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June 25, 1944
The Pantages Theater wasn't on fire, but Blackstone definitely had a problem. My brother Phil and I had been hired to take care of the problem before it killed the World's Greatest Living Magician.
Inside the Pantages, Phil was sitting in the front row with his sons Dave and Nate. Dave, at fourteen, was two years older than his brother and trying his best to hide his awe. It was what fourteen-year-olds did.
Blackstone had opened the show holding a thin yellow hoop, its center covered by white paper. He turned the hoop to show there was nothing on either side. He then turned its face toward the audience, plunged his hand through the paper with a pop of ripping paper and began to pull objects seemingly from another dimension. He pulled out different color silk scarves and let them drift to the stage floor. Dozens of scarves. The audience applauded. Then he reached through the hole in the paper and began to pull out and deposit onstage a collection of rabbits, ducks, and even a pig. The crowd loved it.
Finally, he reached through the paper and took the hand of a smiling dark-eyed woman in a black dress who stepped through the hoop and stood next to him.
From the slit in the rear curtain where I was standing, I could see the boys and my brother Phil. Phil was applauding, but there was no sign of awe on his broad face.
Phil had seen it all in his more than twenty years as a Los Angeles cop. He had seen it all and had enough. We were partners now, Peters and Pevsner, Confidential Investigations, office in the Farraday Building on Ninth just off Hoover. Clients few. Prospects questionable.
Phil's wife Ruth had died less than a month earlier. She had been sick and going weaker for a long time. When she died, Phil had walked away from the LAPD and taken my offer to join me. I hadn't expected him to accept, but he walked away from the past and took his boys and his four-year-old daughter Lucy with him. While we were at the Pantages, Lucy and Phil's sister-in-law Becky were at the house in North Hollywood.
The space behind the thick blue velvet curtains was dimly lit, but I could see props of all kinds laid out neatly, carefully, around me.
Someone had threatened Blackstone. Someone had said that if Blackstone did not reveal the secrets behind all of his illusions to him, he would appear at this show and, some time during the performance, would demonstrate how serious he was.
"A threat?" Blackstone had asked the man on the phone.
"A threat," he had replied and hung up.
Blackstone had not recognized the voice of his caller.
The magician had contacted the police. They had told Blackstone they were not going to be pulled into some publicity stunt. He had persisted. Eventually he got to Sergeant Steve Seidman, my brother's ex-partner, who suggested that he get in touch with us.
And now I stood behind the thick blue velvet curtain at the rear of the stage peering through a small hole, scanning the audience, turning right and left to look for something or someone unexpected or suspicious backstage.
At the stage door, we had posted Jeremy Butler, the huge, bald, 250-lb former wrestler and present poet who was our landlord at the Farraday Building. Jeremy had been a professional wrestler. He was over sixty now, but I didn't think there were many people on the planet who could get past him without the use of gun or a very large sledgehammer, and even then Jeremy might not go down. I wasn't expecting anyone with a gun or a sledgehammer, but both my brother in the audience and me behind the curtain, wearing a bright blue marching-band uniform complete with white epaulets and big brass buttons, were armed. Phil could shoot. So could I. The difference was that Phil was likely to hit what he was shooting at. History told me that I was most likely to shoot an unarmed bystander or myself.
I was pushing fifty, with a few dollars left in the bank from a job I'd done for Joan Crawford and a nice advance from Blackstone. Since being fired from Warner Brothers six years ago by Harry Warner himself for breaking the nose of a cowboy star who was being less than a prairie knight with a young starlet, I had almost supported myself as a private investigator. Now that my brother had left the Los Angeles Police Department and joined me, we needed enough income to support his family and me. For years my brother and I had carried on a love-hate relationship based on (a) my choice of what he considered a less than reputable profession, (b) my changing my name from Pevsner to Peters, (c) my having been born the night my mother died and a variety of other reasons, most of them more reasonable than a, b, and c. Ruth's death had changed that.
What Phil brought to the partnership was knowledge of the city, its crime and criminals, and a lack of even minimal tolerance for people who engaged in felony. Phil had many virtues. Given time, I can come up with a few beyond his loyalty to his family and friends. Phil also had a few problems, most notably his temper. He did not suffer criminals gladly, nor insults, not even for a fraction of a second. That was before Ruth died. Now he could suffer insult and injury for a second or two, far less than the average criminal lunatic. We were a perfect pair.
Through the slit in the curtain I could see Blackstone pull a handkerchief from his pocket, a plain white handkerchief. He tied a little knot in it and suddenly it came to life, responding or refusing to respond to commands. The handkerchief moved away from the magician who pursued it, and began to dance to its own music. It stopped suddenly when Blackstone asked it to do a minuet. The hankie launched into a can-can instead. The audience laughed. The audience applauded. The handkerchief bowed. Blackstone showed that there were no strings attached to the willful fabric. Finally, seemingly frustrated, Blackstone slapped the handkerchief down to the stage floor only to have it rise and do a belly dance as an encore. The audience laughed while the Ziegfeld of magic played straight man to a piece of cloth.
