Now You See Her...Now You Don't
It's difficult to gain the public's attention in turn-of-the-century New Yorkeven if you are the greatest escape artist the world has ever seen. So the young performer who calls himself Harry Houdini must be content, for the time being, working for the internationally renowned Keller, the "Dean of American Magicians." But tragedy strikes at the inaugural performance of the master's most astonishing illusion, the Floating Lady, when Keller's levitating assistant plummets abruptly to the ground, apparently to her death. Yet an investigation soon reveals that it is drowning, and no fatal fall, that has killed the unfortunate young lady. An intriguing impossibility to be sure. And it is the great, albeit unsung, Houdiniwith the aid of wife Bess and brother Dashwho must solve the deadly conundrum, leading them all into a maze of twisted schemes, grim deceptions, and bloodletting that is no mere stage fakery.
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I: Oh, You Wonder!
Again, the dream.
A dark curtain lifted and he saw his brother, blue and lifeless, hanging upside down in the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Harry was bobbing gently in the grayish water, his hair pulsing like seaweed, his arms folded across his chest as though settled snugly into a coffin. He could see every detail. The dark mahogany and nickel-plated steel of the cabinet. The thick glass panels. The tiny clusters of air bubbles clinging to his brother's nose and lips. He could even hear the ominous strains of music rising from the orchestra pit. "Asleep in the Deep."
He would take a step closer, then, as the music started, and stretch out a hand as if to touch his brother's face. A terrible urgency would grip him as he knelt beside the front panel, peering through the clouded glass. Already he could hear the voices calling from behind, pulling him away.
A moment longer. That was all he required. In another moment, surely, his brother would open his eyes and give a sly wink. The blue-tinged lips would break into a smile as a stream of air escaped. Another moment. Just one more moment ...
And then the ringing of the alarm. The dream always ended this way, leaving him confused and doleful. Perhaps next time, he thought.
The old man swung his legs over the side of the bed and padded to a wash stand in the corner, trying to dispel the foggy residue of gloom. He chided himself as he made his way down the hall to bathe, and by the time he returned to his room to dress he began to feel better. Why did he let it trouble him so? He glanced at the calendar. That was it, he told himself. It seemed impossible, butanother year had passed. He hoped that perhaps this year the anniversary might pass quietly. He sat down and began polishing his black wing-tips, just in case.
He had finished brushing his jacket and was considering a damp press for his collar when he heard the front door chime. He parted the curtains and peered down at the front stoop. A reporter. No mistaking it. The old man had known plenty of reporters in his time, and he recognized the type. Slouch hat, pencil behind the ear, well thumbed note pad. In fact, it appeared to be the same man who had come out the previous year. What was his name? Matthews, was it? Yes, Matthews. Call me Jack. He'd brought another photographer with him, too.
He heard the chime again and listened for the sound of Mrs. Doggett's footsteps galumphing through from the kitchen. Mrs. Doggett kept a clean house and did not much care for this annual intrusion of cigarette-smoking newspapermen from the city. She would show Matthews and the photographer to the parlor with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. A moment later she would return with a tray of tea and Keepa cakes, clucking all the while.
The old man hurriedly fastened his collar and knotted his filetto silk tie, regarding himself in the hall mirror. He had selected his best coatmerino wool in a crow's footpattembut now he wondered if it might be showing a bit of wear. Were the pockets sagging? Were the shoulders riding a bit high? He ran a hand through his hair andcentered his Windsor knot. He knew, at his age, that time spent preening was time wasted. Might as well go downstairs in his robe and slippers. Still, he had standards tomaintain. In the old days, they called him "Dash . "
The old man studied his reflection and wondered if there would be time to go down the hall and splash on a bit of Lendell's toilet water. No, he thought, probably not. Already he could hear Mrs. Doggett coming to the foot of the stairs, calling up to him about the visitors in the parlor. He frowned over his cuffs and picked at a loose thread on his elbow. Ah, well. The show must go on.
They came every year, these reporters, on the anniversary of his brother's death. Just once he wished they might spare a question or two about his own career. Say, Mr Hardeen, you were quite a celebrated performer yourself in those days, weren't you? You had a recordbreaking run at the London Palladium, isn't that right? But no, it would be the same old shibboleth: Tell us about your brother, Mr Hardeen. Tell us about Houdini.
The old man paused with his hand on the bannister and wondered what he would tell them this year. He had long since exhausted his supply of boyhood anecdotesthough "Ehrich of the Air" was always good for half a column or so. My brother would hang upside down from a makeshift trapeze in our yard, and he would pick up needles with his eyelashes! That one was a complete fabrication, but the reporters seemed to like it. Or maybe he could trot out that perennial favorite about the Belle Island Bridge leap in Detroit. The river had frozen over, but my brother refused to cancel the stunt. "But Harry! " I cried. "How are you going to do an underwater escape when the river is frozen over?" "That's simple," he replied, "we'll chop a hole in the ice..."
No, not this year. That one was beginning to wear a bit thin. Wasn't true, in any case. Not a word of it. Harry started putting that one about in 1906. Funny how things catch on.
The Floating Lady, perhaps. That one might be good for a column or two. Incredible story, really, if he decided to tell all of it. Certainly they would be familiar with the illusion. Was there anyone left in the world who hadn't seen the Floating Lady by now? They call it different namesAsrah, Levitation, Lighter Than Airbut the effect is always the same...
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