"Nothing up my sleeve," she murmured on the stage in the empty theatre, pulling the sleeve down to show how empty it was. "No hidden devices," she said, watching her hands as she pulled off the gloves, "Nothing hidden anywhere." With that, she pushed up her right sleeve then the left, clapping her hands and holding them palms-out to the imagined audience. She put on her best sly smile, aware that it made a few of the wrinkles on her face all the more visible. Oh, well. She wasn't trying to be a model. Behind her, Carl stood with his best 'grave expression' as if he were watching the work of a master, her cape, tuxedo jacket and gloves draped over his bared forearms.
Going through the motions, practiced and deliberate, Joan hoped the illusion was as complete as it had seemed the hundred or so times she'd practiced it in front of the mirror, rehearsed eyebrow motions doing their part to show how much she knew compared to the audience, what strange mysteries she must be a master of; to say nothing of pulling attention to her face when they should be watching her hands. "Debunk this," she whispered under her breath as she squeezed the deck just so and sent the cards flying outward toward her other hand. The cards landed in place with a familiar flicking sound. "What's that?" she said to the empty seats, smiling her most slippery smile. "You say you want something else?" The crowd, knowing their part in the act, would scream an affirmation, the eternal white noise of the throng while Carl took a moment to conspicuously head offstage to put her things away.
"Of course you do, you greedy little monkeys. What good is conjuring a deck of cards to do a trick you've all seen before?" She stomped on the floor a few times. "As you can hear, it's solid as it gets, no trap doors or faked floors here." She pointed at a seat in the left half of the theatre, "You! Come on up and show us how solid it is." With a flair, Joan produced a magnifying glass in one hand, a crowbar in the other. Skipping the waiting--should be about twenty seconds, hopefully not more--she gestured to where Carl, her lovely assistant, would be stepping out. "Now, all these tools at your disposal, please feel free to find a flaw in the floor, friend!" Alliteration, for whatever reason, only ever added to the feeling of magic in the room. She imagined a minute or two of testing as she hemmed and hawed over the theatregoer, who was hopefully too awed at his few moments of fame to care much about what he was doing. For her own part, Joan smiled pleasantly and occasionally burst out with, "Oh, not there! You mustn't check there."
Distraction, distraction, distraction. The inexpert tester would look for hidden trap doors. If he was a grumpy sort, he'd probably snap at her to shut it, allowing her to skip away and give the thousand little thumbs-up to the audience while Carl bent down and examined the floor as well or whispered helpful tips in the audience member's ear, pointing at places on the stage that might seem a little more suspect, always, always always places on stage she'd actually be performing.
It wasn't just a joke, after all. Even if it seemed that way.
Eventually, the stage would be declared clear of tricks, traps or tampering. Joan snapped back into her act, pacing the stage slowly, the crowbar and magnifying glass apparently slipped into the aether with a series of exaggerated motions. Her favourite part, really, those motions. "Everyone, give her a hand!" she'd say, grinning and clapping for the audience member as they went back to their seat. Once they'd sat back down, she'd do an intricate wave of her hands to signal silence. Arms out, flourish, meet at the middle of the chest and straight outward. Here the lights would go down save a spotlight. Classic. And it made whatever was going to happen that much easier to believe.
Because it was all a trick, right? No magic. Just a clever illusionist.
"Now to start, I'm sorry, you all get a lecture." Reproducing the deck, she flexed her fingers and sent the cards flying from one hand to the other in a straight line, "No, no. I'm not selling you a time share or trying to get you to go to a new church," she joked as the cards made an arc above her head and landed expertly in her other hand. "See, the illusions you see are more than just tricks of light by clever people," Joan began as the next flex of her fingers sent the cards into a circle around her face and land in her hand, "There's lots of people involved." Here she held the deck out in front of her, turned her hand to hold the deck pointing towards the ceiling, "The tailors, the engineers, the manufacturers, my close friends, my agent and of course my lovely assistant, Carl." Carl waved at the empty seats as another flex of her hand sent the cards straight up into the air.
The cards never came back down. They never needed to. "Give 'em all a hand, won't you?"
She took for granted that they would. Audiences are remarkably pliant like that. Especially when waiting for something to astound them.
"So, back to the lecture," she said, winking at them. "Sorry, I didn't forget." Joan began pacing the stage slowly like a professor she had in college as Carl--having somehow got hold of a crowbar and magnifying glass--walked off, stage right, just a little ahead of Joan, the spotlight following the pair of them, stopping when she stopped and he walked off-stage. Gesturing toward the departed assistant, Joan bowed deeply. "Carl's taking a moment to rest up for the rest of the show. Poor guy's heard this lecture more times than he could count, so I think he can sit this one out, don't you?" She gave a knowing wink to the audience. Hammy, perhaps, but better than having an extra appendage on-stage looking awkward. Pretty boy, sure, but he wasn't a showman yet.
Still, it built anticipation. And tension, properly applied, could make or break a show. Coughing dramatically, the lecture began, "Magicians, illusionists and fortune-tellers are all frauds of the highest order," she whispered, the words and inflection as rote as the motions she followed, gestures much the same one night as they were the next. She knelt down and pressed her palm theatrically against the stage, slowly bringing her hand up as she spoke, a simple plywood cane following her hand's ascent, "As long as there's been people who needed more, we've provided it with hazy talk of spheres and spirits," Joan tossed the cane up in the air, snatching it back before it hit the stage again, walking toward the center, "We spin good stories, stories of kings and destinies, of arcana and foreign climes where we hone our mystic prowess." Stopping at the center of the stage, she reached up to the spotlight and then a little above it, producing a top hat from the darkness. "We say that there's no way our tricks can be explained because we think we're so smart." Flipping the top hat a couple times between her fingers, she slapped it on top of our head to punctuate smart.
