Two in the morning in the booth of an all-night diner a block off Santa Monica Boulevard, and I was trying to convince the Great Mandini to tell me his secrets. Earlier that evening, I’d bought him drink after drink at the Magic Castle, dropping hints that I wanted him to show me some of what he’d learned over the years. Instead, he’d spent the night hitting on the waitresses and regaling everyone at the bar with tales of the time he’d been on Leno. As last call had approached, Mandini suggested that if I bought him breakfast, he might be willing to open up the vault and share some of what he knew.
The diner, Luby’s, sat in that desolate no-man’s land where East Hollywood gave way to Silver Lake. The streetlights didn’t push back the shadows here, not like the artificial daytime of Hollywood Boulevard or Santa Monica. The chrome edging on the tables flaked and peeled and was patched inexpertly with layers of grey and silver paint.
Mandini shoveled forkfuls of twelve-dollar Denver omelet into his mouth. The cup of coffee that sat untouched next to the omelet was another $2.50, the English muffin another $1.75. My wallet was empty except for a single crisp twenty.
“See,” Mandini said, swallowing a mouthful of eggs and ham and cheese, “what people don’t understand is they’re not just tricks. When I create an illusion, it’s not just sleight of hand, I’m leading the audience on a journey. I’m telling them a story—”
I saw where he was going, and it wasn’t what I was there for. “I’ve heard the philosophy. I’m interested in you—I want to know your secrets,” I said.
Mandini frowned at the interruption, but then cracked a self-satisfied smile. “’Secrets?’ Shows how little you know. The story you tell? That’s the magic. It isn’t just stage patter—it’s the difference between the audience politely clapping and leaping to their goddamn feet with applause. A magician is just a storyteller with a little extra style, don’t forget that.”
I needed to keep him talking. “Okay, fine,” I said, “but a story alone isn’t enough, is it? I need to know how it happens. How you take a trick and make it real. I want to hear your story.”
Mandini wrinkled his nose. He took a bite of the English muffin, even while he was loading up his fork with more omelet with the other hand. The fluorescent lights in the back of the diner flickered, casting strange shadows on the walls. There were crumbs on the Great Mandini’s cheek. “You want to be a stage magician? You want to be like me? You’ll need something. A hook, a bit. So, uh, what are you, like, Mexican?”
I sighed. He couldn’t stop giving advice. “I’m Native American, but that’s really not why I’m—”
“Seriously? That’s great, kid. That’s a solid shtick. The rubes would eat it up. Get some feathers and buckskin pants. Do some drumming and spin a bunch of crap about connections to the Earth and talking to spirits? The granola-crunchers and new-agers would eat that up, guaranteed.”
I stared at him. Bit back my real reaction and managed a thin smile. “Thanks for the suggestion. But I do card magic. I was hoping you’d talk to me about how you got where you are.”
Mandini shook his head. “Ask me anything you want, kid, but you can’t just skip over the hard work. You need to put in the hours. Practice until the cards are just an extension of your arm. There’s no shortcut—”
I waved him off. He wanted to hear that I was a serious student, a colleague, not just a dilettante. “Hundreds of hours shuffling cards in front of a mirror? I’ve done it. I’m not some joker. I’ve read Hugard and Giobbi, a torn-up copy of S.W. Erdnase from this crappy little shop on Wilshire. But I’m here to learn what I can’t get off YouTube or a book. Your secrets. I need to really see what you’ve done, learn why you made the decisions you did.”
Mandini stopped, fork raised halfway to his mouth. For a long moment, he just stared at me, his mouth set in a thin line. Like I’d just hit pause on the home-video version of the Great Mandini. The diner’s air-conditioning was blowing frigid air, but otherwise it was silent under the fluorescents. The only other patrons were a man in a thousand-dollar suit, sitting alone at the bar at the end of the diner, mechanically eating a bowl of oatmeal into which he’d added two packets of oyster crackers, and a family of four at a table by the front, apparently unaware that it was the middle of the night. They wore Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts, and each ate an identical grilled cheese sandwich in total silence.
Mandini nodded, once, then again more quickly. “Yes. Yeah, okay.”
He grabbed the cup of coffee and took a sip. He stopped, frowned, glared at the coffee like it’d failed him, and raised his left hand above his head. Twice, in quick succession, he snapped his fingers.
