BrownCloakLacey Warren crafted her entire high school career with only one goal in mind: studying chemistry at a prestigious college, preferably one as far from home as possible.  The only thing that still stands in her way is time. Two more months of an overbearing mother, obnoxious younger brothers, and a mostly off-again boyfriend before she’s free.

That squad of trolls tearing up the house?  Yeah, they have other ideas.

Getting thrown into an honest-to-god dungeon with the boys isn’t even the weirdest part of it.  Not only is she starting to discover some rather unusual talents, but Lacey’s now having visions that suggest her bitterly divorced parents are using actual magic to—most impossibly of all—work together to find their children.  But this is all totally insane, right?  To her dismay, it looks like she and her brothers are somehow pawns in a game that threatens to unravel all of reality.

Chess has never been Lacey’s speed, though.  She’s more of a first-person shooter kind of girl.  Embracing her heritage would blow apart her carefully ordered, rational world, but it may be the only way to get her family home alive.

Chapter One

My bright smile never falters as I lean in and mutter to Katie, “The next one of those little piss-stains that tries grabbing my ass is gonna lose an arm.”

“Oh come on, Lacey,” she replies, her own grin equally fixed, “that would be way too much paperwork.”

“If it gets me off birthdays, it might be worth it.”

I don’t know why any kid would have a birthday party at the Mockingbird, anyway.  The decor is mental institution chic, I’m convinced that the food is actually elaborate performance art exploring the concept of “bland,” and we don’t provide a cake.  It’s like their parents are saying, We don’t love you, but we don’t have time to find an orphanage.  This place isn’t even horrible enough to enjoy ironically.  You could say that about the whole damn town, really.

Before we can commiserate further, the two-top by the window catches my eye, fishing for their check.  They seem rather desperate to get away from the recess brigade.  You and me both, guys.  I battle briefly with our ancient computer and force the ticket to print.  “Why did Dr. Hasebe have to lose his funding?” I groan for the quintillionth time this year.  Landing the internship at PacChem last summer felt like winning the lottery—if the state of California offered chances at a research position involving explosives for two bucks a pop, anyway.  Going from that to fucking food service feels like I’m atoning for a past life as a particularly heinous dictator.  Every day I contemplate giving notice, and every day I remind myself that technically, I already have.  I know that if I try to check out early, Mom will just march me down here and make them take me back, so all I can do now is run out that clock.  Sixty-four more days…

The fidgety couple and I make pleasant noises at each other as I drop the blue faux leather folder.  The dude already has his card out.  I run it for him on autopilot.  My brain’s occupied with complex waitress calculus, weighing the progress and relative neglectedness of my tables to plot my course.  I try to plan a step or two in advance: any less is a one-way ticket to the weeds, but more than that and it will all fall apart anyway.  In general it’s a good philosophy, though right now I wish it were pointing me to another conclusion.  No way around it, the birthday party needs refills.  Son of a bitch.  With the two-top liberated, I fill up a pitcher of Coke, take a deep breath, and plaster on a smile.

I reach cautiously over a kid with dark spiky hair and an early start on acne.  “Hey,” he says, already snickering, “I hear you turn tricks.”

A death glare shatters my placid mask before I can rein it in.  Come on, Lacey, you’ve shrugged off worse than that in game chat.  Of course, in arena play I’d have the little bastard in my crosshairs before he ran out of synonyms for male genitalia.  “You don’t even know what that means,” I say with surprising calm.

Luckily for my fraying patience, the birthday boy smacks his skeezy friend upside the head.  “Don’t be an asshole,” he says, then adds, “but you do magic tricks, right?”

I narrowly suppress a sigh.  You pull a coin from a kid’s ear one time to stop him from shrieking, then word gets out and everyone wants to see the monkey dance.  I briefly lock eyes with a woman over at the parents’ table, the one who’s been calling all the shots.  In that moment, I can see the calculator in her skull preparing to adjust my tip.

My smile returns.  I set aside the pitcher and produce the deck of cards that’s never far from my reach.  “So you wanna see some magic?” I say.

A few heads bob; Birthday Boy looks totally enthralled.  I try some of my flashier shuffles.  It limbers up my fingers, builds the anticipation, lets me stall and think.  Once I feel like I’ve got everyone’s attention and have some idea of how I’m going to play this, I square the deck and then fan it out in front of Birthday Boy.  “Pick a card, any card.”

