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Sleight of Hand

Devon Layne


Sleight of Hand

A story in Lazlo Zalezac’s “Damsels in Distress” Universe

Devon Layne

Elder Road Books Lynnwood WA

Copyright ©2015 2020 Elder Road Books

About Lazlo Zalezac’s “Damsels in Distress” Universe

ON THE PLANET CROSSROADS there are portals con- necting various worlds. On Earth, men go to Crossroads to participate in adventures on the planet Chaos as heroes. On Cassandra, women go to Crossroads to participate in adventures on the planet Chaos as Damsels in Distress.

Of course, there are rules regarding participation and only real heroes receive a special sapphire ring and a portal that gives them access to Crossroads. Chaos is poor in minerals and a hero may not take anything metal with him other than the ring. Chaos is a medieval world governed by violence and power. And Damsels, once they accept the opportunity to go to Chaos, are truly distressed as they are kidnapped, raped, murdered, or imprisoned. They are willing to give their hero anything to free them—including bearing his child. In fact, that seems to be the only way a damsel from Cassandra can get pregnant, which is what drives the women to take their chances on Chaos.

Oh, Poor Me

“PICK A CARD—any card,” I intoned in my best W.C. Fields impression. My sixteen—almost seventeen—year-old niece laughed and reached for the cards in my hand. I jerked them back. “Not that one!”

“Lincoln! You said any card,” she laughed.

“But the trick won’t work if you pick the wrong one,” I whined. I tilted my head and pursed my lips with my best pleading look.

“Fine. Which card, O uncle of mine?” I closed up the fanned cards and one came flying out of the pack.

“That one, obviously.”

“How do you do that?” she laughed. “Magic, my dear Cadence. Magic.”

“Can I look at it now?” she said, scowling.

“Just a minute. I need to look at the instruction book.” I twisted around and grabbed a dictionary that was sitting on my table.

“You’ve been doing these tricks since I was little. You don’t need a… dictionary?” she laughed.

“Oh. Wrong book. I guess you can look at the card, but don’t tell me what it is.” She tried the poker peek to just flip up a corner and see the card. She scowled, not seeing the index where she expected it. She finally held the card up so she could see the whole thing. Her lip started to quiver and she threw herself at me, wrapping me in a hug. “Lincoln! I love you!”

“Am I going to have to do something about this?” Lisa asked from the doorway of my room.

“I think I have that covered,” I said. Lisa grimaced and a tear ran down her cheek. I gave her an air kiss as Cadence continued to hug me.

“Okay, brat. Leave your uncle alone and get your homework done. There’s only two weeks of school left and I don’t want you to blow it,” my sister-in-law said.

“Aw, Mom! Linc doesn’t want to be left alone. Do you, darling?”

“Move your little teenage ass off my bed and do what your mom tells you. Oh, and take these with you.” I handed her the pack of cards and she started flipping through them. It only took a moment before she realized every one of them had a birthday wish on it. Tears sprang to her eyes and she looked at me.

“I really want you to get well, Linc. Please.”

“We do what we can,” I said. Cadence backed out the door. Lisa watched her go and then came to sit on the edge of my bed.

“How are you doing this afternoon?” she asked.

“About the same,” I sighed. “Lisa, don’t worry about Cadence. You know I would never do anything to hurt her.”

“If it meant you were recovering, I wouldn’t care,” she said. She hugged me in the same position her daughter had been in moments ago. “I really don’t care anyway. I just worry. So, what was with the cards?”

“Happy birthday wishes,” I said. I reached for another pack of cards nearby. I’d started doing card tricks when I was in junior high school. Girls loved them. Guys, not so much. Then after the accident, it was really all I could do.

“Are you leading her on? Telling her you are getting better?” she asked.

“I don’t think so. I try to stay upbeat, but Lisa, it’s been five years.

We all know it isn’t getting better.”

“We’re not going to give up hope,” she declared.

“Are you leading her on? Lisa, I love her as much as I love you. Don’t build up impossible dreams for her,” I said, stroking her hair.

“There’s a difference between impossible dreams and not giving up,” Lisa said. “Lincoln, if your heart stopped beating, I would die before I stopped trying to resuscitate you. She’s not the only one who loves you. Now let’s get you hooked up.”

