Memphis hummed to himself, grinning in the mirror as he slicked his hair before heading back to his and Isaiah’s bedroom for his shoes. He was getting ready for his date with Theta. He’d been looking forward to this night for several days. It was only a week until Christmas, and tonight, they were going to go for a walk to look at the lighted store window displays. Then, Memphis would watch Theta’s performance at the Follies and they’d finish up with drinks and dancing at the Dandy Gentleman with Henry and his new friend David. Memphis really couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening.
He did his best to be quiet as he pocketed his notebook and grabbed his shoes from their place at the end of the bed. Isaiah was supposed to be sleeping--he’d had several more fits lately, and Aunt Octavia was now making him rest for an hour every night after dinner. More than once, Memphis had caught him reading under the covers, but tonight he was fast asleep, and Memphis hoped that wasn’t a sign that another fit was coming. But something in his gut told him that it was. The doctor couldn’t explain the fits, why they had started up so suddenly or why they kept coming more and more frequently. It was getting harder and harder for Memphis to heal his brother with each recurrence, and the visions he saw when he tried to do so were getting even worse. Shoes in hand, Memphis took one moment to smooth the covers over the soft, sleeping spiral of his younger brother before tiptoeing out of the room, softly closing the door behind him.
Mr. Johnson was alone in the sitting room as Memphis passed through, idly drumming his fingers on his knees. “Going out tonight, young man? Got yourself a date?”
A blush crept up Memphis’ cheeks, and he was glad Mr. Johnson couldn’t see it. Theta was his, and besides that, Bill Johnson wasn’t family, no matter what Aunt Octavia said. Memphis’ life was none of his business. He barely kept the edge out of his voice. “No, sir, just meeting a friend. Where’s Aunt Octavia?”
“She’s gone out to a church social. I said I’d stay here, watch the little man. He still sleeping?”
“Yes, sir. You sure you’re okay with him, here by yourself?”
A smile lit up the older man’s face, but Memphis noticed it didn’t reach his eyes. “Don’t you worry none. Little man and I will be just fine. You just go and have yourself a good time, son”
I’m not your son, Memphis wanted to say, but he stopped himself. “Thank you, sir. You have a good evening, too.”
“Oh. Sister Octavia said to tell you not to stay out too late.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I won’t.” Toeing into his freshly-polished shoes, Memphis buttoned his coat and headed out into the night.
What was it that bothered him so much about Blind Bill Johnson? Memphis wondered as he waited for Theta at their usual meeting place. The chilly wind bit at his cheeks and snow had begun to fall, feathery flakes sparkling in the glow of the streetlights. Even though it was already dark, the streets were filled with revelers, doing their Christmas shopping or meeting friends for drinks or shows. Morning might have belonged to Memphis as a numbers runner, but the city was positively alive at night, and oh, how he loved it. It made the words flow from his pen and the poetry sing in his veins. But his thoughts were troubled. Leaving Isaiah alone with Mr. Johnson just seemed like a mistake.
He tried to push his worries out of his mind as he saw Theta coming up the street.
“Hey there, Poet,” she greeted him with a flirty grin. “Ready for the night of your life?”
“Always am, Princess,” he replied.
She slipped her arm through his and led the way to the Follies, giving him a quick peck on the cheek that made him tingle all over. “Meet you at the backstage door when it’s over. And don’t you dare go home with any other girl but me!”
Memphis laughed, pushing all his dark thoughts aside. He found his seat, let the sounds of jazz and chatter and the smell of cigarette smoke wash over him, and by the time the lights went down and the curtain went up, he had nearly forgotten about Blind Bill Johnson.
