(Fiction) The Knife That Killed Albert Gallagher Twice

We walked for hours through someone else’s dark and anxious dreams, and he navigated it as only a spiritwalker can, a man trained since birth not only to battle evil spirits but also to retrieve the lost souls of the sick. We emerged some time later in a church across the Adriatic, in a small town in the Alps above the city of Milan. We gave the parish priest quite a fright as we stepped from the gap in a marble ensconcement at the back of the sepulcher. The clock tower in the square outside made it clear we had covered not only distance but time. It was then several hours earlier than when we had left. He had done it intentionally—to give us a head start. It was odd, I told him, to think that right then, the two of us were also standing in the grand hall before the High Arcane. Could we not go and alter events, I asked, and he said no, that it was impossible to exit the shadow realm at any point whatsoever. He explained that no matter which path we took from the church—train, automobile, helicopter—we would not be able to reach the Keep of Solomon one moment before we left, and so the paradox was always avoided.

“Such is the nature of space and time,” he said.

An older gentleman, a head shorter than me with long sideburns and a derby hat, shuffled by and made a face at our clothes, and again at Etude’s bare feet.

“I have heard that time is also money,” I said. “Perhaps you could find a way to render it so.” I lifted the legs of my cotton pants. “We need new clothes. We look like cultists in these outfits.”

“Really?” He looked down at his shirt. “I rather liked them.”

We were in Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps. Like most Italian towns, the three- and four-story buildings, all of a similar design, lined the cobbled streets on both sides without gaps, as if forming the walls of a maze whose paths were never straight. Every avenue bent slightly and at odd times seemingly for no reason other than to make sure you never quite knew where you were. It was a world unto itself and made to be so. It existed for the people who lived there. We found a quiet nook off a blind alley too narrow for cars to pass. There, after a brief meditation, Etude called upon the animals of the city, not just rats and pigeons but kestrels, blackbirds, red foxes, bright finches, mouse-sized bats, feral cats—even wall-climbing lizards and a handful of frogs who hopped out of gutters and from dark pipes that fell from the rooftops. He asked them if they knew of the shiny metals and bits of paper that the humans valued, and they said yes. He asked if they might bring them, and they agreed. They seemed quite eager, in fact, for no one had bothered to talk to them in a very, very long time.

A brown rat the size of a small dog was the first to reappear. It walked headfirst down a vertical drain pipe carrying something in its teeth. It dropped it on the ground near Etude’s bare feet. It was a silver ring, quite large and heavily tarnished, with swirling bands at the top that held in place a sapphire of at least ten karats. Etude bowed to the rat and introduced himself and me. The rat was a kind of wise man and he told my friend he had come as soon as he heard, for it was rare anymore for people to honor the old ways—the ways before cities and towns. He said that under this city many babies were starving, and Etude promised to knock over a rubbish bin near the river, which he did on our way out of town. The wise rat thanked him and left.

On and on it went. An animal appeared bearing a small treasure, something lost in the cracks and sewers, and asked an equally small favor of the shaman, which he happily obliged. Most of the requests were quite simple. A kestrel had some plastic netting wrapped around its feet and tail and asked that it be removed, which I was happy to do. She left us a single diamond earring. A mother cat with Gucci collar and name tag brought a snarling kitten, a child from a recent litter—a matted, angry little menace of a cub that her owners had discarded. The mother had rescued it and kept it in secret, but it bit her and refused to eat.

The young shaman wasted not a moment. He lifted the tiny terror by the scruff of its neck. It hissed and tried to bite him, but he merely moved his hands over it and spoke in a low voice. Even animals can be possessed, it seems. When the spirit was mesmerized, Etude passed his hand through the kitten’s body and brought it out in a closed fist. He whispered words to his fingers, then opened them and blew, and black ash scattered on the breeze. He returned the tiny kitten, now mewing plaintively to its mother, whose gave us her owner’s gold money clip, stuffed with neatly folded bills—so many, they could not be easily counted.

Before long, there was a line of animals stretching around the corner, and I felt like Etude and I were royalty, receiving gifts and entreaties from our noble subjects. We were polite to them, and they were polite to us. There was much bowing and speaking of ancient oaths. Soon, as word spread to the wilds that a true shaman had appeared in the city, all semblance of order was dropped. As their numbers grew, the animals took to frenzy, agitated to excitement by the mere chance to see the strange bald man who remembered the ancient treaties, when men and beasts had warred and become friends. Birds of all stripes and colors swooped into the alley and dropped prizes. Bullfrogs croaked and hopped laboriously forward amid a tangle of rats and mice and more than a few voles who scurried so quickly that it was very hard to see them. Each deposited before the feet of the shaman the shiny detritus of the city—metals and papers and strange cut rocks.

