From Chapter Three: The Broken Land Hotel
(Coney Island, 1877)
The blond man named Ambrose sat in the dining room, poring over a newspaper at a table beside a huge window overlooking the waterfront. “There’s your friend,” Sam said, pointing. “Guess I’ll head back.”
Tom patted his shoulder. “How about you join us, Sam? You eaten today?”
Sam hadn’t, and before he could protest, he found himself sitting between Tom and the newspaperman named Ambrose, feeling very self-conscious as a jacket-and-tie-clad waiter appeared out of nowhere and began depositing a large breakfast on the table before him. Dishes steamed as their domed silver covers were removed. On a cart beside the table a gleaming samovar promised coffee. In each polished surface, Sam saw his face reflected with a look of utter confusion and insecurity. How had he wound up sitting here?
“It’s Sam, isn’t it?” Ambrose passed him a cup of coffee. “Chat if you like, relax if you don’t. Eat, either way. And quit looking like you snuck in under somebody’s coat. Neither of us get meals like this usually . . . but here we are. You’re among friends, and we’re glad to have you with us.”
“Which is saying a lot,” Tom added, “because Ambrose generally isn’t what you’d call the warm and friendly type on any given calendar day.”
“Very true,” Ambrose agreed, taking a flask from his pocket and dosing his coffee with it.
“Thank you, then.” Sam picked up the cup Ambrose had offered him, then eyed the creamer and sugar bowl that stood just out of reach. He hesitated. “Can I—could I trouble you for the cream and sugar, sir?”
As he stirred in a scandalous number of sugar lumps, Sam began to relax. He let his gaze wander past the table and across the lawn that stretched between the hotel and the beach.
A gilded cart trundled along one of the garden paths, drawn by a small gray pony and glittering in the morning sun. An old Chinese man in a red silk robe and cap with a long, thin braid hanging down his back lead the pony by its halter. There was a name painted on the side of the cart under the gingerbread of the eaves, and a girl perched on the roof.
Her hands were full of fire.
“By God,” Ambrose said, following Sam’s stare. “Is that the Fata Morgana Company? What on earth are the odds, Burns and Liao turning up here?”
Tom must have replied, but Sam paid no attention to the men at his table, only to the girl outside. There were details he would remember later: her long, black hair falling out from under a newsboy’s cap, the name on the cart and the motto painted below it (Fata Morgana: arte et marte), the color of the sparks flying from her palms (blue, a shade just a touch lighter than the water behind her), the fact that they must have been fireworks of some kind and that she appeared to be trying to make them stop.
Just then, however, all that registered was that she was a girl, and there was a world of fire under her fingertips, and she wasn’t afraid.