Sunday, 10 August 2014 08:10

The Magician by A.E. Doylle part 1

The Magician by A.E. DoyllePrologue

The bar stinks of stale cigar smoke and spilt alcohol. The light is dim, barely scattering dull yellow flickers on the grimy walls as tinny melodies from the jukebox mingle with hushed dealings and growled threats. It's not a nice place, but it's not a bad place. It's even a good place for those who know the comforting arms of the gloom.

There's a man at a table, black hair and heavy coat blending in with the backdrop, one who has spent the last half-decade dancing in the shadows of Europe. He's like a artist in his own way, one who works with the whims and frailties of human greed rather than paints or clay. But rumour has it now that he's leaving, melting away. Which is what brings the other man.

The second man, pale, flits at the counter, barely a spectre in the gloom. He doesn't belong, comes close, but doesn't. He stands on the other side of the scene, after instead of with. And he's after that first man there, before it's too late, because it's been too long already.

The year is 1937, Minsk, and the future is stirring.

Part 1


The dark man raised his head. "I'm sorry?"

"Ice Devlin, I believe they call you."

A pause, then he smiled. "I believe you have me at a disadvantage. Introductions, then? And a drink?"

He lifted a hand to signal as the other dropped a black briefcase to the floor and took the seat before him, visibly grimacing down at the grubby tabletop.

"Wonderful joint, isn't it?"

"Not at all," was the reply. "My kind exactly."

"I'd imagine so, yes," the other man said, flashing a glance around the bar.

"But not yours, I take it. What are you here for? Need something done?" Ice let his gaze sweep over the form opposite, eyes narrowing, assessing. Then he leaned in. "But no, you're not here to ask. You're here to finish something."

There was a halt in the exchange as a young woman stepped forward with two murky glasses of beer, drunken whistles and catcalls following her across the half-crowded space. Ice accepted with a nod at the deliverer and a faux-posh smile at his table-mate who took a single small sip before putting the drink back down on the tray.


"I'm sorry?"

"Agent Gorden Paxter. ICPO."

"Ah," Ice took his own glass and rested it on the palm of his left hand, cold and condensation seeping onto his skin. "Interpol lot. Is something the matter?"

"Why don't you tell me?" The agent laced his fingers together, voice lowering. "From east to west on this continent, every bar and club and underground den, there's one name that's on everyone's whispers. Ice, who makes things happen, who gets whatever he wants from whoever is unlucky enough to fall on his crosshairs."

The addressed man quirked an eyebrow upwards, amusement dancing over his features. "Why Agent Paxter," he replied, "you wouldn't be accusing me of something, would you? I always play fair."

"Were you fair to Julian Rush?"

"Oh." The portrait of casual indifference on Ice's face flickered. He raised his eyes, locking with the brown irises of his interlocutor. "You're the partner."

"Yes. Finishing something, that much you got right."

"The investigation was closed eighteen months ago due to lack of evidence. As far as Interpol or anyone else in concerned, Agent Rush took advantage of an operation and was charged accordingly."

"But we both don't need to pretend that's the truth."

The glass came down on the rickety wood with a chink as Ice moved his hands to grip the edge of the table. "What are you doing, agent? Do you have a point?"

Paxter paused a second, lips curling almost in satisfaction. He reached down and zipped open his briefcase, pulling out a yellow folder which he passed across.

"What do you know about Ionne Ettes?"

"The gypsy illusionist?" Ice replied with a small frown. "Ah, yes. She was quite the talk some years ago, star of the Bray camp. Biggest show in Europe."

"Anything else?"

He shook his head. "Never got a chance to see it myself."

"Never passed through a town you were holed up in?"

"Oh plenty of times, just not when I happened to be in a position to attend."


Paxter opened to the first sheet, revealing an artistic impression of a girl in her late teens, tall, brown hair, green eyes, dressed in performance robes. Under the picture was dated May 6, 1932.

"Six years ago, the Bray camp was passing through the Portugal farmlands. The week before they were scheduled to move on, Ionne Ettes disappeared."

There was silence as Ice looked over the drawing, right hand reaching out to flick through the folder. The few other papers included reports of the disappearance, and a few testimonies from various sources in the area.

