* * *
Agents Rush and Paxter had been assigned their last case together ten months into their partnership. It was Rush's first partnership since coming out of suspension a year later—some sort of issue over false information, Paxter had never quite been told all the details. They started off with three months of background research regarding various local forces, turning up next to nothing. Then had come their own investigation, which hadn't proved ultimately much more fruitful.
The man's record was as clouded as it was long. Surveillance and what they'd thought had been subtle tailing in Zurich pulled a name to about half of the people Ice had been seen with, local builders, businessmen, office workers, bar hoppers, from every walk of life with no discernible connection. More time had been spent arguing over equally unlikely possible advancements than anything else, monotony burning onto the agents' minds the endless scene of blinds clicking softly in the stifling breeze, idle scratching of pen on papers, and omnipresent weight of futility.
Eventually, Paxter had taken himself out and thrown his focus into cold cases. He hopped through countries and forces, interviewing personnel in an attempt to piece together a better picture than dusty and badly translated files, and had been caught up in an unsolved accounting scandal in Italy which had Ice's fingerprints all over it when Rush wrote in with his jackpot.
A game, big stakes, many players. Rigged, of course. Paxter had booked in to fly back over in several days to join his partner, allowing time to tie up his own meagre loose end. The call came the night before he was due to leave.
Rush had gone under an alias and put himself in the round a week earlier, all the details written down in his report just waiting to be sent. But then Ice had pushed his schedule forward, and the agent had been thrown in with no time to log in the movement. On the time frame, even his own partner had to claim failure to inform.
Ice, of course, was not actually among the witnesses. Not that it mattered, when there was an entire table-full of belligerent players cursing and screaming at the Italian police about the 'damn foreigner who tried to steel their money.' They collected as many statements as they could about the man who exposed him, but as per usual with these kind of jobs none knew the name or any more than 'mysterious host.'
Interpol pulled Agent Rush into their own custody as fast as they could, but their own trial hadn't fared much better. With intergovernmental agents, it was never clear to judge exactly when they'd gone bad, how much else they'd pulled. And for that reason the sentence for corruption was always more, rather than less. Even with Paxter's assertions of unplanned courses of actions and Ice's capabilities, it was impossible to formulate any concrete proof of other criminal involvement, or of its nature as official investigation. And then it was over, and Gorden Paxter was left with a locked away partner and ten months of cases to reaffirm.
He kept Rush's coin, a little memento that the man hadn't been permitted to take with him. Paxter didn't carry it with him everywhere like Rush had done, but it sat in his coat pocket when he could afford it. Nothing sentimental, just a safeguard, a reminder. Because whatever the reports said he knew the truth.
For once, the rumours had been right. Ice Devlin really was as good as they said. And every bit as dangerous too.
* * *
There were seven men around the table, seven other than him. Four of them were calm, casual, experienced. Two of them radiated just that tad of awareness and discomfort under his intense gaze—barely anything, but for him it was enough. And there was one who was completely blank, the only one who unnerved him.
He threw in a hand full of chips, colourful rings of plastic scattering into the centre of the table like jellies on a greedy child's plate. He barely even glanced at the hand he was dealt. Four of them didn't react, two of them twitched, and the seventh one's eyes darted over to rest unmoving on his face.
He was being paranoid.
Ice cleared his throat, taking a sip of the his heavily watered whiskey. It was a different art, these jobs. No client, no goal, he was just another wad of cash. There were those who whispered his name like a bible, and then there were these, who only knew him as a face.
He turned his gaze inwards, forcing himself to focus on his cards. Not bad, but he could make it better. A single slip, one quick little flick, and he'd have a guaranteed winner. This particular den had ironclad rules regarding cheating, but he could get away with it. That much he knew.
He scratched idly at his left sleeve, and the eyes of one of the jittery men followed the movement. He was young, though in this light and with the cap pulled down over his face it was impossible to tell how young. Ice could probably figure it out with some time, if he had the energy or the inclination. He supposed the others must wonder about him too, about his age, experience. What he'd seen in his life, why he did what he did.
