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Pain and Pain Pills: My Story
I’ve been putting off posting this story for eighteen months. Why? I haven’t felt ready to tell it. I feel ready now. Sort of. I’ve been putting off posting this story for the last week. I’ve got good excuses: wrapping up end of the year business, initiating start of the year business.
So here goes.
From the moment I woke up in the Recovery Room of a Big Urban Hospital in July 2018, I was all fired up on writing a memoir tentatively titled, “Sticks & Stones Will Break My Bones.” Lying on a gurney, my head swirling with the powerful aftermath of the general anesthetic, I got the title, a book outline, chapter titles, topics I needed to research (and have since researched for the most part), and a statement I wanted to make about the facts of the Attack, facts from the official police report and, later, the preliminary hearing. I wanted to make a statement about where we, as an American society founded on the principles of free debate and free speech, stand today.
The project sprang whole into my head. I was so fired up, I wanted to write complete a draft in a month. Typical me—always asking impossible things of myself. When I got home from the Big Urban Hospital in three days (that’s another story in the memoir), I asked my husband to set up my laptop on my bed. Which he did. In the few waking hours I had at that time, I sketched out the memoir as I’d envisioned it. When I was able to get up out of bed and sit on my Internet chair, I downloaded much of the research, plus bought books relevant to the topics I wanted to cover.
Now it’s eighteen months later and various factors have cooled my ardor to write the memoir, including people’s attitudes and interactions on Facebook. I’ve copied those interactions off the Internet for future illustrative use (with the names changed, the exact words edited). These attitudes and interactions constitute proof positive of the statement I wanted to make.
The facts are the facts.
But the virulence of these attitudes and interactions, the times we’re living in, have considerably slowed my pace. It may be that writing the memoir has depressed me. It may be that not being able to walk, to move the way I used to, has depressed me. What me, depressed? In any case, I’ve got several new stories to write and publish, and several new novels to finish up several of my series which are presently incomplete. I can’t afford to be depressed.
So now is the time to go back to the beginning and tell the story of my pain and the pain killers while those memories are still kicking around in my brain. My story is relevant today because, of the many crises in this country, my story has to do with the opioid crisis. National Geographic Magazine ran an article in January 2020 issue, “A World of Pain” by Yudhijit Bhattachartee with the subtitle, “Scientists are unraveling the mysteries of pain and exploring new ways to treat it.”
So here goes: To catch you up, if you haven’t been following my story.
On July 11, 2018, a sunny afternoon with the dog walkers, moms with strollers, bicyclists, and joggers everywhere, a man burst out of the flowering bushes at East 12th Street and Lake Merritt Boulevard and confronted me as I was power-walking on the sidewalk.
He tried to beat me up, I fended him off, then he shoved me into the street in front of two lanes of oncoming traffic. I shuffled my feet to avoid crashing into the cars, but the impact of his shove made me lose my balance, and I fell hard on street curb, fracturing my right hip in three places and breaking my thigh.
The police apprehended the Attacker, I identified him, then I was taken by an ambulance to a Big Urban Hospital, where I underwent three hours’ of surgery under general anesthetic. (There’s much more to it, but that’s another story.)
I was anxious to get out of the Big Urban Hospital as soon as possible. I was aware of the deadly hospital infection which plagues all hospitals regardless of their best efforts. Three months before, a former editor of mine and a renowned writer in Philadelphia had gone into a hospital for a minor procedure and died, shockingly, unexpectedly, in two days’ time of a massive infection.
On the third day after the surgery, I was running a fever of 102 degrees. I refused more fluids by IV, demanded to be released. The surgeon discharged me, and I was sent home with a walker and a big brown paper bag of pills.
Before I left, a nurse sat me down on the side of the bed and went over the single-spaced one-page printout with me, detailing instructions about taking the pills and what they were for. Most of the pills seemed ridiculous to me and not on point with what was ailing me. When I got home, I threw them all away except one.
This was the bottle of sixty hydrocodone pills, to be taken every four hours for pain. The printout had the same instructions as the label on the bottle, and as the nurse had lectured me.
For the rest of the story about my experience with pain pills, join me on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more!
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

TaoCoverSmall

I.
Dragon
Sing Lin skips down Fish Alley, seeking fresh shrimp for Master’s supper.
She swings her wicker shopping basket with a frivolous hand, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. The city air is ripe with the odors of raw sea creatures and sandalwood incense, of the mouthwatering scent of peanut oil smoking in someone’s hot wok.
A mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu, not on most days. Certainly not on a day as fresh and crisp as this, with sunlight sparkling high above and a cool west wind from the sea. A day which Cook would have gladly savored for himself.
A lucky day.
But Cook has injured himself. His ankle has swollen up like a bundle of newspapers left out in a night rain. Cook took a wrong step into a pothole on Jasmine Avenue, and now he cannot step at all.
Cook had seized her skinny arm as Sing Lin had knelt over the wash basin, scrubbing the sheets for Master’s bed. He flung her to her feet and said, “Here, you lazy girl, go get two pounds shrimp for Master’s supper, and make quick.”
“Yes, Cook,” she murmured.
Sing Lin had washed her hands and face, and retied her queue, and smoothed the wrinkles from her black cotton sahm. And she set out with Cook’s coins and her wicker shopping basket, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. Shrimp is double good luck because, first, here she is, out of the house in such a long time. And because, second, Master will let Cook give her one spicy fried shrimp with her usual supper of boiled rice and greens. “You the shrimp girl, anyway,” Cook joked in his dour way. “Master bought you for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp.”
Two more skips and a hop and a jump, and Sing Lin finds herself among the peddlers of Fish Alley. They are, one and all, clad in blue-denim sahms. Yet all are not alike in the throng of blue tunics and trousers, a truth that even Sing Lin’s eyes can discern. The ones wearing jaunty felt fedoras have taken to the new ways of the city. The ones in embroidered satin caps have not. And the ones who cannot escape their lot in life no matter where they flee to wear the flat straw cone of peasantry. They are, one and all, men. There is not a woman in sight, unless Sing Lin peeks at her own reflection in a shop window, and even she’s not a woman, not yet.
Master employs many men just like the fish peddlers in his drayage business along the waterfront. Once she overheard him talking to Cook. They are not, of course, human beings, Master had said. They are oxen to be led by a ring through the nose. Later, lying on her straw pallet in the pantry, Sing Lin had wondered for a long time what Master must think of her.
Now she glimpses the longing and the bitterness in the fish peddlers’ eyes and something else, something strange and disturbing. Anxiety casts a shadow on her happiness, and she is only too aware she does not belong here. After all, a mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu. It’s not a proper thing. Not on any day.
Fish Alley is not really much of an alley, and certainly not at all an actual street on which horses and wagons travel as they do on other city streets. It is only a mean, narrow passage permitting pedestrian traffic from east to west and back again. Ancient shacks line its gutters, tenements abandoned long ago by fortune-seekers, their claims staked out now by landlords and merchants like Master. Within these shacks dwell the peddlers and the draymen of Tangrenbu, men tripled up to a room, drifting in and out of the city with the fickle tides of bust or boom.
The clapboard walls are covered over with bulletins, strips of red rice paper announcing the news near and far in bold, black slashes of calligraphy. Sing Lin spies a t’ai chi adorning a lintel, a little circle comprised of two teardrops, one red, one black, with a spot of each color in the opposite drop. The t’ai chi is triple good luck, that’s what Cook says. First, for the red, which is yang, thus fiery and excitable, and, second, for the black, which is yin, thus cool and restful. And third for the spots, which rouse restfulness into excitement, and calm excitement into rest.
Oh! A t’ai chi!
Sing Lin is positively glowing with good luck.
She strolls among straw baskets bulging with the sea’s bounty. There are speckled black oysters tossed on handfuls of dank seaweed. Mottled green crabs with their slow, pinching claws. And shrimp, of course, translucent blue and sooty like ill-made glass before they spill into the wok and cook up clean and deliciously pink. She pauses before a basket of salmon, lovely lithe creatures paved in silvery scales. Some of the fish are still flopping. The air is tainted with their brackishness and the smell of their blood. Sing Lin’s heart catches at the sight of the salmon struggling in their death throes.
“Hey, you little girl. Why such a sad face?”
Sing Lin turns, startled. A girl? A girl! Another girl! Whoever sees a girl in Tangrenbu? Yet it’s true, another girl stands beside her. In a black cotton sahm just like hers, a wicker shopping basket slung over her arm, ‘her queue wound around her head in an ebony crown. She is taller than Sing Lin by a handspan and very skinny. Her face is as round as the moon, her eyes almond-shaped slivers of mischief, her skin as flawless as a piece of polished ivory. Her laughing mouth quirks to the left as if she would tell you things you didn’t especially want to hear, but she’ll insist on telling you anyway. Around her neck she’s strung a black silk cord which holds, on the end of it, a tiny t’ai chi. Little shadows pool beneath the high bones of her flat cheeks.
The fish peddlers stare at her—Sing Lin can’t help but notice–as if she is a two-headed, five-legged pig.
“Well? I’m waiting for your answer,” she says. Ah. A little empress she is.
“I’m. . . .I’m sorry the pretty fishes must die.”
The girl mimics weeping and a face full of sorrow, then grins. “Your heart is too soft, little girl. Salmon is delicious! It will put some meat on those matchsticks you call your arms and legs.” She widens her eyes and drops her mouth, the very picture of scandalized disbelief. “Don’t tell me your master is so cruel he never lets a little girl like you ever taste salmon.”
Sing Lin stares down, ashamed. Her big bony toes bulge out of her straw sandals. Peasant toes. She is not someone who tastes salmon, but then–she lifts her chin–she doesn’t want to admit that to this bossy girl. “Sometimes Master gives me spicy fried shrimp with my rice and greens.”
“You mean one little shrimp, don’t you?” At Sing Lin’s abashed nod, the girl throws back her head and laughs, a sound like the tinkling of a silver bell.
The fish peddlers murmur. Sing Lin is only too aware of their eyes. “Don’t laugh like that,” she mutters. “They’re all looking.”
“Ho! Let them look. Come over here into the shade with me, if you’re so worried.”
The girl takes her arm and draws her into the shadows beneath a balcony. The balcony has a great curved railing painted the rich velvety yellow of an egg yolk. “I am Kwai Yin.”
