The Grandest Trick

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Matthew Hance

There are three imperative rules a magician must always follow. Number one: always protect your secrets. Number two: always stay one step ahead of the person you’re trying to fool. And number three: everything that happens must add to the final illusion.

For example, sitting in the second row, there is a lovely woman wearing a trimming blue-floral dress. A poodle haircut outlines her smile as I take a nickel she offers and clap it swiftly between my gloved hands. I open them just as fast to reveal a long-stemmed rose. With one hand, I toss the rose to my beautiful patron. With the other, I slip her coin into my jacket pocket.

I receive a round of mild applause from the audience. Except one man. He glares at me with his arms crossed—right through a pair of tortoise-shell sunglasses. I pay him no attention, for I already predicted his arrival.

“Thank you,” I say as the applause fades. “Thank you very much. You’re all too kind.”

I’m back onstage waltzing around, looking curiously at some curtain-covered objects. There’s the ghost house. The guillotine. I run my fingers over the arc of the spinning wheel, pretending I’m pondering which trick to perform next. But I already know. It’s all part of the greater plan.

An overwhelming shriek takes the room by surprise. I swing around in shock, scanning the crowd with my hand shading my eyes from the glaring light in the ceiling. Fifty-some faces all point me in the direction of Miss Floral Dress standing on top of her chair, grasping the backrest for dear life. She’s staring at the floor, hyperventilating.

“Ma’am,” I say, stepping down into the aisle. “Is everything okay?”

She rattles the chair like a maraca and almost tips over in the process. “I’m far from okay! Your rose turned into that hideous thing down there!”

She shoots it a terrified glance, and the crowd follows, huddling around in a circle to see what all the fuss is about. Once someone announces, “It’s a snake!” the circle expands. Everyone except that mysterious stranger—he remains seated, keeping his gaze locked on me.

The crowd turns to me for an answer, so I raise my hands to hush them, saying, “Remain calm, people. I don’t know where the snake came from, but I’ll handle it. Just don’t make any sudden moves,”—which really translates into, Don’t leave just yet.

A few children are burrowed in their parent’s arms. The woman is shivering. And someone is slipping a knife from a pocket, so I point to a man poking his head out from behind the woman and shout, “You, sir!”

He bobs a thumb at himself.

“Yes, you. Would you be so kind as to wrangle the snake and bring it to the stage?”

He scrunches his face into wrinkles and mumbles something incomprehensible.

“Very well.”

I pull a fist-sized balloon out of my jacket pocket and let it rise so everyone can see. I yank the string several times, causing something inside the green sphere to rattle. And before anyone can question what’s going on, I bring the balloon to my lips and blow it toward the man. Once it’s rising over his head, I snap my fingers and it pops, dropping the woman’s coin onto his head. I say, “If you will not help this poor woman out of the pure generosity of your heart, what say you to accepting her money?”

I start to see people breathing a bit easier. Some are even cracking a smile. Others are Ooh-ing and Ah-ing. The stranger isn’t phased.

My hired help digs the coin out of his hair, slips it in his pants pocket and kneels down to confront the hissing snake which is coiled like a loaded spring.

As he goes at it with one shaking hand, I say, “Use two hands, good man. This isn’t your snake we’re dealing with here.”

Ladies blush. Men chuckle. Children ask, “What’s so funny?”

And he dashes at the creature like a master, snatching it up in one swift motion. Just like grabbing hold of an out-of-control garden hose—a move only professionals can make.

“Very close,” I say, looking at another woman next to him, shying away from him and his new friend. “Your name, ma’am?”

She fakes a smile. “Ruth.”

I look at the hero. “And shall I call you Mr. Snake Catcher?”

“Call me Joe.”

“Okay, Joe.” I motion toward the stage. “Why don’t we stand up there so the snake doesn’t bite poor Ruth?”

“Up there?”

“Yes. Now on with you!”

I give him a pat and we’re off. Once in position, I take his hands and re-clamp them around the snake’s neck. “Hold tight, you hear? One bite from this undersized snake has enough venom to kill three men, so any gaffe could be deadly.”

He nods as he secretly pokes a piece of dead snake, which is pre-looped, out through his hands.

I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this foul beast has intruded on the show. Was it welcome?”

Someone shouts, “No!”

“Exactly, because it did not pay for a ticket.”

I get a few laughs, but they end when I raise my right hand, holding a rusty pair of open scissors. The snake’s loop wiggles, thanks to Joe’s thumbs, as the V-shaped blades slice into its skin. “Now it will pay the ultimate price!” I squeeze the handles and dig in the blades. Blood runs down the sides and guts ooze out.