“Madam, coffee!” he shouted at the waitress, who was at that moment stacking ketchup bottles mouth to mouth on the diner bar. She took a deep breath and grabbed the pot from the top of the boxy stainless-steel coffee machine.
“No need to shout,” the waitress said as she reached the table. “I can hear you just fine.”
“Nonetheless, my dear,” Mandini said, “this cup of coffee has grown cold. A warm one, if you please.”
The waitress—Alejandra, according to the nametag on her sky-blue dress—rolled her eyes and flipped over the unused mug on my side of the table, slid it in front of Mandini, and sloshed a new helping into it.
“Excellent, my dear, thank you. And I’m done with this,” he said, holding his plate out to her. The omelet was only half-eaten. She sighed and took the plate from him. She spun on her heel and headed back behind the counter.
Mandini took a sip of the warm cup of coffee, and set it off to the side, next to its cold brother. He reached into the jacket pocket of his suit and produced a Bicycle poker deck, still wrapped in cellophane and sealed shut. Like a smoker with a lifelong habit, he peeled the string from the wrapper, and slid the deck out of the plastic, then cut the seal with his thumbnail.
With a few quick motions, he flicked open the flap of the box and slid the stack of cards into his hand. He peeled off the top four cards—the instructions, the listing of poker hands, and the two jokers. Those, he squared off and set aside. He took the remaining fifty-two cards and flipped them over in his hands but didn’t shuffle them. Until he did so, I knew the deck would be in perfect order, Ace of Spades on the bottom, Ace of Hearts on top.
“You know why there’s so much secrecy about magic, about the illusions?” Mandini asked. He held the deck out, flat on his palm at eye-level, like he was weighing it, “It’s because the secrets are so disappointing. People always come up to me after the shows, they beg me to tell them how I did it. Oh, how they beg. I only caved once. A long time ago, a pretty face that couldn’t be denied. You know what her reaction was when I told her? ’Oh, that’s all?’”
Mandini started shuffling the cards. He didn’t look down at them. His eyes locked with mine, but I kept glancing down. He started with a simple riffle shuffle, added a bridge, then picked up the deck and moved into a dizzying series of overhand shuffles mixed with a procession of perfect kick cuts. His hands barely seemed to move, but the cards jumped around, from hand to hand, in stacks and cuts that broke apart and came back together into a solid stack before I could see that they’d shifted. He was good, I could admit that.
“What you have to understand is that the magic, the real magic, is in guiding the audience’s attention, setting up expectations, leading them down one path, letting them think they know what’s going on, and then—poof—showing them that they had it wrong right from the beginning.”
He fanned the entire deck out in front of him, face-up, showing a completely random order. He picked up the first card and flipped the entire fan over and scooped the cards back into his hand. A couple more shuffles and he handed the deck to me.
“Pick any four cards,” he said. “But don’t look at them. Lay them out face-down in front of you.”
I did, and handed the deck back to him. Four lonely soldiers on my side of the table.
He shuffled the remainder of the deck, kicking out half the cards from time to time, cutting and re-cutting, flicking the stacks from hand to hand. Sometimes he mixed it up, dropped in a Kattar shuffle and what looked like a perfect Faro. Showy, but useless—there’s no way he could remember the order of the entire deck after all those shuffles.
“Everything looks random, impossible to predict,” Mandini said, setting the deck aside. “But that’s all part of the act. Most of what we do as magicians is drawing people’s attention away from the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen. You know that, I’m sure. For example, would you be willing to bet your four cards, aces high, against the top four cards of my deck? Your random choice against the deck I’ve had in my hands? I’ll teach you any trick you want if you win. Fifty bucks to me if you lose.”
I laughed. He was entertaining, I’ll give him that. I couldn’t help playing along—a little. “Heck no. That sounds like a sucker’s bet.”
“Smart move, my boy.” He peeled off the top card of the deck. King of Clubs. Then in sequence, the other three Kings took their place next to it. “The magician always knows what’s coming next. He’s never surprised. Now flip over your cards.”
I did. Ace of Spades, followed by the Ace of Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts.
“Or, maybe not such a bad bet after all,” Mandini said. With that, he scooped up all the cards, gave the deck one last shuffle and slid it back in the box, and the box back in his jacket.
“Would you have taught me the trick if I’d taken the bet?” I asked.
“Do you think you would have won if you had?” he said with a wry smile.
I chewed my lip. “Nice trick. But you still haven’t showed me anything new.”
