The Sixth Esther Diamond novel
(DAW Books, November 2013)
Excerpt © 2013 by Laura Resnick
When we got to Max's bookstore, John Chen offered to drive me to my apartment, but I declined. I knew Max would go downstairs to his laboratory now, rather than upstairs to bed (he lived above the shop), and I was as eager as he was to find out whether the death curse from the misfortune cookie had mystical properties.
So I entered the bookstore with Max and Nelli, shed my coat, and warmed up with a quick cup of hot tea. Nelli lay down by the gas fireplace, though Max didn't ignite it for her, and promptly fell asleep.
Max pulled the death curse out of his pocket, still in its little plastic bag, and turned it over in his hands, studying the black piece of paper and its sinisterly graceful white symbol, written in Chinese calligraphy.
"I don't suppose it gives off a vibe or something?" I asked.
"Alas, nothing so self-explanatory," he said.
"So how do you plan to determine whether that thing is mystical?"
"I've been thinking about that all the way home."
"Oh! I thought you were thinking about..." I paused, not wanting to bring up Lily Yee's name again. I concluded awkwardly, "Exactly that."
He didn't seem to notice, absorbed as he was in examining the dark fortune. "I have an idea... I once dealt with a matter which had features not dissimilar to our suspicions about the misfortune cookie."
"In China?" I asked as I followed Max to the back of the bookstore.
"No, in Sicily. That strange episode was... oh, well over two hundred years ago, certainly. Goodness! Where do the years go? Nonetheless, I remember it well."
I recalled that Max once told me had been questioned by the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily, which had remained active there until the late eighteenth century. But I decided not to ask him any more questions tonight about memories he might not be keen to revisit.
We entered a little cul-de-sac at the back of the shop where there was a utility closet, a powder room, and a door marked PRIVATE. The door opened onto a narrow, creaky stairway that led down to the cellar.
At the top of the stairs, there was a burning torch stuck in a sconce on the wall. It emitted no smoke or heat, only light; it had been burning steadily ever since I had met Max, fueled by mystical power.
I descended the steep, narrow steps behind him as he said, "The situation in Sicily involved miniature replicas of body parts rather than a written fortune—"
"Ugh! That sounds gruesome."
"Well, not necessarily. As with fortune cookies—which did not originate in China, by the way, though they have become a part of Chinese cuisine throughout America, whether the meal is humble or grand... But I digress."
Now that he was focused on work, he was obviously feeling much more like his usual self. Whatever memories of Li Xiuying haunted him, they had retreated, and he was chatting with engaged enthusiasm as he reached the final step and entered his laboratory.
"Miniature replicas of body parts are normally part of a positive ritual in Sicily. And unlike fortune cookies, whose origin was probably in twentieth-century California, the custom is very ancient."
"What custom?" I asked.
"Sicilians leave these miniature replicas at the shrines of their favorite saints to entreat their blessings for health and their help with healing."
"Ah-hah!" I said triumphantly, recognizing the nature of this custom. "Sympathetic magic."
"Precisely." Max sat down at his workbench and gestured for me to take a seat on nearby stool. "But during a dark episode in the eighteenth century, an evil adversary started using such effigies to curse his enemies with ill health and injury."
"It figures," I said. "Someone always has to spoil a good thing."
Like fortune cookies, for example. What evildoer, I wondered, whether mystical or mundane, had taken something so innocent, tasty, and fun, and decided to turn it into a menacing messenger of death?
Max continued, "And since these effigies of human body parts were so common in Sicily, it was essential to devise a means to determine whether any given replica was harmless or cursed."
I looked around the laboratory and guessed, "So you're going to use that method to analyze Benny's fortune?"
"That is what I propose," he said. "I have my notes from those days, and they contain the formula I used. I know it's here somewhere..."
He rummaged around for a few minutes in the bookcase near his workbench, muttering to himself. After he found what he was looking for, he began gathering ingredients for his recipe from 200-plus years ago.
