Daniel learned at the age of thirteen that few people actually knew themselves, preferring to shuffle their true thoughts behind a mask composed for society and suppress desires that fell too far outside the norm of individuality which was, in and of itself, a paradox. At the same time he thought of the benefits of knowing himself, his true self, and set out to learn.
He found, through close scrutiny of his past decisions and his reasoning behind those actions, that he could not be described as a very nice person.
When he found a wallet at his bus stop, he first looked around for its potential owner (and if anyone had been within view, he would have brought it to their attention, of this he was certain) but there was no one but him and the crooked pole with the blue circle nailed near the top identifying this particular patch of concrete as a shuttle station.
Daniel had picked the wallet up, flicked a few pieces of gravel from its bottom, and flipped it open without a second thought. He had found a student ID, name and first period clear in black print next to a profile picture of a boy older than Daniel with dark hair and a nice polo shirt. Its plastic was colored white and blue and gray—his school colors (dreadful really, the Dolphins, how asinine).
From the next two flaps he pulled out a movie ticket stub and a membership card for the arcade down in the strip mall, and then, turning it over to peer into the largest fold, sixty seven dollars in assorted bills.
He could have turned it in. Daniel knew where the front office was, hell, he knew where the classroom for that teacher was located. It would hardly be any trouble to swing by and drop it off. Daniel recognized, in that objective, abstract way of his, that the correct thing to do should be to turn it in.
That he had to mull the prospect over, weighing the pros and cons like an apple at the grocery store (yes, he could buy it, he could afford it, it felt rather firm, probably ripe, no obvious bruises, but that one over there looked quite nice too), was likely an indicator that his morals were not strictly where they should have been.
It was decided—the right thing to do (and he was only dithering because in truth he could not give less of a shit about the right thing, only knew that he was supposed to do it because it was correct) would be to turn the wallet in.
No one had seen the wallet on the ground. No one had seen Daniel pick it up. He didn’t even know the boy on the card so what did he matter? Finders keepers, right? And Daniel had found it so now it was his to do what he wanted with it, whether that be to turn it in or keep it.
Did he want to turn it in?
No. Not really. Not even a little bit once he thought about it like that. He’d have to take time out of his schedule to give it to the proper authority figure, time that could be better spent doing…well, anything that profited him. Turning it in? Not profitable.
That settled, Daniel shrugged his backpack off, stuffed the wallet into the smallest zipper pocket on the front, and then swung it back onto his shoulder. Not a moment too soon it turned out, as just then the bus came trundling around the corner at the end of the street.
That had been that. He had made up his mind and never looked back.
So Daniel looked and he saw. He was not a nice person or even a very good one and he was okay with that. He was selfish and could be classified as a narcissist though no psychiatrist had yet to diagnose him and his hands physically itched with annoyance when he came across something he couldn’t control.
Things that he couldn’t bend to his will with a word and a touch were endlessly vexing and probably why he despised a person, but not people in general. Crowds were easy; anyone who could look and sound confident could play the public as skillfully as a musical instrument. Case in point, any politician who ever lived. Daniel's craft; however, was much more subtle and took much more skill than pandering for votes.
A person was different. For the most part, they all reacted similar to certain provocation, but there were always outliers. Anomalies. People who responded differently and then looked at him like he was the one who had overstepped some ridiculous social boundary that made no sense in the first place.
Daniel couldn’t imagine anyone’s opinion being of greater value than his own. He would lie without compunction to suit his needs and then in turn be brutally honest, but there was always reasoning, rationality, behind it. It was not his fault if the idiots he associated himself with couldn’t follow so simple a principle.
He could have put forth some effort to ensure that the things he said, all of them unbiased and factual, were not taken quite so offensively (when he remarked to Henley that she would no longer fit through the trap door for instance, and his assistant had flown into a rage over her perceived “fatness” which was not at all what he had been trying to convey. Her BMI was actually a bit below average with respect to her height and age but that did not negate the fact that she would not fit though the damn door, so quit throwing such a fit) but really, would there even be a point?
People were irrational to the extreme, no matter the way he delivered some of his more astute observations, so he rarely bothered to be gentle though he was, in theory, capable of it. Sometimes Daniel would show that to people, never anyone important, just to prove he could.