His lip twitched, a vanishing momentary smirk, and he licked his lips. “And you haven’t shown me that you’re worth teaching. Why don’t you show me what you can do?”
I hadn’t planned on this. But here he was, actually asking to see me perform. I’d give him a story, as well.
“Okay. Mind if I borrow your deck?” I held out my hand. He dropped the deck into it. As I took the cards out of the pack, I talked. “I’m not a magician like you. Not yet. But I’ve had a deck of cards in my hand since I was a baby. I grew up in Las Vegas. My dad was a poker player, professional. Not a gambler, mind you. Gamblers are the addicts who lose their paychecks every Friday at the table games. The pros, they’re patient. They play the odds, eke out a little on the margins until a good score comes along, and then they go all in. But never on long odds. They don’t bet, they wait.”
My shuffles were basic, rudimentary next to Mandini’s displays. Just a quick square riffle, exactly six times in a row. Then I put the deck in front of him to cut. He did, and I shuffled once more.
“But poker and magic aren’t all that different, you know that? I mean, at its heart, the cards are all random, so the skill in poker is bluffing, sniffing out what your opponent has. I watched my dad work his own kind of magic, trying to convince the other guys he was holding a crap hand, when he was actually sitting on gold. Magicians and poker players, they tell one story, and hold another in their hands.”
Mandini nodded slowly.
“So why don’t we play a hand?” I said. “I win, you teach me what you can do. I lose, I pay the check and stop bothering you.”
The corner of Mandini’s lip twitched upwards, like he was considering whether to smile. At the bar, the businessman shoved his oatmeal away from him, dropped his head down into his hands, and began to sob.
Mandini looked at the deck, nodded, and I dealt the hands. “Five card draw, Aces high, nothing wild.”
Mandini picked up his hand. His face betrayed no reaction. He slid two cards face-down towards me. “Give me two.”
I dealt his two, then tossed one of my own. When the cards were dealt, Mandini couldn’t suppress his smile.
“It’s funny,” I said. “My dad used to talk about magic a lot. He never learned any, but he’d take me to the shows. He played in Vegas for years. He was kind of a novelty, the only native card-player on the pro tables. But he got to know a lot of the guys who worked the entertainment circuit down there. Heard a lot of the gossip, where the bodies were buried. That sort of thing.”
Then, one by one, I laid four of my cards down. The Ace of Clubs, then the Eight of Spades and the Eight of Clubs, and finally the Ace of Spades. Two pair.
Mandini smirked again. “That’s the Dead Man’s Hand, son.”
“Not quite,” I said, laying my last card next to the two pair. The Ace of Hearts. “One more makes a Full House.”
The smile vanished from Mandini’s face. He looked at the cards still in his hand, then back at mine on the table. “Your disappointment is totally understandable,” I said. “After all, a flush is an excellent hand, isn’t it? Normally pretty hard to beat.”
Mandini stared at me without expression. Only then did he toss his cards down, face-up. A sea of red hearts, in no particular order, topped by one lonely Jack.
“You’re a card cheat? Forget it, I’m not teaching you anything. Magic isn’t for scamming casinos, kid. I’m not teaching you to be a better thief.” Mandini puffed up, raised his chin a little, like he was trying to catch a spotlight. “Cheating at cards is beneath me. That sort of thing disrespects the tradition.”
The air conditioning droned, broken only by the soft sobs from the dead-eyed businessman and the clink of silverware from the time-lost tourists. Headlights flashed from up on Santa Monica. It turned into Sunset Boulevard somewhere up here. But even in the middle of the night, there was always traffic on the road.
“I’m glad you said that. My dad used to say pretty much the same thing. Cheating at cards was ugly, he said. Disrespectful. Just another way of stealing.”
“He sounds like a smart man, your father.”
“Yeah, he really hated card cheats. Especially after he lost my family’s savings at a crooked table.”
Mandini nodded sagely, waved his open palm across the table, like he was a lawyer resting his case. “See, that’s exactly what I’m saying. A tragic tale, all because one cheat couldn’t learn to play fair.”
My lips tightened, but the great Mandini wasn’t looking at me. He was gazing beatifically across the diner. “It’s quite a story, actually,” I said, trying to catch his eye.
I scooped up the cards, mine and his, and shuffled them back into the deck. As I talked, I kept the deck moving, nothing showy, just idly shuffling with a running strip shuffle, over and over.
