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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Extract from 6 – The Meanest Flood

Extract from The Meanest Flood
As a professional he wore false cheeks and a wig together with a dark and shiny Vandyke beard. Tan makeup to set off the sapphire blue of his eyes. The dinner jacket was compulsory, as were the patent-leather shoes, the top hat and cape, the white kid-gloves and his silk cane. Diamond Danny Mann sparkled in the footlights.

‘I need another volunteer,’ he said, eyeing the Nottingham audience, producing a fanned deck of cards from the ether. ‘Perhaps a lady this time?’ He walked to the edge of the proscenium, descended the steps and chose a short young woman from the second row of the stalls. Her warm damp hand in his, Diamond Danny returned to the boards and offered her a chair, using his considerable charm to ensure her breathing and heartbeat rapidly returned to normal. ‘You’re going to need both hands,’ he told her. ‘Please put your bag under the chair.’ His concern for the lady’s welfare was palpable and the audience warmed to it and to the magician himself.

Danny asked her to pick a card from the pack and when she drew the eight of spades he gave her a pen and asked her to sign her name on the face of it. Marilyn, for that was her name, used Danny’s back as a desk and returned the card to the pack.

The magician shuffled the cards and handed them to his dimpled volunteer. ‘Now find your card.’ He passed his hand over the pack and threw back his head. ‘Katha,’ he said, pulling out and extending the final vowel. ‘A word to conjure with, given to me by a humble magician at Pak Nam Pho in Thailand. We did a little trade in spells and talismans.’

A murmur of soft laughter went around the audience but the magician didn’t smile and neither did the woman with the pack of cards. Rings on every finger of one hand, Danny noticed.

Marilyn looked through the pack and shook her head. She looked through again. ‘It isn’t here,’ she said. ‘You didn’t put it back.’

Diamond Danny smiled. A remarkable smile when it came, with all the clarity and innocence of a child. ‘You’re right,’ he told her. ‘I put it in your purse.’

Marilyn, flustered now, reached beneath the chair for her handbag, which had been in full view of the audience while she was on stage. She snapped open the clasp and looked inside. She shook her head. ‘It’s not here.’

‘In the purse,’ Danny said, ‘next to your driving license.’

The lady withdrew a wallet from the handbag. The wallet was black pigskin and fastened with a zipper. When she opened it, Marilyn’s lower jaw dropped. ‘Oh, no, I don’t believe it,’ she squealed.

She withdrew a card, folded twice. She straightened it and waved it towards the audience. ‘It’s the one I signed,’ she said. ‘How did you do that? It’s impossible.’

The magician returned the lady to her seat while the applause resounded around him. He returned to the stage to take his bow before withdrawing into the wings. He had the unsettling feeling that he had not chosen the lady at all, that in some strange way she might have chosen him.

*

When the ASM delivered his cape and caddy to the green room she hesitated before leaving. ‘How is it that the magician always knows which card you’ve chosen?’ she asked.

‘It’s magic,’ Diamond Danny told her with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I could introduce you to the black art if you ask the right question. Or perhaps you will decide to leave well enough alone. Many an explanation turns out to be an illusion in itself.’

*

The wheel was running on wet tarmac illuminated by street lights. It had a new radial-tread Bridgestone tyre, slightly warm from the journey. Rubber and carbon black designed to perform with low noise and to grip the road in all weathers. Some time ago, when the vehicle was new he had fitted chrome wheel-well trim but this was peeling now, as was the black paint it had been designed to protect.

The wheel veered to the right and came slowly to a halt a couple of centimetres from a white stone kerb. An owl hooted softly in the distance. Apart from the contractions of the cooling engine there were no other sounds.

The magician was alone in the driving seat. He was wearing his other face. He was still, composed, a silhouette. An observer might have noticed the regular rise and fall of his chest, the blink of an eyelid. But there was no observer present; only the moon and the stars.

Several minutes passed and the silence was broken by the mechanism of the driver’s door opening and the slight but erect figure of the magician moving from the inside of the vehicle to the glistening surface of the road.

He locked the vehicle and walked along the street. It was late, well after midnight, but he was a thirty-five year old man wearing a neat black overcoat, a soft hat with a brim and polished shoes. He walked with his head erect and it was only when he passed those junctions with closed-circuit cameras in operation that he pulled the brim over his eyes and let his shoulders slump forward to hide his features.

He had taken this path several times before. He knew everything there was to know about it. Magic needs to be rehearsed. It involves manipulating and controlling the environment. When it is completely successful nothing has been left to chance.

