Archives for category: Fantasy

The Garden of Abracadabra Cover Final

Crawl Space” is a spin-off from my urban fantasy novel, THE GARDEN OF ABRACADABRA (in print and an ebook). The book is “fun and enjoyable,” as reviewers have commented, while also teaching serious lessons of Real Magic.
Abby Teller, the heroine of the novel, makes a cameo appearance here as well as Esmeralda Tormenta and her companion, Senor (plot spoilers of the novel appear in this story). Nikki Tesla is a regular in the novel and, most of all, the Garden of Abracadabra, a magical apartment building in Berkeley, California near the campus of the College of Magical Arts and Crafts, where Abby has started attending classes.
I hope you’ll take a peek at the novel, which took me two-and-a-half years to write. And a lovely two-and-a-half years, it was.
Crawl Space
Lisa Mason
People often ask, “Jo, how did you get into the plumbing business?”
If I’m feeling flip, I’ll say, “I’m into pipes. Pipes are a girl thing.” If I want to impress, “My mothers founded the business and handed it over to me when they retired. It’s an honorable family tradition.” For a friendly touch, I may add, “Phil taught me how to use her tools when I was a kid. While other girls were playing with dolls and plush animals, I was messing around with P-trap fittings.” If I’ve just filed my quarterly estimated taxes and feeling some pain, I’ll say, “Everybody needs a plumber. You called me, right? That’ll be two-hundred-fifty an hour plus parts.”
Tonight I’m reflective. “My mothers took me to Rome when I was ten. What a trip! We toured the Baths of Caracalla, the Acqua Vergine aqueduct, the Fontana di Trevi. Made quite an impression, y’know?”
“Yeah, all that feminine elemental water energy,” says Abby Teller, the superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra. Abby landed herself an ideal part-time gig for a student at the Berkeley College of Magical Arts and Crafts. She’s one hell of a super and a crackerjack fledgling magician.
She figured out how to turn off the building’s incoming main when water began cascading through a crack in the ceiling plaster onto her favorite tenant’s means of a livelihood. Then she placed the emergency call to me at eight in the evening just as I was kicking back with a Bud Lite and some brainless dramedy on TV.
Abby has called me more than once to pinch-hit the plumbing problems of these grand old apartments. The Mediterranean building—a leafy walk away from the Magical Arts and Crafts campus—is an architectural treasure built during the gold-rush days and registered by an historical preservation society.
I love the place but things can get dicey there after sunset. Tonight on my way up to Apartment Thirty-nine, for instance, I ran into two of Abby’s other tenants. Esmeralda Tormenta carried a mason jar with a tiny tornado whirling inside it. Her companion, by day a Great Dane named Senor, walked by her side. Since the sun had set, he was wearing his customary red neckerchief (the Great Dane wears the neckerchief, too) and black leather jeans, resembling a youthful Daniel Craig with a scowl and jet-black hair.
Abby says—and who am I to doubt her?—that every one of her tenants is some stripe of supernatural entity, every apartment some kind of fairyland or hell. She told me this, with a weary sigh, the first time she called me. “Will that be a problem for you?”
“Nah, I’m okay with supernatural entities,” I said, desperate for the business.
Abby always pays my bills on time, never bounces a check. When she calls, I come, any day, any night. Abby and me, we’re good.
The tenant says, “Yeah, the Fontana di Trevi is pretty cool. ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’”
I glance at him, surprised he’d know vintage movies. He looks like a classic computer nerd—but who knows at the Garden of Abracadabra?—with peculiar eyes glowing in his long, bony face, the irises swirling with color like the splash screen of some exotic software. His black hair, bushy eyebrows, and bushier mustache play up his suspicious pallor.
He looms protectively over his computers, printer-scanners, and a serious router with flashing green lights. He’s draped sheets of painter’s plastic over his expensive equipment.
An errant water-drop drips from the ceiling, splats on the plastic.
“Three coins in what?” says the general contractor standing beside the tenant, perplexity on his beefy face. This is the guy Abby calls for dry-wall patches and paint touch-ups.
“Roman tradition says when you toss three coins in the Trevi Fountain, you’ll fall in love and marry,” I explain.
“’Three Coins’ is a sappy romance flick from the nineteen-fifties,” the tenant adds and looks me over.
I’m decked out in my denim jumpsuit and a tool belt with brass hooks and loops of leather. The belt holds a flashlight, three sizes of wrenches and screwdrivers, a metal file, a tube of caulk and a caulk gun, a spray can of Rustoleum, a ball-peen hammer, and a deluxe Swiss Army knife. Tonight I’ve also got a dielectric union with a neoprene gasket dangling from a hook.
The tenant grins in a way that makes my heart go pitter-pat. Blue electrical sparks crackle from his fingertips.
“I got the ceiling opened up like you asked,” the contractor says to Abby and strides to the tenant’s kitchen. “Could we get a move on, please? I’ve got a nine o’clock call in Emeryville.”
In Rome, I’d wandered with Philippa and Theodora around massive stonework walls, vast ancient baths. Theo had turned to me, tears of pride in her eyes, and said, “Think of it, Jo. Plumbers built this.”
I may have been only ten years old but I knew very well that plumbers hadn’t built the Acqua Vergine. Slaves had built it and a master architect had designed it—some guy with an understanding of pre-Christian-era civic water management. Hardly what you’d call a plumber. But I’d held my tongue.
I’d had to do that a lot—hold my tongue—about my mothers, in spite of living in Berkeley. Hold my tongue around them, too. To their gentle unspoken disappointment, I’d turned out to be boy-crazy.
e all trek to the kitchen where the contractor has set up a step ladder to the three-foot hole he’s cut in the ceiling. The contractor and me, we’re not so good. We started off on the wrong foot two jobs ago when he looked at my tool belt and asked, “So where are your handcuffs?”
Phil and Theo had christened their business, “Dominatrix Plumbing.” I could have changed the name when they retired. But they’d built up a clientele, good will, name recognition, and a Better Business Bureau approval rating. Besides, it’s hard to grab people’s attention in Berkeley. “Frank the Plumber” just doesn’t cut it in this town. Flip open the Berkeley phonebook and you’ll find Peace & Love Plumbing, Progressive Sump Pumps, and my fave, Ganga Drains and Sewers.
I couldn’t really resent the contractor but he’s always got this smirky attitude.
He smirks at me now.
After they’d eliminated other possibilities—a rain leak from the building’s roof, tenants upstairs overflowing a water closet or a bathtub—Abby and the contractor decided the problem lies with an interior pipe. A five-point-five earthquake shook up Berkeley last week, and the building is old. Really, really old. Maybe a fitting in the aging galvanized piping has corroded and loosened?
“Water goes wherever it wants to go,” I concur. A plumber’s homily that either boosts a customer’s confidence or irritates the hell out of them.
Both the tenant and the contractor are looking at me like I’m the sacrificial virgin. The astronaut in 2001 fated to go outside the shuttle and fix the propulsion engine banged up by space junk. Or the coon-capped scout sent through enemy musket-fire to deliver a message to the bewigged general at the embattled fort upriver in The Last of the Mohicans. The chosen one, boldly going where no fool has gone before.
When you think about it, our world is made up of two places—private and public. I fix clogged kitchen sinks and leaky bathroom faucets, so I see a lot of private spaces where people keep the messy detritus of their lives deeply rooted within walls and locked doors. I also fix sewers and main drains and travel in my van from job to job, so I see a lot of public spaces, too, where people and creatures and things indiscriminately mingle.
But between the inner wall of private space and the outer wall of the public lies another dimension. In that interstice, elusive electrical cables take harbor, and secret communication connections, hidden heating ducts. Termites, spiders, centipedes, silverfish all call this place their home.
The crawl space.
I climb up the contractor’s step ladder, crawl through the hole, slide on my belly inside.
I switch on my black-and-yellow Dorcy flashlight, sending a beam through the murk. The crawl space is maybe three by three feet. The space smells of centuries-old dust, a tang of mold, a whiff of wood rot. No water on the floor, so Abby’s theory—an isolated interior pipe got knocked askew—seems a good bet.
I spot pipes of red brass, others of yellow brass, and snippets of copper tubing randomly spliced among them. The Garden of Abracadabra needs a plumbing overhaul, big time. I gleefully start calculating estimates. If Phil taught me tools, Theo instilled horse sense. What every independent businesswoman needs to figure poundage per hoof.
The prospect of a Big Job has me smiling when suddenly I shimmy off the edge of a cliff. I plummet with a yell, head over heels, into a deep, dark valley. I land with a splash in a shallow pool of water.
The scattered water-drops reconstitute themselves into the shape of a transparent woman—a water woman, her features discernable on the translucent tension of her watery surface. She smiles seductively and strokes my arm, drenching the sleeve of my jumpsuit. Startled, I instinctively draw the metal file from my tool belt and swipe the file’s edge through her naked waist.
She backs away with a moist smile, cleaved in two, and instantly reconstitutes herself. With a tinkling laugh, she dives into an abyss yawning open before me.