Being hooked up amounted to having little electrodes attached at strategic points on my legs. They were attached to a machine that sends electric pulses and stimulates the nerves. As a result, my muscles contract and relax. Electrical muscle stimulation: EMS.

Lisa has always been fantastic. Even when Mom was alive, Lisa came over every day to talk and hook me up. She still believed I’d walk again and fought to keep my muscles from atrophying.

It was all as fresh in my mind as the day it happened. Probably fresher since I’d relived it so many times. Two weeks before school was out and the day before Cadence’s twelfth birthday. Five years ago today. My asshole brother was out of town, as usual. Selling something somewhere. He was fifteen years older than me and insisted that I was Mom and Dad’s biggest mistake. His own daughter was only five and a half years younger than me. I think he considered her his biggest mistake. From the minute she was born, I adored her. I couldn’t understand how she could have such a jerk for a father.

We were going to celebrate Cadence’s birthday. Mom had arranged for Dad, Lisa, Cadence, and me to go to a movie while she prepared the surprise party. I’d helped put together a list of Cadence’s best friends. They’d be at the house when we all got back and jump out to yell, “Surprise!”

Only we never got there. Some stupid drunk came around a corner as we were crossing the street. I grabbed hold of Cadence and Lisa and pushed them in front of me between two parked cars. Dad and I didn’t get that far. The driver’s fender smashed into my hip and pinned me against one of the parked cars. I know I screamed. I’d never felt pain so bad.

Dad didn’t feel anything. He was a step behind me and the car caught him squarely, propelling him into the windshield.

They told me later that he was dead before he hit the ground. I wasn’t coherent for several days. By then he was buried.

I finally woke up in a hospital bed with more wires and tubes in me than a Borg drone. It took a while before I understood what had happened. I had a concussion, a broken leg, a broken arm, and a crushed pelvis. I’d been in an induced coma for days as they set fractures and reconstructed my pelvis. I lay there in a cast and traction and just felt numb. Mom, Lisa, and Cadence were by my bed when I woke up. They called me their hero. Lisa had a hairline wrist fracture, wrapped in a short cast. Cadence had stitches in her knee where she’d cut it when I pushed her, but other than that, the two of them were fine.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“Honey,” Mom said. “Lincoln, he didn’t make it.”

“Didn’t make it?” I didn’t understand at first. I saw Mom’s eyes and figured it out.

“That drunk bastard killed him,” Lisa said. “I’m so sorry, Linc. There was nothing we could do.” Tears were flowing down all of our cheeks. I saved Cadence and Lisa, but I let Dad die. How could I let my father die?

“Oh, no. Oh, Mom. I’m sorry. I should have grabbed him.” I was torn to pieces. I loved my father. He was great. We’d just been talking about what we’d do when school was out and decided that we’d kidnap Mom, Lisa, and Cadence and take them on a big vacation. We knew Wilson wouldn’t take time off to go with them.

“You did just what he would have done,” Mom said. “Your father would have been so proud of you.”

“I let him die!”

“No, you didn’t, Lincoln. Now stop that! You saved two of the people who meant the most to him in all the world. You’re not Jesus. You can’t save everyone.” That ended the discussion. But late that night I still wept for the father I unknowingly sacrificed.

“Let’s see how you are doing, now that you are awake,” Dr. Adams said when he came into the room. Lisa took Cadence to the cafeteria to give us privacy. Mom stayed. Dr. Adams had a friendly disposition and introduced himself, shaking my right hand—the arm that wasn’t in a cast. He looked at charts, chatted about how much I was improving, and checked my eyes. He circled around the foot of the bed and paused there. “Tell me if you feel something,” he said.

“I feel fine. You’ve got me on good drugs. I don’t really hurt at all,” I said.


“My head hurts on and off.”

He came around to the other side and checked my I.V. bags and made more notes on the pad. He looked at my mother.

“I think we have a problem,” Dr. Adams said. “We are going to need an MRI and a few more tests.”

“What kind of a problem?” I asked.

“You don’t seem to have any feeling or stimulus response in your legs.”

“You mean… You’re not just blocking the pain?” I said. He shook his head. “I can’t feel them. I thought… I’m paralyzed?”

