New York City, July 1903
Ladies and gentlemen. For my final illusion I will perform a feat that will amaze and astound you—a feat never before attempted in the history of magic, a feat fraught with danger and horror.” The showman, presented to the audience as the stupendous, sensational Signor Scarpelli, paused for dramatic effect. The atmosphere in the theater was electric. A lovely young woman stepped from the shadows at the side of the stage. She was dressed in a white spangled costume that revealed shapely legs right up to mid thigh, and she was wearing white fishnet stockings and knee-high white boots. The illusionist, a dapper little man with an impressive handlebar mustache, extended his hand to her and she took it, moving gracefully into the spotlight. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the lovely Lily. Tonight I shall attempt to saw this exquisite young lady in half.”
There was a gasp of horror from the auditorium. I think I must have given a small gasp myself. I glanced at Daniel, seated beside me, and was annoyed to see that he was grinning. As a policeman who had seen everything, he was not likely to be alarmed by a mere spectacle onstage. I, still very much the unsophisticated Irish country girl, had been baffled and impressed by the simplest tricks that had started this evening of illusion at Miner’s Theatre on the Bowery—doves that appeared out of nowhere, then were placed in cages, only to vanish again, hats that produced great bunches of flowers, and even clever card tricks. Frankly I’d never seen anything like it and was enjoying myself immensely. As much as anything I was relishing an evening spent with my intended for once. It wasn’t often that a New York police captain like Daniel Sullivan found himself with free time to take his lady love to a theater.
A large contraption was being wheeled onto the stage. It was covered in a red velvet cloth, which Scarpelli whipped away dramatically to reveal a table on legs on which reposed a large, oblong box, garishly painted with flames and shooting stars. He then spun it around to show that it had small openings at either end. Scarpelli then opened the box lid and let down a front panel to reveal a white-satin padded interior, as one might see in a superior type of coffin. Then he extended his hand to the girl.
“I’ll now ask my lovely assistant, Lily, to step inside this contraption of horror,” he said.
Lily smiled and waved to the crowd as she allowed the Great Scarpelli to assist her into the box, where she lay while the lid was closed, leaving her head exposed at one end and her feet sticking out of the other. The box was then latched with two large locks. From the orchestra pit came a low, ominous drumroll. Signor Scarpelli then produced an impressive-looking saw, bent it, and waved it around.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a common ordinary saw, with which I’m sure the gentlemen among you are familiar. This particular specimen has been sharpened to perfection, in fact I’m sure any one of you would covet it for your own woodpile. Allow me to demonstrate.”
A male assistant now pushed out a small table on which lay a log of wood. Scarpelli removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to saw most efficiently through the log until the two halves fell onto the stage floor.
“So you’ll agree that I should have little problem slicing through such a delicate specimen as sweet Lily,” he said, giving the audience a wicked grin. “Right then. To work. Drumroll if you please, Maestro.”
The drumroll started again, louder and louder until it filled the theater with sound. I could almost feel those around me holding their breath. I knew I was holding mine. Carefully he placed the saw on the middle of the box and started to move it back and forth. It went through the top layer of wood like butter. We could see it protruding with each thrust, lower and lower. It must have reached the girl’s body by now. Suddenly, over the noise of the saw and the drum, there came a bloodcurdling scream. Screams echoed back from the audience. Some people had risen to their feet. Some ladies were already swooning. It was clear that something had gone wrong.
“Holy Mother of God,” I heard myself muttering.
Signor Scarpelli extracted the saw with difficulty, threw it down, then rushed around the table, and began clawing frantically at the locks. The screaming had now stopped and the theater was ominously silent.
“A nice touch,” Daniel muttered into my ear. “Get everybody good and scared.”
Then we saw something dripping from the bottom of the box onto the floor. Great drips of red.
“It’s blood. See, it’s blood,” someone gasped from the row behind us.
“No! It can’t be!” Scarpelli shouted. “Somebody help me get her out.”
Stagehands rushed to his aid.
“Don’t worry,” Daniel whispered to me. “It’s all for effect, you mark my words.”
At that moment Scarpelli wrenched open the lid of the box.
“Oh, God in Heaven, no, no!” he yelled. “What fiend has done this? Help her, somebody help her.”