Behind me, Blackstone's crew silently moved equipment to prepare for the next illusion. I hastily got out of their way and headed toward the right wing, listening to the applause. I heard Black-stone's voice onstage, but the only word I could make out was "ducks."
There was no one new in the crew. The most recent addition had been six months earlier. I eased past boxes, caged birds, doves and rabbits, barrels and people.
A thin boy about ten or twelve, with dark hair and eyes, wearing knickers and a look of rapt attention stood watching from the wings as the magician pulled live and quacking ducks from what appeared to be an empty tub of water. The boy had been chosen before the show to take part in one of the acts. Phil and I had been told that when Blackstone's ten-year-old son, Harry, Jr., was on the road with them, he would take part in the act. Harry, Jr. was back home in Michigan going to school. But, considering what was happening, that was fine with Blackstone.
The kid in the wings looked nervous.
"You alright?" I asked.
"Fine," he said, his eyes meeting mine, his smile a slight raising of the right side of his mouth that was almost a tic.
"You want to be a magician?" I asked.
"Actor," he said. "Like my father."
Onstage, Blackstone scooped up the ducks and placed them on a table inside of a little duck inn.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. A young man, no more than nineteen or twenty, with a freckled hometown nose, whispered to me, "We've got a problem."
The little boy in the wings glanced at us as we moved past him and then looked back at the stage where the magician was taking the inn apart plank by plank to show that the ducks had all disappeared. The young man with the freckles, whose name was Jimmy Clark, led the way limping, which I assumed was the reason he was not on some island in the Pacific or pushing back the Germans in Europe, instead of backstage at the Pantages.
Peter, the image of his brother, but without the tux and with his silver hair not billowing, stood in front of a polished cage on a wheeled platform.
"It's gone," Pete Bouton said shaking his head.
"The switch on the giant buzz saw," said Pete. "The show stopper, the next act."
"It's ... about this size."
He held up his spread-out hands about the width of a cigar box.
"Can't do the illusion without it," he said. "I haven't got time to make another one."
"It's gone too," said Peter, looking at the curtain. "We can do the illusion without it but...."
"There could be a problem," he said. "Not much chance, but ... I can't ask any of the girls to do it. I'll let Harry know we have to end with something else."
Pete Bouton looked decidedly worried, more worried than a canceled illusion seemed to call for.
"What?" I asked.
"There was a note near the box next to the missing backup switch."
He handed me a folded sheet of paper. I unfolded it and moved back where there was more light.
The note, in neat letters, read:
Magician, is this the unkindest cut of all? Remember the missing blade? It rests where we can all see it. You found a substitute last time. Not this time. You know what I want. I'll contact you.
There was no signature.
"The trick is safe?" I asked. "I mean, even without the switch?"
"Well," said Bouton. "I've built it with three safety backups, but I don't know what this guy has done."
"Can you check it out?"
"Not without going onstage during the act. It's out there covered by a red silk sheet."
"What's the stuff about the missing blade?"
Pete frowned and pursed his lips.
"Only once before has a major piece of equipment been missing, a saw blade for this act. We have a full 70-foot baggage car wherever we go, and in thirty years we've never lost a major piece of equipment except...."
"... except for the saw blade."
He nodded and said,
"And that was about twenty years ago."
"I'll do it," I said.
"The giant buzz saw trick."
"It's supposed to be a beautiful young woman," Bouton said. "The audience doesn't want a beautiful young woman cut in half."
"They'll have to settle for a beat-up middle-aged man."
"I'll have to check with Harry," he said.
"Does he come offstage before the buzz saw?"
"It's not dangerous, right?"
I didn't like the pause.
"Let's just do it. Tell me what to do."
"Oh god," Bouton said. "Alright. Just go stand in the left wing. When Harry uncovers the buzz saw and it's rolled forward, he'll call for his courageous young assistant to come forth."
"And I come forth."
"You do," he said. "Let's just...."
"... do it," I said. "The big bald man by the stage door, tell him what's happening and have someone tell my brother, the surly looking guy in the front row with two boys."
"You know what you're doing?" asked Pete.
"Definitely not," I said. "That's the secret of my years of success."
Before he could say more, I moved behind the velvet curtain, past the maze of boxes and animals and headed for the left wing. When I got there, my nephew Nate and the kid in knickers who had been in the wings were standing on the stage next to Blackstone.
"And you are?" Blackstone asked.
"Nathan Pevsner," my nephew said in a quivering voice.