As the animals swarmed, the pile at Etude’s feet grew, and he raised his arms in thanks. And so he stood amid the chaos, hands high, like the barefoot conductor of a great pastoral symphony. And then, just like that, it was done. Etude brought his hands down and the animals scurried away in all directions, as if they forgot that they could speak and he could listen, and we were alone.

The pile we had amassed was nothing short of amazing. There were rings, bracelets, necklaces, loose gems and pearls, earrings, cash, and coins. Quite a bit of the jewelry was costume, of course, and amid the coins, I found several bottle caps, a penny slug, and some brass tokens to various laundromats and arcades. There was also a dog’s tag, three key chains (two with keys attached), and a ring fashioned from a nail. The birds had snagged a handful of restaurant receipts, presumably mistaking them for cash, including one bearing a freshly written phone number next to a hand-drawn heart. They had also pilfered someone’s grocery list and part of a newspaper crossword puzzle, all in Italian.

Even still, by the time the symphony reached it sudden climax, enough had been delivered to fill a small chest. It was a genuine treasure. I had never seen a treasure before. Etude knelt and thrust a hand into it and lifted a full fist. Gold fell from between his fingers and clinked on the cobblestones.

“Will this do?” he asked.

I nodded meekly.

It took us some time to gather and sort it all. The crown jewel was an emerald necklace that I was certain dated to the 17th century. There was also a casino chip worth ten million lire and a Roman-era coin that we would later sell for a sizable sum.

“This this looks old,” I said, raising another coin from the pile. I held it up.

It was about the size of a silver dollar and irregularly circular. The markings, as well as the faces that had been stamped onto both sides, were worn with age. Etude went pale when he saw it and cursed softly in his mother tongue, a language I rarely heard pass his lips.

It had been lost, we would discover, by an American GI during the liberation of Italy. His name was Albert Gallagher and he had wagered it in a card game against a fellow serviceman. Although no one knew it, Private Gallagher regularly cheated at cards using magic. In fact, he hadn’t lost a single game the entire war. Private Gallagher met his match, however, in a man from a different regiment, a mizzen from New Orleans named Paul Remi. Facing the prospect of losing everything, Private Gallagher played the penny. He was certain he couldn’t lose, for he knew there was no magic that could overturn it. But lose he did, to a seven-high straight, and after carrying that coin across the whole of North Africa and through seven near-death encounters, he watched it walk away in the pocket of the smiling Cajun, along with all his cash.

It was only later, after he was sober, that Private Gallagher realized the mizzen had cheated—but not with magic. Or at least, not only with magic. For Gallagher had also cheated with magic, which meant the mizzen had cheated with sleight of hand as well. He must have. There was no other explanation. Albert Gallagher was furious—furious that he had been beaten with parlor tricks, with the lowest form of false art, and when finally he found Corporal Remi, they quarreled and Private Gallagher was killed. He had already spent the Moirai penny, you see, and Fate makes no allowances for unfair play. In trying to take it back, to retrieve what he had spent, Gallagher’s luck reversed, and he slipped and fell on his own knife—the knife that killed him twice.

As it happened, the Albert Gallagher who died that day in Italy, the day the coin was ripped from a pocket and lost down a gutter, was not the real Albert Gallagher from Ames, Iowa. The real Private Gallagher, aged 20, had lost his parents and two brothers to various unfortunate circumstances, and when the war broke out, he felt that volunteering was the best way to honor their memory. However, before reporting for duty at an army base outside Mobile, Alabama, the young recruit thought he might see some of the country he was pledging his life to preserve. He hitched south and one night found himself playing a swell game of cards with some fellas in back of a service station. The men were smoking and drinking and shared stories of their lives. The young and inexperienced recruit let slip he was alone in the world—an innocent admission, but one that sealed his fate, for it meant there was no one alive who could identify him.

After the card game, Albert went to relieve himself by a tree, where one of the other players snuck up behind him and slit his throat with the knife. His body was buried in a bog, but not before his uniform and papers were taken. So it was the man who reported for duty in Mobile was not Albert Gallagher from Ames, Iowa, who knew nothing of magic, but one Wilbur Tuesday, aged 28, who was then wanted by the law in eight states.

To keep him safe in wartime, his teenage wife, Livonia, who loved the violent, reckless Wilbur as nothing else in the world, gave her husband a gift, something she had stolen from her mother. She gave her Wilbur a silver penny, which she had been instructed not to touch. She gave it to her husband along with similar instructions. He was never to spend that penny nor even let it fall from his person lest grave things happen. Of course, once Livonia’s mother, an old-timey witch from the hills of Tennessee, discovered it was missing, she had words with her daughter. The two fought, as mothers and daughters do—but also not as mothers and daughters do—and one of them wound up in the corn field.

Etude took the penny from my hands without a word.

rough cut from the fifth and final course of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes next year with Part Two.

cover image by Katherine Litveniko