At that moment the theater manager came onto the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said holding up his hands for silence, even though most of the crowd was standing still, staring in horror, “I’m afraid there has been a slight mishap. It appears that something has gone horribly wrong. Is there a doctor in the house?”
“Yes, I’m a doctor,” came a deep, booming voice from somewhere in the darkness and a distinguished-looking man with impressive gray side-whiskers came up the steps to the stage with sprightly agility for someone of his age and build. “Stand back, please,” he commanded, waving everybody out of the way. He took one look at the girl lying there, then addressed the manager. “This looks extremely serious,” he barked. “Send for an ambulance immediately and bring down the curtain.” He turned back to minister to the girl as the manager came to the front of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to ask you to leave the theater and go home. The rest of to night’s show is canceled.”
At those words there were mutterings of annoyance and disappointment from the audience but they began to leave their seats.
The curtains began to close. Daniel had reached the aisle, ahead of me. He was pushing his way through the departing crowd, like a salmon swimming upstream, making for the stage. I followed in his wake. I didn’t stop to think that I might not want to witness what had happened up there. Up the steps I went after Daniel. He pulled aside the curtain that had now fallen on the stage. It was almost as if a tableau was taking place before our eyes—the men clustered around the open box, the doctor bending over it. They looked up as they saw us come onto the stage.
“Are you also a physician, sir?” The doctor demanded, looking up from his patient, “because if not, I’ll ask you to leave instantly. . . .”
“No, I’m a police detective,” Daniel said, “Captain Sullivan.” He fished in his pocket and produced his badge. “And before any of you go around touching everything, I assume we now have to treat this as a crime scene.”
“We do indeed, Captain.” Scarpelli moved toward Daniel. “Someone must have tampered with my equipment. There was no way the saw should have come anywhere near her. I had perfected the illusion.”
“How bad is it?” Daniel moved closer to the box. I followed, unnoticed. Lily was lying still and pale in the white-padded box and there was a great slash of red across her middle. She really had been almost sawn in half. Her white spangled costume was now ripped open and stained bloodred. Blood was still welling up from that horrible gash and dripping steadily onto the floor. I swallowed down the bile that rose in my throat.
The doctor had been taking Lily’s pulse and looked up to meet Daniel’s gaze. “She’s still alive but barely,” he said. “I doubt that anything can be done for her, poor thing. The blade has undoubtedly sliced into her intestines and they will be beyond repair. And to lose so much blood . . . it won’t be long before the body goes into profound shock.”
Scarpelli reached into the box and picked up Lily’s limp, white hand. She had elegant, long fingers and her hand was now so pale that it could have been made of porcelain. “Lily, my poor darling Lily. What have I done to you? Forgive me, Lily. Forgive me, God.” He kissed her hand tenderly before replacing it at her side.
“Has anyone gone for an ambulance?” Daniel said.
“Ernest went,” one of the stagehands muttered.
“Then one of you men go and find the nearest constable,” Daniel ordered. “Tell him Captain Sullivan says there’s been an attempted murder and he’s to report to the duty officer at HQ. I need men out here right away.”
“Attempted murder?” The theater manager looked aghast. “An accident, surely. A horrible accident.”
“The illusionist claims his equipment was tampered with. I have to therefore treat this as an attempted murder. Now, someone, go and find the nearest policeman.” He pointed at a pimply-faced youth standing staring in horror-struck fascination nearby. “You, boy.”
“Very good, Captain, sir,” the youth said. “I know where to find the nearest constable.” He ran off the stage, his footsteps clattering on the wooden floor and echoing through the backstage area.
“Someone get blankets and cover her,” the doctor commanded. “She’s going cold. We’re going to lose her before she makes it to the nearest hospital.”
“Here, she can have my wrap,” I said.
They looked up at me as if they had noticed me for the first time.
“Young lady, you shouldn’t be here,” the manager said. “This is no place for a delicate, young woman like yourself.”
“I’m with Captain Sullivan,” I said, “and I’ve seen worse than this before.”
I saw Daniel give me a look of annoyance. “I think the man is right, Molly. You should go on home. I’ll have one of these lads find you a cab. I may be quite a while yet.”
“I don’t mind. I’ll stay,” I said. “There may be something useful for me to do.”
“I really don’t think—” Daniel said, now giving me a clear look that said, “I want you to obey me for once, without a fuss.”
