Mr. Beelzy’s Trick
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Presto saw the light under Mrs. Burke’s door and rapped on it. Apologizing for the lateness of the hour, he asked if she’d take Molly for a week. She said she’d be glad for the company. He used her phone to call a cab, took the stairs two at a time up to his room, threw his few belongings into his magic case and, calling out a farewell to Mrs. Burke as he slammed the front door, ran out to the waiting taxi.
“Union Station,” he told the cabby. Time to do what magicians do best, he thought. Disappear.
* * *
As the first pale light crept across the barren fields outside the train windows, Presto awoke, stiff and hungry. Passing by his fellow travelers splayed on their seats like broken puppets, he walked toward the last car on the train, the dining car.
He was the sole customer. The steward brought him eggs, toast, and coffee. A woman and her daughter entered the car and seated themselves. The little girl was limping, her left leg in a steel brace.
When he finished his breakfast, Presto took out a deck of cards and began work on a new finish for his Ambitious Card routine. He didn’t see the little girl struggling against the swaying of the car as she drew near his table. She watched him silently until he noticed her.
“Hey, mister, are you a magician?”
Presto smiled. “Why, yes, I am. My name’s Presto. What’s yours?”
“Nanette. I’m six years old.” She held up six fingers.
“Would you like to see a trick?”
“Yeth!” Her grin revealed two missing front teeth.
Presto waved to the girl’s mother. She approached Presto and asked if he wouldn’t mind watching Nanette for a minute while she retrieved her purse from her sleeping compartment. He said he’d be happy to have an audience. As he did a few tricks that had the little girl laughing and clapping her hands, Presto was reminded of Beelzy’s words regarding the power of magic. Nanette’s simple delight had allowed him forget his troubles as well.
Presto dropped a card on the floor and bent over to pick it up.
Nanette asked, “Wouldja mind doing that trick that Dai Vernon used to make a fool out of Houdini?”
Presto bolted upright to see Beelzy sitting across from him.
“Of course me.”
Presto barely concealed his disappointment and fear behind a sheepish smile.
“I reckon you got me, Al.”
“You reckon right,” said Beelzy. “You made it easy. Whenever I make an offer, there are always a few who refuse to sign. Some do away with themselves, which is tragic, because they wind up in the same place without reaping the rewards of my generous offer. A few stand their ground and say, ‘No, no, no,’ but when I’m done with them it’s ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I figured you for a runner and caught up with you.
“Now look, no more nonsense. You know what awaits you and your friends if you fail to sign. Get off at the next stop, take the train back to Chicago, and I’ll see you tomorrow night.” Beelzy stood, bid Presto Au revoir, walked to the end of car, opened the door, and stepped off into thin air.
Just before Beelzy departed, Presto noticed that a small scrap of paper had adhered to a gob of gum stuck to the sole of Beelzy’s left shoe. That gave Presto an idea.
* * *
The train pulled into Chicago well past midnight. Presto quietly ascended the stairs to his room, took two red Queens and the Ace of Spades from one deck, a third red Queen from another, and a tiny amount of sticky magicians’ wax and set to work.
He thought back to when he was moving up on the vaudeville circuit and had been booked on the same bill with the aging master magician, Nate Leipzig. Knowing that promoters and booking agents would be in the audience, Presto had feverishly developed a new trick designed to rival Leipzig’s most startling effect.
As he and Adele had practiced, she said, “Baby, we’re gonna give ’em the performance of a lifetime!”
And they had. After the show, Leipzig had paid Presto the highest possible compliment: he said he’d been fooled.
Presto’s fingers now manipulated the four cards to invent a trick so disarmingly simple that it might lull Beelzy’s suspicion.
The trick Adele and I performed that long ago night was the trick of a lifetime, Presto thought, but tomorrow night, I’ve got to top it.
He slept a few hours, and the next morning, he took a cab to a shop in the theater district.
* * *
At eight that evening, Beelzy walked into the Majestic and admired his work. Well-heeled customers crowded the tables, Harry and the waiters ran to and fro, the buzz of conversations mixed with clinking glasses, clattering dishes, and melodies from the combo. The four bums remained anchored at the bar — but no Presto. Not to worry, he thought. It takes but a moment to sign up a soul, and I have until ten. He ordered a double bourbon and took a seat at the bar.
For a while, Beelzy indulged himself with a review of his previous triumphs. How adroitly he wove his schemes around his victims just as their courage was faltering and they teetered at the abyss of despair. Now he’d caught Presto in his web and would soon bring an artist he deeply admired, albeit with a conflicted mix of awe and jealousy, under his sway.
He mused on how past clients had been so eager for fame and fortune. They couldn’t sign fast enough. And yes, they got their glory, but along with it — what turned the sweet taste of success to chalk in their mouths — was the realization they were only Beelzy’s pawns. The bloom drained from their cheeks, and layers of grease paint couldn’t hide their growing despair.
Well, thought Beelzy as he tapped a long white ash off his cigar onto the floor, you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. But where in the hell is Presto?
He finished his bourbon and snapped his fingers at Harry for another. When Harry slid the drink down the bar, some bourbon sloshed onto Beelzy’s sleeve.
I must remember to set this dump on fire, thought Beelzy, and took out a deck of cards to amuse himself with some flashy cuts and fans. At eight forty-five, he tossed back his drink.
“Oh, you will regret keeping me waiting, Presto,” he muttered as he left the restaurant and walked to Presto’s boarding house.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Prindle