Misdirection (Part VI)

Samuel picked up his pocket watch and checked the time. He set it down on the table, propped open and facing him. “I did not murder Jasper.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that.”

A waiter who had the same black eyes as the maitre d’ interrupted them. “Can I get you a drink sir?”

“I’ll have what he’s having,” Drake replied.

“Actually, I’ll have another,” Samuel added. “Make it a double and give me three cherries.

“Very well sir. Three cherries for you as well?”

“Sure, three cherries. Why not?”

The waiter walked away, but Drake followed him with his eyes. Now that he thought about it, he looked the same as the maitre d’. Was it possible they were twins?

“Like I said. I did not murder Jasper. It’s all a great misunderstanding.”

“I’d like to believe you.”

“Jasper asked me to take the key from Daisy. He said that he was going to perform the greatest trick of all time, and that I’d get an exclusive.”

Drake caught himself frowning. “Jasper said nothing of this to me. I should know. We review every trick together. We have no secrets.” Yet as he said this, he realized it was not true. He did not know why Jasper wandered the streets late at night. He should have asked him rather than assume he simply needed a girl.

“He said this trick was going to be a surprise.”

“Are you suggesting he wanted to commit suicide?” The thought sickened Drake. He surveyed the room for the waiter with the drinks and cherries.

Samuel glanced at his pocket watch again. It was nearly 1am. “No, I don’t believe he wanted to kill himself. I think he wanted what every man in his line of work wants. Glory.”

“And yet he died.”

Samuels eyes were lined red. “His exact direction was to get the key from Daisy, which I did.”

“Which you did quite well.”

“I’m not afraid to admit that Daisy is an attractive girl.”

“Nor am I.” Drake thought the way she’d eagerly parted her legs laying on her back on his desk, mussing his papers. It had only been one time.

“He then said to meet him here. He said he’d meet me at 1am sharp, after the show. He said not to worry, no matter what happened.”

“I don’t understand. Do you think he’s still alive?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We both watched him die, Samuel. We saw his body. They carried him out in a bag.”

“I know. And yet, you can’t deny he was a great magician. And that perhaps his death was an illusion.”

Drake considered. He’d looked into Jasper’s eyes after he died. The man had not been alive. Drake would have seen it. He would have known, and probably played along. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Samuel glanced at his watch again.

“Here you go, sirs.” The waiter set down the drinks on napkins. “Can I get you anything to eat?”

“No thank you,” Drake said, thinking of the bloody meat. “Say, are you related to the maitre d’?”

“Why yes, sir. I am one of three triplets.”

“Triplets?”

“Yes, our other brother is the bartender.” The waiter gestured to the oak bar. Drake could hardly make out the man, for the bar was crowded. He imagined he had the same black eyes, empty and fish-like.

“That’s unusual for three brothers to work in the same establishment, is it not?”

“Well I never thought about it much.” The waiter shrugged. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, thank –”

Samuel stood up and the table tottered, spilling his brown drink on the white table cloth. “Look!” He pointed a finger at the window.

Jasper standing on the opposite side of the street. Drake would not have believed it, but seeing him with his own eyes, he had no doubt. The man was Jasper. Wearing an overcoat unbuttoned, Drake could see the outline of Jasper’s athletic figure beneath his evening tuxedo. His patent leather shoes glimmered in the gas lights. Jasper tipped his silk top hat to them and smiled.

“I knew it,” Samuel stammered. “He’s alive.”

Drake rose from the table, forgetting his cane. “It can’t be.”

Just as Drake was inclined to rush outside, a carriage passed by. In the reflection of its windows was the Hotel Astor. The reflection showed the hotel engulfed in flames. It was a great fire with black smoke and helmeted firemen. Onlookers pointed to what appeared to be guests trapped inside, hanging out of the windows, shrieking and waving white pillow cases.

Drake glanced back at the bar. The hotel was not on fire. The patrons were still eating and drinking, the music was playing.

When he looked back to the street, Jasper and the carriage were gone. The street was naked. Somehow Drake knew he’d never see his friend again. He could not say how he knew this; he just did.

Samuel was still standing, staring out the window in a stupor.
“His greatest trick … his greatest trick …”

“Was showing us what could be.” Drake finished his drink.