“Young woman, there is nothing you can do. Go home,” the doctor snapped at me. “The less people around her the better.”
I decided that there was no point in causing a scene or annoying Daniel at this stage. There really was nothing I could do here and why would I want to stay around watching some poor girl bleed to death? In truth I was feeling a little queasy.
“All right,” I said. “I don’t want to be in the way here.”
“That’s my girl.” Daniel gave me a relieved smile. “Would one of you go and hail Miss Murphy a cab? I see some of my men.” He went down the steps to meet several police constables who had just entered the theater.
Another stagehand departed. I was about to follow him when I heard fast-approaching feet coming toward the stage and a small, muscular, dark-haired man appeared, followed by a pretty, petite girl, dressed in a page-boy costume with tights.
“What’s this all about?” the man demanded. “I’ve just been told that the show’s been canceled.” He approached the manager, his dark eyes flashing in dramatic manner, as he was in full makeup.
I recognized him at once as Harry Houdini, the handcuff king, the man we had come to see. Daniel had been following his career with fascination ever since he presented himself at police headquarters several years ago and challenged the police to produce handcuffs from which he could not escape. They had not succeeded.
“That’s right, Mr. Houdini,” the manager said. “I’m afraid there’s been a nasty accident and I had no choice but to send the audience home.”
“You had no right to do that,” the small man stormed. I noticed that he spoke with a slight foreign accent. “They came to see me, you know. You have deprived them of their one chance to see the greatest illusionist in the business. These others are merely amateurs.”
“Who are you calling an amateur?” Scarpelli demanded, turning to face Houdini. “I’ve been in this business more years than you’ve had hot dinners. Just because you headlined once on the Orpheum Circuit, and just because you’ve had a bit of success over on the Continent, don’t think you’ve come back here to act the big star.”
“But I am the big star,” Houdini said, spreading his arms dramatically. “All over Europe I have entertained kings and emperors. Tsar Nicholas of Russia tried to persuade me to stay on at court as his personal adviser. I’m only home for a couple of weeks and now my debut in New York has been ruined by a little accident.”
“Little accident?” the theater manager began, staring at Houdini with distaste. “My dear sir, we are talking about a great tragedy here. . . .”
The pretty girl put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t upset yourself so, Harry. There will be other nights. The audience will come back tomorrow, and . . .” She had now apparently noticed the box with Lily in it for the first time and let out a shriek of horror. “Oh, my God, Harry. She’s really been cut in half!” She put a hand to her mouth and swayed as if she was about to faint. Houdini caught her.
“It’s okay, Bess, babykins. You’re going to be okay.” He helped her to a nearby chair onto which she collapsed, gasping and gagging. Then he too caught sight of the bloodstained figure in the box.
“Oh, geez,” he muttered, putting his hand up to his mouth. “I’m sorry. I had no idea it was this bad. What happened? What went wrong?”
“Someone must have tampered with it,” Scarpelli snapped. “The trick was foolproof. I had perfected it. There was no way. . . . Someone is out to do me harm. To destroy my reputation. Maybe someone who thinks of himself as the new king of illusionists?” He advanced on Harry Houdini, staring at him, eyeball to eyeball.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Houdini said. “I would never tamper with a fellow illusionist’s act. I would never stoop so low. And I would never—” His gaze moved to Lily. “Is she dead?”
“I still detect a faint pulse,” the doctor said.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Houdini demanded. “Thing’s on wheels, isn’t it? Then let’s get it down to the nearest entrance where she can be taken to the hospital.” He motioned the remaining men to join him, then looked back at Bess, who was hunched on the chair, her body still wracked with great sobs. “Someone should take my wife back to our dressing room.”
“I will,” I said.
“That would be very kind. Most obliged to you, miss,” Houdini said before she could answer. “She’s a delicate little thing at the best of times and a sight like this would upset even the strongest of constitutions.”
The men were already getting in place to wheel out the box with Lily in it. I remembered what I had planned to do and laid my wrap over her. It was only a silky wrap, as befits an outing on a July evening, but it was better than nothing and at least it covered that horrible wound. I gave her one last pitying look, then I went over to the hunched figure of Bess and put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Mrs. Houdini. Let me take you where you can lie down.”