“I am Sing Lin.”
“You are mooie jai?”
“Yes.”
“Me, too.”
The language they once spoke in the old country is as vast as the ancient land from which it had sprung. There are so many dialects that Sing Lin, a girl from the north, would have trouble understanding Kwai Yin, a girl from the south, if they spoke in their mother tongues. So they twist their tongues around another language altogether. The pigeon language of the new country. Of Tangrenbu.
“Where’s your master’s cook, anyway?” Kwai Yin says, looking her up and down. “What’s a girl like you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”
“Cook stepped into a pothole. Now he can’t take a step!” Sing Lin suppresses a giggle, nervous and not a little awed. This bossy girl, a mooie jai, too? And her master lets her taste salmon? What else does her master let her do? “What’re you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”
“Shopping, of course.” As if such a pastime for a mooie jai is nothing.
Which it is not. Not in Tangrenbu.
Sing Lin is bursting with questions, but her throat clenches. The balcony may shield them from the sun and from the fish peddlers’ eyes, but affords no relief from the stink of a bin filled with offal. She spies fish heads and fish fins and husked shrimp shells, the flat little mitt of a manta that wandered into some fisherman’s net. Sing Lin wrinkles her nose, presses fingers to her throat. “Oh, let’s go someplace else!”
But Kwai Yin peers into the bin, avid with curiosity. “Wait, wait. Look there!”
And there, next to the manta, lies another dead little creature, speckled gray, serpentine like an eel. But it is not an eel. It has four fragile legs, each tipped with a foot, and stubby toes, and claws as thick as darning needles. In the way that a sea horse resembles a horse, the tiny head resembles that of an ox. There are bovine ears and round eyes, a broad snout with flaring nostrils. The jaws hang slack, baring fangs that would have given your finger a nasty bite.
“Poor thing,” Sing Lin murmurs. “What is it?”
“Your heart is way too soft,” Kwai Yin says. “That is lung.”
“What is lung?”
“It’s a dragon. Did you ever see such a lousy little dragon?”
“A dragon! That’s a dragon?”
“I know, it was so tiny and weak. Thrown away with the fish heads. The sea must be awfully full of poisons these days.”
Sing Lin eyes the creature. “But there’s no such thing as a dragon. Not really.”
Kwai Yin whips around, her eyes flashing. “Then what is that, I ask you? It is lung, the dragon, I’m telling you, one of the four Fabulous Creatures. Usually he’s bigger and stronger than ten oxen. And his roar! Usually his roar shakes the rooftops off castles. Usually he’s handsome and powerful and brave. Ignorant girl, don’t you know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures?”
Sing Lin shakes her head. Yet she will not stare at her toes, not now. She’s eager to learn. “Please tell me.”
“They are the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Unicorn, and the Tortoise,” Kwai Yin says in her imperious way, counting out the creatures on her fingers. “My Teacher taught me this, and many other things.” She adds in a voice not quite so proud, “I had a Teacher once, you know.”
She pulls Sing Lin away from the vile bin. Angling down from the balcony is buttress of iron scrollwork, which reaches halfway to the street. Kwai Yin slings her basket handles over her head, and leaps up, and seizes the scrollwork in her fist. She walks her feet up the wall, hooks her leg over the buttress, and straddles it, flushed and triumphant. Mounted on her perch, she leans down and holds out her hand. “Come on up. Let’s get some fresh air.”
Sing Lin slings her basket handles over her head, too, and leaps up, and seizes Kwai Yin’s hand. She walks up the wall, too. Kwai Yin pulls her onto the buttress, and they climb up onto the cool stone floor of the balcony. They sit with their legs sticking out beneath the egg-yolk yellow railing and dangle their feet, gazing down at Fish Alley.
Sing Lin is tingling with excitement and also with anxiety. She’s never done such a bold thing, climbing up on a stranger’s balcony. She glances over her shoulder. “What if the man who lives here comes home and finds us?”
“What if, you silly girl? Do you think he’s an ogre who will eat us?” She grabs Sing Lin’s arm and pretends she’s chewing on it, which makes Sing Lin laugh. “Stop being afraid of things that don’t matter. Now, listen. My Teacher said, the four Fabulous Creatures are manifestations of the Tao. Just loaded with so much luck you can’t even believe it.”
Sing Lin peers down at the little dead dragon. How could that could be lucky?
“They are rare and flighty things, the four Fabulous Creatures. You just don’t see a Fabulous Creature every day of the week.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon in my whole life. Not even a little one like that.”
Kwai Yin bobs her head. “Me, neither. My Teacher said, if ever you see a Fabulous Creature in the world, it means that the Tao is near. That the magic of the Tao will touch you.”
Sing Lin shivers with delight. “Magic!”
“Yes, but just look at that lousy little dragon. I see no Tao in Tangrenbu. I see no magic for mooie jai like you and me.”
Sing Lin does not want to be so easily discouraged. “But maybe magic will come!”
“Maybe.” Kwai Yin shrugs. “When did you come to Tangrenbu?”
“In the Year of the Tiger. The Swallow brought me here.”
There was a time when Sing Lin could not speak of that time at all. Of how her father sold her to a slaver in the seaport. Who sold her to the master of a clipper-ship named for a quick-winged bird. It didn’t seem right that a ship with a lovely name like the Swallow was a notorious slave ship, but so it was, carrying illegal human cargo from the old country to the new.
How grateful she’d been when they dragged her out of steerage and off the hellish ship into the cold sunlight of Tangrenbu. Grateful when they stripped off the filthy rags she’d worn for weeks. Grateful still when they stood her up, naked, on an auction block, and an auctioneer displayed her to a crowd of merchants. Grateful at last to go to Master for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp. She is mooie jai, fated to serve at Master’s beck and call. She is grateful for one spicy fried shrimp with her boiled rice and greens.
She can say no more about the Swallow. What’s done is done.
“Oh ho, in the Year of the Tiger,” Kwai Yin is saying, her tone as tart as green oranges. “And how many celestial creatures did you count before the Tiger?”
Now Sing Lin grins. She likes this game of recounting the celestial creatures. She may not know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures, but the twelve celestial creatures, the creatures each of whom who rules over each year, these she knows well. Cook often asks her to recount the celestial creatures, too, and suddenly she realizes he has asked her this so she will remember how old she is. “I remember the Year of the Dog, but only a little because I was little.”
“Go on.”
“Then came the Boar, the Rat, and the Ox. Then the Tiger.”
“So you were five years old when your father sold you?”
Sing Lin says nothing. She cannot even say “yes,” though it’s true. “What about you?”
“Well, I can recount two more celestial creatures than you,” Kwai Yin says in her haughty way. “I saw the Monkey and the Rooster come and go long before the Year of the Dog.”
“Oh!” Sing Lin is delighted. Kwai Yin is two years older than her. Like a sister!
But Kwai Yin is stern, quizzing her further. “And after the Year of the Tiger?”
Sing Lin thinks carefully. “After the Tiger came the Hare.”
“Yes.”
“After the Hare came the Dragon.” She doesn’t want to look at the little dead dragon. “After the Dragon came the Snake. Oh, I’m afraid of snakes.”
“Now that is something to be afraid of. Once I picked up a sack of rice shipped in from the old country. And there, coiled underneath the sack, was the prettiest little piece of string, the color of a shining emerald. And do you know what that pretty little string was? It was a bamboo viper, the most deadliest snake in the whole world! If my master himself hadn’t pulled me away and killed it, I wouldn’t be here at all, talking to you.” She smiles at Sing Lin’s wide eyes. “Go on.”
“After the Snake came the Year of the Horse,” Sing Lin says cautiously. “Now it is the Year of the Ram.”
“Correct. And the new year coming?”
“The new year coming is the Year of the Monkey. I like the Monkey. He’s the Trickster. He likes to play games.” She improvises. “He’s the protector of bossy girls.”
“Yes, yes, very good.” Kwai Yin rewards her with a squeeze of her hand. “I was born in the Year of Monkey.”
“Then the new year coming will be your best lucky year!”
“Ho! Lots of luck, but who knows what kind.” A door suddenly bangs behind them. Kwai Yin cocks her head. “Oops, I hear the ogre. We better go!”
She swings herself over the railing, slides down the scrollwork, and leaps to the street–very much like a monkey. Sing Lin follows, clumsy with panic, banging her elbow hard on a strut of iron. There will be a bruise she will have to explain to Cook.
“Come on!” Kwai Yin says.
The girls dash away from the ogre, who is only a withered old man leaning over the yellow railing of his balcony with a perplexed look. They come to a breathless halt where the alley empties out onto Jasmine Avenue. A horse and hansom clatter by, and people stride by, too, clad in denim sahms or in the grand sweeping robes of merchants. Men, all of them men.
Men who stare at two mooie jai.
The girls press themselves against the wall of a dry goods shop, both alarmed, both trying to become invisible.
“I have seen twelve celestial animals come and go,” Kwai Yin says, shrinking from the traffic, her manner no longer so bold. “That’s why my master makes me eat salmon.”
Makes you!”
“Yes. Till my belly can hold no more, and sometimes I feel a little sick.”
Sing Lin cannot picture this tall, skinny girl eating so much salmon. For one thing, such rich meals have added no meat to the matchsticks she calls her arms and legs. Sing Lin should be glad Kwai Yin can feast so well on rich food her master insists that she eat. But her heart catches, like when she saw the salmon fishes dying. “Why does your master make you eat salmon till you’re sick?”
Kwai Yin says, cold and grim, “Because I must grow fat before I go to meet my fate.”
II
Phoenix
Sing Lin skips back to Master’s house, carrying two pounds of shrimp in her wicker basket and a handful of copper coins in change. More coins than you might think. After meeting Kwai Yin, she’s started feeling bolder herself. She smiled sweetly at the shrimp vendor instead of casting her eyes down and, in return, he gave her a very good price and a very nice smile of his own.
Cook, taking his ease in the servants’ quarters, his swollen ankle propped up on a cushion, counts out the coins. He glances up at her, startled, and parts his thin lips, revealing two fence rows of teeth stained brown by tobacco. Cook’s rendition of a smile. “Very good, girl. I tell Master you not so lazy, after all.”