I yell, “Death!” and finish the cut. Then I take hold of one of the severed chunks and toss it into the crowd.

Just as expected, everyone is appalled. They’re a symphony of gasps. I even evoke a reaction from the stranger. He’s reaching into his brown, woolen suit. I catch the butt of a gun against the backdrop of his orange shirt before swatting Joe’s hands away to reveal an unharmed, fidgeting snake. It even hisses for good measure as I raise it into the spotlight.

Almost instantly, it hits the crowd, and they put their hands together for the raucous applause I was looking for. Some even whistle and holler. The stranger withdraws his hand and lets his suit jacket fall over the gun.

“Thank you,” I say, taking a bow. “You’re all great sports, really.” I do a few dips. “Too kind. Too kind.” Then I take the snake and smush it between my hands. When I flip them open, another rose is left behind. I toss it to Ruth and say, “Don’t worry, dear, I promise that one won’t go rotten.”

She hesitantly takes the flower.

“Just remember, people,” I say in a louder voice, “this is merely a taste of what awaits tomorrow night for the special Halloween show. Be sure to tell your friends and family!”

As people start to file out, I hear them talking amongst each other, tossing positive adjectives around with my stage name. A good performance, indeed.

I hold a mighty smile even though that stranger is out of his seat and walking in my direction.

“You’d like an autograph?” I ask, staring not at him, but the remaining people flooding out into the street.

“Not exactly,” he says, digging around in his pants pocket. “Clever show you got yourself.”

“I try.”

He smiles at me as he rummages. “I bet you do. Couldn’t tell what was an act and what wasn’t. Until the end, of course.”

“Mister…”

“Gamble. Call me Gamble.”

“Very well, Gamble. What can I do for you?”

He finally plucks out a gold badge and holds it right up to my face. Lint is caught on the sharp edges. The engraved name reads Detective Gamble. He lets his sunglasses fall down his nose so we can make eye contact. “Looking for a boy named Pauly Dean,” he says. “Went missing a few days ago.” He squints real hard and then glares the same way. “Most likely from here.”

I gently slide my glove off and start to nibble on my thumbnail. If this isn’t obvious enough, I don’t know what is. I take a big gulp when I ask, “Here, meaning?”

“This little carnival.”

He pushes the sunglasses back up his nose, crams the badge into his pocket and starts to climb the stage stairs. One by one, his shoes pounding the planks sound awfully like, Caught. You. Pedophile. He says, “Boy lives a half mile away. Mom says he always wanders off down here. Spends hours on end but always comes home at night. This time he didn’t. Mom hasn’t heard from him since.”

“That’s terrible,” I say, following him up the stairs. “What’s the dad think?”

“Not sure. I’ll find out when he’s sober.” He points at the stage door. “What’s in there?”

With one quick loop, I’m in between him and the door, assaulted by cinnamon cologne and lavender detergent—a deadly combination of odors. “A trick,” I say with a cough.

“A trick?”

“My grandest trick.”

He tries to peek over my shoulder, but I shift. “Why do you need three huge padlocks? Seems more like a secret, doesn’t it?”

“It is a secret. All tricks are secret. If you deciphered them, there’d be no magic left. Only dexterous trickery.”

He cracks a smile, blowing cool mint in my face. Man of many smells meets the man of many secrets.

“Please,” I say, motioning away from the stage. “I need to prepare for tomorrow.”

Gamble takes his jacket and peels it over the silver gun.

“Detective, I’ve already seen that.”

“Then I don’t think you get the point. I’m looking for a lost child. Bowl-cut blonde hair, an inch long. Light skin. Last wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Red.” With his other hand he pulls a picture out of his pants pocket and shoves it in my face. I hear his voice from behind a close-up of Pauly’s smile. “Have you seen him?”

My sleeve begins to rattle—partially from my shaking arm; mostly from the wriggling snake. A hiss funnels out and Gamble drops the picture, takes a step back. “What was that?”

I lower my arm and the snake slides out. I grab it by the head and lift it up. “Squirmy thing—trying to get away.”

Gamble takes another step back. “You let a poisonous snake hide in your sleeve?”

“Not really.” I flick the creature’s head, prompting it to cock its jaw. I point at the teeth and say, “It’s de-venomed. I would never put my audience in danger.”

Even through the wall of sunglasses I can see his eyes roll.

