The tired face stared out at his old friend. Al dreaded moments like this but the time had come for the talk. The box office needed a boost that The Great Waldini couldn’t provide anymore. Perhaps the carnival needed a young stud magician that at least the ladies would respond to even if his act sucked.
“How long we known each other Phil?”
“Gotta be sixteen, seventeen years. We met in Vegas when I was headlining at Caesar’s. That’s where Margo and I hooked up. She danced at the Riveria and came over every night to see my magic show. Great times Al!”
“Margo,” Al’s yellow teeth broke into a smile drifting back to those days in Vegas when he signed the rising star to join his traveling carnival. The coffers were overflowing those first five years. “What a babe she was, still has her figure.”
Al’s face grew serious. “That’s not what I wanted to talk about Phil. It’s your act. Nobody’s in your corner more than me. You ain’t drawing flies. Either upgrade your show or else!”
Phil’s dark eyes fought back tears. “What am I gonna do? Being a stage magician is all I been doing for twenty-five years. Even as a kid I’d put on magic shows for the neighbors.”
“I can’t have a traveling carnival without a magician. When we setup in Tampa, I signed Bruce Grimes, the next David Cooperfield, to headline our opening night. Watch his act and learn from one of the rising illusionists in the magic world.”
Phil walked out passing a line of trucks and trailers until he reached his own. “The Great Waldini” read the bright blue letters with a cartoonist drawing of him wearing the purple turban and white gloves. Embarrassing! If they wanted to sell tickets, Margo’s hourglass figure in her short stage dress would be much better.
“What’d old Al want this time?” Margo sipped a glass of lemonade as she hemmed her dress, sitting provocatively in her sheer dressing gown.
“The usual. Disappointed with my act. Wants to replace me.”
“I told ya. I warned ya this day would come. When Al finally has the balls to fire your ass, I’ll be a cocktail waitress again, too old to be a dancer.”
Phil’s eyes drifted to the fading posters of “The Great Waldini Live at Caesar’s” that served as a daily reminder of how far he’d fallen. He remembered all the sold-out shows, the audience of fellow magicians and Vegas entertainers that pushed the tourists into the cheap seats in the back. The magazine interviews, the cover of People, when he and Margo were still in love . . .
“Why’d you buy these books? Are we made of money?” Margo interrupted his thoughts.
“They’re books on magic, even a reprint of ‘Modern Magic,’ the first real book of magic from the 1870s.”
“Didn’t know you could read anything but the race results from all the tracks. How much you lose on the horses last month?”
Phil wouldn’t take the bait, ignoring her gambling insults. “I want one major trick to add to the act, a showstopper! I’ve been reading bout Harry Houdini. He’s the famous escape artist who couldn’t be held by handcuffs, prisons, strait jackets, coffins, even a Chinese water torture cell when he hung upside down.”
“You’re not Houdini, even in your dreams.” Margo dropped her gown and switched to a flowery print dress. That always got his attention, a quick flash of her body.
“No it’s not the escape part. In 1918,” Phil opened one book to the folded page,”Houdini performed at New York’s Hippodrome, the largest stage in the world at the time. He made a five ton elephant disappear! That’s what I want, a vanishing trick.”
“Good,” Margo said slipping on her black heels,”cause I’m gonna vanish right in front of your eyes. I’m going for a walk. I’ll leave you to your books.”
“David Cooperfield, in one of his tv specials, had a jumbo jet disappear in front of a worldwide audience.” At that point Phil knew he was talking to himself. “Don’t you remember the Statue of Liberty vanished on live tv?”
The trailer door opened and closed. He was alone. Where did she go on these afternoon walks and who took walks in heels? He suspected that she cheated on him but never pursued it. Maybe today he’d find out the truth.
Before Phil left the trailer, he glanced in the full-length mirror Margo had insisted she needed. Never any fun to see himself. He had more grey hair on his chest than on his head. The obvious weight gain gave him a gut that he concealed well in baggy stage clothes. But he knew the real story. His rugged good looks had left him years ago, probably why Margo had lost interest in him. Only a business relationship existed between them.
Still, they were married and Phil didn’t want to be the source of all the whispers when he walked by their carnival family. He knew where to look first – Samson the Strongman’s trailer. Even though Margo had to be seven, eight years older, he watched the two of them exchange glances and smiles right in front of him.
The unlocked door led Phil inside Samson’s trailer. Most of the carnival trailers were setup the same, a small kitchen and living area to the right, bedrooms and bath to the left. He didn’t have to walk very far. Black heels, the flower print dress, her birthday present last year, lay on the hallway floor followed by her pink undergarments.
Phil had to look for himself. Enough evidence displayed in front of him but he needed to see them together. He took two steps into the bedroom. Margo and Samson rolling around naked in a darkened room became the second worst moment in his life. In first place at age five he walked in on his parents in bed and yelled,”Stop hurting my mom!” He hurried out of the trailer, trying to throw up but couldn’t.
What were his options? Fight Samson and get his ass kicked? Divorce Margo and have no partner for his act? Training someone new took time that he didn’t have. In a matter of days, he could be out as a magician. Was anyone at the carnival on his side?