“Thank you, Cook. Is there any other thing you wish?”
A tough little knotty man, like an oft-tied leather shoestring, Cook regards the whole world as if deciding how to skin and gut and slice and boil it. Sing Lin averts her eyes from him and keeps her own mouth from smiling. She’s fresh and rosy-cheeked, her hair disheveled from the sea wind, she’s unaccountably happy, and she knows Cook notices this. She knows he is speculating just exactly how she came up with the extra coins and is deciding whether or not he approves of her cleverness.
He doles out another dime from his leather purse.
Late sunlight slants over the western hills, casting long shadows over Tangrenbu. But the day is not yet done.
“Yes, another thing. Go to the sweetmeats shop and buy some sugar plums for Master’s dessert. And a coconut candy for you. But just one. And bring back change.”
“Yes, Cook.”
“And, for goodness sake, put something over your sahm.”
Cook lurches to his feet, and takes off his jacket, and pulls the garment over her shoulders. “Tuck up your hair, take a hat.” He knots her queue into a coil at the nape of her neck, jams his slouch hat over her head. The hat is way too big and smells of Cook’s sweat and his suety hair oil. She giggles, already too warm beneath the jacket and hat. Cook shakes his finger at her. “No laugh. You must pass for a boy. I made a mistake earlier today. I cannot send a girl like you alone into Tangrenbu.”
“Cook, why are there no mothers in Tangrenbu? Why no girls?”
He yanks the jacket over her scrawny chest. “The governors of the new country have passed laws. These laws say we cannot bring our wives or our daughters from the old country to Tangrenbu.”
“Why?”
“Because we came here to work and make a new life, but the governors and the people who live here do not want us to stay and make a new life after the work is done.”
Why?”
“You’re too old to ask why, why, why like a baby child.”
“But why?”
He buttons up the jacket all the way, from her neck to her thigh. “The governors fear us. If we cannot bring our families to Tangrenbu, the governors hope we will return to the old country when the work is done. But many of us cannot return. I cannot return to my wife and daughter. After all my work in Tangrenbu, I cannot save the fare for my sea passage. It would be better for me to make a new life here with my family and pay for their fare. I very much want that. But if I have no fare for myself, have can I provide fare for them?”
Sing Lin ponders that. “Cannot stay, yet cannot go. Cannot go back to family, cannot bring family here to settle down. Like a fish caught in a net, thrashing about.” She thinks of the dead dragon, but decides not to tell Cook about it. Beneath the tough nutshell of his face, she can discern the kernel of his sorrow.
“Yes. And so here we men must stay alone, in Tangrenbu. And here in Tangrenbu, there are only mooie jai and–” But now Cook claps his jaws shut.
Sing Lin is puzzled and a little frightened. “And who else, Cook?”
“And daughters of joy.”
That sounds lovely to Sing Lin’s ears. She’s reminded of Kwai Yin, of her own joy today. “Oh, I should like to meet a daughter of joy.”
“No, no! Never, never meet a daughter of joy.” Cook frowns and dark shapes move in his eyes. “You listen to me, girl. You must never go to Soot Alley. Never go to Bleak Place.”
One time, in the Year of the Snake, Sing Lin had walked with Cook past Bleak Place. It was a dreadful dark alley in a labyrinth of many such alleys in Tangrenbu. She recalls the strange, birdlike cries she’d heard when they passed by. She recalls how they’d seen men dragging something out of one of the shacks. A burlap sack that might have held the corpse of a large dog. How the men had tossed the sack onto the flatbed of a garbage wagon, and how Cook had made her hurry.
“Never, never go to those places,” Cook says and darkness moves in his voice. “For that is where the daughters of joy are kept hidden. You sabe?”
She isn’t sure if she understands, but she says, “I sabe.
And she sets out for sugar plums for Master’s dessert, plus one coconut candy for herself. She brings back the coins in change, which Cook takes, along with the candy. He splits the candy in two, giving her half, and pops the other half in his mouth. No matter. Half a coconut candy is well worth another taste of freedom.
*   *   *
To discover what Kwai Yin’s terrible fate is, Sing’s danger, Tao Magic, and the rest of the Four Fabulous Creatures, visit my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 for the full story of “Daughter of the Tao” and become a patron. Help me recover from the Attack and get access to delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Thank you for your readership! Visit Lisa Mason at her Official Web Site for her books, ebooks, screenplays, stories, interviews, blogs, cute pet pictures, and more. Enjoy!
Excerpt 5:
Blend Day
A rude, unnecessarily loud knock-knock-knock on the door to her lair jolts Luna Lightfoot to her feet just as she’s slipping on flannel pajamas and preparing to bed down for the day.
Today isn’t any ordinary day. Today is Blend Day.
If Jamboree is a day of wild celebration, of indulging in forbidden pleasures, of making mischief, then the day that follows—Blend Day—must be observed, according to two centuries of Chromian tradition, by somber reflection, fasting, celibacy, and other forms of self-abnegation.
Some Chromians look forward to Blend Day with a self-righteous dread. To the Day when even the powerful and glamorous predator Blends bend down on their knees, raise their eyes to the pitiless stars, and ponder the meaning of their tormented unnatural lives. When every Blend curses the ancient Tweakers and the Twitchers of Emirk Corporation for creating Chrome.
Not Lightfoot. No self-flagellation. No moaning, no sobbing, no tears. She loves her puma life too much. Loves her puma talents. She doesn’t even mind that her human ancestors were political prisoners smuggled up from Croatia and blended with puma genes.
CRISPR, that’s what they dubbed it, the molecular biologists who pioneered the gene-modification technique three centuries ago. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. With CRISPR, Emirk’s technicians created entire races of genetically modified people with inheritable traits by blending the chromosomes of creatures with the chromosomes of human beings.
Blends.
Blends often sarcastically refer to each other as atlantean, beastie boy or girl, chimera, cordwainer, creep, cryptid, freak, fubar (fouled up beyond all recognition), GMO, gryphon, half-and-half, jabberwock, mockery, monster, moreau, mutant, quarryman or woman, splicer, toba sojo, weaver, or wonderlander.
Bang bang bang.
Who on Chrome could it be?
Irritated, Lightfoot waves off the World Eyes in her bedroom flashing with the news of Zena Kinski’s tragic demise. Views of Bunny Hedgeway twisting a lace hanky, dark tears streaking her plump little face, do not show the Pomeranian to her best advantage. Get a grip, Bun, Lightfoot will have to tell her. When she wakes at sundown, she’ll wink Bunny. Show her sympathetic support as a Blend-friend.
Bang bang BANG.
She stalks into the living room, the kitchen, the library, all around her lair. Aims her Tatt at the World Eyes stationed everywhere and waves them shut. When open, the World Eyes blink views to the Instrumentality of her sleeping the day away. That’s all fifteen billion human beings on Earth ever get to see of her. A puma Blend in pajamas sleeping in her luxurious lair. Curling up in the cashmere blankets. Uncurling, yawning, stretching. Curling around on her other side. Prowling to the kitchen for a glass of cool water.
For this, Lightfoot earns considerable monthly royalties from the Instrumentality.
What’s so unusual about her sleeping the day away? Not a thing. Lightfoot is nocturnal. She’s up all night, like her ancestral beast. And what she does at night, nefarious or innocent, is strictly off-limits to the Instrumentality. Terms of her contract.
Another obnoxious knock, and she sighs. The royalties will amount to a little less this month now that she’s waving the Eyes off. She stalks to her front door. “Yes?”
“Open up, Lightfoot,” says a masculine canine voice. She knows the voice and the canine only too well. He goes by the moniker of Xander King, homicide detective for the Chrome City police. “We gotta talk.”
“Have some respect, Cop King,” she says through the door. “It’s Blend Day. I’m contemplating my cruel fate.”
“You’ll be contemplatin’ more than that.”
“Excuse me?”
“You really stepped in it this time.”
You’d think him a lion Blend with a name like that, but you’d be wrong. Only a golden retriever could get away with such a grandiose name when he’s merely a middling officer in a corrupt police department on an artificial planetoid. And no, Lightfoot has never entangled herself in a homicide investigation. She’s acquainted with Xander King because she sells him hot nasty tips whenever she daintily trips across them on her nocturnal prowls through Chrome City.
She cracks open the door, leaving the chain lock on. “Dunno what you’re whining about,” she purrs pleasantly. “I’m off to my beauty sleep while fifteen billion Earthians pay to watch me dream. You’re wasting my prime time. Bye-bye, have a self-punishing day.”
“Wise up, Lightfoot,” barks another masculine canine voice. That would be Chan O’Nally, King’s partner. “The fang job at Bunny Hedgeway’s place last night. You know what we’re talkin’ about, and we know you know.”
“Everyone on Chrome knows what you’re talking about, Detective O’Nally. All everyone has to do is wink the Instrumentality.”
“We’re talkin’ about you and where you were last night,” O’Nally snarls. He’s an Irish setter Blend whose human ancestors two-and-a-half centuries ago were political dissidents incarcerated in the prison of an Asian country until the Central Committee sold them to Emirk Corporation for a rock-bottom price.
Moi?
“Quit stallin’ and open up,” King growls. “Security Eyes on the rooftop captured your beauteous image in the moonlight.”
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“Think again,” O’Nally snaps.
She thinks again. Damn, it must be true. She’s a puma Blend. No one and nothing sees her when she sets her mind on moving invisibly. No matter the surroundings, urban, suburban, or the Wildlands. No one and nothing sees her. But her mind had been unsettled last night. She herself slightly clumsy when she leapt from the bedroom terrace back onto the roof. Witnessing a murder will do that.
“Guess you weren’t up to your usual stealth last night,” King says.
Guess you don’t know what you’re yapping about.”
“Guess we do,” O’Nally says. “Get yourself decent and let us in. We gotta talk before someone less forgivin’ than us collars you for your presence at a fang job.”
“Give me a moment, detectives.”
She shuts the door.
Not up to her usual stealth?
No kidding.
She knew from the start the mysterious Rex was all wrong. She just didn’t know how wrong.
“We haven’t got all day, Lightfoot,” King barks.
“Coming,” she trills.
