Houdini’s Last Trick
Prequel, The Burdens Trilogy
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Also available on Amazon:
The Sixteen Burdens
Book 1, The Burdens Trilogy
Pancho Villa’s Hollywood Close-Up
Novella, The Burdens Trilogy (Early 2017)
The Seventeenth Burden
Book 2, The Burdens Trilogy (Early 2017)
Copyright © 2015 by David Khalaf. All rights reserved.
Cover design by Tamara Khalaf
Book illustrations by Francesca Baerald
Proofreading by Constantino Duran, Dyanne Khalaf, and Ben Rocke
Apartment management and picking up my slack by Jim Khalaf
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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or read the blog at www.davidkhalaf.com
“The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear. No one except myself can appreciate how I have to work at this job every single day, never letting up for a moment. I always have on my mind the thought that next year I must do something greater, something more wonderful.”
— Harry Houdini
with whom I can be nothing
HARRY HOUDINI WAS going to die—he was sure of it.
The magician knew a lot of things: how to pick any lock on the face of the Earth, how to tie a knot in a rope eighty-seven different ways, how to hold his breath for four minutes under water. But what he knew better than anything else was himself.
And in that moment, buried under a foot of sand, in a wooden coffin latched shut with three different locks, his hands tied behind his back, what he knew was that he didn’t have enough time to finish his escape. His breath simply wouldn’t hold out.
Where is that blasted razor?
Houdini knew he had exactly seventy-four seconds of breath left before he lost consciousness. Even if he had the razor, it would take him twenty-two seconds to sever the rope tying his hands together. With the wire hidden in the rope, it would take him seventeen seconds to poke through the crack between the lid and the body of the coffin and pick the lock closest to his head on the outside of the coffin. Another nineteen seconds for the second lock, and twenty-seven seconds for the one closest to his feet.
Eleven seconds short.
And that was if he had the razor. He had coughed it out of his mouth as sand was poured on top of him from a giant concrete mixer. A hard clump of dirt had hit him in the soft spot of his throat and he had involuntarily gagged it out. Now the razor was buried in the sand somewhere between his nose and his chest.
Had his train back to New York not been delayed by a cow taking a nap across the tracks, he would have checked the sand himself. Instead, the responsibility had fallen to a sloppy stage manager who probably hadn’t bothered to even run his fingers through the sand. Let it be known that the Great Houdini was killed by a lazy cow.
Houdini focused, and projected in his mind the other potential avenues available to him: untying the rope without the razor, picking the locks with bound hands, attempting to dig out of the sand and call for help. In his mind he followed all of the paths into the future, like glowing strings that led down a dark hall. He followed the paths as far as they would go, and each one led to the same simple outcome: death.
There simply wasn’t enough time. He needed more options.
Houdini turned his head in the sand, feeling around with his chin. In his mind’s eye, he could see everything that was touching him. He could see every grain of sand; he knew its color. He could see his white dress shirt, crushed against his body and ripping at the seams from the pressure. He could see his black wool socks, could visualize the hole in the left sock’s big toe just as well as he could feel it.
This was his gift. This was his Burden.
The razor was nowhere to be found. It was a useless effort anyway. He would pass out in the coffin before anyone in the audience realized something was wrong. By the time Bess had the locks cut and the coffin opened, he would be dead. He had to think of something else. There had to be another way.
Sand was a poor choice for his act. He should have stuck to water. Water was clean, predictable and, most important, lighter than sand. With the added pressure against his chest, he had lost a good ten seconds of air out his nostrils. But magic was all about showmanship, and showmanship was all about outdoing oneself. He couldn’t have repeated this trick with water. Repetition was stagnation. Stagnation was death.
Danger was what made Harry Houdini the best magician on Earth. It was his introspection that kept him alive. Knowing himself and his future potential—this was what allowed him to ride the fine line between daring and disaster.
He needed more options. What did he know about himself now that could save his life? He knew he had the skill to free himself if he could just create more time. He knew he could untie the rope around his wrist if he could rotate one of his hands enough so that his middle finger and thumb could touch the knot. He knew that Bess had tied the rope and that she always made a double-diamond knot. He knew he would panic if he thought too much about Bess. Lovely, sweet Bess.
How could he create more time to work on the knot? A knot…a knot. His fingertips were grazing against the side of the coffin. He felt the wood, could see the grain of the pine in his mind. It was rough and straight except for one small part the size of a silver dollar. A wood knot.
A new option popped into his head. This new glowing string of potential sped off into the dark future of his mind. He saw it unwind into smaller threads, all potential avenues that ended in death. All except one.
Houdini knew knots were the weakest part of a wooden board. He knew his fingers were strong from years of intricate work with rope, chains, and locks. He knew he could create strong pressure if he could bend his legs and wedge both his knees and his head against the opposite side of the coffin.
He turned and struggled under the weight of the sand to pull his knees in. He held his thumb on the knot so he wouldn’t lose it. With his head and knees pressing against the opposite side, he pushed as hard as he could with his thumb. He pushed and pushed until he felt the bone in his thumb on the verge of snapping. Nothing.
In his mind’s eye, Houdini could see an energy inside of him. Was it his soul? Was it his talent? Was it merely the lack of oxygen causing stars? If he died now, Bess would never recover. He was the act, but they were a team. She was Houdini as much as he was. Only she knew where to put a key under his tongue where no one would find it. Only she knew how to tie a knot that was sturdy to the touch but came undone with just the right pull. Bess would never again tie another double-diamond knot.
The rope knot. It was bulky and hard, tougher than his own thumb. Houdini twisted the rope so that the knot was at the base of his palm. He pushed it against the coffin, rope knot against wood knot.
He pushed with all his might, a pain shooting up his wrist as the knot dug deep into his palm. His head pounded and his neck felt as if it might snap. Every bone in his body was under pressure. Every molecule in his being groaned. He felt everything and nothing all at once. His head was swirling. There were only five seconds left before he passed out. Then four, three, two.
And then, a pop.
The knot in the wood exploded outward, and Houdini could practically see it hitting someone in the first row of the audience. Sand hissed out of the coffin like a sand timer, and the last thing Houdini heard before passing out was the collective gasp of the audience.
In the space of unconsciousness, he was a single point of light. A star in a dark universe. He became aware of others around him. Four points of light. A square, a plane. The square doubled. A cube with eight points. A third dimension. It doubled again to sixteen points. It was a dimension beyond his comprehension. Sixteen points. Sixteen talents. And him, one of them.
Houdini gasped for air. The sand had cleared away from his face. He was now only half submerged. From the harsh spotlight shining in through the knot hole, Houdini could see the razor blade sticking out of the sand near his face.
Had he passed out for seconds or minutes? It didn’t matter. From here his escape was a cake walk. In little more than a minute he had cut the rope, pulled out the wire, and picked the first two locks. He didn’t bother with the third. His body was pumping with adrenaline, and he wedged his feet against the coffin door and kicked with all his might. The third lock burst off its hinges and the door flew open with shards of wood flying everywhere.
Talk about showmanship.
The audience roared with pleasure and amazement. Houdini stood up and sucked in the warm air and applause. He was alive. And he was still the best magician on Earth.
THREE SHOWERS LATER, Harry Houdini was still picking sand out of his ears. It was late, well past midnight, but it was good to be back in their Harlem brownstone after three weeks on the road.
“Mr. Houdini, come to bed,” Bess said from the bedroom.
Houdini stuck a corner of an old handkerchief up his nose, and it felt as if he were sanding the inside of his nostrils. He was reminded of the day, decades ago, when he had met Bess backstage after an unsuccessful show performing card tricks on Coney Island. She had finished her song-and-dance number to only slightly better reception. No one had the patience for vaudeville on a sweltering summer afternoon.
They had walked along the beach afterward, she in her leotard and he in his heavy black suit. It was too hot to stay out for long, but something about her clung to him, like the sand that remained in his pant cuffs for days. From that moment on, grains of Bess remained firmly lodged in his soul, and they were married just weeks later.
Houdini considered one more shower, but before he could reach for the handle, Bess called to him again.
“You’re going to run the Hudson River dry, dear.”
Houdini ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair one last time and left the bathroom. He’d shower again in the morning.
“No more sand,” Bess said. “It’s too unpredictable.”
He slipped into bed and closed his eyes. She was right, of course, but now that the stunt was over, it didn’t feel so dangerous.
“A minor hiccup,” he said. “We learned, and we’ll inspect the sand ourselves next time.”
“No, there won’t be a next time,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek. “Think about our son. Do you want Samuel to grow up fatherless?”
The name squeezed his insides like a handcuff clamping around his heart.
“Our son will be off to college soon,” Houdini said. “He’s practically an adult. He won’t need Harry Houdini.”
“But what about me?” Bess said. “I need Harry Houdini.”
The magician gently placed his hand on top of hers. In his mind’s eye he could see her, scowling with worry. She dropped a telegram on his lap, the one that had arrived at their hotel room in Baltimore, where they were doing a show.
“I want you to take that job in Hollywood, whatever the silly movie is.”
Houdini took the telegram. MGM Studio Head Louis B. Mayer wanted to meet, urgently, for a project of some sort.
“I don’t do movies anymore,” he said. “They cheapen the craft.”
He sat up and looked at her. She didn’t seem swayed.
“Mrs. Houdini, we are only as good as our latest act. We can’t get stuck on water escapes or the audience will bore of us. I would skip straight to molten lava, but I haven’t quite worked out the details.”
“You nearly died,” she said. “Honest to goodness died this time. The fact is, you’re getting too old to take such dangerous risks.”
So there it was. The truth, laid naked in front of them, like an illusion exposed.
“We must take risks,” Houdini said. “For the legacy of the magic.”
Bess tore her hand out of his.
“But is it worth risking your life?” she demanded. “Some silly Thursday night show that you won’t even be able to recall two weeks from now? You tell me: What’s really worth dying for? You figure that out and then let me know.”
She turned out her light and pulled the sheet over her head. Houdini focused his mind and followed the glowing threads of potential discussions into the shadowy future. Every avenue of conversation ended with Bess being angry at him.
Know when to cut your losses.
“Very well, my dear,” he said. “Sleep tight.”
He got out of bed.
“I’ll go tuck in Samuel.”
“There is no Samuel,” she said.
Houdini’s shoulders dropped. Having an imaginary child was a double-edged sword.
The magician went downstairs; he needed some time alone to think. He found his smoking jacket in the parlor, a plush room with dark wood, burgundy drapes and a cabriole-style couch upholstered with purple velvet.
After lighting a candle, he slipped through a small passageway in the corner of the parlor hidden from view by a bookshelf. Inside was a narrow room not much larger than a closet, wedged between their brownstone and the one next door. It had been created, Houdini guessed, from a design flaw when the building had been constructed. This was his Reflection Room.
He set down the candlestick on a small shelf he had built and opened a box of Turkish cigarettes someone had gifted him after a show. Houdini almost never smoked—not when so much of his career depended on holding his breath—but occasionally he allowed himself one to think.
One cigarette, one decision.
He lit the cigarette and opened the tiny vent he had made by chiseling out two bricks in the wall. It was not much larger than a deck of cards, and he had framed it with an iron peephole that opened by way of a little hinged door. From there the room got a warm breeze from the street out front. He inhaled his cigarette, then exhaled the smoke out through the vent.
In just a few weeks, Houdini would turn fifty. When he focused inward on himself, he could sense his bones becoming more brittle, feel his muscles losing the tautness they once had. For an escape artist like Houdini, who relied on nimble fingers and supple limbs, every day older was a day closer to forced retirement.
There were a hundred other magicians waiting to take his place as the king of illusion, and although they didn’t have his unique talent, they were half his age and twice as hungry.
He leaned against the wall, counting the grains of sand left in his ears. There were twenty-seven in the left and fourteen in the right.
Press on, or step off?
Maybe Bess deserved a quiet, stable life in some nice suburban home. Maybe she deserved something normal: a detached home, a yard, a group of lady friends to form a knitting club. The thought made him laugh out loud. Bess wouldn’t last a week in the suburbs.
Things might be different if they had children. Some things just weren’t in the cards. As great a magician as he was, it was the one trick he hadn’t been able to pull off. And although she never said as much, he couldn’t escape the feeling that he had let his wife down by denying her a family.
If he pressed on, he would disappoint her even more. The Sand Coffin wasn’t his most dangerous new feat. Far from it. There was another stunt he was working on that he hadn’t yet told Bess about: the Hangman’s Death. If he tried it and succeeded, he would reign another year as the world’s greatest magician. If he tried and failed…well, he’d find himself in a coffin permanently.
What is worth dying for?
If Houdini had to make the choice between magic and the magician, he couldn’t. They were one and the same. It was his gift to the world; the legacy that would remain long after he was gone.
A knock at the front door startled him from his rumination. It was late, and no one but Houdini’s closest friends had his address. He stubbed out his cigarette and leaned toward the vent. If he put his face up against it and looked sharply to the right, he was able to see onto his doorstep.
