Mr. Beelzy’s Trick
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
“Mrs. Burke,” Beelzy said, “Presto has something important he was going to give me tonight, and I can’t find him. Would you mind if I checked his apartment?”
She said under the circumstances, she didn’t mind, but she’d have to accompany him. They entered the room, and Beelzy immediately noticed some wrapping paper sticking out of the trashcan. The label on it read, “Broadway Make-up, Costumes, & Theatrical Props.”
Of course! he thought.
He walked quickly back to the restaurant. Minutes later, as instructed earlier by Presto, Mrs. Burke opened the door for Molly, who scampered away into the night.
* * *
Neither the revelers nor the four barflies noticed when Beelzy slammed the door and took a seat at the bar. He glanced at the clock that encouraged the clientele to “Enjoy a Blatz!” It was nine-thirty.
“Harry, another bourbon for me and a round for each of these gentlemen — especially this one!” Beelzy exclaimed as he knocked the first drunk’s hat off and yanked so hard on his hair that he lifted him off his stool. “Nice try, Presto, but the wig needs a little work!”
“What in hell you doing, mister!” squawked the drunk. He picked up his hat and tottered to the end of the bar.
The next drunk faced Beelzy. “You got me again, Al. I should have known you’d be too smart for me.” Presto removed his hat, wig, false nose, moustache, and bushy eyebrows.
“Apologies to your patrons, Harry, and another round for all. Presto, if you will.” They wound their way through the crowd to their booth.
“I admire the effort, Presto, but you left an obvious clue behind. In the event, we must forgo dinner. Here’s the contract, here’s the pen. Sign or prepare for the consequences.”
Instead of taking the pen, Presto took out a deck of cards. “Just curious, Al. Why three days? Why not five — or a year?”
Beelzy glanced at his watch and saw he still had twenty minutes. “Another bothersome rule that limits me to only three days to close a deal. But make no mistake,” said Beelzy, “one way or another, I always win. Take the pen.”
“Before I sign, can I show you a trick I came up with on the train ride back? I created it especially for you. I call it Mr. Beelzy’s Trick.”
Wary but intrigued, Beelzy regarded Presto. “Is this a stall?”
“It only takes a few minutes. It’s a humdinger. I know you’ll like it. Then I’ll sign.”
“Very well, but no nonsense or I will become wrathful.”
“Okay,” said Presto, “here we go.” He removed two red Queens and the Ace of Spades from the deck and showed them face up, the Ace in the middle. “It’s like three-card monte. All you have to do is find the Ace two times out of three and you win. Then I’ll sign your contract of my own free will.”
“And if I fail to pick the Ace twice, which I won’t, but if I do?”
“You let me off the hook.” Presto smiled blandly, but his heart was pounding. “There’s nothing you don’t know about magic, Al. You’re not risking much.”
“Do you have the slightest idea of how well versed I am in this oldest of cons?” He lit a cigar. “I could get you to sign anyway.”
“I know that, but prove to me how good you really are.”
Just then, Molly arrived at the Majestic’s front door and barked, but no one heard her over the hubbub.
Beelzy studied Presto much as a snake regards a mouse. Then he rapped his knuckles on the table and said, “I accept your challenge. Your pluck will add spice to my victory.” He paused and drew deeply on his cigar. “Let’s shake on it.”
Beelzy took Presto’s hand but wouldn’t release it. As Beelzy tightened his grip, Presto felt as though his hand were being crushed in a vise. When a joint cracked, Beelzy let go.
“Let’s go, chop chop! Time’s a-flying!” said Beelzy.
Presto’s hand started swelling and he cradled it in his lap. Despite the pain, he could still move his fingers enough to deal. He picked up the three cards, turned them face down, and dealt them to the table, his hands moving back and forth with the precise amount of movement needed to cover whether he was dealing the top, middle, or bottom card.
“Now if I were you, I wouldn’t start with my best stuff,” said Beelzy. “I’d lull my mark with false confidence and that would put the Ace in the center.” Presto turned over the middle card, the Ace.