Six years Ice had been in this game. Already he felt old.
In the short break between rounds he slipped his cheat card out of his sleeve in the briefest of flashes and stuffed it away into his trouser pocket. He'd make do with skill tonight. It'd done him well enough in the past.
He left the table while he was ahead. Not with much, but with a healthy handful. Ice ordered a drink—a proper one, this time—then slumped down into one of the worn velvet couches.
There was no way of knowing how far behind him the agent was. The man was good, persistent. And Ice couldn't even remember where he was.
No, that wasn't true. He'd be able to rattle of the street address, post-code, and police assessment of the place if he so desired, but for life of him he couldn't bring himself to recall it right now. It was just another greyed-out set of four walls for him to float through.
Not just old. Tired. Not of the thrill, that indescribable freedom, but there was something missing. Something else.
Ice looked up to see a man with a cigar hanging out the corner of his mouth beside him. He hadn't noticed him sit down.
The man grunted. "Nice picture you got there." It took a few seconds to realise that his gaze was resting on Ice's coat pocket. Out of the worn fabric lip, the photograph from the last meeting with the agent in Belarus poked through. "Old, huh. What you got it for?"
"Personal reasons," was the simple reply.
The man seemed satisfied enough. "I know it, yeah. Ionne, wasn't it? Bray?"
"Ettes," Ice corrected quietly.
"Well, whatever. Went to see that carnival once a few years back. One damn fine piece of work. Some real magic there, for sure."
The man took a long drag of his cigar and then, seemingly losing interest in his conversation partner, hauled himself up in the direction of the roulette wheel. Ice spent some time staring after him, last words still fresh in the air.
* * *
The popularity of the Bray carnival came to its soaring peak in the late 1920s, spiralling it from another scrabbling band of travellers into the biggest attraction on the continent. People flocked at the side of the roads, waving as their caravans rattled passed, cheering on their show-masters. The grounds were packed hours before the main event was scheduled in each night, flooding the side-shows and small attractions as they awaited their greatest marvel.
The illusionist began performing when she was thirteen, and by fifteen she was the star of Europe. She drew them in like no other, threading a boundless web of awe and wonder through the gathered men and women, grandfolk and children. She was a window to them, into another place that wasn't defined by logic or science or even the limits of imagination. They watched with minds that would never quite close again as she conjured dazzling images out of dust and smoke, crafted otherworldly figures from of a touch of a fingertip and a whisper of a will, and transformed herself before their eyes. From a cackling witch to a breathtaking enchantress she flickered, one moment a bumbling fool and the next a weaver of impossibilities.
They say that a magician never reveals her secrets, but it seemed that Ionne Ettes had none. For there was something in her act beyond mere darts and flashes and sleight of hand, and every person who stood in that audience as she spun through the sights of dreams knew it. Something more than just a performance. But only when the lights were up.
It was afterwards, in the depths of the times when they went back down, that left in the shadows only a girl without a home. A girl who'd lost everything, who'd run to a family she'd never known and a great and terrible world that she still hadn't quite fit herself into.
"It's cold out there," the acrobat told her once when she had spent a little too long staring out at the gradually thinning audience at end of one night, "full of stupid men and empty women. Not the place for a girl."
She nodded, flicking him one small glance before she found her eyes drawn back. It wasn't longing, wasn't that she thought it bigger or better. But it had been years, and what she did in the tent each night was as strange and fantastic as it had ever been, even to herself. The crowds were right. There was something more here. More than Ionne.
Not the place for a girl, but she could make it a place for her.
Time went by, and that nagging feeling, that spark of disconnection only grew. Not right, not here, not now. And that was how she found herself, nineteen years old, in a strange town and a strange bar, with more than a few dollars from the carnival treasury heavy in her pocket and the sort of unworldliness that incited the gravest of actions.
* * *
Paxter caught up in Barcelona.
