The Last Magician – Lisa Maxwell

March 1902—The Brooklyn Bridge The Magician stood at the edge of his world and took one last look at the city. The spires of churches rose like jagged teeth, and the sightless windows of tumbled buildings flashed in the rising sun. He’d loved it once. In those lawless streets, a boy could become anything—and he had. But in the end, the city had been nothing but a prison. It had borne him and made him and now it would kill him just the same. The bridge was empty so early in the morning, a lonely span reaching between two shores. Its soaring cables were lit by the soft light of dawn, and the only sounds came from the waves below and the creaking of the wooden planks beneath his feet. For a moment he let himself imagine that a crowd had started to gather. He could almost see their tense faces as they stood in the shuffling silence and waited for his latest attempt to cheat death. Raising one arm in the air, he saluted the invisible audience, and in his mind, they erupted into cheers. His forced his face into the smile he always wore onstage—the one that was little more than a lie. But then, liars do make the best magicians, and he happened to be exceptional. As he lowered his arm, the silence and emptiness of the bridge wrapped around him, and his stark reality came into focus. His life might have been built on illusions, but his death would be his greatest trick.

Because for once there would be no deception. For once it would be only the truth. His ultimate escape. He shivered at the thought. Or perhaps that shiver was simply from the icy wind cutting through the fine material of his dress jacket. A few weeks later and there wouldn’t have been any chill to the air at all. It’s better this way . Springtime was all fine and good, but the rank stink of the streets and the sweltering, airless buildings in the summer were another thing. The feeling of sweat always dripping down his back. The way the city went a little mad because of the heat. He wouldn’t miss that at all. Which was, of course, another lie. Add it to the pile. Let them sort out his truths once he was gone. He could still leave, he thought with a sudden desperation.

He could walk across the remaining span of the bridge and take his chances with the Brink. Maybe he would make it to the other side. Some did, after all. Maybe he would simply end up like his mother had. It wouldn’t be any worse than he deserved. There was a small chance he would survive, and if he did, maybe he could start over again. He had enough tricks at his disposal. He’d changed his life and his name before, and he could do it again. He could try. But he knew already that it would never work. Leaving was just a different kind of death. And the Order, not bound by the Brink as he was, would never stop hunting him. Not now, at least. Destroying the Book wouldn’t be enough. When they found him—and they would—they’d never let him go.

They’d use him and use him, until there was nothing left of who he’d once been. He’d take his chances with the water. Pulling himself up onto the railing, he had to grip the cable tightly to keep balanced against those gusting spring winds. Far off in the direction of the city, he heard the rumble of carriages, the cry of wild, angry voices signaling that the moment for indecision had passed. A single step is such a small thing. He’d taken countless steps every day without ever noticing, but this step . The noise at the mouth of the bridge grew louder, closer, and he knew the time had come. If they caught him, no amount of magic or tricks or lies would help. So before they could reach him, he released his hold on the cable, took that final step, and put himself—and the Book—in the one place the Order could never follow. The last thing he heard was the Book’s wailing defiance. Or maybe that was the sound tearing from his own throat as he gave himself over to the air. THE THIEF December 1926—Upper West Side It wasn’t magic that allowed Esta to slip out of the party unseen, the bright notes from the piano dimming as she left the ballroom. No matter the year, no one ever really looks at the help, so no one had noticed her leave. And no one had noticed the way her shapeless black dress sagged a bit on one side, the telltale sign of the knife she had concealed in her skirts. But then, people usually do miss what’s right in front of them.

Even through the heavy doors, she could still faintly hear the notes from the quartet’s ragtime melody. The ghost of the too-cheery song followed her through the entry hall, where carved woodwork and polished stone towered three stories above her. The grandeur didn’t overwhelm her, though. She was barely impressed and definitely not intimidated. Instead, she moved with confidence —its own sort of magic, she supposed. People trusted confidence, even when they shouldn’t. Maybe especially when they shouldn’t. The enormous crystal chandelier might have thrown shards of electric light around the cavernous hall, but the corners of the room and the high, coffered ceiling remained dark. Beneath the palms that stretched two stories up the walls, more shadows waited. The hall might have appeared empty, but there were too many places to hide in the mansion, too many chances someone could be watching. She kept moving. When she came to the elaborate grand staircase, she glanced up to the landing, where an enormous pipe organ stood. On the floor above, the private areas of the house held rooms filled with art, jewels, priceless vases, and countless antiques—easy pickings with everyone distracted by the loud, drunken party in the ballroom. But Esta wasn’t there for those treasures, however tempting they might have been. And they were definitely tempting.

