A Fairy Tale
Carroll fumbled with the lockpicks. The door was old and thick with quartered panels carved three layers deep into the wood. The keyhole was big enough for a mouse to crawl through, but it was hidden under a heavy brass shutter below the antique dragon’s-head doorknob. The shutter was on a spring hinge, making it nearly impossible to insert the lockpicks at all, much less unlock the door. It wasn’t like he was practiced at this sort of thing. How, he asked himself, as the shutter banged closed on his fingers one more time, had he gotten himself into this mess anyway?
Three Days Earlier
“Someone to see you, Mr. Richards,” Carroll’s secretary piped through the com line.
“I told you, I didn’t want to see anyone today.” Carroll was tired of seeing people his father’s secretary insisted he see. He was tired of explaining himself. He was tired of – well – he was just tired. Why he had bothered coming into the office today he didn’t know. He picked up the three cards on the desk and slid them smoothly into the Melting Card Trick. Card tricks and finding coins in people’s ears were fine for birthday parties, but they weren’t going to help him run a detective agency. Still, those skills and the offices were all his father had left him. Along with a few debts.
He heard the door open and the too-cheery voice of his secretary. “Go right in, Miss.”
Why hadn’t he fired the woman? – well – he didn’t know that either. Ever since his father’s death, he had made one mistake after the other dealing with an inheritance he had never wanted.
“Mr. … Dick? Tricky Dick?”
Carroll looked up to see a woman so lovely his heart broke just looking at her. Red-gold hair fell to shoulders covered by a light blue jacket that matched her – oh, those eyes. Somehow his hands tucked the playing cards into the top drawer of his desk.
“No,” he blurted. And then, at the dismay in her wonderful eyes, he spluttered on, “That is, I am, that’s me, but actually … it’s not. Not really. That’s not my name.”
The name was his father’s. Or, to be more precise, it was the name by which his father had been known. Richard Richards (what had his parents been thinking?) had been known as the best private detective in town – and probably in the state and a few adjoining states as well. Tricky Dick’s Detective Agency was the one you called when private detecting was needed.
Carroll hated it. Almost as much as he hated his own name. What had his parents been thinking? He’d asked them, of course. It seemed Carroll was the name of some illustrious ancestor on his mother’s side and she thought it had an air of aristocracy. His father hated it too. Carroll thought that might explain why they had never been close. Except for the magic, that is.
“I’m so … so sorry,” Carroll stammered. Good God. This woman was going to turn right around and leave if he wasn’t careful. He rose and gestured to the client chair beside his desk. “Please, come in. Have a seat.” He smiled what he hoped was a pleasant smile and not the nervous grin he could feel forming on his face. “I’m … Mr. Richards.” Why saddle her with the “Carroll” part right away? “My father was Tricky Dick. It was … He was a Republican.” Oh, no. Where did that come from?
Carroll shut up, his arm still extended toward the seat he meant her to take.
She took it, crossing long slim legs under a flared blue skirt. Her feet plumped slightly over the tops of sapphir blue patent leather pumps.
“And you’re a Democrat, I suppose.” She smiled up at him so brilliantly that he had to sit down again before his legs gave out.
“Oh, no, not really.” Seated again, he began to relax. “My dad was – he always said that presidents and detectives had a lot in common. They both needed to be tricky sometimes. I’m just …”
“More thoughtful,” she finished for him.
Carroll could have hugged her. “I like to think so,” he replied, regaining a measure of coherence. “But enough of this. How can I help you?”
She cast her lovely eyes downward. Carroll thought the sun must have passed behind a cloud somewhere, but then realized that she had simply stopped smiling.
“My name is Adelinda King,” she told him. “I’m afraid my brother has stolen a very valuable ruby from my husband.”
Husband. A little piece fell out of his already broken heart.
“He believes I was in league with my brother.” When she lifted her eyes to his again, pools of rainbow light played in them.
Carroll felt dizzy.
“How can I help you?” he asked again, realizing too late that he had repeated himself.
Adelinda King didn’t seem to notice. “I need you to help me recover the ruby,” she said. “The stone was a setting in a necklace he gave me as a wedding gift, and now it is gone. My husband thinks I pried it out and gave it to my brother.”
