There’d been a time, a couple of years ago, that Bobby’s Diner would be jam-packed during the noon hour. Over half the customers would be cops, like me, grabbing a quick bite before heading back to their beat. That wasn’t true any longer. On this rainy Friday, April 13th, the place was nearly empty. The counter only had one customer and that was Creepy Charlie, who always spent hours nursing a single cup of joe. All but three of the booths and tables were empty. The place was so deserted that no one minded when Archie Crumpfeld shouted to me from his table.
“So, Rheinhart, I’m surprised to see you here. Someone with your poor arrest standing can’t afford to take any sort of break.”
What he said was pretty much true. Since the municipal budget cuts had gutted the police department, the captain had started using an arrest quota. Any cop who didn’t make the required number of arrests per month would likely find themselves laid off. Dozens of officers had been let go in the last year.
I’d been having a tough time myself lately. Not many cases broke my way, and when they did, other cops stepped in and made the arrests, stealing the credit. The captain’s quota brought out the worst in many of my coworkers. It had gotten so bad that some were even falsifying evidence or planting drugs on innocent civilians. I’d never let myself do anything that unethical.
Of course, I couldn’t give Crumpfeld the satisfaction of agreeing with him. “I’m doing just fine,” was my reply.
“That’s not what the tote board in the precinct says. According to that, you’ve only given a ticket to a jaywalker and nabbed a guy for removing the tag from a mattress.”
“You’re wrong,” I replied. And he was. I hadn’t arrested the tag remover. It turned out he had permission from the manufacturer.
“Last night,” continued Archie, “I came close to catching the gang that’s been doing the break-ins along Main Street. I would have had them if I didn’t have to stop for an old woman crossing the street. Somehow, I lost their truck in traffic.”
“Yeah, I heard about your near success from Bob Harris. He was telling everyone in the precinct that you stole his info and tried to jump his arrest. Harris was pretty mad.”
“Hey, I’m just doing my job,” said Crumpfeld. “I’ve got a wife and kids to support.”
I just shrugged, not in the mood to talk with Archie any longer. I hoped he wouldn’t be the one to finally capture the Main Street Robbers. For months, no one had been able to crack that case. Every time someone got close, the thieves would somehow manage to get away. There were even a few strange theories floating around that the gang was using some kind of magic, but I had a hard time believing that. Whoever did solve the case would get on the Captain’s good side. That officer wouldn’t have to worry about layoffs for a long time.
Archie kept talking, but I had turned my attention to Zelda, my waitress, as she brought me a fresh cup of coffee. She set down the cup and winked at me. We had been doing a little harmless flirting ever since she started working for Bobby a few months ago.
“Here you go, hon,” she said, with a smile. She was beautiful, as always, even wearing the old-fashioned uniform Bobby made his waitresses use. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun.
“So, how’s your mother doing?” I asked.
“Thanks for asking. She’s doing better. I think I’m going to have her keep staying with me, though. She just can’t handle her big drafty house. It’ll be good for her if I take care of her for a while.” She grabbed a strand of loose hair and tucked it behind her right ear.
“What’s with the hoop earrings?” I asked. “Don’t you always wear those little ruby studs?”
Zelda laughed, “Boy Harry, you pay close attention to what I wear.”
“No,” I lied. “It’s just that the ones you’re wearing now don’t bring out the color in your cheeks.” I immediately regretted how stupid that must have sounded.
She didn’t embarrass me, she just grinned and whispered, “Don’t let Crumpfeld get you down. He’s just a big mouth. So, you’ve hit a bad streak. Things will turn around.”
Before I could thank her for the coffee and the support, Archie’s gruff voice interrupted our moment.
“Hey, Zelda. I’d like some more coffee too.”
Zelda turned toward Archie’s table, her face redder than the ruby earrings she normally wore.
“You’ll get yours soon enough, Officer Crumpfeld. Some things are more important than making an arrest. Harry cares about people.” She turned and headed back to the kitchen.