He cared, in his own way, for a very few number of people. He had been rather fond of Henley despite her callous abandonment of her assistant position during one of their shows in Austin.
Daniel watched all of her shows on the net, meticulously leaving a well thought out review for each one, complimenting her attire and particularly well executed acts and occasionally dropping critiques when she fumbled or was too obvious in the beginning, but he always left tips on how she could improve upon the flaws he noticed.
All this he did anonymously because for all his disregard of people and their various idiocies, he knew that she would never accept any help he offered as himself, but that was perfectly alright because he didn’t do it for gratitude. He only wanted her to succeed. Which (he might add with some degree of satisfaction) she did.
He felt some measure of…not quite love, but certainly affection toward all the members of the Four Horsemen remarkably similar to what he felt for his family by blood. Not that Daniel would ever consider telling them that.
He didn’t need the overdone reactions of shock and mockery and on the off chance his feelings were taken seriously it would not do for them to think he would be treating them any differently and besides, it was practically an invitation for them to get a swelled head.
Daniel could ignore the knowing looks Merritt sent his way—the man was unbelievably perceptive but so help him if he made one more insinuation about foursomes then violent action would need to be taken. Really, the man was such a complete asshole; in what universe would Daniel Atlas bottom?
Merritt had once, only once because after that Daniel had made his point firmly with a little mentalism of his own (an incident he was confident would never need be repeated, it wasn’t like he enjoyed being cruel, but his wrath was not to be courted lightly), brought up the topic with Jack, the youngest of them.
The boy had glanced at Daniel, gone a furious shade of pink, and stammered through a shaming lecture about the manliness of his idol and even if, hypothetically, he received instead of pitched, it would not be from such an elderly pervert like Merritt. There was a reason Jack was Daniel’s favorite even if he could not help but notice that the next week Jack’s ears went red when Daniel slung an arm over his shoulder in a friendly, totally platonic, half-hug.
The year the four of them spent, as Merritt so quaintly put it, “living dangerously,” was probably the best consecutive three hundred and sixty four days of Daniel’s entire life. Halfway through, when they finally hit the minor leagues after clawing their way out of street performances, Daniel realized in one of his introspective moments that he would never regret taking this leap of faith, no matter where he ended up when all was said and done.
Only it worked out better than he had ever imagined.
All four of them still together, not in prison for grand theft, but actually joining the Eye, the greatest of all their achievements put together. And the one who had handpicked each one of them and given them the means, the drive, to come together the way they had was the same man Daniel had thought they were outwitting.
They had been so spectacularly played that he couldn’t even bring himself to mind (much) that all of his perceived control was just an illusion; Rhodes’ performance had been that brilliant. Daniel felt like he should be applauding because they were, after all, part of the audience as well as the performers though he wasn’t certain if the others had realized it yet.
Merritt maybe. It was always hard to tell with him.
Of course Daniel had done his research. From the very first day he had never stopped looking for answers even as he felt himself being drawn deeper into what he thought might have been, in a certain light, comradeship though none of them made bonding pain free.
It had been anything but easy—trying to solve a gigantic puzzle with only a dozen unconnected pieces—while at the same time thinking up new acts and finding places for them to perform and persuading sponsors (Daniel would have been fine with Merritt hitting them with a little hypnotism to ease their way, but Henley was against it and they had agreed after much debate in the very beginning that they would make no move that had not been unanimously agreed on) to back them for a cut of the profits.
Rhodes had left them only the three final acts, everything else was all them. It had taken work and it showed. They were better together than they’d ever been apart but it had still taken more than just the promise of that one grandiose finale to make them work cohesively as a team.
However, between all the arguing and the plotting and the practicing and the sleepless nights, and what with throwing out coffee altogether and switching to straight caffeine pills, Daniel found time to do a little extracurricular investigating.
Frustratingly, he made little progress. A bank, a millionaire, a run-of-the-mill company, and a magician debunker. Possibly connected in hundreds of ways but not. The bank wasn’t the biggest or the most secure. The millionaire was obscenely wealthy—he gave more money to charity in a year than Daniel had ever seen in his life—but not the wealthiest or the most influential.
The millionaire—Arthur—didn’t own the company. The company didn’t keep money in the bank. Arthur didn’t even have money in the bank. The bank was French. The millionaire was English. The company was American. The debunker seemed to spend all of his resources and time on camera being a dick of such massive proportions that even Daniel was a little impressed, if repulsed by his career choice.