The carnival fortune teller, Anastasia, read tarot cards for a living. She came from an East German circus family and left Europe after a tragic fire killed her parents. When Reed, her lion tamer husband, died of a heart attack, she made it clear to Phil of her long-standing feelings for him. He never responded, still she was attractive and available. It had only been six weeks since Reed’s sudden death.
Phil looked at her trailer just three down from his. Now was the wrong time. He returned to his trailer and threw the first book he saw against the wall. It crashed and then fell open on the floor. Angry and at the same time curious, Phil lifted the book off the floor. It had opened to a chapter titled,”Black Magic.” He didn’t recall that being in any of his books. Maybe fate had entered his life. He began reading and reached for paper to jot down some notes. That might work, he thought.
Showtime in forty-five minutes found Margo toweling off after a quick shower. She dressed in her tight, purple sequined dress. Her short blonde wig completed the picture. The mirror reflected back a beautiful woman as she approached forty.
Adjusting the purple turban on his head, Phil wore his matching purple tuxedo coat. With a white shirt, black pants and shoes and then the white gloves he waited to leave for the show tent. Phil stared at Margo as she brushed her hair one last time. Try as he might, he couldn’t get the picture of Margo and Samson together out of his head.
The last night of the carnival always pulled in the most customers. Kids came for the rides and cotton candy. Adults pursued the shows and gambling tents, even though the cards were stacked and marked against them. Loud organ music played through the numerous speakers. Several carnival barkers lied in flowery language to encourage people to drop their coins and see the many shows in small colorful tents.
Al entered the magic tent but sat quietly in the back to watch The Great Waldini. The long, multicolored scarf appeared from Phil’s hand and the yellow birds flew from Phil’s empty hat. The audience clapped throughout the show. Cutting Margo in half followed by levitating her in the air, what man in the audience didn’t fall for Margo’s shapely legs? The chemistry Phil and Margo displayed, just like the old days!
Phil ended the show releasing doves into the large crowd. The audience applauded as they rose to leave. Al rushed through the people. “You guys were great! Proud of you two.”
“Thanks,” Phil acknowledged.
“But I stand by what I said before. You need a new act. Everyone does these tricks.”
“I’m working on a new trick, something spectacular. It’ll be ready when we open in Tampa.”
“I hope so Phil. I’m glad you’re taking my threat seriously. The three of us been together for a long time. I want this to continue. Tonight was a step in the right direction.” Then he left the tent and joined the crowd outside.
Margo waited until they reached their trailer. “You have a new trick?”
“Not yet,” Phil admitted. “Those books you made fun of gave me an idea. A showstopper for all time.”
After returning for the second show to a sparse crowd, they packed up their birds, equipment and headed back to the trailer. They separated with Margo taking the main bedroom and with Phil in the spare room that had evolved into his bedroom this past year. At least he didn’t have to look at her with the betrayal fresh in his mind.
Sleep wouldn’t come for Phil. When eleven turned to midnight then one a.m., Phil got dressed and left the trailer. Who would welcome him at this hour? Only one person he knew.
Before he knocked, the trailer door swung open to Anastasia in a red silk robe with her long black hair reaching her waist. “I knew you were coming. The cards told me.” Only candlelight illuminated the trailer. Phil started to speak until Anastasia placed two fingers over his mouth. “No words are necessary,” she said softly. She kissed him passionately and opened her silk robe revealing – everything. “Follow the candles and share my bed Magic Man.”
Teardown Day greeted them at an early hour with the loud noise of the crew taking apart all the tents and loading the trucks for the drive to Tampa. Phil reached for his clothes. Anastasia took his hand instead. “Stay with me forever,” she pleaded. “We can leave the carnival and start a new life together.”
“I can’t,” Phil regretted, kissing her willing lips. “There is unfinished business with Margo and the carnival. Maybe after we leave Tampa. I’m sorry but I need to get dressed.”
Margo stood over the coffeemaker as he entered the trailer. “Where you been?”
“I’ll tell you when you tell me where you really go on your afternoon walks.”
She backed down stirring the milk in her coffee. “You feel guilty Phil?”
“I’m taking a shower. We’re leaving in less than an hour.” He added,”It’s a four and half hour ride to Tampa.”
One of the crew, Stanley Dobbins, drove their trailer. He was a young runaway who liked the constant change of locations. People suspected he left arrest warrants behind in several Northern states. He did his job, stayed sober for the most part and kept out of people’s business. Phil’s mind wandered to Margo hitting on Stanley next. His cell rang. “Thanks Al. Give him my number.”
“Who was that?” Margo asked as she painted her nails.
Before he answered, his cell rang again. “Bruce, the new David Cooperfield, calling me?”
“The Great Waldini. You don’t know it yet. I saw your act in Vegas with my parents when I was ten. You were my inspiration man!”
“Thanks. So why are you calling me? We’ll be in Tampa by noon. We can talk face-to-face in a few hours.”
“Got this idea Phil. I would be honored to have you on stage with me. Maybe give you ten minutes. What’d say Phil?”
“That would be great. I have a new disappearing trick I wanted to try. Look forward to meeting you and working out the details.”
