As more psychics are slain, and more King cards rise to the top, Eli can't escape suspicion. Things get really complicated when romance blooms with a beautiful psychic, and Eli discovers she's the next target for murder, and he's scheduled to die with her. Now Eli must use every trick he knows to keep them both alive and reveal the true killer.
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all! THE AMBITIOUS CARD is the first book in the Eli Marks mystery series.
Read an Excerpt
"I find it puzzling, don't you? The rabbit, I mean. Very puzzling."
As a magician, I'm accustomed to people asking me about rabbits. However, in this particular instance, I wasn't being queried about your standard pink-nosed adorable bunny, suitable for producing out of a hat. My uncle was instead gesturing toward a large statue of a rabbit reclining on the grass. Perhaps five-feet tall, the dull bronze artwork gazed out at the cars as they passed by on the Minnehaha Parkway, a look of Mona Lisa-style contentment on its large, metallic face.
"Explain this to me, if you can," Uncle Harry continued without waiting for any response from me. "Is the statue meant to represent an oversized version of a normal-sized rabbit? Or, was the artist instead attempting to create a normal-sized depiction of a freakishly-large rabbit?"
I sorted through his questions in my head. "I guess I've never thought about it," I finally answered.
Harry clucked his tongue. "If we understood the context within which he — or she — was working, then I imagine we'd have a handle on it. It's never about what they're doing. It's always about why."
He gave the rabbit one more penetrating look as we drove past. "As a professional magician, these are the questions you should be thinking about," he added in his professorial tone.
Perhaps it's my imagination, but as he's gotten older, Harry's list of the questions I should be thinking about has grown exponentially. And to be honest, given recent events, I must admit that I haven't really made any attempt to keep up with his list. At this point, I am probably hopelessly behind.
I made a left turn on Chicago Avenue and we headed away from Minnehaha Parkway, driving the final two blocks home in reflective silence. I pulled into an open parking space across the street from the small shop that serves as both our abode and our business. Chicago Magic is the store and, surprisingly, it's a good 350 miles from the Windy City, nestled instead in a cozy neighborhood in South Minneapolis. The shop has been a fixture near the corner of 48th and Chicago for nearly fifty years. I've called the apartments above it my home — on and off — for just over twenty years, or since I was about ten. For those of you unwilling or unable to do the math, that would put me in my early thirties.
Uncle Harry gathered up the plastic shopping bag that slumped at his feet. The bag was filled to near-overflowing with candy bars of all varieties. And not the dreaded Fun-Size candy bars, which Harry loathes. ("Where's the fun in a candy bar the size of your thumb? That's about as much fun as a poke in the eye, if you ask me.") No, these were genuine, full-sized bars and they would join the other, equally-large bag we purchased two days earlier in anticipation of the supposed hordes of trick-or-treaters Harry was convinced would be visiting us that evening.
Harry is a man who does not like to be caught unprepared and Halloween fuels his already competitive nature. For years he has ranted about our business neighbors — the movie theater on one side of the store and the bar on the other — and their alleged stinginess in the matter of dispensing Halloween candy to the neighborhood children.
"Any business that charges an arm and two legs for a bag of popcorn," he would often say of the movie theater, "and then turns around and hands out miniscule candy bars at Halloween ... that to me is a business with a heart the size of a gumdrop. And don't get me started with that bar," he would gesture toward what is actually a favorite hangout of his. "I swear to God, those cheap so-and-so's are handing out ice cubes instead of candy. I've seen them do it. They hold a bowl of something high enough over the kids' heads so they can't see inside of it, and then — plop, plop, plop — they toss ice cubes into the poor youngsters' bags, saying, 'Enjoy your Snickers bar and happy Halloween kids.' That, if you ask me, is lower than low."
Halloween had been a favorite holiday for Aunt Alice, and because this was the first occurrence of the holiday since her passing, I think Harry was over-compensating. I got the sense he was using the delivery of treats to random, roaming costume-clad kids as a sort of living memorial to her and their fifty-plus years together. But I sympathized with the feeling. So when he had insisted on making yet another run to the store that afternoon for more candy, I quickly agreed and even offered to drive.
As soon as the car came to a stop across from our shop, he opened the door and got out, turning back to reach in and pick up the bulging bag of candy bars. "Aren't you coming in?" he asked when he recognized that I hadn't turned off the engine.
I shook my head. "I've got that show in St. Paul to get to," I said, picking up a Snickers bar that had escaped from the bag. I handed it to Harry and he skillfully slipped it back into the bag, making it vanish from his hand. It was a good trick, but he did it without even realizing he had done it. Force of habit, I guess.
"Oh, that's right," he said, giving the side of his head a slight tap with his index finger. "Thanks for covering for me on that show. I'm just not up to it."
"I understand, no problem," I said, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.
He started to close the car door, then ducked his head back down for one last comment. "Give 'em hell, Buster." And then he closed the door.