He was waiting at the train station when Ice arrived, leaning faux-casually against the ticket booth as the other man stepped off. There was a split-second when the agent thought his response would once more be a smile, a smirk, a cool dismissal. But it was nothing of the sort.
"Tenacious, some would call it," Ice said as he approached, face blank. At some point he'd changed out his black suit and coat for a loose brown travelling cloak, form lighter in the noon sunlight. "Me, I call it stubborn."
"Then I'm in good company, aren't I?" The agent pushed out from the dirty plastic wall. "There are security officers around the corner, staff who would round you up at a single call. This isn't one of your dens full of friends, Devlin. It's over."
"It is," Ice agreed. "For me. And for you." He almost sounded weary. "Your hearing's right, agent. I'm not playing anymore. You let me go, and you'll never hear from me again."
Paxter smiled humourlessly. "Exactly why I can't let you go."
Ice returned the empty smile. "You partner didn't agree."
He moved closer, something else rising onto his countenance. Paxter twisted around sharply, and Ice reached out to seize his wrist. Not a violent gesture, or a threatening one, just a solid grip that brought the agent to a rigid halt.
"I didn't frame Julian Rush," he said, every word slow and solid. "He tried to make a deal with me."
"Mister Devlin, I'm going to ask you once to unhand me—"
"There were rumours, weren't there? About why he was removed in the first place—oh yes, I do my homework. And afterwards too, whispers that you wouldn't listen to, refusing to consider your partner as someone who could possibly take advantage of an operation. You knew he was having troubles, you must have, especially after the unpaid suspension."
Ice loosened his fingers, pulling away. Paxter didn't move.
"He wanted in with me, asked for the winnings of the night. Said he'd drop the case if I agreed, but he was never really going to do that. Not when he had the opportunity to close his first major operation, and could so easily let the money just …disappear." Ice stepped back, gaze level. "He informed you, didn't he? Without mentioning, I suppose, that he was working the inside?"
Paxter was silent for several moments. "This isn't about my partner," he ground out finally.
"But it is," Ice said softly, almost a hiss. "There will always be people who can't keep their money, no matter who it is that takes it off them, and people whose money wasn't their own in the first place. And me, all I do is get by. There are more important things out there."
"Justice doesn't work that way."
Ice blinked, then exhaled. He let his posture slump, tipping his head back. He was taking a long breath when a boy trotted up behind the duo.
"News for you gents?" he said chirpily in accented English, brandishing a bag of broadsheets.
Ice looked fixedly at the agent before replying. "Do you have change?" He pulled a note from his pocket. The boy grinned and nodded, digging in his hip pocket and holding out a paper. "Oh not for me, for my friend here." Ice gestured at Paxter, who stared before taking it cautiously.
"What are you—" Paxter began, then broke off. The words stopped in his throat as his eyes fell on the coin in Ice's hand, and its familiar Soviet markings. Rush's coin. His hand flew to his coat pocket as the boy handed over the rest of the change and scuttled away. It came up empty.
"Oh," he said after a beat. "So you pick-pocket too."
Ice turned the coin once over his knuckles, then held it forward. His face softened, expression nostalgic, tinged with something darker. "You're close, you know," he whispered. "Too close."
"You want your confession, you'll have it." His gaze wandered away. "Ionne Ettes wasn't murdered. She lost herself, in something she wasn't ready for. Just as you're close to losing yourself now."
"Magic," Ice breathed. "It's not in every trick, every show that claims the impossible, but it's there for those who can find it. It's one of the great things in this world, but sometimes it can be too much. And that, my friend, is the truth."
Paxter swallowed, reaching out to close his fingers around the coin. "I already told you, I don't believe in magic," he said, but as the coldness of the metal seeped into his skin, some part of him seemed less sure than before.
"No." The word was almost voiceless. "You don't let yourself believe."
Ice turned around and walked away, and Paxter only stood rooted to his spot. He stared after, then slowly let his focus drop onto the front page that he held. His Spanish wasn't perfect, but he made out enough to recognise the colourful markings and listed showtimes.