“That’s why we need the MRI and tests. Everything from surgery went the way we expected. All our preliminary tests showed no nerve damage. That’s what paralysis is, Lincoln. Nerve damage. This suggests we missed something critical. I’d like to get you into the tube right away.”

Paralyzed. Fuck.

They moved me to a gurney and got all my tubes and things transferred. I was ready to go to sleep by the time they got me transferred. Of course, just as we started to move, Cadence and Lisa came into the room.

“Linc! What’s wrong?” Cadence burst out. My sweet twelve-year-old niece. I reached her with my right hand and stroked her cheek with my thumb.

“Don’t you worry, sweetie,” I said. “They just want to take naked pictures of me to post on the Internet.”

“Linc! They’re not!”

“Well, I don’t know what they do with all the pictures. I’ve never seen them. And you shouldn’t either. Now go on with Mommy and I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

A week later, Dr. Adams yammered on through half an hour of technobabble about where they thought the impingement in my spinal column was, the severity of the injury, and the proposed form of treatment. I finally got tired of it and cut him off.

“Is this all in a book?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that if I read it, I might have half a chance of understanding what you are talking about after I get my medical degree. Can you simplify it so I can understand it?”

“Okay. What do you want to know?”

“Will I ever walk again?”

“I hope so.” I could see him get ready to start on another long narrative, but he cut himself off. “Not without surgery.”

“And with surgery?”

“A fifty-fifty chance. It will depend on whether we have correctly identified the location and nature of the injury,” he said.

“What about… sex?” Like I’d have an opportunity to have sex when I was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I hadn’t seen one of my high school classmates since I was injured. Fuckers.

“Sorry. I forgot you are seventeen,” Dr. Adams said. “It remains to be seen. Many paraplegics have a healthy sex life. What we want to do is give you back your legs. If we succeed in that, everything else should work as well.” I looked at Mom.

“I think you should try, Lincoln,” she said. “I mean the surgery, not sex. I’ll sign the papers, but you need to say if you want them to operate.”

“Yes, Mom. I don’t stand a chance otherwise. How soon can I have the surgery?”

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. There were delays and discussions and strategies. They wanted to make sure I was healthy. They wanted another MRI. They wanted a specialist. It was a month before they finally put me out and wheeled me into the operating room.

In the meantime, I’d been informed that I passed all my classes and since I had stellar attendance throughout the year, I would be a senior in the fall. The school, of course, wanted to be kept informed of any special assistance I would need when I returned to class in the fall.

“I don’t want to go back, Mom,” I said. “I’ve seen how they treat people with disabilities. A guy in a wheelchair might as well have a lobotomy. He’s sent to special ed classes. Can you homeschool me?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Lincoln. I’d have to find out what is involved. I have so much to think about,” she answered. Mom was getting vague. Some people rise up in the face of tragedy. Others can barely tread water. I was afraid my mother was the latter. Losing her husband of forty years and having a son in the hospital was overwhelming to her. I wondered if the bills were being paid and if she was eating.

“I can homeschool Lincoln,” Lisa said. “I looked into it for Cadence, but she wanted to stay in classes. I’ll do the research and take care of everything. You’ll have to sign a couple papers, but that’s all.” She still called me her hero, but she was mine. “And, Isabelle, we have work that you need to do to make sure Lincoln is cared for when he gets out of here. You know that Wilson won’t help.”

When Mom left to go home, I called Lisa back for a moment. “She doesn’t look good. Can you make sure she’s eating okay and that the bills are paid? She must be stressed out to the max,” I said.

“I’ll take care of it,” Lisa said. “Wilson is talking about moving in with her. You know our mortgage is sky high with the variable rate climbing. I’m worried he’ll try to take something from her—and you.”

“I’ll be eighteen in three months,” I said. “See if you can hold it together until then. I love you, Lisa.”

“I love you, Linc. I won’t let you down.”

The other person who wouldn’t let me down was Cadence. Once I’d had a talk with Dr. Adams and the head nurse, they agreed that she could visit me each day, with or without her mom. The first thing she did when she visited without her mother was bring a deck of cards.