A little surprised by her outburst, I watched her as she walked away. I sipped my coffee, enjoying the embarrassed look on Crumpfeld’s face out of the corner of my eye.
I was taking another drink when my radio started beeping. I could hear Charlie’s going off too. There was a local call coming in. Whoever took the call first would get to handle the situation and, maybe, get an arrest to put on the precinct tote board.
Panicking, I realized that my radio was still in my jacket, on a hook by the front door. I stood, fumbling with my wallet as I tried to pull out some cash to leave on the table. I could see Charlie’s radio on the chair across from him. There was no way I was going to get to my radio before he got to his.
That is, until Charlie’s arm knocked into the pot of hot coffee Zelda had just brought to him. She dropped the pot and coffee spilled all over his pants. He jumped to his feet, shrieking and trying to get the burning hot coffee off his legs.
Zelda, who was wiping off the table, smiled at me as I ran to my jacket.
I was already talking to the dispatcher when I squeezed past an old lady standing in the doorway, shaking rain from her open umbrella.
The call sent me to investigate a break-in at 1313B Gretel Avenue. By the time I got to the place, the rain had stopped. I sidestepped a couple of puddles on my way to the door of a Victorian brick home. The house was old and badly in need of repair. Most of the bricks were dirt-covered and cracked. Many of the roof’s shingles were missing, making it look like a deformed checkerboard. Black shutters covered all the windows. To my surprise, the house number was 1313A. I looked for another entrance, and eventually noticed a small garden shed in the backyard with 1313B painted over the doorway.
It seemed odd for a tiny shed to have an address, let alone be a crime scene, but I had a job to do. I knocked on the door.
I had barely touched the wood when the door opened inward, creaking loudly. There was no one there except for a fat black cat. Staring in disbelief, I stepped into a large foyer that couldn’t possibly have fit in the shed. The cat stopped after a few feet and looked back at me.
What was going on here? The place was way too large on the inside. The cat walked through an open interior doorway. The words MADAM SAVVA’S MAGICAL EMPORIUM glowed above the entrance. That couldn’t mean actual magic, could it? I took another look around the foyer, took a deep breath, and followed the cat.
Past the doorway, I found myself face to face with a middle-aged woman wearing a black dress. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Thank you for coming so quickly. I am Madam Savva,” she said. As I watched, she seemed to grow four or five inches taller and her hair changed from gray to red. She was now wearing a blue pantsuit.
I put my hand on a desk to steady myself, and stood there with my mouth wide open.
“I don’t mean to scare you. I know you haven’t been exposed to much magic. Please accept my apologies. I was in the middle of testing a transformation potion when you knocked on the door.”
I had never believed the stories of magic users in the city. It always seemed too weird to be true. But now, seeing a woman transforming before my eyes, I couldn’t help but accept the idea, much as I disliked it. I took another deep breath and tried to act normal.
“So, magic is real?” I asked, hoping the woman would tell me it was all some sort of parlor trick.
“Oh, very much so,” replied the woman, now much shorter and with jet black, shoulder-length hair. “There are quite a few adepts living in the city. We try to keep as low a profile as possible. That’s why this place is hidden in a shed and why I make the main house look so run down. We only make our presence known on rare and very important occasions. I think the last time I spoke about magic to non-adepts was at Woodstock, not that any of them would remember.”
I still didn’t know if I could accept what the woman was claiming. “I’ve been working the beat in this city for ten years. I would have met other witches by now.”
Madam Savva’s smile disappeared for a brief moment. “We prefer to be called adepts.” The pleasant smile returned as quickly as it had left. “You have probably met many of us. Most adepts lead simple lives and work common, everyday jobs. They just happen to have the ability to use a little magic now and then.”