I glance around at the valley, taking in the expanse of dull silver metal studded with cottages of red and yellow brass. The valley stretches away to another cliff rising up in the twilit distance. As I’m gawking, trying to convince myself I haven’t inexplicably died in the crawl space and gone to some hellish plumber’s purgatory, an imposing metal man marches up to me, his boot heels clanking.
“I am King Gob,” he declares and slams his fist on his majestic brass chest with a mighty clang. “Who art thou, wench?”
For a moment, I think he’s called me a “wrench.” Then I realize that isn’t what he said. I’m about to spill my usual intro, “Hi, I’m Jo from Dominatrix, here to whip your plumbing into submission,” but I bite back my words. Between the metal file gripped in my hand like a sword and the scowl on Gob’s brassy face, I cobble a more appropriate response.
I stand up straight, square my shoulders, and somberly say, “I am Josephine, at your service, King Gob.”
“Have ye come to take command of the breach?” he says with enough skepticism to arouse my routine defenses whenever a customer questions my capabilities as a woman plumber.
“I have,” I reply. “Show it to me at once.”
Gob turns and strides away. I follow, warily stepping around the abyss. I glance down into it. Water women cling to the steep sides, laughing mischievously as they slide to the bottom and out through a narrow jagged aperture.
The crack in the tenant’s ceiling plaster? Got to be.
Little silver- and copper-colored children gather shyly in a giggling group, whispering among themselves and pointing at me, their metallic button-eyes wide with wonder.
“Who are you?” I say, smiling.
A brave copper girl steps forward and says, “We’re gobbins of the Valley of Gob, of course.”
“Of course,” I reply politely. “Pleased to meet you.”
“This way,” King Gob says and leads me to the far cliff where a rusted iron step ladder juts out of the rock and ascends to the height of a one-story structure. At the top is a flat service platform. I point my flashlight, illuminating a main line of pipe.
A yellow brass pipe-man extends his brawny arms toward a copper pipe-man. Their metal hands form a perfect circle meant to grasp, to connect one pipe-man to the other.
But their grip has been shaken askew. Their hands don’t quite meet at the intended junction.
As I watch, a water woman oozes between the copper man’s hands and leaps out, dropping on Gob, splashing all over him. The droplets reconstitute and she clings to him, entwining her watery arms around him, staining his joints with a scrim of rust.
He scowls and shouts. But he doesn’t push her away.
I step forward and wipe her off him with my sleeve. She splats on the valley floor and somersaults down the incline toward the abyss, laughing merrily.
“Cursed, cursed undine,” Gob sputters.
I rub the ridges of my metal file on the rust spots the undine left on his joints, abrading them away. “King Gob, why did you not resist her?”
“Oh, we resist the undines as best we can with the quality of metal we’re made of. We confine them when we can, and channel their movements. But undines go where they will.”
“How well I know,” I whisper.
“We cannot control them when they find a way through our channels and barriers.” Gob looks at me, his brass eyes beseeching. “We need a commander of the world like you, Josephine, who can move among undines and gobbins alike.”
I nod. I never thought of myself—me, a plumber!—like that before. But Gob is right. The elements—and their inhabitants, the elementals—are powerful natural forces. They stay within their nature, within their destined path, blindly helping or hindering each other as need or confrontation arises. It takes the eyes and hands and will of a human being to guide and direct all the elements. A human being to rule all the elementals.
That would be me.
Gob glances up at the pipeline. “Can ye repair the breach, Commander?”
“I can,” I say, “and I will.”
I thrust the metal file in my tool belt, climb the rungs of the ladder to the service platform. I step gingerly onto it—it’s flimsier than it looked at a distance—but it holds my weight well enough. I move to the junction of the yellow brass pipe-man and the copper pipe-man. As I survey the breach between their cupped hands, an undine squeezes out, drenches me, and drops to the valley below.
Another undine oozes out and another and another, smiling that seductive smile and laughing merrily. One undine presses her face to mine, another runs her fingers through my hair, still another slips her hands into the sleeves of my jumpsuit.
A shout rises to my throat. Are the undines trying to drown me?
I gulp air, press my lips tight, pinch my nostrils.
For a moment, I feel as if I am drowning. I cannot, I must not drown under their elemental magic. I yank a cotton handkerchief from my hip pocket and wipe the undines off my face, off my jumpsuit. I twist the handkerchief, wringing the cotton out.
The water women drop down onto the gobbins below, pooling on the valley floor, staining their cottages with rust.
“Onward,” I mutter and pull the dielectric union with a neoprene gasket off my tool belt. I fit the gasket over the yellow brass pipe-man’s hands, shove my shoulder beneath the copper pipe-man’s hands, and push their grip into alignment. With the ball-peen hammer, I tamp their connection tightly together. For good measure, I fit the tube of caulk in the gun and smear a layer of sealant around the union.
I climb down the ladder and step amid a cheering crowd of gobbin women and children in shades of red brass and yellow brass and copper.
King Gob beats his fist on his chest and beams at me.
“The breach is secured, at least for the moment,” I announce.
“Thank ye, Commander, we are most grateful,” King Gob says.
“‘Tis but one battle in an ongoing war,” I answer modestly. “The war between order and chaos, law and anarchy, construction and destruction. I am glad to have been of service.”
“Will we see you again?”
“You can count on it.”
The metal king leads me back to the cliff from which I’d so unceremoniously fallen into the Valley of Gob. I climb up the ladder set in the side of it. At the top, I turn and wave grandly to the cheering crowd below me. I look out at the valley, safe from the wanton water, and imagine Theo’s tears of pride, her gentle voice saying, “A plumber did this.”
Yes, she did.
Then I slide on my belly through the crawl space. A centipede scurries out of my way. I find the hole cut in the kitchen ceiling and climb down the contractor’s ladder.
“Geeze, it’s about time,” the contractor says, tapping his finger on his wristwatch. “What took you so long?”
“Did you find the problem?” Abby Teller says.
“I sure did. Two pipes knocked askew, just as you suspected. Yellow brass and copper pipes. They’re incompatible, basically.”
“Any trouble fixing it?”
“Nah, I installed a standard gasket.”
Abby reaches out, touches my head. “Hey, Jo, your hair is wet.”
“Yeah, there was a bit of water up there. The gasket, it’s only temporary. I’ve got to tell you, Abby, the Garden of Abracadabra badly needs the plumbing replaced. Like, all of it. Good copper tubing and solid fittings.”
“I’ll check my budget and let you know when I can schedule the work.”
“Then I’ve got the job?”
“Absolutely.” She shakes my hand, and my whole arm vibrates with her magician’s power. “Got to go. The tenants in Number Eleven and Number Twelve are flinging hexes at each other again. Rival covens, what a hassle.”
She strides out, a tall, slim woman with russet hair. The superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra, and a pal of mine.
The contractor folds up his ladder. “I’ll be back on Thursday to patch up the ceiling,” he tells the tenant. “Is eight in the evening good for you?”
“It’s going to have to be,” the tenant says with a sigh. “When my girlfriend Tabitha found me with another witch, she cursed me to work every day for the rest of my life from sunrise to sunset at Computers ‘R’ Us. I can only be here, at the Garden of Abracadabra, after the sun goes down.”
“Yeah, right.” The contractor rolls his eyes at me. “Sheesh, Berkeley. The Land of Oz.” He trudges out, lugging the ladder.
I’m left standing in the kitchen with the tenant. We look at each other. A beanpole, he stands head and shoulders above me. Blue sparks flicker from his hands. Oh, boy.
“Can I get you a drink?” he says. “By the way, I’m Nikki Tesla. I’m an electronics wizard.”
“What have you got, wizard?”
“Two percent milk, spring water, vodka, and tonic.”
“Vodka tonic, no ice. Got a lemon or lime?”
“A twist of lime, comin’ up.” Tesla putters around at the kitchen counter, then hands me a cocktail glass. He clinks his glass against mine.
“Oh, wait.” He digs three pennies out of his jeans pocket and tosses them in my glass. “What did you say your name is?”
I squeeze water from my hair. Water and electricity—a dangerous mix. I smile. “Call me Commander Josephine.”
Afterword
For a story barely under 4,000 words, “Crawl Space” packs a lot of plot and took some fairly extensive research. First, there’s THE GARDEN OF ABRACADABRA, of course, which explores in more depth the origin of the apartment building.
Then there’s plumbing. I got out my technical books on how to maintain your home, researched the tools Jo would carry and the tasks she was charged with.
Then there’s Italy and its famous fountains and ancient Roman aqueducts. I found my tourist books and got the right spelling and details of the various landmarks.
And then there’s Berkeley, a famously eccentric college town. A cruise through my telephone book (yes, I still have a paper telephone book) gave me some hints of what Jo and her mothers would name their business.
Finally, I consulted Manly P. Hall’s massive treatise, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, for details about elementals, the spirits that inhabit the elements.
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11.25.17.ATHENA.BLUE.EYES