She paused for a second, but then the clock chimed the hour, confirming that she was later than she’d meant to be. Tossing one more careful glance over her shoulder, she slipped past the staircase and into a hall that led deeper into the mansion. It was quiet there. Still. The noise of the party no longer followed her, and she finally let her shoulders sag a bit, expelling a sigh as she relaxed the muscles in her back from the ramrod-straight posture of the serving girl she’d been pretending to be. Tipping her head to one side, she started to stretch her neck, but before she could feel the welcome release, someone grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the shadows. On instinct, she twisted, holding tight to her attacker’s wrist and pulling it forward and down with all her weight, until he let out a strangled yelp, his elbow close to popping. “Dammit, Esta, it’s me,” a familiar voice hissed. It was an octave or two higher than usual, probably because of the pressure she was still exerting on his arm. With a whispered curse, she released Logan’s arm and shook him off, disgusted. “You should know better than to grab me like that.” Her heart was still pounding, so she couldn’t manage to dredge up any remorse for the way he was rubbing his arm. “What’s your deal, anyway?” “You’re late,” Logan snapped, his too-handsome face close to hers. With golden hair and the kind of blue eyes that girls who don’t know better write poems about, Logan Sullivan was a master of using his looks to his advantage. Women wanted him and men wanted to be him, but he didn’t try to charm Esta.

Not anymore. “Well, I’m here now.” “You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago. Where have you been?” he demanded. She didn’t have to answer him. It would have pissed him off more to keep her secrets, but she couldn’t suppress a satisfied grin as she held up the diamond stickpin she’d lifted from an old man in the ballroom who’d had trouble keeping his hands to himself. “Seriously?” Logan glared at Esta. “You risked the job for that?” “It was either this or punch him.” She glanced up at him to emphasize her point. “I don’t do handsy, Logan.” It hadn’t even been a decision, really, to bump into him as he moved on to grab some young maid, to pretend to clean the champagne off his coat while she slipped the pin from his silken tie. Maybe she should have walked away, but she hadn’t. She couldn’t. Logan continued to glower at her, but Esta refused to regret her choices. Regret was for people who dragged their past along with them everywhere, and Esta had never been able to afford that kind of deadweight.

Besides, who could regret a diamond? Even in the dimly lit corridor, the stone was a beauty—all fire and ice. It also looked like security to Esta, not only because of what it was worth but also for the reminder that whatever happened, she could survive. The heady rush of adrenaline from that knowledge was still jangling through her blood, and not even Logan’s irritation could dampen it. “You do whatever the job requires.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Yeah, I do,” she said, her voice low and not at all intimidated. “Always have. Always will. The Professor knows that, so I’d have thought you would have figured it out by now too.” She glared at him a second longer before taking another satisfied look at the diamond, just to irritate him. Definitely closer to four carats than she’d originally thought. “We can’t afford any unnecessary risks tonight,” he said, still all business. Still clearly believing he had some sort of authority over their situation. She shrugged off his accusation as she pocketed the diamond. “Not so much of a risk,” she told him truthfully.

“We’ll be long gone before the old goat even notices it’s missing. And you know there’s no way he saw me take it.” Her marks never did. She leveled a defiant look in his direction. Logan opened his mouth like he was going to argue, but she beat him to it. “Did you find it, or what?” Esta asked. She already knew what the answer would be—of course he’d found it. Logan could find anything. It was his whole reason for being—at least it was his whole reason for being on the Professor’s team. But Esta allowed him his triumph because she needed to get him off the topic of the diamond. They didn’t have time for one of his tantrums, and much as she hated to admit it, she had been later than they’d planned. Logan’s mouth went flat, like he was fighting the urge to continue harping about the diamond, but his ego won out—as it usually did—and he nodded. “It’s in the billiards room, like we expected.” “Lead the way,” she said with what she hoped was a sweet enough expression. She knew the floor plan of the mansion as well as he did, but she also knew from experience that it was best to let Logan feel helpful, and maybe even a little like he was in charge.