“Most?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she answered. Her appearance had continued to shift throughout our conversation. At this moment she was a teenage girl with braces. “Some of us are more powerful,” she continued, “and there are a few who use their skills in, shall I say, less acceptable ways.”
“You mean to commit crimes?” My mind was racing. Not only was I trying to come to grips with the reality of magic, but I was also beginning to form a theory about how the Main Street Robbers consistently got away.
Madam Savva nodded. “Yes, that’s why I have asked for your help. There’s been a robbery.” She spread her arms wide, showing me the room. “You see, this is my shop. I procure and sell all sorts of magical items. Some are very powerful and very dangerous. That’s why many of my products have a ten-day waiting period.”
I examined the room. The place was jam-packed with stacks upon stacks of all sorts of junk. Chests and boxes filled dozens of shelves. An entire corner was filled with cloaks and gowns. Each article of clothing floated as if hung on an invisible hanger. Another section of the room was filled with all styles of furniture; antique tables, modern lounge chairs, and large wardrobes were tightly packed together. An immense bookshelf filled the far wall. There had to be thousands of leather-bound books and dog-eared paperbacks on the shelves. The room was an utter mess, but an impressive mess.
I wondered if anything had actually been stolen. Maybe it was simply misplaced. It was hard to imagine anyone being able to keep track of everything in this place.
Whatever was going on, I needed to try and solve this case. “Well, let me get a full report from you. Let’s sit down and discuss what happened.” I walked over to a fancy dining set and took an old book off one of the chairs, making room to sit down.
“Oh, you don’t want to sit there,” she said. “You see that’s a magic table. Anyone who sits in it becomes completely satisfied with their location and never wants to leave. It’s called a Table of Contents.” For a second, she looked confused.
“Okay, well how about that one?” I gestured toward a simple wooden table.
“No, you don’t want to sit there either. If you sit there, you will be transported to some other time. The table will send you to a different era.”
“That’s amazing; a table that lets you travel through time. What do you call it?”
Madam Savva seemed to be fighting an internal struggle. She appeared to not want to answer me, but she did. “It’s a Periodic Table.” She shook her head as if she were upset with herself.
“Well, is there anywhere we can sit?” I asked.
“Definitely not the Lazy Boy.” Without another word, Madam Savva walked over to a desk and pulled a handful of purple and pink confetti from a drawer. She tossed the tiny papers in the air. While the pieces were floating to the ground and onto us, she shouted, “Pundunia.”
“I’m sorry for that,” she said. “The book you moved was the Book of Infinite Puns. You must have triggered it. We should be able to have a normal conversation now.”
“Okay,” I replied, “Let’s just do this standing.” By now the woman had stopped transforming and maintained the appearance of a thirty-some-year-old woman with curly brown hair. She had soft features and a tiny button nose. She didn’t look anything like a witch.
“What was stolen?” I asked.
“Only one thing was taken. But it is very valuable and, if used, it could cause a lot of trouble. A Potion of Luck is missing.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“You have no idea. If someone drinks too much of it, the entire infrastructure of society could be changed. Imagine someone having everything go their way. Businesses could collapse. People could die. Even if they don’t mean for anything bad to happen, it still could. The potion doesn’t care about collateral damage; it only brings the best possible luck to its user.”
“If it is so dangerous, why do you even have it here?”
Madam Savva shrugged. “I used to sell it in very small portions, nothing more than a few drops. But then the Cubs won the World Series and I realized how unpredictable it could be. It’s valuable enough that I don’t want it destroyed. I keep it hidden in a drawer behind the counter.”
“Are you sure it was stolen? Couldn’t it have been misplaced?” I was beginning to fear that this case would be impossible for me to solve. I knew nothing about the magical world. I had no connections or inside information.
“No, it’s gone. I have a very good system for keeping track of things. The fact that it was the only item taken points out that it was someone who not only knows about magic, but knows this place quite well. They wanted that specific item.”
“Is there anyone you suspect? Has anyone asked about that potion lately?”