Welcome to July, 2020.2! Has it seemed to you like a year has already gone by?
Oops, I’m nearly two weeks late. I’ve got excuses, including a semi-major computer foul-up (I’ll talk about that in another post), but you don’t want to hear excuses.
Over the years, the first two weeks of July have been life-changing for me in many ways. July 2, is the fifth anniversary of our adoption of Athena, after seven and a half catless years from the death of Alana. Friends on Facebook were so taken with my account of changing my mind about never having a cat again, to searching on the Internet, one false start, and then finally finding her. Having to fend off competitors who wanted to adopt her too, to my wild ride to Kitty Hill in Santa Cruz, a real place, and absolutely amazing—that I wrote about the experience, one fantasy level removed from reality. “Crazy Chimera Lady,” a delightful fantasy story will be republished in my upcoming second story collection, ODDITIES, due out this fall.
It goes on. On July 4, my parents married many years ago and 480 moons ago I met Tom Robinson—at a Fourth of July party at my own San Francisco apartment. I had a copy of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which I was excited about reading, on my coffee table. At midnight, in walked Tom, invited by my neighbor—the illustrator of The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Synchronicity! Quantum physics in real life! On July 7, we married and on July 11 we had our first date. Not in the same year! But we’ve been together ever since.
Strangely, July 11 is also the second anniversary of when I was violently attacked by a man. On a blue-sky summer’s day, I was walking around the lake when the man leapt out of the bushes and attacked me, fracturing my hip in three places and breaking my thigh bone. Two years later, I can walk unaided by a walker or a cane but not very well and not very far.
Two years ago, the moment I woke up from the general anesthetic after three hours of surgery, I had a blazing vision of a memoir, what I wanted to say specifically about the Attack (and I didn’t even yet know ninety percent of what would happen) and more broadly about society and our current troubles. Still confined to bed, I wrote on my laptop a detailed outline, did a solid month’s worth of research, and did a lot of writing. I felt that there would be no cosmic reason that the Attack happened to me other than it was just really bad luck. And that was unacceptable to me. Of all the people walking down the sidewalk that day, the Attack happened to me, a writer.
But it’s been difficult to keep up the momentum and I had to touch on several controversial issues, to which I’ve experienced a lot of hostility on the social media. Tom himself actively opposes my publication of it. So as of today, July 1, I’ve put away all my notes and set the memoir aside for the time being.
God knows, I’ve got enough creative work to do, including working on ODDITIES, plus a third book of the Arachne Trilogy, SPYDER, two more books to finish out the CHROME trilogy plus a prequel novella, a screenplay for an interested producer, and uploading my last two backlist books, PANGAEA I and PANGAEA II. There must be a PANGAEA III to finish out that trilogy. Oh!  And at least one other ABRACADABRA book, THE LABYRINTH OF ILLUSIONS.
More stories, a brand-new mystery series set in the 1960s—you get the idea.
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10.18.17.TGOA.BOOKS

At her mother’s urgent deathbed plea, Abby Teller enrolls at the Berkeley College of Magical Arts and Crafts to learn Real Magic. To support herself through school, she signs on as the superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra, a mysterious, magical apartment building on campus.
She discovers that her tenants are witches, shapeshifters, vampires, and wizards and that each apartment is a fairyland or hell.
On her first day in Berkeley, she stumbles upon a supernatural multiple murder scene. One of the victims is a man she picked up hitchhiking the day before.
Torn between three men—Daniel Stern, her ex-fiance who wants her back, Jack Kovac, an enigmatic FBI agent, and Prince Lastor, a seductive supernatural entity who lives in the penthouse and may be a suspect—Abby will question what she really wants and needs from a life partner.
Compelled into a dangerous murder investigation, Abby will discover the first secrets of an ancient and ongoing war between Humanity and Demonic Realms, uncover mysteries of her own troubled past, and learn that the lessons of Real Magic may spell the difference between her own life or death.
The Garden of Abracadabra is an ebook on BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
On Kindle in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and India.
The Garden of Abracadabra is in Print in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
“So refreshing. . . .This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
Goodreads: “I loved the writing style and am hungry for more!”
Amazon.com: “Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy”
This is a very entertaining novel—sort of a down-to-earth Harry Potter with a modern adult woman in the lead. Even as Abby has to deal with mundane concerns like college and running the apartment complex she works at, she is surrounded by supernatural elements and mysteries that she is more than capable of taking on. Although this book is just the first in a series, it ties up the first “episode” while still leaving some story threads for upcoming books. I’m looking forward to finding out more.”
So there you have it, my friends! I’m delighted to announce The Garden of Abracadabra is in print and an ebook worldwide.
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6.3.18.LADIESSMALL

