WARLOCK| “You’re going to die.” I tell her this not to be cruel, but out of compassion. It’s the uncertainty of things that tears our souls apart. She still thinks this is a dream, but her eyes are focused now. My words are working their way through her broken mind.
She was a pathetic sight in the rain. Standing by the dumpster in back of the diner with her torn jeans and smeared makeup, hoping for enough money to get a fix from one of these backwoods dealers and their crude concoctions.
When she got into my truck she had to know that in at least one reality something like this would play out. Well, not quite like this…
The glow from the dashboard casts an orange pallor on her cheeks. She resembles a jack-o’-lantern made from the last pumpkin in the patch. Puffy, bruised, sad and, most of all, unwanted.
I’ve given her purpose. I’ve given her a role to play. What happens next will be a secret for only me to know. But her part will echo through eternity.
The gnawing at of the soul by those tiny cat teeth of doubt will be soothed. This experiment will tell me things I assume, but need to be certain of. Physical things. Things of this nature. This world.
What does she see when she looks at me? A man. But it’s not the man that scares her. It’s the purpose of the man. A purpose can be larger than a man. Even if the man dies, the purpose can become a cause. If it holds on long enough, it will grow into a belief and then a religion.
This is how gods are made.
It starts with a purpose that others don’t understand.
A purpose that frightens.
I reach over and unbuckle her seat belt. Her limbs are paralyzed, so she can only track me with her eyes. There’s a shudder as I touch her.
She thinks I’m going to violate her. I’m going to set her free.
I push the door open and the wind rushes inside. Her auburn hair flies about like wildfire. She doesn’t look outside. She knows what’s out there.
I giver her a push.
Her small body falls out.
Her shoulder hits the wing. Her mouth opens, but no words come out. She vanishes into the darkness.
I’m left with the hum of the propellor and the wind.
I envy her.
Someday I will know it, too. But not now.
I have purpose.
- The Eternicon*
*Case 093478-89 From a .txt file found on a forensic examination of a server used to co-ordinate a DDoS attack on the Justice Department Servers.
Murder is a world away from me in the children's hospital as I watch Elsie's pink fist close around the red sponge ball and squeeze. The scars on her hand turn red from the exertion, but she's not paying attention to the pain. When she opens her hand again, two large red balls appear and almost roll off her palm. Her eyes light up and she breaks into a smile. It's a million megawatts of energy in a face half covered in waxy skin still healing from the skin grafts.
My grandfather taught me this trick. It was the first one he ever showed me. We were backstage watching my father entertain a half-full theater in some forgotten town in the midwest. I remember the glow of Grandfather's cigar in the dark wings as he muttered and shook his head. A tall man, with a 40’s leading man mustache, greyed by age and hair slicked to the side, he was always immacutely dressed in a suit and ascot, even when it was his son standing before the crowd.
"Fool doesn't know his hands from his own ass." He looked down at me, then took the red sponge balls from his jacket pocket. "Even you could do it better than that jackass."
I watched and learned. I was five.
Grandfather gave me a pat on the head when the two red balls appeared in my other hand. I gave him a toothy grin. I’d been practicing after bedtime in the dark
I got one of his rare genuine smiles. "You're clever. Too bad audiences would never take to a girl magician."
It was an off-hand comment not meant for me. He leaned back against a road case and puffed away at his cigar, swearing every time my father messed up a trick in his eyes.
To the audience, the show was going fine. But to Grandfather, every little missed subtlety, every less-than-perfect sleight of hand, was a disaster. Watching his son, his legacy, fumble through his art, was like watching someone burn down the home he spent his entire life building, room by room.
He had a penchant for the overly dramatic, but it wasn't just his legacy either. Great-Grandfather, a rival of Houdini, really made the name for the family. And in Grandfather’s mind, it was all coming to a crashing end.
Elsie makes the sponge balls vanish and reappear again. Her eyes wait for my approval.
"Wonderful," I tell her.
I've had to learn how to smile and hold in the tears every time I see her face. She's still too self-conscious to play around the other children at the clinic. This Saturday afternoon we have the playroom to ourselves. Our audience is a nurse doing some paperwork in the corner and a wall full of cheery Disney princesses accepting kisses from frogs and cavorting with cute animals.
