.
I finished packing up.
“I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes,” he said.
“I have to get to work.” I picked up my gear. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
“No thanks.” It was easy to turn him down. Sure I needed the money, but money from Creeps always came at too high a price. Even those who didn’t have a revenge agenda.
He would’ve persisted, but his cell phone beeped. When he pulled it from his pocket to check the number, I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and marched toward the casino entrance. I faced a dilemma. I didn’t want to talk to one of Elizabeth’s victims, but I couldn’t pass up the chance of getting on her still-warm trail. So as I passed by the daughter, I said, “I see you’re into Japanese anime.” That got her attention.
“Yes, I really love cosplay. How about you?” She fell into step next to me. Her dad watched us walk away, but kept talking into his phone.
Cosplay? I guessed that meant dressing up like an anime character. “A little.” In fact, all I knew I’d learned when I’d done a street performance outside an anime/manga expo, but I needed to find out what she knew about Elizabeth. “You’re called Ash?” “Actually I’m Ashley, but Dad calls me Ash.” We entered into the casino’s sensory overload of frigid air conditioning and beeping, clanging, and light-flashing slot machines.
“I think Flame fits your persona better than Ash,” I said. She flashed a brief grin, pleased. I hated being manipulative, but this was the closest I’d come to tracking down Elizabeth in five years. “Nice to meet you. I’m Valentine Hill.”
Ashley’s face fell. “Hill, not Hull? I thought for sure you were related to Beth.”
“Definitely related. Her real name is Hill. How long has it been since she disappeared?”
“What do you mean, disappeared? She’s in San Francisco.” I stared at her. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. We saw her the day we left. She’s my dad’s girlfriend.”
“So the blonde with him is just a Vegas moment?”
Ashley wrinkled her nose. “That’s Marcie. She’s his private girlfriend. Beth’s his public one. It’s complicated.”
“Why does he need a public girlfriend?”
“He’s Bobby Kroy. You know, Kroy’s Doors and Windows?
They have commercials on TV?”
She raised more questions than she answered. Like, why would someone who sold doors and windows need a bodyguard? What was public-girlfriend-Elizabeth really up to? The overriding fact was that finally I knew where Elizabeth was.
We reached the door marked Employees Only, and I turned to Ashley. “I have to go to work now. But can I ask a favor? Could I get Elizabeth’s address from you?”
“Sure. I have it.” She pulled out a cell phone and pushed some buttons.
I turned, grabbed a pencil and a ticket from the nearest Keno stand, and pivoted back to Ashley. “Okay, I’m ready.”
Ashley held her phone against her chest. “First, tell me how you’re related.”
“Okay. But promise not to tell your dad or Elizabeth?” “Why?”
“I want to surprise her when I get to San Francisco.” Ashley’s face lit up. “Okay, I promise.”
“She’s my mother.” And she’d be surprised to see me, but not happy surprised as Ashley assumed.
“Your mother? And you don’t know where she is?”
“It’s complicated. Like your dad and his public/private girl- friends. We can talk about it if I see you when I get to San Francisco.”
“Okay, deal. But promise you’ll come see me.”
“I’ll try. Very hard. That’s the best I can do.” I held the pencil over the paper, waiting for her to give me Elizabeth’s address.
She frowned. “Don’t you want to put it in your cell?” “I don’t have it with me.”
“Forgot it, huh? That sucks.”
“No, she didn’t forget it.” Jeff’s voice came from behind me, “The Great Valentina lets her entourage—namely me—take her calls. She can’t be bothered with non-magic-related technical details.”
I whirled around to face him. “Where were you?”
“You’re not going to believe it.” He draped an arm around my shoulders.
I flung off his arm and glared at him. “I lost the hat, thanks to you. And you’re not my entourage. You’re my hat man, remem- ber? Correction. Make that, you were my hat man.” I’d definitely been too easy-going with Jeff in the past, but he’d been reliable for months before he started showing up late for my show.
“Sorry about the hat, but it’s all cool. I got a gig.” He turned to Ashley. “I’m in a band.”
Ashley looked impressed. With his “I’m in a band” line, his long hair hanging in his eyes, his jeans’ waistband at his crotch, and the natural charm of every narcissist, Jeff easily scored with naïve young women. He’d been persistent in hitting on me too, but I’d repeatedly made it clear I wouldn’t have sex with him.
“You mean, you used to be in a band,” I said. “You haven’t worked as a musician for a year. Now stop hitting on an underage girl and go away.”
“I wasn’t hitting on her. Come on, Val, you know you’re the only one for me.”
“No, I’m the only one who won’t sleep with you.”
“That’s not it. You have standards. I respect you for that. But it’s all going to change now. It’s like we talked about. I’d get a gig and you’d come with me. But we have to leave like—now.” “You talked about it. You never listened when I said I wouldn’t sign on for it. And why would I? Because of you I lost next week’s rent.”
“Why are you stressing about the rent? You’re not anywhere near broke and you know it.”
I gritted my teeth. Why had I confided in Jeff about my safety net stash?
“And,” he added, “you won’t have to pay rent if you come to Berkeley with me.”
“Berkeley?” Ashley put in.
“Yeah. And get this—I’ll be playing with Ghoul Food. Can you believe it? They have a gig in a really cool club. And my sister lives in San Francisco, so we can stay with her.”
“Omigod,” Ashley said. “It’s like karma or something.” “What is?” Jeff asked.
I put out a hand to stop Ashley, but she was swept up in the whole karma thing. “She’s already going to San Francisco to find her mom. And then you get a job there. Wow.”
“For real?” Jeff asked. “Wait—find your mom? Not your dad?” “I have to go to work,” I said.
Ashley stepped closer. “You don’t know where your dad is either?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to talk about this with either of them.