The more Daniel found on all of them, the more he dug into the tiny gritty details so incredibly loath was he to miss something, the less likely it seemed that they were related at all. For a while, all his doubts in the entire venture came rushing back. Supposedly, they would be helping people (not the he was all about the humanitarian aspect, so much as the mystery)—surely, surely, the acts had not been chosen at random?
No. There was no way someone so meticulous about the blueprints, the cards they were given (Death, Lover, Hermit, and High Priestess—they keep them for some unexplainable reason, proof for themselves, maybe, that they have a purpose, that there is a reason), would do anything relating to his (it could be her, but Daniel doubted it) final act randomly.
Therefore, by process of elimination, there had to be a goal, a connection, something Daniel could follow if only he could get his hands on a single string of the entire web. There was something he wasn’t seeing. There had to be.
When he finally figured out that he was looking at the connections in entirely the wrong way (two months after their deciding to call themselves the Four Horsemen), Daniel felt so ridiculously stupid he wanted to slap himself. For all his cleverness, he was just as blind, deaf, and dumb as the rest of them. Jesus, he might as well have been trying to find the Puzzle Master by sticking his head in a burlap sack and looking around quizzically, wondering who turned the lights out.
The closer you look, the less you see.
Daniel had been using a fucking microscope, convinced that the truth lay in small slipups, when he of all people should have known better. He went back to the drawing board, all the way back, trashed almost everything he had found (as it was all fucking useless anyways, he had been so disgusted with himself), and started over.
He had isolated the debunker as the weak link. All the other factors could possibly be linked (though Daniel had yet to find out how and probably never would because it was too obvious), but not him—Thaddeus Bradley.
Magician turned debunker, with no clear reason why. Bradley had written two books, both of which Daniel read with great amusement and a touch of respect, but there were four seasons of his show available for download. For a marginal fee of course.
Money that Daniel could ill afford to spend on a hack magician who couldn’t cut it now that he was a quarter responsible for making sure they had a room to sleep in and food to eat in each town they rolled into. He had just been able to manage apartment payments and get enough food for himself on whatever he made when he performed, but supporting four people was a different story.
Jack had a hundred and fifty bucks on him when they first meet and that vanished quickly. Since then he sporadically turned up with a fistful of small bills until Henley pressured Daniel into talking to him about what would happen if he ever got fingered for pick-pocketing.
Daniel had made perfectly clear that he had no problem with the kid’s hobbies but had conveyed the ramifications of continued thievery with the air of great wisdom. Wonder of wonders, Jack had actually listened (there was a reason Jack was Daniel’s favorite) and thrown himself wholeheartedly into their shows to make up for his lack of savings to draw from.
Henley, always prepared, had a checking account with a balance that never actually went up as did Merritt, whose was unsurprisingly larger as he did find those rare clients who could stand to lose a grand or two. It wasn’t enough for two rooms all the time no matter how shitty the hotel they stayed at.
Eventually they settled into a routine. They got one room and drew lots for the bed, the sofa, the chair, and the floor. Daniel did most of his late night digging in the relative privacy of the bathroom, which was where he was when he found the link.
Sitting on the closed toilet seat, laptop balanced on his knees, he downloaded the first episode of Bradley’s show, watched it all the way through, a smile curving his lips at the particularly vicious comments, and then went to work. It was perhaps two a.m. when he found the tip of the first string.
The magician in the feature, Shrike, had tried to make a comeback and failed. Shame. The premise was rather interesting. But the safe he had gone into the river in had been made by the company.
They used to make safes, Daniel already knew from his previous method of investigation (which he could not think about without feeling a rush of impotent rage) but they had stopped years ago. Why?
They’d been forced out of the market by their competitors because their product was subpar, obviously, but more specifically, what had caused it? Some flaw found after they’d gone to the market, poor advertising, lack of funding, outdated design? What, what, what?
It wasn’t much, and through a second party no less, but it was a link, the first Daniel had found (he felt a little giddy but that could have been the pills), between Bradley and the company. It was something. Finally. Daniel had a grip on something and he’d be damned if he let go now.