The dog barked somewhere in the distance.

Misdirection (Part V)

Past the darkened hallway patterned in navy blue and hunter green wallpaper lay a great bar carved from what appeared to be solid oak. The bar was at least twelve feet tall and eight feet wide, and featured two mermaids with deadened eyes, also made of wood, holding up the entire structure using their hands and opposing force of their outstretched tails. Where the mermaids’ fingers gripped the mantle were carved whales, squid and serpent-fish splashing at the surface of a tumultuous ocean frozen in wooden time. In the mirrored back panel were bottles eight shelves high of every liquor Drake supposed existed, while surrounding the bar were white-clothed tables, each occupied with guests who laughed as they clinked crystal glasses and clanked silver knives against china plates portioned with bloody meat.

A black-eyed maitre d’ stood at the doorway, like a shark trolling for chum . “Can I help you, sir?”

“I’d like a drink, if it’s no bother.”

“Are you the magician?” the maitre d’ asked, his fish eyes moving up and down.

“Why, yes, I am.” Drake considered this a compliment, and he didn’t feel the need to explain that he was technically a magician’s manager.

“Wonderful.” The maitre d’ consulted the reservations in an over-sized gold-leafed book. “Mr. Jackowitz, yes?”

That caught off him off guard. But Drake was a good liar. The best. He didn’t hesitate. “Yes, that’s right. Jasper Jackowitz.”

“Your guest has been waiting. Follow me, please.”

Drake gave the man his best imitation of nonchalant and hobbled into the bar, all the while wondering who Jasper was supposed to meet, and how it was that the black dog had led him to this very place. Yes. The signs were strong tonight.

The carpet was plush and the air was thick with the fragrant, heavy waft of cigar smoke. Permeating the haze were strikes of piano keys to the tune of a melody that Drake did not recognize. He knew most modern music, but this was different. It was fast, discordant, dark yet light, all the while mixed with a rhythm from an era he did not know. These must be some high-class society men, he decided. Forward thinkers.

The maitre d’ led him through a maze of tables to one near the window. Drake kept his composure as they approached, but he could feel the seed of rage begin redden. Samuel was sitting at the table, looking out across the snow-lined street, compulsively turning over a pocket watch in the palm of his hand.

“Your guest has arrived, sir.” The maitre d’ bowed and turned on his heels.

“I should have guessed.” Samuel’s skin was ashen.

Drake sat down and leaned his cane against the table. He considered his next words, hoping he was wrong, but filled with dread the moment they began to pass his lips. “Where’s the key?”

Samuel downed his bourbon. He reached the pocket of his jacket and set the key on the table. Drake knew without a doubt that this was key that opened the box with the ax. He knew this without having to examine it. Drake huffed and hung his head, a deep sadness overtaking the rage he’d felt a moment earlier.

“How could you?”

“He asked me to.”

“Don’t play coy. As far as I can tell, you murdered Jasper.”

Misdirection (Part IV)

Shaken, Drake jumped as the door to the Hotel Astor swung open and a man stumbled forward. He half expected the man to be someone he knew, for he believed now that the dog was indeed a sign, and the cyclone another. Of what? He could not be sure. But the man was a stranger, and drunk, with a red nose and flushed cheeks, his tuxedo collar open like two dove wings, his jacket rumpled. Drake looked about, unsure. His eyes finally settled on his cane, which was covered in a layer of dust from the cyclone. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. He’d always considered it a comfortable affectation; something he used to make himself believe that he could deceive strangers if he wanted; to always have the upper hand. But now, as he brushed the dust away, he began to believe that it was simply an untruth. The cane, like the rest of his life, was an illusion.

He wasn’t sentimental, but he wasn’t without feeling. He’d once been in love when he was a young man. She’d been a girl much like Daisy, though she wasn’t an assistant. She was a ballet dancer. He’d met her one night when her company was performing downtown in the same theater that hosted his weekly magic show. It was not a classical ballet, but rather a truncated version of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” where she danced the role of a black horse with diaphanous wings as wide as the stage that flapped with the help of strings and a pulley. The muscles of her legs flexed with each jump and her feet arched inside black satin slippers as she leapt onto her toes. Her dress was also black, just below her knees and trimmed in silver bells that jingled in time with the music.