“He was trying to build a stake for a buy-in to a big tournament. Usually, he kept to smaller tables, didn’t go for those big events—too many sharks in those waters, he said. But he thought he had a chance against this tourney’s competition. So, he—”
“Listen, kid,” Mandini interrupted. “I feel bad for you. This is a tough business, and you’re clearly motivated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a sad story and all that, but if you go around telling people your tragic history, people in this town will eat you up. But that’s beside the point. I’m just not going to teach magic to a card cheat.”
I stopped shuffling and held the cards in a painful grip. “I’ve done what I need to do to get by. Everybody uses the skills they have, right?”
Mandini scoffed, cross his arms across his chest. “I like you, kid, I really do. But that’s no way to make a life. And if you’re so good, why do you want me to teach you my secrets?”
I wanted his story, and he wanted mine. A fair trade, I suppose. Still, he wanted to feel superior. I put the deck down between us. “Maybe I don’t want to cheat any more. Maybe it’s because I want to do something for myself, not just live for somebody else’s winnings.”
Across the dining room, the family with the beachwear and grilled cheese sandwiches all stood up and trudged towards the door. The bald father, eyes red and puffy, settled up with Alejandra while the other three, the two kids clutching each other’s hands, shuffled out of the diner and clambered into their car—a vintage Beetle. None of them said a word.
Mandini grabbed the deck and lifted one corner, then let the cards fall again, a soft little patter on the Formica. He did it three or four times, looking at me with the same cool stare. “That’s something I can sympathize with, kid.”
“Does that mean you’ll tell me your story? Share a few secrets?”
I remembered sitting across from my father at the battered folding table in our kitchen, cards spread out between us. One day, I’d asked him what it was like, being the only guy from the reservation playing poker like he did. He laughed, said that most of time, he sat down at a fresh table, they thought he was just another drunk Indian, down off the rez, looking to throw away his per cap check. He didn’t mind, though, said it gave him an advantage. People are easier to beat if they think you don’t know what you’re doing, he said.
Mandini took in a deep and theatrical breath, clasped his hands, and laid them on the table. “I’ll tell you what: you show me how to do a trick I’ve never seen before, and I’ll show you one of mine.” He rubbed his cheeks like he was thinking it over. “In fact, if you show me how you dealt those hands in our little game, then I think I could show you something.”
Mandini sat there, looking at me, hands clasped in front of him, waiting for my response. Then he gave me a fraction of a nod, and let slip a curl of a smile, just for a second.
I knew what Mandini was up to, how he’d play it. He’d watch my best trick, learn it, and yield some two-bit sleight in exchange. Something too fiddly or slow to work into a professional show. That’s how a guy like Mandini had climbed up the ladder, way back when. Not that he was at the top of anything anymore. But I guess old habits die hard.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t really care about his tricks. But it kept him talking, and it would be how I would get him to share what I needed from him: his secret.
I slipped the first card off the top of the deck, looked at it, put it back. “Sure, I’ll show you how to do that trick. But you know that tale I was telling? About my old man losing all his money? There’s more to the story.”
Mandini sighed and nodded politely before taking a sip of his coffee. “OK, fine. Finish the story if you want.”
I shuffled a few times, squared the deck and set it down between us. Almost time for the reveal. “It’s pretty wild, actually. The card cheat was a magician. Small-time, but working his way up in the world. Playing cards on the side, making money while he waited for his big break. You know the type.”
The great Mandini looked pale. “I suppose I do.”
“Anyway, this magician ran the table. Used all his little sleights and passes and false deals. But he was clever. Strung the whole table along for hours. Loss after loss, and my dad couldn’t climb out of the hole. Maybe my dad was stubborn, and maybe he should have quit while he was behind, but he didn’t. And then it was all over.”
Mandini looked at me hard, and all the bluster was gone. Just a cool, hard stare. “Kid, stories are for performances. I don’t need to know your life story. If you want to trade techniques, show me something I haven’t seen before. Something I can use. Otherwise I’m leaving.”
I flipped over the top card of the deck in front of me. Joker. Mandini’s eyes narrowed. He’d separated out the joker as soon as he’d started. Set it aside. Hadn’t he? But there it was again.
“Why don’t you stay?” I said. “I’ll skip the boring details. My mom kicked him out, we lost the house. He started drinking again, never stopped. Blah, blah, blah. But here’s where things get interesting. I started playing cards to help her make rent. Cheating at cards. I saw how far my dad’s ethics had gotten him. No lofty morality for me. But I also started looking for that crooked magician.”
