Christina climbed the stairs to the second-floor magic shop, her sneakered feet whispering against the wood. Mingling aromas of mold and the gunpowder tang of burned flash paper beckoned her forward. Behind the counter stood an older gentleman polishing a set of stainless steel cups with a cloth. The tall, slender man’s thinning hair was neatly combed, and he held himself stock-straight—confident, but without arrogance. All he needed was a tuxedo and he could be any of the old-school magicians she’d met at her father’s club. He flicked a glance at her, maybe meaning only to see who had come in. But then his gaze lingered, and he paused at his task.
Christina stepped deeper into the shop, pulling in a long breath to defend herself against the press of clutter: towering displays, top-hatted foam heads, and stacks of children’s magic kits.
“I know.” He nodded. “Been meaning to clean this place up. Best you want to set your things down. I can take them behind the counter if you’d like.”
His gentle voice soothed away the impending attack of claustrophobia. “Thank you,” she said as he took her gym bag and rolled-up mat.
“Now.” He pressed his hands to the glass-topped counter and leaned forward. “Anything in particular you need?”
“Just looking, I guess.”
Was he worthy of her father’s collection? She wanted more time to decide. Meanwhile, the goodies on the display shelves beneath the window caught her attention. Polished to a high shine, they winked at her. Finally she found the illusion she craved. The one her father had; the one that wasn’t in the case her mother had sent. Not the cheesy rhinestone version, but the real deal, made from ebony wood and colored crystal. She smiled, remembering the day she could finally make a gem look like it had leaped from one stick to the other. She’d run to perform it for him. He’d acted like she was the greatest show on earth. Now, with dust tickling her nose and fingers pressed against the display’s clear panel, the memory of the joy fluttered higher than the pain. It soared above the chatter of the people who tried to discourage her, who tried to tell her that she was too broken to take up magic again. Too traumatized. Too female—
“How much for the Jumping Gems?” she asked over her shoulder.
He called out a price and she winced. “Do you take plastic?”
The man snorted a laugh. “Cash on the counter, that’s my policy.”
She sighed. “Next time, I guess.”
“And we’ll be glad to see you.” His eyes, a watery shade of green, changed then, softened. “Say. You lookin’ for a job?”
She glanced around the store, empty only of customers. “What, here?”
“Naw. Hardly enough business for more than one of me, here. I meant”—he paused to eyeball her—“as a magician’s assistant.”
Christina barely topped out at five two, but with his last few words she could have sworn she’d jacked herself up taller. “Assistant? Why would I want to be someone’s assistant?” She jabbed a fist into her hip. “Because ‘woman’ and ‘magic’ only means little froufrou costumes and getting cut in half?”
He put up his hands. “Whoa. Slow down there. You look the part, is all. It was an honest mistake. One of my regulars was just in here, said he needed one, so I thought—”
“You thought wrong.” She thrust a palm toward him, gesturing for her things. Tossing her bag over her shoulder, she thumped down the stairs. Good thing she had a yoga class to go to. She had some stress to kill.
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