The First: Esther Diamond Novel
Detective Lopez looked like he’d had a rough night on the tiles. I had a feeling I looked worse. In any event, there was no doubt that I looked ridiculous. Virtue’s flowing yellow and gold robes, elaborate headdress, and sparkling makeup looked distinctly out of place in the squad room. If we had been anywhere other than New York City, I would be attracting attention. As it was, Lopez stared at me as if he dearly hoped I was a figment of his imagination.
“Someone left this clipping at the theater last night,” I said, handing him the envelope. “I think it must have been the same person.”
“The man wearing a duster who thinks Evil is among us?”
Surprised he remembered yesterday’s conversation so well, I blinked. Glitter fell from my lashes to my cheeks. I brushed it away. “Yes.”
“I don’t think your hair goes with that outfit,” he said, studying me with bloodshot eyes.
“Just read it,” I snapped.
“No, I mean, I like your hair,” he said. “I just don’t think … Um, never mind. Sorry. Late-night bust. I’m a little …” Lopez shook himself, then opened the envelope, took out the enclosed clipping and read aloud, “‘Woman Vanishes Into Thin Air.'” He gave me an enigmatic glance and continued. “‘The Great Hidalgo’s Marvelous Carnival of Magic and Illusion brought Catherine Harrington Lowell’s eighth birthday party to a crashing halt in her parents’ Upper East Side home two days ago. Having caused his beautiful assistant to disappear, the Great Hidalgo was unsuccessful in any of his attempts to make the woman materialize again.'” He stared at me. “Oh, Christ. You can’t be serious.”
“Come on, detective. Don’t you find this too improbable for coincidence? Two women disappear during vanishing acts, and now I’m being warned not to do the vanishing trick? Don’t you think something strange is going on?”
He was rubbing his forehead again. “I think it’s a hell of a tabloid story.”
“They don’t mention Golly. No one knows about that yet.”
He closed his eyes. “Are you actually suggesting—”
“Don’t you think we should talk to this Hidalgo guy?”
His eyes snapped open. “We?”
“Yes. After all, I’m the one at risk here, and y—”
“So don’t do the trick, Esther.”
“It’s my job!”
He shook his head. “This is crazy. This is really …” He paused, took a long breath, and seemed to count silently to ten or perhaps recite the Serenity Prayer. Then he said, “Look, if you’re really worried about vanishing into thin air, shouldn’t you be talking to Herlihy? He’s the one who made Golly Gee disappear, after all.”
“That’s exactly what he thinks.”
“Is it really?”
“He’s irrational on the subject. I don’t dare tell him about this.”
“But you felt obliged to tell me,” Lopez said wearily.
“You’re the investigating officer.”
“You called me Esther a minute ago,” I said inanely.
“And I’m already regretting the impulse,” he replied. “Look, aside from the fact that I am an extremely busy, overworked, underpaid—”
“But this is what you’re underpaid to do!”
“There still isn’t anything for an investigating officer to investigate.”
“Show me a corpse.” He made a sharp gesture of exasperation. “Show me evidence of blackmail, extortion, kidnapping. Show me a woman who was acting strangely—”
“Golly always acted strangely.”
“I mean, a woman who had changed her habits lately,” he said, “who seemed to be afraid of something. Give me one witness who saw a stranger backstage. Show me signs of a struggle. I’m a dedicated cop, Esther. Make me believe a crime has been committed and I’ll be johnny-on-the-spot.”
I indicated the newspaper clipping. “But what about—”
“No. Don’t.” He shook his head and put his hand over mine. “Don’t show me cryptic notes from a prankster or tell me that women are vanishing into thin air as part of some mysterious scheme perpetrated by the forces of Evil.”
I looked down at his hand covering mine. He did, too, for a moment, then he took a quick breath and drew away.
I gave myself a mental shake and said, “But how do you explain—”
“How do you explain it? Tell me what you believe.”
It was a little hard to admit fears to him that I wasn’t even admitting to myself. “Um …”
“Esther, come on. The night I questioned you at the theater, you seemed like the most sensible person there.”
“You remember me?”
His expression changed again. “I remember who had the tightest costume.”
“That’s not nice.”
He grinned. “On the contrary, I thought it was very nice.”
“You’re not supposed to talk to me this way,” I said. “You’re the investigating officer.”
“Good point.” He banished his smile, and I was sorry. “Please just tell me you don’t really believe you’ll blink out of existence if you do the vanishing trick.”
“No. Of course not,” I said. “That would be silly. No.”
He folded his arms. “Well, then?”