Too far. Mandini stood up, a big theatrical movement, sweeping out of the booth like he was making a grand exit. “You’re boring me now. I’ve lost interest in your story. Thanks for the breakfast. But you can find someone else to tutor you.”
I flipped over another card. Mandini’s eyes went wide.
“Wouldn’t you rather stay?” I asked.
Mandini sat down sharply. No hesitation. His eyes were glued to the card in front of him. He knew the deck as well as I did. There was no such thing as a Coyote card. Yet there it was, peeled off Mandini’s own deck, a red and black and yellow line-drawing of a slavering coyote, leering up at him, like it had always been a part of the deck.
I tapped Coyote. “See, the interesting thing is, you can learn a lot in in back-alley poker clubs. You learn to be careful, of course. Cheaters are treated bad in those kinds of places. But if you look hard enough, you can find your way to people who have magic to teach. Real magic.”
Mandini didn’t say a word. The confidence was gone from his face. Confusion, worry, fear. Even some lingering defiance. But no more of the showy, boundless confidence that had been there before.
“How’d you do that?” Mandini said, eyes kept dipping back to Coyote, like he was worried the card was going to change into something else. “Gambler’s Palm? Tenkai? No, that wouldn’t work, not like this. And how’d you get the card back to match the rest of the deck? It matches, right?”
Mandini reached out and flipped the Coyote card over. The back side was the standard Bicycle card back. Then he flipped it back to look at Coyote again. Except it wasn’t Coyote anymore. It was the Four of Clubs.
Mandini drew back from the card like he’d touched a hot stove. He pressed himself against the back of the booth, as far away from the offending card as he could. “That’s not possible. There’s no sleight in all of creation that can do that.”
I nodded. “You’re more right than you know.” I kept going. “Here’s something you never learned: magic isn’t just a bunch of tricks and sleight-of-hand. If you’re willing to go deep enough down the hole and into the dark, there are deeper secrets to be found. It doesn’t come easy and there’s a price to be paid. But there always is, isn’t there?”
Mandini’s eyes went narrow, and a hint of skepticism crept back into his expression. “Listen, kid, I don’t know anything about—”
“I’ll just stop you there,” I interrupted. “You’re right, you don’t know anything. But you’re about to.”
“I’ll bet I started off just the same way you did,” I said. “I got my start in back rooms of restaurants and clubs, playing endless hands of poker, maybe bottom-dealing a little here and there, but mostly just trying to get invited to a game at a bigger table, somewhere that I could put my sleight of hand to use, to really make some money.”
Mandini didn’t say anything, but the silence was confirmation enough. He kept his eyes locked on the four of clubs between us. I plucked it off the table, flipped it back and forth, front to back, flipping between the clubs and the Bicycle card back.
“Turns out, while I was in those dingy back rooms looking for marks, there were other people, other things out there, looking for me. They could smell how badly I wanted revenge. How I’d taken everything that had happened to my father, to my family, to me—and honed it into a single goal: find that magician and pay him back—in spades.”
Mandini sighed. “Listen, kid, I think I see where you’re going. We can talk this out. I can help you. Teach you tricks, anything you want. But that trick. I need to see more. We can work something out, something to—”
No. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This wasn’t the confrontation I’d been envisioning for so long. I interrupted Mandini with a sharp wave of my hand. I took the four of clubs and tore it in half, then again, and again, until that four of clubs was dozens of pieces of shredded paper in an untidy pile on the tabletop.
“Forget about that trick. I learned more than you can imagine, about magic—real magic. I gave up so much to learn it. I’m pretty sure my soul is long gone. I didn’t realize what I was giving up.” I looked at Mandini, who was starting to sweat. “Actually, that’s not true. I probably knew what I was doing. I just didn’t care. That’s how badly I wanted to find him—to find you.”
Mandini took a deep breath. Nodded. He shrugged, like it wasn’t worth denying. “Yeah, I get it. It was me. Guilty as charged. You wanted to find me, you found me. I’ll apologize if you want, but that isn’t going to change what happened. Right now, kid, I need to know how you did that with the card-switch. I’ve never—hell, nobody’s ever seen anything like that. If I could incorporate technique like that into my show—forget about me tutoring you, I need you to teach me.”