“Whatever,” he says. He rests one hand on the gun’s handle and stabs a finger at the door with the other. “I’d like to see what’s in there.”

I smile deviously. “I don’t think so, Detective. You see, I have rights, and you have no cause. I would never harm a child, and until you find evidence to prove otherwise, please, like I said before, be on your way.”

He sighs, staring at his foot tapping away on the floorboards. He’s clearly distraught but trying to play his hand wisely. People only get so many cards and it’s a shame to lose one.

“Okay,” he mumbles. “I’ll play along.” He stares right at me so I can see myself in the reflection of his glasses. “Let’s say I’ll come by tomorrow night for your big show. Maybe you’ll change your tune then.”

I look into my own eyes and say, “As long as you pay for a ticket, be my guest.”

He finally lets the jacket fall down to his side before turning and walking away—thinking he got the needed information. The only problem is, he’s neglecting rule number three.

***

Dimple-faced Pauly was an eager explorer. Young and sly, he slipped in through the front entrance—a squeaky wooden door with faulty hinges—thinking his arrival had gone unnoticed. It had for a moment, as I was onstage marveling over a handmade, oak guillotine. But I sensed his movements as he tiptoed down the aisle.

His feet dragged on the carpet. His knees bumped chairs. And he breathed heavily. Bad traits for a sneak.

Then, nothing. I swung around to find Pauly plopped down in a seat with his smiling face resting on the chair in front of him. A blonde bowl cut. Red shirt. Jeans. And his eyes—one of which swollen green, outlined in black and blue—held the look of excitement and adventure.

“Why, hello,” I said, tipping my top hat to him. “You’re a bit early today.”

He nodded.

“Very well,” I said, clapping my hands together. “So, would you like to see my latest secret?”

And just like that, Pauly hopped out of his seat and ran up onstage. He seemed ready. Like he was where he belonged.

“This just arrived today,” I said, running my hand along the wood of a six-by-three foot rectangular box. I gave the side a knock; it echoed inside. “Hollow.” He followed suit—his tiny knock’s echo diminishing much faster than mine had.

My hand stopped at one of the two masts, and I ran a finger inside a long groove extending to the top. “This is the path the mouton follows.” His eyes darted up to the steel blade. The razor-sharp edge sparkled in the light. He didn’t say anything, but if he’d said one word, I knew it would’ve been, “Unreal!”

I looped around to the front and pointed at the lunette. “Now this is where I’ll have a hired audience member come up, lay belly-down and fit their head through. Go ahead. Feel it.”

As his curious fingers felt around the neck hole, I snuck the dangling rope into my hand. With one tug, the blade plummeted. But a steel plate hidden above the hole halted its fall. Pauly didn’t move his hand an inch—a strange reaction for a child.

At that point, I heard the faint yell of a woman. She sounded frantic.

I placed my hand atop his and pushed down, revealing that the board below the neck hole was really made of rubber and split down the center.

“When the blade falls, my hired help will push his head through the rubber and drop his upper body down into the box below. A dull blade that’s been resting on his neck the entire time will fill the hole and look like an actual blade, thus convincing people that I have decapitated an audience member.”

And finally, he said, “Whoa.”

The woman’s yelling became louder, as if she were running laps up and down the dirt street.

“Son,” I said to Pauly, my tone rushed. “I think your time has come.” I quickly led him over to the back door. “I had something in store for the Halloween show, but now I’ve changed my mind.” I flung open the door open and said, “Look at this—I’ve prepared a room, specially for you. Beats your couch at home, doesn’t it?”

He nodded and I nudged him inside.

***

“Halloween!” I announce, lifting my silken black cape in each hand to resemble stretched wings. Overhead bulbs hanging from the ceiling are my stage lighting. They also set the eerie mood for the nearly-one hundred audience members. “’Tis a time of celebration and superstition.” Using my right hand, I fan the cape over my face, revealing a plastic devil mask with bull horns, angry eyes and a cocked-open bear-trap mouth. “Boo!”

I get a few gasps. One shriek. A couple of laughs. And one detective staring at me behind a wall of sunglasses.

“Halloween has long been thought of as the day when the dead return to the earth.” With my left hand, I fan the cape over the devil mask, turning it into a hollowed-out skull with craters for eyes. A few people clap. Some children cower away. Mr. Gamble waits patiently to make his move.

