Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
The Study and Application of Magic
Studying magic was boring.
Who would have thought?
When Alice learned she was a wizard and that she would be attending Alexandria Academy, a school for the magically inclined, she thought she had fallen into a beloved children’s novel. She never suspected studying magic was more like sitting through a dry history of magic class rather than learning to defend oneself against the dark arts.
“Now, who can tell me which Talents fall within the Mantic family?” asked Mr. Burgess, her Talent Discernment and Application teacher. He was a short, portly gentleman who favored tweed suits and hippy Birkenstocks—with rainbow striped socks that had little toe sleeves.
Seriously, was he trying to see how many crimes he could commit against fashion simultaneously?
And if I’m picking up on that, you know it’s bad, Alice thought to herself as she watched him waddle slowly back and forth in front of the first row of seats, her chin in hand and elbow propped up on the small desk affixed to her chair.
Mr. Burgess looked around at the glazed expressions his students wore with an almost pleading smile. Alice felt a little bad for the jovial man. He clearly loved his subject and she could see he tried to make it interesting and engaging, but there was just no denying that memorizing the dozens of different Talents, how they manifested, and how they were used was a form of mind-numbing torture.
“Anyone?” he asked again, searching for someone, anyone, to raise their hand.
Don’t make eye contact… Don’t make eye contact…
“Alice, how about you?”
Alice groaned inwardly and raised her head from the doodles she’d been penning into the margins of her notes.
Mr. Burgess smiled at her, beaming with encouragement. Her classmates all turned to look at her and she groaned again. She was about to be humiliated in front of a bunch of kids little more than half her age.
“Umm, what does ‘Mantic’ mean again?” she asked wincing. Mr. Burgess tended to talk fast and she had still been scrambling to write down everything he’d said about the last category of Talents when he’d started in on the next. By the time she’d gotten down everything she could remember, he’d already moved on to the Q and A portion of his lecture period. By that point, she’d thrown in the towel on trying to catch up. Hence the doodling.
Mr. Burgess’s face fell and he sighed. “James, can you please tell Miss Sinclair what ‘Mantic’ means?”
“Mantic,” a small ten-year-old boy with mousy brown hair and large round gray eyes piped up eagerly, “of or relating to divination or prophecy.”
“Thank you, James,” Mr. Burgess said and slanted a crooked brow at Alice.
“You know, I don’t think that’s exactly fair. James has a perfect memory. Regurgitating facts is his thing, not mine,” Alice pointed out, her face burning with embarrassment at being outdone by a kid who should have been in the fourth grade, while she’d just graduated high school.
Mr. Burgess shook his head sadly. “Alice, you of all people should know this information. As a key aspect of your job, you need to know the different Talents and be able to identify them. I know I am not your only teacher to stress how important it is for you to focus on your studies.”
Yeah, no kidding. It seemed like all the people she’d come into contact with since becoming aware of the magical community, known as Wonderland, talked about was how she’d take up the post of the Red Queen. It was a position akin to being the sheriff of Deadwood. Not exactly the direction Alice saw her life heading, but then again, up until six months ago she’d thought she was crazy, so what did she know?
Well, she did know one thing; she detested people trying to make decisions about her life for her.
Alice fought against a nearly irresistible urge to throw her head back and roll her eyes. Before she could do or say anything to either further embarrass herself or disrespect a teacher she actually liked, there came a knock at the classroom door.
Chairs creaked as thirty some-odd kids all twisted around in their seats to see who’d mercifully broken up a tedious lesson. Alice was doubly glad, having gotten a reprieve from Mr. Burgess’s guilt trip. When she saw that it was Joseph looming there in the doorway in all his dour glory, she nearly cheered. There was only one reason the Knave himself would take time out of his very busy day to come all the way out to the academy.
“Good afternoon Mr. Blake,” Mr. Burgess said in some surprise. “To what do we owe the pleasure.”
“I need Miss Sinclair,” Joseph said in that deep sober voice of his, confirming her jubilant guess.
Yeah, Alice had to attend classes, lectures, and labs—almost double the class load of any of the other students at Alexandria because of all the lost ground she had to make up for—but she also got to go out in the field with her mentor, Joseph, for “work experience.” Not all of the cases Joseph handled in his role as the Knave were suitable for training someone so inexperienced, but for those a newbie could safely tag along on, Joseph would come and spring her out of whatever class she happened to be in.
Mr. Burgess seemed to deflate a bit. He always looked so sad when any of his students missed out on the wisdom he tried his best to impart. Alice watched him with a hopeful smile, her lower lip caught between her teeth until he gave a deep sigh and waved her on up out of her chair.
“Of course. But Alice, I’ll want a thousand-word essay on the different Mantic Talents and how to identify them on my desk by Monday.”
