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.

Classic Magic

Stage lights blinded Charles for the briefest of moments before his eyes adjusted. His pupils shrank and grew, and he began to discern the crowd from behind the glare: the people-shaped shadows that filled the seats of the Golden Nugget theater’s old auditorium. At first they were just blobs—fat and thin depending on their matching individual—but then, as his eyes dilated to the right degree, details emerged. An imposing human shadow in the back of the theater ruffled a wide hand over his eyes and down the back of his scalp. Charles could tell that this was a man by the angle of his chin and shoulders, and not just any man had that angle to his chin.

He had come. David Copperfield had accepted Charles’ invitation. He never thought Copperfield would actually show up. Why would he? Charles was just getting his feet wet in Las Vegas. Copperfield was a legend.

Breathe. Charles exhaled his anxiety between his new porcelain veneers—one of many tips his L.A. agent, Aggie, had made that paid off since he had first met her in her little, pink downtown L.A office almost a year ago. She had stared at him and blew plumes of smoke into the air. They curled around her like a noxious snake that permeated her very essence. Charles wasn’t sure Aggie knew how to breathe at all unless she was sucking on the end of a Marlborough.

“You’ve got trailer teeth.” She lit another cigarette off the end of the dead one before she stubbed it out on the chipped saucer sitting at the corner of her desk.

“Trailer teeth?” Charles pulled his lips back and ran his tongue over his teeth.

“You heard me.” Aggie swung around and pointed at a picture of Copperfield hanging on her wall. “I told him the same thing once. You won’t make it in Vegas if you look like you just fell out of a trailer. Those hicks are there trying to forget that they live in one. How do you suppose they can do that when you look like their alcoholic, wife-beating, meth-making neighbor?”

“But, see Aggie, it’s true. I am trailer trash. I have trailer teeth.”

“They don’t need to know that, kid. Get the fucking veneers. No one would have watched Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear on Prime Time TV if his teeth looked like field corn.””

Aggie was right, of course. Copperfield was polished, well spoken, handsome. Charles knew he needed to be that way too, and so he got new $3,000 veneers. Those teeth, like the black dye in his hair and the sharp black suit to match, helped him get the gig at the Golden Nugget. He was sure of it

The crowd shifted in their seats. The lights were beginning to heat up the stage, and Charles was glad no o one could see his pit stains.

“Come on! We didn’t pay $22.95 to watch you sweat!” A Heckler.

Get it together. Screw Copperfield. Screw his perfect teeth and mesmerizing eyes. He was a hack anyway. Not like Charles.

Copperfield was just an illusionist backed by big budgets and friends in network TV. But Charles? Charles did real magic. It worked with surprising consistency. When he sawed someone in half, it really happened. Not in a blood and guts kind of way, more like slicing worm in half—no pain, no gore, just two parts that happened to exist in isolation of one another until he calmly, magically, pasted them back together again. The subjects never even knew it happened. Not really. They thought it was an illusion. Maybe they thought it was another fat housewife with her legs in one end of the saw-box who just happened to be wearing the same shoes. People just couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that some magic was real.

The real magic he practiced was classic magic. It was his passion. But, these tricks were passé. Boring. Kids stuff. Hell, most everything was kids stuff after the illusions Copperfield pulled off. But that was Charles’ shtick, classic magic. The kind you practiced with your first kit when you’re a kid. He respected the basics, and he threw himself into it with the dedication of a delusional man. It never occurred to him that it was hokey.

Sweat ran down his forehead and off the tip of his nose. He shifted the top hat in his hands. Charles peered toward the Heckler and then squinted in Copperfield’s direction. Were the two sitting near each other? Charles looked down at the bottom of the hat. A nervous white rabbit with beady pink eyes looked up at him. He’d found it at PetShed Express earlier this afternoon. It was perfect. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat and making it disappear was classic magic. The Heckler would see that. Copperfield would see that.

So why was he so nervous?

Charles cleared the knot from his throat and licked his cracked lips. Brandishing the hat at the crowd, he channeled his most dramatic impression of P.T. Barnum.

“This is just an everyday top hat, as you can all see. It is not the hat itself that matters, but rather what is in the hat.”

