John Dillinger and the Blind Magician20 min read
Argyle Paendragon sat at the bar of a speakeasy that was unlike any other he knew of in Chicago. The Blind Magician was situated just down an alleyway alongside the Biograph Theater behind a door hidden by a complex camouflaging charm and guarded by a brute no one wanted to trifle with. The old wizard had been coming here nearly every night since the place opened back in ’26, but tonight he was meeting someone, and according to the message he’d received an hour ago, it was urgent.
He ordered a sidecar from Jonesy behind the bar, and he was just lighting his pipe when John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One, took the stool beside him.
“Right on time,” Argyle said.
“Yeah, well, bank robbers are sticklers for punctuality. As you know.”
“Indeed I do.”
Dillinger had a woman on each arm. One was a handsome brunette in a white blouse and a skirt that was either red or orange. Argyle couldn’t quite tell in the dim light. She didn’t seem particularly thrilled to be there, judging by the way her eyes darted around like she expected someone to turn her into a frog—a legitimate enough worry in a place like the Blind Magician, where the magic could be as unpredictable as the bootlegged gin. The other girl was a blonde with prominent cheekbones and soft eyes. She seemed perfectly at home in the joint, and Argyle assumed she was the bank robber’s latest girlfriend. Dillinger himself looked worse for the wear, like the rigors of the fugitive life had finally caught up to him and taken a bite. He was scrawny and pale with a thin black mustache over his lip like a line of charcoal, but his eyes still had the mirthful spark of a man who might decide to pull out his gun and paint the wall with someone’s brains before robbing the till just for the fun of it.
According to the papers, a big gun fight just went down between the feds, Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson at the Little Bohemia Lodge up in Wisconsin, and Dillinger’s previous girlfriend—Billie something–or–other—was now in prison. A few people died, including some innocent guests at the resort who got caught in the crossfire. Bodies were stacking up fast and putting a bad taste in the public’s mouth, and it was only going to get worse as Melvin Purvis and his merry band of G–men fought to put an end to Dillinger’s reign of terror. Argyle supposed Dillinger would give in someday. When he was dead.
“I trust you didn’t have any problem finding the place,” Argyle said.
“I know this city like the back of my hand.” Dillinger gathered the two women closer so he could introduce them. “This is my girl, Peggy,” he said of the blonde. “And this is a friend, Anna Sage. Ladies, this is Argyle Paendragon, the best damn wizard in the world. Saved my life once. Ain’t that a funny name? Paendragon. Like something out of a King Arthur story.”
“Just call me Argyle.”
Anna Sage, the woman in red (or orange), extended her hand and Argyle gave it a gentle squeeze. “It is pleasure to meet you,” she said. Her accent was thick with Romania, or possibly Hungary.
“Same to you, Miss Sage. That is one of my favorite herbs, by the way.” He next turned his eyes to Peggy, who only smiled and gave a meek wave.
Dillinger addressed the women. “Grab a seat at one of the tables close to the stage and wait for the magic show to start. The men need to have a little talk.”
Anna didn’t look too keen on that idea. Her eyes darted toward the door and back again. “But we are missing our movie.”
Dillinger’s grin was as thin as his mustache. “This show’s better than any movie you’ll see. Now go sit down.” His last words were firm.
Anna didn’t look convinced, but she gave in when Peggy tugged her arm. “Come on, Anna. It’ll be neat. Let the boys talk.”
Once the two women were gone, Argyle turned back to face the bar. “Can I roll you a cigarette? Order you a drink?”
Dillinger shook his head. “No thanks. Only bad habits I got are women and robbing banks.” He pointed to a bowl of peanuts sitting nearby. “Those aren’t gonna make me grow wings or anything are they?”
Argyle smiled. “No. They’re just regular old peanuts.” They were sprinkled with a mild herbal sedative to make people a little more serene during the show, but he didn’t see any reason to reveal that. Dillinger looked like someone who needed to relax a little. He watched the man scoop up a handful and start munching.