*   *   *
To discover how Lightfoot’s interview with the police goes, what they accuse her of, what she admits to, and especially what she doesn’t admit, visit my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 for the full excerpt and become a patron. Help me recover from the Attack and get access to delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
CHROME is in U.S. print as a beautiful trade paperback. Also in U.K. print, in German print, in French print, in Spanish print, in Italian print, and in Japanese print.
The ebook is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, India Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, and Mexico Kindle.

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9.6.17.TGA.1

New Review of The Gilded Age at http://sfbookreview.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-gilded-age-by-lisa-mason.html:
“The world of 2495 is at an unsustainable twelve billion population. Zhu Wong is a Daughter of Compassion, a group working to enforce the birth restriction laws. She is in jail awaiting trial when she is recruited by the Luxon Institute for Superluminal Applications (LISA, I love the acronym) to t-port back to 1895 San Francisco. She accepts the deal. Her mission is to find Wing Sing, take her and the aurelia to the mission run by Donaldina Cameron. In 1967 Wing Sing’s daughter will eventually give the brooch to Chiron at the end of his stay in the Summer of Love project.
Zhu finds Wing Sing, but she doesn’t have the aurelia. They are captured by a Chinese gang. Zhu is bought away from them by Jessie, a madam, Wing Sing stuck with the Tong. Zhu does work for Jessie, but is more valuable as a bookkeeper so avoids becoming a prostitute. Daniel Watkins is the son of a real estate magnate coming to San Francisco to collect on debts. He is low on funds and is referred to lodging at Jessie’s where his life becomes entwined with Zhu’s. Somehow Zhu is attracted to this heavy drinking smoker who has distinct views of women. Despite herself and her mission, Zhu cares about Jessie and Daniel.
I loved the character of Zhu. Somehow I wasn’t repulsed by Daniel and Jessie. They are more a product of their environment doing what they can with their sense of right and wrong. Very enjoyable, I read the last two hundred pages straight through. This is definitely a stand alone novel, though Summer of Love is mentioned several times. I’ll have to read that one as a prequel rather than book one.”
And this is from Library Journal:
“The discovery of a golden brooch that should not exist in the 25th century prompts the Luxon Institute to send a young Chinese woman 600 years back in time. She arrives in San Francisco in 1895 to prevent the future from altering the past. This sequel to Summer of Love (LJ 6/15/94), seen through the eyes of an observer from the future, juxtaposes the tempestuous, sprawling milieu of boomtown San Francisco with its shadowy underside of prostitution and decadence. Mason’s graceful prose and her skill in orchestrating a complex and satisfying plot make this a solid purchase for sf collections.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
This is from a reader:
https://www.amazon.ca/Golden-Nineties-Lisa-Mason/dp/0553373315
5.0 out of 5 stars Hypnotic Read
By,Robin Booneon Published on Amazon.com|Verified Purchase
“Lisa Mason’s Summer of Love and The Golden Nineties both have this quality – you want to reread them as soon as you’ve read them. Her writing conveys an abiding love of San Francisco, and interesting bits of California history are woven into the storylines. The writing is so compelling that you feel as though time travel were a possibility. I hope she writes more of these San Francisco fantasies!”
And this is from Publisher’s Weekly
https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-553-37331-8
“Mason’s sequel to Summer of Love is a delightful expansion of that work and a major step forward for her. The tale centers on Zhu Wong, a Chinese national whose lawyer plea-bargains her release from prison so that Chiron and his companions from the previous novel’s Luxon Institute for Superluminal Applications can transport her 600 years into the past to find a macguffin called the aurelia. Once in San Francisco, 1895, Mason brings the environment and the times to life with her rendering of the city’s activities, especially its corruption. The several historic personages who appear–including Frank Norris, Jack London and Susan B. Anthony–are all given dimensions that reflect the rigor of Mason’s research without leaving the reader overburdened by minutiae. Zhu Wong finds herself embroiled in a world of decadence and prostitution; she sees friends and companions abuse themselves with such things as alcohol, cocaine and corsets. As with Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, Mason uses the novel partially to explore the role of women in society. As Zhu grows to understand the hypocrisies of the 1890s, she becomes even less comfortable with the presumptions of her own time. She creates several “closed time loops,” apparent paradoxes that impede her mission–and, perhaps more important, thwart her own desires. Eventually she finds her way out of the time loops and in the process teaches everyone–including herself–a few lessons about life. Her bravura performance with this book should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify her position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.
And this just in from an Amazon.com reader
Buy It
By Uke Enthusiast
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
“One of my favorite books. I am delighted it is back in print. A thoroughly entertaining time travel story supported by vivid characterizations and settings.”
Book Description: The year is 1895 and immigrants the world over are flocking to California on the transcontinental railroad and on transoceanic steamships. The Zoetrope demonstrates the persistence of vision, patent medicines addict children to morphine, and women are rallying for the vote. In San Francisco, saloons are the booming business, followed by brothels, and the Barbary Coast is a dangerous sink of iniquity. Atop Telegraph Hill bloody jousting tournaments are held and in Chinatown the tongs deal in opium, murder-for-hire, and slave girls.
Zhu Wong, a prisoner in twenty-fifth century China, is given a choice–stand trial for murder or go on a risky time-travel project to the San Francisco of 1895 to rescue a slave girl and take her to safety. Charmed by the city’s opulent glamour, Zhu will discover the city’s darkest secrets. A fervent population control activist in a world of twelve billion people, she will become an indentured servant to the city’s most notorious madam. Fiercely disciplined, she will fall desperately in love with the troubled self-destructive heir to a fading fortune.
And when the careful plans of the Gilded Age Project start unraveling, Zhu will discover that her choices not only affect the future but mean the difference between her own life or death.
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.” The New York Times Book Review
“Graceful prose. . . .A complex and satisfying plot.” Library Journal
“Rollicking. . . .Dazzling.” Locus Magazine
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.” Publisher’s Weekly
The cover, by San Francisco artist Tom Robinson, is styled to look like an 1890s billboard.
The Gilded Age is BACK IN PRINT! Order the beautiful trade paperback in the U.S., in the U.K., in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, and in Japan.
The ebook
is at BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords and on Kindle worldwide at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
So there you have it, my friends
. Bantam Books, a division of Random House, published this as The Golden Nineties. Yes, I changed the title. I think the new title is better. (Wish I’d thought of it in the first place) This is the Author’s Preferred Print Edition.
Whether you’re a longtime reader or new, I hope you enjoy this classic!
Join my other patrons on my Patreon page and learn the shocking reason I’ve opted for Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/lisamasonfantasyandsciencefictionwriter?alert=2 I’ve got delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more.
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CHROME.MED.295.KB

Here’s Steve Fahnestalk (with 19,000 subscribers):
“Next month, January 2020, will be my seventh consecutive year of writing for Amazing Stories® online! I hope you’ve enjoyed my writing as much as I have enjoyed being a part of Steve Davidson’s reboot of this famous magazine, and I hope to be able to do this for a long time to come. For my last column of the 2010s (and 2019 in particular), I’ve chosen to review two very good genre works, one an excellent magazine, and the other an excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author I’ve reviewed before, and (as the cover above says, a New York Times notable author). I’m talking about Lisa Mason’s new novel Chrome, first.
I hesitate to characterize it, because it’s so much more than a short description can convey, but in my mind it stands out as a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. There’s no world-weary Robert Mitchum-type ‘tec as a protagonist; rather, our hero is a beautiful half-human, half puma thief named Luna Lightfoot, who makes her main living as what we might call a video star. Millions of people back on Earth pay for the privilege of watching her at home while she eats, sleeps, and carries out her home life for their voyeuristic pleasure. She also hangs out with the rich and famous.
Luna lives on an artificial planetoid, called Chrome, at one of Earth’s LaGrange points, put there 250 years ago by one of Earth’s wealthiest and greediest corporations, the Emirk group. (If you want to know where Emirk came from, the name refers to a tributary of one of Earth’s big rivers, according to the author. When you get to that part, you’ll understand.) Back in our time (and this is true), a Chinese scientist claims to have gene-edited a couple of children using the CRISPR method, which is sort of like gene cut-and-pasting. Scientists around the world—and, finally, this own government—decried the use of CRISPR on humans. However, in this book, Emirk started experimenting (at first, openly, but then, thanks to public and governmental outcries, covertly) with “improving” the human genome by adding genes from practically every oxygen-breathing species of animal on the planet. Spending billions to build Chrome, Emirk’s experiments were moved there and continued. Human subjects were given or sold by outlaw governments and factions to Emirk’s scientists; and now there exists a whole society of human/animal interbreeds, called “blends,” on Chrome. Humans can not live there anymore, thanks to a plague that killed off (and continues to kill off) any unmodified humans, yet Emirk still owns Chrome, and figures it owns all the inhabitants too.
Luna attends a party given by Bunny Hedgway, one of Chrome’s glitterati in order to steal an artifact from Bunny’s treasure room, but while she was engaged in this theft, witnessed the murder of Chrome’s prima ballerina, an ostrich Blend named Zena Kinski, by an unidentified Blend who was wearing a wolf costume, but who may not have been a wolf. Because she was witnessed on the roof of Bunny’s place at the time of the murder, Luna needs to clear herself and find out who the Blend is who actually killed Zena. In the process, Luna finds herself becoming familiar with Chrome’s criminal underworld, and gains enemies as well as new friends and allies. One of those is the tortoise Blend Terralina Rustabrin, who is about to be bond-mated to a Prince of tortoise Blends. (Blends are not legally humans; therefore, cannot marry, according to Emirk Corporation. So “bond-mating” is their substitute.) Although Terralina’s eyesight is poor, she happens to be close to several significant happenings related to the murder, and actually saw Luna come down off Bunny’s roof.
In this book, Lisa has created a world and a society that mirrors our own in many respects; although we have no (to the best of my knowledge) actual Blends on Earth, corporations and governments on this planet are actively trying to (and in some cases have succeeded) treat humans as if they were Blends, or property. And you can just bet that these kinds of experiments will happen somewhere on Earth if they aren’t already happening. Like what happens to most enslaved people everywhere, many Blends are rich or getting rich by actively helping Emirk subjugate their fellow blends. There are Blend geniuses, one of whom created the “Tatts,” a type of tattoo that acts as a communications device, archival device, amanuensis (a blend of Alexa and Google in some ways) and other things. It’s a fully-realized society that takes some of the attributes of the animal parts of Blends and applies what those traits might mean to humans who have them.
