The orchestra played his intro and the electric lights dimmed.
“We two can make it work, guv,” Ruby pleaded again. Tears had gathered in her eyes and her make-up was beginning to run down her powdered cheek.
“No.” His breath was quick and erratic and he desperately tried to calm himself, count to ten. But none of the usual tricks were working. What was he to do? Uncle Yanko. His father. Barnabas Dawes. All falling apart.
Almost in a trance he turned toward Ruby. “I can’t use you.”
“Then…what will you do? You ain’t got much left.” She was angry but there was little left over in his sympathies for her.
He licked his lips. No, he didn’t have much left. Some sleight of hand, a few old, tired tricks. He’d have to make it work. Make it work better than ever before… In a fit of regret he almost shot out a hand to grab Ruby, insist she help him…when the unthinkable occurred. If he…if he dared, it could be the ultimate magical show. It could put him on the map. Lift him from third billing to the top anywhere he wanted to perform. If it went right, that is. Did he dare? He rubbed his wrist. Could he dare?
He glanced at Ruby for the last time. “I’m sorry. But without your sister…I must try… something else.”
He spun his cape over his shoulders and waited in the wings for the musical cue. When the cue came, he strode slowly out to the stage. The applause started as soon as the footlights illuminated him.
He looked past the footlights toward the audience. They were rapt, as usual, but it wasn’t a full house. That burned him almost as much as Rose’s absence.
The conductor started the vamp that accompanied Leopold’s usual routine, but with a deep breath, he stepped to the edge of the stage and leaned toward the orchestra pit. “Maestro.”
The conductor stopped the musicians with a flourish of his baton and blinked up at Leopold over his pince-nez.
“We will not have music. In truth, we shall have perfect silence for what I am about to do.”
The rustling of the audience, the occasional cough, silenced.
The conductor glared at him, puzzled. This was not as rehearsed. No, Leopold thought ruefully. Definitely not rehearsed.
Leopold took another deep breath. He hadn’t wanted to do this. It was dangerous. But he would not cancel his show. Not this late in the day. It had to be done. Dawes would see something he’d never seen before.
He straightened his shoulders and raised his bearded chin. He wore the tranquil face of Leopold Kaszmer, the Great Conjurer.
In utter silence, he pulled the string that tied his cape and released the knot. With a soft whoosh of fabric, the cape slid from his shoulders and pooled on the floor at his feet. Deftly, he opened the buttons of his coat, and keeping the audience under his cool gaze, he whipped it so quickly off his arms and shoulders, that a woman in the front row gasped.
He dropped it, too, to the floor. With two delicate fingers, he raised his hand to his hat, grasped the brim and removed it, as if doffing it for a lady. He showed the white satin of the interior to the audience and, never moving his gaze from the far seats, dropped it softly onto his coat and cape.
In only his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, he carefully removed each glove in turn, first the left, then the right, leaving them on the pile of clothing. He took another breath, listened as it eased over his mustache, before rolling up the sleeve of only his left arm. When it was folded back to his elbow he finally flicked his glance to his white forearm. Like a bracelet, the dark tattoo encircling his wrist shown starkly against his pale skin. Its intricate design wove in and out of itself almost in the form of a Celtic knot, but was nothing so whimsical. For the Eye of Providence etched on the inside of his wrist, right at the pulse point, took any possible quaintness away from the black design. The eye stared back at him with intricate detail as if it were capable of blinking at any moment. He had wanted the mark once, begged for it. Now he hated the sight of it.
Holding his marked wrist forward toward the audience, he pulled a small item from the pocket in his waistcoat with his free hand. He held it with two fingers, the other three digits poised above it. It was second nature, this expression of his fingers, always proving to the punters that nothing was in his hands, all the while hiding whatever he wished in the palm of it.
But this time, there really was nothing but the small object, that when he pushed a button with his forefinger, snapped a blade out of the handle. The sound was so sudden and so loud in the complete silence that a woman or two…and even a few men…let out a protracted shriek.