Elsie had us sit in the pirate section of the playroom. A mural behind her depicts a valiant battle between lost boys and a haggard crew of buccaneers. The first time she sat me down here, I thought it was so she could look at the princess murals. After several magic lessons, I realized she's an adventurer at heart and likes being close to the action.
So much potential, ruined by the burns… I have to stop myself. I'm already pre-judging the rest of her life. I'm deciding what she can and cannot do, which is what everyone did to me. That's what Grandfather did. That's what Father did. Even Mother, God rest her soul, even she did that.
"Can I learn how to do the next part?" Small teeth bite the edge of her lip expectantly. A lock of dirty blond hair falls in front of her eyes and I have to resist an inborn motherly urge to brush it aside. The skin is still healing and sensitive. I can smell the balm the nurse rubbed on it before my visit.
"Of course, Elsie." I show her the move I used. She watches every minute detail.
I think more and more lately about what it would be like to have my own child. Apparently that happens when you’re closer to 30 than 20. I'd sworn it off when I was younger. I didn't want to put anyone else through the fractured childhood I had. I was loved, to be certain, but loved by people who didn't know how to love themselves.
I feel guilty when I see Elsie sitting there on the colored carpet, struggling with the magic trick. My dysfunctional family has nothing on hers. The scars I have are only the ones I hold on to. She has to go through life with hers visible to the world.
A little while later she's able to do the trick. Crudely, but she has the idea. She's eight but has the patience of a much older girl. She's got the drive of nobody I've ever met. I wish I could have known Elsie before her mother threw the pot of boiling water in her face. Was she this strong before that?
I was introduced to Elsie two months ago when I showed up at the children's hospital and volunteered to teach magic tricks as a form of therapy. It's something I've done since college and continued all the way through my career in law enforcement. It's probably the only part of me I haven’t tried to reinvent in some way.
I try not to think about how she ended up in the burn ward as I help her practice the magic trick. The first two lessons I'd given her had to end early so I could go cry in the bathroom. I’d felt guilty. My pity wasn't helping her.
I don't know if doing this is any more helpful than the physical therapy she's getting. What I do know, because I've seen it before, is that magic gives kids something they didn't have before, a kind of confidence. Pricked and prodded a dozen times a day, always being talked down to in an infantile voice; sick kids begin to regress and feel helpless. A magic trick, even one as simple as making a red ball vanish in one hand and reappear in another, gives them the upper hand in a small way when the interact with adults.
For a girl like Elsie, who is too afraid to look in the mirror, much less let other children look at her, magic gives her a special ability the other children don't have. Scarred, unloved, she's still magical.
"Remember to keep it a secret," I remind her. I avoid giving her the long speech my grandfather would give. He didn't ask you to keep it a secret, he commanded it. Even the smallest trick, the kind you might find on the back of a cereal box, he'd admonish you to protect, lest you met an untimely end like a handful of others who dared to reveal how our world worked.
He called it “The Secret Library.”
Elsie nods her head. I'd already explained to her the importance of the secret. The real power of a trick is its mystery. If you reveal all your mysteries, perhaps because you think it will make people like you, the power is gone and you're back to being just as normal as them. It's a power trip for sure. But I think Elsie can use whatever power trips she can get.
Her hands make the balls vanish and reappear again. "I can't wait to show Mommy."
The words are a kick to the stomach. That urge to forgive is so strong in Elsie, making the act even more evil.
I'm not supposed to know the details of how Elsie ended up here, but I can’t stop thinking like a cop whether I wear a uniform, a suit or yoga pants. When I see a hurt little girl, all kinds of instincts rise up.
Her mother is a piece of trash that moved from one drug-dealing boyfriend to another. She'd had a number of minor arrests for possession and an acquittal. She has never been convicted of dealing, although that's what she obviously does. The court system looks at her like a troubled addict and will probably reunite Elsie with her sooner or later. Her daughter’s disfigurement will be remembered as an unfortunate “accident.” No one wants to believe a mother could really do that. They'll all embrace the fiction and send Elsie back.