The knock came again, and Houdini pressed his face hard against the vent to see who would be visiting at such an hour.
The problem was, no one was there.
HOUDINI OPENED THE front door and saw straight through to the brownstones across the street. He stepped out into the hot breath of Manhattan’s summer night and his forehead instantly glistened from the humidity. When he craned his neck to listen for the sounds of retreating footsteps, he heard only the putter of automobiles in the distance and the sound of laughter from the nightclub over on Eighth Avenue. Otherwise, there was nothing.
The magician stepped back inside. He turned and found himself face-to-face with another man. Houdini dropped his cigarette.
“Shut the door,” the man said. “Quickly.”
The man was cloaked in a long back overcoat. It was too hot to be wearing anything so heavy, but even so, the man’s face was as pale and glassy as the lake in Central Park in winter.
Houdini closed and locked the door. When the man saw this, his shoulders dropped and he allowed himself a deep breath.
“That’s quite a trick,” Houdini said, trying to keep his voice even. “And I should know.”
The man had a diminutive frame and was rather somber looking, in his late sixties with the kind of long, sharp face meant for scholars or librarians. He wiped the lenses of his wire spectacles, then touched a white skullcap on his head, as if to assure himself it was still there.
“We are both performers, of a sort,” the man said. “Only our audiences are different.”
He had an Italian accent. Houdini picked up the dropped cigarette; he tried to do it casually but kept his eyes on the man.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man said. “My name is Giacomo.”
He extended his hand, and Harry stared at it as if it were a bear trap. Finally he shook it.
“I’m Harry Handcuff Houdini.”
When they touched, Houdini’s fear disappeared like a puff of smoke. He remembered being afraid of the man, but he didn’t feel it anymore; the emotion had simply evaporated.
“Giacomo doesn’t sound like a Jewish name,” Houdini said, nodding to the man’s skullcap.
“Oh, I’m not Jewish,” he said. “Although my boss was.”
He removed his overcoat to reveal robes entirely of white. Hanging around his neck was an ornate crucifix made of gold. Even Houdini, a nonreligious Jew, recognized the man standing in front of him. It was the Pope. Pope Benedict XV.
Houdini gave a slight bow but then thought better of it.
“Forgive me,” Houdini said, “but I don’t know the proper protocol. Do I bow or kneel? Are you called ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Highness’?”
“I require no formality from you,” Benedict said. “Though many ask to kiss my ring.”
“Then I too would like that honor,” Houdini said.
The Pope held out his left hand, and on it was the papal ring, the Ring of the Fisherman. He leaned over and kissed it.
Houdini had met many famous people throughout his career, popular vaudeville performers like Hadjji Sachla, the Sleeping Fakir, and silent film stars such as Rudolph Valentino. He had even met congressmen and a Supreme Court justice. But the Pope was someone altogether different.
“That was quite a performance tonight,” Benedict said. “I had my doubts you would ever surface from that coffin.”
So did I.
Houdini pocketed the cigarette.
“You were there? I’m sure I would have seen you.”
“I prefer to go unnoticed.”
Houdini saw that the Pope’s hands were still clenched tightly, as if they refused to forget something that the man himself was trying hard not to remember.
The magician motioned to the couch for the Pope to sit down. Benedict’s face was lined with worry, and he looked as if he could use a drink.
Houdini pulled a Bible down from the bookcase and removed from its hollowed-out pages a bottle of fine cognac he had purchased from a restaurant owner three years ago, the night before Prohibition had gone into effect. Although Houdini himself rarely drank, he kept it around for guests.
“I’m glad you have some use for the Good Word,” Benedict said.
Houdini poured two fingers and passed it to the man. He accepted it gratefully.
“One thing I like about you Americans,” Benedict said, “is that you don’t feel obligated to adhere to the letter of the law.”
It occurred to Houdini that the Pope was attended by no one. No guards, no advisors.
Benedict took a long, deep whiff of the cognac, and Houdini had the sense he wasn’t merely assessing the quality of the drink.
“I get sick of wine,” Benedict said. “But my attendants don’t let me drink anything from outside the Vatican.”
“Why is that?” Houdini asked.
“Someone is trying to kill me.”
He stated it so matter-of-factly, Houdini nearly laughed.
“Who would want to kill you?” Houdini asked. “You’re the man who weakened the blow of the Great War. You rallied for peace. Your humanitarian efforts saved the lives of thousands. Millions, maybe. You’re beloved. And you’re powerful.”
“Two things others would have for themselves,” Benedict said. He stood and peeked out the windows, then pulled shut all of the curtains.
“I know who you are,” Benedict said.
“Half the world knows who I am.”
“No, they do not,” he said. “I know that you may be a flamboyant performer on stage, but in reality you are a quiet man who can’t wait to get home to be alone with his wife. I know that you enjoy thinking and reflecting, so much so that hours go by unnoticed. I know you can see things about yourself that others cannot see about themselves. I know that magic is not your real talent.”
It was the kind of vague talk that Houdini had witnessed time and again with spiritualists on the vaudeville circuit. They spoke just enough to grab your interest, but not so much as to trip themselves up.
“Are you a fortune teller?” Houdini asked. “Because I have no patience for them.”
These frauds always infuriated him.
“Not in the slightest,” Benedict said. “Don’t be upset.”
The Pope held out his hand toward Houdini in a calming manner, and in a puff all of the magician’s anger evaporated. He only had the memory of being angry.
“You’re doing that, aren’t you?” Houdini said. “How?”
“I have a talent,” Benedict said. “Like you. But not like you.”
Benedict folded his hands in his lap like guns being holstered.
“My talent is my empathy. My gift is to alleviate suffering. During the Great War, I could feel the pain of the world, the severe agony it was causing millions of people. The world’s anguish was so strong it nearly killed me. From that point on I’ve made it my mission to champion peace in the world to alleviate the suffering of man—it is the greatest work I can do for our Lord.”
A smile danced across the man’s face.
“But then I didn’t come to convert you.”
Benedict sipped his cognac before setting down his glass.
“You’re a magician with a great talent,” he said. “I’ve come to you for help because I need you to do what you’re best at…making things disappear.”
Benedict pulled out a chain he had hidden under his frock. Attached to the chain hung a small conical object of polished wood, with circular glass insets on each end, like a handheld kaleidoscope or maybe a prism.
“This has been stored in the pope’s private vault for nearly two hundred years. One month ago, someone tried to break into the vault. This is the only item inside. I sense guilt and distrust all around me. Someone has betrayed me. There is no one at the Vatican I trust.”
Benedict took off the chain and handed the object to Houdini.
“What is it?”
“Some of my predecessors called it a tool. Others called it a weapon. It was made by someone like us. Someone of great talent.”
The magician turned it over in his hand. It was much heavier than it looked, as if it held some secret inside.
“What does it do?”
“You’re familiar with the Age of Enlightenment?” Benedict asked. “This is what started it.”
Houdini looked through the narrow end and saw only the parlor through the glass. It seemed so simple. So fragile.
“It is called Newton’s Eye, and it was created by Sir Isaac as his legacy to the world. As the most creative mind of his day, Newton sought a way to share his talent with others, to create a society of great creators and thinkers. That’s what the Eye does: It allows those with a great talent to reproduce it in others.”
Houdini set the object on the table between them. It seemed to be staring at him.
“As you can imagine, anything with that much power starts fights,” Benedict said. “People were killing for it, people were dying for it. The Eye was stolen, then recovered, and eventually went into hiding. It fell into the hands of Pope Pius VI, who tried to destroy it but was unable. It has been locked in the papal vault ever since.”
It seemed to Houdini like a sledgehammer would do the trick, but he assumed they had tried that.
“The Eye comes with three instructions,” Benedict said. “The first: Never show it to anyone.”
“You’ve already broken that rule,” Houdini said.
“One thing you’ll like about me,” Benedict said, “Is that I don’t feel obligated to adhere to the letter of the law either.”
Benedict finished his cognac is one big gulp.
“The second rule: Never attempt to use it.”
“And the third?”
Benedict stared at the Eye intensely.
“Protect it at all costs.”
Houdini picked up the Eye and held it out for Benedict to take, but the man shied away, as if it were cursed.
“This is the only way to protect it now. There’s a creature of evil after me, Houdini. A dark beast I feel watching me around every corner. I’ve been running for weeks. I don’t think I’ll escape.”
Houdini again held the Eye out, but the Pope wouldn’t take it.
“I don’t believe in ghosts and ghouls,” Houdini said. “And certainly not dark beasts.”
“You don’t need to believe in them,” Benedict said. “You only need to believe that I do.”
He leaned over and closed the magician’s hand around the Eye.
“Keep this for me. Please. It should stay in the hands of another great talent. Guard it until I come back. And if I don’t, find somewhere safe to store it.”
The man seemed genuinely afraid, and there was a gentleness to him that seemed sincere. Houdini could easily do this favor. He had a hundred secret hiding places in his brownstone.
“Why me?” Houdini asked.
“Frankly,” the Pope said, “You’re one of only two still alive.”
Benedict removed a scrap of deerskin and gave it to Houdini, who unfolded it. There were six names scribbled on the skin, by a hand that couldn’t be the Pope’s. Whoever wrote that chicken scratch had barely learned to read and write. Three of the names were crossed out, presumably dead. Of the other names, one was the Pope’s, and one the magician’s.
“Where is this from?”
Benedict shrugged on his coat and shook Houdini’s hand.
“I need to get back to the Vatican. The rumor is I have pneumonia, but people are bound to start asking questions soon.”
“Are you safe?” Houdini asked. “Traveling alone?”
Benedict smiled and removed a ring from his pocket. It looked like an exact duplicate of the Ring of the Fisherman he was already wearing.
“You are not the only man with illusions.”
He slipped on the ring and instantly Houdini seemed not to see him. It wasn’t that he vanished so much as stepped out of view. Houdini had the sense he was still there, and yet couldn’t quite pin his vision on him.
“Goodbye, magician, and thank you. Remember the three rules.”
The door opened and shut. Benedict was gone.
Houdini weighed the Eye in his hand; it was as heavy as the feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Never show it to anyone. Never use it. Protect it at all costs.
HOUDINI WAS INTO his third minute of holding his breath underwater when he saw a blurry figure approach the glass water tank from the main aisle of the empty Hippodrome Theatre. It was a boy, or maybe a girl, dressed in ragged dark trousers, a dirty collared shirt and a flat cap.
The child walked right up on stage, the brazen thing, and knocked hard on the glass. Houdini felt his heartbeat speed up in annoyance; that would only use up his oxygen faster. There was no point in trying to beat his record now. He huffed out his breath and came to the surface of the tank. He gave the child his best look of indignation.
“Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Harry Handcuff Houdini, the greatest magician on Earth!”
Houdini stepped out of the tank onto a stool, water from his one-piece bathing suit dripping onto the wooden stage.
“And do you know what the greatest magician on Earth does to children who interrupt his rehearsal?”
The child shrugged.
“He turns them into rabbits for his show!”
The child crossed his or her arms and raised an eyebrow.
“I seen your show. You don’t even use rabbits!”
Houdini suppressed a smile and toweled off. He could never stay angry at children for long.
“Very well. Why are you here?”
“I come to give you this.”
The child removed a small package wrapped in brown paper and handed it to the magician. It was about the size of three decks of cards put together and wrapped in twine. Houdini saw an address for Rome scribbled on it and a line of stamps slapped hurriedly across it.
“Who is it from?”
“An old fogey in a big coat. He had wire glasses and a little hat that looked like a—whaddya call ’em?—a doily. He gave me an entire sawbuck and told me to check the evening newspaper today. He must be loaded!”
“Check the paper for what?”
“He said to mail the package if there was no news. He said to bring the box to you if the Pope died.”
Houdini staggered a half step. He had been cooped up in the theater all day rehearsing for the evening show.
“The Pope is dead?”
The kid nodded.
“Some kind of sickness. Pumonia or something. Here.”
The child handed Houdini a crumpled newspaper. He confirmed the date in the top corner: August 17, 1923. It was the leading story of the afternoon. The Vatican was reporting that Pope Benedict, who had been suffering from pneumonia the past three weeks, had finally succumbed to his illness.
Except that I just saw him here last night.
Houdini unwrapped the package. It was a polished wooden box with a geometric design carved on all six sides. He recognized it immediately as a Himitsu-Bako, a Japanese puzzle box. This one felt intricate, maybe twenty moves or more.
Houdini walked over to a table that held his clothes and removed a ten-dollar bill from his pocket; it was all he had on him. He handed it to the child.
“It’s customary to tip a courier.”
“But I already got ten clams!”
The child gratefully pocketed the bill. If the kid didn’t get mugged, the twenty dollars could last him or her months on the street.
“Tell me,” Houdini said, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
The child made a fierce grimace.
“I don’t gotta tell you that!”
That meant she was a girl. A boy would have identified himself out of offense.
“It’s a good trick you have,” Houdini said. “I’ll keep your secret.”
The girl eyed him defiantly.
“They say you can withstand the punch of any man,” she said.