“What can I do for you tonight? Are you pulling a job?”
Dillinger shook his head. “Nothing like that. Truth is, I’m looking to get out of the business altogether, and I think you’re the man who can help me do that.”
That wasn’t what Argyle was prepared to hear. In all the years he’d been aiding and abetting thieves in their wicked deeds, his millennia of morals softening like butter in a warm room, no gangster had ever asked him for help getting out; they only wanted to dig in deeper. “What did you have in mind? I can’t make you disappear, but I could change your face, and better than one of those plastic surgery butchers you saw a few years back.”
Dillinger grinned. “That’s close to what I had in mind, but I’m looking for something a little more advanced.” He glanced over his shoulder to where the two women were sitting at a table left of the stage. Peggy was watching the band and sipping on a martini while Anna sat with her back as straight as an ironing board, clutching her purse and throwing furtive glances around the room. Occasionally she would lean down and say something to Peggy and the other woman would look over at them.
“I’ll tell you something. That Anna is one vindictive bitch,” Dillinger said.
“She sold me out. Feds were gonna have her deported back to Romania because she runs a bunch of whorehouses over here. Thinks they’ll stop the deportation if she hands me over first. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell her what she wants to hear and ship her back home anyway, but you couldn’t convince her of that.”
Ah, Romania it was. Argyle started stroking the air where his long beard used to be. He’d cut it short to better blend in with modern society, but hundreds of years of habit died slow. “How do you know all this?”
“Look, I just know, okay? More grapevines run through this town than Napa, and I’m sitting at the very top of the bunch. She ain’t a nice lady.”
Argyle wondered if he was talking to the same John Dillinger who had shot countless cops and federal agents on bank heists and jailbreaks, the reckless mad man terrorizing America and painting the countryside red with the blood of innocents in his quest to gain more riches. There was that man, and there was this man, beaten into submission by an aging Romanian madam. It was obvious Dillinger was tired. Maybe somewhere deep down, he was an ordinary guy who wanted to settle down and live quietly. But ordinary guys didn’t rob banks and shoot people, either.
“Tell me more about what you want,” Argyle said. “Keep in mind the laws have made wizards capable of only so much. I might not be able to do what you’re asking.”
“I get that, but here’s the thing. When I step outside that door tonight, I’m going to have a whole team of G–men coming after me. They’re waiting out there right now. I spotted a pair following me here.” He put his hand on Argyle’s shoulder and grinned. “Pipe down, magic man. I came in through a passage in the Biograph. The cops ain’t gonna find out about this place on my watch. They think I’m watching Manhattan Melodrama.”
“Thank you for your discretion.”
“No need to thank me. It benefits us both. Now, I need someone else, not me, to walk out of the Biograph when Manhattan Melodrama ends. But it’s not enough for him to look like me. He needs to be me, and he has to be convincing, too, because whether the feds shoot me down or take me in, they need to believe they got their man. Once the decoy’s gone, you can change my face. And this all needs to happen because a man named Jimmy Lawrence has a train ticket to San Francisco and he needs to be at Union Station by midnight.” He picked up Argyle’s cocktail, gave it a sip, and twitched a little. “That is, if all goes like I hope it will.”
Argyle didn’t know how to break it to the man easily, but the request was impossible, even with unlimited magic at his disposal. He could summon a decoy of sorts, but it wouldn’t even pass the standards of a simple touch, let alone a post–mortem examination. It would essentially be a ghost. There was something else niggling at him, too, and broaching that was going to be a little more delicate.
“John, what you’re asking is out of any wizard’s reach. Not just magically, but ethically. If I made a living and breathing copy of you, it’s still a person. You’re talking about creating another man specifically to sacrifice his life for you.”
Dillinger’s face was a blank. “But he’s not another man. He would just be another version of me.”
“Except it won’t be you. You are you. This other person will look like you, but he would still be flesh and blood. And you would be murdering him.”