Bill heard the door shut behind Memphis and breathed a sigh of relief. There was no way the young man could possibly be on to him, but he felt paranoid anyway. Blind Bill Johnson was a born con man, and he had always loved an easy mark. He hadn’t been born blind, and he didn’t intend to die blind, but the mistake people most often made about him was equating his blindness with stupidity. Sister Octavia was one such person. A natural caretaker, that one, from her dead sister’s children to the poor old blind man. Sister Octavia and the Campbell boys were the epitome of an easy mark. Isaiah was a walk in the park, just too easy: he wanted someone to pay attention to him. He missed his daddy and his mama and his older brother and longed for a man’s presence in his life. Octavia was goody-goody to the core, always wanting to show off her so-called Christian kindness, too eager to see the good in everyone. She would pay the price one day soon.
Memphis had been Bill’s biggest worry from day one, but even he was getting easier by the day, head always stuck in his notebooks and pining after that white hussy. Memphis was as smart as they came with some street smarts to boot--you had to be to make it in the numbers-running trade--but his head was in the clouds, as drunk on young love with the hussy as one could be on any hooch, and so he was becoming an easier mark by the day. And his love for his little brother ran so innocently deep that he barely had to put his hands on the whelp for the healing energy to flow like floodwaters. Bill would capitalize on that. He had a plan.
The shuffle of small feet broke into his thoughts. He turned up the charm. Alone with the seer. Opportunities like this wouldn’t come often.
“Hey, little man. You have a good rest?”
“Yes, sir. Where’s Memphis?”
“He went out. It’s just you and your Uncle Bill tonight, how do you like the sound of that?”
Isaiah fairly glowed. “Just fine!”
He grinned back and pulled a deck of cards from his pocket. “I thought you might say that. Now how about we play a game--you name all these cards right, three times, and I’ll buy you an ice cream the next time we go out. After that, we can listen to Amos and Andy on the radio.”
“That’d be swell!” Eager to show off, Isaiah ran across the room and climbed into Bill’s lap. As he did so, Bill felt the tingle of the boy’s power leeching into him. The longer he built trust with the whelp, the easier it was becoming to drain him. They no longer even needed skin-to-skin contact. Oh, this was going to be fun.
The Ziegfeld girls took their final bows to thunderous applause. After the second curtain call, Memphis stayed in his seat while the theater emptied out a little, pulling out his notebook to scribble a couple of lines inspired by Theta’s performance in the Grecian Ladies number in the show. When the throng had died a little, he joined the group of hangers-on at the stage door to wait. Theta emerged a few minutes later in a cloud of leftover glitter and perfume, ermine collar protecting her neck from the snow and a headache band of rhinestones and peacock feathers sparking in her hair.
“Enjoyed the show?” she asked.
“Ready to go see the boys at the Dandy Gentleman?”
The good thing about the Dandy Gentleman was that no one looked twice at a black man with a white woman. Memphis and Theta grabbed a table and ordered drinks.
“You jake, Poet? You’ve been quiet all night. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
Memphis sighed. “It’s nothing--just a bad feeling.”
“Bad feeling about what?”
“I left Isaiah home alone with Mr. Johnson tonight.”
“So? They’re thick as thieves, right?”
“I don’t know. They are. I just...I’ve got a bad feeling about Blind Bill Johnson. Can’t explain it. I feel like he’s got a secret. Something about him that I just can’t put my finger on. And he’s too close to Isaiah. I don’t like it.”
“Have you mentioned this to your aunt?”
“She won’t hear a word against Mr. Johnson. She says I’m jealous. Reminds me that he saved Isaiah’s life when he had his first fit, while I was in jail. And then tells me to “get on your knees and pray for forgiveness, Memphis John.” He paused. “Sometimes she says that I’m just jealous because Isaiah has a man to look up to now and he doesn’t need me anymore.”
“I’ve been around a bit, Poet, and I’ve learned this: Trust your gut about people. Watch out for your little brother. Family’s important, and you’re lucky to have yours.”
“Thanks, dollface.” He leaned across the table to kiss her cheek. “Want to dance?”
“Sure. Let me go slip Henry a little something, see if he’ll play the Black Bottom.” She fumbled in her sparkly purse for a coin. “Hey Poet?”
