Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it. Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life—or at least, she’s perfectly fine. She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.
Ivy Gamble is a liar.
When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister—without losing herself.
I never wanted to be magic.
That was Tabitha’s thing, not mine, and sometimes you just have to be fine with things the way they are. And I was fine with it.
“Liquid lunch?” The bartender cocked an eyebrow at me as he placed a dark, sweating bottle in front of me next to a chilled glass.
“Part of a balanced breakfast,” I replied mildly, decanting my beer into the glass. He gave me an easy smile, a you’re-funny smile that he probably used on everyone. Affirmation and illusion, bound up tighter than two snakes in the same egg.
But then, maybe he didn’t give that smile to everyone. Maybe he actually thought I was okay, for a lunchtime customer. Maybe I was just being a cynical asshole.
“I’m actually having kind of a terrible day, if I’m honest.” I said it quietly, half hoping he wouldn’t hear. Giving him a chance to ignore me. I leaned my elbows against the long reclaimed-wood bar. This wasn’t my usual bar—the place was new in the neighborhood, eminently forgettable in the grand scheme of gentrification. This bartender didn’t know my face, wouldn’t recognize me. Didn’t have to be nice to me now, or ever again. I’d come here telling myself I just wanted to exist while I drank my breakfast and digested everything that had come with the morning. I’d wanted to hide. But then the bartender gave me that you’re-clever smile, and I realized I had to tell someone. Just to have it all out in the world, somewhere other than my own head.
The bartender didn’t say anything. Maybe he hadn’t heard me at all. I studied the decor as if I didn’t care either way. Tiny pots with tinier succulents, weird art accents hanging above the bottles behind the bar. I couldn’t tell if I’d been there for happy hour before, or if I’d just been to a thousand places exactly like it. Places like that were springing up around Oakland by the score back then, every one a marker of the way the city was changing. It felt all-at-once, even though it had been brewing for years. Decades. Across the bay, San Francisco bled money like an unzipped artery. Those who had been privileged enough to have their buckets out to catch the spray drove back over the water to Oakland— from The City to The Town. They bumped aside people who had been living in these neighborhoods for generations, and they tore down storefronts, and they built brunch pubs with wood reclaimed from the houses they were remodeling.
It was shitty and it was destructive and it was perfect, because I could slip onto a barstool and pretend I had a place to go. Just for a few hours at a time. Something familiar. Bars with driftwood behind the bottles instead of mirrors.
“Tell me about it?” The bartender was in front of me again, holding a bucket of limes. He started slicing them, looking back and forth between me and the knife.
“Shouldn’t your barback be doing that?” I asked, watching him slowly quarter a lime.
“He’s too hungover to function,” the bartender said, rolling his eyes. “So what’s up with your day?”
I took a pull of my stout—it was thick as a milkshake, and it hit my belly like a hug. “Well,” I said. “I got mugged.”
“Sucks,” he replied, and I tipped my drink toward him in a cheers-to-sucks gesture.
“And then this woman came into my office. She wants to hire me for a case. A big one. It’ll mean hiring someone to handle all the other active cases I’ve got going.” The other active cases were small potatoes—two disability claims, three cheating spouses, one spouse who wasn’t cheating after all but whose husband couldn’t believe that she had really taken up pottery. She was pretty good at it too. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to hire help; when the workload got too intense, I occasionally subcontracted to other, less-established outfits in the area. I’d return the favor for them someday, if they ever needed someone to do a little heavy lifting. My remote assistant would arrange the logistics—the subcontractors, the paperwork, the payments, the letters to clients. No problem.
“Sure,” the bartender said, and bless him, he didn’t care enough to ask a single clarifying question. He didn’t want to know who I was, where I worked. He just wanted some noise to make the limes less boring. It was perfect.
“So, the woman who was in the office this morning. She’s the headmaster at the school where my sister teaches.”
“It’s a private school. Some kids board there, some don’t. It’s down by Sunol, in the hills. The Osthorne Academy for Young Mages.”