We all could use a laugh these days, so I present for your enjoyment “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis”. The story was commissioned by editor Margaret Weis and published in the anthology Fantastic Alice, New Stories from Wonderland by Ace Books. The story was republished in my first story collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories by Bast Books. Here are what of the some of the critics say about the collection:
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis
I want to thank you all for inviting me here tonight to this, the thirtieth anniversary of my Fall into Wonderland. Yes, thank you, thank you very much. I would never have come if the Dodo hadn’t promised there’d be a fat speaker’s fee in it for me.
It’s not as though any of you have kept in touch. It’s not as though you’ve given me a jingle just to say, “How’s tricks, Alice?” It’s not as though you give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to offend. It’s not as though you’ve got the slightest notion what I’ve been through all these years.
Whatever happened to Alice, you want to know? She was, after all, such a strange little girl. Ever a scowl. Ever a snippy word. Had herself an attitude.
What could I do, what else was I fit for, after Wonderland? Of course I became a writer as my big sister encouraged me to do. You should see how much money I owe her. Oh, but you’ve never heard of me. You’ve never seen me on the list of the top ten richest writers in the world. You’ve never seen a trilogy of movies based on my books.
What are my books? Surely you’ve read The Shapeshifters, Down and Out in Berkeley and Boston, and TartGate: the Swindle and Tea-tray. Thank you, thank you very much. You congratulate me. How glamorous, Alice, you say. How exciting! What an adventure!
Have you got the slightest notion how the publishing business works these days?
One slaves in solitude over a book for two or three years, compromising health, sanity, and financial security. One’s editor pays an advance that covers the bills for two or three months, not counting food, phone service, and lottery tickets. One’s book gets noticed for two or three weeks. Booklist is snide, TLS brutal. After production costs, printing, paper, binding, marketing expenses, and general overhead to keep the publisher in posh digs, one earns two or three cents in royalties. One’s book is remaindered in two or three days while one’s editor implores one to get off that lazy bum and write ten more before the year-end.
Never mind the fantasies of hanging oneself. These will pass.
Who would ever aspire to a literary career? One would have to be raving mad.
But you don’t care. That’s on me, you say. Get a job. You don’t give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to suggest you’re an insensitive dullard who would rather veg out in front of the tellie every night than read a good book now and then. You don’t want to hear about the troubles of a girl of forty. The compulsive weaving of daisy-chains. The soporifics acquired without a prescription. The anonymous encounters in seedy laundromats with persons who refuse to make change. The arrests for disorderly conduct in tony shopping malls during lunch hour. Oh well, you say. You’re an Artist, Alice. Drowning in one’s own sorrow. It’s in the cards.
You want to romanticize Wonderland. You want to hear how cool it was. What a rave. What a romp. What a beneficent influence Falling into Wonderland had on my life. How Wonderland transformed me.
Transformed us all.
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the White Rabbit? Every advantage, that’s what he had. Got admitted to Harvard Law School. Graduated summa cum laude. Joined the blue-chip law firm of O’Hare & Leporiday. Made partner in five years. White-collar crime and commodities fraud his speciality.
Yet there was always something too precious, too fussbudgety, about him. I suppose we should have seen it coming when the White Rabbit became an animal rights activist. Joined Small Mammals Against Savage Humans. Stands in SMASH picket lines outside Saks Fifth Avenue every Saturday, flinging ketchup on ladies in fur coats. Frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. Travels round the country delivering speeches supporting cruelty-free cosmetics dressed in a Givenchy gown, spike heels, and full makeup.
His poor old mum, whom you never hear about, nearly had a stroke when he posed, shaved bald and nude, for the cover of Vanity Fair. She calls me. “Where did I go wrong?” she wants to know. “Every advantage, that’s what he had.”
“Exactly, mum,” I tell her. “It’s postmodern life. Life after Wonderland. None of us knows who we are anymore.”
You’re silent now. Not chuckling? Not applauding? Do I suggest that the White Rabbit’s youthful experiences underground had some bearing upon his wantonness later in life? Do I suggest that Wonderland was an incitement to explore the dangerous depths of the subconscious mind? An inducement to abandon the moral strictures and conventions that Society, our schools, and our families have struggled so mightily and with the best of intentions to impose upon us?
In exchange for what? Illicit freedom?
Uncommon nonsense, you say? Ridiculous? Paranoid?
Well. It makes no difference to me if the White Rabbit pickets KFC franchises dressed in a chicken suit, but his law partners didn’t feel the same way. Hounded him out of the firm. Of course he’s suing. His mum won’t speak to him. And he still frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. You may draw your own conclusions.
But that’s the White Rabbit, you say. The White Rabbit is a shining example of the Dr. Spock generation. Those coddled Boomer kids. Me yesterday, Me tomorrow, and Me today. Give ‘em what they want when they want it. Every advantage, that’s what they’ve had. And see how they turn out?
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the Mock Turtle? There’s another casualty. Diagnosed schizophrenic with delusions of bovinity. But since when has mental illness ever interfered with stardom? Since when has delusion ever impeded huge fame?
Those big brown eyes, that throbbing tenor raised in song! The sighs, the sobs. The disingenuous self-pity, the sudden sulking silences. Those maudlin dance tunes! What tabloid on the grocery store checkout stand hasn’t told the tale of how he became the idol of millions overnight? Mock Turtle, the King of Sop.
Of course Wonderland left its mark on him. I only became aware of how deeply damaged he was when we dated ten years later. The Mock Turtle is not exactly a fellow you want to introduce to your mum. But when we met again on the beach at Mazatlan, I fell for him hard. Always was a soft touch for his Poor Me act. One day he took me to a Miami Dolphins game. We stood up for the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and what do you suppose he said?
“A wedge of lemon in my glass
Of salt-rimmed tequila;
And with my French fries dipped in lard,
One burger
In a bun
With mustard and relish for all.”
Eating disorder, nothing. Obsessed with food, he was! Always crooning about soup and fish sticks. A foodaholic, a gourmand in extremis. A skinny reptile struggling to get out of that shell. Food fetishes? Try peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Couldn’t get through the day without a box of Ritz crackers. No wonder he packed on the pounds. Heart attack material, that’s what he became. And that’s what did the Mock Turtle in. Right in the middle of a performance on a Las Vegas soundstage. That’s the truth—it was a coronary. Not the booze, the pills, the teenage girls.
Of course everyone knows the consumption of mood-altering substances was commonplace in Wonderland. The mysterious liquids in those little stoppered bottles. The cakes of unknown ingredients left out on a side table. The smoke twisting up from herbaceous tinder. Could one contend that the fungus which induced the sensation of growing larger or smaller actually altered the body, such as steroids do? Or merely altered the mind? Though plenty of body-altering there. Take one’s liver, for starters. Never mind one’s brain cells. But oh so good, as the song goes. Can you imagine enduring the rat race without coke and Jack on the rocks? No wonder so many of us in postmodern society seek consolation in chemicals.
Who can blame us, after Wonderland?
To read the rest of the popular humorous story and discover whatever happened to the Caterpillar, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Gryphon, the Cheshire Cat and other denizens of Wonderland, please go my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. You’ll find new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie recommendations, and more exclusively for patrons.
Meanwhile, check out Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo.
On Kindle at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is in Print in the U.S., in the U.K., in Germany, in France, in Spain, in Italy, and in Japan.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

6.3.18.LADIESSMALL

Updated for 2020! Published in print in seven countries and as an ebook on eighteen markets worldwide.
As I mulled over my published short fiction (now forty stories), I found seven wildly different stories with one thing in common–a heroine totally unlike me. I’m the girl next door. I have no idea where these strange ladies came from.
In The Oniomancer (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), a Chinese-American punk bicycle messenger finds an artifact on the street. In Guardian (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), an African-American gallerist resorts to voodoo to confront a criminal. In Felicitas (Desire Burn: Women Writing from the Dark Side of Passion [Carroll and Graf]), an immigrant faces life as a cat shapeshifter. In Stripper (Unique Magazine), an exotic dancer battles the Mob. In Triad (Universe 2 [Bantam]), Dana Anad lives half the time as a woman, half the time as a man, and falls in love with a very strange lady. In Destination (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), a driver takes three strangers from a ride board on a cross-country trip as the radio reports that a serial killer is on the loose. In Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis (Fantastic Alice [Ace]), Alice considers life after Wonderland.
Five stars on Facebook and Amazon! “Great work, Lisa Mason!”
“Hilarious, provocative, profound.”
From Jeanne-Mary Allen, Author on Facebook and the Book Brothers Blog: “Kyle Wylde and I are thrilled to have found such a talented, dedicated, and brilliant collection of shorts in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories…Your style/craft is highly impressive.”
From the San Francisco Book Review: “Strange Ladies: 7 Stories offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.” http://anotheruniverse.com/strange-ladies-7-stories/
From the Book Brothers Review Blog: “Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is a sci-fi collection of excellent quality. If you like deeply crafted worlds with strange, yet relatable characters, then you won’t want to miss it.” http://www.thebookbrothers.com/2013/09/the-book-brothers-review-strange.html#more
And on Amazon: 5.0 out of 5 stars This one falls in the must-read category, an appellation that I rarely use.
“I have been a fan of Lisa Mason from the beginning of her writing career, but I confess that I often overlook her short fiction. That turns out to have been a big mistake! I have just read Strange Ladies thinking I would revisit a few old friends and discover a few I had missed. Well, I had missed more than I had thought, and I regret that oversight. This collection was so much fun! I loved each and every story and enjoyed their unique twists, turns, and insights. I thank Ms Mason especially, though, for the high note ending with the big smiles in Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis. Uh oh, I guess I still am a child of the summer of love. Well played. You made me laugh at the world and myself.”
From Amazing Stories. com “I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”—Amazing Stories
5.0 out of 5 stars Great collection that will make you think
Format: Kindle Edition
“My definition of a good short story is one that you keep thinking about for days, and this book had several of them.”
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo.
On Kindle at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is in Print in the U.S., in the U.K., in Germany, in France, in Spain, in Italy, and in Japan.
Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve got delightful new stories and previously published stories, books excerpts, writing tips, movie recommendations, and more there for you with more on the way.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

 

10.18.17.TGOA.BOOKS

At her mother’s urgent deathbed plea, Abby Teller enrolls at the Berkeley College of Magical Arts and Crafts to learn Real Magic. To support herself through school, she signs on as the superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra, a mysterious, magical apartment building on campus.
She discovers that her tenants are witches, shapeshifters, vampires, and wizards and that each apartment is a fairyland or hell.
On her first day in Berkeley, she stumbles upon a supernatural multiple murder scene. One of the victims is a man she picked up hitchhiking the day before.
Torn between three men—Daniel Stern, her ex-fiance who wants her back, Jack Kovac, an enigmatic FBI agent, and Prince Lastor, a seductive supernatural entity who lives in the penthouse and may be a suspect—Abby will question what she really wants and needs from a life partner.
Compelled into a dangerous murder investigation, Abby will discover the first secrets of an ancient and ongoing war between Humanity and Demonic Realms, uncover mysteries of her own troubled past, and learn that the lessons of Real Magic may spell the difference between her own life or death.
The Garden of Abracadabra is an ebook on BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
On Kindle in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and India.
The Garden of Abracadabra is in Print in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
“So refreshing. . . .This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
Goodreads: “I loved the writing style and am hungry for more!”
Amazon.com: “Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy”
This is a very entertaining novel—sort of a down-to-earth Harry Potter with a modern adult woman in the lead. Even as Abby has to deal with mundane concerns like college and running the apartment complex she works at, she is surrounded by supernatural elements and mysteries that she is more than capable of taking on. Although this book is just the first in a series, it ties up the first “episode” while still leaving some story threads for upcoming books. I’m looking forward to finding out more.”
The Garden of Abracadabra was, in part, inspired by the Garden of Allah, a townhouse and apartment complex in Hollywood, California. New Yorker writers, like Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who went to L.A. to write screenplays, and actors like the Marx Brothers and Errol Flynn lived it up there and created quite a scandalous reputation for the place. “Big Yellow Taxi,” the song by Joni Mitchell was inspired when the city razed the place to the ground and built a strip mall over the ruins. “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot,” the line goes.
So there you have it, my friends! I’m delighted to announce The Garden of Abracadabra is in print and an ebook worldwide.
Join other patrons on my Patreon page and help me after the Attack at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. I’ve got delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie recommendations, and more for patrons!
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!
Please disregard any ad you see here. They have been placed without my permission.