Cadence loved my card tricks. I was her age when I first started studying magic—sleight of hand. Seth Richards, an older guy at Shannara Games and Magic, took me under his wing when I went in to play Magic: The Gathering. I was fascinated by the card tricks he was doing for a group of kids. I never got around to playing Magic that night. And, of course, Cadence was my number one trickee. Every trick I learned, I tried on her first. It wasn’t successful until I could fool her even if she knew what the trick was.

Well, my legs might be worthless, but I could still use my hands. I practiced card tricks and entertained the nurses when they came to change my bags and tubes. It was a real treat when Seth came to visit me. We had card pitching contests, and anytime a nurse walked into the room, the first thing she did was pick cards up off the floor. We talked about tricks and he introduced me to several other sleights. I had to make a few adjustments in the routines since I couldn’t dance around while pulling scarves out of my sleeves. He brought me a couple of books that I used, too. There simply wasn’t any time when there wasn’t a deck of cards in my hands.

Dr. Adams said they had to take the ace of spades out of my hand where I’d palmed it before surgery, but they’d put it back before I woke up. And then the physical and occupational therapy started. Physical therapy is designed to help your body recover from injury. Occupational therapy is designed to help you live with the injury. They insisted on both. Once my bones knitted back together and I was competent to wheel myself to the bathroom, I was allowed to go home.

It was a pretty massive change. Lisa was responsible. She gently guided Mom through the process of hiring the right people to come in and install ramps, hand holds, elevated toilet, and everything else I needed to survive without my legs. Over Wilson’s protests, I’d been moved into the master bedroom with the en suite bathroom—the room he thought he’d be getting. Mom had moved to my old room. Cadence was firmly ensconced in the guest room, which meant that if Wilson and Lisa moved in, they’d have his old bedroom. It really grated on his nerves.

“All these changes must have cost Mom a fortune,” I complained to Lisa. “She shouldn’t have to foot the bill for having an invalid son. Isn’t there some kind of home I could have moved to?”

“You sound like your brother,” Lisa said as she massaged my legs. “He said you were too much of a burden and should be put in a special needs home. Your mother went postal on him.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” I muttered. I wished—really wished—I didn’t hate my brother so much. It seemed that half the time he was gone and the other half he was drunk. He’d been climbing the corporate ladder for fifteen years and was nearing the top in his company. Of course, getting to the top depended on the owner/founder dying. I was pretty sure Wilson had a plan for that, too.

“Linc, you need to know a few things and now that you are home, I’m going to tell you. Franklin didn’t leave your mother destitute. He was well-insured and they paid out the double indemnity clause for accidental death. Insurance payments are tax-free. She received a million dollars. She is not going to go broke caring for you,” Lisa said. “Your insurance policy was smaller, but the loss of use of your legs is deemed the same as dismemberment, so you received a sizable insurance payment as well. The drunk’s auto insurance and your health insurance are covering your medical costs. There’s a limit on how far they’ll go, but for right now, everything is paid.”

It shocked me. Of course, my father would have had life insurance. And I knew he had retirement funds he was counting on when he turned sixty-four. That would enable him to collect his social security and money from his IRA and have a nice retirement. But…

“Mom needs to protect her money from Wilson,” I said. “Does he know how much she received?”

“Yes,” Lisa laughed. “The day after he started going on about how you were costing too much to live at home, Mom went to her lawyer and got a financial advisor. She tied everything up securely. My husband can’t touch it. She also changed her will. I don’t know what she changed. It wasn’t my business. I was just driving her all over town for a couple of days while she raged against Wilson. The sum is that you should just not worry. Focus on getting better, my hero.”

In The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill promotes ‘the think method’ of teaching music. You just think the tune and blow into your horn. I know this because I played the role last spring. The show closed a week before the accident. My big plans of becoming a professional actor were currently in the shitter. The only role I was fit for now was Ironside and I think Raymond Burr tied that up a few decades ago. But back to the think method. A lot of physical therapy was just the think method. I worked on thinking about wiggling my toes. I could almost imagine them wiggling, but I couldn’t feel anything. I actually broke out in a sweat trying. My physical therapist, Sandy, shook her head and told me nothing was moving. She started me on EMS and explained that she didn’t want me to lose muscle in my legs while we were working on getting me mobile.

In occupational therapy, Sandy had me working on upper body strength and learning to use my wheelchair, transfer myself out of bed, dress, and use the toilet. Yes, Sandy was both therapists rolled into one. I also had a counselor who met with me twice a week to work on my feelings, my coping mechanisms, and putting together my life goals now that I was a cripple.