After the show, he’d wound his way through the tangle of props and down the darkened hallway to the dressing rooms. He’d waited just outside the one marked “Ladies” until she appeared, buttoning her coat amidst a gaggle of apple cheeked dancers.

“Miss! What was the name of that dance you did?” he’d asked.

She’d seemed startled. The girls around her had quieted. He’d caught her without her stage face. Unmasked, she had innocent pink lips and high, sharp cheekbones with wide, brown eyes that narrowed in a mix of mistrust, vanity and fierce pride.

“The Ebony Horse,” she’d replied. “It’s a story about a mechanical horse that can fly the length of a year in a day.”

Drake was in love.

The rest of his memories were a tangle; the melody of her voice, the soft dip of her collarbone, the warmth of her skin as the curtains of his room waffled in the heat of summer. His memories were a kitchen sink of sunlight, beauty, harmony and flesh, burned into his soul so deeply that he could no longer remember what happened when and what was real versus what he’d imagined. At the nexus, was a singular day during one of their final conversations. She’d been sitting, naked, in a chair, powdering her face and neck. She’d just told him she’d been accepted into the Paris Opera Ballet, which was an honor that she could not refuse. “Come with me.”

“I cannot,” he’d said, reclining on the bed. “My place is here in New York. Besides, I don’t speak French.”

She’d looked at him in the mirror’s reflection, her hair still mussy from their lovemaking. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then what? You don’t like a woman who is more successful that you? Worried you’ll have to get a proper job? That you’ll fail as a magician?”

“And what about you? When you’re old and no longer pretty, what will you do then? Get married? Find a drunk for a husband? Have a gaggle of hungry children?”

“Oh, shove off. I don’t give a rat what will happen tomorrow. I only want to dance now.”

He’d been furious and wished her ill when they’d parted, which he regretted later. As the years passed, he thought of her often and wondered how she was doing. He took French lessons so that he could read Le Figaro and look for her name in the arts section. There was nothing written about her until one day he came across her obituary. She’d died at fifty-four, a retired dancer who taught ballet to children. She’d lived in St. Germain de Pres in what he imagined was a small apartment overlooking a tree-lined courtyard. She was unmarried.

Drake thought he heard the dog bark again in the distance. But it was not the dog, only the door to the Hotel Astor slamming shut again as another well-dressed gentleman who’d had too much to drink stumbled forward. Drake took this as a sign; he clearly needed to drink too. He pulled on the brass-handled door to the hotel and stepped inside.

Misdirection (Part III)

Drake left Daisy, and though he did not turn around, he heard the stairs creak and knew she was joining the thin man for the night. He still respected her in spite of her promiscuity. She had spoken frankly about Samuel and had no air of falseness.

As he descended the stoop, the dog moved to the sidewalk and began to bark once more, its body spasming and ribs moving in an accordion-like rhythm. Drake frowned in displeasure. Another stray. The city was overrun. He jabbed his cane at it. “Shoo! Go on, get!”

The dog whined and ran its tongue over its graying muzzle. Drake leaned on his cane and began to walk away. The dog barked again.

“For Gods sake hound, shut it!”

It whimpered and lowered its head, but when Drake turned to go, it barked again, sharp and demanding.

“What is it that you want? Do you want me to follow you?”

The dog just stared. He considered. He didn’t believe in real magic; he knew too well how to turn a handkerchief into a dove, a coin into a two coins, levitate a beautiful assistant. But he did believe in signs. The universe was a bottomless well of cause and effect, coincidence and rare events. Signs were the guideposts to these small miracles. He’d believed in this since he was a child.

Drake took a step forward. The dog took a step back. He walked towards the animal. It jogged away, turned and looked at him. Suddenly he was following the dog quickly down the narrow sidewalk, afraid to lose sight of it, sweat gathering at his temples and under his arms. The tip of his cane and the nails of the dog clicked on the stone, while echoes of laughter — Daisy’s from earlier that night, and those spilling out from the pubs — filled his head with cacophony. It was just enough to dull the memory of Jasper, but not enough to make him forget.