“Quelle surprise!” Beelzy said.
Presto briefly searched the café for Molly but saw no sign of her. He showed the cards face up in the same order and dealt again. His right hand throbbed, yet his face betrayed none of his agony and concern. Instead he wore a look of easy confidence.
“Given that you are one down, you must resort to trickery and deal the center card first, thus putting the Ace... here.” He pointed to the right-hand card. Presto flipped it over to reveal a Queen.
Beelzy appeared untroubled. “Not bad.”
Presto winced as he picked up the cards. His knuckles were turning blue.
“I hate to ask you this, Al, but can I trust you? If you lose, I’m quit of you?”
“It wounds me that you ask, but the answer is yes,” Beelzy said. He held up his hand. “Before you deal, let me remind you what you stand to lose should you not sign. Regard.”
Beelzy gestured across the room toward a dark-haired woman wearing a shimmering silk gown, seated with her back to them. She turned slowly, her face expressing uncertainty as she searched down along the row of booths until she saw Presto. Her smile of recognition was fleeting and had within it a resigned sadness.
“Adele!” said Presto, barely able to utter her name.
“You’ve already lost her once. Could you bear losing her again?” said Beelzy, watching Presto closely.
Presto faltered. “What have you done?”
“I confess, it is but her shade. But, for a time, I can reunite you.”
With his eyes fixed on Adele, Presto set the cards on the table and reached for the pen. As he did, with a barely discernible movement unseen by Beelzy, Adele shook her head.
Presto sat, transfixed. Beelzy waited, then briefly followed Presto’s stare to the wan apparition.
“She wants me to finish the trick,” Presto said disconsolately. Instead of dealing the cards, he simply dropped the packet on the table and spread them face down.
Beelzy looked at him. “What are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Ace was in the middle when you turned them over. It still is. You didn’t even try to do a move. You’ve given up. I’m almost sad for you. Almost.” Beelzy pointed to the middle card.
Presto turned over a Queen.
Beelzy exploded in rage. “What!” He quickly turned over the other two cards — both Queens. The Ace was gone.
“You two-bit chiseler!” Beelzy jumped up and stamped his foot with such force that he blew a hole through to the basement.
The café fell silent.
“You ingrate! Now I’ve got to go back and explain how a guy with a broken hand tricked me. How do you think that makes me look? Was I ever anything but nice to you?” Beelzy took out the contract and tore it into pieces that ignited as they fluttered to the floor. “At least do me the courtesy of showing me how you did it.”
“I didn’t do it. You did. You did it all.” Presto picked up the Ace that he’d dropped into his lap and stuck it onto the face of the Queen, the two cards appearing as one. “I borrowed your idea of hiding in plain sight to burn up some time. When I saw gum stuck to your shoe, when we were on the train, it gave me the idea to use magicians’ wax.
“Molly was supposed to make a ruckus to distract you while I peeled off the Ace, but she didn’t show up, so I did it when you looked at Adele. A real sucker mistake, Al, taking your eyes off the cards.” Presto looked again at Adele, his heart full of sorrow and love.
Beelzy shook his head, as much in frustration as admiration. “You have bested me, sir.” He swept his hand toward the room.
To Presto’s amazement, the customers, musicians, and waiters slowly grew transparent and faded from sight. Sconces, tablecloths, and candles vanished as well, returning the Majestic to its former melancholy state. As Adele’s wraith melted away, she raised a hand in farewell.
Presto sighed deeply and regarded Beelzy.
“I admit, when you showed up, I was tempted. You had it right — I’d have given almost anything to perform like I used to. If you hadn’t reminded me that I’ve still got something worth hanging onto, I would have given up.
“I’m guessing your boss is going to have a talk with you when you get back, Al.” Presto looked at the clock behind the bar. “Time for you to go to Hell.”
With a sweeping bow, Beelzy disappeared in a cloud of acrid smoke. It was 9:59.