 

10.18.17.TGOA.BOOKS

At her mother’s urgent deathbed plea, Abby Teller enrolls at the Berkeley College of Magical Arts and Crafts to learn Real Magic. To support herself through school, she signs on as the superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra, a mysterious, magical apartment building on campus.
She discovers that her tenants are witches, shapeshifters, vampires, and wizards and that each apartment is a fairyland or hell.
On her first day in Berkeley, she stumbles upon a supernatural multiple murder scene. One of the victims is a man she picked up hitchhiking the day before.
Torn between three men—Daniel Stern, her ex-fiance who wants her back, Jack Kovac, an enigmatic FBI agent, and Prince Lastor, a seductive supernatural entity who lives in the penthouse and may be a suspect—Abby will question what she really wants and needs from a life partner.
Compelled into a dangerous murder investigation, Abby will discover the first secrets of an ancient and ongoing war between Humanity and Demonic Realms, uncover mysteries of her own troubled past, and learn that the lessons of Real Magic may spell the difference between her own life or death.
The Garden of Abracadabra is an ebook on BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
On Kindle in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and India.
The Garden of Abracadabra is in Print in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
“So refreshing. . . .This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
Goodreads: “I loved the writing style and am hungry for more!”
Amazon.com: “Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy”

This is a very entertaining novel—sort of a down-to-earth Harry Potter with a modern adult woman in the lead. Even as Abby has to deal with mundane concerns like college and running the apartment complex she works at, she is surrounded by supernatural elements and mysteries that she is more than capable of taking on. Although this book is just the first in a series, it ties up the first “episode” while still leaving some story threads for upcoming books. I’m looking forward to finding out more.”
So there you have it, my friends! I’m delighted to announce The Garden of Abracadabra is in print and an ebook worldwide.
Join other patrons on my Patreon page and help me after the Attack. https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. I’ve got delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie recommendations, and more for patrons!
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!
Please disregard any ad you see here. They have been placed without my permission.