“You usually know if people have secrets? You think I have a secret?”
“The only secret you have is how you stole my heart.” He thought he saw something like relief flash behind her eyes as she headed to the piano.
Three trips through the cards had left Isaiah limp with exhaustion, sawing logs by the radio as Amos and Andy played in the background. Damn, he’d taken the whelp too far in his practice. Couldn’t drain too much from him now, or he’d cause a fit and make everyone suspicious. Carefully, he laid his hands on Isaiah’s head.
“Uncle Bill? ‘M tired…”
“Give me a number and we’ll put you to bed. Be a good boy, now. And remember, our secret.”
“A number. Give me a number.”
“...One...four...four…hurts, it hurts.” He twitched under Bill’s hands, and energy flowed in and restored a few more shapes to Bill’s vision. Quickly, before the twitching could stick and the fit could start, Bill released the boy’s head. Then he carried him into the bedroom and tucked him in. No one would be the wiser.
It was well past midnight when Memphis returned, head still buzzing with dancing and maybe a little tiny bit too much bathtub gin, but he could still smell Theta’s perfume, and that made it all worthwhile. He crept down the hall to the room he shared with Isaiah and dressed for bed in the dark. He was just sliding under the covers when Isaiah stirred in the other bed.
“Me’phis, ‘zat you?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Yeah, it’s me, Ice Man. Go back to sleep, it’s late.”
“Don’t feel good...head hurts…”
Isaiah always sounded so little in the small hours of the morning. He crawled back out of bed and felt his brother’s forehead, finding it cool. A tiny spark of energy passed through his fingertips, and Isaiah relaxed. “Better now?”
Memphis smiled softly in the darkness. He didn’t need to be Miracle Memphis, the Harlem Healer, as long as he could take away his little brother’s pain. “Good. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, Ice Man. Our secret. Go back to sleep now.”
“Got secrets...with ev’r’body…”
Memphis’ blood froze. “What do you mean?” But his brother was already asleep.
Sleep was a long time coming for Memphis, and his dreams were troubled. He woke as the first steely-gray daylight shot through the navy-blue night sky, still thinking. The first time Isaiah had had a fit, Blind Bill Johnson had been with him. He ran his mind through all the fits, and it seemed like Blind Bill was always there. But how could an old man cause a child to have seizures? It didn’t make sense. He made a mental note to try not to leave the two of them alone again.
There was still time to go back to sleep, but sleep eluded him. Instead, he rolled onto his side to watch Isaiah breathe in the other bed as the grey outside turned to soft pink and gold. Then, careful not to wake Isaiah, he stole out of bed and prepared for the daily numbers run.
Later that afternoon, after his morning rounds and lunch at home, he met Theta at a drugstore.
“I can’t put it together,” he said as they sipped their egg creams over a shared newspaper. “Every time Isaiah has a fit, Mr. Johnson’s there.”
“That’s a pretty big stretch, Poet. How could an old man cause seizures in a kid?”
“I don’t know. He’s just an old blind man with a gambling problem. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’m jealous, like Aunt Octavia says.”
Theta took a deep breath, let it out. “Or maybe you’re as blind as he is.”
Memphis bristled at the harshness of her tone. “What do you mean?”
“After everything...the Pentacle Killer, Gabe Johnson, the sleeping sickness...you still think everything is what it seems on the surface? Open your eyes, Poet. Everyone has a secret.”
“Blind Bill Johnson isn’t a Diviner. He doesn’t have any powers. I know a lot of Diviners now--Evie, Sam, Henry and Ling. Granted, Evie’s a little selfish sometimes and Sam’s only starting to break away from the con life, but Bill Johnson doesn’t fit the mold.”
“But what if there isn't a mold, Memphis?! What if not every Diviner has a good gift? It stands to reason that powers that can be used for good can be turned around and used for evil. What if there are people with dangerous powers?”