He dithers over the spread of textured blue and white and pulls one out of the middle.  “Show everyone, but don’t show me,” I instruct.  He sweeps it face-out in a broad arc like he’s a game show presenter, and my smile becomes very slightly genuine.  “Okay, now put it back,” I say, and he complies.

Here’s the tricky part.  In one more-or-less smooth motion, I nudge the target card just barely out of place as I collapse the fan, then cut the deck and give the whole thing a couple of fake shuffles.  “Your turn,” I say, handing fifty-one cards to Birthday Boy.  “Shuffle the hell out of it.”

With all eyes on him, I slip the remaining card from my palm to my pocket, the card that I fervently hope is the one the kid picked.  I started messing with cards when I was around twelve or so, mainly as something to do with my hands.  I actually got pretty good, but with the stress of college applications and the general insanity of senior year, it’s been ages since I’ve had time for more than a stray shuffle.  The current probability of looking like an ass in front of a bunch of grade school kids is depressingly high.

Birthday Boy offers the deck back, but I shake my head.  “Pass it around,” I say.  “Let everyone take a turn.”

I work the table in the opposite direction of the traveling deck, refilling drinks and doing my best to look unconcerned.  Several other diners are now watching.  So no pressure or anything.  Not that the Mockingbird attracts a ton of people even at our busiest, but I get nervous performing for the audience of my bedroom mirror.  Sodas topped off, I deposit the emptied pitcher on a nearby table and watch the kids fumble with my cards.

By the time the stack makes it back to me, I’ve palmed the target card again.  I pluck the deck delicately back from the guest of honor and resume shuffling, almost idly.  “So, you seem like a pretty smart bunch,” I say.  “How am I going to do it?”

“It’s up your sleeve!” some kid offers.

I pause in manipulating the cards long enough to waggle a gauzy yellow arm at him.  This is one of my favorite tops for work: pretty enough that I enjoy wearing it, but I’m not so attached that I’d mourn to see it covered in ketchup; provides sufficient coverage to deter the pervs but still light so I can go into the kitchen without combusting.  “You would totally be able to see it,” I point out.

Murmurs of concession.  “You did something when you shuffled it,” another suggests.

“Ah, but even if I were cunningly keeping the same card on top, you all still had a chance to shuffle too.  So that’s out.”

“I thought magicians weren’t supposed to reveal their secrets,” the brat next to Birthday Boy says.

“You know what?  You’re absolutely right.”  With that, I pluck the top card off the deck and throw it face-up onto the table.

The boys explode into a cacophony of disbelief and delight at the sight of the five of clubs.  The rest of my little audience applauds.  I pull my apron out to one side and give my best curtsey, beaming for real.  Birthday Boy examines the card reverently.  “Can you show me how to do that?” he asks, handing it back to me.

I wink.  “Some other time,” I say.  “Right now I think you’re gonna be too busy with cake.”

Every little head swivels toward Katie, wheeling in our rickety dessert cart with her usual impeccable timing.  The grocery store cake is iced with the Minecraft logo, complete with tiled green background and a little plastic Creeper.  I might have to consider liking this kid.  The party breaks out in an atonal chorus of “Happy Birthday,” then Katie and I work quickly to distribute the sugar rush.

Once they’re squared away, Katie returns the cart to its spot at our station.  Since she took care of the cake for me while I was busy performing, I figure I’ll return the favor by clearing a couple of her tables.  Naturally, the only busser we had scheduled called off today and the manager didn’t bother replacing him.

I approach a guy dining solo to take his empty plate.  He grins at me in a way that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.  Man, I hope my fake smiles don’t look that unsettling.  “That was quite a trick,” he says before I can make some canned inquiry about his meal.  I can’t quite place his accent; it sounds vaguely British, but like it’s fake or from one of those places that isn’t part of England anymore.

“Not really,” I reply.  I silently kick myself for saying exactly the wrong thing, but there’s something about this guy that’s immediately got me off my balance.  He sits unnaturally straight, and his suit looks like expensive linen but hangs like something heavier and poorly-fitted.  His long, black hair mismatches the sharp clothes, too smooth and manicured for him to be a hippie or rocker.  Maybe it’s just the way that he’s looking at me.  Even though it’s not necessarily sexual—believe me, I get plenty of that, even looking as aggressively average as I do—it still makes me want to shower in Purell.