He nodded, didn’t flinch at the word “mages.” I tapped my fingers on the table, one-two-three-four. This guy wasn’t half listening to me. I wasn’t anybody to him—just some freelancer drinking beer in the middle of the day and watching him cut a few dozen limes.
So I told him. I told him everything that I knew about the case, and about Osthorne. Halfway through the story, he looked up at me, opened his mouth to say something. Closed it again and went back to the limes, but a stillness had entered his movements—he was listening now, trying to decide if I was crazy. I took a long, slow sip of my beer, made a project of setting my glass down exactly within the condensation ring it’d left on the table.
“But magic isn’t real,” he said after a moment.
“It—of course not. I would have heard of it. Everyone would have heard of it.” His eyes were laughing now, waiting for the punch line. He had paused with the tip of the knife in the rind of a runty lime, and he waited for me to answer before pushing it the rest of the way through.
I tried to feel like I was talking to a friend, like this was a real conversation that wouldn’t just turn into a weird story he told at the end of his shift. I tried not to feel temporary. Just for a few seconds. But trying not to feel something isn’t the same as not feeling it, and I knew it was just a matter of time before I was alone again.
That’s how life goes. People don’t stick.
“Haven’t you heard of it, though?”
He shook his head, used the knife’s edge to scrape lime pulp off the edge of his cutting board. “But that’s different. That’s like… fiction. Or magicians. Illusionists. Or whatever.”
“It’s not quite like that.” I needed him to believe me. Not that it mattered. I would never see him again. Let him think I was crazy. It didn’t matter. “But it is real. There are people—a lot of people—who can do magic. Real magic. My sister is one of them. So’s that woman who was in my office this morning. They’re mages. They do magic.” I looked at him, tried to beam understanding into his brain. “They are magic.” I wasn’t sure what I was saying anymore—the look on his face was making me lose track of things. He didn’t believe me. This was it: he was going to give me a tight smile and walk away and later he would tell his friends about the lunatic who came into his bar to talk about magic.
But then he didn’t walk away. He looked at me, and he didn’t say anything, and I realized that he was waiting.
I took another drink, tried to get my thoughts in order. Forward. “So. There was a death on campus, in the school library.”
“Your sister’s school.”
“Yeah. It’s—she works there. We don’t talk.”
He nodded, and I couldn’t tell if he believed me or had decided to just go with it. I couldn’t tell which would be better. “And she’s a… a witch?”
“A mage,” I answered. “We don’t call them witches. Or wizards—they hate that.”
“Are you one too?”
“Nope. Not me.”
It wasn’t like a punch to the gut, not anymore. Not after so many years. More like a sneeze the day after too many sit-ups, or the seat belt tightening after a too-fast stop, or a sudden wave of nausea at the tail end of a hangover.
I shrugged. “Who knows?” I took a long, hard pull of my drink. When I set the glass down it clinked against the table too loudly. “I’m not magic. I’m just… not. And she is. She went to a magic school and I went to… to regular school.”
He wiped his hands on a towel—he was already halfway through the limes—and opened a fresh beer, the same one I’d been drinking. He set it in front of me, and I didn’t pretend to hesitate before taking a sip right from the bottle. “She went to Oxthorne?”
“Osthorne, and no,” I answered, grateful to get away from the why-not-you. “She went to a place called Headley. It was a boarding school up near Portland. Prestigious as hell. I think she was glad to get away from home.” Home had been Woodland, near Sacramento, small and hot and stucco, strip malls and air-conditioned minivans. We had both hated it in that way some kids are just required to hate their hometowns, spent all of our time fantasizing about how we’d get out of there. And then she did. And then, a couple of years later, so did I.
“So you guys aren’t close?”
I frowned. “I don’t talk to her if I can help it. And most of the time I can help it.”
“Okay,” he said, and I could see him deciding to give me a reprieve. “So how does it work? Magic.”
I shook my head, relieved. “Fuck if I know. I guess you have to be magic to understand it. Every time I tried to ask Tabitha when we were kids, she would make an analogy that’s like… ‘imagine if your heartbeat was a cloud and you could make it rain whenever you had a nightmare,’ or ‘imagine you’re a candle, and your wick is made of glass,’ or something. I’m no good at koans.”