"Well, you know those illusionists," he said finally.

"Any theories?"

"Probably magicked herself away."

"Any real theories?."

"Real? Why, don't you believe in magic?"

Paxter looked at him pointedly. "No, Mr. Devlin, I don't. And I think you should start taking this more seriously." Paxter took a breath, jaw clenching ever so slightly. "You see, thing about the disappearance, it wasn't the only thing that was happening. Seems like another name popped up around the same time, same place. A certain someone's first job." Reaching down again, he took out a single document and placed it on top of the picture. "You asked me what I'm doing. I'm placing you under arrest for the murder of Ionne Ettes."

* * *

It had begun one night at a small inn in some rural backplace or other, a nameless place for nameless people. He was sitting at the downstairs bar nursing a single drink, pocketful of coins heavy in his coat, thinking and rethinking his options. It wasn't that what he had was meagre, but it wouldn't last forever. He could probably get by taking on odd jobs, but the depression had hit hard and casual work was getting more and more difficult to come by. He'd have to move soon, try his luck for something stable in another town unless some miraculous offer turned up.

"Another drink?"

He shook his head at the man behind the counter. "Enough for tonight," he replied in the native tongue.

"Come on, you're sitting over here like an ice-block. Have some more."

He shook his head again with a small smile, gulping down another burning mouthful.

"Well you can't stay here forever unless you want to sleep on the floor. We gave out our last free room to a young lady last night."

Of course. He made a non-committal noise in reply and the man gave up with a grunt, moving away to serve a more lively customer.

It was some time later, when the glass sat empty after a multitude of idle sips and his mind still had reached no new conclusion, that he heard the call behind him.

"Do you play?" It was the bartender again, off shift now it seemed, sitting at a corner table with three other men around a deck of cards. "Oi, Ice, do you play?"

It was just a bit of fun that time, just a little game to take his mind off things. No expectation to win, and not too much to lose. But he'd always had a keen gaze and an eye for risk, and with the free flow of drinks to everyone but himself it didn't take much to play.

It wasn't unfairness, not really. No smoke and mirrors, just mind against mind. They were all equals here, if not on the same level, with the stiff cards that tumbled like water over their hands and the ever-changing pile of cash laid out before greedy eyes.

It was with double the amount he had sat down with that he stumbled away in the early hours of the next morning, into the room he'd won off one of the others some time earlier. He'd been back the next night, unable to resist the lure, and the night after that. And then he'd done something else, something more, something that had him disappearing into the depths of the darkness before anyone had a chance to work out exactly what it was.

Somehow, he knew that he had started a life.

* * *

"She was young, much too young for her renown, not to mention a beautiful woman. One that may have caught your eye, perhaps?"

Ice snorted. "That's not a conviction, Paxter," he said. "That's a coincidence."

"Ah, yes." The agent's voice took on a harder edge. "Just like how all the Italian evidence files from your casino job last year miraculously had the details switched around to point to some Romanian loan shark. Like when Lady Eliza Davis came to you in March with a deal, and her ex-husband just happened to lose all his money in drunken poker deal two weeks later."

"Her money," was the only soft correction. Paxter ignored it.

"There's no such thing as a coincidence with you, is there? You cover up well, but no one's perfect. And looks like here there's a perfect potential victim who just happened to fall off the radar."

The conversation paused, the air seeming to thicken. Deft fingers moved over to pick up the warrant.

"It was years ago. If there was anything it would be cold. Why bring it up now?"

"Because whispers around have it Ice Devlin isn't playing any more. No more time to wait for you to make a mistake. The ICPO have been tracking, but you're good. Too good."

"So you decided to look backwards hoping to find a time when I wasn't so good, and scraped together whatever you could find." A slow sigh. "Not the worst idea you could have come up with."

"Going to deny it?"

In a flash, Ice's face darkened, wrist dropping back to the tabletop. "You didn't know Ionne Ettes."

"So you did, then?"

For some moments only the clink of glasses and the rough murmur of background chatter hung in the air. Ice carefully placed the slip of paper into the gypsy woman's file and flipped it shut once more, pushing it back across to the other man. He picked up his beer glass and finished it in one long gulp.