No, those weren’t the words he used. Of course not. I knew what it was about, though. I’d have found a way to kill them both if it wasn’t for Lisa and Cadence. Lisa convinced me that they were trying to do what was best for me. And Cadence loved Sandy. Sandy taught her everything she was doing to me so Cadence could help. Cadence became my principal cheering section during my PT and my harshest critic when it looked like I was slacking off or discouraged. It was about the time she turned fourteen that she started declaring her undying love for me and her intent to marry me one day when I was able to walk again. Poor kid. She had a bad case of hero worship, but I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to have working equipment to satisfy what she wanted.

With Wilson away on business so much, Cadence and Lisa stayed at our house most of the time. Even when Lisa went to ‘perform her conjugal duties’ Cadence stayed with Mom and me. I made sure Cadence stayed caught up on her school work as I finished high school remotely.

I didn’t have a role in the senior play. But I graduated.

Seth continued to visit me every week. It was unexpected and we got to be really good friends. We practiced magic tricks and he brought me new books on the subject. I worked on them and each week I had a new trick to show him.

A magician uses his whole body when he is doing sleight of hand. People don’t realize that. The reason you don’t see him palm the card is that he shifted his body slightly and you followed the movement instead of his hand. Of course, it’s not all that simplistic, but the object is to deceive a person. You use all the tools available. With my legs immobile and either stretched out in front of me on the bed or hanging useless in the wheelchair, I had limited body movement. I couldn’t slip things behind my back because there were either pillows there or the back of my chair. I couldn’t step to the side or turn. I couldn’t even tap my foot. So, Seth did a lot to teach me other forms of misdirection. How to lead a mark with my eyes or a turn of the head. He showed me how to use an escaping card flip to hide the fact that I was palming another card. He showed me a dozen different shuffles, including arcing all the cards from one hand to the other. And while he taught me tricks, he told me stories. It was pretty cool, because he always had a new tale to tell.

“So, it was your typical ‘locked in a tower’ fairytale type thing,” he’d say. “I had to kill seven guards and the Lord of the Manor before I could even get to the tower. You’d think that with the Lord dead, everyone would just scatter because no one would be paying their wages any longer. But these guys had seen the damsel and three of them decided that with the Lord gone, they should get to play with her. Frankly, I’m glad I’m here to tell the story because I took a crossbow bolt to the ass from one of the oafs after I’d already run him through. If you’re ever in that situation, make damned sure he’s dead before you step over him.” Like I’d ever be in that situation. The RPGs at Shannara Games and Magic were almost real to him. I couldn’t believe how detailed he got in telling the stories. He should write a book. And of course, each story ended with him having unbelievable sex with the damsel while his Caretaker, Rita, gave him restoratives that kept him able to go and go and go.

My head would get really turned on. Nothing happened beneath the sheets, though.

Mom lasted three-and-a-half years after Dad died. We’d added a civil suit to the criminal suit that put the bastard drunk away. The drunk was some kind of founding engineer of a software company that had just been bought by a big corporation. He was flush with cash and out celebrating when he killed Dad. By the time we were finished, he was broke and in jail. Mom and I were a lot richer. But once the battle was over and she was confident that Lisa was taking care of me, I watched her waste away at home. More and more, she left all my care to Lisa. My care. Because I was a cripple. It seemed that when I turned 21, she breathed a sigh of relief and gave up.

Wilson came home for the funeral, of course. And the reading of the will. He was pissed. I had a pretty big bank account and investment portfolio based on the various claims and law suits. Mom had Dad’s investment portfolio, insurance payments, and the house, which was paid off through the mortgage insurance when Dad died. In the will, I was given the house and contents, free and clear. Of course, now I had to deal with things like taxes and insurance, but that wasn’t a problem with the cash flow I had. Mom’s other assets were divided in thirds. I got a third, Wilson and Lisa jointly received a third, and Cadence received a third in a trust fund that was separately managed. The net result was that Wilson got about half of what he expected and even that was explicitly shared with his wife.