And as for the noir mystery part; whether Luna solves her own problem (of being a suspect and a fugitive from the killer(s)), you’ll just have to read the book to find out. I really appreciate the fact that the ending is not a “pat ending. I suspect Lisa may someday turn out a sequel to Chrome. Anyway, I liked this book and recommend it; it’s available in Kindle format in most countries.”
Here’s the Amazing Stories link so you can see the beauteous photo of me holding an issue of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in which I’d published a story a little while ago. Not the F&SF issue in the Amazing Stories review, though Steve Fahnestalk compared a theme in one of the stories in the November-December issue to my theme in CHROME. https://www.amazingstories.com/2019/12/my-last-column-lisa-masons-chrome-and-fsf-nov-dec-2019/
The CHROME cover, by San Francisco artist Tom Robinson, is comprised of a dozen different elements which Tom carefully researched. We think the imagery looks kind of mid-century. I love the color scheme.
And yes! A Brand-new Reader Review of Chrome, You’ll find it on Amazon:
So Walter Mosley reread Animal Farm and The Island of Dr Moreau and says to himself, “Oh, yes indeed, I’ve got a terrific idea for my next best seller.” But! Lisa says, “Hold on, hot stuff. You’re too late. Chrome is already on the streets. Haha!”
Wow! I just tore through Chrome. So much fun. Oh, I guess I should take a time-out to say that it was very well-written too, but I was enjoying the characters and the story so much that the superb writing simply did its job and I had to consciously reflect to notice the excellent and clever construction and reveals. Uh, isn’t that the definition of good writing?
I’m not usually a fan of sequels, but could we please have at least one more romp with Ms Lightfoot and her sidekick Terralina?”

Yes, I’m working next on a second CHROME book and a third book to round out a trilogy, plus a prequel novella. LIBERATION DAY, which will explore the mysteries of the events leading up to freeing of the Blends from their cages.
CHROME is in U.S. print as a beautiful trade paperback. Also in U.K. print, in German print, in French print, in Spanish print, in Italian print, and in Japanese print.
The ebook is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, India Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, and Mexico Kindle.

Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me while I recover from the Attack. I need your support! I’ve got lots of goodies for you—delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, recipes, book, and more.
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2.4.18.CYBERWEB.1.28.18.SMLL.200

I just discovered these two new five-star reviews of CYBERWEB while I was collecting the print links. Sheesh! I need an assistant.
4.0 out of 5 starsDEEPER THAN DEEP
Format: Paperback
On re-reading CYBERWEB a year later, I don’t think my first review does it justice. The writer has peeled off the difference between conscious robots and flesh and blood man. Almost without fanfare the robots are provided with souls. Her mechanical characters are given both consciousness and emotion. Their only difference to man is in their composition. This becomes very clear when the outmoded Spinner character uploads herself into Patina’s flashy, lifeless bodywork.
I MUST NOW RATE THIS BOOK FIVE STARS.
The writer, thus, dives deeply into the unseen world that controls man’s apparent freewill existence. By using mainframes as purposeful beasts, seeking to control fleshy man, some very deep philosophical questions are posed. She leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks to this very entertaining and thoughtful story.
THE OLD REVIEW READ:
Mason leads her cyberpunk reader into the arena of sci-fi comics. It’s not possible for humans to grasp the feelings and desires of these robot characters but it’s still a lot of fun to try. She challenges your imagination to follow her characters’ avatars, cones, cubes and three headed chimeras as they flit in and out of cyberspace. But hard questions are run up the flagpole. Can bodiless people exist in this virtual world of telespace? Can a soul exist in a nonorganic body? Should robots be discarded like machines when a new model arrives? Can our culture continue to absorb the changes computer power is unleashing? Is our reality but an extension of the bits composing telespace? Even the questions of what consciousness might consist of and whether it is really an advantage to being born as flesh and blood. She makes no attempt to answer these questions but even considering them makes this book a very creative endeavor. You could certainly invest your time on a much less entertaining story. Also it is short and sweet.
5.0 out of 5 starsInteresting…pretty cool actually…
Format: Paperback
Cyberweb is a pretty nifty cyberpunk novel…lots of interesting ideas…I liked it…
So there you have it, my friends. One reader at a time…..
CYBERWEB is in print in the U.S. at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1984356941
In the U.K. at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1984356941
In Germany at https://www.amazon.de/dp/1984356941
In France at https://www.amazon.fr/dp/1984356941
In Spain at https://www.amazon.es/dp/1984356941
In Italy at https://www.amazon.it/dp/1984356941
In Japan at https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/1984356941
Cyberweb is an ebook on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
Cyberweb is also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle.
Join my other patrons on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 for new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, and original healthy recipes.
Donate a tip from your PayPal account to lisasmason@aol.com.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

MysteryCoverSmall

Every Mystery Unexplained
Lisa Mason
1
“As long as the human mind delights in mysteries, so it will love magic and magicians. I would say to all beginners, ‘Keep three things in mind:
First–Practice constantly new sleights, novel devices, and invent new combinations of old feats. You must always have something new wherewith to dazzle.
Second–Make your work artistic by clothing each illusion with all the glamour and shadows of fairyland and the suggestions of incantations and supernatural powers in order to prepare the observer’s mind for a mystery.
Third–Leave every mystery unexplained.'”
–Harry Kellar, “The Greatest Magician in the World,” 1887
My father is done with the doves and colored scarves by the time he gets to the spirit show. “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” Uncle Brady announces, his voice as sonorous as a Shakespearean ghost, “Professor Flint will endeavor through his astonishing, miraculous, and mysterious psychic powers to establish communication with the Spirits of the Dead!”
“Endeavor to establish communication with the Dead,” I whisper to Mr. Pannini, the booking agent for the Tivoli Theater, as we watch from the wings. “A pity he seldom endeavors to establish communication with me.
The audience shifts and titters, restless in the early evening, which is awfully cold and gloomy even for fog-haunted San Francisco. Gaslights flicker, leaking fumes into the chill, damp air. A smell of mold clings to the dark velvet curtains, a sepulchral odor that leaves me uneasy.
“The old man is a boiled shirt, is he?” Pannini says with a grin. He is a dapper, clove-scented, well-oiled dandy in fancy gabardine and a velvet bowler, a massive mustache curling over his lip. Some ten years my senior, I suppose, with the air of the rake about him. My father dislikes him intensely. “Nothing a young gentleman like yourself cannot handle, I’ll wager.”
“I endure,” I say, “the dutiful son.” I like Pannini. He slips me a Mecca cigarette. I light up, quick and guilty. My father has forbidden me to smoke.
My father has forbidden me to grow a mustache till I reach the age of one-and-twenty, which has been a source of more contention between us than cigarettes, since extravagant mustaches are all the rage for gentlemen in our year of 1895. A requirement of fashion that occupies many of my thoughts despite other concerns, such as the bank panic, massive unemployment, and civil unrest throughout our great nation of America. What lady will consider me without a mustache? I chafe at each passing day of these next nine months, shave the scant fuzz from my lip–dutiful son–and speculate pessimistically on what poor bristles may be produced when Pop’s injunction has expired.
“And what will you do, Professor Flint,” Uncle Brady is inquiring onstage, “if you should encounter the Grim Reaper Himself?”
“I shall challenge Him to a duel!” my father replies.
“A duel?” Uncle Brady says, inviting the audience to marvel with him.
“A duel to the death!” my father declares.
Onstage, my father arduously prepares himself to establish communication with the Spirits of the Dead. Of Pop’s many talents, this is one of his best, the dramatic preparation for impending dire difficulty. Uncle Brady assists him, yanking off Pop’s cutaway coat, ceremoniously withdrawing the dueling sword from the trunk. My father effects much rolling of eyes, rolling up of sleeves, girding of loins. He kneads his forehead, unleashing psychic powers.
A pity he had not prepared so well for my mother’s death.
Someone snores in the audience with an exaggerated gargle. A heckler? A pack of hoodlums in scruffy top hats tip rotgut in the back row. There has been an air of uncertainty, of desperation, since we arrived in San Francisco. No one in the far West honors paper money. You must pay in gold or silver coin. Only half the seats in the Tivoli are filled tonight.
“He ain’t Houdini,” Pannini says, not unkindly. “With a switcheroo act.”
No, Pop is not that dare devilish young rascal, the dexterous Harry Houdini. No one can top Houdini who, with his wild antics, has spoiled audiences from St. Pete’s to Nome. Everyone is clamoring to see “Metamorphosis,” during which the monsieur and the mademoiselle, each bound at wrist and ankle, exchange places in the box in three seconds flat.
“No, but I know how Houdini pulls off ‘Metamorphosis,'” I say. “I know exactly how he does it. The box trick has been around for a hundred years.”
“The box trick?” Pannini raises his eyebrows.
Over the years, the box trick has been vastly improved, ingeniously improvised, and presented again and again, fresh as the morning dew. But I bite my tongue. I cannot reveal how Houdini’s “Metamorphosis” is pulled off, not even if I wanted to.
“You know all about the box trick, do you?” Pannini prompts, intrigued by my hesitation.
“Sorry,” I say. “We magicians have a code of secrecy. We’ve all sworn not to reveal how an illusion is accomplished. Even if we’re not the ones performing it. Especially then.”
“Ah, a code of secrecy,” Pannini says with a shrug. “Well, don’t look so glum, Danny. It’s a fair crowd for the Tivoli. For a magic act.”
Now I shrug, and draw deeply on the Mecca.
“The old man has got to get himself a pretty heifer onstage,” Pannini says. “That’ll draw ’em in.”
“Oh, we had a beautiful lady in the act.”
“Did you?” Pannini says, suddenly animated. “Well, trot her out, sir.”
“She died,” I say. “Last spring.”
I fling the Mecca to the floor, stamp it out. My father will raise Cain when he smells tobacco on my breath.
“Sorry,” Pannini says.
When I look again, he’s vanished.
