Charles L. Lucas lay in his bed, his frail old back supported by many soft pillows. He watched through the window of his splendid Long Island mansion, saw the warm sunshine of the late May afternoon washing golden rays over the flowering trees on his estate. He sighed deeply. He always loved spring. This was probably the last one he would ever see.
Lucas turned his head away from the window. His bald, age-spotted head moved slowly these days. He wheezed whenever he tried to draw a breath. His hands shook whenever he tried to use them for anything. Charles L. Lucas lay in his plush bed, surrounded by his wealth and finery, and waited to die.
He reflected on the unfairness of it all. Surely death was for lesser men. He had fought his way up from nothing, with only his wits and his determination, and had built a vast fortune. Those had been the days, when he was young and strong — fighting, clawing his way to the top. He had been gifted with a unique vision; he had been able to see the possibility of profit where others could not. They called him mad when he invested in automobiles, said they would never replace the horse. He bought land that everyone else thought useless, so wide and flat; then the airplane came along, and airports were needed. And talking motion pictures. What a pipe dream that had been… fifteen years ago. He had gone through the Great Depression untouched, had sold weapons to both sides during the Spanish Civil War.
The last of the great robber barons, they had called him. And now he was dying, too. He had been born in a poor section of Philadelphia in 1850. That made him eighty-nine years old now. He had outlived his fellow tycoons, the closest things to friends he ever had. Old Cyrus Gold, vanished back in ’94, or was it ’95? Astor, lost on the Titanic. Knight, Vanderbilt, Dodds — all of them, gone. And Lucas would soon be joining them. He was rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, and all his money couldn’t buy him one more minute. It just wasn’t fair.
“Charlie!” a woman’s voice called to him happily. “Charlie, are you awake? Oh, Charlie, I have the best news!”
Lucas didn’t answer. What news could possibly be good at this point? He sighed at his own folly. A man his age who married a woman Barbara’s age deserved everything he got. Fifteen years ago, when he had been in fairly decent health for a seventy-four-year-old, and she had been a nineteen-year-old member of the chorus at Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1924, she had been just another toy, another shiny object to brighten his home. Sure, she had spent his money without reserve or shame, but he had such a great lot of it, with more coming in every day. He had been the envy of Wall Street, then. Now he just felt like an old fool.
“Charlie?” Barbara said, clattering into his bedroom on her ridiculously high heels. She was wearing more make-up these days, trying to still look nineteen. Hah. She should worry about age. She was still, Lucas reflected, quite beautiful.
“Charlie, you are awake!” she said. “Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Didn’t feel up to shouting,” Lucas wheezed. “Figured you’d get here eventually.”
“Oh, Charles, of course, how thoughtless of me!” Barbara said apologetically. “How are you feeling today?”
“I feel like I’m dying,” Lucas said.
“Charlie, don’t be so morbid!” Barbara said with a shudder.
“What’s morbid?” Lucas asked. “I am dying. Ask the doctors. I can afford the best, you know; they ought to know what they’re saying.”
“Well, we’re going to prove them wrong!” Barbara said. “Look!” She held out her hand. Lucas peered at two glittering objects resting in her palm. He looked up at her in confusion.
“Rings,” he said, simply. For that was what they were — golden bands with red stones the color of thick, rich blood. “They’re lovely, dear, but I don’t see how they’re going to help me.”
“Because these rings are magic!” Barbara said enthusiastically. “With these rings, we can actually move your soul from your dying body and into a strong, young one!”
Lucas looked up at his child bride in stunned disbelief. He saw from the look on her face that she was serious.
“You have taken leave of your senses,” Lucas said evenly.
“Charlie, I’m serious!” Barbara said. “These rings are real, they really can do what they say!”
“Oh, really,” Lucas said. “And who told you this? The fellow who sold them to you? What, were magic beans off today?”
“Charlie!” Barbara snapped, hurt. “Be serious! I got these from an antiquities dealer. They’re authentic, from ancient Egypt! They were found in the tomb of a royal wizard; the inscription says the pharaohs would reign far past their allotted time by using these rings to leap from body to body!”
“Fah,” Lucas spat. “If these rings are such authentic Egyptian relics, why aren’t they in a museum somewhere? Why did your antiquities dealer have them?”
“They were stolen,” Barbara said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Stolen by tomb raiders centuries ago, passed from hand to hand until they reached the dealer I bought them from! He specializes in dealings that aren’t exactly above board.”
“Hrm,” Lucas muttered. “So how are they supposed to work?” At the back of his mind, Lucas knew he was clutching at straws, but with Death staring you in the face, you took whatever chance you got.
“The way the dealer described it to me,” Barbara said, “you put one ring on, and the body you want to go into puts the other one on. Then, under a full moon, you recite the invocation to the moon god — the dealer wrote it out phonetically — and that’s it!”