“Not that I know of. There were about a dozen customers in here yesterday. Whoever took it must be pretty good with cloaking spells. They’ve done a good job covering their tracks. If I could have figured this out on my own, I would have. I need your help.” She didn’t try to hide her frustration.
I looked around the cluttered room for any surveillance equipment. Not seeing any, I asked Madam Savva if the store had any.
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “But we do have something just as good.” She led me over to an old-fashioned easel. The pencil drawing on the top piece of parchment showed the two of us standing in front of an old-fashioned easel in a cluttered magic store.
“This is a magic easel,” she explained. “It makes instantaneous drawings of its surroundings.”
“I can see that.”
“I just need to find a drawing from when the thief was in here.” She started flipping through the pages, tossing sheet after sheet over the top. Suddenly she stopped. “Unbelievable. Whoever stole the potion must have torn off the pages with their image on them.” She pointed to the small bits of paper where those drawings had been. “We’ll never be able to find out who did it. What a rip-off.”
I tried my best to console her. “I promise to do the best I can. There are some things I can try. I’ll leave no sheet unturned. Oh, and I think your anti-pun spell is wearing off.”
We looked at the drawings of the previous day’s visitors, and I had Madam Savva tell me as much as she could about each of them. Afterward, I headed out to start my investigation. When I reached the street, I stopped in my tracks. Someone had let the air out of all four of my car’s tires and broken the side mirrors.
The dispatcher had a good laugh at my expense and told me that she’d send someone to fix the tires, but it would take at least an hour for them to get there. I decided I might as well look around the neighborhood; maybe there was a clue to be found somewhere around the magic shop. Besides, I could use the time to try and wrap my mind around everything I had seen in Madam Savva’s store.
I was walking by a large grocery store when a produce truck came out of the loading dock and headed up the street. As it turned, a large crate of bananas fell off the back and crashed on the pavement. Bananas flew everywhere, but the driver was long gone before I could try to wave him down.
I was bending down to pick up a banana when I heard voices coming from the other side of the wooden fence around the loading dock.
“I’ve got nearly a hundred of these TV sets,” said a man with a thick Irish accent. “If you give me two hundred bucks each, you can have them all.”
“Well, it looks like a nice set,” said the other voice, “but I’d have to ship them to another city to sell them. I’m willing to pay one hundred per TV.”
I crept to the open gate and peeked around the corner. In the dimming light, I recognized Dimples McGruder holding a large television. McGruder was well known to all the police officers in the city. He’d been running all sorts of cons, schemes, and heists for years.
Quietly, I pulled out my gun. I was going to get him this time. I had him red-handed.
Jumping out from behind the fence, I began to shout, “You’re und…” Before I could finish, my foot came down on one of the many bananas laying on the ground. In Saturday morning cartoon fashion, I slipped and fell, tumbling into a pallet of table-salt containers. A dozen blue canisters fell on my head, spilling salt everywhere.
McGruder and his buyer took off in opposite directions. I tossed a handful of salt over my left shoulder and started after McGruder.
I followed him down a back alley, quickly gaining on him. McGruder was not very fast and the television he’d held onto didn’t help him. Despite my earlier tumble, I was going to make this arrest.
We were on the thirteen hundred block of Gretel Avenue when I got close enough to shout, “Stop! You’re under arrest.” To my surprise, McGruder skidded to a halt in front of Madam Savva’s magic shed.
I was just starting to sprint the last few yards when I felt a sharp pain on the ball of my right foot. It felt as if I’d been stabbed by a very small but very sharp knife. My next step was just as painful. When I tried to not put any weight on that foot, I lost my balance.
When I stumbled, McGruder shrugged and took off again.
With each step, the pain got worse. Slowly but surely, McGruder pulled further and further ahead of me. Eventually, I lost him. From an adjacent street, I heard the sound of a large truck stopping and restarting, but I couldn’t see the vehicle or the direction it took.