I paused for a moment, as if poised on a narrow path with steep drop-offs all around. This wasn’t the confession I’d come here for. It wasn’t the scenario I’d been playing in my head for so long. Of course, in those scenarios I wasn’t flat broke and in deep to people I couldn’t pay back, either.
I traced concentric circles through the little pile of playing-card confetti with my finger. The pattern left behind formed a complex geometric pattern, a mandala of light and dark in the untidy mosaic of torn playing cards.
Mandini kept going. “Kid, you don’t need to keep selling me. You’ve got tricks I’ve never seen before. I’ve got to have them. Name your price, I’ll make it happen. No need for the theatrics, or the big story. You’ve got me hooked.”
I looked at the magician across from me, and I didn’t see the monster I’d been hunting for so many years. He just looked tired, hungry, and desperate. “It’s okay. Keep listening to the story, and pay close attention. It’ll all come together in the end.”
Mandini started to say something, then he nodded, closed his mouth, and gestured at me to continue.
“So, I’d been living for revenge for so long,” I said, “it ate up everything else. And one day, I realized the revenge wasn’t even what was driving me anymore. I’d been out there in the dark, finding things you wouldn’t believe. And I couldn’t stop searching. Curiosity, a hunger to know more. Or call it what it was: an addiction.”
“I’d mortgaged my life, my soul, gambled my entire existence on the hope that I could show you—make you feel—the pain of a life thrown away for nothing. Instead, I’d just followed in his footsteps.”
“That’s what I need to now. How’d you learn? Who taught you?”
“Are you sure you want to know? You cheated my father, and that set me on my road. He could have folded, cashed out a little lighter. But he decided to gamble. I did the same. And I lost even more. And it all started with you.”
Mandini leaned incrementally forward in his seat, his attention rapt. He looked worried, but it was the worry of a gambler who didn’t want to lose a big score. I imagined that same look on his face when he was cheating my father all those years ago. He locked his gaze with mine and nodded with a solemn intensity.
“I could tell you where to look,” I said. “A place to start. But you have to know, this magic, it’s just another kind of cheating. But the stakes are higher than you can believe.”
Mandini rolled his eyes. “I can handle myself. So, don’t worry about me. But why can’t you just show me yourself?”
“Because I’m in debt to people—to things—that you wouldn’t believe. In way over my head,” I said, nodding my head towards the glass door and the first dusky light of dawn. “When I go out there, I’m done. There are things waiting to swallow me whole. But if I help you, you won’t need me. I’ll have told my story, performed my magic. Curtain closed.”
I took a deep breath. All the pieces in place now. This wasn’t the revenge I’d pictured. I wouldn’t be around to see it. But I’d left redemption behind a long time ago. My journey ending here? It made sense, when I thought about it. Magic was all about circles. Ending at the beginning. Always a hard lesson to learn.
Mandini looked entirely unconcerned about my fate. His eyes were full of lust and hunger. Unsurprising, really. “So, you’ll help me?”
“Even after everything I’ve told you, you still want it?”
“You don’t know much about me if you need to ask,” Mandini said.
I gave him a final look, trying to lock this moment in my memory. This wasn’t the ending I’d been imagining for so long. But that’s the thing about magic. It rarely gives you exactly what you’re looking for.
Before Mandini had a chance to respond, I slapped both palms flat down on the table, on top of the pile of shredded playing card confetti. Just as quickly, I pulled back my hands, and the confetti was gone. In its place was the Four of Clubs. No coyote, no mandala, no evidence at all. Like nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.
Mandini stared at the card. I slid it over to my side and pulled out a ballpoint I’d swiped from the Magic Castle. In the blank space in the middle of the card, I wrote a single name, and the address of a certain club hidden in a dark alley just off the Jewelry District. “Tell them I sent you. That you want to learn. They’ll start you on the path.”
With trembling fingers, Mandini reached out and picked up the card. He held it gingerly in his palm and stared at it. His face was a kaleidoscope of emotions: shock, greed, and exaltation. The exact face a gambler made when scooping up the winnings from a big hand. He didn’t even look up as I slid out of the booth and stood up.
I pulled the twenty out of my wallet and set it on the table. I crossed the diner and pushed open the door, headed out into the dawn.
Outside, the sky was brightening, hinting at the morning to come. It had the feel of one of those rare mornings where the smog might not be quite so thick. Maybe I’d even be able to see the San Gabriels. It was easy to forget that the mountains were always there, lurking at the edges, just out of sight, like sharks in the murky deeps.