Max's laboratory was cavernous, windowless, and shadowy. The thick stone walls were haphazardly covered with charts, plans, drawings, maps, lists, and notes, some of which were very old, and some of which had been added since my last visit down here. Bottles of powders, vials of potions, and bundles of dried plants jostled for space on cluttered shelves. Jars of herbs, spices, minerals, amulets, and neatly sorted varieties of claws and teeth sat on densely packed shelves and in dusty cabinets. There were antique weapons, some urns and boxes and vases, a scattering of old bones, and a Tibetan prayer bowl. And the enormous bookcase near where Max was sitting was packed to overflowing with many leather-bound volumes, as well as unbound manuscripts, scrolls, and modern notebooks.
I was always afraid to touch anything in here, so I sat with my hands folded, just watching Max work.
I had forgotten that fortune cookies were not actually Chinese in origin, but I now recalled my father telling us something of the sort many years ago, over one of our regular family meals of Chinese food. There seemed to be several stories about who had invented this combination of cookie and after-dinner entertainment; but regardless of which version was correct, few people disputed that fortune cookies had originated in America, as Max had asserted. According to my father's account, fortune cookies were virtually unknown in China, despite their long association with Chinese food in the US.
This led me to a fresh thought. "Max, since fortune cookies aren't originally Chinese, do you think Benny's cookie might have been created by someone who's not Chinese?"
He was peering into a small black cauldron that was full of newly measured and mixed ingredients, which he was simmering over a Bunsen burner on his workbench.
"It's possible," he said absently, and I realized this theory had already occurred to him. "I am not inclined to think so, since the fortune cookie has been closely associated with the Chinese in America since before Mr. Yee's birth. But one should nonetheless keep an open mind about—Ah! It's boiling."
He reached for a jar with some golden-yellow powder in it, carefully measured a small scoop of the stuff, then tossed it into the boiling brew. A few moments later, the mixture emitted a deep vocal moan, so human-sounding that I hopped off my stool and gaped in alarm, ready to bolt.
"I'm sorry, Esther. I should have warned you," Max said, noticing my anxiety. "Don't worry. This is perfectly normal."
"I wouldn't say that," I muttered, climbing back onto my stool. As a cloud of yellow smoke wafted through the room, I gagged. "Blegh! What is that stench?"
"It's the sign that the potion is ready." Max turned off the flame beneath the cauldron. Then he pulled Benny's fortune out of his pocket and unsealed the plastic bag. Using a pair of tweezers, he extracted the black piece of paper and then held it over the smoking, stinking cauldron. "This is the part of the experiment I'm a little concerned about."
"The replicas I tested in Sicily were always made of solid materials, not paper."
"Oh! You're afraid that..."
"If this process doesn't work, I may damage the fortune so much by immersing it in liquid that I will be unable to perform further experiments on it."
"Hmm. I see your point, but I'm afraid I don't have any alternative suggestions, Max."
"Nor do I. So here we go." He took a steadying breath, then dropped the fortune into the small cauldron.
There was a long moment of silence. Max's face fell, and I feared the experiment had been a failure.
"Now what?" I asked. "Can we—Whoa!"
The pot suddenly shuddered with life and shrieked with such ear-splitting horror that I fell off my stool in surprise.
I could tell from Max's pleased reaction that this was the result he'd been looking for. As the cauldron continued screaming and shaking, he said to me, shouting to be heard above the din, "We have our answer! It was a mystical curse!"
"Yeah, I think I got that!" I shouted back, standing well away from the workbench and not inclined to come any closer.
A moment later, the pot went still and the room went silent.
"Oh, thank God that's stopped." I put a shaking a hand over my pounding heart.
"What a satisfyingly clear result!" Max said. "Sometimes I'm not always so sure."
"Yes, I'd say that was unmistakably..." I took another step back as a throaty growling emerged from the cauldron. "What's happening now?"
"I'm not sure." Max leaned over the pot to peer into it—then flinched and fell off his stool, too, when its contents exploded in a fiery burst of pure white flames.