As it is, my father has got a good act. Not a great act, perhaps, not a spectacular act like Harry Houdini’s, but a very good act. He’s worked on this act, in its various permutations, for all the twenty years I have walked upon the earth and before then, too, according to Uncle Brady. My father is no dare devilish robust rascal, but a well weathered man, lean of flesh and spare of hair, whom some people mistake for my grandfather. Yet Pop has not lost his touch, in my opinion. In my opinion–and as his only son and heir apparent, I’m entitled to my opinion–it’s a lousy crowd for the astonishing, the miraculous, the mysterious Professor Flint.
Then again, nothing seems right since my mother died.
Now my father takes up the sword, commences feints and thrusts. In the sulfuric glare of the limelights, I can see sweat pooling over the starched wing collar that throttles his throat, soaking through his threadbare brocade vest like a bloodstain. I used to worry about Pop’s health. He always was a scrawny bird, and scrofula and consumption ran in his family. Sometimes it seemed to me that the exertions of the stage, not to mention the financial uncertainties of magic, would do him in.
I don’t worry so much about Pop anymore. He turned out to be the strong one. Which only goes to show you. You never can tell from the look of things what the truth is or what, an illusion.
With a swift, decisive jab, my father thrusts the sword–back into its scabbard. That’s right. This preliminary action sequence is intended to arouse any flagging interest among gentlemen in the audience. Gentlemen are by nature discontent and easily bored, not to mention skeptical. Sure enough, one of the hoodlums in the back row shouts, “Bloody well get on with it, man!”
But my father never concedes to a quick, cheap thrill. No, there are ladies and children in the audience–usually there are, anyway, though such tender persons appear to be singularly lacking at the Tivoli tonight. Ladies and children of sensitive sensibilities may become alarmed by Professor Flint’s aggressive antics. They may pause, they may press gentle pale fingertips to their pale throats, they may wonder if the next mystery will be too much for them to bear.
It is for this portion of the audience that my father sheaths the sword. A portion deserving, as my mother used to say, of a performer’s special courtesy. A portion endowed themselves with the power of trembling lips, of fluttering eyelashes, of little cries of joy or alarm, of those gentle pale fingertips just as she, my mother, was so amply endowed.
It is for them that my father now trots out the dancing handkerchief.
“But first, ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “before I challenge the Grim Reaper to a duel to the death, I shall endeavor to prove that the power of Life goes beyond Death. Beyond the grave itself!”
To be honest, I personally think the dancing handkerchief is the silliest of illusions.
I’m always astonished at how much the ladies and the children and the gentlemen love it.
Need I say that all of the Tivoli’s stagehands, Mr. Pannini, and anyone and everyone not privy to our techniques, have been banished from backstage. Need I say that Uncle Brady and I sprint like souls possessed to our respective positions at each wing abutting the stage. Need I hint that the dancing handkerchief illusion works much like a marionette. Need I add that we gleefully seize the wonderfully simple and devilishly clever devices. For they are devices. There is no person on earth once clearly shown who would ever mistake the technical application of wrist and wire for the appearance of something supernatural.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pop is saying, “I will endeavor to demonstrate the miraculous Power of Life utilizing the most ordinary of personal accoutrements.”
My father has got one of those masterful voices and the ability to project his ironic personality out into a crowd. Yet I worry how well he will project his personality tonight, for the air feels thick in the Tivoli Theater. I feel a chill sweep through the room, like a draft from a back door left carelessly ajar.
“Does anyone,” Pop says, “have a handkerchief? Of purest white silk, if you please?”
In this surly crowd, reeking of cheap whiskey and unwashed clothes, I fear no person in attendance is genteel enough to possess the requested accoutrement. The chill deepens, and a cloud of bay fog drifts in. Clear across the stage I can see Uncle Brady twist his head around, glancing behind himself, at me, out there. He’s working up a fury for the stagehands. Some rotter has left a door open, taking petty revenge, perhaps, for his banishment from backstage.
One of the very few ladies in the audience stands, works her way to the aisle, and approaches the stage. I heave a sigh of relief. Across the stage, Uncle Brady pantomimes wiping his brow. What a lady she is, too, tall and slim, in a ruffled burgundy dress. Her coiffure tilts above her forehead at a saucy angle, a curl coiled on the high curve of her cheek. She smiles at my father, who bows graciously, and glances around at her neighbors, seeking their approval of her boldness. Her dark eyes light upon me, as I peer out from the wing. I can smell her perfume, a rich musk of red roses. She holds forth a white silk handkerchief in her elegant fingers.
Da,” she says in a purring contralto, “I have handkerchief.”
And then she winks at me.
Oh, Lord. I duck out of sight. Pop will have my hide if he should notice that someone in the audience has spied me skulking about in the wings. He proceeds apace with the illusion, however, deftly knotting one corner of the lady’s handkerchief. When he’s done, the handkerchief looks just like a little ghost, with a pert peaked head and a drooping shroud. He tosses the handkerchief on the stage, casually leaning over to rearrange the silk and attach the fabric to the—ah, never mind.
It’s a mystery unexplained.
Much like a marionette, as I’ve said. That’s all you need to know.
“Thus I shall prove, ladies and gentlemen,” my father says, “that within each small thing, even a mere handkerchief from this beautiful lady, the Spirit of Life can come alive.
And off we go, Uncle Brady and me at opposite ends of the stage, making that little ghost come alive.
First, the handkerchief raises its head, struggling to become animated, then (pardon me) gives up the ghost, and falls slack again. My father coaxes it, by turns tender, then stern, and the handkerchief rises, rises, growing more vigorous by the moment, finally standing upright and positively lively. The ghost leaps into Pop’s hands, leaps down again, and capers across the stage like a maniac. Pop gives chase, captures it. It swiftly escapes, and he gives chase again. At last he seizes the handkerchief and hands it to the lady, still bobbing and wiggling like a hooked fish. She cries out. Pop takes the wiggler back, unties the knot, and, with a murmured apology, releases a lifeless handkerchief.
The lady beams and displays her erstwhile ghost. Everyone in the front rows leans forward, entranced, applauding wildly.
Like I said, they always love the dancing handkerchief.
“Thank you, madam,” Pop says. “What is your name, please?”
“I am Zena Troubetzskoy.”
“Bloody well get on with it, man!” the hoodlum in the back row yells again. His pals guffaw.
“Madame Troubetzskoy, I am charmed,” my father says, ignoring the hecklers, and takes her handkerchief yet again and produces from it a fresh red rose. He regards the rose as if it is a wondrous treasure and hands silk and bloom to her.
Zena stares, openmouthed. As I peer from the wing again, I see a flush infuse her cheeks, staining her face as if with a sudden fever. “Can you really communicate with the Other Side, Professor Flint?” she asks.
“I certainly can,” Pop says.
Liar, I think. The enmity between stage magicians and spiritualist mediums revolves around this very point–what we each claim we can do. No one has actually established communication with the Spirits of the Dead. No one has proven that the soul survives. Yet spiritualist mediums deceive people with cruelties–and with illusions any stage magician can readily replicate. Maskelyne, the Royal Illusionist, exposed the Davenport brothers’ spirit cabinet as nothing more than the good old box trick. Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North, produced better table-tipping and spirit raps than the Fox sisters, who have bilked many a silver dollar from the bereaved.
If my father really could establish communication with the Other Side, don’t you think he would have contacted my mother?
But what else is my father supposed to say? No, not really? He cannot say that, not in front of an audience in a theater. A magician must never reveal the secrets of his illusions, must never explain the mystery though there is no mystery. That is our code of secrecy.
Still, I am uneasy with Pop’s charade, his disingenuous answer. Is he any better than a deceitful spiritualist medium?
If Zena Troubetzskoy is perturbed by my father’s lie, however, she gives no sign. “How marvelous,” she says and returns to the darkness beyond the limelights.
Now our rented orchestra strikes up a sprightly tune. Uncle Brady rushes onstage to assist Pop, while I pull the ghost getup over myself, head to toe, and sprint to my appointed place before the pane of plate glass. The pane, which the audience cannot see, is situated just so, in relation to the activities onstage and the activities offstage, and to a strategically placed spotlight. When light and darkness are arranged precisely right, when the physics of reflection and refraction are manipulated correctly, you will see an apparition appear out of nowhere onstage with Professor Flint. You will see the apparition joust with him in a death-defying duel. You will see him pierce the apparition clear through with his sword. At which point, you will see the apparition perish amid much pathos, and disappear before your very eyes.
All right, the ghost duel is not actually so death-defying. Not like the real stunts of that dare devilish Houdini, who trusses himself up like an animal bound for slaughter and swallows needles. Nor is the ghost duel original to my father. Professor J. H. Pepper pioneered the illusion, and many others have presented it in various permutations such as “The Blue Room” or “The Room of Mortality,” in which a skeleton in a coffin transforms itself into a young woman, then withers again into bare bones. Still, I think the ghost duel is the high point of Professor Flint’s act.
I never tired of watching this illusion back in the days when my mother played the ghost. When I was a kid, I used to love it. Uncle Brady would intone his Grand Invocation of the Spirits of the Dead, and the ghost would appear–just like that!–floating over the stage. And you could feel how the audience began to believe. Ladies would weep, and children cry out. Some gentlemen would toot their noses, while others would gasp, with fear or shock or the wonder of it all. One time in Cheyenne someone called out, “Praise the Lord!” and someone else answered, “Amen!”
What a ghost my mother played! Pop would fling down a leather glove in challenge, whip his sword from its scabbard. The apparition would fling down its own white silk glove, defiantly produce its own weapon. And off they would go, leaping and sparring. My mother was so charming and spritely and graceful that the ladies would stop their weeping, the children would laugh, the gentlemen would stop tooting in their handkerchiefs. These hardy people of our young American nation, who faced death daily by consumption or childbirth or fever, they would gaze at that graceful ghost and they would smile. I could see joy stealing into their hearts, and it was magic.
I am not nearly as charming a ghost as my mother once was, but I can spar, I can feint, and the duel has got this audience warmed up at last. From the location offstage where I accomplish my part of the illusion, I can hear the cheers and exclamations of encouragement. Pop pierces me through the heart, I perish and vanish, and it’s over. I fling off the ghost getup, and dash up onstage. The audience stands and applauds. Mr. Pannini gives me the thumbs-up.
I can see the relief on my father’s face. Pop is the sort of man who makes a meticulous accounting of each triumph and especially of each failure, however small. The failures disturb him far more than the triumphs ever give him satisfaction. Uncle Brady beams and bows, but he gives a little shake of his head, a sort of cringe to his shoulder, and I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking nothing has seemed right since the accident took my mother’s life last spring.