The crowd had grown silent, assuming that something other than the same old boring rabbit-in-the-hat trick was coming. Charles reached in to scruff the bunny behind its ears. Holding it tightly, he pulled it from its sanctuary and held it in the air, presenting it to the crowd.

Silence. Nothing. No reaction.

Charles peered around the rabbit’s spasming legs and mumbled, “It is a rabbit, as you can see.”

“Get on with it!” The Heckler.

Damn him. He was sitting near Copperfield. Why didn’t one magician do another a favor and tell that ass to shut up?

Charles summoned his most authoritative voice. “I will now make this rabbit disappear.”

He shut his eyes and pictured the rabbit dissolving into nothingness. Its very fur, muscles, tendons, bones, and then finally organs ceasing to exist. They would remain in nothingness, in nowhere-ness, until Charles summoned the bunny back to the physical world again.

Fully in the zone, fully in the moment–he had to be or it wouldn’t work. Without warning, Charles threw the rabbit far into the air above his head. It’s body contorted with anxiety and fear, probably realizing somewhere deep its in instinctual brain that rabbits did not belong ten feet up in the air, they belonged in a grassy meadow, munching on spring onions and clover. It tried to run, but hovering above the crowd, the effect was cartoonish.

Charles spread his hands wide and cocked his head back. Hot magic rose from the floor and reverberated through his body like pins. It emanated. It took over. It ruled him and he just held on for the ride–a ten-dollar hooker in a house of magical ill-repute waiting for her john to finally just get on with it.

His lips split into a grimace. “POOF!”

It was done.

The rabbit exploded in a great whoosh of fur and smoke. Singed, sad white hairs floated back down and blanketed the stage.

Gasps. Then silence.

“You killed that rabbit! It didn’t disappear. You just blew it up, you asshole.” The Heckler

Charles opened his eyes, peering again into the shadows, his hand shielding his vision from the lights’ glare.

“No I didn’t. I would never, I…” The crowd moved as one. First, looking to the Helcker, then to Charles, then to Heckler, back to Charles. “You don’t understand.” Silence. ” It’s real magic.”

No one ever believed him. Charles pointed now toward Copperfield.

“We have a real treat in the crowd tonight, folks. The world’s greatest illusionist. Yes, the same man who says he can predict the future. The same man who had enough magic to marry Claudia Schiffer. That’s right. David Copperfield is here.”

The crowd turned, baited, in the direction of Charles’ outstretched arm.

“Why don’t we ask him where the rabbit went?”

This was Charles’  moment of triumph. Copperfield would confess that there was no explanation.

“Raise the lights!” Charles bellowed into the dark. The stage crew obliged and a sudden brightness washed over the blinking, confused herd of spectators.

But sitting on the purple velvet seat, where Copperfield had been only a moment ago, was the rabbit. It’s pink eyes squinted and its nose twitched. It sniffed the fabric and absently began to chew on a loose thread.

No one moved. No one spoke. Then, a great roar of laughter erupted from the other side of auditorium.

“I saw a trap door!” Another Heckler.


The Sea Whispered

The waves beat the black sand beach with punches of salt and sea. Clouds hung low in the sky and blew westward towards Asia as the wind crackled with anxiety. She shifted her gaze to the mineral pool that was situated just off the shore. Circular, it was enclosed by rocks the color of tar and worn smooth by the ocean. The view on a normal day would have been stunning, worthy of a panoramic, but today the Pacific was a cauldron, spraying her skin with its spittle.

“There’s no way I’m swimming here.” She tucked her hair, sticky with salt, behind her ear.

“I know.” He clasped a copy of Hidden Hawaii in his right hand as he wrapped his left around her waist. “All I can think about is that couple.”

She thought about them too as another wave crashed into the pool. That morning, over coffee thick with the perfume of Kona, they’d read in the paper that honeymooners from Michigan had been been killed along a beach just like this one. The woman had been posing for a picture on the rocks when a wave had carried her off. Her husband had dove in after her, only to meet the same fate as his wife.

They watched as the water from the pool receded into the Pacific. The waves seemed to stand still for a moment, as if they were waiting for Mother Nature to decide what to do next. In that brief moment, with the pool partially empty and the rocks beneath exposed, she understood why the sea had taken the couple. It seemed so obvious and orderly. Then a chorus of waves rose and crashed once more, and she’d forgotten what, if anything, the sea had whispered.