Mr. Beelzy’s Trick
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Presto took the long way home through deserted streets now enshrouded in a grey fog so dense the streetlamps barely guided his way. He wanted to dismiss Beelzy as loony, but couldn’t. Presto had never encountered the kind of dark determination he’d seen in Beelzy’s eyes.
But what if Beelzy could revive Presto’s career and once again have him performing for audiences who would sit in rapt wonderment as he enchanted them with his effects and illusions, each magical effect punctuated with a gasp of astonishment when they realized that what they’d just seen with their own eyes was impossible. That precise moment of shared delight uniting performer and audience gave Presto a satisfaction beyond measure, one for which he’d never ceased longing. Signing away his worn-out soul seemed a small payment indeed.
Still, with no proof that Beelzy could deliver the goods, Presto decided to see what Beelzy had in store the following evening.
If Beelzy is as good as his word, Presto thought, I’ll sign.
* * *
The following afternoon, Presto gave a birthday performance at the Lincoln Park mansion of a Mr. Godwin. The birthday boy was Godwin’s magic-besotted, ten-year old son James. The children loved the show, especially the finale when James selected a card, returned it to the deck, shuffled it, spread the deck face-down on the carpet, and watched in amazement as Molly placed her paw on James’s card. But after the show, Mr. Godwin had groused that the entire performance seemed ordinary to him.
“I myself have seen some of these tricks,” he said.
“Sure you have,” said Presto, “but the children haven’t.”
Mr. Godwin remained unsatisfied. As he counted out Presto’s modest fee, he said, “If I’d known what a shabby-looking creature was going to show up at our house, I wouldn’t have hired you at all.”
* * *
As Molly and Presto walked to the Majestic that evening, he paused in front of one of the empty storefronts and regarded his spectral reflection. Godwin was right. With each passing day, Presto more closely resembled the broken souls selling apples and pencils on Chicago street corners.
As a passer-by’s reflection briefly joined his, Presto remembered another evening, twenty years earlier, when he and Adele had gone for a summer evening’s stroll down West Third Street in Kansas City, Missouri, a district where saloons, casinos, and bawdy houses had prospered with the blessings of politicians and police. Back then, the cocky young Presto had been dealing crooked cards for the gangster Johnny Lanzia in one of Lanzia’s gambling joints and making more money than he ever had made at three-card monte. Presto didn’t like cheating, but at least he was using his skills and paying the rent.
One night, after taking down a whale for over two thousand dollars, Presto’s cut being a hundred bucks, he’d sauntered into Annie Chambers’ establishment, a vast, bustling saloon and restaurant on the first floor, an opulent bordello on the second. His attention was immediately drawn to a girl with long, softly curling black hair, clever brown eyes, and a come-hither but still innocent smile. She said her name was Adele and that it was her first day working at Annie’s. To impress her, Presto ordered two glasses of champagne. She drank off her glass in one long gulp. Perhaps they should have dinner, he suggested.
Nervous and tongue-tied in the presence of such a pretty girl, Presto entertained her with card and coin tricks. She watched him appraisingly and lit a cigarette.
“I worked for a magician for a while, jumping out of boxes and such. He’d hang around with other magicians, and I used to watch them trying to top each other.” She took a drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Hon, you’re better than any of them, so why are you getting short money dealing for Lanzia when you could be headlining the vaudeville circuits as a magician?
“Presto, the way things are, we’re both going to hell, so let’s have some fun on the trip. You’re no crook and I’m no... hostess. Let’s save up, put together an act, and blow this burg. I’ll handle the dough, you handle the magic, and teach me what to do. Whaddaya say? Are you game?
So taken was he by her beauty, sass, and business proposition, he agreed. The next day, she quit Chambers and went to work at the more sedate Dante’s Inferno, a nightclub where the waitresses dressed up like Satan’s imps and only had to suffer the occasional pinch by a customer. Presto continued dealing for Lanzia until they made their nut for costumes, equipment, train fare, and two weeks’ lodgings at a cheap New York hotel where they’d stay while auditioning for booking agents.