“It’s true,” he said. It was one of the stunts he often used outside a theater to draw attention before a show.
“Can I try?”
She balled her hands up into fists so tiny they wouldn’t threaten a pigeon.
“Not today, my little friend. Now run along.”
The girl jumped off stage and ran back down the long, dark aisle of the theater and out the double doors in the back.
Houdini turned to the box. He focused all of his attention on it. In only seconds he found the hairline crack along one edge. He slid a piece half an inch along one of the small sides of the box, and was then able to slide the top of the box open a fraction of an inch. He found another hidden piece and slid it, and then another. What would have taken a common man an hour or more, Houdini had open in less than a minute.
Inside was a folded note and, beneath it, the Ring of the Fisherman. Houdini unfolded the note and read the hastily scribbled message:
The dark beast has followed me here to New York, I’m sure of it. With my gift I can sense greed, anger, and lust for power. It is the emotional imprint of the same one who tried to break into the vault. I am about to embark onto my ship. If I arrive safely in Rome, this will follow me home. If I don’t, it is yours to keep to protect the Eye.
This is the true Ring of the Fisherman. The one I wear is a replica. It is also called the Ring of Humility. Jewelry is meant to bring attention to ourselves, but this ring is meant to deflect it. It is a reminder to every reigning pope that the more we dress ourselves in gold, the further we get from the Kingdom of God.
The cap of the ring flips open, and inside it is a small white tablet. Which leads me to one final rule, Houdini: Stay hidden, and don’t let the dark beast take you. At any cost.
Peace be with you,
Houdini removed a match from his pocket, struck it on the table, and lit a corner of the letter. As he watched the flame eat away at Benedict’s words, he thought about this warning.
It reminded Houdini of some advice his friend Jane had given to him years ago. Not advice so much as a warning. She had told him that he needed to both use his gift and hide it.
How does the world’s most famous magician stay hidden?
Houdini had never divulged his real ability to anyone but a select few. He didn’t have to tell Jane, she just knew. Such was her gift. Jane was old and weathered from years of life out in the sun—it was hard to tell where her leathery face ended and her buckskin vest began. But when she had a hunch about something, you’d best pay attention.
Houdini slipped out of his wet bathing suit and changed into his shirt and pants. Newton’s Eye was back at home. So was Bess. He felt a sudden urgency to get there as quickly as possible. The Pope was dead through some act of foul play. Someone was trying to cover it up. And, worst of all, whoever—or whatever—had done it was there in Manhattan.
HOUDINI EXITED THE theater on Sixth Street and headed uptown toward Central Park. A heat wave had rolled onto the city like a wool carpet, and the sidewalk was a seething mass of overheated bodies escaping their hot, stuffy apartments.
The magician eyed the crowds. Any one of them could be searching for him. For Newton’s Eye. He didn’t know who he was looking for, or how far they had followed the Pope last night.
He pulled the ring from his pocket and slipped it on. There was nothing different he noticed about himself. In fact, Houdini wondered if perhaps the Pope had given him the replica instead of the actual ring.
A woman passed and collided hard into Houdini’s shoulder.
“My goodness!” she said.
She turned back toward Houdini.
“My apologies,” Houdini said.
The woman looked around as if she had heard someone speak, but couldn’t quite focus on where he was. Houdini stepped directly in front of her, and she turned her head away as if trying to avoid eye contact.
“Pardon me,” she said to the air, and hurried off.
It continued like that for the rest of the walk home, and Houdini’s shoulders were thoroughly bruised by the time he reached the Harlem brownstone. He gladly pulled the ring off his finger and pocketed it.
Houdini entered his home through the kitchen window, off the fire escape in back. Bess appeared in the hall, watching him climb over the sink and crash to the kitchen floor.
“You don’t always have to make a grand entrance,” she said.
He relaxed when he saw her unharmed.
“Pope Benedict is dead.”
Bess nodded, understanding it was a preamble to something more.
“I read as much.”
He led her into the parlor, where Bess had a glass of chilled tea and an open copy of A Tale of Two Cities. They sat.
“He came to me last night,” Houdini said. “He was here. In this very room. He had talent, Mrs. Houdini. Like me, but different.”
Houdini told her about the meeting. He then removed the Eye from its hiding place—in the Bible where he hid his cognac.
“He gave me this.”
“What is it?”
“A kind of tool he wanted me to hide. It’s dangerous. I can sense that much about it. I think I should just get rid of it.”
Bess shook her head.
“If it was important to him,” she said. “Then it is important to us.”
“But where to put it?”
Houdini closed his eyes and focused on all of the threads of possibility. There were countless nooks and crannies throughout the brownstone—in the parlor, the kitchen, the basement, the attic. As quickly as he could, he followed each glowing thread of possibility into the dark future.
The problem was, he could only see minutes, perhaps an hour or so, down each thread. In every one, the Eye stayed hidden, but it gave no assurance someone wouldn’t show up later that night. Or tomorrow, or the next day.
What bothered Houdini most was that when he pushed his mind as far out as it could go, he experienced a suffocating feeling, like being buried alive. It was darkness. It was danger. It was death.
“We shouldn’t keep it here,” he said. “It won’t be safe.”
You won’t be safe.
Houdini needed to give it distance, and he knew the perfect spot.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Let me go hide this, and I’ll meet you at the theater in an hour.”
“Very well,” she said. “Don’t dally, though. Promise?”
“Of course not,” Houdini said, leaning into her. “I’ll give you two kisses, my dear. One for now—”
Houdini kissed her on the head.
“—and one when I return.”
Houdini pulled the ring out of his pocket, about to slip it on, but he paused.
“Wear this,” he said to his wife, “until I get back.”
He handed her the ring.
“It’s big,” she said.
She slipped it on, and immediately Houdini couldn’t seem to find her in the room, even though she always seemed to be just out of view.
“Keep it on,” he said.
He then dashed out and hopped on the next train. It was half past five o’clock. There was just enough time to make it to Greenwich Village and back to the Hippodrome before his seven o’clock call time.
The door to Il Cuore was nearly impossible to spot on the small street. It was black and barely five feet tall. Sunken a step below the sidewalk and half-hidden by a stoop going up into the textile factory above, the door looked like the entrance to a storage closet. There was no door knocker, but someone had carved a small heart into the wood where one should be.
Houdini rapped twice, paused, then rapped twice again. A doorman answered, a hefty man with a broken nose whom the magician knew by sight.
“I need to speak with Tommy.”
The doorman grunted and let Houdini in. The windowless speakeasy was dark, and the air too warm and stale for comfort. Houdini saw Tommy Cipriano tending bar. It was early yet and only a dozen of his regulars dotted the shadowy booths. A piano player in the corner was tapping out a light ragtime tune that sounded happier than the mood.
Although the room was overpowered by the fragrance of cheap perfume worn by the hired flappers, it had the faint odor of sewage. It was a small price to pay for the elaborate system Tommy Cipriano had set up to evade police. One word of a raid and the bootlegger need only turn a crank that would tip the bar’s shelves backward and funnel all of the bottles into a trough that would dump them straight into the New York sewer system.
Houdini couldn’t help but beam every time he saw the crank. It was the magician, with his experience of trap doors and secret passages, who gave Cipriano the idea.
The gangster slapped Houdini on the shoulder from across the bar.
“What’re you drinking? Whiskey? Gin? The Canadians haven’t really mastered vodka, so I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Just seltzer, please,” Houdini said.
Alcohol dulled Houdini’s senses; he avoided it in general but especially before a performance. This became a strict policy after the time he had nearly died escaping from a cask of Tru-Age beer. The alcohol had soaked through Houdini’s pores and he had trouble sensing the angle and position of the handcuffs behind him. By the time he had escaped he was drunk, nauseated and gasping for air.
“Alright,” Cipriano said. “But no one’s ever had a good time on seltzer.”
He poured Houdini a glass of seltzer and gave it a fancy twist of lemon.
“What brings you to Il Cuore, if not booze and women?”
“Il Cuore itself,” Houdini said. “The best secrets are stored in the heart, are they not?”
“The heart itself is the treasure chest of all secrets. So what’s yours?”
Houdini pulled on the chain around his neck and flashed Cipriano the Eye.
“I need a hiding place for this. I can’t explain why, or tell you what it is.”
“Anything for you, Harry. It’s the least I can do. Your contraption here has helped me avoid the slammer more times than I can count.”
Houdini leaned over the bar.
“If you do this, I have to warn you that it could be dangerous. There may be someone after me.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Cipriano said. “You don’t get into bootlegging to make pals. I can take anyone who—”
An earsplitting boom came from the front door. Houdini turned just in time to see the door fly off its hinges and come crashing down on the doorman.
“It’s the buttons!” Cipriano hissed. He ran to the end of the bar and turned the big brass crank. The shelves of the bar flipped backward into the narrow corridor behind the false wall. The sound of breaking glass filled the room as dozens of bottles went crashing onto the trough, sliding down into the sewer below. Houdini stared in wonder; it was the first time he had actually seen the contraption in action.
Patrons clustered into the speakeasy’s farthest, darkest booth, like mice trapped by a cat. There was no other exit. Houdini found himself alone with Cipriano at the bar.
Only one man stood at the door’s entrance, and he was unlike any Houdini had ever seen. He was seven or eight feet tall and wider than the door’s frame. To get inside he got down on his hands and knees, then punched a hole on one side of the door to widen it before crawling inside. Bricks scattered everywhere, and the doorman’s bones cracked audibly as the giant man crawled over the door on top of him.
Finally he stood, partially crouched, and brushed off his suit.
“You’re not the fuzz,” Cipriano said. “Who the hell are you?”
“It’s not your concern,” the man’s voice was deep. Houdini’s first thought was that he’d probably make a wonderful baritone.
“Like hell it’s not. You can’t just barge in here, big as Atlas himself, and tear up my place. You just wasted booze worth a good five hundred clams. Gimme your name, pally.”
“Call me what you want. Call me Atlas for all I care. I’m not here for you.”
The man had an accent with sharp, clipped pronunciation. It matched the austerity of his black pinstriped suit, which was obviously custom made for his size. He seemed young, maybe in his mid-twenties, but he was so massive and powerfully built that it was difficult to tell.
He turned and looked straight at the magician.
“Mr. Houdini,” the man said. “Pope Benedict visited you last night.”
“I’m a Jew,” Houdini said. “Why would the Pope visit me?”
“We followed the Pope to a brownstone in Harlem last night,” the man said. “Which we later found out is where you live.”
The man stared blankly at Houdini. He was impossible to read. Houdini felt his heart begin to beat faster, his blood pressure rising. An impassive man was dangerous.
“He gave you the Eye,” the man asked. “Where is it?”
Houdini said nothing, but the lump underneath his shirt felt like it was burning a hole in his chest.
“Sometimes a little motivation can spark someone’s memory,” the man said. “Shall I pluck the limbs from one of these lovely flappers?”
He reached down and pulled up a woman who had been crouching against the side of the bar. She cried out.
“Tell me why you want the Eye so badly,” Houdini said, “that you’d gladly hurt innocent people.”
“An unavoidable consequence,” Atlas said. He eyed his captive as if she were little more than a weed. “It’s impossible to plant a crop without disturbing the soil.”
Despite his words, the giant man loosened his grip on the woman.
He’s bold, but he’s young and uncertain.
“I want to hear more about your intentions,” Houdini said. “How about you and I leave this place, and we’ll talk about whatever you want?”
The man let go of the flapper. She ran to the back corner with the other patrons. Houdini was relieved that at least no one else in Cipriano’s bar would get hurt.
There was a click of a gun’s hammer. Houdini’s heart sank.
The giant man turned to see the pianist pointing a six-shooter at him from behind the piano. With the palm of his hand, the giant man shoved the piano at the pianist. It slammed into the man and then hit the wall. There was a sickening crunch as the keyboard bisected the piano player at his stomach.
Women screamed from the darkness of the far booth.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, kills my piano player!”
Houdini looked to see Cipriano reveal a tommy gun, its distinctive circular drum in front of the trigger. He had the chopper pointed at the giant man.
“Your weapons are gnats,” the giant man said. “Annoying but useless.”
“Gnats my ass!”
Cipriano sprayed bullets across the giant man’s chest. Houdini covered his ears but could still hear the screams of both men and women and they sought cover underneath tables. The giant man staggered and grabbed onto the bar for support.
“Harry, take a hike!” Cipriano shouted.
He nodded to the exit.
“What about you?” Houdini asked.
“No one enters my bar uninvited and busts it up,” he said. “We’ll have this goon at the bottom of the Hudson before the cops can say ‘homicide.’ Better you’re not here.”
Houdini nodded and made for the door. But as he got within reach, the giant man reared up from the bar and took a swipe at him. Houdini jumped backward and narrowly missed his log-sized arm.
“As long as you have the Eye,” the giant man said, blocking the exit, “you will have me close behind.”
He lunged at Houdini and Cipriano let loose another spray of bullets.
“Get outta here, Harry!” Cipriano shouted. “Whatever he wants, he ain’t gonna get it today!”