The dog stopped. They were uptown, standing in front of the Hotel Astor. He looked up and thought he could see the rooftop garden where saplings swayed in the silver night, rubbing their entitled branches to the time of hooves pawing against the hard-packed dirt below. This was Broadway between 44th and 45th at the corner of the most luxurious hotel in the city. Its electric lights spilled onto the sidewalk, charged with nickels of the ultra-rich. Drake never came up here. He rubbed his hands, swollen from the long walk.

The dog sat and scratched its ear with such intensity that Drake thought it might bleed. “What now, hound?”

At that moment, a strange gust filled the night. It raised a cyclone of dirt, leaves, broken glass and animal bones. Turning, it rose into the air, higher, until it hovered at the tip of Drake’s nose. He grasped his cap with his hand and dropped his cane. The street had become silent, as if every single New Yorker was frozen in a collective hypnosis. The dog backed away. He opened his mouth to command it to stay, but found he could not. The words caught in his throat. Hanging in this moment, he was suddenly afraid. What was happening? How had the world turned from predictable to strange in just one night? Jasper. Daisy and the thin man. The dog. And now this.

The cyclone stopped. The glass and bones dropped to the ground, the dirt and leaves hovered a moment longer, then too fell like stones.

“Dog!” The word finally formed. “Dog!” But it was too late. The dog had gone, swallowed up by the shadow of the gas lamps.

Misdirection (Part II)

“I don’t like the way you’re making me feel right now.” Drake tightened his grip on Daisy’s wrist. He’d followed them to her boarding house just off Orchard Street, where they stood in the hallway wallpapered in green damask. A dog barked in metronomic time with her pulse, which Drake could feel beneath Daisy’s silk glove.

“Sir, take your hands off the lady.” The thin man raised his fists, his top hat askew.

“She’s no lady.”

“I said, unhand her!” Drake could see the thin man readying for a punch. He looked at Daisy. Her lips were still painted red from the show, though she had wiped the charcoal off her eyes. They were rimmed with tears.

Drake released her wrist and leaned on his cane. The thin man pulled Daisy towards him and straightened his hat. “Who is this man?”

“I’m her employer. And who are you?”

“Her fiance.”

Drake forced his expression to remain neutral. The girl was unbelievable. She fooled around with almost everyone in the act and still had the energy to find herself a fiance. She’d even given Drake a go her first week on the job.

“I tried to save him.” Daisy’s heart-shaped face crumpled. “I did, I really did.”

Drake tried to steady his thoughts. “Where was the key?”

“It wasn’t there.”

“What is this key you’re talking about?” the thin man interjected.

Daisy hid her face in her hands, sobbing.

“It’s the key that unlocks the box with the ax.” Drake’s voice shook. “We use it to break the tank’s glass if the other emergency releases fail.”

The dog continued to bark. He’d seen Daisy just before the performance. She’d been dressed in her showgirl’s outfit with a short, ruffled skirt and a pink corset cut too low, even for a magic show. The stage lights had backlit her shape, illuminating her hair and outline of her body in a fiery halo. She’d patted her bustier confirming that the key was in its proper place, a hidden pocket between her breasts.

“If you had the key when you went on stage, where did it go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Daisy. Please.”

She cleared her throat. “Aimery, could you give us a moment?”

“I’m not leaving you alone,” the thin man said.

“It’s okay, Aimery. Really, it is.”

The thin man frowned. For a moment, Drake thought he was going to refuse, but Daisy looked up at him with her best forget-me-not eyes. He relented.

“You can put the cane aside,” Daisy whispered after the thin man had retreated upstairs. “We both know you don’t really need it. Silly to keep up such a charade in front of me.”

“You seem to have your own charade going on. Let me guess, an upper middle-class married man who likes to keep a woman on the side. Promises engagement in exchange for a romp. But you’re onto him, aren’t you? You’re going to take him for as much as you can.”

“Oh for goodness sake.”

“Am I mistaken?”

Daisy knew better that to lie to an illusionist, even a retired one. She rubbed the last of the tears from her eyes and let out a bitter laugh.

Drake waited.

“I was with Samuel right before the show. We were in my dressing room.”