“Sure thing Mr. B!” Alice chirped, stuffing a binder and pencil into her backpack and launching out of the desk.
Once out of the classroom and hurrying to keep up with Joseph’s longer stride—the man was tall—Alice said, “Man, you have epic timing. I am so glad you showed up when you did.”
“I can imagine,” Joseph murmured as they walked down the wide hall past all the other closed class doors, his long brown duster snapping in his wake. “But your teacher is right. You do need to know these things.”
Alice did roll her eyes then, hitching the straps of her backpack higher up on her shoulders. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But let me remind you that I haven’t made up my mind yet, about whether I’m even going to be the next Red Queen. I mean, if I don’t end up doing the job, does it really matter if I don’t know all of this crap?”
“Do you not think knowing more about the community you belong to, regardless of your role in it, is worth learning for its own sake?” Joseph countered.
Now, Alice sighed. “Yeah, it is,” she agreed, resigning herself to the grim fate of memorizing long lists of Talent types and identification methods. Then she perked back up. “So, what’s the case today?”
“We’re investigating some suspicious digital activity and a traffic accident. Given what I just heard, I’m afraid to ask about your progress in assessing and identifying the work of a patterner.”
Alice groaned. “So, I didn’t know one term. That doesn’t mean I’m flunking the class. I know which Talents fall into the pattern group,” she said jogging a bit to keep pace with Joseph’s longer stride. The man walked with unwavering focus. Not hurried, really, but definitely brisk. Alice usually had to work at keeping up with him, and she wasn’t exactly stumpy herself. It made her feel like she was a little kid tagging along after the bigger kids.
But then, there was nothing to be done about it, so Alice would just have to cope.
“And how are you at accurately identifying a person by their Talent?” he asked.
“Getting better. I’m trying something new,” she told Joseph striving to sound more confident than she felt as they left the lecture wing, walking out onto the fourth level balcony encircling the huge atrium that was at the heart of the Alexandria Academy.
Far overhead, the arching skylight looked out at an overcast January afternoon—except that wasn’t really the sky but a truly fantastic illusion. Down below on the ground floor, people walked through the central garden, sat eating their lunches, or chatted in study groups at the various clusters of tables and benches sheltering under full-sized Japanese maples and dogwoods.
At the far end of the oval atrium, two young boys chased each other along the rocky edges of the koi pond. As Alice and Joseph neared the grand staircase next to the waterfall that fed the mountain stream meandering through the in-door park before pouring into the pond, she saw a school monitor marching over to the boys, her finger already wagging in a very stern manner.
The first time Alice had walked into the academy’s atrium, her jaw had dropped and she’d stood like an idiot, eyes bugging out of her head, her bag dangling forgotten from one hand. She couldn’t believe that all of what she saw was buried under the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois.
Truth be told, she was still impressed, but Alice didn’t have much attention to spare as she skipped steps down the broad stone stairs, gripping the oiled wood banister to keep from skidding the rest of the way to the landing on her ass.
Alice and Joseph trekked down the length of the park until they reached the front doors set in the south wall. They were a collection of five doors in total, made of the same dark carved wood but each had a different locking mechanism. One had a key pad above the handle, the next a receiver for badges or fobs, another had a typical key slot, the fourth doorknob had only a small hole, and the fifth had a weird sensor doohickey next to it that Alice didn’t recognize but suspected was some kind of fingerprint or retinal scanner. That one never did see much traffic.
Joseph made for the door with the common key lock. There wasn’t much of a line, only two people ahead of them. It was the middle of the school day, so nearly everyone, teachers and students alike, were still in class. That was another thing Alice loved about leaving school early with Joseph; she got to skip the mad crush of people waiting to go home.
Worse than the mall on Black Friday.
As the first person stuck their house key into the door and swung it open to reveal a dim narrow entryway into what might have been a small urban apartment or an even smaller low-income house, Joseph asked Alice to elaborate on what she meant by trying something new.
“Well, I’ve been working on making another deck of cards. It’s like the Tarot deck, but this one has, you know, symbols I’ve made up to represent all the different Talents.”
Joseph exhaled through his nose as the boy in front of them waited for the door to shut after the last person before opening it again onto the foyer of what had to be a mansion or something. “You know my thoughts on letting yourself become dependent on toys to do your work for you.”
“How is it any different than you using your Talent assessor?” Alice demanded, one fist on her hip. The Talent assessor was a gadget he’d had her hold when they’d first met. A gadget she’d kinda sorta made explode. It had been an accident, but that explosion of blinding white light had told him that the type and potency of her magic was that of someone who wasn’t limited to just one particular Talent but who could touch on all of them.
“The difference is that you are a wizard,” Joseph told her as he tugged the door closed firmly behind the boy, then slid his key into the lock and turned it with a snick. “You don’t need tools and toys to get the job done. Laziness and leaning on crutches this early in your training will only form bad habits you’ll have to break later.”