I felt kind of deflated. In the cold fluorescent light of the squad room, full of telephones, cops, coffee cups, and criminals, I also felt pretty foolish. “So I, uh … I guess I shouldn’t bother you if I receive any more of these—”
“Oh, no. Please stop by.” He grinned at me again. “These encounters are becoming the highlight of my dreary days.”
I sighed and rose from my chair. “I’m late for rehearsal. I should go.”
“Esther.” His voice stopped me as I turned to leave. “I’m serious. Let me know if you get any more warnings.”
I met his gaze. “I will. But you don’t think there’s anything to worry about?”
“I don’t. And I don’t want you to worry.” When I didn’t respond, he prodded, “Okay?”
I wasn’t as sure as he was, so I just repeated, “I’m late for rehearsal.” And I left.
The music cued me in to the final scene, the one where the Sorcerer tries to make Virtue vanish forever. Forever and ever and ever … Where was Golly?
I pushed the thought out of my mind. Lopez was right. And I wasn’t going to let a couple of silly notes and a mysterious disappearance destroy the show and hurt my career.
Besides, I’d done the vanishing trick many times during previous rehearsals. I knew exactly how it worked. There was nothing to be afraid of. Absolutely nothing.
Joe gave his speech, stumbling over his lines. His hands were shaking as he grabbed me and dragged me toward the crystal cage. His palms were so slick with sweat that he lost his grip on my arm and I went crashing to my knees, missing my song cue.
The director stopped the scene. We went back to the beginning of Joe’s speech. The next attempt was worse than the one before. He grabbed my arm again, and this time he hauled me off in the wrong direction. We went back and tried it again. Joe’s face was dripping with sweat.
Christ, he was more terrified than I was. He believed it. He really did. When he dragged me toward the cage this time, my resistance was real. How had Magnus defined an illusion? The shadow of the world as it might be, if you only believed. Now on the brink of following in Golly’s wake, I suddenly believed with a vengeance. I believed so hard that my stomach churned and my eyes watered. I was shaking like a leaf as I sang a few lines begging the Sorcerer not to send me into oblivion.
Joe’s fear-glazed eyes looked half mad. He opened the glass door and ordered me inside. I stared at the gaping void and realized I didn’t want to find out what had happened to Golly Gee. I never, ever wanted to know.
“No!” I screamed. I jumped away from the cage and threw my golden handcuffs onto the stage. “No, no, no!”
“What’s she doing?”
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, God!” Joe cried.
The music stopped as chaos erupted onstage. Joe and I both kept screaming. The chorus ran around wildly. The Prince came onstage waving his sword. The director started shouting.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Matilda screamed right into my face.
I turned around and raced straight for the bathroom. I was panting like a long-distance runner by the time I reached it. Matilda was hot on my heels. I tried to close the door on her, but the scrawny little witch was a lot stronger than she looked.
Nausea overcame me a moment later, and I abandoned the struggle in favor of reaching the toilet in time. She was something, that woman. She never lost a beat, not even as I knelt down and retched pathetically again and again.
“And if there is a repetition of that appalling scene,” Matilda shrieked, “you can forget about working in this show, or even in this town ever again! Do I make myself clear? Don’t think it’s too late for us to rehearse someone else into this role!”
“It is too late,” I mumbled, my voice echoing in the cubicle. “If you want to reopen tonight, it’s too late.”
“And another thing!” she cried.
I winced. Those were my mother’s favorite words.
Matilda plowed on. “If you upset Joe like this again—”
“Me?” I blurted. “He was the one who—”
“He has a very sensitive, artistic nature, and this ridiculous stunt that Golly pulled has ruined his nerves. He has given everything to this show, Esther.”
“Uh-huh.” I flushed the toilet and rose wearily.
“He has sacrificed his own career opportunities as a solo act for the good of the show.”
“Oh, come on.” I threw her an openly skeptical look before lurching toward the sink.
“He’s acquired all-new equipment, studied new techniques, worked with a coach, developed new standards, trained day and night, refined his abilities. And in return, you completely disrupt a dress rehearsal and throw a hysterical fit at the climax of the play!”
“He was the one who wouldn’t perform, wouldn’t even rehearse after Golly—”
“Don’t mention her name!” Matilda screamed. “I never want to hear her name again!”
I splashed cold water on my face and rinsed out my mouth. Feeling a little more rational, I said, “I’m sorry about what happened today. If I told you why I got so scared … well, it would only make things worse, especially for Joe.”
She glared at me. “I need to know what you intend to do about tonight.”
“I intend to go on,” I said with determination.
“Fine. Can we try that last scene again, then?”
“Why the hell not?”
“There’s something I have to do before tonight.”
“What? In God’s name, what?“
I looked at my dripping image in the mirror. “I have to talk to the Great Hidalgo.”