This is how gods work. The magician was not a god but that didn’t mean he couldn’t emulate one. Magic is available to some people. Handed down through the centuries, through the long ages of man’s journey. Before the Magus and beyond Houdini the brotherhood extends over the furthest stretches of the universe.

As he walked Diamond Danny pulled on two pairs of latex gloves.

God encourages the things that please Him, and those that He doesn’t favour He destroys. This is how He is. Remember the flood? The magician had little time for people who believe that God is kindness and light. God is a planner and an engineer; He is an ambitious magician and He doesn’t mind too much if some of His tricks go wrong. He can rest on His laurels for a while, on His reputation. He was in the right place at the right time and He managed to pull off a few stunning illusions. But you must have heard?

The house was nothing, a between-the-wars construction of red brick. Since it was built all the woodwork had been replaced at least once. It had single glazed windows and no damp-course to ensure that it met the English standard of cold and draughts and a tendency to mould around the skirting boards.

The front door was painted red and the upper half was a single pane of glass. But at the rear of the house it was dark and whoever wanted to enter could do so undetected by one of the neighbourhood insomniacs.

The magician, of course, knew this already. He had been at the back door of this building twice before. Once during the day and once at the dead of night. There was a simple lever lock which the magician could open with a matchstick in a few seconds. There were bolts on the inside of the door, at top and bottom, but both of them were stiff with lack of use and a couple of attempts to paint them out of existence.

The occupier of the house had no worries. She didn’t imagine that someone would wish to enter her house and harm her. She slept soundly. She slept as soundly at night as she did during the day. Her life was a dream.

We are all magicians now. Even the plodding policeman is a sorcerer these days. Recently Danny had seen on the news that a twelve-year-old crime had been solved through the extraction of DNA from a speck of dandruff. Truly amazing, the perpetrator of the rape was now a fifty-year-old grandfather, but at the time of his crime he was only thirty-seven. For the years between he was a card hidden in the pack until, hey presto, the conjurors of the forensic department found him curled up in a test tube.

The magician was not particularly interested in this woman. The female in the house, sleeping in the front bedroom. She was not the trick, only a component of it. He needed her but she was not an end in herself. She was neither the rabbit nor the top hat. She contributed to the illusion by the way she distracted the eye. She was a cipher who only took on the appearance of reality when she was removed from it.

The street lights sent a pale glow through the windows of the house. The magician had a torch but he didn’t need to use it. The kitchen was neat and tidy, all the surfaces had been wiped clean and there was a suggestion of pine disinfectant in the air. The living room had a fitted carpet and floral curtains that were closed against the night. There was still enough residual light to see the photographs on the mantle-piece: a studio portrait of an old couple, probably her parents, and one of the old woman alone, taken some time later with an Italian mountain in the background. There was another of a small girl with pigtails, something old-fashioned about it, perhaps the silver frame.

The magician removed his overcoat and laid it on the worn Chesterfield. He slid his weapon from the inside pocket and weighed it in his hand, took a moment to wonder at the balance and beauty of the polished hilt.

He removed his remaining clothes, folded them neatly and placed them on top of his overcoat.

When he was naked he ascended the stairs and waited for the instant when he would hear the woman’s breath for the first time. She lived alone but all possibilities had to be taken into account. She could have a friend with her, a man or a woman. Either possibility would increase the night’s workload but nothing would distract Danny from his main purpose. He had waited a long time for this. He was committed. Professional integrity was at stake. Abracadabra. Katha. Behold the woman; first you see her, then you don’t.

Her bedroom door was ajar. On the landing there was a red dressing gown draped over the handrail of the banister. The magician stood in the open doorway and surveyed the scene. She was sleeping with the bedside lamp on, perhaps over concerned with bogeymen and things that go bump, a nyctophobic. Her dressing table was by the window. There was a chair on one side of the double bed and her clothes had been placed on it, neatly folded.

Oh, symmetry.

On the other side of the bed there was a small cabinet with a couple of books on its polished surface. There was a picture on the wall, a reproduction of one of Hockney’s swimming pools. Below it there was a small television on a black metal trolley.
This was not an impressive room. If you could choose, you would not choose to die here.

But all the choices that this lady had ever had were finally tumbling down to zero.
She was lying on her side with her arms out of the quilt. Her hair was cut short and had been freshly washed, auburn with subtle highlights. Her shoulders were covered by a peach-coloured nightgown. There were freckles on her chest. She was breathing deeply and there was some activity going on beneath her eyelids. Over the area of the bed there was a canopy of confined bodily odours, something the woman unknowingly shared with the world. If she were awake she would open the window.

*