White, the color of death.
High-pitched maniacal laughter emerged from the little cauldron now, rising with the flames.
At the top of the stairs, I heard Nelli start barking hysterically. I didn't know if she was summoning us for help, trying to warn us about what was down here with us, or just panicking.
As the sinister laughter got louder and the white flames grew fatter and higher, I was backing away from this frightening phenomenon, stumbling clumsily in the direction of the stairs.
"Max, let's get out of here!" When he didn't respond, just kept staring intently at the flames, I said, "Max!"
"Yes," he said, taking a few steps in my direction as the high-pitched laughter turned to a deep-throated, gravelly roar. "Yes, perhaps we should..." He paused again. "Wait, there's something..."
"Max!" I shouted insistently. "Come on!"
Nelli's barking got more ferocious, and then I heard her thudding footsteps as she thundered down the stairs toward us, evidently having decided to give her life to protect us from whatever this thing was that we had summoned.
As she reached the bottom steps, Max shouted, "Nelli, no! Esther, stop her!"
Obeying him blindly, I grabbed Nelli's collar as she rushed past me, intent on attacking... the cauldron, I supposed. I threw my whole body weight in the reverse direction, trying to halt her. But Nelli outweighed me, as well as being more muscular than I, so this only had the effect of making her stumble sideways—which, in turn, offset my balance. I fell down on the concrete floor, banging my knees and elbows painfully, while Nelli lunged at the table, barking aggressively, her fangs bared.
"Stay back, Nelli!" Max commanded. "Look!"
Dazed, terrified, and in pain, I lay sprawled on the cellar floor as I looked up to see... a black piece of paper float up out of the cauldron, rising to the top of the wildly undulating white flames. As the walls of the laboratory reverberated with the throaty, menacing laughter coming from the pot, which was by now at deafening volume, the piece of paper—which I recognized as Benny's death curse—exploded into flames and went up in smoke.
A second later, the ear-splitting, growling laughter ceased and the white flames vanished, disappearing into the cauldron, which now sat still and silent on the table, just an ordinary little black pot again.
Nelli stopped barking and, for a merciful moment, the room was quiet, except for everyone's frantic breathing. Then our favorite familiar started whining loudly. I didn't blame her.
I sat up slowly, my chest heaving, my heart thudding. Still whining, Nelli skittered over to me and tried to crawl into my lap. I clung to her, scarcely noticing the discomfort of having a dog the size of a small car sitting on top of me and panting anxiously into my face. As I watched, Max tentatively approached his workbench, gingerly poked the inert cauldron, then leaned over to peer into its contents.
Apparently satisfied that the danger was over, he breathed a little sigh of relief. Then he met my eyes and said with certainty, "Mystical."
I nodded. "Evil."
Copyright © 2005 & 2012 by Laura Resnick
Detective Lopez looked like he'd had a rough night on the tiles. I had a feeling I looked worse. In any event, there was no doubt that I looked ridiculous. Virtue's flowing yellow and gold robes, elaborate headdress, and sparkling makeup looked distinctly out of place in the squad room. If we had been anywhere other than New York City, I would be attracting attention. As it was, Lopez stared at me as if he dearly hoped I was a figment of his imagination.
"Someone left this clipping at the theater last night," I said, handing him the envelope. "I think it must have been the same person."
"The man wearing a duster who thinks Evil is among us?"
Surprised he remembered yesterday's conversation so well, I blinked. Glitter fell from my lashes to my cheeks. I brushed it away. "Yes."
"I don't think your hair goes with that outfit," he said, studying me with bloodshot eyes.
"Just read it," I snapped.