* * *
A week later, on a Saturday afternoon, Presto returned home from walking Molly to find a shiny black Lincoln parked in front of the boarding house. Mr. Godwin and his son James awaited him in Mrs. Burke’s parlor.
At James’s insistence, Godwin had come to ask if Presto was available to give magic lessons. James had already signed up six of his friends who were thrilled at the prospect of learning from Presto.
“We thought we’d start off with a two-hour lesson on Saturday afternoon at my house. Try it for ten Saturdays and see how it goes,” Godwin said. “I figure two dollars a student for each lesson — let’s round it up to an even hundred and fifty dollars — and I’ll send a car for you. Does that sound fair?”
Presto looked at James, who was nervously clutching a deck of cards and appeared to be willing Presto to say, “Yes.”
“It’s more than fair, Mr. Godwin,” Presto said.
James told Presto he couldn’t wait to see him next Saturday, and ran out to the car, but Godwin lingered in the hallway.
“Truth is, Mr. Presto, James hasn’t shown much interest in his schoolwork or anything else — except magic. I’m thankful he’s finally found something he loves. Please accept my apologies for my lack of manners and take this on account.” He handed Presto twenty dollars. “These are hard times and there’s no shame in being down on your luck.”
* * *
A year later Presto was walking down Michigan Avenue on his way to teach a class at the Magic Emporium, a downtown magic shop. Previously, he’d felt so ashamed of his reduced circumstances that he’d avoided any place other magicians might congregate, but as word spread about his classes for James and his friends, other amateur magicians — and some professionals as well — sought him out.
The Emporium offered him free space for his classes in exchange for the business he brought in. He also picked up engagements at smokers and private parties, and a nightclub hired him for Monday night shows. He wasn’t getting rich, but he’d purchased new clothes, hadn’t eaten beans for dinner in months, and Molly was dining on ground sirloin.
It was a cold spring day, the harsh light reflecting off the river and dancing against the surrounding buildings. As Presto and Molly turned off Michigan Avenue onto Polk Street, he saw a crowd gathered around a street hustler. Always interested to watch a con man at work, Presto stationed himself on the edge of the crowd.
The hustler was bundled up in a heavy overcoat and muffler wrapped around his neck, his hat pulled down against the chill.
As he tossed the three cards onto the table, he chanted his patter to the crowd,
“Up today, down tomorrow,
Rich man’s luck and poor man’s sorrow,
Maybe you win, maybe you lose,
It all depends on what you choose.
Pick the Ace, then you win.
Pick a Queen — you play again.
No bet counts, no card is read,
Until there’s cash on the barrelhead.”
A businessman placed two dollars on the table, and the hustler tossed the three cards back and forth with some skill, but Presto was able to track the Ace without much trouble. Of course, the bettor won at first. The hustler continued, enticing more betting, allowing players to win until they started betting more money and then they started losing, doubling their bets to recoup their losses, and losing again. One by one the crowd dispersed until only Presto remained. The hustler was packing up his table when Presto said, “How about one more, Al?”
Beelzy looked up with a start.
“What are you doing out here?” asked Presto.
“I got demoted, and it all started with you,” Beelzy said. He wiped his nose with a handkerchief. “After that night, I lost my touch and failed on my next four contract negotiations. Now I’m working off five years’ hard labor with no powers, no expense account, and no damned fun. As you see, I’ve been reduced to tossing cards on the street and picking up magic shows when I can. I’m even doing birthday parties.”
I’d pay to see that, thought Presto.
“I still owe you,” said Presto. “I got two good meals from you and you turned my life around. How about I show you that center deal?”
“Would you mind throwing in a cup of coffee? I’m freezing.”
Presto accompanied Beelzy to a nearby coffee shop. He took out a deck of cards and, step by step, taught Beelzy the center deal.
“This is really hard,” Beelzy said.
“It is,” said Presto.
Beelzy sighed. “It’ll take a lot of practice.”
“It will, Al,” said Presto. “But you’ve got all eternity, right?”
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Prindle