“If he’s hurting Isaiah, then I’ll kill him with my bare hands. In fact, I’d kill anyone who used their powers to hurt people.”
There was a long pause, and then Theta spoke, her voice strained. “I have to go. Rehearsal. But maybe you should go talk to Will over at the Creepy Crawly. I’ll see you later, Poet.” She stood abruptly, balling her gloved hands into fists, and abandoned her half-drunk egg cream, leaving Memphis staring after her.
Theta Knight did not cry. It was just the winter wind making her eyes sting, droplets clinging to her cake mascara as her palms burned. Smoke curled from between her fingers. She’d need another new pair of gloves at this rate.
I’d kill anyone who used their powers to hurt people with my bare hands. What had happened with Roy had been a mistake. What had happened in the abandoned subway tunnel had been pure self-defense. But Theta wasn’t a healer like Memphis. She wasn’t able to con a gunman away from shooting people like Sam, and she couldn’t walk in dreams like Henry. Hell, she couldn’t even make up false, happy histories for innocuous objects like Evie.
I’d kill anyone who used their powers to hurt people with my bare hands. Whatever she thought she had with Memphis was a lie, based on a lie. Her entire life was a lie. If Memphis knew the truth, he’d wish her dead. She’d been foolish to think she could have a life, any life, free of her past. But Theta Knight also didn’t give up. She swiped the back of her hand across her burning eyes, not caring when it smeared her kohl and mascara. Plenty of time to fix it later.
Days passed. Memphis didn’t see Theta, and he wasn’t sure if he should go seek her out. What she had said about evil Diviners made a frightening kind of sense, but the way she’d acted… it was as if he’d insulted her personally. Strange.
He still walked through the city each afternoon, pausing at his usual meeting spot with Theta, but she never showed. He paid a call on the Creepy Crawly, but Will was away for a research trip and Jericho didn’t know when he would be back. And he made extra sure that Isaiah was not left alone with Mr. Johnson. There were no more fits, and Isaiah suffered no more headaches. Life was almost painfully normal, and he missed Theta more than he cared to admit.
A week after his strange meeting with Theta, he sat at the kitchen table, poring over a volume of Langston Hughes from the library. Aunt Octavia and Mr. Johnson had taken Isaiah out to run errands, leaving Memphis alone with his book in the peace and quiet. It would have been perfect, except that he was preoccupied with the idea of evil Diviners--maybe even one sharing his own house--and missing Theta.
"Enough of this," he grumbled to himself. Tonight, he’d wait for her at the backstage door, where she couldn’t fail to show up.
Octavia sighed, tapping her foot impatiently. It was the day before Christmas Eve and the barbershop was packed, and they’d been waiting for over an hour. She couldn’t have Isaiah going to church looking like a common hoodlum, and he needed a haircut, but at this rate, she’d never get supper on the table in time. There were still ten customers ahead of them. Beside her, Isaiah fidgeted.
“How much longer?”
“Long enough. Shush and mind your manners, now.”
The line crawled forward. Finally, Mr. Johnson spoke up. “You go on home and get supper started, Sister Octavia. Little Man and I will stay here, and I’ll bring him home when he’s done.”
“Oh, would you? I hate to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble, Ma’am. Little Man and I will be just fine, won’t we?”
Isaiah perked up. “Yes, we will!”
It really was refreshing to see him bonding with a proper gentleman. She’d had high hopes for Memphis John, but his behavior lately...yes, Isaiah needed the influence of Bill Johnson in his life. Fishing a quarter from her purse to pay for the haircut, she nodded. “Be good for Mr. Johnson, now.”
She took the shortest walk possible back to their house, startled to find Memphis at the kitchen table with a book.
“Hello, Aunt Octavia. Where are Isaiah and Mr. Johnson?”
“At the barbershop. You studying?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He paused, took a breath. “Ma’am, are you sure it’s a good idea to let the two of them be alone so often?”