Dillinger didn’t say anything. The issue was clearly lost on the man, and why wouldn’t it be? Robbery was his bread, but murder was his butter. Argyle decided not to press that angle any further. “Look, we may be able to come up with some sort of cloaking mechanism or perhaps another kind of ruse for the cops while you slip away. Make them chase a shadow. There are myriad options.”
“No!” Dillinger slapped the bar. Jonesy the bartender looked over from where he was giving Godric Hearthstone another refill. Hearthstone was a wizened old tosspot who was rarely sober these days. Dillinger lowered his voice. “Those are just bandages on a bullet wound and you know it. They’ll never stop coming after me if they think I’m alive. Hoover will bankrupt this nation sending his goons to sniff out every shady patch of this country, killing who knows how many more women and children in the process. They’re more ruthless than me, if you want the God’s honest. If an innocent gets caught in my bullets, I’m a monster. They do the same and they’re heroes!”
Argyle couldn’t quite tell if Dillinger was being honest or engaging in theatrics to sell his point. Either way, he had a point. The longer he remained a fugitive, the more people would die. The man was like an aggressive cancer that had to be squashed. But could Dillinger walk the straight path? Men like him had a bug in their heads that no magic could touch. Occasionally it slept, but it wasn’t long before it woke up and started begging for action. Argyle knew that bug well. He was no Dillinger. He didn’t have a taste for murder and mayhem, but he couldn’t deny the excitement of all the years of living on the other side of the law. It was a rush going against the established order of things, and if he managed to get himself over to Europe, where he could walk free of his Prohibition bonds, he would face a dilemma. Return to the light or continue in the dimmer area between the two extremes. Argyle had an inkling where he’d end up.
“How do I know you won’t just form yourself a West Coast gang of bandits and start making trouble out there?”
Dillinger frowned. “That ain’t nothing to you, Argyle. You’re getting paid, ain’t ya?”
“You may know all there is to know about robbing banks, but you don’t know a thing about my art, Mr. Dillinger. I don’t like throwing magic away anymore than you would enjoy setting fire to a pile of money. If you’re going to waste my efforts by becoming a fugitive again, we can part ways right now.”
Dillinger’s face flushed red and Argyle felt the energy between them chill a bit, but he didn’t drop his gaze. He wasn’t afraid, but he wanted to avoid making a scene, and any sort of wavering on his part would do just that.
After a moment, Dillinger relaxed. “Look, I only ever wanted enough money to live comfortably and have no worries. That stuff in the papers about me being some big criminal mastermind is theater to sell more papers.” Argyle didn’t think that was all Dillinger was. He knew the man’s long and violent history, but he didn’t interrupt. “First time I went away to prison was for stealing fifty bucks from a grocery store so I could eat because no one would hire me. I was sentenced to fifteen years and did nine. The stuff I done after that, robbing banks? I learned it all inside. That’s where all crooks learn the tricks of the trade. I was the meanest son of a bitch who ever walked out of a cell because I was so angry with the world, but I wasn’t ever greedy like Capone or Bugs Moran. I had a few wild oats and I sowed them. Did some bad things, sure, but it got way outta hand. I just want out of the spotlight. Like you.”
Argyle listened for the cadences of a prepared speech, and heard none. It proved nothing, of course. Dillinger was good at acting on his feet. Meanwhile, the crowd behind them was cheering over a disappearing bird trick. Even Anna Sage was clapping. Argyle then noticed Godric Hearthstone looking at Dillinger with speculation in his rheumy eyes. And maybe that was good, because Argyle had an idea. He waved the man down. Dillinger glanced over at the doddering wizard with the patchy white beard heading toward them. “Who the hell is he?”
“An old friend.” That was an exaggeration. “Godric, say hello to John Dillinger.”
Godric held out his hand. “How do you do, Mr. Dillinger? Or should I say Jimmy Lawrence?” He tipped Dillinger a knowing wink.