I watched him as he waited for a couple of cars to pass and then tentatively made his way across the street to our shop. He glanced up at the sky as he slipped the key into the front door lock, looking to see if the snow that had been threatening for the last couple of days was any closer to becoming a reality. A few moments later the door was unlocked and he disappeared inside. And two seconds after that, a hand turned the sign that hangs in the window around so that it now read Open.
Chicago Magic was open for business and ready for trick-or-treaters. And I had to get to a psychic showdown — a mental cage match, as it was being advertised — in St. Paul.
But before I go, I thought, where's the harm in a quick interlude?
I pulled the car forward about thirty feet, which put me directly across from the shop on the corner — a mere four doors down from Chicago Magic. I pretended to be very interested in something on the car's dashboard, adjusting an invisible knob. And then slowly, oh so slowly, I turned my head to the left and looked across the street.
Bingo. I spotted her immediately, standing by the cash register and talking to a customer. Her face was slightly obscured by her curly brown hair — then she laughed and tossed her hair back, revealing that sweet, lovely face. She was gorgeous. It was evident even from this distance, clear across the street and through a fog of incense that hung around inside the store like, well, a fog.
I watched her for several long moments, with what I'm sure was a look of puppy dog infatuation on my face, until I reached a point where I was even starting to creep myself out. I said her name softly, like a sigh, "Megan," then put the car in gear and headed over to St. Paul.
The bluffs that border the riverfront, across the waterway from downtown St. Paul, are famous for their caves — miles of caverns and circuitous tunnels that cut deep into the tall, rocky hills. The best-known of these caves, and the only ones open to the public, are The Wabasha Street Caves, which began their career as a mining site for valuable sandstone before becoming a private Prohibition-era nightclub. The Caves have gone through several permutations since that time, finally evolving into a rental space for parties and events. I'd only been there once previously, years before at a spooky magic show presented by a student of my uncle's. Although the event taught me nothing new about magic, I did learn one thing about The Caves that night that has stuck with me ever since — when the lights go out in a cave, it's dark. I mean dark-dark. Stygian darkness. Darker, as my uncle was fond of saying, than the inside of a nun.
It was immediately apparent that darkness wasn't going to be an issue inside The Caves that evening as I stepped into the steady flow of people making their way through the large wooden doors that framed the front entrance. The inside of the place was lit up like a crystal chandelier, with extra lighting courtesy of a TV crew that had moved in and completely taken over the main room.
Inside, t-shirted crewmembers with headsets and clipboards scurried around, as staff in charge of crowd control moved the people from the foyer into the rows of folding chairs that had been set up in the main room. I was instantly reminded that this was a Halloween event when I recognized that many in the crowd had come in costume, ranging from something as simple as a funny hat to one fellow who was dressed like the Gorn Captain, that shabby, shambling lizard from the old Star Trek series.
As the crowd slowly shuffled forward around me, I spotted a young woman wearing a black PBS t-shirt, blacker lipstick, a headset, and a determined expression.
"Excuse me," I said as I lightly tapped her on the shoulder, making the assumption that she wasn't in costume but was, in fact, in uniform.
She turned and looked at me, holding up one finger on her right hand while she pressed her headset closer to her head with her left, trying to hear above all the conversations in the cramped, echoing space. "Uh huh," she said into the mouthpiece. "Roger that." She lowered her right finger, giving me the go-ahead to speak. "Yes?"
"Hi. I'm Eli Marks. I'm in the show tonight."
She quickly paged through the stack of multi-colored sheets on her clipboard, then spoke into the mouthpiece again. "I've got the Debunker with me. Where should I put him?"
"Actually, the term Debunker is not one —"
She held up that one finger again as she listened intently to her headset. She nodded and then turned and pushed her way through the crowd, glancing back over her shoulder as she did.
"Follow me," she yelled, and then she dove further into the throng. I excused and pardoned my way through the packed foyer, as I did my best to keep the crewmember in sight. As we neared the entrance to the main room, she veered to the right, past the restrooms, and then made a left, bringing us into a new room that was, literally, cavernous.
A long bar ran against one wall, and the far end of the room revealed an archway entrance to another, similar room. If I was remembering correctly from my one visit to The Caves, that cavern connected to another cavern, which in turn connected back to the main cavern, which connected to the foyer we had just left, creating a circle of interconnected caverns.
This particular space was currently unoccupied, with the exception of a tall, rail-thin woman with spiky red hair standing by the bar. She was digging through what looked like a large fishing tackle box. Next to her were two lights on stands, which were directed at a high, canvas-backed chair. Ricky Martin screamed Living La Vida Loca from a portable iPod speaker system on the bar.
"I've got one who's ready for make-up," the crewmember barked over the music. "He's on last, so no rush."
"Great," the spiky-haired woman said. "What's the time?"
The crewmember looked at her watch, which hung on a braided lanyard around her neck. "We go live in twenty-five minutes," she said as she spun around and headed back the way she had come. As she left the cavern, her hand went up to the headset on her ear and I could hear her say, "Debunker's in makeup." And then she was gone.