“Thank you,” she managed in a whisper between sobs. “Get me out of here, please, before I throw up.” I noticed that the accent belied her delicate, china-doll appearance. It was pure Brooklyn.
I left the stage, supporting Mrs. Houdini as I steered her through the backstage area, avoiding the usual pitfalls of a backstage: the ropes, the curtain weights, the scenery flats. Luckily I had worked as a chorus girl once while on a case involving the theater so I felt right at home there. It was good that I did because Bess Houdini was in no state to walk alone. She staggered like a drunken person, clutching my arm so tightly that her nails dug into me. “He cut her in half,” she kept on gasping. “All that blood!”
“I know. It was truly awful, but there’s nothing you or I can do for her, and you’re going to be just fine when you lie down.”
We found the Houdinis’ dressing room at last at the end of a long hallway. It had a star on the door but inside it was nothing fancy. Clearly this Houdini fellow was not going to be treated like someone who entertained kings and emperors in his own country. There was a plain horse hair couch in one corner and I helped Bess onto this. “There,” I said, and covered her with a knitted afghan.
“My smelling salts,” she gasped. “On the dressing table.”
I found them among the usual paraphernalia of the theater—sticks of greasepaint, cotton wool, cold cream, and various patent medicines designed to calm the nerves and restore vitality. She held the little bottle up to her nose, coughed, and then handed it back to me. “That’s better,” she said in a more ordinary voice.
Really I’ve never seen what women want with smelling salts. Horrible stuff. But then I’ve never worn a corset so I’ve not been in the habit of swooning that often.
“I’ll be all right now. Thanks again, Miss—?”
“Murphy,” I said. “Molly Murphy.”
She looked up at me and smiled. She really was a sweet, delicate little thing. Fragile as a china doll. “Thank you for your help. You’re most kind. Do you work here in the theater?”
“No, I was in the audience with my intended who is a policeman, so naturally he rushed straight to the stage when he saw what had happened.”
She shuddered and wrapped the blanket more tightly around her. “It’s too terrible to think about, isn’t it? That could have been me. And my Harry risks his life every night onstage. Every single night.”
“I know they are only illusions,” she continued, “but they have to have that touch of danger or the public wouldn’t come. When we do the stunt we call the Metamorphosis, I’m always secretly afraid that I’ll suffocate in that trunk if I can’t get out one night.”
“It’s not a life I’d want for myself,” I said. “I spent a short time in the theater and I can’t say that I saw the attraction.”
“You were an actress?” She looked at me incredulously, noting I’m sure the healthy bones and the distinct lack of makeup and froufrou.
“A chorus girl.” I laughed. “Yes, I know I’m a little too big and healthy-looking for the average chorus girl, but I’m really a private investigator and I was on a case.”
“A lady detective? No—are there such things?”
“There are and I’m one of them,” I said. I reached into my purse. “Here, this is my card if you want proof.”
She examined it carefully, then looked up into my face as if she was still trying to make sense of the facts she had just read. “A lady detective,” she repeated. “Geez, that sounds exciting.”
“Sometimes a little too exciting,” I said. “My intended wants me to give it up when we marry.”
“Well, he would, wouldn’t he? I’m lucky that I’m in one of the few professions where I can work alongside my husband. And a good thing too. Too many flighty girls in the theater who would just love to get their claws into my poor Harry.”
“I’m sure he only has eyes for you,” I said diplomatically.
“I hope that’s true,” she said. “In spite of all his bluster and swagger, he’s still easily impressed. He’s a simple, small-town boy at heart. A real rags-to-riches story. His dad was a rabbi, you know. He was born in Hungary and when they came over here, the family was real poor—almost starving.”
I thought I’d better make my escape before she told me that story in detail. “I really should be getting back,” I said. “There’s a cab waiting for me, and my intended will wonder where I’ve got to.”
She reached out a dainty, white hand this time. “Thank you again. You’ve been very kind.”
“Take care of yourself,” I said.
“Oh, I will. It’s not me I worry about. It’s Harry. I worry about him every single day.”
I went out, closing the door quietly behind me. I was also about to marry someone in a profession fraught with danger. Would I be worrying about Daniel every single day?
Excerpted from The Last Illusion by Rhys Bowen.
Copyright © 2010 by Rhys Bowen.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.