francis farqhuar hurried through the streets to his grandmother's apartment. he had to be there before sunrise.
farqhuar had been living in his grandmother's apartment since being banned and blacklisted from every magicians organization in the universe, many of which no longer existed. but he feared that many of those that survived were looking for him.
despite this, he spent his nights in the streets because his grandmother, a fortune teller with her own card reading deck and system, would not tolerate his presence in the apartment while she entertained her clients.
he waited in a doorway across the street from his grandmothers apartment building and watched her twenty-eighth floor light. he had to wait until she signaled him by blinking the light twice before he could go up.
he watched as a little pearshaped woman he recognized as a regular client came out of the apartment building and walked away. but he waited patiently for the blinking light before crossing the street and entering the building.
when he entered the building he turned himself into a mouse to scurry up the twenty-eight flights of steps. he didn't like to waste the magic, but he was just too tired to walk up.
the apartment was tiny - one room with a table and two chairs for the readings, and a small couch on which the grandmother slept. farqhuar slept in a cupboard, in a glass or cup after shrinking himself - a terrible waste of magic, but what else could he do?
his grandmother was seated at her table still looking at a spread of cards when he entered - usually she had put them away.
"ah,"she said, "empty-handed again, i see." she quickly palmed the cards and put the deck together and squared it on the table in front of her.
chief among the reasons madame - for the grandmother used the professional name of "madame" - just "madame" - for her readings - had for sheltering farqhuar was his ability in his nocturnal ramblings to occasionally procure for her some outlawed delicacies - cookies, of which chocolate chip and lemon were her favorites, and sometimes even a brownie. but it had been a while since farqhuar had been able to bring her a brownie.
cowering under the sibyl's pitiless gaze, farqhuar lowered himself gently on to the couch. "i'm doing what i can. there just isn't much out there. and i am bound round by all these hexes my enemies laid on me - i'm afraid to turn around or put one foot in front of the other."
"stop whining. if you had my troubles you'd cry to get yours back." she turned her gaze back to the cards in front of her and began laying them out. " you know, i can't remember the last time i had a really good brownie or torte - especially one with good austrian chocolate."
"i was talking to this guy tonight - i might have a line on something - but it's italian."
"the italians don't know anything about chocolate."
farqhuar changed the subject. "i saw your client coming out - "
"i hope she didn't see you."
"don't worry. as i was saying, you don't seem to be getting the class of clients you used to."
"lulu's a nice girl. i won't have you slandering her. her payment is as good as anybody's these days. why shouldn't she have the ancient wisdom explained to her, as much as any duchess or doctor's wife. eh?"
"she works hard for her payment. she works in some dreadful office where they look at numbers on screens all day."
at the word "numbers" they shuddered in unison and fell silent. a horror of numbers was one thing they had in common. madame had devised her deck of cards to avoid them. her deck had no suits or numbered cards, just 77 cards with names and pictures like "the wind" or "the martyr" and no orders or connections between them except those she chose to give them.
farqhuar, even in his heyday, had avoided all numbers in his spells and incantations - one of the many singularities that aroused the suspicion of his fellow magicians.
"speaking of payment," said farqhuar, "did your client leave you any?"
"of course, i told you, she always pays. would you like some?"
"yes, please, i'm starving."
things weren't what they used to be, and the interpreter of the ancient wisdom was accepting payment in barter, usually food. she reached into the cupboard behind her. "would you like some watercress jerky?"
"deal with it, sonny boy. you're the magician - why don't you use some of your all-powerful spells to conjure up something tasty - like a burger."
"a burger!" farqhuar laughed. "when you talk like that i can believe you never go out of this apartment. a burger! here i am, with the coils of the universe winding around me, and you want me to use what magic i can spare to get you a burger! what next, some fish and chips?"
"now you're tempting me."
farqhuar slumped lower on the couch. "if i didn't have to squeeze myself into that cupboard every morning, maybe i could spare a little magic to try to get you something."
"try sleeping on the roof."
"on the roof - in broad daylight? why not just turn myself in to the lowest dungeon of the departments?"
there was a gentle tapping at the door. farqhuar got up and opened it. madame's next door neighbor looked up at him.
"good morning, francis."
"good morning to you, mrs nelson."
"may i come in?"
"let mrs nelson sit on the couch, francis."
"nonsense, i will just sit here." mrs nelson sat at the card table across from madame, and farqhuar slumped back on the couch. this was a time-honored ritual.
"you know," said mrs nelson, "not that i listen at people's doors, but i couldn't help noticing that you two have the same conversations over and over."
"these aren't sparkling times," farqhuar answered with a smile. "unsparkling times make for unsparkling conversation."
"i had a most interesting visitor last night," said mrs nelson. "he kept me up half the night and then i couldn't sleep, so that's why i am here."
"one of your pope friends?" farqhuar asked politely. madame grimaced slightly. she didn't care much for popes. farqhuar, of course, tried to get along with everybody.
"no, a detective, a police detective. about my picture,"
"of course, your picture." farqhuar had only been staying in the apartment long enough for a couple of the pictures to appear at their 103 day intervals. he professed little interest in them.
"i was telling the detective the most interesting story," said mrs nelson, "but he didn't stay to hear the end."
"we love your stories, mrs nelson," replied farqhuar. "why don't you tell it to us?"