"I'm Lauren," the spiky-haired woman said, taking a makeup bib off the chair and gesturing for me to have a seat. Her voice was husky and rich, the distinctive sound of a former or current smoker.
"I'm Eli," I said as I settled into the chair. She fastened the bib around my neck, yanking and tugging it until it was positioned to her satisfaction.
"So, Eli, what's a Debunker and why do you hate that term so much?" She ran a warm hand quickly through my hair, and then turned and began rummaging through the tackle box. From my new vantage point I could see that instead of hooks, worms, and bobbers, the box was full of makeup supplies. Powders, eyeliners, lipsticks, brushes, tubes, and small bottles I couldn't identify were neatly arranged in the box's tiers.
"How do you know I hate that term?"
She gave a little laugh. "Body language. They say that ninety-five percent of human communication is done via body language."
"Well," she shrugged, "I made up the number, but I stand by the concept." She turned back from the makeup case, having found a shade of powder that pleased her. She placed one hand over my eyes while the soft, feathery brush in her other hand gave my face a quick dusting. The song on the iPod speaker switched from Ricky Martin to an aria from an opera that I almost recognized. This was either an eclectic playlist or the machine was set on shuffle. "So, what's a Debunker?" she asked again.
"Well," I said, settling into my well-practiced description, "in the world of psychics, mystics, and the supernatural, a Debunker is someone who vehemently believes that all otherworldly occurrences are bogus and that they can always be explained by a simple, scientific explanation."
"And that's not what you do?" She pushed lightly on my forehead to get me to tip my head back as she deftly applied some powder to my neck.
"I'd like to think so. Debunkers are often as fanatical as the people they oppose. I've always preferred the term Skeptic."
"And that means what?" She replaced the makeup brush in the tackle box and produced a comb and what appeared to be a can of hairspray.
"That means that I approach each situation with an open mind. I don't immediately assume that every supernatural occurrence isn't simply a natural occurrence that has been misunderstood or faked in some way."
"Ever come across one that wasn't?"
"Not yet. But I'm keeping an open mind."
"Well, keep that mind open but do me a favor and shut those baby-blue eyes for just a second."
I closed my eyes and heard the hiss of the hairspray and felt the sharp tug of her comb as she attempted to give my unruly mop of hair a bit of well-needed discipline. When I opened my eyes I was surprised to see a deck of playing cards fanned out in front of my face.
"Pick a card, any card."
The fanned cards dipped for a moment and I recognized Pete's face behind the cards.
Before I go any further, I want to go on the record here and say that I like Pete. I really do. He's a swell guy. But there are two things that have me deeply, perhaps fatally, conflicted in my feelings toward him.
The first is that Pete is trying to learn magic. That's an unsightly thing to observe for anyone, but it's particularly gruesome for a professional magician.
The other somewhat larger reason I'm conflicted about Pete is that I'm in love with his wife, Megan. Which really isn't his fault, but there you go. And although I can fall back on the excuse that they're getting a divorce and all's fair in love and war, the truth is I had no idea they were getting a divorce when I first started to fall for her.
If it makes any difference, she hardly knows I exist.
"Come on, pick a card. Free choice." Pete held the fanned deck closer, swaying his clasped hands from side to side, in his sad attempt at what I suspected was intended to be an enticing manner.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, completely mystified. I was having one of those out-of-context experiences.
Pete and his soon-to-be ex-wife Megan own the row of shops on the corner of 48th and Chicago that includes Chicago Magic. I'm very used to seeing him around the neighborhood and I see far too much of him in the shop, but I was completely taken aback to encounter him and his ubiquitous deck of cards here in The Caves.
"I've got a client who owns this place. They're trying to unload it. Interested?" He switched effortlessly into realtor mode. "I mean, think about it. This place would make a killer magic emporium."
"Sure, but what would we do with the other ninety-five percent of the space?"
"You're probably right, there's way too much square footage here." He pushed the fanned cards at me once again. "I think I've got this sucker nailed, finally. Go ahead, pick a card."
I acquiesced reluctantly and pulled a card from the center of the fanned deck, showing it to Lauren.
"Now look at the card," Pete said as he fumbled to square the deck. He glanced up at us. "Oh, you already did. Good for you. Well done. Okay, now, remember that card. I want you to put your randomly-chosen card back into the deck. Anywhere in the deck, this is a free choice that I'm not influencing in any manner whatsoever ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ambitious Card"
Copyright © 2012 John Gaspard.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am really enjoying this book. Magicians are my kind guys! I like breezy mysteries and this fits the bill. Hope he writes more stories.
It is difficult to write about magic tricks without going so far as to reveal the secret. John Gaspard has done it. Even if you've never visited a magic shop or performed yourself, you can easily identify with Eli. His ex-wife and her new Homicide Detective husband work at cross purposes. He wants Eli in jail, she tries to keep him out. And wrapped around it all is a Who Done It that keeps you guessing to the end and ties up all the loose ends neatly indeed.
I really enjoyed this, started reading it and I couldn't put it down. I loved the characters. Hoping the next books are as well done.