“Well, what’s it look like?” He was in a groove, having fun, getting me to spin him a story. He wanted me to tell him about this. Not that it mattered if a bartender wanted to talk to me—just, it was nice, realizing that he might be disappointed if I left.
“Anything.” I pointed at one of the lime slices. “If I was a mage, I could probably make that blossom, or like… turn orange, or grow a fish tail.”
“What do you mean? Lots of people are—”
“Who that I’ve heard of? Who’s the most famous magic person in history?”
“Winston Churchill.” I didn’t miss a beat, and felt oddly proud of myself for it.
“Really,” I answered over the top of my beer bottle. “He was a racist murderous fuck, but he was magic as all get-out.”
The bartender gave me a skeptical eyebrow. “But if he was magic, why didn’t he—I don’t know. Strike Hitler with lightning or something?”
“Reasons, probably?” I shrugged. “Tabitha could tell you, but the explanation would involve a whole set of theories and committees and treaties you’ve never heard of, and by the end of the explanation you’d be so bored you’d be gouging your own eyes out to stay awake. Trust me, it’s not interesting.”
“Okay.” He chewed on his lip. He was trying to think of a way to keep this thing from losing steam. “Okay. So. How do you know if you’re magic, then?”
I thought about it, picking at the label on my beer bottle. “I guess you just… you do magic, and then you know. Lots of kids keep their magic a secret, because they know they’re not supposed to be able to do things. Like, Tabitha found out when she was little, because she kept changing another girl’s markers into butter.”
He squinted at the lime in his hand. “What?”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “I mean, there were other things too, but this was the first obvious one. She didn’t like this other girl because I guess the other girl wouldn’t share stickers? So she turned all the girl’s markers into butter.” I shook my head. “The teacher figured out what was going on and sent a note home, and my parents came into the school, and the teacher said that Tabitha was magic. She said that Tabby had probably been doing stuff like this for years, but that most magic kids don’t get caught until they have a mage for a teacher. So anyway, she gave my mom and dad a pamphlet and the number of a special tutor who could help Tabitha out. And then…” I fluttered my fingers. “That was that. So I guess that’s how you find out. You just do magic, and then someone tells you that you’re magic.”
“So your parents know about it.”
Again, that little snag in my gut. “Dad does. Mom did, before she died. It’s okay,” I said, preemptively answering the oh-god-what-land-mine-have-I-stepped-on panic in his face. “I mean, it’s not okay, but it’s fine. It was a long time ago.”
The bartender looked at me with way too much sincerity. “I’m sorry,” he said, and I wanted to spit because I hate that. I hate it when people say that.
“It’s fine, really. It happened when I was in high school. Tabitha was at Headley and I was at home.” I anticipated the questions he was waiting to ask, the questions everyone always asks. The questions that I stopped wanting to answer the moment they became questions I could answer. The questions that made me into a person who didn’t ever talk about my past. “It was cancer. In her stomach. Or at least, I guess that’s where it started.”
That’s all he needed to know.
He didn’t need to know about how we hadn’t realized anything was wrong for a while, when she was just tired. And then she started to have pain in her neck, and she went to the doctor and they found cancer. It was everywhere by then. It was fast. She was sick for a month, and then she stopped treatment, and then she died a month later. He didn’t need to know that part. “It was sad, or whatever. But it was a long time ago. I’m okay. Everyone’s okay.”
Well. Sort of okay. I had almost failed out of high school— graduated by the grace of an iron-fisted guidance counselor who just wanted to get a diploma in my hands and get me out, for Mom’s sake. For the sake of her memory. The day top-of-her-class Tabitha had come home from Headley for the funeral, her eyes de-puffed with the help of some charm she’d learned in the dorms there, I’d said hello without hugging her. After that, the only time I hugged her was for Dad and his camera, and even then, the camera hadn’t been pointed at us for five years or so. And Dad didn’t notice the time passing because he’d lost the person he had planned his entire life around.