Lisa made sure I was home and had everything I needed that night before she left to go join her husband. Everything I needed. Right. I needed my parents. I needed to see the damned drunk driver’s head on a post in the town square. I needed my legs back. I needed sex. I wasn’t going to live all that long. There was no reason to. If it weren’t for Cadence and Lisa, I’d just kill myself. I was going to die a virgin. Oh, poor me.

I lay in bed listening to the night sounds in the empty house. I opened my eyes and saw a shape in the doorway. She moved toward me and crawled into bed next to me.

“Cadence? Honey, what are you doing here?” My sixteen-year-old niece was in bed with me.

“I love you, Linc. I’m never going to leave you. I didn’t want to go home and Mom said I could stay. I’ll take care of you, Linc. I’m here for you.” She cuddled up next to me and went to sleep. Before long, I did, too.

“You’re playing with fire there, miss,” I chided my niece. God! At seventeen she was an absolute wet dream. If things had worked right. I got random hard-ons, but I couldn’t feel them. My head got extremely turned on, but it was so frustrating not to have it connect to my cock. Cadence was making damned sure my head was getting turned on. She’d long-since taken over the responsibility of giving my legs their daily massage. Sandy had taught her well and at least once a week, she massaged the rest of me, too.

“I thought you told me there was nothing there but a burnt-out matchstick,” she laughed. The picture of innocence. And all the time she made sure I watched as she propped my foot against her braless breast while she massaged me. Not only was my head getting turned on, but Cadence was, too. She rubbed my foot around on her nipples until they stood out straight and stiff. I knew she was moving a lot farther up my leg than was strictly necessary for the massage and wished that I could feel her when she touched me.

“What are you going to do when I curl my toes and tweak your nipple?” I asked. I was sweating again as I willed my toes to work and grip the hard protrusion.

“The day that happens, I’m going to crawl in bed and make love to you,” she said confidently.

“And what makes you think that will work?”

“If your toes work, it means there is feeling. If there is feeling, other parts will work, too.”

“Cadence, honey, you need to get past the fixation on me. I’m broken, sweetheart. No matter how much I love you, it won’t change the fact that I can’t give you what you want. What you need.”

“Oh, yeah?” She dropped my foot and crawled up over me from the foot of the bed. She stopped as she hovered over me. Her baggy T-shirt gapped enough for me to see down it to her perfect breasts. She grabbed my right hand and brought it under her shirt to her left breast. “Did you suddenly lose feeling in your arms? Can you not move your fingers and caress my nipples? Do you think you couldn’t make me come with your fingers? How about your mouth? Did losing your legs mean you can’t enjoy a kiss?” Her lips brushed mine and I gasped at the sensation. I wondered if there was such a thing as a mental orgasm. If so, I was close. “Don’t you think your tongue could touch my clit if I sat on your face? Do you really think sexual pleasure is all about having your dick in my pussy?”

“Cadence…” Whatever I was going to say was lost in her kiss. She’d been building up to this for a month—ever since her seventeenth birthday. Cadence was determined to have me as her lover. And no matter how I protested that she needed someone whole, I was as anxious to taste her honeyed lips as she seemed to have me.

I had to talk to Lisa. First off, as much as I loved Cadence, I was also hopelessly in love with her mother. Lisa didn’t lead me on with intimate touches or kisses, but everything about the way she cared for me was laced with love. And she told me often that she loved me. She held me when I cried and laughed at my jokes. She let me be weak when I felt weak. That was something I could never let Cadence see. I just couldn’t.

“Lisa, why don’t you divorce Wilson and marry me?” I said. “I’d take care of you. I know you don’t love him.”

“Shh. Don’t talk that way, Lincoln. He’s your brother and my husband. I won’t do that. I couldn’t do that. And Cadence would kill me. You know, I’m beyond worrying about the two of you being together. She’s in love and I know you are, too,” she whispered. I’d tried to tell her that I thought Cadence was taking things too far and would get hurt.

“How can I be what she wants or needs?” I said. “Lisa, if I gave in to her and then she found a guy who interested her, who was whole, it would kill me. I wouldn’t even want to live.”

“You are too concerned about things that don’t matter,” Lisa said. “You love each other. Don’t ever turn down an opportunity to be happy with the one you love.”

“And you?”