Less than an hour later he closed his eyes and leaned back against the porcelain square with a sigh. So that was it. The root of everything. There was nothing else it could be especially taking the final result of the acts into account.
Bradley in prison for who knew how long. The man who had driven Shrike to the comeback stunt with the first of many harsh reviews. Shrike was an incompetent fool. A charlatan. Should be ashamed for calling his performance anything but the utter sham it was.
Daniel groaned and put his laptop on the sink so his arms could flop by his sides.
Arthur Tessler ruined, his money given back to those people his insurance company had cheated out of their claims after Katrina. The same insurance company who had denied Shrike’s family their claim.
It was too much effort to move. Maybe he could just curl up and sleep in the tub? But he didn’t quite trust that the yellow in the corners were stains and not mold spores. He’d go out then to the chair and blanket that had been assigned as his for tonight. In just a minute.
The company that had made such cheap safes out of inferior steel. And probably cut corners too. The safe must have warped at the bottom of the river, it must have. Shrike had drowned or suffocated down there, god knew which, all alone in the dark and his body had never been recovered.
No one had taken the blame for it but the man himself, shamed even in death for attempting a stunt he couldn’t handle, nevermind that if the divers had found the safe they’d have been able to prove differently. But they didn’t. And the company never came forward even after their product’s flaws had forced them to take it off the market.
And the bank too, the bank that...
Daniel’s head slumped back and he slept deeply, triumph exhausting instead of invigorating him, for five hours until Henley woke him by walking into the bathroom to relieve herself in the morning.
Daniel had thought about what he was dead sure was the root of the Horsemen with an intensity he reserved for life changing decisions. He could tell them, of course, recognized that he should tell the other members of this group of theirs just what they were getting themselves into—that in reality they were nothing more than chess pieces to an unfairly orphaned child (though now Shrike’s kid would be older than him).
Jack might, might, keep going because there really was nothing else for him to go back too. Henley too would probably stay because of that inner spark of hope, the one that kept her going until there really was no other option (probably what made her stick with him so long). She would stay until there was proof that the Eye wasn’t real.
Merritt was another story. Daniel figured he would stay until the end if things continued as they were, but he sincerely doubted the man had more than one leap of faith in him at a time. If Daniel brought this to his attention, that maybe there really was no Eye, that perhaps there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—
Well, it might be enough to make him pack up and leave. He, after all, had eked out a decent living before the rest of them came along and they’d begun to work together. It had to be too soon to spring such a thing on any of them. And besides, even if Merritt would stay, was there any point in chancing it?
No. Of course not.
And Daniel still wanted to know. Was the Eye real? Did a boy’s plan for vengeance just happen to mesh with the organization’s goals or was it all a massive hoax? Daniel wanted to know. Perhaps, in the end, they would all be made fools but this…this he would have an answer to.
So he kept his silence. And five months later he had his reward.
The mastermind nobody saw coming. The puppet master, revealed in his glory at last. Daniel would rather like a word with him. He brushed by the man with minimal fuss after the carousal trick (and wasn’t that just something, hmm?) jacket flapping as Daniel slid a hand into his pocket.
Rhodes stared after him with narrowed eyes as Daniel strolled away, apparently just as fascinated with the inner workings of one of the Eye’s headquarters as the other Horsemen, and reached into his jacket to find whatever Daniel had just dropped on him.
It was a tarot card. Not like the one Rhodes had left with them, which was specially made to refract light under special circumstances and magnetic to boot, but an ordinary tarot card from any standard deck with a plain floral pattern on the backside.
He flipped it over. A picture of a man, gaze cast down, garbed in bright red robes, mouth open to blow into the golden horn he carried, greeted him. Rhodes blinked. At the top of the card, in thin, black ink was his name—his true name. And at the bottom, in archaic font on a curled scroll read:
Daniel glanced over his shoulder to see Rhodes rip his gaze away from the card to meet Daniel’s eyes; his mouth curved in a disbelieving smile, and grinned.
“Still got a few tricks up your sleeve, eh Daniel?” Rhodes asked softly, tucking the card back into his jacket with care.
Daniel threw back his head and laughed, drawing a slightly concerned look from Merritt, Henley, and Jack. Oh, it had all been so well played. So entertaining. So fun.
You may be brilliant, Rhodes, but so am I.
“You have no idea.”