"No, I mean, I like your hair," he said. "I just don't think ... Um, never mind. Sorry. Late-night bust. I'm a little ..." Lopez shook himself, then opened the envelope, took out the enclosed clipping and read aloud, "'Woman Vanishes Into Thin Air.'" He gave me an enigmatic glance and continued. "'The Great Hidalgo's Marvelous Carnival of Magic and Illusion brought Catherine Harrington Lowell's eighth birthday party to a crashing halt in her parents' Upper East Side home two days ago. Having caused his beautiful assistant to disappear, the Great Hidalgo was unsuccessful in any of his attempts to make the woman materialize again.'" He stared at me. "Oh, Christ. You can't be serious."
"Come on, detective. Don't you find this too improbable for coincidence? Two women disappear during vanishing acts, and now I'm being warned not to do the vanishing trick? Don't you think something strange is going on?"
He was rubbing his forehead again. "I think it's a hell of a tabloid story."
"They don't mention Golly. No one knows about that yet."
He closed his eyes. "Are you actually suggesting—"
"Don't you think we should talk to this Hidalgo guy?"
His eyes snapped open. "We?"
"Yes. After all, I'm the one at risk here, and y—"
"So don't do the trick, Esther."
"It's my job!"
He shook his head. "This is crazy. This is really ..." He paused, took a long breath, and seemed to count silently to ten or perhaps recite the Serenity Prayer. Then he said, "Look, if you're really worried about vanishing into thin air, shouldn't you be talking to Herlihy? He's the one who made Golly Gee disappear, after all."
"That's exactly what he thinks."
"Is it really?"
"He's irrational on the subject. I don't dare tell him about this."
"But you felt obliged to tell me," Lopez said wearily.
"You're the investigating officer."
"You called me Esther a minute ago," I said inanely.
"And I'm already regretting the impulse," he replied. "Look, aside from the fact that I am an extremely busy, overworked, underpaid—"
"But this is what you're underpaid to do!"
"There still isn't anything for an investigating officer to investigate."
"Show me a corpse." He made a sharp gesture of exasperation. "Show me evidence of blackmail, extortion, kidnapping. Show me a woman who was acting strangely—"
"Golly always acted strangely."
"I mean, a woman who had changed her habits lately," he said, "who seemed to be afraid of something. Give me one witness who saw a stranger backstage. Show me signs of a struggle. I'm a dedicated cop, Esther. Make me believe a crime has been committed and I'll be johnny-on-the-spot."
I indicated the newspaper clipping. "But what about—"
"No. Don't." He shook his head and put his hand over mine. "Don't show me cryptic notes from a prankster or tell me that women are vanishing into thin air as part of some mysterious scheme perpetrated by the forces of Evil."
I looked down at his hand covering mine. He did, too, for a moment, then he took a quick breath and drew away.
I gave myself a mental shake and said, "But how do you explain—"
"How do you explain it? Tell me what you believe."
It was a little hard to admit fears to him that I wasn't even admitting to myself. "Um ..."
"Esther, come on. The night I questioned you at the theater, you seemed like the most sensible person there."
"You remember me?"
His expression changed again. "I remember who had the tightest costume."
"That's not nice."
He grinned. "On the contrary, I thought it was very nice."
"You're not supposed to talk to me this way," I said. "You're the investigating officer."
"Good point." He banished his smile, and I was sorry. "Please just tell me you don't really believe you'll blink out of existence if you do the vanishing trick."
"No. Of course not," I said. "That would be silly. No."
He folded his arms. "Well, then?"
I felt kind of deflated. In the cold fluorescent light of the squad room, full of telephones, cops, coffee cups, and criminals, I also felt pretty foolish. "So I, uh ... I guess I shouldn't bother you if I receive any more of these—"
"Oh, no. Please stop by." He grinned at me again. "These encounters are becoming the highlight of my dreary days."
I sighed and rose from my chair. "I'm late for rehearsal. I should go."
"Esther." His voice stopped me as I turned to leave. "I'm serious. Let me know if you get any more warnings."
I met his gaze. "I will. But you don't think there's anything to worry about?"
"I don't. And I don't want you to worry." When I didn't respond, he prodded, "Okay?"
I wasn't as sure as he was, so I just repeated, "I'm late for rehearsal." And I left.