On that summer evening, after four arduous months of working at night and practicing their act by day, they’d taken a last stroll before boarding the train to New York. They were sharing some peanuts he’d bought from a street vendor and stopped in front of a jewelry store. As he looked at the jewelry, he saw her reflection in the window. She was looking at him.
“Adele,” he said, handing her the bag of peanuts, “I wish these were emeralds.”
She dropped them on the ground and put her arms around him.
“Baby,” she said, “I don’t care about emeralds or card tricks or making it big or nothing. I got everything I need with you, just the way you are.”
* * *
After reliving those distant moments, Presto leaned his head against the plate glass, and wondered again, as he had then, what it was Adele had seen in him. He sat on the store’s steps and scratched Molly’s chin.
“Molly, she saw the good in me when I surely did not. One time we hit a rough patch, and I wanted to go back to gambling. She said if I put that little value on my soul, then go back to cheating at cards. That’s all she had to say to turn me around. But my soul’s about all I’ve got left now, and it’s not doing either of us much good.”
When Presto strolled into what he thought was the Majestic, he took one look around and left. But as he surveyed the other storefronts, he realized he’d made no mistake. The Majestic had been utterly transformed.
The usually begrimed windows were spotless and showed the café filled with well-dressed patrons, a few in evening attire as though they’d just attended a show. The mirror behind the bar fairly sparkled, reflecting tiers of select whiskeys and wines. Harry was bustling about, assisted by two waiters, delivering steaks and chops along with bottles of champagne and wine. At the back of the room, now intimately lit by wall sconces and candlelight, was a trio — piano, bass, and guitar — playing “Deep Purple.” At the end of the bar sat the three regulars looking dazed.
As Harry rushed by, Presto said, “What’s going on?”
Harry didn’t answer; he seemed not to notice Presto at all, but went behind the bar to mix cocktails. Presto saw Beelzy waving to him.
Before Presto could speak, Beelzy held up his hand and reminded him: dinner first, then business.
“Presto, mon ami, last night I sensed your skepticism and concern. I thought that perhaps if I provided this example of my good intentions, I’d convince you that what I offered will indeed come true.”
“Where’d you get all these people?”
“Oh,” Beelzy said with a sly smile, “I called in a few favors. But all this pales in comparison to what we’ll do together.”
“I’m surprised Harry didn’t drop dead when he saw what you’d done.”
“He might have, but Harry is in a kind of dream from which he will awaken tomorrow morning with an empty memory and a full cash register.”
During the meal, Beelzy chattered away about magicians he’d known over the centuries. Presto asked him what was the best magic trick he’d ever seen.
Beelzy pondered the question. “It’s not the trick per se. What I love most is a seemingly straightforward effect that the magician executes flawlessly but then, despite its apparent simplicity, I’m left saying ‘How in hell did he do that?’ Sad to say, there is very little that can astonish me now. But to business. You’ve considered my offer?”
“I have, Al. It’s a super offer,” said Presto. “But I’m curious. You put a high value on my soul, and I’m not sure why. If you want it, why don’t you just take it?”
“A fair question, my friend. Sadly, there are rules to this game. My powers are limited. I can’t foretell the future, can’t be in two places at once, can’t read minds, and I can’t steal souls. I have some control over physical objects and temporal matters, as you’ve seen, but that’s all. You have the ultimate power of free will while I have only the power to persuade.
“As for the terms of your contract, in most cases, all my clients want is a pile of money, but I knew that would not move you. It would be an insult to your artistry to put a mere dollar amount on your soul. Performing is the canvas upon which you paint your masterpieces and, under my management, perform you shall.”
“My soul’s worth all that trouble?”
“Indeed,” said Beelzy. He drummed his fingers on the table. Presto didn’t say anything.