"And you?" the magician asked the other boy.
"Anthony Perkins," the boy said in a high reedy voice.
Blackstone reached into his pocket and plucked out a lightbulb. He held it out in front of him, let it go and stepped back. The lightbulb floated and was suddenly glowing brightly.
Blackstone urged Nate and Anthony to see if there were any strings attached. Nate, wide-eyed, looked down at Phil and then at the bulb. He ran his hand around the bulb. So did the other kid.
"Out," said Blackstone.
The lightbulb went out.
"On," said Blackstone.
The lightbulb went back on and started to float away. Blackstone walked after it, guiding Nate and Anthony by the shoulder as they followed it down the stairs on the right and in front of the orchestra where it hovered about waist high.
The audience applauded, and the magician said to Nate, "It's yours to command. Tell it to turn off."
"Turn off," Nate said.
The bulb obeyed.
"Tell it to move up or down," Blackstone said to the other boy.
"Move up," said the boy.
The bulb obeyed.
I looked across the stage at the other wing. A costumed girl stood smiling. Behind her a figure moved forward, a bearded man in a blue dark suit with a turban on his head. In the middle of the turban was a large green glassy stone.
The man in the turban looked across the stage at me and held up a sign.
The large black letters of the sign read:
I started to back up as the turbaned man lowered the sign. Blackstone was returning back to the stage.
"And now," the magician said, holding his right hand out. "If my lovely and courageous young assistant would step out to help me...."
I stepped out on the stage. The audience laughed. I was certainly not lovely, and I wasn't feeling courageous. Blackstone's eyes met mine for a flash. He didn't miss a beat. He grinned as if he were in on the joke.
The red silk sheet was pulled off of the device on the other side of the stage, and four girls in frilly tights began pushing the wheeled platform and buzz saw center stage.
Blackstone approached the device, pulled a lever and the buzz saw, about five feet around, began to buzz and whirl noisily.
"With the help of my assistant," said Blackstone. "We will defy the blade, defy death itself."
Blackstone strode over to me and put a hand on my shoulder speaking without moving his mouth as he smiled, "What is going on?"
I was grinning, too. Jimmy Clark, the freckle-faced kid, had limped down the aisle to where Phil was sitting. He was whispering into my brother's ear.
"Switches are missing," I said.
"Stolen," I said, as Blackstone guided me to the bench next to the blade, which looked all too hard and solid.
"We'll cancel the act," he whispered between closed teeth. "It's just a show."
"Pete said it's not dangerous," I said.
"Not unless someone's done something else to the mechanism."
I hadn't thought of that.
"We can't let him win," I said, lying on the platform.
"God help us," Blackstone said to me. Then he turned to the audience with a knowing smile and loudly announced, "And now death itself will be defied. Those of you in the first rows, should anything go wrong, we will pay the cleaning bills to have the bloodstains removed. And now...."
He turned and, with the help of three young women, strapped my arms and legs with leather straps. He moved away, and I looked down as the buzz saw began to move toward my body between my spread legs.
The audience gasped. A woman screamed.
Just about then a private detective died.CHAPTER 2
Hold out your hand and say, "I have three coins in my hand. One of them isn't a nickel. The three coins total thirty-five cents. What are the three coins?" Solution: The three coins are a quarter and two nickels. Show the coins and say, "One of them isn't a nickel. The one that isn't a nickel is the quarter."
From the Blackstone, The Magician Detective radio show
Three Days Earlier
A lot of people were dying on continents two oceans apart with America in the middle. In the Pacific, the battle for control of the Coral Sea was going badly, from the Bonin Islands to the Philippine Sea, for Admiral Shigetaro Shimada, His Imperial Majesty's Naval Minister, who had taken personal control of the fleet. Thirty Japanese Royal Navy ships had been sunk, fifty-one seriously damaged, seven hundred and fifty-seven aircraft downed and thirteen landing barges on the way to Saipan destroyed in two weeks. Across the other sea, a week after D-Day, the American army had taken Cherbourg. A Japanese radio report explained that "in France, the Allied Armies are retreating haphazardly inland."
Harry Blackstone, in a dark business suit and blue tie, his hair brushed flat, sat at the round table in the office of Pevsner and Peters on the fourth floor of the Farraday Building.
I sat across from him. The office was large, roomy enough for Phil's desk and mine and the round table with four chairs. It had been the headquarters for the inventor of the aoelean trafingle, a goofy electronic gizmo that made weird almost musical sounds when you touched it, sounds that reminded me of dying plumbing. The echoes of the damned thing still haunted the place.
It was almost ten in the morning. Phil was about to be walking in any second. He was out running down information about a man whose name Blackstone had given us over the phone.
Excerpted from Now You See It by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 2004 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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