"We are so doomed," Josie announced the minute we were alone in the library. "I'm still three chapters from finishing all the lessons, and Gra'ma confiscated the book, and now Garbanzo is moving away on Monday!"
"Maybe you could go to the meeting, and ask Garbanzo there?" I suggested.
"It's no good," Josie protested. "The annual meeting is this incredibly big deal. To even get invited you have to register months in advance."
"Here, look," she said, pulling a giant scrapbook down from a shelf.
"Gra'ma saved her invitations from every year she's gone. See, the postmarks are all from February, even though the meeting isn't till May."
The invitations looked like regular postcards made from colored cardboard. All they said was "Admit one magical person, The Annual Meeting of Magical Persons." They also listed the year and were stamped with a gold foil picture of Majik the Magpie, the official mascot of the Society of Magical Persons.
"Actually, the invitation itself is pretty basic," she noticed. "We could just change the year and photocopy it at the school library, if only we knew what color paper they were going to print them on this year."
"The photocopier couldn't do the official stamp, though," I pointed out.
"Oh, yeah," whatever scheme Josie had been cooking up was quickly deflated.
"Hold on," I said. "What did your grandmother use to sign that copy of The Craft of Illusion?"
Josie's eyes lit up. She sprang to the desk, dumped out a jar of pens and rummaged through the pile excitedly until she found J.P.'s metallic gold pen.
"If only we knew someone who could draw," Josie said with a slow grin.
"Gra'ma, what's the best trick ever?" Josie asked with badly faked nonchalance.
They were in the living room, and I was watching from behind the secret painting.
J.P. lowered the book she had been reading (The Prime of Life, by Simone De Beauvoir) and looked at Josie over her glasses.
"I suppose that's a matter of taste," she answered.
"Yeah, but, what's the trick most likely to impress someone?" Josie asked. "Like say you wanted to impress Garbanzo The Splendiferous, for instance. What trick would he really like?"
J.P. placed a bookmark in her book and put it down.
"Is there some special reason you're interested in Garbanzo's taste in stagecraft?" she asked.
"Uh... nope," she said unconvincingly. "Just wondering."
"Well, everyone has different preferences. Garbanzo has always been partial to sawing people in half."
Josie frowned. "Sawing people in half? That's pretty hard."
Gra'ma went back to reading her book. "That's what he likes about it," she said. "The challenge of making it look real."
"Is he much for the cloudbusting trick?" Josie asked.
J.P. seemed to be paying more attention to her book than Josie. "Oh, that dusty thing? No, he taught me that himself. Garbanzo is famously bored by his own tricks."
"Oh," Josie said.
"No, if you want to impress Garbanzo, it's got to be the old saw-the-assistant-in-half."
"Great, thanks," Josie said as she slunk out of the room.
As soon as Josie had left, J.P. ran over to the doorway to make sure she had really gone. Then she picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"It's me," she whispered. "You were right."
She nodded a few times as the other person spoke. "Uh-huh," she said. "Okay."
"Just tell me what you need to know." she said finally.
The other person spoke for a minute.
"Polar bears," J.P. said in a hushed voice.
She thought for a moment, then said "Muffin." Finally she thanked whoever she was speaking to and replaced the phone in the cradle.
Then J.P. looked me right in the eye. Right through the one-way glass, right through the trick painting. She put her finger to her lips as if to say "shh!" and winked.
Three days later, we caught a bus to Sortilege, the city where the big annual meeting was to take place. We didn't enter the Civic Center right away, though. First we "cased" the joint, which is an overly-impressive-sounding word for lying in the dirt and spying on people. Josie even started humming "Mission Impossible" again, till I pointed out that we didn't want anyone to realize we were in the bushes.
From where we were hiding we could see everyone as they went by. Even from a distance we could see they were all holding pink postcards. A policeman was checking them into the building in the distance.
Mei Xing was there, of course, as Assistant Grand Vizier. And Max Kooky, the magician with the red hair like a rhododendron bush. He came with all the other students from J.P.'s class. Then the Mayor of Sortilege, which made me realize just how big a deal this was. Then some reporters, then Aunt Leslie and J.P. Aunt Leslie wore the slinkiest black dress I ever saw on any woman over 25 -- the same dress she wore in that poster in their living room. J.P. wore a leather bomber jacket, goggles, her regular white scarf, and a WW II Nagasaki fighter pilot helmet. They arrived on a motorcycle with a sidecar.
As soon as they had gone in Josie nudged me to stand, which wasn't easy since we were both wearing huge backpacks. We wiped the dirt off ourselves and hurried up to the registration desk, which was just closing up.
To our surprise the man working at the desk was Skip Droober. He was drinking from a thermos and closing up a metal cash box.
"Hi!" Josie had a way of appearing in front of you as if from nowhere. Officer Droober was so surprised he spluttered whatever he was drinking all over the registration table.
"Josie," he said angrily. He looked as though he was about to yell at her, then it seemed as if he remembered some reason to be nice because he smiled instead.
"What can I do for you?" he asked brightly.
"We're here for the meeting," Josie said, pointing to the pink invitation she had pinned to her shirt.
Officer Droober leaned over to get a good look at her invitation. "That certainly looks like an invitation," he said.
Josie blushed. "Well, of course," she said. "Um... why wouldn't it...?"
"Well, it's just that I don't see you on the invitation list," Officer Droober said, pointing at a clipboard on the table.
Josie shot me a look.
"Uh... say, Officer Droober," I improvised. "Have I ever shown you one of my paintings?"
Officer Droober shook his head. "Not since that piece you did called The Pane of Defeet, which showed a zombie in a black leather jacket who had been cheating at kickball being thrown barefoot through a pane of solid glass." He chuckled to himself. "The zombie looked familiar, somehow."
"That wasn't just any zombie," Josie told him.
"Oh? Who was it?" He asked.
"No one you know," I answered quickly. "Anyway, look at what I've been working on since Aunt Leslie taught me how to draw people."
I took the painting from Josie's backpack and unrolled it.
"That looks just like you!" Officer Droober said, genuinely impressed. "Why are you all curled up in a box?"
"Um... come look at it over here, where the light is better," I suggested.
"What's wrong with the light here?" he asked. I've noticed that once a policeman sits down it isn't easy getting him up again. I shot Josie a look meaning "Help!"
"Please," Josie said, taking Officer Droober by the elbow and hustling him out of his seat. "Are you questioning the artiste? Light is her medium. Take her word for it."
Officer Droober allowed me to lead him a few feet away, and I handed him the painting so he could get a really good look. "This does look just like you," he agreed.
"Anyway," Josie said, and cleared her throat.
"Right, anyway," I repeated. "We really should be getting inside." I took the painting from him and rolled it up again.
Officer Droober fell back into his seat. "Well, like I told you before, you're not on the..."
"Well I'll be. Here you are."
He looked right at Josie.
"I wonder why I didn't notice before," he said in an odd tone of voice. "Your names really stand out, seeing as they're in a different color ink than all the other names."
He looked as though he was about to accuse Josie of scribbling our names down when his back was turned, but then he got that remembering-something-important look again.
"Say, before you go in -- my wife wanted me to thank you for curing her cystic fibrosis. She won't say how you did it, but it hasn't bothered her since the last time you came over. 'Magic,' she told me."
Josie blushed as she stuffed the painting back into her pack.
"Hey, by the way, can I offer you some tea?" Officer Droober asked, holding up his thermos.
Josie looked at me and rolled her eyes.
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