The woman in the burgundy dress rushes up to the stage, clapping furiously, the red rose tucked behind her ear. Zena Troubetzskoy says, “How marvelous! Oh! How marvelous!”
2
First light of the dawn, and I smell wood smoke and the bitter, bracing scent of coffee. The flicker of a fire pries my eyelids open. Uncle Brady is already up, bending over our campfire, brewing coffee in a dented tin pot. I have spent the night out of doors, in the fog and the gloom, and I am aching all over, I am shivering, and my mouth tastes of stale cigarette smoke.
“Rise and shine, Danny,” Uncle Brady says. “You look like Pepper’s ghost warmed over, son.”
I do not doubt it. We have been on the road for a long time. I’m accustomed to sleeping on the ground or in the back of our wagon, accustomed to roots and rocks and rough boards assaulting my spine. But that doesn’t mean I no longer feel pain. Years ago, my father invested in a Henderson freight wagon with a canvas top. The thing is enormous, a regular cabin on wheels, built for durability, not comfort or speed. We require a team of four sturdy draft horses to pull it. Most of the customized interior is devoted to the transport of our equipment. I know well the narrow confines of my bunk, the sweltering heat or the numbing cold, the lack of a moment alone–but that doesn’t mean I relish each nightly ordeal any more than when Pop first started us out.
For months I’ve yearned for this engagement in San Francisco. For months I’ve hoped our stay would bring me some relief. There are magnificent hotels in San Francisco, hotels as fine as the best in New York City or Paris. What I would give for just one night at the Palace or Lucky Baldwin’s. For a stuffed mattress, a down pillow, a blazing fireplace, and a hot bath. For a cup of coffee brewed by one of the hotel chefs whose culinary reputations are repeated among vagabonds like us in the reverent tones reserved for legends and miracles.
But though it’s likely Pop could afford just one night at a magnificent hotel, though Pop suffers from arthritis in his hips and surely yearns for a hot bath and a soft mattress more than I do, the magnificent hotels will not permit Uncle Brady to stay in a suite with my father and me.
Which is a mystery to me.
For Uncle Brady is as deft with my father’s craft as any of our finest illusionists. He assists my father with our books of account and the management of our tour as shrewdly as any Harvard-schooled mercantilist. He is my dearest friend, and he was my mother’s faithful companion in the years before she and my father married.
But Uncle Brady’s complexion is the same rich brown color of the coffee he’s brewing. The magnificent hotels will insist that Uncle Brady stay in the servants’ quarters, and that is unacceptable to my father. When it comes to Uncle Brady, Pop has never tolerated anything but treatment equal to the hospitalities offered himself or me. He may be a boiled shirt, but my father has insisted upon this policy ever since he met Uncle Brady and my mother. And that was at the end of their journey from Georgia, in the terrible year before I was born.
So we’ve camped out for the night in the weedy field at Fourth Street and Mission, side-by-side with the medicine shows and quack peddlers and dime museums. The field is a carnival by day and a shindig by night, hosted by some of the most disreputable scoundrels in the far West. I have spent the dawn hours sitting up against a wheel of our wagon, wrapped in a reeking, buffalo-skin blanket, a derringer in one hand, and a large brass bell in the other. My father does not actually expect me to kill or even fend off a would-be horse thief. If our horses are accosted, I am to shoot into the air and ring the bell like mad, and Pop and Uncle Brady will make their appearances with our revolver and our shotgun. Instead vigilance, however, I fell into a poor facsimile of sleep, my slumber tormented by a dream of the gypsies we encountered in Cheyenne last spring. I dreamed of Leilani, taunting me.
My father extracts himself from our wagon with all the brittle dignity of a nobleman come to survey his hinterlands. Does he say good morning as I am painfully rousing myself? Does he inquire about my comfort or well-being or the restfulness of my slumber?
“You smoked a cigarette last night, Daniel,” is the first thing my father says to me. He seizes the mug Uncle Brady offers him and tosses scalding coffee down his throat. He does not wince or grumble at the taste or heat.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” I mumble.
“When you turn twenty-one, you may do as you please, sir,” he says in a tone that leads me to suspect I will have little more freedom then than I do at twenty. “You may give over your health to wrack and ruin. You may cast away all I have taught you, cast away your livelihood, cast your very soul to the Devil. But till then, sir, till then, as long as you are in my company, you will abide by the rules.”
“Professor,” Uncle Brady says before I can summon up another disrespectful retort. “May we please discuss the state of our affairs?”
I collect my own mug of grit, crouch by the fire, and brace myself for the bad news.
“We’re broke,” Uncle Brady says. “Nearly broke.”
“I thought we cleared ten thousand dollars in Tacoma,” Pop says.
“An agent from Tacoma showed up yesterday afternoon,” Uncle Brady says.
“I saw no agent,” Pop says.
“I try not to worry you, Professor, before a performance,” Uncle Brady says. “He said the theater wasn’t insured. The fire cleaned them out.”
“It wasn’t our fault!” I say, though I know that’s not strictly true. Pop keeps kegs of methylated spirits for fireworks effects. A cigarette discarded by some careless stranger sent everything up in flames, including a good deal of our equipment. Worst of all, the accursed pane of plate glass, which we cart about in the wagon swaddled up like a newborn babe, was ruined. Uncle Brady had to wire ahead to San Francisco for a new pane, which we employed to such good effect last night.
My father is impassive. “You reimbursed him?”
“Of course,” Uncle Brady says. “We must do that if we’re ever to play Tacoma again. Then there’s the new glass, and the extra charge for an expedited order. There’s all the equipment that has to be replaced.” He pulls a list from his vest pocket, fits spectacles onto his nose. “The magic portfolio. The vanishing birdcage. The enchanted demon’s head.”
“Not the enchanted demon’s head!” I say.
Uncle Brady shoots me an exasperated look over the top of his spectacles. “The flip-over boxes and the feathered bouquets. Then there’s the costumes. I was only able to salvage three or four of them.”
My father grunts, I groan, and my stomach emits a sound resembling the utterances of a rabid dog. I’ve not eaten a thing since yesterday noon, and that was a meal of pemmican washed down with hard well water. The water had a smell to it that much reminded me of a cesspool. Traitorous thoughts fill my head. Perhaps I could secure employment as a waiter at one of the famous restaurants of San Francisco. At Coppa’s, say, or the Tadich Grill. At least then I could get something decent to eat and drink.
My father only says, “I’m grateful our suppliers have been so prompt, trustworthy, and courteous. We could not have gone on with the show without them.”
“Nevertheless,” Uncle Brady says, “we’re broke. Nearly broke. I’ve got a bill here for fifty dollars.” He wets his thumb and leafs through a stack of invoices. “It’s forty days overdue, Professor. We’ll get no more credit from the Chicago Magic Company if we don’t pay it at once.”
“Pop,” I say, “I’m hungry.”
“Go feed the horses,” my father says, unmoved. To Uncle Brady, “Pay it. And the take from last night?”
“The theater was half-full,” Uncle Brady says. “At this rate, our engagement here won’t cover our traveling expenses from Tacoma.”
Our engagement here is to last three weeks. “Oh, that’s splendid.” I pull myself to my feet. “You may both go and starve and good luck to you. As for me, I’m tired of magic. I’m not cut out to be a magician, anyway. I shall seek my own fortune in San Francisco.” I strike a defiant pose. “I shall go wait tables.”
“Perhaps the boy should go find some day work, Professor,” Uncle Brady says. “We’ll have to rehearse without him.”
“If you’re through with your coffee, Daniel,” my father says, ignoring the both of us, “go feed the horses like I told you.”
“May I remind you, Uncle Brady, I’m a person of twenty years, not a boy.” And to my father, “I will take no more orders from you, sir. I will abide by no more of your rules.”
“Comport yourself like a person of twenty years and attend to your animals, sir,” my father says. “They cannot feed themselves, whereas you can.”
“This squabbling won’t pay the bills,” Uncle Brady says.
“The bills,” I say. “Always the bills. You can take the bills and go–”
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” says a purring contralto. “Forgive me for interrupting your breakfast.”
We all turn, mouths gaping. Zena Troubetzskoy strolls up our campfire, smiling serenely. She is composed and fresh in her burgundy dress, the red rose tucked behind her ear. When I meet her gaze, she gives me that wink of hers.
“What breakfast,” I mutter but my anger vanishes like magic before her flirtatious wink. She is no girl of my age, but a woman older by a handful of years, and my pulse quickens in her presence.
My father casts a look at me that could choke a horse. He stands and bows, ever gracious. “Good morning, Madame Troubetzskoy.”
“You remember me, sir?”
“But of course. What on earth brings you to this unwholesome campground, madam?” He flips his hand at me; go get her a stool to sit on. I hop to it, retrieving one from the back of our wagon.
She sits, warming her hands over the campfire. “Professor Flint,” she says, “last night you said you can communicate with the Souls of the Other Side. Didn’t you?”
Uncle Brady and I trade glances. My father clears his throat. “So I did.”
“Then, Professor Flint, I must ask if you would attempt to communicate with my dear husband. There is something I urgently need to tell him. I cannot find peace till I do.”
My father takes her hand. “My dear Madame Troubetzskoy.”
“Please call me Zena.”
“Zena. I am a magician, Zena, a stage magician. Not a spiritualist medium.”
“Whatever you wish to call yourself is fine with me, Professor.”
“Zena.” My father kneels at her feet and lowers his voice. “We are not before an audience, so I must tell you something in the strictest confidence.”
“Yes?” Her eyes shine with anticipation.
“I’m a magician, as I’ve said. What I do, what we do–up there on the stage. It’s only an illusion.”
Her face darkens. “Oh, please, I implore you, Professor.”
“All an illusion, madam. It isn’t real.”
“But you told me you can communicate with the Other Side. You told me you have psychic powers. You told me.”