"Well, you're the one wanting something from me," he said, nodding to the agent's barely touched glass, eyes meeting his opponent's. "It's customary here to settle the bill before one finishes."

Neither of them moved.

This was Ice Devlin's domain, tricks of the tongue, slips and slides through the shady corners of night-life. This was the world that agents and lawmen would never really understand, no matter how long they worked with it, against it. There was a second where the two men stared each other down, assessing, judging, gauging how far they could push. Then Paxter stood for the bar, turning his back with the barest of surrenders.

When he looked back to the table, it was empty. On the front of the closed filed lay a lone scrap of paper scrawled with a single word.


Somehow, he wasn't even surprised.

* * *

They picked up Ionne Ettes on a deserted country road in the open spaces of the Spanish countryside. Just a child, barely twelve years of age, tears staining her face from when she had watched her parents expire before her, running out and away from the housekeeper's clutches. The land was still dark in the early hours of dawn, and the cool air had her shivering in her thin blue dress as she wandered aimlessly that single long stretch of dirt.

"So out of place, little girl."

The accented voice came from a man, hair greying but face smooth and open, dressed in the garb of the wandering gypsies. The girl jerked in surprise, glancing around at the entire train of wagons which she wasn't sure how had managed to sneak up on her.

"You stick out, so bright among the grass, too beautiful. You're like a kesali, a spirit of the woods. You don't belong in this empty place."

She stared back, knowing not what to say.

"Come, come in. Come with us."

He gestured at the open flap of the wagon behind him, the head of the train and the most ornately decorated of them all. She saw the beauty, the rich red paintwork and intricate gold carvings, and all she knew was a life that was gone and a misery she had fled. There was no danger on her mind, then. She was just a child, and the man was kind.

The interior was warmly lit, reflecting off the glazed wooden walls. A low table sat in the centre, covered with a pile of colourful stones and a deck of picture cards. Spread over the floor were a wicker basket of bright clothes and a small pile of silver pegs, both tucked behind a worn wooden trunk held closed by a large brass latch. Ionne stopped by the entrance, stepping over onto a richly woven purple rug, eyes wide and gazing. The man sat himself on a short stool.

"Your parents are dead?"

A nod.

"The epidemic?"


"Then she is gone."

He broke off, eyes dropping and suddenly looking much older than he had outside in the pale sunlight. Ionne's brows crinkled in confusion, and he lifted his gaze back up with a sad smile.

"Do you know what your mother's name was before she married? It was Bray, Ionne. Ruita Bray. Did your parents ever tell you stories about how they met? How they fell in love?"

The girl startled at the use of her name, barely giving a tiny shake of her head before the man was talking on.

"It was a show in Barcelona," he said softly. "I remember the day. Your mother was beautiful, so graceful as she danced. It's no wonder she enchanted the most respectable gentleman in the crowd. You do so look like her when she was young." His eyes seemed to glaze over for a second, seeing the past before the child in front of him. "I am Master Bray, Ionne, leader of this camp. I am puro dad, your grandfather."

A sound outside snapped both heads around, a flash of colour swishing by. A young man spun past the small window cut into the side of the wagon, bright sequinned costume shining through the half-opaque morning mist. He leapt over the loose dirt ground, lithe figure contorting into impossible shapes, throwing himself through the air with no concern for gravity. And this was but a simple routine, nothing showy, just a little spot of practice. Ionne could only imagine it performed to its fullest in a golden lit cream-white tent, drawing wondrous and horrified gasps from the audience at each staggering twist and barely rescued fall.

The girl was frozen, from the weight of the world she'd lost, and the world that she'd just begun to creep into. And the strange man, who called himself her grandfather, smiled.

"There's a lot of that here."

"A lot of what?" Her first words since he'd come upon her, laced with marvel and wonder.

"Magic, little kesali. Magic."

* * *

Ice Devlin, it seemed, was known only because he was not.

By the time he stumbled out of the third club filled with patrons who either paled or smirked depending on the calibre at the mention yet steadfastly insisted that they had never heard the name 'Devlin' before, Paxter's frustration was concentrated to a pinpoint. Whispers met him, followed him, laughter and sneers for the cat chasing after a ghost. But that was all they were, formless, just on the side of inaudible, like that bare hint of anxiety just before the punchline of a trick.