“You sell yourself short, I think,” he says.  “Although I’m sure there are things I could teach you.”

My skeev-o-meter jumps off the charts, but I try to stay professional as I reposition myself to grab the plate without any personal space being breached.  “You a magician?” I say.

He laughs like I should know why it’s funny.  “You might say that.”  I’m spared from trying to figure out how to extricate myself politely when he glances at his watch and sighs.  “I fear I must be on my way.  Until next time, my dear.”

Not if I can help it.  “Thanks for coming,” I say weakly, and scurry away with the dirty dishes.

I watch from the safety of the servers’ station as the guy throws some cash on the table and leaves without waiting for the check.  Katie pops back out from the kitchen.  “Man, how’d you deal with Uncle Bad Touch over there?” I ask her.

“Table four?” she says.  “Meh, he’s a little weird, but he wasn’t sketchy or anything.”

“For a hot chick, you have a terrible radar for this sort of thing.”

She grins.  “Maybe he only likes ‘em short and pasty.”

“Theoretically possible,” I reply.  It honestly surprises me that anyone even notices me with Katie around.  I’m not being self-pitying or anything, it’s just an objective statement of fact that she could stop traffic in a ratty T-shirt and pajama pants.  As far as appearances go, we’re about as opposite as you can get: She’s tall with just the right curves, while I’m short—but not short enough to be petite and therefore cute—and could best be described as “squidgy.”  She’s got flawless mocha skin and perfect teeth, and I’m pale and splotchy and couldn’t afford braces.  Her hair is dark, curly, and shiny, whereas I’ve become convinced that my mousy, frizzy mess is sentient and evil.  I’d need hours of expert makeovers, a good plastic surgeon, and a miracle or two for anyone to think I was the hot one.  If she weren’t my best friend, I’d probably hate her.

But she is my best friend, as evidenced by the sparkle in her eye that always signals shenanigans.  “So, movie tonight?” she says.  “Mason’s done with his volunteer thing so he’s officially home for the summer, and I think he might be bringing the hot swimmer guy from the last LAN party.”

Hmm, gorgeous gamer college boy.  Tempting.  But…  “I’m not sure that’s really a good idea,” I say.

“What are you talking about?  It’s an awesome idea.  It’s easily in my top fifteen ideas of all time, and my ideas are legendary.  Unless—”  She breaks off and glares at me.  “You haven’t talked to Vic yet, have you.”

I grab at a glass randomly and start to polish it, in the hopes that it will make me look less guilty.  I’d bail and check on my tables, but lunch is winding down and no one needs me at the moment.  She just keeps glaring until I say, “I don’t know, I’m kind of hoping he’ll take the hint.”

“Please,” she snorts.  “This is the boy who kept giving you Barbies in fifth grade because he thought you liked them, even after you straight-up begged him to stop.  Master of subtle cues he is not.”

“It’s not like we see much of each other anymore,” I argue, “and Oakhurst isn’t even a full hour away.”  She can’t exactly contradict me there.  A couple of years back, both my mom and Katie’s dad moved to Fresno looking for work, taking the respective families along.  Vic stayed behind, and since then things have sort of diverged.  He’s pretty much entirely taken over his mom’s bakery because his grades would have been barely good enough for community college.  I think he’d be happy to do that for the rest of his life: churning out cupcakes and doughnuts with a wife who churns out babies.  No thank you.  His weird schedule makes it difficult for him to get down here, and I’ve been busy enough that I never needed to make up an excuse to avoid the trip back there.  “Anyway, my leaving for Boston should be pretty definitive.”

She groans.  “You are such a wuss.  It’s not like you haven’t dumped him before.”

“And it never sticks.  Hence why I’m trying a different tactic.”

“Whatever,” she says, shaking her head.  “I’ll round up some extra people for tonight so it’s not a thing, but you’re still a wuss.”

“Yup, that’s me,” I reply cheerily.  “Now come on, let’s burn the rest of these tables so we can actually have some fun today.

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