Light gleamed off the blade. It was sharp. Had to be. He stood, positioning his legs apart, fist at the end of a naked arm stretched out so taut the blue veins beneath his skin pulsed. The knife poised. He dreaded the moment.
With a flash he struck.
There was just a slash at first on the delicate skin. A gash of torn flesh. But then the blood welled, filling the slash, until there was so much of it there was no place else for it to go. Red spilled out over his wrist, marking its own trail in crimson, like a bracelet. And then the drip, drip onto the stage floor.
He could feel the audience tense, feel their inheld breaths. So quiet, he could hear each droplet as it splashed to the plank floor at his feet.
He stared at his life’s blood pooling and took a final deep breath.
“Ani metzaveh alaycha, lachshof et atzmechah!” he cried.
A pause, as if the very Earth hesitated, waiting.
The footlights dimmed. The puddle of his blood shifted. Rippled. A crease of light, then a blinding flash exploded from the floor. The audience screamed. Leopold could do nothing about it. He had to hold his arm forth, fist closed tight. The arm trembled but he held it steady, even as blood continued to drip, drip from it.
The light blasted over him, flinging back his hair. He looked into the blinding abyss, saw the shapes move and contort in shadows beneath the light that slowly dimmed. And as it receded, a figure formed and rose out of the blood. Its head hung low. The shoulders seemed to rise first as a great hulking shape, and then the head lifted. Horns resembling those of some great African beast, twisted and towered above his head. His skin was textured like a lizard’s and was as dark red as Leopold’s blood. His muscled body stood taller than the magician, with thick thighs and wide shoulders. And he was nude but seemed not to care about this state as he surveyed the crowd with disdain. “Who has summoned me?” he bellowed, voice like a black cloud before a thunder burst.
Women had not stopped screaming and now that the smoke had cleared he saw many of them scrambling for the exits. No! They mustn’t leave before the complete performance.
“I have summoned you!” he declared above the noise of screams and running feet. “And I alone control you.”
The rumbling of panicked citizens died off, as some lingered by the exits, thrown in confusion by the spectacle before them. Was it only a show? Was it something else, something horrific? Female faces turned away, but just as many eyed the naked daemon with fascination.
“I command you,” Leopold said, turning toward the demonic apparition, “to conjure doves. Doves of peace to calm the crowd.”
The daemon lifted his hands and out of them appeared from nowhere white, spotless doves that flew into the audience.
But that only seemed to set off a new chorus of screams and they ducked and flung their hands over their heads, shooing the fluttering doves away as if they were vermin. No one stayed in their seats.
“Wait!” Leopold called to the audience. He stood at the footlights, watching helplessly as his entire audience ran over themselves to escape. Men trampled men and women fell to their knees, weeping. Brave souls helped them up, tugging them away from the apparition on the stage. Even the orchestra had ducked out through their trapdoor, leaving a disarray of fallen sheet music and tipped music stands.
It wasn’t long before no one remained. Even the stagehands had fled in terror at this unexpected flourish from their disagreeable master.
The doves circled the empty seats, shitting white droppings on the dark velvet.
Leopold waved his hand at them. “Enough!”
They vanished without so much as a whisper.
“Tough luck, old man,” said the daemon in a perfectly modulated West End baritone.
Leopold gestured toward the hulking creature. “Where are your bloody clothes!”
The daemon looked down. “Thought it would make a more dramatic show. Too much?”
“Yes, it bloody well is!”
“Dear me. That’s twice in a row you said ‘bloody.’ I must have truly made you cross.”
Leopold tucked his anger away and closed his eyes. “I apologize. I was just…surprised. And not a little annoyed that they all…departed.”
“The greatest trick they’ve ever seen and they couldn’t sit for it. That’s Gentiles for you.”
Leopold huffed and relaxed his tensed shoulders. He waved vaguely at the daemon’s nether regions. “Do something about…that, if you please.”
“Oh. Sorry, old man.” Instantly, a black loin cloth appeared at his hips, covering his considerable endowments. “I suppose the show’s over.”
Leopold nodded dejectedly and slipped his knife back in his waistcoat.