It was different this time around, as well, without his partner. Rush wouldn't have been his first choice of a friend, but it wasn't really possible to stay detached from someone whom you trusted every day to keep your gun and watch your back. It was less of a wild goose chase last, and more hours holed up going over files and reports, plans and counter-plans, anything else that could possibly catch what wasn't there. Frustration then had been a steady grind, crunching the backdrop of stinking alleys and filthy motel rooms. Rush used to sit in the corner, Paxter remembered, always making sure he never had his back to the door or the window. His hands were never empty, if not fiddling with a pen or a document, then rolling that ever-present coin over his knuckles—Soviet, head of Czar Nicholas II, souvenir from his first op so Rush had said. Paxter had gotten used to that steady flash of silver.

"Sorry, I know not," the stout doorman said in what Paxter was certain was faked broken English. The agent considered pushing for a few seconds before scowling and turning away, telling himself he'd find an easier one—for the fifteenth time since he'd started out.

He was stalking down the main road, mentally checking off yet another potential lead, when the derisive call rang out.

"You that agent-man that's been prowling around?"

Paxter reigned his frustrated stride, backtracking a few steps and peering around down the club's side-alley.

"Yeah, news travels fast around here. You must be, no one else would be on this street dressed in a bloody suit."

The speaker was average height, unshaven, with an Eastern European accent that was surprising well spoken in a way that didn't seem to match up with obvious signs on his clothes of nights spent bare in the gutter.

"Going well?"

Paxter cleared his throat lightly before responding. "I'm sorry, I can't disclose that information."

There was a snort. "That means no. You won't get anything, you know. Not on Ice. Not here."

"So you do know him, then."

"He's the one who got me where I am."

The agent's head snapped around. "I see."

"Oh no, not like that." A chuckle, this time. "Had a banker offer me a deal last year, took every last cent and ran. Three months later, he ended up framed for some corporate espionage nonsense, still doing the years. Devlin never did tell me how he managed that."

The gears clicked into place in Paxter's brain. "You're talking about Miles Brownlowe."

"Yeah, that's the scumbag's name. I know what you're thinking, still didn't do me much good, did it? But it wasn't just my money he took. I'm alright, I can live like this. But my sister, she's a widow, got a little boy and girl. I told Ice he could have my share if he got hers back."

Paxter let a frown cross his face. "I know that case," he said, flicking a small speck of dust off his trouser leg in a way that made the other man roll his eyes. "I combed it ten times over. There was no indication that the Brownlowe's finances had been anything less than legal."

"Let me guess, and you also had no idea where all the money went after you nabbed him."

"I—yes. That's true too."

The stranger let himself slump against the brick wall of the dingy terrace at his back, eyelids falling to half mast. "Sorry agent-man, but if you're looking for someone to play the rat, it's not gonna be me."

Paxter wasted two moments on letting out a small unimpressed sound before continuing past.

It took several more hours and several more increasingly frustrating red herrings before the agent finally admitted defeat, at least for the time being, and headed into to the least filthiest looking restaurant he could find for a late lunch.

There was a taxi parked out front when he walked out half an hour later, the window rolled down.

"Hello, sir, looking for a ride?"

"No, thank you," Paxter replied offhandedly with a polite smile, then stopped as the license plate came into view.

19-32 ???

1932, Ionne Ettes's last appearance, the year that had taken up so many of his recent nights digging into with ground down nails and sleepless steeled determination. He wasn't sure what it was exactly that caught him, lingering from the strange haziness of his case and its man. In any other situation he would have laughed at himself.

"On second thought," he said slowly, doubling back. "Maybe you can take me somewhere." He pulled open the passenger side door and slid into the seat, reaching into his suit pocket to take out Interpol's file image of Ice Devlin. "You wouldn't happen to know this man, would you?"

The reply was a low grunt. "Who's asking?"

Of course, the cabbie. The one man who wouldn't know. The one man who wouldn't have a reason to fear, or to protect. Paxter felt a grin widening his lips as he reached into his pocket again and pulled out a handful of notes, sliding them onto the dashboard. "Take me the same way."