Dillinger’s face turned stormy and he started to reach into his pocket where undoubtedly he was storing a piece. “I don’t like surprises, Argyle. You should know that.” The robber was heating up and Argyle rushed to put out the fire before bullets started flying.
“Calm down, John. He’s a good fellow. Likely he was just eavesdropping. A simple enough charm, isn’t that right, Godric?”
The other wizard flushed a deep purple. “My apologies. Folks ain’t much for conversation in this place, at least with the likes o’ me. I heard most of it naturally enough, though. Always had good ears, so I did.”
Dillinger relaxed a little. “Look, time’s wasting. Manhattan Melodrama ain’t gonna last forever. Can you help me or not?”
Argyle was about to ask Godric if he knew of any helpful decoy spells when the other wizard put his hand on Dillinger’s shoulder and muttered something under his breath. Argyle blinked and suddenly he was looking at two John Dillingers, identical right down to the mustache, clothing, and the bad surgery scars. Panicked, Argyle glanced around the room. No one else was paying them any mind, except Jonesy behind the bar whose mouth was hanging open like a trap door. Everyone else was enrapt with the man on stage throwing enchanted blades of light at a half–naked woman.
Dillinger touched his own wonder–filled face and then Godric’s. “It’s like a carbon copy!”
“It’s better than that,” Godric said. “I’m you right down to the fingerprints and the blood in my veins.”
Argyle was still in shock. In all his years, he had never seen such a wondrous display of talent. “How in the world did you manage that, Godric?”
“It’s a knot I’ve been worrying at for awhile,” he said. Even his voice was a perfect match for Dillinger’s. “Didn’t know it would actually work till I tried it, though. Glad it did.”
Dillinger laughed. “For your sake, I’m glad it did too.”
“Well it’s not like I ain’t gonna die in a few minutes, right? This calls for a celebration.” Godric raised his hand to Jonesy. “A round of your best whiskey for the three of us.” The bartender almost needed to be told twice, but he eventually got moving. His hand shook a little as he poured, but like a true professional, he didn’t spill a drop.
A cloak of unease fell over Argyle’s heart. Why was Godric offering himself up so easily? The old wizard had obviously been in his cups for quite some time and he had few prospects. The only thing keeping him in coin was performing the occasional magic show for the daytime crowd, but there wasn’t a whole lot of action or pay, and he was usually drunk by sundown. But was this really how Godric wanted to go down? As a patsy for a gangster? The whole thing was tragic, but Argyle seemed to be the only one troubled by any of it as the two identical men beside him clinked glasses and guzzled down their drinks like a couple of sailors on liberty.
Dillinger slammed down his glass. “Godric, I feel like I should be paying you instead of Argyle here, but I guess you’re not gonna have much use for money where you’re going.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope fat with money. “You got a relative or something Argyle here can send half of this to?”
Godric shook his head. “No need. You’re the one doing me the favor, Mr. Dillinger. Believe me. I’ve been waiting years for an opportunity like this.”
“If you say so,” Dillinger said. He handed Argyle the envelope. “There’s two grand in there. Don’t spend it all in one place.”
That was more money than Argyle had ever received for a job. Combined with what he had saved up, it was enough to get him passage out of the country and have his bonds removed, with enough left over to avoid work for a couple years. But not even this sudden windfall could set his heart right on this. It was ironic he should feel this way given how much wrong he’d been party to throughout his life, especially in the last five or so years, but this crossed a threshold. And was he relieved to find he still had a bit of a moral center left? Perhaps.
“Look, Godric, we don’t have to do it like this. You’ve had a rough couple years, but you’ll die out there. Those agents will look for any reason in the world to shoot to kill. You know that, right?”
Dillinger cut in. “Hey, the deal is done here. It’s a little late, and frankly offensive, to renege after the money’s been handed over. The old man made his choice.”
Argyle slapped the envelope back down on the bar in front of Dillinger. “Keep it. I’m not going to take hush money while you let some old drunk kill himself for you. This is insanity!”