“The ancient Celts lit bonfires!” I snap my fingers, and a metal bowl on a table behind me sparks a flame inside, turning a lump of barley into a small fire. “And they wore costumes to ward off the roaming ghosts!” In one motion, I pull off my cape, showing the crowd my costume—a white-and-black-barred jumpsuit with a puffy clown mask concealing my head.

I leap off the stage and rush up to a boy in the first row, poking my nose into his chest. “Go ahead. Give it a honk.” He looks to his father who nods, then hooks his small finger and thumb into a “C” around the red ball on my nose. He squeezes, producing a “boink” sound.

I walk backward up the stage stairs, saying, “Take a look in your pocket, young man.”

He pats himself and finds a lump in his jacket. He immediately sticks his hand inside and withdraws a paper bag stuffed with taffy, gummy bears, bubblegum and licorice. “Sweet!” he yelps, and I respond, “Literally.”

That was just a little filler. You can’t just go from big trick to big trick. There has to be a buildup. Especially after taking a real audience member, shackling him to the spinning board and throwing knives at him. The man’s body was outlined with a dozen blades, yet none had harmed a hair on him. I even had him hold a balloon sideways with his mouth so I could use the last knife to pop it. The crowd went bonkers. I wonder what they’ll think of my grandest trick.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” I holler, fanning my arms outward. The fire extinguishes and the overhead bulbs transform into shrinking white dots that disappear with a flash in the darkness.

It’s silent. Dead silent. I hold for a moment. There are whispers. Hold a bit longer.

Then, there are questions. “What’s going on?” and “What’s going to happen?”

It’s time.

“Behold!” I shout. The bulbs flicker back on to reveal me standing next to the ten-foot-tall guillotine. My clown mask, and all the others, are crammed neatly in my sleeves.

I give the crowd a moment to refocus before outlining the towering masts with my hands. It’s very important to be articulate. Posture and gestures are key. And drama. It’s necessary to be overly dramatic.

“A barbaric method of execution that dates all the way back to the mid-1500s!” I place my boot on the box and hoist myself up. With my fingers gliding over the blade, I continue, “They say the person guillotined becomes unconscious very quickly and dies from shock and anoxia due to hemorrhage—all in less than 60 seconds. It has often been reported that the eyes and mouths of people beheaded have shown signs of movement.” I stare at one of the children in the first row as I say, “Imagine having a conversation with a severed head.”

I sense the crowd is on edge. They’re bringing my words to life with their imaginations—becoming fearful of the device, exactly as they’re supposed to. It makes it all that much easier when I say, “Don’t be frightened, my lovely people! Besides, I need a courageous volunteer to come and put their neck on the line…literally.”

Nobody moves. They just look around at each other until a brave soul steps forth. But there’s no need to worry, for I already found him. I point directly at Joe, sitting in the fourth row. Tonight he’s wearing a silly mustache, monocle, and burlap suit.

“Sir?” I say. “Would you be willing to risk your life for this audience’s enjoyment?”

Joe hesitates. He gives me looks. Unsure. Then, scared. He gives me too much time because Gamble shoots out of his seat and yells, “Over here!” Everyone looks. Everyone stares. Everyone waits. “I’ll do it,” he says, already in route to the aisle, banging his butt off of people’s faces. “What do I have to do?”

I snicker a bit. “Sir, it’s quite fine. Have a seat, please. I was talking to that man over there.” I point at Joe.

But it’s too late, for Gamble has cleared the stairs in one leap and is now standing before me, eagerly awaiting instructions. “Why can’t I do it?” he asks.

“Umm…” I can barely see over him, and his hands—they’re rubbing together as if to create fire. I halt his fire-starting with an enclosing fist, lean in and whisper, “So you did come to play.”

“Seems I did.”

“Very well, listen carefully. You’ll lie on the table belly-down and then I’ll strap you in. When I tell the crowd that ‘people in the front row might get a bit wet,’ that’s your cue to start counting down silently from ten. On two, I’ll release the rope and drop the blade. On one, you’ll push your head down through the rubber neckpiece into the box below, making it appear as though you’ve lost your head.”

He gives me a pat on the back and says, “Sure, sure. You helped me. Now let me help you.” He goes over and hops up on the table. After cracking all of his knuckles, he flips over and slides his head through the neck hole, chuckling a bit after spotting the secret entrance.

As I’m sealing the top part of the lunette, I say, in a raised voice, “This is extremely dangerous, so I must warn the audience to never stick your head inside a guillotine. That is, unless you want to lose it.”