The music cued me in to the final scene, the one where the Sorcerer tries to make Virtue vanish forever. Forever and ever and ever ... Where was Golly?
I pushed the thought out of my mind. Lopez was right. And I wasn't going to let a couple of silly notes and a mysterious disappearance destroy the show and hurt my career.
Besides, I'd done the vanishing trick many times during previous rehearsals. I knew exactly how it worked. There was nothing to be afraid of. Absolutely nothing.
Joe gave his speech, stumbling over his lines. His hands were shaking as he grabbed me and dragged me toward the crystal cage. His palms were so slick with sweat that he lost his grip on my arm and I went crashing to my knees, missing my song cue.
The director stopped the scene. We went back to the beginning of Joe's speech. The next attempt was worse than the one before. He grabbed my arm again, and this time he hauled me off in the wrong direction. We went back and tried it again. Joe's face was dripping with sweat.
Christ, he was more terrified than I was. He believed it. He really did. When he dragged me toward the cage this time, my resistance was real. How had Magnus defined an illusion? The shadow of the world as it might be, if you only believed. Now on the brink of following in Golly's wake, I suddenly believed with a vengeance. I believed so hard that my stomach churned and my eyes watered. I was shaking like a leaf as I sang a few lines begging the Sorcerer not to send me into oblivion.
Joe's fear-glazed eyes looked half mad. He opened the glass door and ordered me inside. I stared at the gaping void and realized I didn't want to find out what had happened to Golly Gee. I never, ever wanted to know.
"No!" I screamed. I jumped away from the cage and threw my golden handcuffs onto the stage. "No, no, no!"
"What's she doing?"
"What's going on?"
"Oh, God!" Joe cried.
The music stopped as chaos erupted onstage. Joe and I both kept screaming. The chorus ran around wildly. The Prince came onstage waving his sword. The director started shouting.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Matilda screamed right into my face.
I turned around and raced straight for the bathroom. I was panting like a long-distance runner by the time I reached it. Matilda was hot on my heels. I tried to close the door on her, but the scrawny little witch was a lot stronger than she looked.
Nausea overcame me a moment later, and I abandoned the struggle in favor of reaching the toilet in time. She was something, that woman. She never lost a beat, not even as I knelt down and retched pathetically again and again.
"And if there is a repetition of that appalling scene," Matilda shrieked, "you can forget about working in this show, or even in this town ever again! Do I make myself clear? Don't think it's too late for us to rehearse someone else into this role!"
"It is too late," I mumbled, my voice echoing in the cubicle. "If you want to reopen tonight, it's too late."
"And another thing!" she cried.
I winced. Those were my mother's favorite words.
Matilda plowed on. "If you upset Joe like this again—"
"Me?" I blurted. "He was the one who—"
"He has a very sensitive, artistic nature, and this ridiculous stunt that Golly pulled has ruined his nerves. He has given everything to this show, Esther."
"Uh-huh." I flushed the toilet and rose wearily.
"He has sacrificed his own career opportunities as a solo act for the good of the show."
"Oh, come on." I threw her an openly skeptical look before lurching toward the sink.
"He's acquired all-new equipment, studied new techniques, worked with a coach, developed new standards, trained day and night, refined his abilities. And in return, you completely disrupt a dress rehearsal and throw a hysterical fit at the climax of the play!"
"He was the one who wouldn't perform, wouldn't even rehearse after Golly—"
"Don't mention her name!" Matilda screamed. "I never want to hear her name again!"
I splashed cold water on my face and rinsed out my mouth. Feeling a little more rational, I said, "I'm sorry about what happened today. If I told you why I got so scared ... well, it would only make things worse, especially for Joe."
She glared at me. "I need to know what you intend to do about tonight."
"I intend to go on," I said with determination.
"Fine. Can we try that last scene again, then?"
"Why the hell not?"
"There's something I have to do before tonight."
"What? In God's name, what?"
I looked at my dripping image in the mirror. "I have to talk to the Great Hidalgo."