11.5.15.SIXTYTHIRD.NOOK

This is an ebook adaptation of Lisa Mason’s novelette, “The Sixty-Third Anniversary of Hysteria,” published in Full Spectrum 5 (Bantam). A Postscript and a list of Research Sources follow.
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.
A Bast Book
Copyright 2012 by Lisa Mason.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books ebook edition published March 2012
Praise for Books by Lisa Mason
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Summer of Love, A Time Travel
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year
A Philip K. Dick Award Finalist
“Remarkable. . . .a whole array of beautifully portrayed characters along the spectrum from outright heroism to villainy. . . .not what you expected of a book with flowers in its hair. . . the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.”
—Locus Magazine
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliantly crafted. . . .An engrossing tale spun round a very clever concept.”
—Katharine Kerr, author of Days of Air and Darkness
“Just imagine The Terminator in love beads, set in the Haight-Ashbury ‘hood of 1967.”
—Entertainment Weekly
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.”
—Analog
“A priority purchase.”
—Library Journal
The Gilded Age, A Time Travel
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Recommended Book
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Rollicking. . .Dazzling. . .Mason’s characters are just as endearing as her world.”
—Locus Magazine
“Graceful prose. . . A complex and satisfying plot.”
—Library Journal
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery)
Passionate Historical Romantic Suspense
5 Stars
“I really enjoyed the story and would love to read a sequel! I enjoy living in the 21st century, but this book made me want to visit the Victorian era. The characters were brought to life, a delight to read about. The tasteful sex scenes were very racy….Good Job!”
—Reader Review
The Garden of Abracadabra
“So refreshing! This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
—Goodreads Reader
“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy….I want to read more!”
—Reader Review
“I love the writing style and am hungry for more!”
—Goodreads Reader
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria
Diary
6 May 1941.
We’ve arrived at last after months in Casablanca, which I once remembered fondly & now loathe. Sold all my good white linen bed sheets for Moslem shrouds to raise money for our sea passage. The Faithful must meet their Maker wrapt in the colour of purity, but I would’ve slept on straw, on mud, on a bed of nails to leave Africa.
Every day we were in danger. Everyone knows B.B. supported the Loyalists in Spain & wrote editorials for La Revolution Surrealiste & corresponded with Trotsky, for godssake. Fascists in every bar & café. Nazis, too, now that Rommel has taken over the Occupation & his officers carouse their days away. The Soviets will make mincemeat of you within the year, B.B. told anyone who would listen. Didn’t care a fig who listened in. Every night I feared the knock on our door, which thankfully never came.
As for our sea passage, I have little to record. I was sick, B.B. was sick. Everyone sick & absolutely grey with fear. We sailed on a Union Oil tanker, The Montebello. A favorite sport of Nazi U-boats, torpedoing a merchant ship with refugees aboard. No more than a rifle or two to defend us, should we be attacked. Every day the radio told of another sinking–in the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, & all hands lost. Nazi U-boats take no prisoners, save no survivors bobbing amongst the waves. I began to wonder what it must be like to drown. Your hair streaming up into sunlit waters, your feet plunging into blackness below. The fearsome struggle to breathe–would it be swift or slow? Would you notice fish? When would they start nibbling at the lobes of your ears?
I had to set this journal aside. Force myself to stop conjuring up horrors.
When we hobbled ashore at Tampico, I fell on my knees & kissed the beach. I mean literally. B.B. laughing & lurching about on his sea legs. I can still taste the sand on my lips. Filthy, but marvelous. The marvelous taste of our deliverance.
Nothing but the shirts on our backs & two little bags between us. We haven’t got a penny.
It’s completely true what Breton says of our destination.
Mexico is the Surrealist place par excellence. The land blazes with a savage golden light. A tiger light. The jungle spreads its tendrils to the very edge of town & the leaves of certain palms possess a clarified green the like of which I’ve never seen in Britain nor in Europe, save perhaps Tuscany. Blossoms have their wanton way in every window box, on every street corner, through every crevice in the ancient stone walls. Brick & mortar are no match for the lusty thrust of Life. I love the lascivious pinks, the regal purples. I spied a scarlet that actually throbbed, as if the colour of blood was pulsing from a newly opened wound. The natives wear their modernity lightly. As if civilization is but a garment to be donned or disposed of at one’s will.
I should like to feel that unencumbered of my past.
Thanks to the small refugee stipend paid to us by the Mexican government, we have found an apartment on Gabino Barreda, near the Monument to the Revolution (B.B. likes that, a poetic touch). Three horrid little rooms in a decaying stucco tenement. Plaster crumbling off the walls, scorpions in the kitchen. Other vermin, too, I fear. Mother would faint dead away at the sight of the pit in the floor that passes for our indoor plumbing. There is an alcove off the bedroom, though, which has light nearly all day & a terrace overlooking the street, which is delightfully picturesque. B.B. says I may take it for my art studio. The landlady (upon whom B.B. has worked his usual masculine charms) came by with two white, blue-eyed kittens, brushstrokes of fawn on nose & paw. She says they are Sealpoint Siamese such as I have not seen since Mother’s house in London.
Enchanting & I wept, realising how much I’ve left behind. How much the war has taken from us. The simple pleasure of kittens.
How can I not be happy?
Mexico City
“To the late Doctor Sigmund Freud,” says Gunther, raising his shot glass in a toast.
“To the great and monstrous Id,” says Enrique.
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” says Wolfie.
“Hear, hear,” adds B.B., a bit anemically. Poor man, he is not well.
Cheers ring out all round. Nora raises her glass as a courtesy, too weary to cheer. Tequila spills over her fingers, stinging the cut on her thumb she’d got unpacking B.B.’s papers. He needed everything ready by morning so he could start work on his new play. While he’d slept like the dead, she had labored long into the night. Their two bags no longer seeming so little or so sparse of belongings.
Nora knows these three merry fellows from Paris during her café days. Gunther and Wolfie are a pair of Hungarians, Enrique a Greek. Now they are all displaced Surrealists. A new nationality of their own. The tropical climate suits them, Nora is pleased to see. Gunther has grown positively stout on rice and beans, Wolfie sports an alarming mustache, and Enrique, well. Enrique is ever Enrique, a sly smile wrapped around a cigarette. Now he wears a jaunty straw hat and a white linen shirt, having retired his black Basque beret to a drawer along with his black wool scarf.
Exiles in Mexico City they all are, this ragged gang of painters, poets, and pundits. They’ve fled from everyplace a Nazi boot has kicked in a door or threatened to. Hungarians and Swedes, Austrians and Russians, British and Spanish and French. The Mexicans and Peruvians–Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Cesar Moro–serve as centers of gravity for these wayward comets. If not for the war, half these visionaries and rabble-rousers would scarcely be on speaking terms with the other half. But the war, now safely far behind them on the Continent, has taught strange and marvelous tricks to a pack of aging mongrels.
Gunther flings tequila into his throat, chases away the sting with a gulp of black beer. B.B., always one to follow suit around his comrades, flings a shot and gulps, as well, though flamboyant gestures do not become him. Never a robust man, B.B. has weathered the war rather badly. He has been leached and winnowed into something peevish and frail, his finely made face worn-out with worry. His hair has ebbed to the top of his skull, exposing the enigmatic dome of his forehead. Ever the intellectual, B.B. has assumed such an intense introspective air that people pause around him, even when he’s liquored up, and await an oracle.
“To Freud? How passé.” A woman’s voice, ironic, incisive, cuts through the male bombast and swoops into Nora’s eager ear. “Still stuck on nasty old Sigmund, what a pity.”
Valencia sweeps into the parlour of her house, smiling in her ironic way. She plucks the shot glass from Nora’s hand, offers a tumbler rimmed in salt. “Try this instead, cherie. Lime and tonic, with crushed ice. A much better way to sample tequila for the first time. We are not barbarians like Gunther and your poor old B.B.”
Nora, a little nervous, reacquaints herself with another famous face from the Paris days. Valencia, always towering, has transformed herself here into an Amazon queen, voluptuous and formidable. She wears her fiery chestnut hair in an unkempt mane that tumbles around her face and down her shoulders. Her bold Spanish features are much as Nora recalls. The huge dark eyes, the left one slightly askew. The rapier snout of a conquistador. Bee-stung lips of a shady lady. Altogether a splendid face, if not exactly pretty.
“Valencia, hello again,” Nora says, taking the tumbler. “Thanks ever so. You look marvelous.”
“You, too, cherie. Though a little frazzled around the edges, eh? Still, ever our English beauty. Drink up.”
Nora plucks at her threadbare blouse, abashed. You never could tell if Valencia was taking aim or only skewering your own self-doubts. If Valencia is an Amazon, Nora is a fairy-queen. Queen of the gnats. So petite and unassuming, few ever notice her, despite her pretty face and lustrous sable curls. The war has worn her down, too. She is much too thin, much too pale. Bad food, days brooding belowdecks, and despair have bleached all the colour from her English cheeks. Fleeing Fascism is fashionable only in theory. This she has learned the hard way.
Nora slides the tart taste of lime down her throat. Thirsty, so very thirsty. For refreshment. For friendship. Mexico City sits at the top of the world. They say the air is always bone-dry.
They say the Kahlo-Rivera circle is an arid place, too, harboring much public animosity toward correspondents of Trotsky like B.B. Not that Nora ever wrote to the famous revolutionary herself. She’s just an artist. But she shall surely be painted by the same brush by Frida and Diego.
Suddenly B.B. is at her side, gripping her elbow. Solicitous, fatherly, though of course they are lovers, he takes her tumbler. “I don’t think she should,” he says to Valencia.
Who regards his gesture with narrowed, glinting eyes. Tigress eyes.
“You are having a drop yourself, B.B.,” Valencia observes.
“Yes, but I am ever the drunkard. Whereas my little Nora hasn’t touched drink in ages, not the whole time we were exiled in Casablanca.” He sets her tumbler on a side table. And that’s that, in B.B.’s scheme of things. “Be so good as to tell me what is wrong with Freud, Madam Valencia?”
“Hah! Tell me what is right about Freud.”
She sweeps Nora under her arm, reclaiming the tumbler as she goes and restoring it to Nora’s hand. “You must come and see my art studio, cherie.
Nora shrugs and rolls her eyes at B.B., who is scowling. What can she do, swept away by a force of nature?