Houdini had a thought. He scuttled behind the bar to the crank, and turned it so that the shelves flipped back again. Most men wouldn’t fit through the slot, but the opening wasn’t any narrower than some of the gaps the magician had to slip through for his illusions.
Houdini lifted his leg into the opening, exhaled all of his breath and cocked his head sideways. He then allowed his ribcage to give under the pressure of the ledge. He pushed himself through the tight space, feeling his ribs bending, nearly cracking. Suddenly he popped through, like a cork coming off a champagne bottle.
He found himself in a cramped space between two walls. He lay facedown in a slimy metal trough that declined sharply into darkness.
Before letting go, Houdini looked up. The giant man had ripped his shirt open and revealed a polka dot of bullet holes. Blood dripped down his chest. He picked a bullet out of his skin as if it were an oversized pimple. There was so much muscle on his chest, the bullets didn’t go through. It was as if he were wearing a steel bib.
The giant man grabbed the bar and ripped off a section of the tabletop, wielding it like a massive bat.
“Tommy!” Houdini shouted.
Houdini’s hands slipped and he began to slide headfirst down the trough. The last thing he saw before falling into total darkness was the Atlas-sized man swinging the bar top down onto Cipriano’s head.
HOUDINI SPED DOWNWARD into absolute darkness. The trough plummeted into damp, putrid air—he felt as if he were sliding down the throat of a subterranean leviathan.
Without warning, the trough disappeared from under him, and he shot headfirst into nothingness. He braced himself for whatever came next. His face plunged into tepid water as his feet flipped over him, landing him upside-down in a river about waist deep.
Houdini got up and stood a moment in the blackness, breathing hard. He tried to slow his heartbeat, but he couldn’t get the image of Tommy Cipriano out of his mind, his friend’s head smashed to nothing.
Tommy is dead.
Grief exploded inside his chest as guilt crushed him from the outside. His body felt squashed between the two emotions, a thin layer of self as fragile as a flower pressed between two books.
He shook himself to the present. This wasn’t the time for feelings. He centered himself and focused on what was important. Escape.
It was too dark to see, but the echo of his movements told him the sewer was large. The smell was almost too much to bear. It was as if every back alley—filled with rotting garbage and feces—and every sidewalk during a summer heat wave—crowded with filthy, unwashed people—had been concentrated into this one lukewarm stream of water. He stifled a gag.
He heard movement in the water, and felt something swim through his legs behind him. Houdini peered down but it was like trying to see into a barrel of oil. The thing latched onto his belt loop and scuttled up his back before he could stop it. Houdini turned his neck and felt the whiskers of a giant rat brush against his cheek.
A cry escaped Houdini’s lips and he knocked the rodent into the water. He half-ran, half-swam to the edge of the sewer and tried to get as much of his body out of the water as he could. As a child growing up in the tenements, Houdini had woken up to rats sleeping on his chest and nibbling on his toes.
Deep down, I’m still just a frightened boy.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw four holes of light crowded together in the ceiling about twenty yards away. It was a manhole cover. He waded through the sewage, careful not to cut himself on shards of broken bottles. Beneath the manhole was a rusty metal ladder. He climbed it with effort, his sopping clothes weighing him down. The iron cover at the top was heavier than he imagined, and from his precarious position below he wasn’t certain he’d be able to move it.
Inch by inch, Houdini slid the cover off the opening. As soon as it was wide enough to slip through, he hoisted himself up and into the stifling night air. He sat on the lip for a moment, his feet dangling in the hole.
That man was too strong to be normal.
He needed to figure out what to do. If he went to the police, they’d almost certainly chalk the massacre up to warfare between rival gangsters. He could show them the Eye, but they’d confiscate it as evidence. Houdini wanted to be brave, to fight back somehow, but at the moment there seemed to be only one logical solution: run.
He took two steps toward the northwest end of the street and stopped short. There at the corner, silhouetted by a street lamp, stood a misshapen blob. It was covered in long black hair and shambled awkwardly. Houdini couldn’t see where the head or the face was, but he felt certain about one thing: It was watching him.
The dark beast.
A resounding crash came from around the northwest corner of the street. The giant man rounded the corner. The dark beast made a noise, or said a word, and motioned in Houdini’s direction. The giant man saw him.
Houdini turned and ran downtown, away from the hairy creature, away from the giant man. Away from home. His main concern was Bess. If someone wanted to kill him, he needed to get as far away from her as possible.
Dozens of escape options blossomed in Houdini’s mind; half of them landed right in the giant man’s grasp. He saw one thread that led to escape. Running toward the harbor, zigzagging from the Bowery to Little Italy and the Lower East Side, Houdini hoped he could gain some distance and lose the man. He dodged hobos begging for change and hotsy-totsy couples walking to dinner. He ran through the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan and reached the docks. He stopped at the water’s edge.
This was where Pope Benedict had been twenty-four hours earlier—where he had furiously scribbled a note to Houdini just minutes before his death. The sound of the magician’s heart was deafening.
Dark must die.
The thought surfaced unbidden into Houdini’s head, as if he had come across someone else’s sock in his laundry basket. What it meant, he hadn’t a clue. He shook it off.
The Battery was dark and empty, and the sound of waves lapping up against the pillars of the dock was louder than the hum of traffic from the city behind him. He looked into the dark horizon, where the Hudson and East rivers met. He saw lights in the distance, across the water in Jersey City. That was his best chance, if he could get there.
There were only tiny fishing boats tied up in this area. He ran up and down the docks, looking for anyone to ferry him across. He dodged feral cats that were drawn out by the smell of rotten fish. At the end of one dock sat someone petting one of the cats. Houdini ran up, but his shoulders slumped when he saw that the person was too small to be an adult. The child looked up and Houdini recognized her as the girl who had visited him that morning at the Hippodrome.
“You stink,” she said. “What happened?”
“Never mind me,” Houdini said. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping in a posh hotel?”
The girl shook her head fiercely.
“My friends are here.”
Houdini looked through the darkness and saw other street children further down the dock.
“It’s not safe out here,” he said.
“You’re safest with your own kind,” she said.
Houdini felt in his pocket and pulled out the small notebook he used for sketching ideas for his act. He ripped off a piece of paper and scribbled on a dry corner with a pen he always kept on him.
“I need you to do me a favor. Take this note back to the theater and give it to a woman named Bess. She’ll be backstage. Bess.”
The girl stood and took the note. Houdini opened his wallet but it was empty.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to tip you with.”
She pocketed the note and eyed him thoughtfully.
“I never did get to punch you.”
Houdini cast a quick glance around.
He knelt down and braced his stomach, even though he needn’t have. The little girl raised her twig arms and balled up her tiny fists. She punched with all her might. The blow was inconsequential, and under other circumstances Houdini would have rolled around in mock pain to make her laugh. There wasn’t time for that now.
“Good shot,” Houdini said. “Now run as fast as you can. It’s urgent.”
The girl nodded and ran down the docks, into the city. The note told Bess he was in danger, and to go immediately to their small cabin in Vermont. He would write her there.
As he watched the girl disappear between buildings, he saw movement in the park. Out from the trees emerged the giant man, who bounded toward him with all the subtlety of an avalanche.
There was a small motorized boat in front of Houdini.
No time to find a captain.
It was tied to the dock at both the bow and stern with ropes, and secured by a steel chain around the steering wheel. The ropes were tied with a basic cleat hitch, with the tail tied back on the standing end with a rolling hitch. These were basic knots that took Houdini seconds to undo.
“Houdini!” the giant man called ahead.
The magician jumped in the boat. The steel chain around the wheel was secured with a Keystone 3-Lever padlock—an impenetrable lock by most standards but nothing for Harry Handcuff Houdini. He removed one of the picks he always kept up his sleeve and cupped the lock in his hand as he jiggled the pins. He forced his hands to stop shaking; finally the padlock popped open.
Houdini started the engine, and threw the boat into reverse just as the man reached the edge of the dock.
“The Pope was a coward,” the giant man called out as the boat backed away. “He held the power to change the world and he kept it locked in a vault.”
“And what would you do?” Houdini asked.
“I would use it. Power is futile unless it’s used.”
“Maybe,” Houdini shouted as he turned the boat around in the water. “Or maybe the greatest expression of power is restraint.”
He threw the boat into forward and sped at full power toward the lights in the distance, glancing back only to make certain none of those tiny boats would support the giant man’s weight.
As the docks grew small behind him, thousands of options exploded in Houdini’s mind. Places he could go; actions he could take. They felt like sharp little worms burrowing into his brain. He closed his eyes and tried to shake them off. It was too much.
The river was choppy, and water sprayed his face. He focused on his racing heart, and slowed it down with a couple of deep breaths. At least he knew he would make it across the river safely.
But what then?
He could hide in Jersey City. Or take a cab to Newark. Or go all the way to Vermont and wait for Bess. But hiding wouldn’t solve his problem. What he needed was help.
He thought about the girl on the docks.
You’re safest with your own kind.
All of a sudden the answer seemed obvious. Houdini felt in his pocket, and removed the piece of deerskin from the Pope. He stared at it a moment, then scratched out Benedict’s name.
Aside from his own, there was only one other name not crossed out on that list. He knew the man. It wasn’t difficult; the whole world knew of him.
Houdini decided he would go west, to Hollywood. He would track down his old acquaintance, Charlie Chaplin.
JANE STOOD OFF-STAGE at the Palace Theater, drinking the cold out of her bones. An unexpected snowstorm had struck St. Paul an hour before show time, and the bitter wind seemed to find its way into every crack of the theater.
The Farmer’s Almanac was predicting a long winter for 1896, and it was only mid-November.
Jane had suffered far worse than this—blizzards on the plains with nothing more than a bear pelt and a bottle of hooch to keep her warm. But these days even the slightest cold chilled her to the core. Her aging body was like a dying fire, incapable of producing heat no matter how many layers she piled on.
The young man on stage had only a handful of spectators, people who seemed more interested in getting warm than getting entertained. He was a magician, performing card tricks and other sleight-of-hand magic that was too intricate for anyone in the audience to appreciate.
When his assistant clamped on a pair of heavy-duty handcuffs behind his back, Jane squinted through her cataracts to watch. His fingers were nimble, and his movements deft. He had the shackles off in only seconds.
“There’s something about him,” Petey said.
Jane nodded her head in agreement.
“Something special,” she said. “But what?”
She tipped the flask to her lips.
“No,” Petey said.
“The boy’s a little scrawny for strength.”
Petey didn’t say anything. Jane leaned on the rifle that doubled as a cane.
“You know, it’d be a hell of a lot easier if you just told me.”
“But then it wouldn’t be intuition, would it?” Petey said.
Jane yanked off her hat and swiped it at the air, as if she could hit Petey. She then tugged the hat back on over her thick braid. She hated her hair, but she kept it long so that people didn’t mistake her for a man. Makeup was a foreign concept to her and, besides, no amount of blush would hide her flat nose and square jaw.
The magician finished his act and bowed to a murmur of applause. He walked off-stage toward Jane, his head drooped in disappointment. She cleared her throat and spit, a direct hit on the tip of his shoe. She was as good a shot with her mouth as she was with her rifle.
The magician looked up, and Jane got a first good look at his eyes, blazing with intensity. There was no doubt he was one of them.
“Apologies,” she said, handing him her handkerchief. “I’m an old coot.”
The young man took in her cowboy hat and fringed buckskin jacket.
“You’re Calamity Jane,” he said. “I heard you tell your stories on stage. Is it true your horse was a drunk, and that you shot a man with your eyes closed at a hundred paces?”
Jane gave him a wink.
“Askin’ for truth is like searching for Sasquatch,” she said. “You don’t actually wanna find him. The fun is in the hunt.”
Jane spit again, this time into a teacup she used as a spittoon.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Harry Handcuff Houdini.”
“That mean anything to you, Petey?” Jane asked.
Petey remained silent.
He would jabber on all day about things Jane didn’t care a skunk’s tail about, but as soon as she asked him a legitimate question she’d get the silent treatment.
“Sorry, are you talking to me?” Houdini asked.
Jane flicked away the magician’s question with her hand and took another swig from her flask. They stood there a moment, the two of them alone in the dark. On stage, a gawky girl with a neck like an ostrich danced an uninspired tap.
“So what’s your talent?” Jane asked.
“You saw my act,” Houdini said. “I’m a magician. Card tricks and handcuff escapes.”
“Nah,” she said. “What’s your real talent? I been put in handcuffs fancy as those. How do you escape them so easily?”
Houdini shifted uncomfortably.
“Tread carefully,” Petey said. “You’ll scare him off.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do,” Jane muttered under her breath.
“It’s just practice,” Houdini said. “Staying limber and daily practice. Why do you ask?”
“I get a sense about people,” Jane said. “It’s a hunch.”
It’s a loudmouthed nudnik in my head.
“Very funny,” Petey said. “You’d be dead ten times over if it weren’t for me.”