Godric grabbed Argyle’s wrist. He looked weak, but his grip was like hot iron. “Look at me, Argyle Paendragon. Look me right in the eyes.”
Reluctantly, he obeyed. There was more power in them than Argyle had felt from any wizard in centuries, let alone since the ban on their kind was put into place, and he understood now that something far above him was at work. Stay out of this, said those doppelganger Dillinger eyes. This doesn’t concern you. “I’m not as crazy as you think, Argyle. I’m older than you and I know what I’m doing. Regardless of my reasons, the decision is mine to make, not yours. Got it?”
He held Godric’s defiant (and decidedly sober) gaze for a minute before he finally relented. The elder wizard was right. It was a poor display of ego on Argyle’s part to assume someone else’s destiny. After a thousand years of life, it was a lesson that demanded relearning. “Godric, I beg for your pardon. I let my emotions cloud my respect. Can you forgive the presumptions of an old fool?”
Godric released his grip and sat back. “Of course. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” He looked at Dillinger. “I suppose this is goodbye. Enjoy your new life, Jimmy Lawrence.” The twin gangsters shook hands.
“And you, John Dillinger. Enjoy the ride,” Dillinger said.
Godric straightened his fedora, tipped the bartender a wave, and casually strode toward the exit. Anna Sage and Peggy Hamilton were too engrossed in the show to notice that an identical twin of the man they’d arrived with was walking toward his own death. The pause between the two men at the bar, however, was about as pregnant as a bitch with a twenty–pup litter. Argyle drank his whiskey, but he really wanted some laudanum to calm his nerves. Dillinger ordered a Manhattan and the two of them watched the wizard on stage wheel out a guillotine and then ask for a volunteer from the audience.
A moment later, a faint sound like muffled firecrackers erupted from outside. Argyle would have bet his life on those not being firecrackers. Both men winced and Argyle felt like someone just shoved a knife through his heart. Poor old Godric. He never got to know the old wizard very well, but he wished now he had. His talent was marvelous.
“You know I never would have asked him to do that, right?” Dillinger asked.
“Sure,” Argyle replied. The word felt like a rusty razor blade in his throat, because he didn’t believe it. He suddenly wanted to be far away from John Dillinger and out of this stuffy bar. He got up, and Dillinger grabbed his wrist. Argyle bristled at how it made him feel like a wayward child.
“You still got one more thing to do,” Dillinger said. “My face. I can’t go out there looking like a walking dead man.”
Argyle sighed. “You’re right. I can do some minor things here, but if you want a more thorough job, we have to go back to my apartment where I can mix a potion.”
Dillinger nodded. “Fair enough.”
Argyle placed his hands on either side of Dillinger’s head and uttered an incantation.
Dillinger hissed a little, as the spell likely stung from the rapid expansion of his skin. It wasn’t a lot of extra weight. Maybe about fifteen pounds. He also darkened the man’s brows a little and thickened his mustache. Dillinger’s own mother might recognize him, but he figured everyone else would walk by without a second glance. After all, Public Enemy Number One was dead. The special edition of the Chicago Sun Times was probably on the presses right this second. It was later on when the new disguise would have to work, after enough time had passed to allow people to start questioning what really happened in front of the Biograph, if that was really John Dillinger the cops gunned down, or a lookalike put in his place to fool everybody so the real criminal could escape. People always speculated, even when the evidence was ironclad, but they definitely would if they were living in the same town as a guy who looked a lot like “that Dillinger fella who knocked over all them banks back in the day.”
Dillinger inspected his new puffy face with his fingers. “Feels like I’ve been stung by bees, but I guess it’ll have to do.”
“The potion I’ll give you will have a better effect. You could look like Clark Gable if you wanted to.”
Dillinger laughed. “Well, that wouldn’t take much work, would it?”
Or he could look like a corpse, Argyle thought. A little belladonna in the potion and he wouldn’t even know. The world would be better off without John Dillinger in it, no matter what he looked like.