He didn't follow. He didn't have to. He knew where Ice was going.
* * *
It was late afternoon when the soft leaves around the edges of the camp crinkled down under gentle footfalls, a few tufts kicked up around a thin brown hem. The grounds were due to open in just over an hour, each act and stall in its stages of setting up. Tonight was the first and the only in these far parts, a quick interlude before the show continued on it's way.
The crew scuttled around, half in and half out of their simple concealing costumes, spreading rugs and raising curtained walls. The crowd they prepared for was smaller than it once was. It had been a long six years, but the Bray show had always been more than its fleeting star, still enough to make the front page of the closest few cities wherever they found themselves.
They were waiting. The performers, the older ones, who stood apart from the busy fray. There were no questions, no wondering how news that was never broadcast reached over the borders to a soul who had almost given up listening. They already know. And it's the same reason they knew to stop so many years ago, for a little girl who had no idea of her past.
"How is he?"
"Not well." They led forward toward the parked wagons, their shadows trailing behind them. The head of the train loomed before them, windows blacked out with heavy curtains. The flap was pulled back to darkness and the stench of incense.
Almost a voiceless breath in the thick air, as the others dropped back. An old wrinkled face turned from where it lay on stacked pillows, heavy eyelids blinking open. "You're here."
"I don't know."
The man coughed, low, hacking. "But I do." He raised a bony hand, gesturing forward. "Because you can't run anymore."
Footsteps hurried forwards. Strong fingers fell into the lax grip, squeezing tightly. "I've done bad things."
"You've done what you've always done best. Playing the shadows, the outlying fields. That, I can forgive. You did what you needed to." The grip tightened. "But it doesn't have to be like this. Don't you see? You can run from us, but you can't run from yourself. "
"I don't have much time left. I've lived my life," he rasped. "But this, this is yours. This is where you belong. I always knew it." He coughed again, wheezing and gasping. His hand fell slack. "Make me proud. I know you will."
There was a last, shuddering breath, before the old man's eyes slipped closed. His chest rose, then fell, for the final time.
For many moments no one moved, grief weighty in the air. Then the figure by the bed stood and swept out without a word, five steps out into the cold air before a soft voice sounded from the half-open flap.
"What now?" It was the acrobat. " What will you do?"
"I don't know."
"We understand, what you've done, what you tried to do. But your place has always been here, waiting, for you to find your way."
They were back. In Spain, in the rolling countryside, where everything began.
"Stay," he whispered. "This is your legacy. Stay, kesali."
* * *
The carnival was greater than Gorden Paxter had ever imagined. The grounds were alive by the time he found the location, making his way in under the bright banner that proclaimed the Bray show. He stopped dead in his tracks as the camp opened up before him, blooming, thriving.
"First time here, sir?"
It took a second to pinpoint the voice. Paxter swivelled, left, right, then finally down. It came from a boy—no, a man. He had long, grisly grey eyebrows, which sat barely at the height of Paxter's waist. The agent cleared his throat.
"Yes. It is."
"Well then," the dwarf said. "I hope you enjoy."
To the side of a clearing, a bald woman hung upside down, dressed in flowing back robes, that seemed to float up around her body, and smoking a long pipe which puffed out blue smoke. Next to her sat a man on a rug whose beard crawled up his face, entwining with his moustache, and his hair. An acrobat contorted himself around a wire suspended between two trees, and a woman who looked too beautiful to be alive lay on a blanket spinning gold thread from her fingertips.
Paxter could only stand, and look on at the wonder before him.
"Tell your future, sir?"
He turned. A woman sat at a stall to his left, a low cloth-covered table before her. She held a deck in her fingers. "I?" he began, but she was already mixing.
"The cards are vague," she said, halting and cutting the deck across the table into three piles. "They may give advice, but only should you choose to take it."
She began to flip the cards, and Paxter found himself moving closer, drawn in by the delicate lines, beautiful depictions. She smiled up at him.