It was true. Petey had kept her alive all her years on the Great Plains. Her ability to feel out a bad situation prevented her from getting scalped, hanged, and shot half a dozen times. Petey also told her who could be trusted, which was a list shorter than the number of chambers in her six-shooter.
But the young magician in front of her, he could be trusted. She was sure of it. If only she could get him to trust her.
“Point out the girl,” Petey said.
“See that girl?” Jane asked, nodding to the performer on stage. “I gotta hunch she’s gonna fall flat on her face.”
Jane had been watching the way the girl stumbled around in tap shoes she probably wasn’t used to, and how her routine was sloppy and imprecise. Every time she danced the chorus, she ended up a few inches closer to the front edge of the stage.
Sure enough, as the girl rounded into her finale, she threw her hands out and stepped forward, completely missing the stage. She tumbled into the orchestra pit.
Jane erupted into laughter, stamping her rifle on the ground. Houdini looked at her, horrified.
“Oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud,” Jane said. “She’ll be fine.”
Houdini watched as the young dancer stood in the pit and brushed herself off.
“So that’s my talent,” Jane said. “Now tell me about yours.”
A bead of sweat rolled down Houdini’s temple.
“I’m not sure what you want of me.”
“He’s not ready,” Petey said. “He doesn’t know about the rest of us. He barely knows about himself.”
Jane agreed. He was young, and it was better to let him grow into his talent before she told him more. She forced her face into a cordial smile.
“Well, OK then. It’s a nice trick you got there, sonny. Skip the cards and stick with the escapes. And next time, do a stunt that people in the cheap seats can see too.”
Houdini broke into a relieved smile.
“That’s good advice,” he said. “I should go find my wife. This is a belated honeymoon of sorts. Nice to meet you.”
They shook hands.
“We’ll meet again someday,” Jane said.
Just a hunch.
The magician dashed off.
Jane rummaged through her pockets and found an old deerskin she always kept on her. There were three names on it, including her own at the top. The second one, Crazy Horse, she had scratched out years ago after his death. The third one, that sharp wit she had once met from Missouri, was still alive as far as she knew. The magician was the first new talent she had met in nearly a decade.
Jane removed a fountain pen she had won at a game of poker. It was far too nice for her chicken scratch. She propped the deerskin up against the nearest wall and wrote a fourth name.
Harry Handcuff Houdini.
“YOU LOOK LIKE you could use some coffee.”
Houdini shot awake. The receptionist stood over him in her crisp white blouse and red pencil skirt. She shoved a teacup in his hand the moment he opened his eyes.
She offered a tight-lipped smile, then scuttled to the far side of the room before taking a deep breath. Houdini sipped the coffee.
He was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the waiting room of MGM Studios Head Louis B. Mayer. Everything in the room was creamy white—the walls, the drapes, the furniture, the plush carpet. It was as if he were sitting inside a giant cream puff. The decor only helped to magnify the filthiness of the magician’s suit.
Houdini barely noticed the smell by now. The worst part of his exit out of New York had been the train to Chicago, which he had paid for by selling his watch at a pawn shop. He boarded the train still soaked in sewage, causing passengers to repress gags. Well-dressed women huffed loudly and made little “tsk tsk” sounds. The conductor was going to kick him off at Columbus until he recognized who Houdini was. The magician had convinced him it was part of an elaborate escape—which was entirely true.
He had showered in Chicago at a YMCA facility near the train station, and had fully rinsed out his suit in a sink, but the smell clung to him like a second skin. He rinsed off again in a public toilet in Salt Lake City, and again in San Francisco at a church shelter for men heading south to pick fruit. By now his skin was raw from scrubbing, but there was still a residual something that he couldn’t wash clean. Maybe it wasn’t the sewage he was trying to escape. Maybe it was the image of Tommy Cipriano’s head getting bashed in.
The white double doors opened and Louis B. Mayer stepped out. Houdini stood.
“Harry!” Mayer said, holding his arms out as if he expected the magician to go running into them. He was a stout man with round glasses, neat gray hair, and a hawkish nose. Houdini smiled, nodded, and shook the studio head’s hand.
“Most people dress up for an interview with me,” Mayer said, taking in Houdini’s ragged attire. “You’re the only one I know who dresses down.”
“It was a last-minute trip,” Houdini said.
Mayer led them inside. His office continued the cream-on-cream-on-cream color scheme, with a massive oval desk that looked nothing short of presidential.
“I thought you ran a movie studio,” Houdini said. “It looks like you run the country.”
Mayer shooed away what he perceived as a compliment.
“Coolidge does a good enough job with that. Sit, sit.”
Houdini sat in another overstuffed cream chair facing Mayer’s desk.
“You want a scotch? Cigar?”
Mayer walked over to a glass-and-chrome bar next to a door that led into a private bathroom.
“Thank you, no. I rarely drink or smoke.”
“Good man,” Mayer said. “Neither do I. I only drink at weddings. And funerals, if I hated the guy.”
Mayer sat down behind his enormous desk. His chair was raised so that he’d sit a good six inches higher than anyone in the room. Houdini had the sense of visiting a king at his court.
“I like you, Houdini, I do. You’re good wholesome fun. Daring and dangerous, sure, but none of that sex and drugs and new-fangled jazz they’re playing in the seedy night clubs. You’re family entertainment.”
The magician gave a perfunctory smile. Like so many others before him, Mayer assumed Houdini was a prude because he didn’t drink, never cursed publicly, and was solidly married. But the magician had grown up in vaudeville, one of the bawdiest cultures in America. Mayer would be shocked to know the kind of people Houdini counted as friends.
“Let’s get down to business,” Mayer said. “I’ve got a job for you.”
He said it as if Houdini were an out-of-work juggling clown. But Houdini paid him no heed. Whatever movie Mayer wanted him to be in, Houdini had no intention of actually doing it.
The magician had remembered Mayer’s telegram as he was making his way out West. He was hoping Mayer would bankroll his visit there, since he had no money and no way to get a wire transfer with Bess hiding in their cabin. Besides, he was afraid someone might be watching his accounts.
All Houdini had to do was to listen to Mayer’s pitch, feign interest in the project, and ask for a week to think about it. Mayer would put him up in studio housing and, if he was lucky, offer him a per diem for food. He hadn’t eaten in nearly two days.
“I want you to perform an escape,” Mayer said.
“What’s the movie?” Houdini asked. “And who’s in it?”
“There’s no movie,” Mayer said. “I want this to be a live stunt. In front of a massive crowd.”
“To promote a movie?”
Mayer winked and leaned in conspiratorially.
“Actually, to downplay a movie.”
The man’s eyes twinkled with a kind of spiteful glee.
“Some independent studio is releasing a film they hope will save their crumbling business. It’s the most expensive film of the decade. If it bombs, the whole studio will go under.”
Mayer clenched his mouth but Houdini realized the man was trying to suppress a smile.
“Mr. Mayer, are you afraid of competition from an underdog?”
“I’m afraid of actors who think they’re producers,” Mayer said. “Just because they’ve been in a few movies, they now think they can make them.”
He sighed theatrically and looked out the window behind him.
“These ragtag companies are going to ruin the studio model we’ve worked hard to establish. Their ‘independent’ films could bring down the industry. They could ruin the economy of Los Angeles. The whole thing is very…un-American.”
To Houdini, it sounded like the most American thing imaginable.
“And what does this have to do with me?”
“The film is called The Thief of Baghdad and it’s showing at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. I want you to overshadow the premiere by performing your greatest escape—on Hollywood Boulevard, right across the street.”
Houdini’s heart leapt; he loved the challenge of an outdoor performance. For a moment he forgot that he was only there to feign interest.
“And what stunt would you have me perform? The Milk Can Escape? The Chinese Water Torture Cell?”
Mayer’s grin grew so big Houdini thought the ends of it would reach his beady eyes.
“I want you to perform the grandest escape you can imagine. I’ll pay you whatever you make for six month’s worth of shows, and cover the cost of whatever supplies and staff you need. The cost is of no concern.”
Houdini felt his palms begin to sweat as his heartbeat increased.
“I can do any stunt I want?”
This could be his one chance to perform the Hangman’s Death without Bess knowing. Once he did it and proved it was safe, he was sure she’d be amenable to him repeating it in New York.
No, you fool. You’d be telling that giant Atlas exactly where you are.
“I need some time to think about it,” Houdini said.
“You’ve got twenty-four hours,” Mayer said.
“That’s all? I was hoping for a week.”
Mayer shook his head.
“The premiere is Saturday evening.”
“This Saturday? That’s in five days. It can’t be done!”
Houdini usually took months to perfect his escapes.
“If anyone can do it, you can,” Mayer said. “I assume you’ll need space and privacy. I’ve already secured an apartment on the studio lot above a sound stage in which you can rehearse unseen. And you’ll get an advance, of course.”
Mayer slid a thick envelope across the table.
“Take it,” he said. “No strings attached. You can give me your answer tomorrow.”
Houdini pocketed the envelope.
There are always strings attached.
“Go get dinner at any of the hot spots in town,” Mayer said. “Tell them it’s on me; I have a tab everywhere. Afterward I’ll have a driver take you to your apartment. And for God’s sake, take a shower.”
Houdini stood and shook Mayer’s hand.
“I expect your answer by this time tomorrow,” Mayer said.
“By the way,” Houdini said, “what movie studio is it that you’re trying to sink?”
Mayer’s mouth puckered, as if he had bitten into a lemon.
“Some little operation called United Artists,” he said. “It’s Charlie Chaplin’s doing.”
Houdini nodded and walked through the double doors. They slammed shut behind him, as certain as the opportunity itself.
HOUDINI SAT AT the bar of Musso & Frank Grill, dreaming about the escape he wouldn’t do. In front of him, he watched a sullen-looking bartender polish glassware for drinks he couldn’t serve. The liquor shelves were empty except for a meager cluster of flavored syrups to mix with carbonated water.
“I’ll take a Limetone soda,” Houdini said.
The bartender poured the drink in a highball glass and gave it a fancy twist of lime, but then pushed it over to Houdini as if he were disappointed by his own creation.
The restaurant was one of the most expensive in town, which was a bonus since Louis B. Mayer was paying for his meal. But the reason he chose it was because Musso & Frank, with its dimly lit booths and discreet wait staff, was the social hub of Hollywood’s elite.
The bistro appeared to be lifted straight out of a posh Parisian neighborhood, with dark wood paneling, white tablecloths, and a priggish maître d’ who seemed to take pride in turning people away. The magician was grateful he had showered and purchased a new black suit before going.
Houdini had positioned himself where he could see guests enter. A man in a tan sport coat had been turned away, but two others in tuxedos were allowed in. A woman Houdini thought was either Lillian Gish or Clara Bow entered with a date. He often got these movie stars mixed up.
The front door swung open with force, and Houdini jumped in his seat. A dark, thick-set man in a sombrero and riding clothes stepped inside. He looked around as if he were the Cactus Kid sizing up a saloon. The maître d’ took one look at the grime on the man’s face and snapped his reservation book shut.
“Good evening. You must be lost.”
The man’s skin was tanned from years in the sun and a thick mustache swooped across his face.
“I look for movie man,” he said. “I am here to make movie.”
He was from somewhere south of the border.
“Yes, you and every other person in this town,” the maître d’ said. “You want Gower Gulch, eight blocks east. That’s where all the cowboys for hire loiter.”
“I tell great stories,” the man said. “Must make money for the revolution!”
“And I must make money to pay rent. Now get along, you brute.”
The man stood there a minute, his fingers twitching by a gun Houdini hoped wasn’t real.
“He said beat it!” the bartender shouted from behind the bar.
After a long, fearless stare at the bartender, the man turned and left the restaurant.
“We get all types here,” the bartender said. “The stars, star chasers, and the rubes who think they deserve a movie contract just for stepping off the train.”
“Speaking of stars,” Houdini said. “I hear Charlie Chaplin comes in here frequently.”
“Frequently? He and his pals practically sleep here. Try eight o’clock.”
Houdini checked his watch.
“He’ll be here at eight?”
“No,” the bartender said. “Your eight o’clock.”
Houdini turned and looked behind his left shoulder. There, in a corner booth in the darkest part of the restaurant, Houdini saw the famous comedian. He was sitting with another man, and they were laughing together.
As he took a few steps toward them, Chaplin looked up.
Chaplin jumped out of his seat and bounded across the room like a long-lost dog. Houdini stuck out his hand but the younger man grabbed him in a hug.
“You old goat! It’s been years. What are you doing here in Los Angeles?”
Houdini had befriended Chaplin in New York when the struggling comedian was doing his first show in America. But that was years ago. Now Chaplin was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world, and only thirty-five years old.
“I came to see you,” Houdini said.
“Me?” Chaplin said. “When this town is full of pretty women? Your priorities are all wrong.”
Chaplin tugged at his elbow.
“Come, meet my friend.”
Houdini followed him over to the corner. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he recognized the man slumped casually in the booth, a cigarette dangling from his hand.
“Mr. Fairbanks,” Houdini said, holding out his hand.
