The Price of Magic
A light-fingered coin collector makes a costly mistake…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
I slapped a coin onto the counter, sliding it forward with my fingertips. The barista, who I might charitably have described as surly, reached for the coin. The face value was completely insufficient to cover the cost of the drink I had ordered, but as she picked up the penny she paused. A smile broke free of her scowl. Her eyes, which had been cold and dead, lit up with warmth. “Keep the change,” I said as I picked up my praline crème beverage and walked to a nearby table.
Some might feel guilt at committing a similar act. But while not immune to such sentiment, I knew I had given the barista a gift that would stay with her all day. Surely that was worth the few dollars I’d withheld.
I glanced at the young woman as she continued to help other customers at the counter. Her smile had broadened. She greeted each person with enthusiastic cheer. Hah! I’ve given everyone in line a gift, too! Generous, that’s what I am.
The thing about magic is that it violates laws. Natural laws. Physical laws. Well, all laws. I guess that makes me a criminal. But I’m not a bad person.
I nearly convinced myself of this as I finished off my almost-free drink and left the coffee shop.
Things had gotten a bit complicated now that I was no longer employed. I probably didn’t need to resort to unconventional purchase patterns yet, but some habits are hard to break. I resolved to play things safer as I walked the three blocks to Mike’s Pawn. I wasn’t in debt. No need to take unnecessary risks.
I pulled the iron-barred shop door open, triggering an old chime as I stepped into the familiar shabbiness. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness. Mike’s shop was almost a second home to me, and Mike was the closest I had to a true friend anymore.
Nobody was in sight, but I knew my entrance hadn’t gone unnoticed. “Mike, you around?”
A distant toilet flush followed by the regular thumps of Mike’s cane heralded his appearance from the back room. He was mostly bald, heavyset, and dressed in a threadbare brown sweater. Mike leaned heavily on his cane, and shot me a grudging smile when he recognized me. He didn’t look like much, but he was honest and hard-working. Well, compared to me, anyway.
He shook his hands in the air, as though drying them off. “Hey Ray. Good to see you, I think. What brings you down? Here to try and rob me, or selling something this time?”
“Eh, nothing to sell today. Mostly just out for a stroll, thinking a few things over. Thought I’d stop by and see if you’ve got anything interesting in.”
Mike hobbled over to a heavily scratched display case and picked up a yellowing spiral notebook resting on top of it. He flipped wordlessly through a few pages, then gave a soft grunt. “Actually, yeah. Do me a favor and take a look at something.”
My eyebrows shot up as Mike dropped the notebook and bent to retrieve a small lockbox from beneath the glass. He fished a tarnished key from his shirt pocket, inserted it into the box, and wrenched it open. Inside, nestled on a dusty folded cloth, was a greyish coin. My breath caught.
Mike shrugged. “If you say so. Do you wanna take a closer look?”
“Please.” I held out my hand, not wanting to snatch it from the box, but trembling in my eagerness. Mike chuckled, scooped it up, and dropped it in my palm. “How did you get this?” I asked.
“Estate sale. Spent hours going through boxes of old socks and crumpled newspapers. Finally found this along with a few dusty books. I’ve got someone coming to look at the books, maybe they’re worth something. What do you think of the coin?”
I turned the ancient Greek coin over in my hands. It was round, but had slightly irregular edges. One side was stamped with an owl, its oversized eyes peering at me as I studied it. The other side bore the face of the goddess Athena.
There was power here. I didn’t know how many kinds of magic there might be in the world, but I knew I had never met anyone else who could do the things I could with coins. As I held the ancient silver piece in my hand, I knew something else—this was the most powerful object I had ever touched.
There are two qualities that create magic in a coin. First, its symbolic meaning, what it stands for when passed from owner to owner. Most coins at least represent a monetary value, but many also stand for ideals. National pride. Famous historical figures.
Second, a coin’s history lent strength to its magic. How many hands have held a coin over the years, lending a part of their belief to its potency? This tetradrachm was close to 3,000 years old. Its capacity for magic was immense. I had to have it.
“Well?” Mike asked, grinning. My excitement was probably written on my face.
“It’s worth thousands,” I blurted out, instantly regretting it. So much for bargaining.
“Hah!” Mike clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re sure? It’s legit, not a fake?”
I nodded. My expertise on the signs of forgery wasn’t actually that great, but I could feel the magic pouring from the tarnished metal. I knew it was genuine just by touch.
“Best news I’ve had all week. I’ve got a buyer lined up already, and he’s not the sort you want to disappoint with a fake. Thanks for checking it out for me.” He turned his back, and headed to the rear of his shop. “I’ve got to make a couple of calls, could you close that up for me when you’re done looking at it?”
“Sure.” My face fell. To hold such a magnificent piece of history in my hands, and then give it up. I could do such great things with it. I nearly wept as I reached for the folded cloth and prepared to rewrap the coin.
Halfway there, I stopped.
In my pocket was an Eisenhower silver dollar. I’d been saving it to pay rent. The spell it held would temporarily convince whoever I gave it to that it was worth a substantial sum. I could place it in the box instead. Perhaps Mike’s buyer would be fooled by the spell, Mike would get paid, and I’d have the real coin. A win for everyone. It could work.