“I’m not like that, Linc. I made a commitment. No matter what he does or doesn’t do, I won’t break my vows. I made my choice,” she said. The doorbell rang and Lisa went to answer it while I shifted myself into my chair. I rolled out to find Lisa talking to an elegant woman in a dark dress. She was tall and lovely, but dark circles were under her eyes. I was sure I’d seen her a long time ago at Shannara Games and Magic.

She looked at me and her lip quivered.

“I know you were expecting Seth this afternoon,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. It’s just been… so hard.” Tears ran from her eyes. “I’m Leora Richards, Seth’s wife… Seth’s widow.”

Lisa wrapped the woman in her arms and led her to the sofa. I wheeled up close to her and reached for her hand. My friend Seth was dead now, too. Fuck!

“I should have come right away, but it was so sudden. I couldn’t do anything. But he told me it was important. He asked me to bring you some things of his. They were hard for me to part with.” She held out a wooden box. I opened it to find several small books. On top of the books was a letter addressed to me. “And this,” she said.

I watched as she took a large sapphire ring off her finger and handed it to me.

The Tryin’, the Itch, and the Wardrobe

“MRS. RICHARDS…” I began.

“Please. Call me Leora,” she answered. I glanced at Lisa and she raised an eyebrow to me. Leora’s eyes were cast down as she held out the ring.

“Leora, I know that this ring was precious to Seth. He always wore it. I thought it was his wedding ring. You should keep it or hand it down to your children,” I said softly.

“He wore the ring long before we were married. Seth gave me very specific instructions,” she said. “We’ve always known this could happen, but I prayed it never would. He was only 45.” She pressed the ring into my hand and I held it.

“What happened?”

“He was killed on Chaos.”

“The Crossroads game? How can you be killed in a game?” I asked.

“Have you ever once seen anyone play Crossroads?” she asked.

“No. I assumed it was by invitation only and I’ve never been that into games. You know Seth and I worked on magic tricks all the time. I quit playing games soon after I was injured,” I said. “Don’t tell me they actually acted out all that stuff he told me!”

“Lincoln, Crossroads isn’t a game. It’s a place. Chaos and Cassandra are real. I don’t know what happened. I know that Sunday afternoon, like he’s done every other Sunday afternoon since I’ve known him, Seth walked into Crossroads from our bedroom. Fifteen minutes later, he was back in our bedroom lying dead at my feet,” Leora sighed.

“You believe in all this?”

“I’ve been there. Early on, I accompanied Seth as his companion. I went on three missions with him and when I was nearly killed, Seth insisted that I stay home. He didn’t have to insist very hard. After that experience I never wanted to go back. I didn’t really want him to go back, but by that time I knew and understood what was at stake for those poor women. And I knew that Seth would be driven to go no matter what. If nothing else, he could never abandon Rita Caretaker. Sometimes, I had to fight the urge to go back just so I could see her,” Leora said. “I need to know what happened.”

“I think I should go fix us some tea,” Lisa said. “I probably shouldn’t have been here to hear what I have. You two are talking magic. I’m not ready for that.”

“May I help make tea while Lincoln reads Seth’s letter?” Leora asked. “I’d like to speak privately with you, as well.” Lisa has this expression where she pulls both eyebrows up and her forehead wrinkles. On some people it would be a look of surprise, but I’d learned a long time ago that with Lisa it was the precursor to a lecture. I reached over and patted her hand. She sighed and took Leora to the kitchen. I placed the ring in the box Leora gave me and pulled out the letter. ‘Seth, what have you gotten me into?’ I thought. I finally opened the letter.

My dear apprentice Lincoln,

Since you are reading this, I’m dead. I assume that I have failed in a mission. My poor Leora has carried out my last wish and brought you three items that I treasure more than anything on earth other than my love. I want you to have them.

Over the past several years, I’ve told you stories of Crossroads and Chaos. The hardest thing for you to do right now will be to believe them. But that’s what I’m asking. And I am asking that you take my place and become an earth hero and rescue damsels in distress. I’ve taken the time to really get to know you and to know that you have what it takes to become a hero. You rescued your sister-in-law and niece at the sacrifice of yourself and your father. I know that still haunts you. But that is what being a hero is. It is putting the lives and welfare of others above your own.

That was a preview of Sleight of Hand. To read the rest purchase the book.

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