God help the poor girl.
What will Elsie's mother see every time she looks at that face? Will it reflect her own guilt? Will it make her want to be a better person and stay clean? I already know the answer.
Elsie whispers, "I've got a secret."
"What's that?" I ask in a hushed voice.
She leans in and whispers, "Dr. Peter was asking about you. I think he likes you."
Dr. Peter? "He's a very nice man, Elsie. I think he likes everyone." He was one of Elsie's pediatricians and I'd spoken to him once or twice. He's the rare kind of doctor who can talk to kids without talking down to them.
Elsie reaches out and grabs a lock of my black hair and squeezes the strands between her fingers. "I want to be like you when I grow up."
"An FBI agent?"
Elsie lets go of my hair and shakes her head. "A magician," she replies. My real job is of little interest to her. The dark-haired woman who can do miracles is more fascinating to her than the lady FBI agent. Sometimes she looks at one of the Disney princesses on the wall and then back at me.
My visits are magic for her. For a little girl so badly treated by reality, I can't blame her for wanting to believe magic is real.
I take her hand. "You can be anything you want when you grow up."
Her eyes light up and the tooth bites the lip. "Anything?"
"Of course," I tell her.
Her eyes widen like she's about to see another magic trick. "Can I be beautiful like you?"
My heart stops.
The nurse in the corner looks up at me. I notice for the first time that she's been crying as she watches us. From her angle, all she can see is Elsie's scarred side. Unconsciously, I've positioned myself by the unharmed part of her face.
My phone rings. It stops Elsie from seeing the look in my eye. I've promised myself that I will never let her see me cry.
I pull the phone out and check the number. The office is calling on a Saturday. A voice on the other end asks if I can make it there in thirty minutes.
I don't want to leave Elsie right now, but I have to. Not for work's sake, but for hers. I put my mind into practical matters away from my emotions. If I can’t even see past that scar, how will the rest of the world?
Getting to the office will be tight. No time to go home. I'm dressed in my casuals; sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt and a hoodie. My backpack contains my yoga clothes and some deodorant. I don't look FBI proper, but I get the feeling that this is an exceptional situation.
I can't imagine what, though. I've been spending the last four months away from the DC headquarters and in a cubicle in Quantico, doing forensic accounting and answering to a supervisor with all the charisma of a library card.
I tell the dispatcher I'll be there. He gives me the name and building to report to. I ask him to repeat the name, just to be sure.
As in Jeffrey Ailes, the Witchfinder.
He's not even an FBI agent. He's a DOJ computer scientist working with a team of geeks in a remote corner of Quantico away from DC headquarters.
This can't be good.
The last time I heard his name, it was rumored that he had been using the FBI's own profiling system to look for leaks within the agency. Invasive questionnaires had been passed around, and we all felt as if we were being insulted by some pencil pusher who'd never carried a gun.
I’d heard Ailes was an African-American professor of mathematics turned businessman who got rich designing black box computers for Wall Street before one day deciding what he really should be doing is telling us how to do our jobs. Being rich and having political connections helped him make that a reality.
God knows what he wants with me. I can only assume his computers flagged me for something. I haven't done anything wrong.
This doesn't help my anxiety. I've got things I'd rather not be brought up. Ailes is the kind of guy who would find them if he connected the dots.
I look over at Elsie and give her hand a squeeze. I'm tempted to tell the dispatcher I need another half-hour. But to be honest, I don't think I can make it another thirty seconds.
I give Elsie the sponge balls to keep. She acts as if I just asked her to take possession of the Ark of the Covenant. Before I go, she throws her arms around me to give me a hug. I look over at the nurse. Elsie has never done this before. The nurse raises an eyebrow over red eyes, then smiles.
I lean over and let her put her arms around my neck, being careful not to touch the sensitive skin.
Her tiny mouth whispers into my ear a little too loud. "I think you're my favorite person."
I know being a favorite is a fleeting thing with children, but it lifts me enough to face the Witchfinder. I can leave there with a happy smile. I'll avoid crying until I get into my car.
I don't care what Ailes' computers and his geeks think about me. I've just been told by the purest soul I've ever met that I'm the best in the world.