My father glances at Uncle Brady and me, and his mouth puckers up as if he has bitten a lemon. Pop does not consider anything he does in his act to be a lie. He never misrepresents himself. The audience knows it’s stage magic. The audience knows it’s an illusion. But this lovely woman in a burgundy dress has taken him at his word. And he does not want to confess that he lied, even if he did fudge a bit. He does not want to admit to false pretenses, however fleeting. He cannot bear to be exposed as a hypocrite like poor old Anderson, the great Wizard of the North, who so effortlessly discerned people’s intimate secrets onstage, but got so addled with drink that he often could not find his own way home.
“I said I endeavor to communicate with the Other Side,” my father scrupulously corrects her.
“Then endeavor for me,” she says. “Oh, please, won’t you try? You’ve got more psychic power than you know, Professor.”
Bosh,” my father says, but he glows with pleasure at her praise, nonetheless. Account for each triumph, however small; that’s Pop. I roll my eyes at Uncle Brady, but he shrugs and looks away.
“I shall pay you, of course.”
Whereupon she rummages in her burgundy satin purse and pulls out two gleaming gold coins.
Need I say our eyes bug out?
“Mercy,” Uncle Brady whispers. He helps himself to the coins in Zena’s outstretched palm, gives one to me. It turns out to be not a coin, at all, but a fat, irregular lozenge of pure gold, soft to the tooth and heavy in the hand, without the smell of inferior metals. The sort of unmarked token gamblers, robbers, and prospectors prefer to carry in the far West. Better than minted money because you can cash it in at any assay office or bank. Or you can trade such a token for goods or services at any respectable establishment or, for that matter, with any corsair or brigand. No questions asked. The piece I hold in my hand could be worth fifty dollars, or much more. Enough to pay the Chicago Magic Company in full, and then some.
My father clears his throat again. “Madame Zena,” he says, “would you like to sit at a séance? Is that what you would like to do?”
“Oh, yes, please!” she says.
On the one hand, I’m disgusted with my father for stepping over the ethical line drawn between stage magicians and spiritualist mediums. On the other hand, I’m proud of him for this small sacrifice of his integrity he’s willing to make for the sake of our show. For the sake of his family. I don’t really want to wait tables. I am Danny Flint, the eminent Professor Flint’s only son and heir apparent. I have been immersed in the wonder and the business of prestidigitation my whole life, starting when my father plucked me in my diapers out of a folding portfolio and told me to wave at the audience. One day he will pass the mantle of magic on to me.
Need I say that Uncle Brady and I dash to the wagon like souls on fire as my father serves Zena coffee and chats with her, commenting on the new day and the alarming direction of ladies’ fashions. Pop has made his decision. Uncle Brady and I trade grins. We are not displeased.
“This is going to be tricky, son,” Uncle Brady says. “We don’t know a thing about her.”
I hold up the gold piece. “We know this.
Make no mistake, spiritualist mediums who convince the gullible that they actually communicate with the Dead undertake plenty of research before they work their illusions. They make it their business to discover intimate details about those who come to sit at a séance. They possess the con artist’s knack of parlaying what they discover in the heat of the moment into more information, more confidence. Mediums employ the “Room of Mortality” illusion; they employ the good old box trick. Let no one ever be deceived about that.
We feverishly set up the tiny dining area at the back of our wagon, rearranging our shabby little table and four chairs. We position false walls gleaned from our backdrops. I’m feeling better and better about this turn of events. In truth, rigging up a parlor to produce a fake séance for an audience of one is absurdly simple for us. Excitement chases away the last dregs of my discontent. Gold. The lady has got gold.
“What else do we know about her?” Uncle Brady quizzes me. When my father is hard on me, Uncle Brady is forgiving. When my father is a boiled shirt, Uncle Brady is the soul of kindness. When my father imposes his rules and injunctions, Uncle Brady gently takes me by the hand and leads me down the paths of new knowledge. I respect my father. I love Uncle Brady. I have always called this distinguished, dark-skinned man Uncle Brady. So did my mother. For that matter, so has Professor Flint.
I grin, intrigued by his new game. “She was married.”
“And widowed,” Uncle Brady coaches me.
“She’s Russian,” I say. “Plenty of Russians in California, aren’t there?”
“Russians settled in this territory forty years ago,” Uncle Brady says. “A lot of them gold miners.”
“She wears some expensive perfume, a wonderful scent of red roses. Nice touch, Pop giving her that fresh rose. Where did he get it from, anyway? We haven’t paid a florist, have we?”
Uncle Brady shakes his head. “The mysterious Professor Flint has got a few tricks up his sleeve, I guess. Her dress is very pretty, but not quite in the height of fashion. I’d say she’s frugal.”
“I’d say she’s rich. Perhaps she owns a gold mine.” I rub my fingertips on the token. Let no one dissuade you that the sight of pure gold cannot send a lustful thrill through your very marrow.
“They’re coming.” Uncle Brady ducks behind the false walls, leaving me to brush bread crumbs from the table. I take Zena Troubetzskoy’s hand as she climbs into the wagon. My father climbs in after her, gallantly producing a red silk rose, a prop quite the worse for wear, kept in our inventory far too long.
“Oh, no thank you,” Zena murmurs, patting the bloom tucked behind her ear. The red rose, the real one, is dewy and fresh, as if it has just been plucked from the bush. “You need not try to amuse me with parlor tricks, Professor Flint. I want to speak with my husband.”
My father glances at me, and I see the frisson of panic in his eyes. He’s out of his depth, and he knows it. “Go get us a candle, Daniel.”
“Yes, Father.” I unobtrusively relieve Zena of her burgundy satin purse, excuse myself, and duck behind the false walls as my father continues to chat with her. Uncle Brady seizes the purse. We have no intention of relieving the lady of any more gold than she has freely relinquished. Instead, silently, carefully, we empty the purse, searching for information.
A lady’s purse typically contains a calling card, a monogrammed handkerchief, perhaps a ferrotype of the dearly departed. A pressed corsage would be superb, a letter even better, but I would settle for any sort of personal effect that would provide a clue as to who Zena Troubetzskoy is. Cosmetics, liver pills, a receipt from her dressmaker, the label on the purse itself. All I require are a few clues, which I will convey to my father through the simple method of coded. . . .never mind. Suffice it to say, we have methods of conveying information to each other which Zena could not possibly detect.
But there is nothing. Nothing but the purse itself–no label–and the plain white silk handkerchief she lent to my father last night. And gold. More gold tokens, quite a trove of them.
I slip back into our makeshift parlor, restore the purse to the lady, set candlestick and candle in the center of our table. I signal my father regarding the paucity of our findings. I sit. My father lights the candle and closes the canvas flap over the back of our wagon, plunging the parlor into darkness dimly lit by candlelight. We three join hands.
“I shall now endeavor to establish communication with the Souls of the Other Side,” my father says, cleverly borrowing her own words. He throws back his head and closes his eyes, hoping to unleash psychic powers. Uncle Brady sets to work behind the false walls, producing a fitful breeze that causes our candle flame to flicker convincingly.
Zena’s hand begins to tremble violently in mine. “Oh, Nickie,” she whispers under her breath.
Before my father can utter a word, I murmur, “Nickie?”
“Oh, yes!” Zena cries. “Nickie, is that you?”
“‘Tis I, my rose,” I say, unable to stop myself. “‘Tis Nickie.”
My father blinks at me, but he dare not scowl.
“I’m so sorry, Nickie,” Zena says. Tears burst from her eyes. “I never meant to leave you. I never meant to leave you in the mountains, the terrible mountains.”
“The terrible mountains,” I say.
“And here I am in my dress with a rose in my hair,” Zena says.
“You look beautiful as always,” I say.
“I never cared about the gold, not really. I just wanted to be near you. Yet I abandoned you, Nickie. I’m so very sorry.”
“I forgive you, Zena,” I say. “I know you did not mean to abandon me.”
“Do you, Nickie? Do you really?”
“Of course, my rose.”
“All I’ve wanted ever since is your forgiveness.”
“I forgive you, Zena,” I say. “Always and forever.”
She begins to sob in earnest, withdrawing her hands from mine and my father’s, and covering her face. My father blows out the candle, and stands, and throws back the canvas flap. Morning sunlight and fresh chilly air pour into our wagon. Zena finds her white silk handkerchief in her purse and dabs at her eyes. My father is impassive. I cannot read his face when he glances at me.
“Thank you,” she says to me, pressing my hand. Her touch is as cool and light as the brush of a bird’s wing. “Thank you so very much.”
“I am honored to assist you, madam.” I confess I am wildly pleased with myself, despite the lady’s distress. I read her like a book. Perhaps I am cut out to be a stage magician, after all.
“May I return tomorrow morning?” she says to my father. “There is so much more I want to say to my husband.”
“Oh, I think not, Madame Zena,” my father says sternly. “As I’ve said, we are not spiritualist mediums.”
“But do you see how talented your son is? Oh, he’s quite amazing! I knew he would be.”
“Yes, but this is not his calling or mine,” my father insists. Do I detect a small sour note of envy in his tone? Only a moment ago, he was the amazing Professor Flint. “We must rehearse. We are expecting an important shipment of new equipment, which must be unpacked and made ready. We must go on with the show, madam. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, please, Professor,” she says so plaintively that only a man with no heart at all could refuse her. She dips into her purse, pulls out another gold token. She tucks it into my hand, closes my fingers over it. Only a fool would refuse her.
My father is no fool. “Very well,” he says. “Tomorrow morning.” And off she goes, the hem of her dress rustling over the damp grass.
Uncle Brady tears down the false walls and stacks them carefully around the plate glass. I linger at the table, mulling over my small triumph. It’s odd, but I’m sure I felt something. A sort of stirring when I’d taken Zena’s hand.
“Daniel?” my father says.
“Ah, yes, the horses,” I say, and scramble to my task. I’m ashamed of my earlier outburst. Perhaps my father will let the incident go unremarked, but, knowing Pop, that’s not likely.
“When you finish with the horses, sir,” my father says, “go downtown.”
“I didn’t mean it, Pop,” I say. “I don’t know the first thing about waiting tables.”
“They say those fancy restaurants will stiff a new waiter,” Uncle Brady says. “Profit from his labor, then pinch his penny.” He throws a look of sympathy in my direction.
“Go downtown,” my father repeats and shakes his finger at me, but his eyes hold something new. “She’ll want more than a con artist’s tricks from you tomorrow morning. You’d better go and see what you can dig up on our Madame Troubetzskoy.”
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