But other than that, everyone was okay.
The bartender sliced the last lime, grabbed the empty bucket. “I’ll be right back, okay?” He pointed at me and smiled. “I’ve got lemons to do, too.”
I smiled back and gave him a thumbs-up. As soon as he was out of sight, I downed what was left of my beer and slid off the barstool. I tucked a few bills under the empty bottle—enough to cover the bill, plus a decent tip. I walked out fast, furious at myself. I’d said too much. He’d gotten that look on his face, that pity look. I was supposed to disappear in that bar. Another round, and he’d be asking my name, giving me advice. Acting like he knew me.
I walked back to my office, just off the edge of sober and just past angry. Just drunk enough to dig into my pocket for my phone, open a social media app I never used. In my dad’s profile picture, he was standing on a beach with his arm around a woman I didn’t recognize.
I scrolled back through his pictures, through a few rounds of barbecues and birthday dinners with friends I’d never met. I kept going, back through years of posts until I found a photo with Tabitha and me both in it. In the photo, Tabitha had her arms wrapped around me. We were smiling in front of a Christmas tree—it was a for-the-camera smile, a for-Dad smile. He took a picture of us every year, because when we were little Mom had taken a picture every year. Until one year she wasn’t there anymore, and we were all looking at each other in front of the Christmas tree, wondering how we were supposed to celebrate her favorite holiday.
In the picture we wore coordinating sweaters, reindeer and snowflakes and little knit x’s. It was from a few years before we stopped talking altogether—Tabitha’s bangs attested to that—but in the shot, my short black hair was already threaded with premature strands of gray. My scattering of freckles was cut through with the first few fine lines, laughter around the eyes and frown between the brows. We shared a sharp nose—nothing you’d call “aquiline,” but certainly nothing you’d call “pert,” either. She was a little slimmer than me. You could already see the wages of a PI’s life on my body and in the lines of my face: too much booze, too many late-night stakeouts with fast-food wrappers littering the floor of the car. No cigarettes—I’d quit the second I left home, since I’d only been smoking them to piss Dad off—but I looked like a smoker. I looked tired.
Tabitha shone in the photo, like she did in every photo. Her long hair—used to be plain old “dark brown,” but after she came back from school it was something else, something richer like chestnut or umber or ocher—hung in soft waves, and her large brown eyes were the same as mine but more somehow, more sparkling, more alive. Better. Not a freckle on her, and the only lines were laugh lines, and there were exactly the right amount of them. She was using all the tricks that used to drive me to it’s-not-fair shouting back when we were teenagers. Back when the worst thing in my life was Tabitha, and the fact that she had come home from magic school knowing how to erase the hated freckles—but wouldn’t do mine.
And now I was going to try to solve a murder at a place that was full of kids like that. Kids who were just like the person my sister had become while she was gone. I was going to take the case—I’d been trying to tell myself that I was conflicted about it, but really I was just getting ready to swallow a lot of bad medicine in order to do the job.
Because I had to do this job. It was good money, but more than that, it was a murder case. It was real detective work, something more than just some paunchy forty-nine-year-old accountant revving his secretary’s engine in the Ramada near the freeway. I’d been following paunchy accountants for the better part of fourteen years. It’s what I was good at.
But this? A real murder case? This was the kind of thing that private detectives didn’t do anymore. It was what had made me get my PI license in the first place—the possibility that I might get to do something big and real, something nobody else could do. I didn’t know the first thing about solving a murder, but this was my chance to find out if I could really do it. If I could be a real detective, instead of a halfway-there failure. If this part of my life could be different from all the other parts, all the parts where I was only ever almost enough.
I won’t try to pinpoint the first lie I told myself over the course of this case. That’s not a useful thread to pull on. The point is, I really thought I was going to do things right this time. I wasn’t going to fuck it up and lose everything. That’s what I told myself as I stared at the old picture of me and Tabitha.
This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.
Excerpted from Magic for Liars, copyright © 2019 by Sarah Gailey.