Carroll frowned. “Have you contacted the police?” He kicked himself under the desk. The police? What was he thinking? So what if he was really just a birthday party magician, not a real detective. If he promised to help her recover the ruby, they would be working together, keeping them in contact while her marriage fell apart. He kicked himself under the desk again for the thought.
“The police have found no trace of it as yet.”
“Why does he think you had something to do with it?”
“He says I misrepresented myself when I married him. I certainly did no such thing, but I cannot seem to convince him.”
To Carroll’s horror, her eyes filled with the sheen of tears. Waves of rainbows danced in them.
“That is preposterous!” Carroll’s indignation was muted ever so slightly by a tiny degree of hope that she would not want to remain in this obviously abusive relationship.
The rainbows in her eyes disappeared in the sunshine of her smile.
“You are very kind,” Mr. Richards,” she said, her voice soft with the slightest hint of a catch. “But I haven’t told you who my husband is. He is Mordecai King – of King Concerns. When we married, he insisted that all our financial dealings would remain in his hands, that I was to ask him when I wanted spending money, and that I was to forget all thought of a family. We would not have children, nor did he want any ragtag relatives of mine showing up to claim a share of my good fortune.”
Carroll shot out of his chair, braced his hands firmly on the desk, and leaned toward her. “That is patently absurd – and illegal! How does he get away with this? Why did you …”
His voice trailed off as she reached a dainty hand across the desk, placing it on one of his own. “It’s all right, Mr. Richards. At least it was. I had no family, you see. There was no one, ragtag or otherwise. I was working in a rather exclusive jewelry shop. I met my husband at a private showing. He loves rare stones in special settings – the ruby that is now missing was one of those stones. He bought it and had it put into a necklace for me when we married.
“But when my brother showed up …”
“Your brother?” Carroll sank back into his chair, gently and reluctantly pulling the hand on which hers rested, away. “But you said you had no family.”
“I didn’t think I had. All I knew was that I had been adopted by some very kind people who died in a house fire just after I left for college. I had to drop out and find a job. But three weeks ago, the oddest thing happened.” Adelinda leaned forward and lowered her voice. The room seemed to shrink around them, creating a space of confidentiality.
Carroll leaned into that confidentiality on folded arms. “Tell me.”
Carroll braced his outside fingers against the open cover while he worked with his thumbs and forefingers. He closed his eyes – he couldn’t see beneath the brass plate anyway – and concentrated. At last, a tiny click, and then another one, and another. Carroll held his breath, turned the torsion wrench, and it was done.
The dragon-head knob turned heavily, reluctantly, and spiky brass scales bit into his hand. Pushing the fortress-thick door open was like opening a steel gate against a wind, but no wind blew inside the gigantic entry hall.
Tiny lights picked a way deeper into the great house. Carroll could see no other way but to follow them. At the first light, he stopped for a closer look. The sconce held a curlicue of glass that looped in a graceful whorl from its base and seemed to reflect the light in kaleidoscopic colors. As he gazed into the bulb, the light flared, momentarily blinding him with its brightness.
Carroll braced himself against the wall and closed his eyes to let them recover. When, after a short interval, he opened them again, he gazed down the long hallway toward his destination. There, where the lights ended, in a room off the end of the hall, Mordecai King slept, unaware. It wasn’t the first long walk down a darkened aisle he had taken recently.
Pegasus Stables smelled faintly of horse manure. The air was rich with the scent of fresh hay and leather polish. Apparently posh riding clubs didn’t like reminding their clients of the animal nature of their animals. Carroll picked his way between the stalls while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. To either side of him, large animals shifted nervously.
Adelinda’s brother, Adrian Pendergast would be waiting where this long aisle led into the paddock. Carroll stopped for a moment.
Pegasus Stables, Adelinda had assured him, was the one place her husband allowed her free rein, so to speak. He smiled now remembering her tiny smile at her own little joke.
Pendergast had arrived at her door one day, she told him, claiming to be her brother.
“I had to believe him, Mr. Richards,” she had said, in a softly earnest voice. “Seeing him was like looking into a mirror.”
“Of course you did!” Carroll had assured her. A scene played out before his eyes. The husband would, of course, divorce her. The brother would turn out to be a scoundrel – what other kind of brother would wait until a sister married money to announce himself? And Carroll would be there …
“What did he want?” he had asked her.