Valencia and her husband Renato own a house on Via del Rosa Moreno, five blocks west of Nora and B.B.’s apartment. No horrid little rooms or crumbling plaster for Valencia. Renato has money. The place is a palace. Whitewashed ceilings, Moroccan arches, great expanses of floor paved in terra cotta tile. There is an interior garden with a fountain. Valencia’s art studio, which opens onto the garden, has an adobe fireplace and native grotesqueries displayed on the walls. There is an Olinala jaguar mask with genuine fangs. A Michoacán devil mask, post-Cortez, bearing a striking resemblance to a Satan of Catholic inspiration. A Tlacozotitlan bat mask, a jungle nightmare held aloft by carved wood wings.
Nora is dazzled. But then Valencia has always dazzled everyone. They met among the clique surrounding Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy. Valencia slept with the great men, one after another. Breton himself had noticed her since she, sloe-eyed and slender then, was the sort of femme-enfant he craved like candy. Plus, she possessed unbeatable cachet: Valencia was a budding Surrealist artist. She painted interior landscapes. The shadows of the subconscious mind whirled and writhed across her haunting canvases.
Nora had been awed by Valencia then, too, and not a little envious. She had slept with too many of the less-than-great men, with the too-beautiful poet who wound up preferring gin and boys, and she was still painting competent Italian countrysides. Olive trees and Etruscan ruins, what rot. Nora hadn’t yet discovered how to paint past her eye. How to explore the depths of pure imagination.
Now Valencia is the great woman with whom lesser men are privileged to dine in Mexico City. For the great men like Breton and Tanguy have had the means and connections to escape the ravages of Europe in New York City. In the years since Paris, Valencia has become well-known in Surrealist circles, if not to the larger public. Peggy Guggenheim shows her paintings at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery. Valencia has collectors. Not many, but enthusiastic. And rich.
Among the canvases stacked in the studio, Nora spies a painting of a sphinx. She stoops for a closer look. Not the Egyptian monument nor the ripe she-beasts of Louis XIV statuary, but a vixenish creature with tabby-cat’s paws and a child’s face. The creature crouches in a decaying mansion, toying with a human jawbone, broken eggshells, a tidbit of bloody meat.
Something jars Nora, gazing at this strange image. Something takes her back to Mother’s house, the great rooms deserted. Everyone had gone to church, and a cousin, a rawboned boy fifteen years to her ten, stood towering over her. There were eggs. Eggs she’d dropped on the floor beneath her knees, and a whitish scum smeared across the tiles. A whitish scum lingering in her mouth.
No, that didn’t happen. You were dreaming, darling, Mother said when she stammered out her story. Cousin came with us to church. Cook must have dropped the eggs.
“Valencia, this is smashing,” she says, shaken. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Is this a new direction for you?”
Valencia starts to answer, then presses her finger to her lips, for now the men are strolling into the art studio, laughing and bickering. Tequila fumes rise off them, an alcoholic miasma. Nora bites back her words, cut off from further conversation. Well, but of course, it’s a party. B.B. hooks his elbow around her neck, as he often does, dangling his forearm across her collarbone. His hand hanging over her heart.
“So, Valencia, my dear, have you seen much of Frida and Diego lately?” Gunther says.
“No, not much at all. Watch your step, gentlemen, that canvas took me four months of heart-wrenching work. Rivera is in poor health, you know. Frida attends to his every need, as if he were still a little boy in his nappies.”
The men trade uneasy glances. Some of them revere Rivera, some despise him, but all consider the internationally famous, famously charming, and charismatic artist to be some kind of deity visiting this poor mundane world at his leisure. Valencia’s gibe makes them fidget, Nora observes, even if they suspect it’s true. Yet who can object? Valencia knows Kahlo and Rivera better than any of them. She is–what is the American expression?–she is in the know.
“Come now, ma belle, Valencia,” says B.B. Ah, Nora thinks, here it comes. “You have not set out for us your objections to Doctor Freud. The greatest analyst of the human mind in our times.”
“Oh, my, haven’t I?” A wink for Nora. And a little twisting motion with her fingers beside her lip, as if she were a Spanish gentleman adjusting his mustache. Very disconcerting to the gentlemen present.
“You have not,” B.B. asserts, assuming his lordly professorial air. Though he’s weaving on his feet.
“Well, to start, Freud hated women,” Valencia says, laughing as though this is quite a joke.
“Oh, that is not true, Valencia,” Gunther says. “The great doctor spent hours and hours with his madwomen.”
“Didn’t he, though,” says Enrique with his sly smile.
“You are all absurd,” B.B. says in such a commanding, condescending tone that he silences everyone. “It is Freud, madam, who first explicated the existence and causes of l’amour fou attitudes passionelles. The supreme means of ecstatic expression at which you women are so adept.” At that, he peers at the painting of the sphinx.
“Ah, Hysteria,” Valencia says. “The divine madness of women.”
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” Wolfie says, less clearly, and raises another toast of tequila. He cradles the bottle in the crook of his arm.
“Now, Wolfie,” Valencia begins. Taking aim, indeed. “Do you wish to live forever in the shadow of Breton? As for me, I’m still annoyed by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria. An event rather in questionable taste, even for Surrealists, don’t you think? How like Breton, publishing photographs of those poor lunatics at Salpetriere Hospital. As an artistic statement! All of them women, of course, in psychotic fugue and various stages of undress. You’d rather have your women mad than freethinking, eh, B.B.?”
Nora waits, breathless, for her lover’s answer.
“I agree, the quality of the photographs was rather poor,” he replies in a mild tone. “But Breton’s lack of talent as a publisher is not the point. Come now, admit it, Valencia. Sigmund Freud was the first man in history to truly understand women.”
“And what did Freud understand, pray tell?”
“Why, that women are the link to the subconscious mind.”
“Whose subconscious mind?” Valencia says. She clarifies, “The subconscious mind of whom?”
“Don’t be obtuse, Valencia,” B.B. says. “Freud exalts Woman. She is the link to the Id of the Artist. To the darkness. To the lurking dirtiness. She disturbs the Poet, and She compels him. She penetrates his every inhibition. She unleashes his forbidden desires, oh yes. She is the key, the trigger, the perfumed bomb. She is that onto which his passions may be projected. She is his fantasy, and his fantasy fulfilled.”
“A blank slate, is that what you mean, B.B.? An empty vessel with no thoughts or talents of her own?”
“She is my Muse,” B.B. says. He squeezes Nora’s neck so tightly she winces in pain.
“Dear old B.B. So dependent on women, after all.” Her glinting eyes turn to Nora. “And what about you, cherie? Is he your key, your trigger? How does he compel you when you paint your vision?”
Nora blushes. She has no answer.
“As for me,” Valencia declares, “I am my Muse.”
Diary
22 June 1941.
V. has changed my life. We see each other nearly every day. Teacher, soul-sister, friend. Muse, indeed, for she challenges me to look beyond the surface of the world. To look deep within myself & my imagination. To view our Art as a Calling & a Quest, not merely decoration for the rich.
Gossipmonger, too. V. is filled with talk about things going on everywhere. A spider tugging at each strand of her web for juicy morsels. How I adore it! She claims Kahlo has such a mustache on her lip from pleasing Rivera too much. You know what I mean. Certain prostitutes on the Rue de G develop the same problem, she says, with a twist of her imaginary mustache. I don’t know if this could possibly be true, but it makes for an awfully nasty rumor. Kahlo is a tragic figure, of course, with her grievous injury & her beautiful tortured paintings & having to cater to Rivera with his temper & his mistresses. Yet as much as I do truly pity her, I find her theatrical & intimidating & have not sought out her company, nor she mine. In any case, B.B. disapproves of her & Diego, but that’s politics.
V. studies a Swiss psychoanalyst, one Carl Jung. Once Freud’s disciple, Jung was cast out of his circle over theoretical/political dissension. V. adores Jung almost as much as she despises Freud. Jung is on to something when he talks about the subconscious, V. says. Rather than the repository of eroticism & primitivism (as Freud would have it), the subconscious (for Jung) is the repository of occult wisdom & magical powers. “Magical powers” being a metaphor for one’s inner strengths & talents. Jung does not actually believe magical powers exist, does he?
Like Freud, Jung believes the subconscious is essentially female. Intuition feminine, too. If this is so, then Woman is not only erotic, but also occult.
V. is deeply moved by these ideas. I’m much taken, too, but not quite sure what to believe. (I read V.’s books in her art studio. Don’t dare bring them home, should B.B. find them & throw them in the trash.)
Yesterday at the market V. & I found a plant with strange, egg-like fruit. We didn’t know what it was, had never seen such a thing before. V. told me to run & fetch my brushes & bring them to her studio, which I did, posthaste. We placed the plant in her garden & arranged my brushes around it. V. claimed the light of the full moon would fall upon everything & the Alchemical Egg would bless my brushes with creative power. Together we composed & then recited an incantation & danced like dervishes & drank a liter of red wine, all of which I found quite amusing. V. assured me this is not frivolous, this is inspiration. This is Magic. Lord, I will try anything to overcome this block of mine.
On my way home I found a tiny bird’s nest which had fallen to the pavement. A sticky little ball of twigs & spider silk & tucked inside, an egg no larger than a gumdrop. I picked the nest up & placed it in the crotch of a lemon tree next to the sidewalk. The very moment I did this, mother hummingbird flitted up & hovered, as if in thanks, blinking at me with her tiny beady bird eyes. I prayed: Oh Alchemical Egg, give birth to Me.
Silly, I know, but there you are & I was so happy, thinking this is a very good omen.
Started pencil sketches for a new painting tonight. My first work in Mexico City: a woman curled up inside of an egg.
Mexico City
Nora is exhausted by the time she arrives home from the advertising agency. The downtown bus was running late, she’s been running a fever for a week, there is nothing decent in the cupboard for dinner, and, to top it off, B.B. is in a foul mood again.
“Where have you been?” he snaps as she drags in the door.
“At work, of course,” she snaps back.
“At Valencia’s again,” he says. On principle, he cannot object to her friendship with the great Surrealist Artist, but he chafes at her devotion to her friend just the same.
“At work,” she repeats. “And at Valencia’s,” softening her tone, for what is the use of quarreling with B.B.? “I wanted to visit the cats.”