I shackle Gamble’s wrists and ankles to the box with curved, metal bars. “And if I slip up here tonight…well, that will only reaffirm that you must not play around with execution devices.”

I get a few laughs, but for the most part, it’s obvious that people are nervous. Even more so when I take the tattered rope in my hand and say, “People in the front row might get a bit wet.”

My mental countdown begins. Ten. Nine. Eight.

POW! What sounds like a muffled shot erupts in the distance.

And darkness! The bulbs once again flash off. “What’s going on?” Gamble asks, wiggling around in the deathtrap. “What was that noise?”

“Remain calm,” I say. “People, remain calm. It seems we’re experiencing technical difficulties.”

Everyone was calm until then. Now, there’s lots of shifting and whispering.

Three. Two. One. The lights flash back on. The crowd leans in. Gamble stretches out his neck to see what happened.

“You still have your head,” I say, “for it seems the spirits have spared your life.” I walk around the stage for a few moments before unshackling the good detective. Then, I bob a thumb to the top of the rope where it’s tied into seven bulky knots.

Gamble is on his feet, patting himself down, and even takes off his sunglasses. I merely smile, placing a hand on the four-foot-tall object draped by a black curtain on my left.

“Perhaps we’ll find the answers we seek,” I pull off the cloth to reveal a gutted doll house with a large roof sitting alone on a fold-out table. “Here, in the ghost house.”

The crowd leans in closer.

“Dear, sir,” I say to the detective, “will you please scan the house to make sure it’s empty?”

Poor Gamble is giving me the curious eye as he hesitantly sticks his arm through the two-by-two foot home. When he’s done, I rotate the fold-out table so everyone can see. Then I take a single rocking chair out of my pocket, place it on the floor and shut both sets of doors.

“Spirit,” I say, closing my eyes, acting as if I’m calling upon all of my energy, “show yourself!”

I ease open the doors, and in the rocking chair sits a plain white doll with no face. The crowd gasps. Gamble is trying to figure out how I did it, but I close the doors once again and say, “Spirit, that is not your true form. Please, show yourself!”

Again, I ease the doors open, this time revealing a much bigger doll that barely fits inside. Its body is bent in half, and the rocking chair is in pieces on the floor.

Everyone’s amazed, but the trick isn’t over. There’s one more part.

After closing the doors for a third time, I say, “Spirit, please right the wrong you have done and return that which you have stolen from my poor volunteer!”

I feel Gamble’s eyes burning a hole in me as I swing the doors open. There, on the floor, is his gun. He immediately slips a hand inside his jacket and feels the empty holster.

“Go ahead.” I step out of the way. “The spirits have returned your firearm, Detective.”

He’s infuriated as he swipes up the gun and notices a piece of paper attached to the trigger. It reads, “Your move,” and I guess it doesn’t help that the crowd is going nuts, giving me a thunderous round of applause.

Gamble’s aimless stare tells the whole story. He’s looking right through me for an answer that doesn’t exist. How was I fooled? he’s thinking. Those laughs are meant for me. He’ll always wonder, What’s the secret to that trick?

I see his emotions climax as he crumbles the note and bobs his gun. His ego is deflated, his wits bested. As he slowly aims the shaking gun at my stomach, I lose my grasp on certainty for the first time since his arrival.

Gamble says, “Get out,” but everyone is too busy clapping, so he turns his head and screams, “Get out!” Once he waves the gun around and it sparkles in the reflection of the light, the audience begins to swarm out of the building. At the same time, a line of police officers march in. They jingle and pound all the way up the stairs, stopping right in front of the padlocked door.

Then Gamble regains his confidence. He gushes with excitement as he pulls his own surprise out of his pocket and forces it in my face—a search warrant.

“I was already one step ahead of you,” he says, nudging me in the side with the gun. “Now if you would be so kind as to unlock that door, we can all get on with our nights rather quickly. Except you, of course.”

“But I have plans for tonight, Detective.”

“Open.” He places the cold tip of the gun on my Adam’s apple. “Now.”

I stumble over to the charcoal-colored door, two police officers standing on either side, and say, “No.”

“Fine.” He smiles, gesturing to his men. “Have it…”

“Don’t bother with that,” I say, taking the padlocks and flipping them off to reveal nothing but an unlocked door. “It’s merely an illusion.”

The officers ping-pong confusion back and forth. It slaps Gamble in the face. I want to say, “Your move,” but I don’t have to. He raises his gun and commands, “Open it.” And just like the ghost house, when I open the door, there’s nothing inside but a gutted room.