But her husband had come home at that moment, turned the brother out of the house, and forbade his wife any further contact.
A day later, the ruby was missing.
She then produced a small card from the small bag she held in her lap.
“Here,” she had told him. “Aiden gave me this when he introduced himself.”
The name “Aiden Pendergast” had been printed in gold scrollwork on glossy red cardstock. Underneath, in small, black letters, was a phone number.
The voice coming out of the dark startled Carroll from his reverie.
“Yes, that is, C … Mr. Richards. Tricky Dick is the name of the agency.” Carroll quickened his stride and reached the square of sunlight that lit the stable floor at the far end. Aiden Pendergast turned to him and held out his hand.
“Good to meetcha, Dick. I’m Aiden, Adelinda’s brother.”
Carroll looked into the man’s face. “Yes,” he said at last. “I can see as much.”
The resemblance was astounding. The red-gold hair, perfect white teeth, an almost too pretty face for a man. And the eyes. Blue as the sky beyond. The light played in them to an almost dizzying effect.
Aiden Pendergast laughed. “Unbelievable, isn’t it? Even I didn’t believe it when I saw my sister. You would think we were twins.”
“You’re not?” Carroll was confused.
“I really don’t know, to tell the truth. I … oh! Here she is now.”
Carroll had heard the hoofbeats too, then heard a soft voice echo down the length of the stable.
“Thank you so much. It was a lovely ride. I think she’s settling down some. No trouble at all today.”
A boyish, star-struck voice said, “I knew she would miss. For you. Is there anything you need?” Carroll felt for the lad.
“I’m expecting my brother and – and a friend,” she replied. “Do you know if they’ve arrived yet?”
“I think they may be inside, miss. Down there at the end.”
“Wonderful. See you next week then?”
Carroll and Aiden waited, watching down the long stable aisle as she came toward them, a shadowy figure moving like dark silk between two rows of horses. Once again, Carroll sensed the restlessness. Even the beasts wish she would pick them, he thought.
“Hi, sis!” Aiden moved as if to embrace her.
Adelinda, resplendent in a blue riding costume, sidestepped him and slipped her arm through Carroll’s.
“What have you done with the ruby, Aiden?”
The question hung between them for a second while Carroll held his breath.
“Ruby? What ruby?” Aiden asked.
“You know very well what ruby!” Cold blue flames flared in her eyes. She seemed more impatient than angry.
“Oh, that ruby.” And he took from his pocket a soft velvet bag and hefted it lightly in his palm. “I should say, this ruby?” He tipped the bag with one hand and from it poured red light into the other. It must have been the setting sun, Carroll thought, that caught in the huge gem and blazed like a bonfire between Aiden’s fingers as he closed his hand around it.
Carroll and Adelinda stared in various shades of perplexity as Aiden proceeded to toss the ruby from one hand to the other. The gem blazed in the air, making it appear that he was juggling two, maybe three, even four immense red gems. He and his sister smiled at each other through the glow. They seemed to have completely forgotten Carroll.
Carroll was equally mesmerized by the flashing red lights, but suddenly, before he quite realized what he was doing, he plucked the ruby from Aiden’s hand just as Aiden’s fingers were about to close on it once again. Quick hands were his superpower. At least he had one.
The show was over. The red lights went out. Both Aiden and Adelinda stared with furrowed brows at the space where they had once played.
Carroll closed his fist around the ruby, which felt much smaller than it had seemed in Aiden’s hands. As Aiden and Adelinda turned to him, he slipped the jewel into his pocket. The look of disbelief on their faces was so similar, Carroll nearly laughed.
A reluctant thought crossed his mind. Were these two playing some kind of deep game with him? Had this been a ruse to steal the ruby all along? But if they already had it, what was his part in the game? Then Adelinda banished all doubt, as she came floating into his arms which, unbidden, gathered her in.
“Oh, Mr. Richards. I just knew you were the man to help me.”
Aiden Pendergast suppressed his dismay with a slight shrug, a slippery smile, and a bit of forced chuckle. “Well, well,” he said. “Not quite the oaf after all, eh?”