At the very least, it kept him off her ass. He hesitated for a moment longer but finally gave a jerk of his head. She followed him silently, and more than a little smugly, through the dim hall. All around them, the walls dripped with paintings of dour noblemen from some bankrupt European estate or another. Charles Schwab, the mansion’s owner, wasn’t any more royal than Esta herself, though. He’d come from a family of German immigrants, and everyone in town knew it. The house hadn’t helped—built on the wrong side of Central Park, it was an entire city block of overdecorated gilding and crystal. Its contents might have been worth a fortune, but in New York, even a fortune wasn’t enough to buy your way into the most exclusive circles. Too bad it wouldn’t last long. In a handful of years, Black Friday would hit and all the art lining those walls, along with every bit of the furnishings, would be sold off to pay Schwab’s debts. The mansion itself would sit empty until a decade later, when it would be torn down to make way for another uninspired apartment building. If the place weren’t so obviously tacky, it might have been sad. But that was still a few years off, and Esta didn’t have time to worry about the future of steel tycoons. Not when she had a job to do and less time than she’d planned. The two turned down another hallway, which ended at a heavy wooden door.

Logan listened carefully before pushing it open. For a second Esta worried he would step into the room with her. Instead, he gave her a serious nod. “I’ll keep watch.” Grateful that she wouldn’t have Logan breathing down her neck while she worked, she slipped into the scent of wood polish and cigars. A thoroughly masculine space, the billiards room wasn’t filled with the over-fussy gilding and crystal that adorned the rest of the house. Instead, tufted leather chairs were arranged in small seating groups and an enormous billiards table anchored the space like an altar. The room was stuffy from the fire in the hearth, and Esta pulled at the high neckline of her dress, weighing the risks of unbuttoning the collar or rolling up her sleeves. She needed to be comfortable when she worked, and no one was there but Logan— “Get a move on it,” he demanded. “Schwab’s going to start the auction soon, and we need to be gone by then.” Her back still to Logan, she searched the space as she forced herself to take a deep breath so she wouldn’t kill him. “Did you figure out where the safe is?” “Bookcase,” he said before closing the door and sealing her into the stifling room. The silence surrounding her was broken only by the steady ticking of a grandfather clock—tick . tick . tick —a reminder that each second passing was one closer to the moment they might be discovered.

And if they were seen— But she put that fear out of her mind and focused on what she had come to do. The wall opposite the massive fireplace was lined with shelves filled with matching leather volumes. Esta admired them as she ran her fingers lightly over the pristine spines. “Where are you?” she whispered. The titles glimmered softly in the low light, keeping their secrets as she felt along the underside of the shelves. It wasn’t long before she found what she was looking for—a small button sunk into the wood, where none of the servants would hit it accidentally and where no one but a thief would think to look. When she depressed it, a mechanism within the shelves released with a solid, satisfying click, and a quarter of the wall swung out enough for her to pull the hinged shelves forward. Exactly as she’d expected—a Herring-Hall-Marvin combination floor safe. Three-inch-thick cast steel and large enough for a man to sit comfortably inside, it was the most sophisticated vault you could buy in 1923. She’d never seen one so new before. This particular model was gleaming in hunter-green lacquer with Schwab’s name emblazoned in an ornate script on the surface. A beautiful vault for the things a very rich man held most dear. Luckily, Esta had been able to crack more challenging locks when she was eight. Her fingers flexed in anticipation. All night she’d felt outside of herself—the stiff dress she was wearing, the way she had to cast her eyes to the floor when spoken to, it was like playing a role she wasn’t suited for.

But standing before the safe, she finally felt comfortable in her own skin again. Pressing her ear against the door, she started to rotate the dial. One click . two . the sound of metal rubbing against metal in the inner cylinders as she listened for the lock’s heartbeat. The seconds ticked by with fatal certainty, but the longer she worked, the more relaxed she felt. She could read a lock better than she could read a person. Locks didn’t change on a whim or because of the weather, and there wasn’t a lock yet made that could hide its secrets from her. In a matter of minutes, she had three of the four numbers. She turned the dial again, on her way to the fourth— “Esta?” Logan hissed, disrupting her concentration. “Are you finished yet?” The last number lost, she glared over her shoulder at him. “I might be if you’d leave me alone.” “Hurry up,” he snapped, and then ducked back into the hall, closing the door behind him. “Hurry up,” she muttered, mimicking his imperious tone as she leaned in again to listen. Like the art of safecracking could be rushed.