After the show was over, Dillinger retrieved Peggy and Anna from their table. Both women looked a little taken aback by his changed appearance, but after he said a few words, they came along willingly enough. Anna looked particularly troubled, and Argyle could have guessed why. Her leverage to stay in the country was now gone. “Let’s get this show on the road,” Dillinger said. He led them toward the door Argyle had entered not long before. The doorman, Vincent Nogg, was hunched over on his stool reading an issue of Amazing Stories, completely unaware that he was sitting right in the middle of one.
“Good night, Vincent,” Argyle said.
He grunted but didn’t look up. “See ya tomorrow.”
Maybe. Maybe not, Argyle thought. He’d been coming here for a long time and the fun had just about run out. With Dillinger’s money fattening his pocket, he was eager to seek the next boat to France. America, for all its wonders, had wrung him dry.
He trailed behind a little, watching Dillinger stroll up the alley toward Lincoln Avenue with a woman on each arm like someone who thought he was the king of something. Argyle decided to let him feel that way, because the bastard wouldn’t be feeling much at all in the next half hour or so.
They emerged into the bright marquee lights of the Biograph, where the movie had just let out. Argyle spotted police lights just across the street, undoubtedly the scene of Godric’s last stand. Dillinger navigated into the crowd without missing a step and Argyle followed about ten paces behind as he pondered potion recipes. He felt someone pushing from behind him and looked over his shoulder to see a couple men in suits snaking their way through the crowd. Argyle let them pass and the crowd noise must have startled Dillinger, who glanced back over his shoulder. A look of recognition spread across his face, and he separated from the women, pulling ahead several steps while reaching into his pocket. A moment later, three shots rang out in quick succession and the crowd scattered in every direction, except for the two women Dillinger had been escorting. Peggy Hamilton wailed over the sight of her beau lying face down in a puddle of blood, while Anna Sage stood next to her, silent.
One of the men—a federal agent, Argyle assumed—pulled them both away. Argyle turned around and ducked back into the alley, his heart pounding. He didn’t understand how they could have zeroed in so quickly. It was as if they’d known exactly what to look for.
He felt a tap on his shoulder and cried out. Turning around, he stared into the grinning face of John Dillinger, but a second later it became the wizened face of Godric Hearthstone, and then a handsome mug made familiar from all the papers and the newsreels Argyle had seen it in over the last year.
“You…” Argyle’s voice came out as little more than a squeak.
Melvin Purvis clapped him on the shoulder. “You know, I wasn’t sure we were going to pull this off. Especially with you trying to be the big humanitarian in there. But it looks like we finally got him.”
“But how?” The words came out in a grated whisper. Never in his life had he been struck dumb from shock, until now. The country’s most famous gangbuster was a mage? His mind reeled with the notion.
“I tried doing things Hoover’s way long enough. It took a lot of convincing, what with the laws being what they are, but he finally saw some sense.” Purvis leaned in closer. “Though between you and me, I think things are about to change where that law’s concerned. If it weren’t for magic, I wouldn’t be about to put the country’s most dangerous outlaw in a body bag. Folks will agree. Though I have to admit, I’m kinda gonna miss my little nightly hangout.”
“I don’t understand. Are you Purvis or Hearthstone?”
Purvis smiled and straightened the white fedora on his head. “Neither. To tell you the truth, friend, I really don’t know who I am anymore. Does it matter? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit of a mess to look after.” He stopped at the head of the alley. “You’re a good wizard, Argyle. I advise you to find another line of work. You can give me a call if you need some help, but something tells me you’ll get along okay.”
Argyle watched him walk toward the cluster of cops who were gazing down at the prize stag they just felled, then turned the opposite direction up Lincoln Avenue and pondered where he would go from here. Maybe he didn’t have to go to Europe after all. He had a feeling big changes were just around the corner for his kind. John Dillinger had been wrong to put his faith in wizards, but he had been right about one thing. California seemed like a pretty good idea.