Adelinda turned on him. “He is not an oaf. He is a very kind gentleman, and would make a much better brother than you!”
Carroll’s broken heart, which had begun to mend when she entered the circle of his arms and healed even more at the words “kind gentleman,” cracked like an old pot when she called him “brother.”
Aiden shrugged, a little too nonchalantly for Carroll’s comfort. “Have it your way.”
“Why did you take it in the first place, if you care so little for it?” Carroll asked him.
“Who said I cared so little for it?” Aiden asked. He put his hands in his pockets and strolled away down the long dusty aisle of the Pegasus Stables.
The corridor ended in a closed double door, flanked by two smaller ones that opened to either side of the hallway. The tumblers inside the large keyhole of the left-hand door succumbed to his lockpicks with no more sound than a sigh of relief.
Carroll slipped off his shoes and turned the knob with as much care as if he were defusing a bomb. The click of the latch when it opened sounded like a pistol shot to his ears. He stood still, unable to breathe, as he eased the door open a crack. Then he waited. When there was no further sound, Carroll inched the door open and stepped into Mordecai King’s bedroom.
His stockinged feet sunk into thick carpet. His shadow, cast by the sconce behind him, stretched across the floor. He took a careful step to the side where he could finally make out the dim forms of furniture. One of these must be the big trunk that stood, he had been told, at the foot of the four-poster bed.
Carroll took another step and then froze at the sound of a soft purr that soon grew into a cascade of percussion rumbling across the floor, sending a tickling shiver from the carpet into Carroll’s feet.
Mordecai King snored.
Carroll had followed Aiden Pendergast’s retreat through the stable with what he soon realized was an unattractive, open-mouthed look of stupefaction. He closed his mouth, fished in his pocket, drew out the ruby, and held it out to Adelinda.
She backed away.
“No, I can’t take it. You will have to return it.”
“But, why? Are you afraid he will take it from you before you can get home? I will be happy to come with you.”
“No.” Adelinda lifted her hands as if to push the thought away. “No, it will have to be returned to the trunk where it was kept. If I return it, he will assume I am the thief he thinks I am. That Aiden and I are in this together.”
Carroll felt a similar unwelcome suspicion threaten his vision once again. He braced himself to be stern with her. “I thought it was prized out of a setting.”
“Oh, it was, but you see, the necklace itself is kept in that trunk. If my husband finds the stone loose in the trunk, he might think it was there all along. That it had fallen from the setting when he replaced the necklace.”
“He doesn’t keep his valuables in a safe?” Carroll hated himself for his suspicions, but something wasn’t right here.
Tears danced in her eyes like frolicking rainbows. When she tried to blink them back, they hung in her eyelashes and magnified the effect. A trick of the light, Carroll decided. He felt dizzy.
“I swear to you,” she said. “I did not steal the ruby. But it must be returned, exactly as I told you. You are able to pick locks, are you not? Surely all good detectives know how to pick locks.”
Carroll wasn’t so sure he was a good detective but, as it happened, he did know how to pick locks. Another trick his father insisted he learn, “just in case.” Just in case what, he had never known until now. He nodded, and slipped the stone back into his pocket.
“Then this is what you need to do.”
As the snore reached a crescendo, Carroll realized a golden opportunity lay before him. He crept toward the end of the bed, hoping the snore would cover both his footsteps, although how anyone could hear anything approaching on that carpet he didn’t know, and the sound of the picklocks in the keyhole of the trunk.
Why Mordecai King would believe that the ruby had fallen from its setting and become lost in the depths of the trunk, he didn’t know either, but Adelinda was certain that that would be the case. All he had to do was open the trunk, secure the stone in the bottom, and she swore that tomorrow she would implore her husband to search for it again, just in case he might have over-looked it the first time.
The snore rumbled away as Carroll knelt beside the chest. He felt for the keyhole. Another huge one. He waited, taking shallow breaths, until once again he heard the soft purr. The sound rose until Carroll was certain he felt the bed curtains sway, but he kept his eyes closed and his fingers busy until, just as he thought his ears could bear no more, the last tumbler fell. Carroll replaced the picklocks in his pocket and edged the lid open. Heat sifted through the crack, as if the trunk itself had heaved a sigh of warm breath.