I slipped the tetradrachm into my pocket, pulled out the silver dollar, then wrapped it and placed it in the box. I snapped the lid shut. “Hey Mike, don’t forget your key!”
He waved at me from the back of the shop, an old telephone held to his ear. I left the shop, its chime signaling my exit.
I struggled with alternating elation and guilt as I walked back to my apartment. Maybe it would be fine. The spell on the silver dollar I left was a good one. If Mike’s buyer was just a regular hobby collector with more money than expertise, it should fool him.
And I could make it up to Mike. With the tetradrachm I could work magic that would surpass anything I had done before. I’d be able to make it big, then make things right.
I arrived at the door to my apartment still deep in thought. I tried to turn the knob before realizing where I was, and rolled my eyes at my own foolishness. Of course the door was locked.
There was no key. I’d snapped it off in the lock months ago. On purpose. Now, even with a key or a lockpick, nobody could open the deadbolt. There was only one way to get the door open short of a fireman’s axe.
I wore a hobo nickel on a wire around my neck. This one was carved with the likeness of a skull, which was pretty common for hobo nickels. However, I’d added my initials to it, which helped to prevent anyone else from using it. Hobo nickels were great for locks, and this one had the added benefit of only working for me.
I slid the coin off and tapped it over the deadbolt until I heard the click of the lock parts engaging inside the door. Then I held the coin against the lock, slowly rotating it. The lock moved in sympathy with the rotation, finally unlocking. I returned the hobo nickel to my neck and pushed the door open.
Inside, a few dozen coin projects lay unfinished on a battered coffee table, the kitchen counter, and even the floor. At least it wasn’t dirty laundry strewn about.
It was a few hours until dinner, so I settled onto the couch and went to work on a new silver dollar spell. There was still rent to pay, after all.
The hours ticked by and I made mistake after mistake, ruining four silver dollars before giving up. I was distracted, unable to achieve the mental focus required for settling a spell into a coin.
I made myself a sandwich and tried to order my thoughts as I ate. Perhaps I was just too excited over the tetradrachm to work on simple spells? I pulled the ancient silver out of my pocket and looked at Athena’s image there. Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Sandwich forgotten, I pondered her image and what it had meant to the Greeks of long ago. Philosophers, sages, kings, and everyday citizens–all looking to her for inspiration. I closed my fist around the coin, gripping it with white knuckles.
My thoughts cleared. I had been lying to myself, I realized. My problem wasn’t over-excitement. It was the knowledge that I had betrayed my friend. The one person who’d extended trust to me.
I stumbled through life proving over and over again that I wasn’t worthy of trust. I took advantage of people. I used what gifts I had selfishly. And now, instead of a petty misdirection for free coffee, I’d robbed a friend.
And then those truths hit home. Mike was my friend. I was a thief.
I couldn’t lie to myself that I’d taken the coin for survival. I knew it was simple greed. Selfish desire. The lies I had used to justify my actions to myself evaporated like steam. It had been years since I’d experienced this kind of clarity.
I loathed myself.
The tetradrachm clutched in my fist grew hot. The truth had so transfixed me that I didn’t immediately notice. A blistering heat seared my hand, and I swore, dropping the coin.
A wordless scream ripped its way from my throat as I voiced pain and anger at myself. To my horror, wisps of smoke drifted from my hand. I uncurled it, fearful of the burn I would see there.
My palm now bore a brand—the owl from the reverse side of the tetradrachm. The skin was red and swollen, but the image was easy to make out. Its eyes stared at me unblinking from my own flesh.
The pain receded more quickly than I expected. I wiggled my fingers experimentally and found I was still able to use the hand. I bent to retrieve the tetradrachm from the floor. It was no longer hot. I moved to slip it back into my pocket, but stopped myself.
I couldn’t just go on as before. I hated what I’d done. Hated who I was. What could I do about it?
The sky was dark as I left my apartment and began the walk back to Mike’s shop. I was again torn with indecision and scarcely paid attention to my surroundings as I kept up a swift pace.
I would return the coin, about that much I was certain. The question in my mind was whether to tell Mike what I’d done or sneak in and replace the coin, nobody ever to know what had transpired. I had not arrived at a conclusion by the time I reached my destination.
My wandering thoughts fled as I approached the shop, its windows dark. The door stood open. At this hour it should be closed and locked.
A shout sounded from within, followed by a cry of pain. “Mike?”
Alarmed, I hurried inside, tripping the door chime in the process. The bright beam of a flashlight momentarily blinded me and I ducked behind a display case. “Mike? What’s going on?”
Mike answered, his voice hoarse and panicked. “Ray? Get outta’ here man!”
The flashlight beam left me and angled down, behind the register. A man stood there, holding the flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. He pulled a leg back and delivered a savage kick to Mike, who yelped and groaned out of sight.
I am not a hero. I don’t own a gun, nor do I know how to use one. I don’t know how to fight, and I’m not particularly tough. But I am reckless.