Douglas Fairbanks, the great swashbuckling movie star, set down his cigarette and shook Houdini’s hand.
“Yes, and you are?”
Fairbanks’s eyes lit up.
“The magician! Of course. Come, join us. For a moment I thought you were an old man begging for autographs.”
Fairbanks flashed him an infectious grin, one that made Houdini feel as if he were on the inside of a velvet rope. The actor scooted to the center of the booth and made room for him.
A waitress brought Houdini’s meal to the table.
“Hattie, my dear,” Fairbanks said, “You wouldn’t happen to have any of that giggle water hiding behind the bar, would you?”
The waitress looked uncomfortable.
“You know we’re not supposed to bring that out in plain view of other guests,” she said.
Fairbanks gave her his best smile.
“Not even for your good friend Dougie? Come now, Hattie. A life of adventure doesn’t start until we take risks.”
He winked at her. Then he gave her a comical sad face. Finally the girl caved in, and she broke into a smile.
“I’ll see what I can do. But you’re coming to prison with me.”
She went to talk with the bartender.
“Charlie has always had wonderful things to say about you,” Fairbanks said to Houdini. “I’d love to see one of your shows.”
“Oh, he’s truly glorious,” Chaplin said. “He can escape from anything you trap him in: a cage, a safe, a conversation with my wife.”
“I didn’t think anyone could escape that,” Fairbanks said.
Houdini cleared his throat.
“I’m here because I need to see you,” Houdini said to Chaplin. “Privately. It’s about our…shared talents.”
He gave Chaplin a meaningful look.
“Oh! Well, if it’s a meeting of talents,” Chaplin said, “then Doug should stay.”
Houdini’s eyes slid to Fairbanks, who offered him a smile and a wink that twinkled.
But of course. I should have suspected.
Houdini removed the piece of deerskin from his pocket and unfurled it. Chaplin squinted as he struggled to read the list of names.
“Are you sure it doesn’t say Chorlie Chiplan? I know a fellow by that name.”
“Someone knew about us,” Houdini said. “I have an idea who. It’s a list of Burdens.”
Fairbanks sounded confused. It was a word Houdini hadn’t used in a long time. It was what Calamity Jane had called the great talents.
“They’re hardly a burden,” Chaplin said, “We practically run this town. My gift has made me the richest performer in Hollywood. And Fairbanks, well, he’s the third richest.”
“Who’s second?” Houdini asked.
“She is,” Chaplin said, looking up.
The magician turned and took in the woman standing beside him. Although she was about thirty, she looked much younger. She had golden rings of hair and playful eyes that Houdini found impossible to look away from.
“Hello,” she said. Houdini stumbled up from the booth to let her sit.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
“No, I’m Mary,” she said, holding out her hand for him to shake.
Mary Pickford. Douglas Fairbanks’s wife.
Houdini had seen one or two of the actress’s films, but the celluloid stripped away the true essence of her beauty.
“Are you going to shake my hand?” she asked. “Because it could be holding a drink.”
Houdini dumbly shook hands without taking his eyes off her.
“Harry,” he said. “Houdini.”
Pickford slid in next to Fairbanks while Chaplin went to find Houdini a chair.
The waitress returned with three clear drinks. It was probably gin and soda, but to anyone looking it might just as well be seltzer. Houdini pushed his glass over to Pickford.
“How very kind,” she said. “Thank you.”
Houdini gaped openly at the woman. He might not have guessed there was something unusual about Fairbanks, but Pickford was impossible to overlook.
Three great talents, working together. It’s unheard of.
“Mary, turn it down a notch, would you?” Chaplin said as he returned with a chair.
“If only I could,” she said.
Houdini turned inward to check his breathing and his heart rate, but he found his ability incapacitated. All of his consciousness was drawn outward, toward Pickford.
“You were saying, Mr. Houdini?” Fairbanks said.
He cleared his throat loudly.
The magician snapped his attention away from Pickford. He looked at Fairbanks, whose genial demeanor had grown suddenly sour.
“Won’t you please sit?” Fairbanks said smoothly, in the same tone he had used with the waitress.
The way he spoke, it was practically musical. It had substance, as if Houdini could feel its unique timbre tickling the insides of his ears. Houdini was aware internally of how much he suddenly wanted to do as Fairbanks asked. He sat.
“Now what’s all this about?” Chaplin asked.
“I’m in danger,” Houdini said. “And you are the only ones who can help.”
As briefly as he could, Houdini told them the story about Pope Benedict and the man he had come to call Atlas. He pulled on the chain around his neck and gave them a quick peek at Newton’s Eye.
“If even half of that story is true,” Chaplin said. “You’d have half of a great story.”
“Stop that,” Pickford said. “This isn’t a time for joking. You said the man’s strength was exceptional, Mr. Houdini?”
“I said it was unnatural,” Houdini said. “Like your beauty.”
Pickford said nothing but the flush of her face gave her away.
“Or Chaplin’s humor,” Houdini said. “Or Mr. Fairbanks’s—what is it, exactly—charisma? I believe this strong man has a great talent. As I suspect we all have.”
“And what is yours, Mr. Houdini?” Fairbanks asked. “Escaping from handcuffs?”
“No,” Houdini said. “I introspect.”
Fairbanks raised an eyebrow.
“What does that mean? You sit at home all day thinking about yourself?”
“Douglas!” Pickford said.
Houdini had never felt as if his gift were inferior to the others, but it was certainly the least flashy.
“Self-awareness is the gift no one wants unless they have it,” Houdini said.
“You’ll have to forgive Doug,” Chaplin said. “His mouth has a way of outrunning his manners.”
“I apologize,” Fairbanks said. “I do speak more than I listen. What exactly is it you want from us, Mr. Houdini?”
“I need you to come with me, back to New York,” Houdini said. “Together, I believe we can reason with Atlas. And if we can’t, I believe we could overpower him.”
Fairbanks sniffled and Pickford stirred her drink. Chaplin bit his lip. No one said anything for a long while.
“I’m sorry, Harry, I’m not sure what we could do,” Chaplin said. “We have talent, sure, but for entertainment. We’re the best at what we do, but not much else.”
“That’s where I think you’re wrong,” Houdini said. “I think show business is the very tip of your talent. Look at how Mr. Fairbanks got the waitress to do as he wanted with just a few charming words. Look at how every man in this restaurant is turned toward Mrs. Pickford. And you, Charlie, look at how your clever turn of phrase transforms the worst enemy into your friend.”
Chaplin shrugged and nodded noncommittally.
“We just can’t,” Fairbanks said. “We’re so busy right now. We’ve got this massive premiere coming up this weekend, and with interviews and promotions… We simply can’t escape. We’d love to, but we can’t.”
“Perhaps I could go with Mr. Houdini,” Pickford said. “While you take care of business here.”
“Certainly not!” Fairbanks snapped. “We’re too busy, all of us.”
Houdini couldn’t tell whether Fairbanks thought the mission too dangerous for his wife, or whether he simply didn’t want to let her be alone with another man.
“You fail to understand the gravity of the situation,” Houdini said. “People have died. The Pope himself gave his life to protect this object. This giant will kill me if he finds me.”
Houdini knew his story sounded unbelievable. Perhaps they even thought him a crazy old codger. It was a lot to take in, but he didn’t know any other way to convince them. He stood.
“Very well,” he said. “I can’t make you use your gifts for good, just like I can’t prevent Atlas from using his gifts for evil.”
“Harry,” Chaplin said. “This is all a lot to digest. Surely there’s some other way we can help. Some way that’s a little less lethal.”
“A life of adventure doesn’t start until we take risks,” Houdini said.
He stared pointedly at Fairbanks, who shifted uncomfortably.
“Very well,” Fairbanks said. “I’ll tell you what. If you can bring this Atlas fellow to us here, I promise I will talk to him with you.”
It was an easy promise to make because Fairbanks knew he would never have to fulfill it.
“And how would I go about bringing Atlas here,” Houdini asked, “when I don’t know his true name or where he is? Shall I post a personal ad in the New York Times?”
Fairbanks shrugged apologetically.
“I can only say what I’m able to do. Bring him here, and I’ll help. But Mary stays out of it. It’s too dangerous.”
Pickford grimaced but said nothing.
“The only way to get his attention would be to get myself on the front page of every major newspaper in the country,” Houdini said. “It’s impossible.”
He paused a moment.
Maybe it’s not.
He felt the envelope full of money in his pocket.
“Very well,” Houdini said. “I may be able to find a way to draw Atlas here.”
But you won’t like it.
“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Fairbanks, and good luck with your premiere. What’s the movie?”
“It’s a grand Arabian adventure called The Thief of Baghdad,” Fairbanks said. “It’s my greatest role yet. There’s a lot riding on it. I’m sure we could scrounge up a ticket for you. Would you like to go?”
“No, thank you,” Houdini said.
I already am.
HOUDINI STARED OUT his window at the massive sails of a 17th Century merchant ship. They billowed in a light ocean breeze, even though the shore was a good five miles away.
“Action!” someone shouted.
Thirty sailors darted across the deck with swords in hand as a dozen pirates scurried up the ship like rats up a rain gutter. They met at the center of the deck, where a fierce and highly choreographed fight took place. The pirates killed three sailors for every man they lost, and in minutes only a handful lived. In the end, as had happened for the previous three takes, a young maiden was hoisted over the shoulder of the pirate captain and carted off to their black-sailed ship.
Houdini had watched the film shoot all morning from above, distracted by the monotony of the filmmaking process. Men fought, and died, then stood up to fight and die all over again. It had a Sisyphean quality about it.
The apartment Louis B. Mayer had given him was a massive attic converted into a penthouse, smack dab in the center of the MGM studio backlot in Culver City. Mayer had built out the space, Houdini learned, so his directors could sleep close to the sets while their films were in production.
To keep them working sixteen hours a day.
The space ran half the length of the sound stage below, and had peekaboo views of the mishmash of lagoons, castles, and urban sets that made up the massive backlot. To the windows on his left was a row of rickety buildings called Ghost Town Street. On the right was a strip of adobe homes called Mexican Village Way. Past the pirate ship was the enormous water tower at the dead center of the lot.
Houdini hadn’t slept well that night. He had called Mayer to tell him he would do the escape, but guilt itched at him as if he had bedbugs. Mayer was pleased but didn’t seem surprised; he seemed used to getting his way.
When Houdini had searched inside himself, he found a hodgepodge of motivations. Without knowing where Atlas was, the public stunt really was the best way to grab the man’s attention and lure him to Los Angeles. But Houdini also wanted to do the escape, to put into action a plan he had been thinking about for months.
He had been up half the night making sketches that had long been locked in his mind. Now, he shuffled a deck of cards back and forth between his hands, looking at the easel where the sketches stood. The plan was good, and he knew it.
Someone rapped playfully at the door. Houdini was expecting Mayer’s assistant, who would be in charge of buying Houdini’s equipment and assisting him the day of the event.
Houdini set down the deck of cards and crossed the loft-style room, crossing over plush Oriental rugs and weaving through the eclectic mix of furniture, to answer the door.
“Who is it?”
Houdini opened the door. Charlie Chaplin pinched Houdini’s cheek and pushed his way through.
“Good morning,” Chaplin said.
“How did you manage to get on the lot?” Houdini asked. “I can’t imagine Mayer would want you seeing his sets.”
“I caught a lucky break. The guard ran off to the restroom just as I was walking up.”
He hung his hat and coat on the rack and gave a long whistle at the expansive apartment. At the sound of shouting below, he peeked out one of the far windows.
“Snazzy accommodations, though I hope the pirates don’t wake you up too early.”
“They die soon enough,” Houdini said. “Would you like tea?”
“I am English, am I not?”
Houdini had a kettle of hot water already boiling on the electric stove in the kitchen. He poured Chaplin a cup and found an assortment of teas in the well-stocked pantry, then put it all on a tray and brought it over to the sitting area.
Chaplin’s attention was drawn to the easel and sketchpad in the corner.
“What are you doing for Louis Mayer, anyway?” Chaplin asked. “Is it a torture device? I always wondered how Mayer got actors to sign his contracts.”
Houdini took a throw blanket from the couch and covered the easel.
“I’m under agreement not to say,” Houdini said. “But it will draw Atlas to Los Angeles. That’s why I’ve agreed to do it. That’s what matters.”
Chaplin dipped his tea bag in his cup with a deftness that looked almost like performance art.
“You could have asked to stay with me,” Chaplin said.
“I wasn’t sure,” Houdini said. “It’s been so long.”
“We’re friends,” Chaplin said. “Aren’t we?”
Houdini felt guilt press into his chest like an accusatory finger.
Maybe not after the stunt I’m going to pull.
It had been ten years since the two men had seen each other. At the time, Houdini was at the peak of his success while Chaplin was just a young scalawag trying to make a name for himself in America.
“I owe one of my biggest breaks to you,” Chaplin said. “You got me into the Hippodrome. At the very least, that’s worth a few nights in my guest room.”