Carroll took the ruby from its place in his trouser pocket and slipped his hand through the opening, thinking to reach far down inside, but no sooner had his hand entered the trunk than a blast of searing heat came from within. He dropped the stone, and tried to close the lid, but it flew out of his hands and slammed against the end of the bedstead. Light bathed the room in alternating waves of fiery red and glacier blue. The door to the room flew open, and two strange shadows danced across the floor.
A blood-curdling yell arose from just above him, and he looked up to see Mordecai King standing between the parted curtains, naked and painted in lurid red and cold blue light.
“What have you done?” King screamed.
“He has done only what I asked him to do.” Adelinda’s voice rang sweetly in Carroll’s ear, but the shadow that ran across the room to play fitfully against the glow was like no woman’s shadow he had ever seen.
“Quickly, sister. The chest.”
Carroll snapped out of his trance. Looking into the chest, he could see where the ruby he had dropped had joined a brilliant blue sapphire, each one pulsing with light.
“You fool! Don’t you know what you’ve done?” Mordecai King was jumping on his bed in a rage. “Don’t let them touch those stones!”
Before he knew what he was doing, Carroll reached into the trunk and grabbed both stones from where they lay nestled together on a bed of gem-studded brocade. There was no sign of a necklace.
“Grab the robes, too,” King commanded, but the gems were almost more than Carroll could handle. He rose to his feet and backed away, juggling them as he went to keep them from burning his hands.
Adelinda and Aiden rushed to the chest and pulled out the brocaded cloth which became two gemmed cloaks that must have cost a fortune several times over the worth of the stones themselves.
Carroll backed toward the door, ruby following sapphire into the air from hand to hand, both blazing with light. The twins rose from the chest cloaked in jewels that cast spiraling lights of topaz, ruby, sapphire and diamond. Carroll gazed at them in wonder. Their eyes, too, seemed to spin like the jewels, changing color from one moment to the next.
Mordecai King disappeared from the end of the bed, and emerged from the near side, wrapped in a gold-brocade dressing gown. One hand held a shimmering silver sword.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” King roared, as he advanced toward Carroll. “Give me those jewels!” He was shorter than he had first appeared, standing on the bed above the chest. His hair, black and thinning, rose in wispy disarray from a pale scalp.
Behind him, Adelinda and Aiden lifted their arms until the glittering capes resembled nothing so much as gigantic wings that filled the room with a light of their own as they unfolded.
“Mr. Richards!” Adelinda’s voice echoed through the room, soft as moonlight, deep as darkness. “Please! He has kept me a slave for too long. Do not fail me now.”
But Carroll, stunned by the vision that rose from behind Mordecai King and startled by the change in the woman he thought he loved, let the stones fall from his hands. Mordecai King knelt, swept them into the folds of his robe, and darted past him, disappearing through the door at the end of the hall.
Adelinda ran to Carroll and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, please, you must forgive us. We did trick you, but as long as he had my sapphire, Mordecai could control me, use my powers of hypnosis against his competitors. With the ruby, he will have Aiden in his thrall as well. We will both be enslaved and there will be no stopping King Concerns. There is a power in our cloaks as well but, as you can see, without the jewels, there is little we can do.”
Indeed, as she lay against his chest, Carroll could see that the cloaks, although still brilliant with gems, looked somewhat diminished. There was no longer the illusion of great and powerful wings.
“It’s true, Mr. Richards.” Aiden had come up behind his sister. “As long as he holds both stones, we cannot even approach him. It is up to you. Surely there is another trick up your sleeve?”
Carroll looked long into Adelinda’s eyes. They were the blue of forget-me-nots on an early spring morning. Had she hypnotized him as well? Perhaps. And yet … whoever she was, whatever she was, he could not bring himself to desert her.
“Wait here,” he said.
Carroll followed Mordecai King into the room at the end of the hall. It was large and warm. The stones threw their light here as well, and the shapes of tropical plants played in lurid shadows on the walls. Pillars held up a central dome.
Mordecai King had assumed a fencer’s stance, sword in hand.
“Believe me, whoever you are, when I tell you that you do not want them released. You know what they are?”
“I neither know nor care,” Carroll replied. “I only know that I love her, and that you do not.”
