Mr. Beelzy’s Trick
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
At this hour on such an inclement evening, the dimly lit Majestic usually had more drinkers than diners, and not many of either. Presto waved to Harry, the bartender and proprietor, and to the trio of topers hunched over their drinks at the end of the bar, who acknowledged their friend with a mute volley of nods.
The radio was playing Roosevelt’s victory song Happy Days Are Here Again! but the atmosphere in the café was suffused with the near despair that seeped from its patrons in need of a drink and an occasional meal on the cuff.
Harry motioned Presto closer. “There’s one hell of an odd duck waiting for you,” Harry said, indicating a booth toward the back of the room with a jut of his jaw. “Name’s Weasly or something. Let me know if he bothers you, and I’ll eighty-six him.”
As Presto approached Beelzy, the Majestic’s usual aroma of cheap liquor, old clothes, and boiled cabbage was dispelled by a pungent cloud of bay rum cologne.
“At last! The great Presto est arrivé! What a singular pleasure — nay — what an honor it is, sir, to meet you and your talented terrier, Molly!”
As they shook hands, Presto noticed Beelzy’s fingers were long, slender, and tapered — perfect for card manipulations; and the man’s grip was surprisingly strong. Beelzy respectfully inclined his head and gestured for Presto to be seated.
Presto’s practiced eye quickly sized up the stranger’s appearance: thick, glossy black hair swept back and curling over his collar, a red silk tie bisecting a starched, white shirtfront framed by a tailored black velvet jacket.
Beelzy was standing straight, with an almost military posture, and smiling broadly, his full red lips revealing astonishingly white, even teeth set off by a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard. Most striking were Beelzy’s eyes; with almost no iris, the black pupils were unnaturally large, like those of some creature of the night.
A swell gent for sure, Presto thought, but what’s he want with me?
“Oh yes, this is going to be a most memorable evening!” Beelzy exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. “But pardon my manners. Albertus Beelzy’s the name, personal manager by trade, amateur magician by choice. Let’s drop any formality — just call me Al.”
Molly eyed Beelzy and gave out a low growl.
“Tut, tut, my dear,” said Beelzy and stroked between the dog’s ears. Molly curled up at Presto’s feet. Beelzy snapped his fingers and called out, “Mr. Publican, two glasses and a bottle of your finest sour mash bourbon, please. And a dish of water for the dog!”
Harry glared at Beelzy but complied. Beelzy waited for Harry to depart before he resumed.
“I have no skills as a mentalist, yet I am certain I can read your thoughts. You are wondering, ‘Who is this odd fellow?’ And of course, the sixty-four dollar question, ‘What does he want?’ Have I come close, sir?” Beelzy fairly effervesced as he spoke.
“Perhaps a little magic will make for a better introduction. May I borrow your deck of cards?” said Beelzy. “I know you magicians are seldom without one.”
Beelzy took Presto’s deck and divided it into equal halves, placed them six inches from each other, and put his hands in his lap. When he nodded, the halves shuffled themselves, and the deck slid in front of Presto. “It wants you to cut,” said Beelzy.
“How the devil did you do that?” said a baffled Presto as he cut the cards. The deck then dealt out five hands of draw poker, face up. Each hand was strong — three Jacks, a ten-high straight, King-high flush, a Queens-over-eights full house for Presto, and four Aces for Beelzy, who had not once touched the cards.
Beelzy gathered up the cards, tossed the deck into the air, and it disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Don’t worry,” Beelzy said. “It’s in your pocket.”
Presto checked his jacket pocket and the deck was there, back in its case.
Presto’s gaunt face brightened. “Al, I’ve known some great card men, but not one of them could do what you just did. That was impossible — supernatural even. Really phenomenal.”
“Faugh! Hardly! It was cheating — mere showing off! It is you who are the best!” Beelzy said, his voice rising in volume. “The ne plus ultra of cardicians!” Beelzy drank his tumbler of bourbon and poured another. “The king of coins, cards, and close-up. You, sir, are my idol.”
As Presto had watched the trick, he grew curious to figure out Beelzy’s game. During Presto’s distant past, he’d met his share of con men, flim-flammers, hustlers, grifters, and card sharks — and had been one himself. He knew that Beelzy was none of these, because those guys either wanted money or wanted to hire Presto to help them get it. Presto didn’t have any money and hadn’t been on the grift in twenty years.
So what did Beelzy want?
“I have not yet answered my own questions but will in good time,” Beelzy said. “My rule is no business on an empty stomach, so I took the liberty of ordering three steaks with all the trimmin’s in anticipation of your arrival — Molly’s to be cut into bite-sized bits, of course. Mr. Publican, if you will!”
Harry delivered the food, and as they ate and chatted, Beelzy showed himself to be knowledgeable about all aspects of magic history, from its ancient beginnings to its recent decline.
“What irony that with music, drama, and painting, the artfulness of the creator or performer is on full display,” sighed Beelzy as he popped a last bloody morsel of steak into his mouth and swallowed it, “but with the magician, his art must be concealed or is no art at all. Hidden in plain sight, as it were.” He pushed his plate away, lit a cigar, and disappeared behind a swirl of smoke.
“Ah! That’s better! And the steak was to your liking?”
Presto allowed as how it had been a while since he’d had such a fine meal. Beelzy was delighted. Harry removed the dishes and brought two cups of coffee.
“Al, what can I do for you?”
“You are not a man to beat around the bush, and I like that! But, before we get to that — and we will get to that — indulge me a bit more.” Beelzy puffed fiercely on his cigar and blew a billowing set of concentric smoke rings.