There’s an old urban legend that if you drop a penny off the Empire State building it will land on the sidewalk below with lethal force, killing anyone unlucky enough to be beneath it. Completely untrue, of course, but there are enough who believe it that I can work it into coin magic.
A few months back I’d taken a roll of pennies and spent a day dropping them off buildings as I charged each of them with a rather energetic spell. I kept them in my pocket in an old candy box.
From a squatting position I ripped open the candy box, spilling many of the pennies in the process. I came away with five or six in my hand, which I hurled at the man kicking Mike. I had no time to aim, and one of the pennies flopped harmlessly only a few feet from me. Another struck the glass countertop on which the register sat, shattering it.
The rest found their mark.
I was sure I heard ribs crack as the man was hurled backward by the impact and slammed into the wall. After a huff of surprise, he’d simply fallen from the wall and lay motionless.
I got up and hurried over to Mike. The gun and flashlight lay on the floor, so I picked it up and nudged the gun away with my foot. Mike was sprawled out, clutching his abdomen, and bleeding from a split lip. “Mike, are you shot?” I asked, somewhat at a loss for words.
He coughed, wincing with pain. “Nah, just beat up. I’ll live. Lucky you showed up.”
“One sec.” I moved over to the man I’d hit with the pennies. His face was contorted with pain, and his breathing ragged. “I think this guy’s in worse shape than you. I’ll call an ambulance, and the cops.” I moved back to Mike. “You catch him robbing the place?” I asked, pointing my thumb at his attacker.
“Nah. Buyer. Here for the coin from the estate sale.” He coughed again, wincing. “Didn’t like what I showed him. Guy’s an idiot, though, I know you checked out the coin already.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I sat on the floor, hard, swearing. “Mike. Ah man, I’m so sorry.” I pulled the tetradrachm from my pocket. “I’ve got it. I took it.” I shook my head. “I was bringing it back…” I trailed off, watching Mike for his reaction.
He closed his eyes. “I wondered.”
“I screwed up. I know it. You trusted me and I… I know I screwed up. I came back to make it right.”
Mike only nodded, but did not open his eyes.
We sat in silence punctuated by Mike’s occasional coughs and the buyer’s labored breathing. Then I brought my palm to my face at sudden remembrance. “I’m an idiot!” I pulled out my wallet, mostly empty of bills, and removed a 1925 Peace dollar. I’d saved it for emergencies like this, though I’d always imagined I’d be using it on myself.
I gave the coin a quick flip. I’ve found that when coins go unused for a long time, a flip can help wake up the magic. I pressed it lightly onto Mike’s chest, then gently moved it down over his abdomen. Finally, I pulled his hand open and wrapped his fingers around it. “How’s that? Hold onto this for a minute.”
Mike opened his eyes, then smiled. “That’s better. What’d you do? I feel…” He sat up, patted his chest experimentally, and shook his head in disbelief. “I feel better than I did this morning, if I’m being honest!” Then he sobered, and looked me in the eye. “What are you?”
I held up my hands defensively. “Whoa, now. I’m just me. Just Ray.”
He held up the Peace dollar. “And this?”
“Yeah. Look. There’s not an answer I can give you that’s going to make sense. Let’s just say I know a few tricks?”
He nodded. “I knew. Or I guess, I’ve suspected. Tricks, huh? Ok. For now.” He gestured with the Peace dollar, indicating the buyer still on the floor. “What about him? Will you fix him up too?”
“Actually, I only had the one, and it’s pretty much used up on you. We’ll have to handle him the old-fashioned way. I’ll make a couple of calls.”
“Help me up first.” Mike reached out and gripped my arm, hauling himself up. “Keep an eye out for my cane, too.”
“Right.” I reached out to hand him the tetradrachm. “I’m sorry, Mike, really.”
He waved me away. “You keep it.”
“You can’t be serious,” I spluttered. “Look what I’ve done—I almost got you killed! I stole from you!”
“Eh, that’s open to interpretation, I’d say. You made a bad decision.” He smiled, as if to soften his words. “But then you made a better one. I’ve seen what you can do with coins. You’ve got something special in mind for this one, right?”
“Well, I did. But not now, it’s yours. That’s why I brought it back.”
“You keep it. Then show me what you can do with it. I want to see.” He grinned, emphasizing his next words. “Tell me everything.”
“I don’t know what to say. I… I’d love to. I will!” I was mostly relieved that Mike didn’t hate me, at this point. That he’d forgiven me. “Mike, I still don’t feel right about this. I’m in your debt, and it’s a debt I have to pay.”
He seemed to think about that for a moment, then finally said, “tell you what. Come work for me here. Help me run the shop. It’s gonna need some cleanup at least, after this.”
I considered the idea. I’d make a terrible employee. I’d make mistakes. I’d be unreliable, but Mike had already seen me at my worst and still wanted me around.
And with the tetradrachm I’d be able to make things right. Probably.
I shook his hand. “Deal!”
Jeff Sullins works in the software industry in Denver Colorado, daydreaming about blizzards and dragons. He’s growing old chasing after his two children, but perhaps the exercise does him good.
A former musician, game designer, and programmer, he regularly makes plans and discards them. To write the stories that need to be told has been his desire for decades, though life tends to get in the way of this goal.