Houdini had first seen Chaplin performing in New York as part of a comedy troupe in Karno’s North American tour. He had immediately recognized something unique about his physical comedy; the way he moved, the ease with which he emoted—there was something transcendent about it, as if the very spirit of humor were channeling through his body.
One night, Houdini asked Chaplin to open for him at the Hippodrome. It would be ten times Chaplin’s normal audience. He did a short but spectacular performance of the Inebriate Swell, his lovable but perpetually drunk character. Chaplin received a standing ovation, and from that point on the comedian began headlining with his comedy troupe. The film contracts came soon after.
“It was an amazing stroke of luck you saw me that night,” Chaplin said. “I feel like I owe half of my success to luck. I should become a professional gambler.”
Chaplin added a lump of sugar, a splash of cream, and gave the cup exactly three stirs with a spoon. He sipped it. Houdini watched him, this silly young man he was going to betray.
“We’re not heroes,” Chaplin said suddenly, staring into his tea. “We have talents that I’m grateful for, but that doesn’t make me a Robin Hood any more than it makes Douglas a Zorro, as much as he likes to think so.”
Houdini understood what he was trying to say.
We’re not fighters.
“Mr. Fairbanks has a way with words,” Houdini said. “He inspires devotion in others. And Mrs. Pickford, well, she could have the entire male population wrapped around her little finger with just the right look. Heroes aren’t always armed with swords.”
“Perhaps,” Chaplin said. “But I’ve never heard of someone laughing another to death. I’m afraid my gift is rather useless.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Houdini said.
The magician thought of his own talent, the way his introspection over the years had grown beyond a mere examination of his present self and extended into the realm of his future self and what might be.
He used that gift now, following all of the glowing threads of conversation that might convince Chaplin to help him in protecting the Eye. In the end, the one option that would prove most effective was also the easiest: saying nothing.
Houdini stared at his old acquaintance. Chaplin cleared his throat, uncomfortable with silence. He stared at the deck of cards on the table.
“Can I show you something?” Chaplin said. “It’s something I haven’t shown anyone before.”
He pulled the deck of cards closer to him and touched the top card.
“Three of clubs,” he said.
Chaplin flipped over the card. It was the three of clubs. He touched the next card on top.
“Queen of diamonds.”
He flipped over the card. It was the queen of diamonds.
“A trick?” Houdini asked. Chaplin said nothing. He touched the next card on top.
“Seven of spades.”
Chaplin flipped it over. It was the seven of hearts. He shrugged.
“Every lucky streak has to end.”
Guessing even two cards in a row was so unlikely it was beyond mere chance. Houdini touched the deck, feeling the edges of each card. Nothing about them was abnormal. There was no way Chaplin could have even known about the cards before that moment.
“Clairvoyance?” Houdini asked.
Chaplin shook his head.
“I honestly had no idea what those cards were going to be.”
Chaplin bit his lip.
“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “It started a few years ago, when I found myself getting all sorts of lucky breaks. Perhaps fortune favors the man who can laugh at himself.”
Houdini knew it couldn’t be unrelated; this good fortune was somehow an extension of his humor. The magician took up the cards and shuffled them in his hands.
“I’ve been wondering how you met Fairbanks and Pickford,” Houdini said. “I can understand how you’d all come to Hollywood with the gifts you have, but it’s still incredible odds that you found each other. I wondered if it were some kind of destiny. But maybe not. Maybe it was just…”
“My dumb luck?” Chaplin asked.
Houdini sipped his tea.
“Our world is rapidly changing. Talent that used to live in isolation just a hundred years ago may find a future that is more integrated, whether we like it or not.”
“There is opportunity in that,” Chaplin said.
Houdini clenched his jaw. When he reached to see the possibilities, he couldn’t see anything clearly, but he had the overwhelming sense of precariousness—as if the future were a boulder on the edge of a cliff, and the slightest breath from any of them would knock it over.
“Opportunity breeds opportunists. I think what we’re seeing is the beginning of a war. A secret war for the talent of this world.”
From outside the window someone yelled, “Shiver me timbers!”
“At least it’s not a pirate war,” Chaplin said. “My sword fighting is positively rusty.”
Chaplin set down his cup.
“I’ll help you,” he said. “I don’t know what use my jokes and good fortune will be against an eight-foot giant, but to whatever extent I can, I’ll help you guard the Eye.”
“Your humor seems to turn situations to your favor,” Houdini said. “Maybe you’ll be our lucky charm. Our rabbit’s foot.”
“Yes, I like the sound of that. Especially if I can hide in your pocket.”
“Now, I should go. Doug isn’t the only one with interviews to do for this film premiere. We’ve plunged every last penny into it.”
The two walked toward the door. Houdini handed Chaplin his coat.
“I should tell you what the stunt is,” Houdini said. “You won’t like it.”
Chaplin plugged his ears.
“Then I’d rather not know.”
“It involves you.”
“If it gets Atlas here, then I’ll cope,” Chaplin said.
He slipped his hat on as Houdini opened the door.
“By the way, be careful of Doug,” Chaplin said. “He has a good heart but he’s impulsive and erratic. And he’s very jealous of his wife.”
“So I shouldn’t pay her a private visit?”
“Now you’re the funny one. He wouldn’t let a man alone with her in exchange for all the good press in Hollywood.”
Houdini slapped Chaplin on the back as he led him out. The magician’s smile faded as soon as he closed the door.
A problem, since that’s exactly what I’m planning to do.
THE NEXT DAY, when Houdini should have been on the MGM studio lot practicing his escape on the crane that had just arrived, he found himself standing at the entrance to United Artists studios. It was a small guard gate with a simple wooden sign—nothing like the veritable gates of Babylon at MGM Studios.
After signing in, he walked along the plain halls and cheap wooden flooring that had all the ambience of a broom closet. It was far less glamorous than the carpeted halls and cream draperies of MGM’s grand offices. These were the independents, the artists struggling to make movies outside of the well-funded studio system. And struggling they were.
He found his way to the second floor, to a door with Pickford’s name on it. No one answered when he knocked.
A tall, gaunt-looking man popped his head out of an office down the hall.
“Mary isn’t here,” the man said. “Try the costume department; last I heard she was doing a fitting.”
“Thank you,” Houdini said.
The man gave Houdini a scrutinizing stare.
“Douglas Fairbanks will be back soon as well,” he said. “In case you’re looking for him.”
Houdini got the message.
In case you’re trying to avoid him.
The man directed Houdini to a separate building past a small courtyard with two benches surrounded by white rose bushes. It was a square one-story building even more utilitarian than the main offices. As soon as Houdini stepped inside he found himself in a labyrinth of clothes racks. There were costumes for every era—it looked like a thrift store through the ages. He squeezed through the claustrophobic aisles toward the sound of voices.
In a far corner he found Mary Pickford with a seamstress, standing in front of a three-way mirror. The actress was wearing a baggy plaid dress with black leggings, and an oversized plaid golf hat topped with a pom-pom.
“Bring the waistline out more,” Pickford said. “I’m supposed to be a young girl, not a fashion model.”
The seamstress quickly changed some pins in the cloth.
“You could wear a tent and you’d still be beautiful,” Houdini said.
Pickford looked up. She didn’t seem entirely surprised to see him.
“Douglas will be back from an interview any moment.”
“I didn’t come to see him.”
“Yes, you came to see me. Everyone wants just one more look.”
Her glare, it was a beam of contempt she focused at him like a death ray.
“That look is meant to scare men off,” Houdini said. “You’re not really so mean.”
“It’s self-preservation,” Pickford said. “You see how nice you are when men drool over you like starving beasts in front of filet mignon.”
“Fortunately for me, then, I’m more like chopped liver,” Houdini said. “May we speak?”
Pickford looked at the seamstress and gave her a nod. The woman eyed Houdini head to toe, and reluctantly left. With the two of them alone, Houdini found himself staring openly at Pickford again. She let out an exhausted huff.
“I apologize,” Houdini said. “I can’t control how you look, but I should be able to control where I look.”
He pulled his eyes away and toward the costumes. On a nearby rack was a hat of every shape and style. There was a large black sun hat, which Houdini imagined could only be appropriate for a woman to wear during an outdoor funeral. He plucked it from the rack and, approaching Pickford, gently removed the golf hat from her head and replaced it with the large sun hat. By pulling the brim of it down, he could only see Pickford’s lips and chin.
“Your talent may get stronger with age,” Houdini said.
Pickford barked a laugh.
“You’re the first person to tell an actress at thirty-one that she’s only going to get more beautiful.”
“It’s true. I’m much older than you. We grow into our gifts. They expand.”
“I wouldn’t want to be any more beautiful,” she said. “But I’m pretty, that’s all. Thousands of women are.”
“Not like you. You’re special. You’re a Burden.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that pitch from Charlie. He says we have unique talents unlike anyone else in the world. It sounds a bit megalomanic, don’t you think, Mr. Houdini?”
“It’s not megalomanic if it’s true,” Houdini said. “Surely the effect you have on men is all the evidence you need.”
“Beauty is a parlor trick.”
“Even tricks have their value. I should know. It’s why I need your help.”
She looked up at him, then remembered her hat and tugged it low on her face.
“You want me to disobey my husband.”
“Of the four of us, you are the best equipped to contain Atlas,” Houdini said. “He won’t listen to me, and your husband’s charms may have their limits. But one look at you and I’m convinced he’ll listen.”
Pickford turned to the mirror and tilted her hat at a more fashionable angle.
“If you and Charlie are right, that our gifts are unique in all the world, why do we have them? What’s the purpose?”
Houdini had ruminated over this for years, from the moment Calamity Jane had recognized him for what he was.
“I believe our gifts are meant to help people, to benefit mankind,” Houdini said. “It will look different for each of us. Some of us are meant to be warriors to protect people in times of war. Others are meant to be great scholars, to change the way people understand the world. Still others are meant to have compassion and care for the sick and the poor, as an example to humanity.”
“And you?” Pickford asked. “A magician?”
The question was sharp but her mouth puckered immediately after as if she regretted the tone.
“I suppose I could have been a great thinker,” Houdini said. “I could have written books to help people understand their motivations so they aren’t controlled by them. But instead I’ve used my gift to be an entertainer.”
“How does that do anyone any good?”
Houdini found a box of clothes behind him and sat on it. A long blue scarf was poking out of the box, and he pulled it out. Deftly, he wound the fabric around his own wrists, binding them together. He yanked his hands apart to show it was secure.
“You see, I’m a Hungarian Jew with immigrant parents. We grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York. My little tricks, my escapes from handcuffs and such, they not only entertained people, they gave folks hope. The hope of escape.”
With one sharp flick, the scarf fell off.
“For a few brief moments people watching me forgot about their miserable lives, and every time I escaped my handcuffs they were escaping with me—escaping those shackles, escaping this dreary world. I taught them how to escape with their minds. Sometimes the gift we give people is simply a few moments of relief.”
Pickford removed her hat and stared at herself in the mirror. She touched her face gently, as if it were not her own.
“I give people a dream,” she said. “I live the life everybody else wishes they could. I’m America’s Sweetheart. The Girl With the Curls. I give people hope, too. A different kind.”
She turned her soft hazel eyes to Houdini.
“Why do you think I married Douglas? He’s America’s Hero. We’re the perfect pairing. Don’t get me wrong, I love him dearly. But it’s what the people wanted. Sometimes I wonder if it was the people’s dream before it became mine.”
She prodded at her cheek with clinical interest.
“I don’t see what else I could do for the world,” she said.
“There may come a time when all of us are called to do more than we are accustomed,” Houdini said.
He stared at her as she stared at herself. As much as he didn’t want it to, his heart beat faster and his pulse raced. She was powerful, and he knew she could get him to do anything she wanted. He hoped she could do the same for Atlas.
How much does she use her talent on Fairbanks?
“You and your husband, you might be the first great talents in history to marry,” Houdini said. “At least, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Douglas says it’s destiny.”
“I never believed in destiny,” Houdini said. “It supposes a higher power, and I’ve never been one for the supernatural. But I can’t get past the feeling that we’ve all been drawn here, to this place and time, for a reason.”
“You mean other than the endless sunshine? That’s reason enough to stay.”
“Stay? Who’s staying?”
Houdini cocked his head and saw Douglas Fairbanks making his way through the aisle of clothes. He smiled brightly but his eyes burned with something darker.
“Mr. Houdini can’t stay. Surely New York would miss him.”
The seamstress, Houdini remembered, was gone.
“My apologies, Mr. Fairbanks. I came to see Chaplin on business and happened upon Mrs. Pickford.”
“Happened upon her?” Fairbanks asked. “Aisles deep in the costume warehouse? You must have an awful sense of direction.”
Fairbanks was in the right, Houdini realized. It had been inappropriate for him to be alone with the man’s wife.
“How would you like it if I happened upon your wife all alone?” Fairbanks asked.
“I would not like it,” Houdini said.
“Well, don’t you worry a bit,” Fairbanks said. “I’ve seen a photo of your wife and I can assure you she’d remain perfectly untouched.”