“This is my storage area,” I say. “Everything I have is currently onstage.”

Gamble storms inside—his anger echoing off of the walls right back at him. He pouts. Kicks the floor. Shrugs. Curses. Mumbles. Sighs. When he sees me smiling, he shouts, “Get him out of my face!”

Two officers pin my hands behind my back before falling silent. As Gamble stands there tapping his foot, one of them says, “Where to?”

Gamble takes in the emptiness for a moment. Deep breath after deep breath, I know what he’s going to fill it with. He points over my shoulder and says, “Give him a seat all the way in the back. Right on the floor. Right by the entrance.”

The detective thinks he’s won. He gives me a wink as the two officers drag me up the aisle. They push me down and say, “Don’t move.” Then all the little minions swarm around their mother bee. They listen carefully as Gamble stares holes in me.

“Listen up! You see these whitewashed walls? These swept floorboards? This fancy, well-kept stage?” The minions’ heads bob like the sea. “I want it all brought down! The magician doesn’t think he has to reveal his secret, so we’ll rip it out of him while he watches.”

And indeed I watch. I watch minions kick chairs over like dominos. I watch them fill the floor with potholes. They tear cracks in my walls and gut wires like pig intestines. The longer it takes, the more patience Gamble loses. Each time he looks at me, his face is sweatier and sweatier. Powdered in dust. Muddy. Looking like a torched zombie. But then he spots some hope.

The detective takes his place onstage. He bows, and dust snows off of his hair. His pearly-white teeth are visible through his mask of black and white camouflage. He takes the opportunity to perform a little show of his own.

“Ladies and gentlemen, and way back there where you can probably barely hear me,” Gamble says, flicking his hands around. “I have a very special performance planned for you tonight. Something I like to call ‘Destructing the magic!’” He approaches the spinning wheel and gives it a whirl. Right as his hand withdraws, he pulls his gun out and fires at the base. Three bullets later the wheel breaks off, rolls off stage and sinks halfway into the floor.

This garners the minions’ attention; when I hear someone whistle and another clap, I grind my fists into the splintered floor to release my anger. Gamble can sense this, so he slides over to the guillotine and motions to a minion who tosses him a crowbar. He shouts, “Behold!” before splitting apart one of the masts. He showcases the other mast with his outstretched hands, and everyone watches as it collapses from the pressure, ripping a hole in the box. Several strikes later, my newest trick is in pieces with Gamble’s taunting face hovering overhead. I strain to hold back my emotions. Rage. The thirst for vengeance. But I can’t let him see me become another object in the room.

Gamble waltzes over to the ghost house, dragging the crowbar across the stage. He gives the foldout table and gutted home a once-over before letting a laugh slip. And then he stares some more. He laughs some more. And the entire time I can see him thinking, How’d he do it? His eyes are saying, Where’s the secret? He turns to a minion, but the man simply shrugs. He turns to another minion, gets more of the same. Then he finally decides to throw the crowbar at the side of the ghost house, causing it wobble on top of the table and end his performance.

But at the end of this performance, nobody claps. Nobody whistles. Nobody cheers. As zombie officers pass by grunting and mumbling, I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. And when the star of this disastrous show approaches, dragging his feet, carrying his jacket under his arm, I wait patiently for an autograph. I want to show him my appreciation. It’s the least I can do for a man whose skin is sagging from the weight of defeat. Just as he comes within touching distance, he sticks a hand in my face, pointing a finger and says, “I know it’s you.”

I try to say, “There’s no evidence to…” but he makes a slicing gesture at my throat with his hand and finishes with, “It’s my move,” before strolling off.

Once the circus is gone for good, I pounce to my feet. I’m so giddy that I skip over floor holes and leap the gap where the stage stairs once stood. I hurry over to the only intact object in the room—the ghost house. It sits onstage like a rose in the middle of a swamp. But this rose, its fragrance is victory. I take a big whiff as I unclamp the large roof and fling it open in one motion. Pauly springs out like a jack-in-the-box. His face is one big smile as he holds up his hand, waiting for me to high-five him. I do, and give the little magician’s head a good rub.

“Excellent performance tonight,” I say. He simply nods.

You see, the real magician isn’t the person onstage taking all of the credit. The real magician is the assistant, who does all the work. One look at Pauly the first day we met and I knew he needed me—needed this adventurous life. Needed to escape his drunken father. But I also needed him. There’s no magic in magic. It’s all about fooling the audience and following the rules.

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