"Of course, you can't explain it all for certain, can you? And no matter how many masked magicians show you how our tricks could be duplicated..." She walked to the other side of the stage, gesturing complexly before clapping her hands as the deck of cards shot downward into her hand, "you're never sure that you know." She grinned broadly then as she dropped the cards which stopped in midair just above the stage. "We leave you wondering," she muttered, dropping into her 'faerie crouch', long ago ripped off of a Puck she saw at a performance once, hunched over and rubbing her hands together, "'What if it wasn't bullshit?'" She looked around slowly before she held out her arm and snapped. A vest wafted down from the darkness to drape over her arm. Joan slipped it on slowly as she prowled back to the middle of the stage. "What if that woman pretending to be the gypsy queen with all her bright scarves and gold coin tiara," with a waggle of her cane, the tiara appeared along its black length, sliding towards the white rubber tip; the scarves she seemed to simply pluck from the air. With a practiced motion, she tossed the tiara atop her head where it slid down to the brim of her top hat. She held the scarves in front of her face playfully, "What if she was the gypsy queen, long-exiled for dancing with some strange demon?" She stepped downstage, closer to the imagined audience.
Here she knelt a little, dropping to a stage whisper, looking toward a seat near the middle-left of the theatre, "What if you would have listened when she went bolt-upright and told you to worship the first woman with red hair you saw?" She looked towards the right side of the empty theatre, "And if you hadn't laughed off her prediction of your eventual wealth if you would have just picked up the very next hitchhiker with a dog you saw?" With a laugh, she shot straight upright, holding her cane out. "That is the true power of the magician, folks. We give you a reason to ask. A reason to say 'what if'." Holding the cane between her hands, a tip in each palm. "What if David Blaine has really unlocked the secrets of levitation?" With a little push, the cane compressed into a rather classic magic wand. "What if David Copperfield really can send the Statue of Liberty into some other place in the vast, deep universe?" Tapping the tip of the wand to the gold tiara, she dragged it back up over the top edge of the hat. "What if Tesla--" here blue lightning crackled behind her, "--wasn't just a crazy inventor, but an electric wizard driven mad by trying to make magic into something small and known?"
Tipping her head down, the hat rolled off her head and landed top-down on the stage with a loud, metallic 'clang'. She tapped her wand like an actress in the 1920s might tap a tiparello and the tiara fell into the hat, "What if Jack Parsons could do more than build rockets?" she balled up the scarves and let them drift downward into the hat as well, "What if Houdini was more than just a man with double-joints and a high tolerance for pain?" She pointed with her wand at the hovering deck of cards on the far side of the stage and they shot toward the hat, hovering above it before turning downward and shooting in one at a time. "What if Merlin wasn't some crazy old tree-worshipper and Arthur not some poor kid caught up in legend by some recently-Christianized Brits?" Joan picked up the hat then, waving the wand around its brim theatrically, "What if everything you knew was wrong and instead of pulling a rabbit out of this hat, I pull out something that will change your minds forever?" She reached in, holding her hand there.
That pause was the hardest part. Over too fast and the effect was lost. Too long and they had time to think. One thing you could never practice for; only hope that you'd be able to read the audience. And Joan wasn't anywhere near expert at that yet.
Still. You did your best because that's all you could do.
Then she pulled her hand out and slapped the hat on top of her head, tilted down at a playful angle, "Well?" she whispered to the empty theatre, "What if?"
And there, her arms shot outward, her head tilted back and she disappeared as the lights came back on the stage, illuminating a giant set of Tesla coils, a pair of shining steel manacles, a gnarled wooden staff, a ten-foot-tall mirror and a wheeled set of stairs. The Tesla coil flared up, lightning crackling between its massive silver spheres. On cue the lights went out for a second, which always made the audience gasp.
When they came on, the stage was bare but for the mirror that bore Joan's reflection, once more in her cape, gloves and top hat.
Stepping out of it, she practiced her bow. She imagined the thousands of cheering faces.
"Now," she said to them, smiling broadly, "Lecture's done. Let the magic begin!"
From offstage, Carl whistled sharply, giving Joan a thumbs-up. "Great job, Joan. You'll knock 'em dead with that bit!" Her agent and the venue's owner looked on and whispered to each other behind him, that private language of money, box office and marketing, while Carl--earnest as ever in his fitted white shirt and tight pants--walked out on stage, grinning that so-white smile of his "What say we take five?" the man, pretty and her junior by a good fifteen years, said, holding out a bottle of water for Joan. "The crew is getting pretty restless and the boss doesn't want to miss anything talking with the owner."
The magician responded with a noncommittal shrug before taking the bottle and downing half of it. "Okay," she said as the stage lights dimmed and the crew wandered out toward the catering backstage, "Then we'll take it from 'the Great Disappearing Man'. I'm not sure about timing on that one."
Carl lit up like a flaming Christmas tree, "Great! I'll let everyone know," he informed her before dashing off to let the crew foreman know.
For her own part, Joan was happy enough with the timing of everything. But the boss wanted to give a preview to the owner and a dress rehearsal was the perfect opportunity.
Maybe Joan could even get a regular gig out of the deal. Sure beat all the work on her way up this far, that was for sure.
Crossposted to my journal.