* * *

Ice Devlin had popped onto the official ICPO radar four years earlier. It wasn't a gradual creeping, or a subtle slide into awareness, the man's reputation had driven itself through through the front doors of European intelligence leaving a trail of half-mashed papers in its wake. The shadiest man on the continent, they called him, who could talk anyone out of anything, pushing but never quite crossing that shadowy line of what passed for law—which in those parts involved mainly alcohol and uneven chance. And as the rumours grew, people started crawling around out of the woodwork. For advice, for favours, for revenge.

It was after the first attempted—and unsuccessful—arrest that Interpol poked in its head. Devlin's work across borders brought him into their domain, taking up two years' resources in tracking and aiding of national police forces without result. No one could get a break, a grip, a clear sight, and that was when their own operatives had gone in.

They came close, frustratingly, nail-bitingly close. There was some adrenaline there, determination, obscuring just past the side of caution. But mainly it was just the arrogance of agents who called themselves higher class, haughty disbelief of the few supposedly awe-inspiring words on the street. Looking back, maybe they should have considered a little more who exactly they were dealing with.

After Agent Rush's arrest and conviction, the case fell through. Too much possibly compromised work, they said, and so Devlin was bumped again to the backburner. Gorden Paxter's backburner, to be precise.

Then the new mutterings started up, after more than another year of nothing but forms in the fog, and they were out of time.

"It won't hold, you know," Paxter's superiors had told him when he brought them the Ettes case, "even if we bring him in. Not unless we get more."

"You give me the warrant," had been the reply, "and I'll get you more."

It was a long shot, a hard target, but soon there would be no target at all.

* * *

The taxi dropped Paxter off in front of a hotel in Barysaw that looked like it had seen better days—or rather perhaps not given the dismal atmosphere of the area. It barely took a minute for him to walk inside, take a single glance around, and wonder what the game had got to now.

"Less than twenty-four hours," Ice drawled from where he lounged on a worn leather booth, a wine glass clasped in a long-fingered hand. "I suppose I ought to be impressed."

Paxter took the seat opposite after a short consideration, looking the other man level in the eye.

"An upping of the stakes, Devlin? Is that what this is to you?"

"That much depends on you, agent." Ice had lost the air of dismissive haughtiness of their first encounter, expression laced more with wariness. There seemed something different in his face too, softer but no less severe, no less intense. More human. "If you want stakes, then why don't you play with me?"

He set the glass down, a flick of his left wrist drawing attention to a deck of cards that Paxter swore hadn't been in his hand a second ago. He smirked at the agent's brief flash of confusion, bringing his hands together to shuffle when Paxter reached forward and slammed the cards to the table.

"Why don't you stop playing?"

Ice held the gaze for several seconds before letting go, and leaning forward. "Ionne Ettes was just a girl," he said, " caught up in something bigger than herself." The words were surprisingly bereft of mockery or sarcasm. "Just another simple soul like you or me, at least the times she wasn't blinded by the spotlight. What could you possibly have to accuse me of?"

"Nice and romantic, Devlin, but unfortunately some people aren't so easily sweet-talked," Paxter said flatly. "A man, still young, eager, careless, with a talent at the tables. He sees a girl, younger, vulnerable, with freshly earned coins in her pocket. What do you think would happen? But you know, those illusionists," he said, parroting the other man's earlier words. "It wouldn't have taken much to kill her, one blow too many, one slap too hard. Did you miscalculate, so early in that career of yours, have just a bit much to drink? Did she figure you out? Did she catch you by surprise?"

"All you have is wild accusations and leaps in the dark. Nothing. What do you know?"

"I know you framed my partner."

Ice sat back in his seat. "Are you trying to shock me into a confession, agent?" he said, voice regaining its derisive edge. "Because you won't get it."

"No matter," Paxter replied without missing a beat." Because you've already told that there's one to get."


The grainy orange light glinted ever so slightly off a single finger-width of dark brown along Ice's scalp which melded jaggedly into the pitch-black hair. There seemed something off about it, a break in that dark solidity that didn't match up with the man's seamless imposition. It occurred to Agent Paxter that Ice Devlin was one of the few whose presence was truly matched to himself, so unlike some of the other unassuming bumblers Interpol dealt with who hid their completely unhesitating immorality under inconspicuousness. It was almost refreshing.