The newspaper man. Drake could feel his neutral expression fading. He had no idea that Samuel was involved with Daisy. “So what are you saying?”

Her eyes were wide now, fearful almost. “The key wasn’t in my dressing room. It wasn’t dropped and didn’t fall out.”

“You’re saying that Samuel took it?”

“I’m saying that Samuel may have taken it, yes.”

“But why?”

“You tell me.”

The dog barked again. Drake glanced through the glass doors of the boarding house. The dog, small and black with a graying muzzle, was sitting on the stoop. It bared its teeth, sharp and white like those of a jackal.

The Jackal.

In those final moments, after they’d realized they couldn’t get the ax, Jasper had pressed his feet against the glass and pushed with all his might, muscles bulging. But the tank held. It was built strong, made by a German craftsman in Brooklyn. Jasper’s chest spasmed as he took his first lungful of water.

“Don’t worry,” Jasper had said some weeks earlier. “We won’t need the ax. Leave it locked up during the show. I’m New York City’s greatest magician, after all.”

Misdirection (Part I)

“He couldn’t have died at a worse time.”

Drake nodded and watched as Samuel removed his bowler hat. Instead of wiping his brow, he rubbed the sweat from his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “It really was awful,” Samuel said. “With all those people watching.”

“I told him not to use chains. A rope expertly tied is one thing, but those chains …” Drake’s voice trailed off as he leaned on his cane, his hands shaking, and looked toward the empty stage where the water tank stood. He felt old. “He didn’t practice with chains enough.”

“How often did he practice?”

Drake had forgotten himself. Samuel was not just any mourner. He was a newspaper man. “You know as his stage manager I can’t reveal his secrets.”

“Ah, but you already have. You’ve told me he was a magician who left his performance to chance. That’s sloppy and undisciplined. All great magicians leave nothing to chance. Their tricks are thoroughly practiced and every determinable outcome studied.”

Drake said nothing. What Samuel said was true. The Jackal, or Jasper Jakowitz as he was known off stage, had become unfocused. He’d showed up late to rehearsal and went through his tricks like he was sleepwalking. Drake had suspected drugs. Young, successful men like Jasper often felt the pull of opium dens along Mott Street where yellow-skinned ladies waited, naked beneath their silk robes embroidered with poppies and dragons. He’d gone as far as to follow him one night, but Jasper only wandered the streets, his hands in his pockets, his head down, seemingly lost in thought.

Drake had decided it was a bout of depression. Jasper needed a woman — the marrying kind. Too bad he didn’t know of any, but he did the next best thing. He’d hired a pretty assistant named Daisy. Jasper wasn’t interested.

“Did you see the look on his face when he was drowning?” Samuel had pulled a notepad from his trousers and was scratching in shorthand.

“You know I’d rather not talk about it.”

“But you must! This is a huge story. I see the headline already. ‘New York City’s Greatest Magician Dies Drowning’.” Samuel moved a hand across the air, as if the letters sprouted from his fingers. “There couldn’t be a better obituary. And I’m doing you a service, Drake. With the exposure, you’ll be managing another up-and-comer in no time.”

Drake felt sick to his stomach. This wasn’t about him; it was about Samuel. He’d make a mint selling the story. One man’s life for another’s pocket. It was a sickness.

“I have to go.” Drake turned on his heels and limped across the theater towards the exit, his cane mute as it struck the thick, scarlet carpet.

“Where’s the pretty assistant?” Samuel called after him. “What was her name? She was there too.”

Drake didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed through the doors and onto the sidewalk where a hansome cab passed by under the glow of flickering gaslights. The horse’s hooves clacked in double time on the cobblestones. He inhaled — tobacco, chimney smoke, manure and the earthy scent of damp, fallen leaves. The weather was turning.

In the darkness, a woman laughed. Drake turned towards the sound. He knew that laugh. But where? It was girlish and warm with a gentle underpinning of a Southern accent. Daisy. Why would she be laughing? There was nothing to laugh about.

In the glow of the lamps, her skirted silhouette strolled arm-in-arm with a stick-thin man wearing an unnaturally tall top hat. Drake buttoned his coat, tucked his cane beneath his arm and thrust his hands into his pockets. No longer limping, his pace quickened, and he followed them into the night.