“Ah! Should I…?” The red hand waved over Leopold’s bloody wrist.
“If you will, Eurynomos.” He held out his arm. Truthfully, he felt a little faint. He’d cut too deeply this time.
Eurynomos closed his hand over it and sucked in a breath, euphoria spreading over his features. After a moment he released the magician and the arm was perfectly healed.
Leopold rubbed his wrist. No scar remained. Only the twinge of the remembered knife slash. As his fingers passed over the mark, though, he could swear he could feel the tattoo as a raised pattern, but it was as a part of his flesh as any other part. Hastily he rolled down his sleeve and fixed the cuff with a shaky hand.
“There goes my box office. And there goes my show. Blast it. I’ve already sacked my assistants so what more could go wrong?”
“Oh, never say that around a proper daemon, old man. You don’t know what ‘wrong’ can be.”
“I do know,” he said quietly.
Eurynomos chuckled and scratched the back of his head. “I daresay you do.” He shrank a bit from when he first appeared, only now standing a foot taller than Leopold rather than the eight or so feet when he emerged from the floor. “Is that why you summoned me during a show? To throw your weight around to the punters.”
“I suppose.” Reddening, he reached the wings and found a chair. He sat and ran his fingers through his hair. “I…I thought I could…that it would…oh dash it. I’ve ruined everything!”
The sound of squeaky wheels rolling toward him meant only one thing. “I suppose you saw that disaster, Raj.”
“Is that what you call it?” said the mechanical man. “Namaste, Eurynomos.”
“Shalom, old friend.”
He rain both hands through his hair. “Yes, it was a blasted disaster. I’m ruined.”
The gears clicked and whirred. “Don’t be silly, Leo. It was smashing! Quite top drawer.”
“Wasn’t it?” said the daemon, elbowing the automaton.
“The desperate act of a desperate man,” Leopold muttered. “And your lack of dress will get me thrown into gaol for indecency. And come to think of it…I should think the Church will be round soon with a stake for burning.”
“Well! I won’t let that happen.” He patted Leopold’s shoulder with exceptional tenderness. “I had such a jolly time, I certainly owe you.”
“You certainly do.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “What the hell was I thinking?”
“What the Gehenna were you thinking. Droll.”
“I’m not laughing.” He sat up. “I’ll have to close down my act until I can get new assistants. If anyone will even hire me again. Perhaps even go into hiding. Blast it all!” What a fool! Why had he done it? He should have just persevered with Ruby. Too late now.
“But, old man,” said Eurynomos. He grabbed a chair in his large hand and positioned it. He sat, stretching his thick legs outward. “What do you need with assistants when you have me?”
“I can’t do real magic all the time. It’s too draining. Haven’t I lost enough blood tonight?”
The daemon licked his lips. “Yes. And it was most delicious. Thank you.”
He eyed the daemon from under lowered brows. “Don’t mention it.”
“By the way.” The daemon swirled a finger in the air toward Leopold’s face. “Love the hair brush, old man. It quite suits you.”
Leopold quickly raised a hand to stroke his mustache down to his beard. He felt his cheeks redden at the compliment. “Well…I had to do something. Everyone kept mistaking me for the assistant.”
“Makes you look quite mature. Perhaps try a little gray at the temples?”
“I’m not ready to look that old yet.”
Raj, ignoring their conversation, laid out his tarot cards one by one, ticking his head with a hiss of compressed air. “I hate to see you close the show.”
“I don’t think it’s my choice any longer.” He leaned dejectedly against the proscenium. “I’ve done it now.” He glanced at Raj as he laid out his cards. “Do me a favor and don’t do a reading.”
“Too late. I’ve already begun laying the cards. What has begun cannot now be stopped.”
Leopold wrung his hands and sighed. “Then do me the favor of not telling me what you see.”
“Really? Why ever not?”
“I just don’t want to know.”
Leopold dragged his feet away but wasn’t far enough not to catch the automaton’s gasp and whisper, “Then it’s a good thing you don’t.”