Black Magic dominated Phil’s thoughts. A chance existed to impress a standing-room-only audience and reestablish his reputation as an illusionist. And have Margo pay for her betrayal. Back to the mysterious chapter he stumbled upon and create the showstopper people would talk about for years and years.
What bitch took Phil in last night and how many other times did it happen, Margo wondered. Samson occupied her thoughts and desires. But Phil married her and if they broke up, she would be out of the carnival. She needed to keep an eye on him.
Signs for Tampa brought an end to their trip. Less than an hour to go, Phil left the living area taking his book to the bathroom. He spoke the ancient words and stretched his hands over the sink. Real flames appeared from his fingers! Damn, he thought, the old magic worked. In the early days magicians were connected with witches and the occult. How else could real magic happen unless the devil himself whispered into the magician’s ear? Today, Phil could use Black Magic and be admired again as a genius.
Before setting up for tonight’s opening performance, Al provided tables of salads, chicken and desserts for everyone to enjoy. Phil and Margo sat together. Her eyes followed his as he exchanged smiles with Anastasia. The widow, of course, Margo should have guessed.
Bruce Grimes arrived shaking hands, signing autographs and taking pictures with the carnival family. Then he walked over to Phil. “The Great Waldini, we meet at last.” Handing his camera to Margo, he added,”Please take our picture. Thanks.”
“Let’s walk and talk Bruce,” Phil suggested rising from the table.
“My show van is here. My guys are ready to unload when the tent’s up.” They walked away.
Margo stared at Anastasia thinking, I never liked that dark-haired bitch. I want revenge on both of them. Something that would send a scare to Anastasia and an embarrassment to Phil in front of that huge opening night audience.
Late afternoon the large main tent filled with rows of wooden chairs and an array of colored lights. Bruce Grimes directed his men as the massive equipment covered the stage. “Very impressive,” Phil said joining Bruce in the middle of the stage. “I’m not used to the big stage anymore. They have me working the small tent. The animal acts usually open here.”
“Not tonight my friend.” Bruce patted him on the back. “It’s a magical night. Here’s my plan. I’ll open and say forty to forty-five minutes in I’ll introduce you and leave the stage. Say ten minutes later, I’ll return and go another hour.”
“You never met Margo, my wife and stage assistant. She will disappear in front of everyone. No mirrors, real magic Bruce.” Phil climbed down the steps. “See you before the show starts.”
Phil pulled the folded paper from his shirt pocket. The strange words of another time yet the perfect words for the perfect trick. Margo will vanish from the world tonight, never to return! Unlike the past mirrored cabinet that masked her disappearance, this Black Magic he could direct but never control. Top that Bruce Grimes!
He passed Anastasia’s trailer and fought the urge to enjoy the afternoon with her. More practicing and checking the cabinet for tonight represented the keys for success. For his dream to be with Anastasia soon, this night would guarantee their future together. Bye bye Margo!
The afternoon turned to early evening. Cars and trucks parked everywhere and people stood in long lines. Excitement and organ music filled the air. Al couldn’t help but smile over the successful booking of the next David Cooperfield.
Margo rushed into the trailer, nearly out of breath. “Sorry, I had something I had to do. I’ll be ready on time Phil.”
Phil adjusted his purple turban in the mirror. Did Margo have the nerve to visit Samson and almost miss their biggest show in years? Concentrate, concentrate on the words, the hand movements.
Twenty minutes later they waited in the back of the stage for their moment. “It’s the same cabinet we’ve used before Phil. How’s this vanishing trick any different?”
“You’ll see Margo, you’ll see. Just stay inside the cabinet. That’s essential for the trick to work.”
Bruce Grimes announced,”I would like to introduce the man who I consider my mentor and new friend, The Great Waldini!”
They both appeared waving to thunderous applause, like the old Vegas days. “Thanks for the kind words Bruce. I’m also a big fan of yours!” Bruce bowed slightly and left the stage.
The crew rolled the cabinet on the stage as Phil said,”My assistant and my wife Margo!” He waited for the clapping to stop. “Margo will disappear before your eyes tonight!” Phil opened the cabinet so the audience could view the inside. Then he continued,”Say goodbye to Margo.” Margo stepped inside the cabinet and Phil spun it around twice.
Margo had already slipped through the false bottom and under the stage. Now was the hard part, taking Anastasia all tied up and gagged and pushing her through the false bottom and into the cabinet.
The Great Waldini uttered the ancient sounds. Flames appeared from his fingertips. The stage lights blinked nearly turning off. A cold wind entered the tent. The trance like feeling overpowered him as his arms flew violently in the air. Then he stopped. Margo was gone forever!
Phil threw open the cabinet doors, nothing, no one inside. It really worked. The crowd erupted in loud applause. Suddenly Margo appeared in the audience walking up the stage steps. Bruce returned to the stage. “Great trick Phil. You fooled everyone.” He extended a hand to Margo and helped her back on stage.
“That’s not the trick. Something went wrong.” A pale Phil stared at Margo. “Why are you here?”
A confused Margo explained,”I don’t know what you did but Anastasia was in the cabinet. I put her there myself. You made her disappear!”