Joseph opened the door and waved her through. Alice walked past him, speaking over her shoulder. “You know… the right tool for the right job makes you more capable, not less. And faster. And more precise. Right?”
“And what happens when you don’t have your cards? Hmm?”
They stepped straight from Alice’s school in Collinsville, Illinois into Joseph’s office in downtown Sacramento, California.
Alice always liked this space. It was on the third floor in the octagonal tower of an honest-to-God Queen Anne Victorian mansion on H St. To the vanillas, the mansion claimed to be The Sterling Hotel, an upscale bed and breakfast. To the citizens of Wonderland, it housed the headquarters of District Six’s court administration and resident Playing Cards.
From the outside, Joseph’s office seemed rather small, though graced with four windows and the best view of the surrounding area. But as with the academy, the inside had been magically enhanced. In other words, the tower room was much larger than it had any right to be and, despite Joseph’s utter lack of interest in interior design, had loads of character in the molding along the ceiling and the vintage patterned wallpaper.
“Then I’ll improvise,” Alice said with a shrug and flopped down in one of the chairs in front of Joseph’s large but spartan wooden desk, her backpack dropped at her feet. “Maybe you don’t remember but I’m pretty good at improvising.”
“Oh, I remember,” he assured her as he paused to flip through the stack of papers someone had left in the middle of his otherwise immaculate desk.
Alice played with the zipper on her jacket and smiled, thinking back on how she’d opened up an old mineshaft and buried the All-Mighty Knave in red clay dirt that first day they met.
“Still, I would prefer you practice a method of magic-use that is a little more reliable,” Joseph said with a stern glance.
“Fine, fine, I will. But I’m going to keep using my cards until I get used to something else,” she told him.
Joseph gave a nod to that and settled into his highbacked desk chair, his back to the windows and the streets beyond. He turned the desk’s large computer monitor in her direction and clicked his mouse. “Alright, tell me what you see.”
Alice slid forward in her chair and planted her elbows on her knees, chin resting on her double fist, watching the screen closely.
It was feed from a traffic camera and it looked as though it was covering a busy intersection in some big city. Lots of sun… palm trees… flat… Alice was willing to bet it was somewhere in Los Angeles, but she wasn’t one hundred percent sure. The only times she’d ever ventured down to southern California were on family trips to Disneyland. In her opinion, that was the only reason to go. Alice didn’t do huge cities and her skin was in a love/hate relationship with the sun.
On the screen, cars, trucks, and semis came and went like giant schools of fish; a never-ending flow that all seemed perfectly choreographed—until it wasn’t.
A silver and blue sports car, a Mercedes Benz by the three-pointed star emblem, sped towards the intersection. It never even slowed, dodging and weaving insanely through the slower cars approaching what was a yellow light.
Then the light glitched and settled on green.
The Mercedes blew through the intersection, while the slower traffic lurched into hesitant motion to follow suit, never mind that the cross traffic also had a green light and hadn’t even begun to slow. As the sports car flew on down the boulevard, chaos erupted behind it.
The video feed didn’t have any sound, but Alice had seen her fair share of car chase scenes in movies and could imagine the kind of cacophony that must have deafened everyone there.
Alice felt the blood drain from her face and her hands covered her mouth in horror as in her head she heard brakes screaming, horns blaring, and tires squealing as drivers everywhere made a hopeless attempt to stop before crashing into each other. In seconds, the whole intersection was brought to a standstill.
Joseph clicked the mouse again and the scene froze. Alice stared at the people stuck half way out of their cars to better see what had happened—those that could move that was. She could see others slumped in their car seats.
“What happened?” she breathed around her fingers.
“The best we can figure, the driver of the Mercedes tapped into the traffic grid and switched the light. It caused a twenty-four-car pileup, seventeen injuries, and two fatalities.”
Alice flinched at the carnage, picturing someone’s mom or husband broken and bloody, never to return home to their loved ones. Then it was a horridly short leap to imagining what it would be like to answer the phone and hear that it was her mom… No, she wouldn’t go down that rabbit hole. Instead, Alice shoved her thoughts away from such painful imaginings and mentally shuffled facts around until they pieced themselves together into helpful information. “A Coder?”
“Likely, but there’s something here we haven’t seen before.” Joseph tapped a few keys and the image on the screen changed. It became a grainy close-up shot of the Mercedes Benz. “Notice anything?”
Alice looked. Nothing jumped out at her. She squinted some more, trying to force the picture into better definition and failing. Just when she was about to swallow her pride and ask Joseph for a clue, she got it. It wasn’t what was in the picture but what wasn’t there.
“Where’s the driver?” she asked, her brows climbing up under her bangs.