A marginally tipsy woman stumbled past their table, knocking over Ice's half-full wine glass and spilling dark red over the edge and onto the floor. She looked like one of the finer patrons, apologising giddily and wiping the liquid up with a handkerchief from her gaudy bag. Paxter flashed a polite half-hearted smile. Ice just looked amused. She was making her way back to the bar when he twitched the deck out from the agent's grip.

"You do play, don't you?"

Paxter didn't answer. He also didn't protest as the man began to shuffle once more. Ice burned a single card straight up, then dealt out both their hands with a well-practised fluidity.

"You do realise that if nothing else, I have you for resisting arrest."

"Indeed?" Ice picked up the dark-patterned cards before him with casual dismissal. Paxter matched the gesture.

"I'm bringing you in."

"Very well."

"Excuse me?"

Ice raised his eyebrows. "I suppose I'd better go along with it now, then."

The mutual suspicion, calculation, double-guessing was palpable in the air.

"Not a gambling man, I suppose." Ice continued, beginning the game. "Just a friendly round, then."

"Not going to ask me to put your warrant in the pot?" Paxter countered, making his own play.

"I'd rather hoped you have higher expectations of me than that."

"In my experience it seems better not to expect at all."

"And you seem like a smart fellow, Paxter. I may even be convinced to work something out with you."

"No," the agent said sharply without a moment of hesitation. "No deals."

A smile, almost genuine this time, danced on Ice's lips. "Good man."

There were a few minutes of calm as they played, nothing more than an ordinary game to any lingering observer. They were even close to an end when a high-pitched shriek from the bar cut through the air.

There was a woman standing with her back to the room, in clear distress. She waved her left hand frantically as hysterical cries tumbled from her lips, the staff gathered around her, talking very fast in Belorussian.

Paxter stood, dropping his cards. "What is the problem?" he asked, hastening towards where the crowd had gathered.

"Missus here had her ring nicked," one of the beefy doormen grunted. "Real diamond too, she says her old man will kill her if she loses it."

"Should we call the police then?"

A sneer. "We don't need no police around here. Place is locked down 'till we sort it out, so you might as well get comfortable for the night."

"Well I'm afraid I can't do that." Paxter fished out his identification with one hand. "Agent Gorden Paxter, ICPC."

"ICPC, eh? Sorry buddy, means nothing around here. "

"I have an arrest to make," the agent pressed, voice raising a fraction, nodding in the direction of the booth he had just vacated. "Meanwhile, I think you'll find your best choice of action would be to notify the official force."

"Look man, just sit down, will you?" Paxter took a small step back as the man whipped up the hem of his coat, revealing the butt of a pistol in his belt. "This is our business."

"Really, sir, there's no need to worry," the manager hastening, jumping into the exchange. "Things like this happen around here, you know, we'll have it sorted out by morning. I'll even set up a guard for your man, if you want," he said with a blandly smile before pushing back up to the woman's side. From the closer angle, Paxter could see her face. His only reaction was a long, slow breath as he recognised her as the same one who had tripped past their table earlier.

Ice was waiting exactly as he'd been left in the booth, eyes trailing from the agent down to the tabletop. Paxter's scattered cards lay as he'd dropped them, face up. Empty hand.

"Good try, but bad luck," Ice said softly, sweetly sincere, wrist tipping forward to show his own. You could almost believe he was talking about the cards. "Unless... turn that up, won't you, my good agent." He waved his fingers toward the burn card. Paxter snatched it up from rough brown surface, crumpling it in his fist, and then froze.

It was a photograph, the agent realised as he uncreased the small ball in his fist, cut out from a newspaper. A tiny portrait of a young woman, above a headline about her disappearance. Ionne Ettes.

He turned it over, fingertips rubbing over the plain grey paper. Nothing like the patterned card back that had lain on the table.

"Nice trick," he whispered, lowered himself carefully back down into his seat. He pressed the photo to the wood, sliding it across. "What is this game, Devlin?"

"Oh, Agent Paxter," came the reply, much too serious. Paxter supposed he could take it as a compliment. "I only play games I know I'll win."