“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Her dad’s a magician, too.” “Really?” Ashley asked, wide-eyed. “What’s his name?” “That’s the problem,” Jeff said. “She doesn’t know.”
“Then how are you going to find him?” She raised her eyebrows at me.
“I’m sorry, Ashley,” I wanted to stop the questions, “but I really do have to go to work now.”
“Valentine, please.” Jeff gave me his best puppy dog in the pound look. “You know I how I feel about you. This is our chance. It’s like she said—karma.”
“No, Jeff. Karma is you finally getting a gig but not having any money to get there because you didn’t show up for the job you already had.”
“Babe, don’t do this to me. We’re meant to be. You know we are. Why do you keep fighting it?”
I narrowed my eyes. He was being way too persistent. Then it hit me. “How were you planning on getting to Berkeley or San Francisco or wherever you’re going?”
He brightened, apparently taking this as encouragement. “There’s a flight out tonight. I can just make it and be in time for the show. I know you can’t fly, but you can take the bus and meet me there tomorrow.”
“And who’s buying the tickets?”
“You front me the money, and I’ll pay you back.” He didn’t blink. “But here’s the deal. I told them I’d make it for tonight’s show, so we got to go.”
I stared at him. “You expect me to pay your way after you cost me a whole week’s rent? You’re delusional.”
“You’re not listening. I’ll pay you back. I’m going to make a lot of money. This is my big break. And you’re going to San Francisco anyway, so it’s like we’re meant to be. You know you care about me at least a little. You know how I feel about you.” “Sure. You feel like I’m an easy touch, which I’m not. Go hit up someone else for your plane fare.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me—to us.”
I folded my arms. “Will you go away, or do I have to call security?”
Jeff held my gaze for a few seconds, turned away, then turned back. “I know you don’t really mean it.” He walked away.
Ashley stared at me. “You’re not breaking up with him, are you? I mean, you’re going to make up, right?”
I shook my head.
“But he loves you. Don’t you feel anything for him?”
“He doesn’t love me. He just can’t face the fact that there’s even one woman in the world who won’t have sex with him.”
“Why not? He’s hot.”
“Hot or not, he’s a musician. You know what they call a musician without a girlfriend?”
Ashley shook her head. “Homeless.”
Ashley cracked a faint grin.
“Trust me, he was hoping I’d go with him so I’d pay to get us there. Forget about him. You were about to give me Elizabeth’s address?” I held up the paper and pencil again.
Ashley read out the address from her cell.
“Thank you so much for this. You don’t know what it means to me. And please don’t tell her or your dad? I want to surprise her.”
“I won’t. But take down my cell number. Call me when you get to San Francisco.”
I added Ashley’s phone number. “I really have to go. I’m late for work. Thanks again.”
“I promise that I’ll try. Bye, Ashley.” I hurried through the employee’s entrance and up the stairs to the theater’s backstage. I was late but Eddie was later, so no one knew.
The problem with being paid under the table is that you have no recourse if your employer stiffs you. I waited until after Eddie gave me my pay post-performance before I told him I was leaving. As I’d expected, he didn’t take it well and vowed he’d never hire me again. An empty threat, since he was an unreliable drunk, who ran through assistants the way he ran through bottles of vodka. But if I got what I needed from Elizabeth, I wouldn’t have to work off-the-books again. I’d be a regular tax- paying citizen at last.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited as I made my way home. I’d been trying to find Elizabeth since Aunt June died. Once I’d even hired a private detective, but he was too expensive and never turned up anything. I jogged up the stairs to the apartment where I rented a room from Diane. As a Vegas showgirl she made much more than I did but rented out rooms because she was forever saving for her next plastic surgery. She always complained about the unfairness of my having breasts almost as big as hers that I didn’t pay for.
The apartment lay in darkness. Diane and our other roommate were still out doing a late show. Lucky me. My rent was paid through the end of the week. I could leave her a note and not have to explain why I left so suddenly.
I felt my way through the darkened living room. Diane was hypervigilant about the cost of utilities, so we never turned on unneeded lights. I pressed the light switch in the hallway, started toward my room at the end, and stopped short. My door, my always-padlocked door, stood open. Diane was the only other person who had a key, because she’d insisted “in case of emergencies.”
I ran into my room and hit the light. My room had been ransacked. Diane would never do such a thing, but Jeff would. He must’ve rushed here and talked Diane into letting him into my room.
The room was such a mess it took me a few seconds to register the real disaster. My beautiful Chinese wooden inlay box lay in splinters in the middle of my bed. The precious box that Aunt June had given me because it had not one, but two secret compartments. It had taken me five minutes to figure out the clever tricks to open the compartments, and no one else who tried had been able to open it. I sank to my knees next to the bed and fingered the shattered pieces of wood. To lose this special gift from the one person in the world who’d loved me was crushing, and to lose the two thousand dollars I’d hidden inside the box was almost as unbearable.
A letter scrawled in Jeff’s handwriting lay on the bed. I snatched it up, my hand shaking with rage. The stupid, worthless jerk. How could he have done this to me? His letter began with an apology but quickly moved on to recrimination. It was all my fault for not believing how much he loved me. So he’d decided to take our destiny into his hands. I could find him and my money at his sister’s house San Francisco. He was “holding it hostage” and would give it all back as soon as I arrived.
Yeah, right. He’d give it back minus his expenses after I’d had sex with him. The rotten scum. He knew I couldn’t call the cops. I closed my eyes to think. I had my night’s pay from Eddie and a few dollars in my pocket. I could probably wangle a ride to San Francisco on a gamblers’ express bus. Then I’d find Elizabeth. After that I’d find Jeff, get what was left of my money, and even though I’d promised Aunt June I wouldn’t get into fights anymore, I was going to punch him in the nose. Twice.