“Presto, mon semblable, mon frère,” Beelzy said, “let me demonstrate in what high regard I hold you.” Beelzy looked over his shoulder and scanned the crowded café. “Now, I could get into a lot of trouble for this.” From his jacket he produced an immense, leather-bound book that covered the entire tabletop. “This is the offer of a lifetime,” he whispered. “I will allow you to look through my ledger that contains the names of all my clients and the terms of their personal management contracts. You will be the only person in the universe who will have seen the names of the happy throng you’ll join when you sign. Should you see anything they received that you want, it’s yours. But you must act now.” He paused. “What do you say?”
“Something you said just now put me in mind of Adele.” Presto paused as if considering. “Whatever it was she loved about me never had much to do with money or performing or anything else. If I’ve got a soul, and you say I do, best as I can make out is that it must have something to do with what Adele saw in me. Then you come along and tell me how much value you put on my soul, just as she did. If the two of you put such value on it, I guess I’d better hang onto it. I might kick myself later, but I’m going to decline.”
Beelzy’s eyebrows arched halfway up his forehead.
“I see. Would you like to think it over? You have two more days.”
“Al, I don’t want to waste your time—”
“Time?” Beelzy said. “You don’t want to waste my time? Dear man, time is what I have the most of! I have all eternity! You’re not wasting my time at all. These evenings with you have brightened my endless existence. I implore you to think it over. I’ve got the contract right here.” Beelzy reached into his inside pocket again and produced an ungainly vellum scroll, which he smoothed out on top of the book. “I’ve already filled in some of it. ‘I, Presto, do hereby render unto Albertus Beelzy and so on.’ It’s all in plain English, stating what you’ll receive upon signing. There’s where you sign at the bottom. Take it home, look it over. I get your soul, and you teach me the center deal, and your ensuing career will light up the sky like the Great Chicago Fire.”
“I can’t do it, Al,” said Presto shaking his head.
“Well then,” said Beelzy, returning the contract and book to his jacket, “I guess that’s that. You’ve made your decision, but two days remain. A lot can happen in two days.”
Harry arrived with coffee and cognac. Beelzy struck a match, held it to his cigar, and puffed until flames danced on its tip.
“There are other incentives I can bring to this negotiation. Damned though I may be, I’m a sympathetic soul who has your best interests at heart, so I must tell you this: I am not alone in wanting to make this deal. I have my higher-ups to whom I must answer. They have made it crystal clear you are at the top of their list — and I don’t say this to flatter you. Quite the opposite.
“Being at the top of their list can bring great good fortune, but it can also be calamitous. I like you, Presto, and hope to spare you any future... adversity.” Beelzy emitted a cloud of smoke that shaped itself into a skull and crossbones.
“For instance, imagine if you were to develop rheumatoid arthritis?”
Presto’s fingers contracted into swollen, misshapen claws. The unholy pain was excruciating.
“That would pretty much end any chance of making a living, I’d say. Or consider your anguish if little Molly were to develop some doggie disease.” Molly whimpered and collapsed onto her side, a bloody foam trickling from between her jaws.
“Molly!” Presto cried out. He knelt next to her and stroked her flanks with his twisted hands.
Beelzy drew languidly on his cigar and studied Presto’s contorted features.
“Here’s the thing, mon vieux. I’ve been at this a long, long time. You think you put in a lot of time developing your skills? You can’t begin to imagine how long I’ve been practicing what I do. I am an expert at changing people’s minds.”
Presto was about to pass out from the pain when, in an instant, it vanished. His hands were normal again and Molly was looking up at him, wagging her tail.
“I wouldn’t be your friend if I didn’t tell you that, should you continue to refuse my offer, such measures as you’ve just experienced will await you, the pooch, and your dear landlady Mrs. Burke. The Majestic might even burst into flames and burn to its foundation. Have I made myself clear, Presto?”
Presto said, “Yes, you have.” What he needed to do next was clear as well.
“Good! Let’s forget this unpleasantness. I am loath to use such gothic measures and much prefer that my clients sign happily, knowing that I’ll make their dreams come true. Go home, get a good night’s rest, think of how wonderful it will be to once again receive the respect and admiration you richly deserve. We’ll meet again tomorrow night.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Prindle