Frustrated, I took a seat on the door stoop of a rundown apartment building, about five blocks from my car. I took off my right shoe and pulled out a tiny red ear stud. For a while, I just stared at the little ruby, thinking about what it meant.
The earring had gotten into my shoe while I was running by the magic emporium. Had Zelda been to the magic store? She hadn’t been on any of the drawings, but the thief had removed some of the pictures.
This day just kept getting worse and worse. Was the one case I had a chance to solve going to require me to arrest the only person who seemed to want to be my friend?
With a sigh, I stood and took out my car keys. The way the day was going, it was no surprise that I dropped them. They landed in a rosebush growing under a ladder which leaned against the building. Cursing silently, I got down on my hands and knees and began feeling around for the keys.
The sound of a large truck stopping in front of the building caught my attention. I didn’t want to stand up too fast and hit my head on the ladder, so I stayed hidden behind the bush. Soon, I heard voices.
“Tommy, you start unloading the goods,” said a familiar voice with an Irish brogue. “Put them in the garage with the other stuff. I’ll call a different buyer and set up a meeting.”
“I don’t want to do it myself,” replied a voice that I assumed belonged to Tommy. “Those TV’s are heavy. Why don’t you help me first and then call the fence?”
“Okay. Okay,” said the first man. “We have to hurry; the truck’s invisibility spell will be wearing off soon and that cop might still be wandering around.”
Pulling out my gun again, I waited another minute and then popped up from behind the bush. Dimples McGruder and another black-clad man stood in front of me, each holding a large color television.
“Freeze,” I shouted. “You’re under arrest.”
Both men looked around, trying to find a way to escape. Before either could make a move, a black sedan squealed to a stop nearby. The police captain jumped out of the driver’s seat.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, glancing at me as he moved toward the two criminals.
“I just nabbed the Main Street Robbers,” I said.
The captain grinned. “Very nice work, Rheinhart. I’ll help you take them in. It was lucky I decided to take the long way home tonight.”
After an evening filling out arrest reports, I had to confront Zelda. The next morning, I waited in the diner’s parking lot.
“I know what you did,” I said when she got there. “You took the luck potion from Madam Savva.” I opened my hand to show her the ruby earring.
“Congratulations, Harry,” she said, not admitting anything. “I hear you got lucky with an arrest.”
“It wasn’t lu…” The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. “You gave me the luck potion.”
“Just a drop in your coffee. I knew how bad things were going for you. I heard Crumpfeld giving you a hard time every day.”
I’d always been a good cop. I played by the rules, and I knew I should arrest Zelda. After all, she had committed a crime. But how could I turn her in? She had stolen the potion to help me.
“Do you still have the potion? Did you use it for anything else?”
“I have it in my purse. I just…” She smiled and shrugged. “I thought it was worth the risk to help a friend, but that’s the only time I used it.”
“But you are a wi… an adept.”
Zelda shrugged. “Not really. My mother helped me get the potion.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a jar filled with a moldy-looking, green liquid. “Here’s the potion. Do what you have to.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t arrest her. It was because of the stolen potion that I’d caught the Main Street Robbers. I didn’t think the captain would understand. How would he react to the idea of magic? Would he even give me credit for either arrest?
“Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen. I am going to take this back to Madam Savva. I’ll tell her the thief was lucky enough to get away.” I had to smile. “I think it’ll be believable. But you have to promise to never do anything like that again.”
Her smile assured me that I had made the right choice. “Of course not. Though I wouldn’t mind if you found the time to keep a little closer eye on me.” She pulled a pad and pen from her apron and wrote down a phone number. “I’d like it if you called me and set up a little reconnaissance.”
I couldn’t keep myself from grinning. “Maybe we could go see a movie or something. The captain gave me tonight off.”
Zelda flashed a sly smile. “Well, isn’t that lucky? I get off at six.”