“I have the greatest interest in you and your career, Signor Presto. You are the best at what you do — period. All these soi-disant great magicians — Thurston, Jansen, Blackstone, that fraud Houdini, et alia — knew it and sought you out for instruction, which you too generously provided.”
Beelzy held up his hand. “No, sir — it’s true! You were the master, they the unworthy acolytes. They were all public relations and flapdoodle while in your quiet way, you took magic to its apex — and beyond! Mr. Publican,” he bellowed, “two brandies and a small slice of apple pie for canis fidelis.”
“Al, those are great magicians you’re talking about.”
“Oh, are they?” sneered Beelzy. “Not in my book they aren’t, and believe me, all but a few of them are in my book.”
Harry arrived with the brandy. “Just call me Harry, will ya? And tone it down. You’re disturbing the customers.” He jerked his thumb toward the three barflies and returned to his station behind the bar.
“Presto, allow me to summarize. There you were, a headliner in theatres and nightclubs from the Rainbow Room to the Brown Derby — you, your wife, and Molly’s predecessor...” Beelzy snapped his fingers impatiently.
“Peaches,” said Presto.
“Yes! Dear little Peaches! You perform your elegant act for presidents, royalty, and Hollywood stars but then — catastrophe! Adele, the Lovely Lady of Mystery — your wife, partner, muse, and manager — is stricken with an incurable malady. You return to Chicago to nurse her through three agonizing years of slow decline and her final passing.
“While you spend all your savings on her care and barely make ends meet, your name and reputation dim, though not your artistry. Just as you contemplate a return to the big-time, the Depression snuffs out the theaters and intimate venues suited to your subtle skills.
“You are thrown from pillory to post; your ungrateful colleagues are no help. You spiral downward, performing for unappreciative buffoons and sticky brats, and here you sit, almost out of hope but with a kind heart and a shining, generous soul. And that, dear Presto, is why I am so interested in you.”
Beelzy’s recitation had reopened a still unhealed wound in Presto’s heart. With each beat, the pain of losing Adele pulsed through him anew. He sat unmoving and mute.
“Presto,” said Beelzy, leaning forward and dropping his voice into a consoling whisper, “I can and will revive your career. Fame and fortune await. You will hobnob with Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and his blockheaded friend Charlie McCarthy, Bill Fields, Burns and Allen, et cetera. Your legerdemain will lighten the spirits of the weary and careworn.” He cradled Presto’s hands in his. “They await the healing touch of your magic.” Beelzy took a deep breath and sighed as though overcome by emotion. “I rest my case.”
Then he took a deep draw on his cigar and exhaled a plume of smoke, which curled into a question mark.
Beelzy’s pitch was good, one of the best Presto had ever heard, but he knew the game. No one would do all this unless he was getting something out of it.
Time to lay back, Presto thought, and play dumb. “I don’t know what to say, Al. You’re willing to do that for me?”
“Yes!” said Beelzy. “All that and more. In exchange, I ask only three things. One is that we will collaborate to produce a show of such mystifying effects and illusions that your colleagues will acknowledge you not as their prince, but as their king.”
Presto didn’t know if Beelzy was serious or not, but just the thought of performing — really performing again — momentarily lifted Presto’s spirits. He asked what were the other two things.
“Not much really,” Beelzy said with a shrug. “Number two, you teach me the secret of the center deal, which try as I might, I cannot seem to master — at least not without cheating.”
“I’m surprised you can’t do it already,” Presto said. “I’d be happy to teach it to you.”
Beelzy sipped his coffee.
Presto looked at him expectantly. “Oh, sorry,” said Beelzy. “Number three, I get your soul.”
Beelzy returned Presto’s astonished look with an expression as nonchalant as if he’d asked Presto for a match.
“Are you saying you’re the devil and you want my soul?” said Presto, stifling his incredulity. He didn’t want to laugh in the man’s face after such a good meal.
“Oh, don’t bring him up!” said Beelzy with a dismissive wave of his hand. “He is so heavy-handed — plagues, wars, floods, famines blah blah blah. No, dear friend, I am only one of his weary lieutenants, but more than that, I am a connoisseur, a collector of — shall we say — fine art and fine artists. As a student of the magical arts for centuries, I’ve seen ’em all and signed up some of the best — and they were happy to sign.”
“Al, this offer of yours... if you were me, wouldn’t you have trouble believing it?”
“You’re asking me if I’m serious?” said Beelzy mildly.
Presto said he was.
“Look into my eyes. Perhaps that will answer your question.”
Back when Presto had card-sharked, he’d been able to decipher his opponents’ intentions by reading the minutest movements of their eyes or hands or a slight change in their tone of voice. Thousands of dollars — and once or twice, his life — had depended on his uncanny abilities. As he now met Beelzy’s depthless, dead-eyed stare, Presto knew beyond all doubt that Beelzy had meant every word he’d said.
Beelzy wanted his soul.
Presto was shaken but didn’t betray his unease. “I’ll need time to think this over.”
“Of course you will. Such an offer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — not at first anyway. But take heed — my offer’s only good for three days. We can meet here each night, and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. At the end of three days” — he glanced at his wrist watch — “at ten p.m. sharp, the offer expires. What could be simpler?”
“Golly, I dunno, Al.” Presto lapsed into his ingenuous hayseed character, the same one that he had long ago used to fleece real hayseeds at three-card monte.
“I think you do know, my cagey friend, and should you wish to accept my offer tonight, I have your contract with me.” Beelzy cracked each of his knuckles with a distinct “pop” while he regarded Presto. “No? Well then, consider my offer with the utmost care because you will find I am not easily dissuaded.” Beelzy smiled brightly. “Let’s adjourn for the evening and meet again tomorrow when I will provide you with a humble demonstration of my sincerity. Until then!”
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Copyright © 2015 by Bill Prindle