Nora could not afford to keep the Siamese kittens, who have transformed themselves into sleek little chocolate-cheeked panthers. Valencia, who is such a cat lover that friends have nicknamed her Felina, gladly them took in, but it’s discouraging. Nora cannot afford to keep cats. Nora cannot afford much more than their rent, rice, and beans. She cannot afford new shoes. She lines the insides of her once-fine Italian leather pumps with newspaper. She cannot afford a new blouse. She washes perspiration stains out of the weary old cotton with lye soap and a scrub brush. The advertising agency is pleased with her projects, simple but energetic pen-and-ink drawings extolling the virtues of aspirin and hair tonic, but they only pay for piecework, which amounts to little.
B.B., on the other hand, does not work in any gainful way. After losing his family’s house and land in Vienna to the Nazis, he has been paralyzed with grief though–Nora reminds herself–he never worked in any gainful way before then, either. He is unable to face the daily stringency of reporting to an office. He feels he does not speak Spanish well enough to translate or write for a local newspaper.
In any case, he’s started the new play. How can I write for a newspaper, he wants to know, if I’m to write the new play? Sometimes Nora thinks B.B. would be content to live in the streets and beg for food, all for the sake of the new play. Still, the play is his salvation. Everything he lives for. If not for the play, he tells her, I would have hanged myself a year ago.
This frightens her, this talk of hanging himself. Nora has loved B.B. for years. She reveres him. He was a great man, a poet and a playwright respected in Paris, in all of Europe, by Breton himself, an entire decade before she met him. She, his young lover, cannot possibly allow B.B. to live in the streets and beg for food. Let alone hang himself.
Still, there is the troublesome fact that he has written nothing significant in the year after their exile and flight. Oh, a page or two since the day she unpacked his papers upon arriving in Mexico City. She must be patient, she tells herself. He’s returning to his work, thanks to her. You‘re all I have left in the world, he tells her. You are my Muse.
“Did you get cigarettes? Tequila?” he growls now. Tobacco and booze fuel him. He must have cigarettes and tequila if he is to write the new play.
“I forgot we were out.”
Nora has hidden cigarettes in her little art studio for herself, for the hard-won moments when she can be there, painting. Her secret stash, which she refuses to share. Having to work has considerably slowed progress on her new painting. Yet Nora goes to the advertising agency and takes in sewing when she can because she would not be content to live in the streets and beg for food. She must at least have rice and beans. At the least the apartment on Gabino Barreda. She can do without new shoes and new blouses, but she must have paint. She must have canvases.
“Well, give me some money,” he says, “and I’ll go fetch everything.”
She gives him the last of her money for the week, and he goes out in search of cigarettes and tequila. She washes her hands and her face in the washbasin in the corner. Still mopping her neck with a towel, she drifts to his desk.
His work is put away, as usual, or covered up with a sheet of blank paper. He has not felt ready to show her the play, he says, and she respects that, the fragility of a new creation. She twinges with guilt at violating his orders not to disturb his things, but she’s not disturbing anything, she’s merely peeking. She picks up his ashtray, which needs emptying, anyway, and observes he has left a sheet of paper in his typewriter. Out of carelessness, his hangover, or deliberately, she cannot be sure. There, on the half-typed page she reads:
JUSTINE
I beg you, Master! Please, not again, I cannot bear it!
MASTER
(chaining her left ankle to the bedpost)
Yes, again, my little love. One day you will beg me for it.
Nora goes to the kitchen, puts rice on to boil. She heats oil in the skillet and fries the last of the curling tortillas. Hot grease spatters her hands. She feels nothing. Nothing but the anger in her heart. When B.B. strolls in with his cigarettes and tequila, she bangs the skillet down and stomps out to the living room.
“So. The new play,” she says, tapping her toe, crossing her arms, tucking her grease-spattered hands into her armpits. “You are rewriting Marquis de Sade? A new Sade play?”
“I told you to stay away from my desk,” he says mildly.
Ah. Deliberately, then.
“What are you thinking, B.B.? Where is the audience for a new Sade play? Who gives a damn about Sade when Hitler has chained up all of Europe? When he lusts for Russia, for Africa? For the whole world?”
The radio and the newspapers are filled with the news. Hitler’s troops invade Russia! The Wehrmacht deploys two hundred divisions! Aimed at Leningrad, at Moscow, at the Ukraine. The Soviet army stumbles in chaos. Bombs decimate hundreds of Soviet aircraft on the ground. The planes hadn’t even had time to take off. The Stalin Line lies in ruins, Stalin himself is in a stupor.
“On the contrary, the times are exactly right for Sade,” he says, pouring out a shot. His hands shake and he spills tequila on the table. He laps the liquor up like a dog. “Hitler violates in the realm of politics and suppresses the personal.”
“Well! That is hardly a Surrealist revolutionary statement, B.B. That is bloody monstrous.”
“Monstrous! Yes! Exactly right, my little Nora! My play shall prove that violation in the realm of the personal will liberate our politics. When the common man sets out to explore the extremes of his fantasies, his exploration causes his society to become a more liberated and tolerant place.”
“And why, pray, is that?”
“Because the common man need not sublimate his desires and act out those sublimations and suppressions against his fellow citizen, his coworker, and his comrade.”
Nora does not know how to refute this theory.
B.B. grins at her silence. “Marquis de Sade was a great sexual revolutionary, fully conversant with his subconscious mind. A man who penetrated his secret obsessions without the benefit of Freudian psychoanalysis. Breton greatly admires Sade, you know. He says the man was a Surrealist, a pre-Surrealist. I cannot wait to show him my manuscript!”
“Sade and Freud and Breton,” she says. “Such cozy bedfellows. Comrades in despising and degrading women.”
“Oh, I see,” B.B. says coldly.
“You see what?”
“Madam Valencia’s influence has begun to confuse you. Sade, of all men, believed in the liberation of Woman. He believed Woman should be freed of her maternity, of her domesticity. Is that what you really want, Nora? Babies and housework?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. This is only too true. She fled the bourgeois life long ago, searching for something more.
“No, you don’t, nor should you. Because you are an Artist, my little Nora. Do you really serve me so much? Do I demand a brilliant dinner? A spotless household? Heirs bouncing on my knee? No. I free you, Nora. I give you the key to your freedom so you may pursue your Art.”
The anger in her heart flares hotter. “Dear me, I didn’t realize you held the key to my prison.”
“Of course I do. Men always hold the key. Sade understood this.”
“Sade,” she says, “was a madman.”
“His prose style is exquisite,” B.B. says mildly.
After their rustic dinner, B.B. insists on making love. Nora resists at first, then gulps lime-and-tequila, and lies down on their bed. She does not fear B.B. She may be petite, but she’s stronger than him in many ways and much younger. He has never physically harmed her. She is certain he would never try. Yet she wants to know–how has he changed, if Sade is on his mind? What liberation will he bring her, if the liberation of Woman is the object of his creative inquiry?
But he is tender and respectful, as always, and she is both relieved and inexplicably disappointed. B.B. does not live his Art. His Art does not authenticate his life, his relationship with her, or his reckoning with the world. His Art is no Calling. It’s an entertainment. An entertainment no one will be entertained by. Especially her.
As he strives for his climax, she runs her fingertips down the slope of his back. The little knobs of his spine are so delicate. For a moment she believes she could crush them, like eggshells, with her thumbs.
To read the rest of this fascinating story, discover what momentous event Nora dreams of, discover her disastrous relationship with B.B., and read the Postscript about the real artists the story is based on and the sources I consulted, friends, readers, and fans, please join 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 exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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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.”
To discover what Danny finds out about Zena and the dark secrets of his past, read the complete story of “Every Mystery Unexplainedand join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. Thank you for your help while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
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In 1996, the (now-late) editor, writer, and my dear friend, Janet Berliner had a hot streak. She wrangled excellent deals for three anthologies with Big Publishers, for which she commissioned me to contribute three stories, including this one for the anthology, David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.
Yes, that David Copperfield, the handsome stage magician who appeared frequently on television in the 1990s and has a long-running show in Las Vegas (still, I think). From the San Francisco Bay Area where I met her, Jan had moved to Las Vegas, crossed paths with David, and convinced him (she could be very convincing) to put his name on the anthology. He contributed a story, as well.
The gorgeous hardcover anthology was published by HarperPrism (a division of HarperCollins) in 1996, then also in a mass paperback edition, and in several foreign countries.
Jan’s proposal could not have come at a better time. I’d recently finished The Gilded Age, a time travel which takes place in 1895 and in 2395, as well as Celestial Girl, A Lily Modjeska Mystery, a four mini-book series and a passionate historical mystery which takes place exclusively in 1895. I was conversant in that time period in San Francisco and I was fluent in my Victorian voice, which is a bit different from my modern voice(s).
The project was also ably suited to my resources at hand.
It turns out that Tom Robinson, the abstract symbolist artist and studio jeweler (and my husband), was fascinated by stage magic as a boy growing up in Los Angeles. He collected stage magic magazines and books, acquired magic tricks from a local curio shop, and invented a few tricks himself.
He and a friend were wandering through their neighborhood in the Los Angeles hills when they came upon a fence surrounding a warehouse. In the backyard were placards and instruments and strange devices. Tom recognized them at once. “Those are stage magic tricks!” He hopped over the fence and met John Guaghan, the premier stage magic illusion-builder in the world, purveyor to Blackstone and probably to the young David Copperfield. Tom worked for Guaghan while he was still a teenager in high school, building and decorating stage magic illusions.
he opening quotation of “Every Mystery Unexplained” (and the title) is from one of Tom’s magic books and the ebook cover of “The Great Socar”, a stage magician from India, is a charming illustration from one of Tom’s carefully preserved magazines.
My story, “Every Mystery Unexplained”, is the only stage magic story in Tales of the Impossible. I expected other authors to turn in stage magic stories, but they didn’t. Mine is the only one!
Here’s what one critic had to say:
“This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history . . .  Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. My favorite story of the year!”
-Katherine Nabity, The Writerly Reader
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