“I don’t know,” Lucas said. “Even if I do believe in this, and I’m saying if, wouldn’t I lose my fortune if I assumed the identity of another?”
“Charlie,” Barbara said, as though to a child who had said something silly, “you just will your fortune to the man whose body you take over! Then it stays yours, legally and forever!”
Lucas hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps, over the years, some of his shrewdness had rubbed off on Barbara.
“Well, what can I lose?” he asked. “I’ll give it a try.”
“Oh, Charlie, that’s wonderful!” Barbara said, kissing him on the top of his bald head. “I know it will work, I just know it will!”
“We need to find the right body,” Lucas said, “a young, strong body. I won’t accept just anything, you know. This isn’t like buying a new suit.”
“You leave that to me,” Barbara said, patting her husband on the shoulder. “I’ll find something to your liking.”
“I don’t know about this,” Lucas said a week later. “Why do I have to go out? Why can’t the lad come to me?”
“He works four shows a night, Charlie,” Barbara said, seated next to her husband in the back of the limousine. “By the time he gets free, you’ll be long asleep. This is better, believe me.”
Lucas grumbled something inaudible. He was bundled up in enough clothes to fill a dry goods store, it seemed to him, to protect his frail body from the chill. And this was late May.
The limousine pulled up in front of a small nightclub on Twelfth Avenue. An old, run-down place, it had certainly seen better days. Lucas allowed the chauffeur to lift him bodily out of the back seat, place his frail form in the wheelchair. Barbara took over from there, pushing him into the theater as the chauffeur held the door open. The club was small, not very crowded, but the tables were close together, making it difficult to maneuver the wheelchair. Finally they found a table; Barbara pulled out one of the chairs, pushed her husband’s wheelchair into the place, and sat down next to him.
“Seedy enough place,” Lucas sniffed.
“Charlie, we’re not here for atmosphere,” Barbara reminded him in a hushed whisper. A waiter came to take their drink orders; he regarded Lucas with a raised eyebrow when the elderly man ordered weak tea. Before the drinks came, a Master of Ceremonies in a loud checkered suit came out on the stage.
“Hello, friends,” the grinning man said, hamming it up. “I would say ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ but you know what you are.” Rim shot from the small band. “We have a fantastic evening ahead for you! The sultry song stylings of the curvaceous Canary! The mystifying manipulations of Zard the Enchanter, master of magic! And first, to warm things up, let’s have a big hand for Danny Winter and Professor Woodenhead!”
A smattering of applause greeted a tall man in a black tuxedo as he walked out on stage, carrying a small suitcase. The man was very handsome, a form lean but muscular, with a shock of wavy black hair, a perfect Roman nose, and twinkling blue eyes. Lucas looked him up and down and nodded once. Barbara saw his approval and smiled.
“Thank you, folks, thank you,” Winter said, sitting down on a stool. He set the suitcase down on the stage beside him. “Before I begin, I wanted to say a few words to you about–”
Winter was interrupted by a muffled voice apparently coming from inside the suitcase. Winter did not look at the case, but gave it a small kick with his foot, eliciting laughter from the audience. “As I was saying,” Winter went on, “I wanted to talk to you tonight about–” More muffled complaints from the suitcase, louder now. Winter chuckled nervously.
“Well, I guess my talk will have to wait,” he said cheerfully. “Apparently, Professor Woodenhead is anxious to say a few words himself. Let’s bring him out, then.” Winter reached down and opened the suitcase. He lifted out a wooden ventriloquist’s dummy, dressed in a little green tuxedo and top hat, wearing a monocle in each eye. He set the dummy on his knee, facing the audience.
“Whew!” Professor Woodenhead seemed to say, in a voice different from Winter’s. “How long were you planning on leaving me in there? You know I’m afraid of the dark!”
The audience laughed at this routine. Lucas didn’t find it particularly amusing, but he watched the handsome young ventriloquist with rapt attention.
“So, Danny,” the dummy said to the ventriloquist, “who was that I heard in our dressing room earlier?”
“Oh, just a couple of stagehands,” Danny said.
“Oh? I thought I heard you discussing politics.”
“Politics?” Danny asked, looking confused.
“Yes,” the dummy went on, “I distinctly heard someone ask for a New Deal.”
The audience loved that one; even Lucas cracked a smile.
“I’ve always wondered, Professor Woodenhead,” Danny asked, “what is your degree in?”
“I graduated Mahogany Cum Laude,” the dummy said, “in psychology, with a minor in ceramics.”
“Psychology and ceramics?” Danny asked. “What do you do with that?”
“I study crackpots,” Professor Woodenhead said, with a wink at the audience. “Like that one over there, inhaling the bottle of vodka. Take it easy, sir. Prohibition ended years ago!”
The audience went wild. Lucas admitted the man had a talent, but that wasn’t what interested him. He also had a strong, young, handsome body, one that could easily expect another fifty or sixty years of life.
Yes, this was the one. Barbara had selected well.