"Past, present, and future," she said, gesturing down. Her fingers moved over to the first card of the spread, trailing over its edges. It showed a man on his back in the snow, impaled with nine knives with a tenth on the ground beside his head. Beside him knelt a police officer, and two wagons could be seen disappearing over the horizon. The caption read 10 of Chivs. Ten of Knives. "Conflict," the card-woman said. "Betrayal." Her hand drifted, taking each card in turn. The next was a man and his wagon, three empty cups at his feet, and another held to him in offering. Four of Cups. "Discontent, weariness, re-evaluation." A stave held to a farmhouse and yellow fields. Ace of Staves. "Inspiration, potential." A man gathering wheels for a flatcar. "Seven of Wheels. Vision, Reward."
And her voice changed, and Paxter leaned in further. Her fingertips lingered on a backdrop of a winter's night sky behind a man who held a lantern to the dark, marked with a nine. The ninth card of the Majors. "The Hermit," she said, the words curling from her lips. "Introspection, reflection." And an elderly woman, a babe in her arms. The second card. "The High Priestess. Mystery, hidden forces."
But then she stopped, eyes flickering to the man in front of her, then to the images under her hands. "But no," she breathed. And then louder. "But no, this isn't for you." And before Paxter could react she swept the cards up once more in a single smooth motion. "Pick one," she said, collecting them all back into a single deck, then fanning them out before him. He did. "Flip it up," she commanded.
But that, he didn't do. Because it was in that moment that he saw.
The illusionist was clad in the same robes as in every old photograph, the simple traditional outfit, but there was also something else. Something in the cut of the cloth about her figure, the colours that draped off her frame. Something that set her apart, raised her above—the leader of her people, as her grandfather had been before her. And that wasn't all, for her cropped hair, her square-set face was as he'd seen her last, for it was her herself that was different. Changed. Slipped into a place that had never closed.
He didn't think that Ionne Ettes was a victim, murder or otherwise. Maybe there was a part of him that never had. And Agent Rush was always brash, perhaps brash enough to blur the boundaries of his own morals. Paxter would still argue for innocence, always would, but out of loyalty now and not sole conviction. Perhaps, if he claimed for his partner the benefit of doubt, it should work both ways.
He'd write in his report that Ice Devlin disappeared somewhere between the station at Barcelona and the gypsy camp, because they wouldn't understand the rest. They wouldn't know how a girl longing so deeply for something other than her life checked into a grimy country inn and out of existence one autumn night, and how it was a man calling himself 'Devlin' who stepped out the next morning, hastily-cut shoe-polish-dyed hair falling over deep green eyes and thick coat wrapped around hidden chest and hips. The file would be left open, guilty, but unsolved, and the agent would step away because he knew then that there was a world beyond him here. That it wasn't his place.
He'd thought Ice Devlin's face as apt for what lay within, and in a way he'd been right. For this wasn't just a case of cloaks or masks, was more than a disguise or a trick. It was a conjuring, a transformation, a true summoner's greatest creation. And now, in the campground surrounded by small shows and magicks that all framed around their foremost, he realised what had been meant about letting himself believe.
From the midst of her world, Ionne Ettes felt his gaze and tilted her own upwards, calling his bluff in a sweep of her brow. Agent Paxter only gave a single nod, folding this round to the illusionist and her show.
There's a man who isn't real, never was, and a woman who might be. There's a land of plains and skies, but also of dreams and hereafters, which saw a soul reborn and a spirit realised. It's a land away from the darkness, out of the shadows of doubts and uncertainties, and the future has just begun.
The other man stays as he stands, an intruder in this world like the rest of the crowds who waltz in and out, seeing without really knowing. But unlike them he's beginning to nudge open that door in between, taking the first few steps within. And he looks down now where the edges of the fortune teller's gift are cutting into his palm, unfurling his clenched fist and letting his eyes fall on the etched forms within.
A cup, a wheel, a sword, a staff, and a woman. The first card. The Magician.