The Last Magician
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.
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.
After all, elemental magic might be a fairy tale, but magic itself was real enough.
Organizations like the Order of Ortus Aurea had been trying to claim magic as their own for centuries. Schwab had purchased the dagger and arranged the night’s auction in the hopes of buying his way into the Order, but since the only magic the Order possessed was artificial and corrupt ceremonial magic—pseudoscientific practices like alchemy and theurgy—they wouldn’t be able to sense what Esta could. They wouldn’t know that Mari’s stone was a fake until much later, when they were running their
experiments and trying to harness the stone’s power. Even then they would assume it was Schwab who had cheated them . . . or that Schwab couldn’t tell the difference to start with. Schwab himself would believe that the antiquities dealer who’d sold him the dagger had swindled him. No one would realize the truth—the real Pharaoh’s Heart had been taken right out from under them.
Esta made the switch, placing the counterfeit dagger into the velvet-lined box and tucking the real dagger back into the hidden pocket of her skirt. It was heavier than the one she’d been carrying all night, like the Pharaoh’s Heart had an unexpected weight and density that Mari hadn’t predicted. For a moment Esta worried that maybe Schwab would notice the difference. Then she thought of the house—his overdone attempt to display the number in his bank account—and she shook off her fears. Schwab wasn’t exactly the type to understand which details mattered.
Outside the room, something crashed as an unfamiliar voice shouted. More quickly now, Esta locked the box, careful to put it back on the shelf exactly as it had been, and closed the safe. She was securing the bookcase when she heard Logan shout—an inarticulate grunt of pain.
And then a gunshot shattered the night.
No! Esta thought as she sprinted for the door, the crack of gunfire still ringing in her ears. She needed to get to Logan. He might be a pain in the ass, but he was their pain in the ass. And it was her job to get them both out.
At the other end of the hall, Logan lay on the floor, trying to pull himself up, while Schwab attempted to wrestle the gun away from a balding blond man in a tuxedo that bulged around his thick middle. Struggling against Schwab, the blond leveled the gun at Logan again.
Esta comprehended the entire scene in an instant and immediately took a deep, steadying breath, forcing herself to ignore the chaos in front of her. She focused instead on the steady beating of her own heart.
As regular as the cylinders of a lock tumbling into place.
In the next beat, time went thick for her, like the world around her had nearly frozen: Schwab’s wobbling jowls stilled. The angry sweat dripping from the blond man’s temple seemed to be suspended in midair as it fell in excruciatingly slow motion toward the floor.
It was as though someone were advancing the entire world like a movie, frame by painstaking frame. And she was that someone.
Find the gaps between what is and isn’t, Professor Lachlan had taught her.
Because magic wasn’t in the elements. Magic lived in the spaces, in the emptiness between all things, connecting them. It waited there for those who knew how to find it, for those who had the born ability to grasp those connections—the Mageus.
For those like Esta.
She hadn’t needed magic earlier that night, not to escape the party or to pick the lock, but she needed it now, so she let herself open to its possibilities. It was almost as natural as breathing for her to find the spaces between the seconds and the beating of hearts. She rushed toward Logan, stealing time as she darted through the nearly frozen tableau.
But she couldn’t stop time completely. She couldn’t reverse the moment to stop the blond’s finger from pressing the trigger again.
She wasn’t quite to Logan when the sound of the gun shattered her concentration. She lost her hold on time, and the world slammed back into motion. For Esta, it felt like an eternity between the door of the billiards room to where she was standing, exposed, in the hallway, but for the two men, her appearance would have been instantaneous. For members of the Order, it would have been immediately recognizable as the effect of magic.
The men froze for a moment, their eyes almost comically wide. But then the blond seemed to gather his wits about him. He jerked away from Schwab, lifted the dark pistol, and took aim.