“Then I am most sorry for you,” the little man replied and advanced, sword at the ready.
Unarmed, Carroll rushed to meet him and, at the first thrust, turned in time that the blade only sliced a button from his coat as he brushed past King.
When he faced his assailant once again, a single ruby shone from between his fingers. He held it on high.
“You want it? Here it is!” He tossed the stone in the air and plucked it back again as King lunged.
“Give it back. Give it back, or I’ll have your head. This is no time for children’s games.”
“Who’s playing children’s game, Mr. King? There’s no need for the sword. Put it down and maybe I’ll give it to you.” Carroll continued throwing the ruby into the air before it could burn his hands and catching it again.
Mordecai King squinted at Carroll. “There is no need for us to quarrel. I can make you a rich man. You can even have your lady, if you wish. Just give me the ruby, and together we will take their cloaks from them.” He granted Carroll a greedy little grin.
The sword disappeared into the voluminous folds of the robe as he held his hands out in a gesture of peace.
Carroll eyed the robe. “I see you have a few tricks up your own sleeves,” he said.
Behind them, the door opened as Adelinda and Aiden slipped into the room.
“Catch!” Carroll called, and tossed the ruby to Aiden.
Mordecai King screamed, and lunged at Carroll in fury then backed away, fumbling at his garments.
“Looking for this?” asked Carroll, brandishing the sword he had slipped from one of King’s billowing sleeves.
“You leave me no choice,” King roared, and suddenly he swelled into the size of his robe, which was much bigger than anyone could have guessed before. Up and up he went, bigger and rounder and taller. Scales appeared on his face and bloated coils seemed to writhe and ripple beneath his robe.
Across the room, the ruby blazed up redder than ever in Aiden’s hands as fire played in the swirling lakes of his eyes. Then he slipped it into the broach which fastened the cloak.
A great dragon stood in his place. A dragon with a jeweled hide and a glowing ruby fixed in the center of its chest. The voice that came from the beast filled the room like a pipe organ.
“You will give my sister her sapphire, or you will die.”
King held the sapphire aloft in one tentacle. “Come to me, my sweet. You know you must.”
“Never!” Adelinda cried, but still she began to inch towards him across the floor as if pulled by invisible strings.
“Adelinda, no!” cried Carroll.
A long, thin arm snaked out from the folds of King’s robe. Sinuous fingers wrapped around Adelinda’s throat and drew her nearer. Another long arm slithered out from under the robes toward the base of a pillar. There was a sharp click. High above them, the dome split in two and began to retract.
“Leave me,” King hissed, “or I will wring her neck.”
Carroll took the sword in both hands and advanced on the giant, but before he could take more than ten steps, a dragon tail curled around him, lifted him from the ground, and settled him near the door.
“Do you imagine that dragon fire can harm a Dragon Lady?” Aiden roared. And with those words, he sat back on his haunches, drew in a great breath, and emitted a gout of flame that encased Mordecai King and his prisoner.
Carroll screamed and ran forward, heedless of the flames, the black smoke that rose from the giant’s form, and the dragon behind him. “Adelinda! Adelinda!”
The smoke drifted upward through the open dome and was soon lost in the moonless dark above them.
The flames died almost at once, and where Mordecai King had once stood now sat a very dainty blue dragon. Her eyes swirled in pinwheels of azure light. The sapphire set in her forehead could have been set in a coronet. The cobalt blue scales of her coat were edged in silver and set with the same jewels that had sparkled on the cape that helped to transform her.
“Mr. Richards,” she purred. “I cannot think how to thank you. I am so sorry that we deceived you, but how could one expect to find a private detective willing to restore two dragons? And yet, it seems you have more tricks up your own sleeve than anyone might have guessed.”
“My father taught me,” Carroll told her. “I don’t think I’m a very good detective, but I’m a great hit at children’s parties.” He hesitated then plunged ahead. “So, is this it? Are you a dragon now forever?”
“Why do you ask, Mr. Richards?”
“Because I love you, of course,” he replied.
“Well, in that case.” She put one delicate claw to her forehead, removed the ruby and slipped the cape from her shoulders. She was Adelinda once more, as she drifted forward into his arms. And then she kissed him.