“What in heaven’s name are you saying, Memphis John? Bill Johnson is a good Christian man, and my sister raised you better than to speak ill of your elders.”
“But Ma’am...Isaiah’s been sick, and always after he’s around Mr. Johnson.” What was he saying? His mouth was running faster than his mind could go. Aunt Octavia was going to be so angry… He could almost taste the soap she’d use to wash out his mouth, mixed in with a coppery tang of fear.
“Isaiah has been stricken with a test from God, and maybe he wouldn’t have been if you had been where you were supposed to be instead of off gallivanting. Go to your room, Memphis John, and get on your knees and pray for God’s forgiveness. And say an extra blessing that Mr. Johnson was there to pick up your slack.”
Her tone brooked no argument. Memphis turned on his heel and headed for his room. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Isaiah was even now in terrible danger. He thought for a moment about disobeying and going straight to the barbershop. If nothing happened, Aunt Octavia would probably banish him from her house forever. Then again, if anything happened to Isaiah, he couldn’t live with himself. In a flash, his mind was made up. Abruptly, he changed course.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Octavia, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to punish me later,” he said, and ran out the door in the direction of the barbershop, leaving her thunderstruck behind him.
God Almighty, but Octavia was such an easy mark. The barber finished Isaiah’s haircut and accepted his quarter in payment, and now Bill was alone with the whelp. This was too, too easy. He only needed to drain a bit more energy from the boy before his sight would be fully restored, and maybe, now that the boy wasn’t exhausted from too much practice, he’d get a number from him, too.
He flashed a bright smile at the little boy, who was sucking on a Bit O’ Honey from the barber’s candy dish. “Ready, Little Man?”
“Yes, Uncle Bill.”
Taking Bill’s arm, he led the way out of the barbershop and turned toward home. “Hey now,” Bill said teasingly, pulling him to a stop. “I believe I owe you an ice cream. Come on, if you turn right through this alleyway, it’s a shortcut.”
“Really?” Isaiah sounded both incredulous and skeptical, whether at the thought of being allowed ice cream so close to dinner or that there was a shortcut through that dark, rat-infested alleyway.
“Sure, Little Man. Your Uncle Bill always keeps his promises. But you can’t tell anyone. It’ll be…”
“Our secret,” Isaiah finished for him, grinning as he took the right turn into the darkness.
Halfway through the alley, out of sight of the busy thoroughfare, Bill huffed for breath, leaning on his cane. “Hold up a minute. Your Uncle Bill isn’t as young as you. Need a minute to rest.”
Obediently, Isaiah pulled to a halt beside him. Quick as a snake, Bill shot upright and threw the boy against the wall, pinning him. Immediately, the tingling started up and his vision snapped into place, crystal clear.
Isaiah had been momentarily stunned, but recovered. “Uncle Bill, what…” the question gave way to a squall of pain, his eyes rolling up in his head, caught in some vision as his life force siphoned into the old man.
“A number, boy. Give me a number,” Bill snarled, keeping Isaiah pinned, not caring when he gasped for breath through the chokehold.
“Not that number, you useless whelp. You must see something else.” Isaiah thrashed helplessly, his cries weakening. Bill pressed on. So what if the boy died? He’d had another fit on the walk. It came on suddenly, and Bill hadn’t been able to stop it. No one would question a blind man. Just as he felt the tingling begin to die away, he felt another, unexpected sensation--burning coals on the back of his neck. His own shriek of agony replaced the now-silenced cries of the seer.
“Stay away from my brother, old man,” said a steely voice, and the world went black.
By the time Memphis reached the barbershop, Bill and Isaiah were gone. He turned around and headed for home, steps heavy. Probably they were there by now, and Octavia would kill him when he got back. But he still felt like Isaiah was in danger. Around him, darkness was falling. Snow was falling thickly, gathering in his collar and sticking to his eyelashes, Christmas lights lighted up the night, speakers played carols out over the street, but he felt no joy. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, but it held no meaning.