* * *

Ionne did her first trick the day before her thirteenth birthday.

She'd been with the Bray camp for almost a year then, helping with costumes and the animals when the adults allowed her. Months among the people she supposedly belonged too, months to realise what her grandfather had meant.

He performed too, as the darkly magnetic ringmaster who narrated the wonders the shows had to offer. And they truly were wondrous. She remembered the first time she'd seen in him in his black cape and top hat, how she'd shrunk back in fright. But then he'd laughed, and changed before her eyes to the kind old man who'd taken her in and shown her a new world. A strange world, even a frightening world, but also an extraordinary world.

The day before she turned thirteen had been the first time she'd spoken to the grand woman whose wagon was currently parked next to her own. She was the fortune teller, Ionne knew, the card reader.

"You like the cards?" the woman had asked when she looked up from where she was preparing her stall to find the girl watching. There were three decks before her, two plain ones on the side, but it was the one in the middle that drew the most adoring of eyes.

"They're beautiful," Ionne replied.

"And not just that. Come here, I'll show you a little trick." She took centre deck and spread it out on the cloth before her, mixing the cards before gathering them back into a single pile. "Here," she said, fanning them out in her hands, "pick a card, and don't show me."

Ionne trotted forward with a small smile, pulling out a card from the centre and tipping it to her face. "What do I do with it?"

"Now put it back."

The girl slipped it into the deck once more. The fortune teller gave a sharp nod then abruptly tossed the cards through the air, catching them in her other hand. She winked, then turned up the first card.

"Is this your card?"

Ionne frowned. "No it's not."

"Hmm, let me try again."

She repeated the motion, another flurry of colour, then pulled out the card from the bottom.

"How about this one?"

Ionne shook her head.

"Oh dear. How about... wait a moment." She winked again as she leaned over toward a wild-looking bush that grew a few paces to the side. Her fingers dipped into the leaves, paused as if rummaging, then hesitantly withdrew empty. Her expression morphed into confusion—genuine, not just the act put on as part of a performance, Ionne could tell.

"I—" she began, but the girl cut her off with a giggle, reaching back into the dark tresses of her hair.

"There it is!" she exclaimed, dropping her card face up on the cloth.

The picture showed a woman, the infinity symbol on her brow, a small number one etched below her. She stood before a single cup balanced on a wheel, a knife in one hand, a stave in the other. The first card of the Majors, surrounded by the four suits of the tarot.

The card-woman picked it up slowly, fingertips rubbing over the dull edges. Ionne drew back a little, afraid for a second that she'd done something wrong. But then the woman spoke, softly, almost reverently.

"Very good, kesali."

* * *

Paxter and the others were herded like cattle into the establishment's cheapest rooms, the agent musing to himself that of course Ice would get what passed as the presidential suite in a place like this. It was the only one with a couch space, so the manager said, the only one big enough to actually accommodate more than a narrow bed and a single human body.

Two men were set up on rotational shift at the courtesy of the staff. The first spent his time lounging on the threadbare sofa, half an eye glued on the still form on the mattress across the knee-wall that separated out the sleeping area. He shuffled into the adjoining bathroom twice, each time for barely longer than a minute, peeked out the door once to yell for a sandwich. The second knocked in as the clock struck two-forty and waved the other out with a grunt, sitting himself down behind a magazine and not moving until the sun poked through the moth-eaten curtains.

When the call came for breakfast, they peeled back the sheets to discover nothing more than an empty bundle of heaped blankets. Nestled among the folds was a small diamond ring.

The bedside window both led to a clear four storey drop and was thought to have been painted shut years ago, reasons why no one had given two thoughts to it earlier, and yet when tried it slid open like butter on oil. Though God only knew how that had been managed, or how much of a head start the man had gotten. Paxter ignored the woman's relieved gushing and the staff's babble as he gathered his things and made his way out without a backward glance.

A few hours handicap may have pushed him back the first time around, but things had changed. Now, the rules had been laid out, cards on the table. The rhythm of the play had begun. Distraction, deceit, misdirection may be Ice's field but this, the hunt, the stalk of the predator—this was his.

'Mr Devlin,' he thought as he stepped through into the bite of the morning air, 'still want to play?'



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