Like Logan had any idea how to do it himself. When the final cylinder clicked into place, she felt an echoing satisfaction. Now to try the combinations. Only a minute more and the contents would be open to her. A minute after that and she and Logan would be gone. And Schwab would never know. “Esta?” She cursed. “Now what?” She didn’t look at Logan this time, keeping her focus on the second, incorrect, combination. “Someone’s coming.” He glanced behind him. “I’m going to distract them.” She turned to him then, saw the anxiety tightening his features. “Logan—” But he was already gone. She thought about helping him, but dismissed that idea and instead turned back to the safe. Logan could take care of himself.

Logan would take care of both of them, because that was what they did. That was how they worked. She needed to do her job and leave him to his. Two more incorrect combinations, and the heat of the room was creeping against her skin, the scent of tobacco and wood smoke burning her throat. She wiped her forehead with the back of her sleeve and tried to ignore the way her dress felt as though it would strangle her. She tried again, dismissing the trickle of sweat easing its way down her back beneath the layers of fabric. Eight. Twenty-one. Thirteen. Twenty-five. She gave the handle a tug, and to her relief, the heavy door of the safe opened. Outside the room, she heard the low rumble of male voices, but she was too busy scanning the vault’s contents to pay much attention. The various shelves and compartments were packed with canvas envelopes filled with stock certificates and bonds, file folders stuffed with papers, stacks of neatly bound, oversize bills. She eyed the money, disappointed that she couldn’t take even a dollar of the odd-looking money. For their plan to work, Schwab couldn’t know that anyone had been there.

She found what she was looking for on a lower shelf. “Hello, beautiful,” she crooned, reaching for the long black box. She barely had it in her hands when the voices erupted in the hallway. “This is an outrage! I could ruin you with a single telegram,” Logan bellowed, his voice carrying through the heavy door. “When I tell my uncle—no, my grandfather—how abysmally I’ve been treated here,” he continued, “you won’t get another contract on this side of the Mississippi. Possibly not on the other, either. No one of any account will speak to you after I—” It must be Schwab, Esta thought, pulling a pin from her hair and starting to work on the locked box. Schwab had been trying to make his mark on the city for years. The house was one part of that, but the contents of the box were an even more important part. And it was the contents of the box that Esta needed. “Be reasonable, Jack.” Another voice—probably Schwab’s. “I’m sure this is a simple misunderstanding—” Panic inched along her skin as her mind caught up with the man’s words. Jack? So Schwab wasn’t the only one out there. However good Logan might be, it was never optimal to be outnumbered.

In and out fast, with minimal contact. That was the rule that kept them alive. She wiggled the hairpin in the lock for a few seconds, until she felt the latch give way and the box popped open. “Get your filthy hands off me!” Logan shouted, loud enough for Esta to hear. It was a sign that things were escalating too quickly for him to contain. She set the box back on a shelf so she could lift her skirts and remove the knife hidden there. Even with the scuffle in the hall, Esta felt a flash of admiration for Mari’s handiwork as she compared the knife from her skirts to the jewel-encrusted dagger lying in the black velvet of the box. Her friend had done it again—not that she was surprised. Mariana Cestero could replicate anything—any material from any time period, including Logan’s engraved invitation for the party that night and the six-inch dagger Esta had been carrying in the folds of her skirt. The only thing Mari couldn’t completely replicate was the stone in the dagger’s hilt, the Pharaoh’s Heart, because the stone was more than it appeared to be. An uncut garnet rumored to be taken from one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the stone was believed to contain the power of fire, the most difficult of all elements to manipulate. Fire, water, earth, sky, and spirit, the five elements that the Order of Ortus Aurea was obsessed with understanding and using to build its power. They were wrong, of course. Elemental magic wasn’t anything but a fairy tale created by those without magic—the Sundren—to explain things they didn’t understand. But misunderstanding magic didn’t make the Order any less dangerous.

Just because the stone didn’t control fire didn’t mean there wasn’t something special about the Pharaoh’s Heart. Professor Lachlan wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. Even in the soft light thrown by the fire, the garnet was polished so smoothly it almost glowed. Without trying, Esta could feel the pull of the stone, sensed herself drawn to it, not like she’d been drawn to the diamond stickpin, but on a deeper, more innate level.


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Updated: 20 July 2021 — 04:05

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