“Exactly. It would appear that our speed demon is also the Invisible Man.”
“But that’s a completely different set of Talents,” Alice protested, sinking back into her seat. “People make themselves invisible either through illusions, which play on peoples’ perceptions—not cameras—and belongs in the Humanities, or through physics by, like, bending light or something and that would be in the Energetics group. Neither one of those families of Talents could mess around with computer code or hack into the traffic grid.”
“I’m glad to see that you have been paying attention in class after all,” Joseph said with a small smile. “And you’re right of course, unless this is something new.”
“It’s never wise to think one has all the answers. The world has a way of throwing curve balls just when you think you know every rule. Maybe what we’re seeing here is the emergence of a new Talent. Or a new application of an old one.”
Alice mulled that over with a frown. She didn’t like the idea that just as she was finding her feet in the crazy world of Wonderland, someone was out there ready to rip the rug right out from under her. “So, if we can’t see his face, how do we find him? License plates?”
“Car was stolen from a dealership earlier that afternoon and found abandoned the following day. The dealership’s security cameras didn’t catch anything. No signs of forced entry. No alarms went off. The doors just opened and closed on their own, the car simply started up and drove off the lot.”
“Let me guess; the dealership doors, the car’s doors, and car’s ignition are all digital and keyless. All of which can be manipulated by a skilled Coder.”
“Got it in one,” Joseph told her. “Now, what should be our next step?” he asked in the same way a college professor would prompt a struggling student.
Alice racked her brains trying to come up with the answer he was looking for. “Well, we need to figure out who this was, so… if we can’t use plates, what about fingerprints?” Wonderland may be chock full of magical solutions, but often regular old police procedures yielded the fast, reliable results people like the Knave needed and those kinds of resources were more readily available than a single person with an esoteric Talent.
Joseph’s chair creaked softly as he leaned back in it. “That’s the second twist. When the techs ran the trace evidence, their data came out scrambled. Completely unusable.”
“But what could cause that?”
“Our Coders are just as mystified. So, no video footage, no plates, no trace evidence. Now what?”
Alice blew out a long breath. “Then I guess the next thing is to call out the psychometrists.” She gave herself a mental pat on the back for getting the technical term correct for someone who could touch an object and know its history right the first time and not fumbling the pronunciation. “Or the chronologist.” There was only the one on staff since the ability to rewind time was one of the rarest Talents.
“That would be the logical next step,” Joseph agreed with a small smile of approval. “Unfortunately, they all have a backlog of more pressing cases.” He stood and shrugged back into his coat. “Which means we will be doing this one ourselves. It’s a good opportunity for you to practice your own skills. If all goes well, perhaps you will have the opportunity to work a case from start to finish. Now, down to the garage. We’ll begin with a look at the car in question.”
“But isn’t something like this, um, kind of minor for someone like you?” Alice asked as she snagged the straps of her pack and slung it on backwards so that it rested against her chest. That way she could rummage around in it for her Tarot deck.
The prospect of performing her still-shaky magic in front of Joseph sent nervous flutters through her stomach, but at the same time she was excited to be given a chance at cracking this mystery.
Joseph opened the door, this time onto a hallway inside the mansion. “The cases I’m currently working on are all being further investigated by other people. I’m in a rare moment of limbo while I wait for my involvement to be required.”
“You know, I’ve been meaning to ask. What exactly is it you do with the people who break Wonderland’s laws?” Alice asked.
In all the talk of Alice assuming the role of Red Queen, with all of the duties and responsibilities that position carried, no one had ever really specified the end results of these investigations. Did they have prisons? Community service? Issue fines?
“That would depend on the infraction. In this case, with two lives lost and many others injured, the mundane law enforcement swarming over everything and the headache of covering up the magical aspects, the sentence will be most severe.”
Alice felt a nauseating swoop in her stomach as she followed him down the short hallway towards the stairs that would lead down to the second and first floors. “What, like…, a death sentence?”
Joseph opened his mouth to answer, when one of the Playing Cards, the street cops of Wonderland, ran up to them.
“Hey Blake! We’ve had a break in the Harrison case,” said the young man with a mop of unruly red hair and an incredibly freckled face.
Joseph’s focus sharpened like a bloodhound on the scent. “Have Tanaka, Ander, Kalchik, Oni, and Smith meet me in the prep room.”
The Playing Card grinned. “Getting predictable Boss. They’re already there, just waiting on you.”
The Knave nodded then looked down at Alice.
“I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to postpone this until tomorrow. Meet me in the garage at nine. I’ll notify your teachers of your absence.”
“Yeah, sure… tomorrow,” Alice whispered faintly to Joseph’s retreating back feeling nauseous.
If this was going to be her case, then would it be her word that condemned someone to death?
And if she was the one to see it through from beginning to end… would it be her hand to carry out the sentence?