Unseeing, he walked straight into a fur-covered wall.
“Poet! What are you doing out?” Theta demanded.
“Theta! Theta, help! Bill’s got Isaiah, and…”
“Slow down. Where do you think they went?”
“I don’t know. Octavia left them at the barbershop, and...he’s going to hurt Isaiah, he’s got some kind of power, you were right…”
Theta cut him off. “So they didn’t come home after the barbershop?”
“I don’t know. I tried to get Octavia to listen, but she wouldn’t, so I just left. I can’t let anything happen to Isaiah.”
A scream from a nearby alley reached their ears, and they ran toward the sound just in time to see Bill pinning the thrashing Isaiah against the wall.
“I got Bill--you get Isaiah,” Theta shouted to Memphis, and Memphis threw himself at his younger brother with a bellow of rage. He managed to get between Isaiah and the old man, but what happened next was a blur. Isaiah was thrashing under him, then limp, and he vaguely smelled smoke and heard a cry of agony from behind him. Then everything else disappeared as he focused on his brother, willing the strongest of healing energy into his hands as he laid them on the small, limp body in the snow.
The vision that overtook him as the healing energy flowed was the worst he’d ever experienced. Numbers swirled around him, to be consumed by fire. Dark trees sprang up, burning. Wind whipped at his clothes, something scratched at his face, tearing his skin, and he was burning, burning. A man in a stovepipe hat stood over him, threatening. The fire was consuming him, consuming all of them…
He snapped from the trance, breathless and dizzy, face to the ground the alley. He ached everywhere. Sitting up, he could see that Isaiah’s eyes were open and clear. They were alone in the alley, the only sign of Theta and Bill Johnson being Theta’s gloves, singed at the palms, trodden on the ground.
“Hey, Ice Man. You okay?”
“Sure is. You see where Theta went?”
“No. Can we go home?”
“Sure, little brother.” Shakily, he helped Isaiah to his feet, picking his little brother up when his knees buckled. Cradling Isaiah carefully against his chest, he turned toward home, snowflakes and Christmas lights giving a new sparkle to the world.
Memphis stood outside the stage door, arms full of flowers, waiting for Theta to emerge. The usual after-show crowd had broken up early, but he was still waiting. The roses had cost a fortune from the hothouse, but he figured she deserved them. It was New Year’s Eve and he hadn’t seen her since the showdown in the alley, but he wanted answers and he wasn’t going to let her go so easily. Besides, if it hadn’t been for her, he and Isaiah might both have died.
“Hey, Princess,” he greeted as she finally stepped out, pulling up her hood against the snow.
“What’re you doing here, Memphis? Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Why would I do that?” he asked in surprise, nearly dropping the roses. “You saved my life. Isaiah’s too.”
“I used my powers to hurt someone. And he wasn’t the first. Not all of us are good like you, Poet. You said yourself you’d kill anyone…”
He stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “You hurt Bill, but you saved our lives. He was going to kill my brother, Theta.”
“What happened to him, anyway?”
“Beats me. Aunt Octavia went crackers because he’d left Isaiah alone, and then we got a telegram. He’s left town. Gone for good, I hope.”
“So you don’t hate me?”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Poet. I don’t understand my powers. I don’t know how to control them. Look.” She held up her hands, gloveless, palms out, revealing angry, red burns.
“I’d like to take the time to know you, and I’d like to help you understand your powers. Will can help us when he gets back, I bet. You’re not evil, Theta.” He took her hands, healing energy sparking through his own, replacing the burns with pristine skin. They continued to stand hand in hand after the healing was complete, and there was something like hope in her eyes as she gazed into his.
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
She wrapped her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder, reveling in his warmth for just a moment before turning to kiss him softly. In the distance, a clock struck midnight.
“Happy New Year, Princess,” he whispered as she finally pulled away.
“Happy New Year, Poet,” she replied, leaning up to kiss him again.