Houdini’s hands clenched. He felt his fingernails digging into his palms. Fairbanks might be ten years younger and renowned for his athleticism, but Houdini had half a dozen hidden picks on his person, and any of them could serve as a shiv.
Fairbanks flashed a congenial smile.
“Please stay where you are, old magician. I’m not in a mood to wrinkle my suit.”
The words tingled in Houdini’s ears, and he felt the urge to fight Fairbanks wither away.
“It was a completely harmless conversation, Doug,” Pickford said. “Let him go.”
“You’re right,” Fairbanks said. “There’s nothing to fear from this vaudeville performer in his cheap suit and tattered shoes.”
Houdini was wearing his new suit, but he hadn’t gotten around to buying new shoes. He had washed and dried them as best he could, but the soles were flapping off them and they were covered in Los Angeles dust.
“Those shoes are positively careworn, Mr. Houdini. Do tell me, what happened to them?”
“I fell into a sewer,” Houdini said.
Fairbanks clicked his tongue.
“It sounds like they need a cleaning. Mr. Houdini, would you do me a favor and take those filthy shoes off?”
Houdini’s ears tingled again, and he did as Fairbanks asked. As much as his anger burned against the man, he found himself wanting to do whatever Fairbanks requested.
“Now, please clean the soles of your shoes, Mr. Houdini. With your tongue.”
“Douglas, don’t do this!” Pickford said. She stood up and faced him, her beauty blazing. Fairbanks stared at her with the same silly expression Houdini imagined he made too.
“Stop it,” Pickford said. “For me.”
There was a standoff going on, one Houdini could only guess happened at regular intervals in their marriage.
“I’m sorry dear,” Fairbanks said. With monumental effort he pulled his eyes off her. “But it’s for your own good.”
Fairbanks turned his back to her and winked at Houdini.
“Now clean, my friend. Please?”
The magician felt himself raising one of his shoes toward his mouth. He felt as if he and Fairbanks were on the inside of a funny joke. But even as his tongue came out of his mouth, Houdini felt a small part of him somewhere inside, trying to resist the command. If he could only get to that part soon enough, he might be able to stop himself.
His tongue hit leather, covered in dirt and tiny bits of gravel. Pickford let out a little cry as the magician licked the sole of his shoe completely clean. Houdini’s mouth felt gritty and earthy, as if he were chewing on a bit of sidewalk from Hollywood Boulevard.
“You’re a good sport,” Fairbanks said, smiling. “Now leave, Mr. Houdini, and don’t ever let me catch you alone with my wife again.”
Houdini nodded and walked willingly out of the costume warehouse. But even as he left, he grasped tightly onto the part of his mind he had found, the piece that could resist Fairbank’s charm.
You’ll see me again soon enough, Fairbanks. And you won’t be smiling.
HOUDINI HAD COUNTED up all of the ways he could die and was satisfied. There were only a few more than usual, but not so many that it gave him pause. He was confident he could pull off the Hangman’s Death the following evening.
So then why can’t I sleep?
He had spent the entire day scouting the location and planning out every step. The stunt would occur on the busiest stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, directly across the street from the famous Egyptian Theatre, where the United Artists movie premiere would take place. He would perform on top of a one-story building that housed a few small businesses: Betty’s Fine Eveningwear, McCadden’s Rare Books, and an Emory Partridge toy store.
The building was flat and sturdy and would support the crane easily enough. With a piece of chalk, he had drawn a large circle on the sidewalk below, which would be blocked off for the spikes. It would also keep spectators far enough away for the illusion portion of his stunt to work. On the roof he had measured and marked places to drill bolts into the building’s beams to secure the crane, which would be installed on top of the roof in the morning.
Houdini had made a special trip to the county hospital for a straightjacket. It was a standard issue, made of thick duck cloth and lined with five leather straps to secure the long sleeves behind the back. He had escaped from that exact model hundreds of times. When he first held the straightjacket in his hands earlier that day, it had nearly brought tears to his eyes. Whereas others recoiled at the sight of one, to Houdini the jacket felt like an old friend—a familiar face greeting him in the midst of the strangers and palm trees and relentless sunshine that made up this strange city.
Even though every step of the stunt was accounted for, Houdini found himself staring up at the ceiling. He realized it wasn’t the anticipation of the performance that left him rolling in bed, it was the anticipation of vengeance. It was Fairbanks. Despite the inappropriateness of Houdini’s actions a few days before, the man had crossed a line and humiliated him in front of Pickford.
Even so, Houdini needed the man’s help once Atlas arrived. He could only hope Fairbanks had enough integrity to keep his word.
Houdini got up from bed and went to the phone by the door. On a hunch, he placed a call through the operator to his brownstone in Harlem. It rang seven or eight times. He was about to hang up the receiver when he heard a groggy voice.
The sound of his wife’s voice gripped his heart like a vice. He had never been away from her for so long, not since the day they had first met by the beach.
“Bess!” Houdini said. “What are you doing there?”
“Harry! Where are you?”
“I’m in Los Angeles. You’re supposed to be at the cabin. It’s not safe there.”
“I was at the cabin for five days,” she said. “I didn’t hear from you, so I came back yesterday. Someone ransacked our home.”
Terror gripped Houdini. Atlas had been in their home. He knew where Bess was.
“You have to leave!” Houdini said. “There’s a dangerous man. He could be back at any time.”
“I’m not leaving,” Bess said. “I doubt he’ll be back, and I’m tired of living on the run. Besides, I don’t want to pull little Samuel out of school again.”
“This is no time to joke. You must leave!”
“No,” Bess said. “Come home, Mr. Houdini, and we’ll deal with this together.”
Houdini knew that tone. His wife was staying, and there was nothing he could do to change her mind.
“I have to finish something first,” he said.
“What is it you’re doing out there?”
“Making friends,” he said.
And making enemies.
“You’re not doing anything foolish, are you?” she asked.
“Not foolish,” Houdini said.
It was only foolish if it was unnecessary.
“Please be careful,” she said.
The worry in her voice, it extinguished all of his anger toward Fairbanks. Let the actor have Hollywood; Houdini wanted to be home with his wife.
“I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
They said their goodbyes, and Houdini hung up the phone.
Bess was vulnerable as long as Atlas was out there. To keep her safe, his best bet was to focus on his stunt and lure Atlas to Los Angeles as soon as possible.
The phone rang, and Houdini picked it up.
“I’ve been thinking…”
Houdini recognized the gruff voice of Louis B. Mayer on the other end. He didn’t bother to apologize for the lateness of the call.
“There’s nothing about your stunt that identifies it as MGM,” Mayer said. “We may as well get some publicity in while we’re at it.”
“Whatever you like,” Houdini said brusquely. “You can hang a sign from the roof of the stores.”
For all Houdini cared, Mayer could tap dance out in front so long as it didn’t interfere with the stunt.
“Bah! Signs,” Mayer said. “They’re everywhere. No one reads a sign. What I was thinking is that we need a symbol. The symbol of MGM. We need Slats.”
“What are slats?”
“Slats is our lion,” Mayer said. “The MGM lion. Damn animal sits in a cage on the backlot all day, burning a hole in my pocket with all the meat he eats. Why not put him to good use? Why not put the lion in your performance? It’s brilliant!”
Houdini was not the type of man to chide another, but he had more pressing concerns than tending to Mayer’s whims.
“It’s not brilliant,” Houdini said. “It’s idiotic. I’m not going to incorporate a wild animal, whom I’ve never worked with, into an act that is happening in less than twenty-four hours. You’re a fool.”
It was quiet on the other end of the line, like the brief silence of a building wave before it crashes onto shore.
“Men have called me a fool before,” Mayer finally said. “If he was my employee, I fired him. If he was my boss, I soon replaced him. It takes a fool to get things done. It takes a fool to have vision. So when I call you past midnight to tell you that I have an idea, I’m not brainstorming with you, I’m giving you a command, damn it! That lion is showing up tomorrow and you’d better find a use for it in your act, or you’ll find yourself blackballed from this town for the rest of your life!”
The phone went dead on the other end. Houdini set down the receiver softly. He went into the kitchen to make coffee. There would be no sleep that night.
GRAUMAN’S EGYPTIAN THEATRE was built like a pharaoh’s temple, with sand-colored blocks of thick concrete jutting upward from the sidewalk. It was as if a sandstorm had swept up a Middle Eastern citadel and plopped it onto the heart of Hollywood Boulevard. Two towering obelisks flanked the grand entrance, each capped with the head of an Egyptian deity.
Houdini had been around enough mystics and spiritualists to recognize the sandstone busts. The one with the head of a dog was Anubis, the god of the afterlife. The other, with the head of a crocodile, was Sobek, the god of fertility and power. Death and birth. Birth and death.
The grand entrance led to a small courtyard, reminiscent of an ancient public square. The theater itself, as if an afterthought, was at the back of the courtyard.
From the rooftop across the street, Houdini closed his hand into a loose fist and looked through the tiny hole it made. Without the passing automobiles, the crowd of spectators, or the giant neon sign blinking “GRAUMAN’S,” it was easy to believe he was staring at a scene from the days of Tutankhamen.
“Fairbanks is on his way,” said Ned Auerbach, Mayer’s assistant. “You should start getting ready.”
In about ten minutes, just before sunset, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would arrive at the theater. Auerbach had a man watching the couple, and telephoned as soon as they left Pickfair, their mansion home. Spectators had been lining up for hours, and the press was already in place, stationed by the two obelisks at the entrance. A street car rolled down the tracks in the middle of the street; Houdini hoped the trollies wouldn’t block the view of photographers. He needed them to get a good shot if he hoped to make it on the front page of the newspapers.
For The Thief of Baghdad, Oriental carpets had been set out along the walkway leading up to the theater, flanked with potted desert palms. Massive purple curtains with gold Arabesque embroidery draped from the tops of the obelisks all the way to the sidewalk.
That’s enough cloth to dress a pharaoh’s harem.
Men and women dressed as Arabian servants took their posts along the carpets with palm fronds to fan the arriving celebrities. Two belly dancers in flowing turquoise garments warmed up in the courtyard.
Houdini began to wonder if maybe his stunt wasn’t flashy enough. His escapes were always dramatic, but with a kind of quiet, nail-biting suspense. He didn’t want people’s attention drawn away by a couple of glittery belly dancers.
“Get the lion,” Houdini said.
Auerbach stared at the magician.
“Are you sure?”
“Set up a second set of gates around the spikes.”
Auerbach nodded and climbed down the ladder. The lion was in a cage in the alley. Mayer had his animal handlers deliver it that morning despite Houdini’s protests.
Holding onto the crane, Houdini leaned out over the rooftop and looked down at the spikes his men had set up on the sidewalk below. They were long skewers with pointed ends that had been disassembled from the castle gate of an old movie set on the MGM lot. Although they were only silver-painted wood, not metal, they would still skewer him easily enough from the height at which Houdini was performing.
The spikes were cordoned off with a wall of sawhorses. The police had stopped by to question them, but ten dollars each and an autograph from Harry Houdini had been answer enough. He even got one of the cops, a lazy-faced officer named Barry Stoker, to help out with the act.
Auerbach re-appeared behind Houdini.
“Fairbanks is almost here. I can see their car down near the corner of Orange.”
Houdini looked west and could see Fairbanks’s bright red Mercer Raceabout down the street. It was shaped like a bullet and appeared to be just as fast. Like Fairbanks himself, there was nothing subtle about it.
He triple-checked the items spread out on a cloth: the megaphone, the straightjacket, the handcuffs, the razor blade, matches.
“Get the cop,” Houdini said.
Auerbach nodded behind them, toward the grunts of an overweight man cresting the roof from the ladder. Officer Stoker pulled himself onto the rooftop and then flopped down prostrate, like a sunbathing seal.
“We’re nearly ready, officer,” Houdini called over to him.
The policeman got onto his hands and knees, then finally to full standing. He walked over to the edge of the roof facing Hollywood.
“Thirty clams, right?”
Auerbach pulled out the dollar bills and waved them in front of his face.
“Thirty aces. But only after.”
Houdini pulled the noose over his head, which he had tied himself. From his neck, the rope wound upward to the top of the small crane, then back down its arm, where it was coiled around a winch at the base.
Houdini looked down and saw the lion being lead into a narrow corridor made of sawhorses that circled the spikes. He hoped the animal trainers knew what they were doing. One jump and the lion could easily be out and about on the streets of Hollywood.
Officer Stoker spit on the lion below. It looked up and growled at him.
“I hate cats,” he said.
Houdini closed his eyes and searched for his fears. Fear of being constrained. Fear of impaling himself. Fear of becoming a wild animal’s dinner. He pictured a wooden storage chest inside his head and put all of his fears inside of it. Then he locked the chest, and buried the key deep inside the recesses of his mind.
He slipped into the straightjacket and crossed his arms across his chest. He turned his back to Officer Stoker.
“As tight as you can make it.”
The officer grinned in anticipation and began fastening the sleeves behind Houdini. The magician took a deep breath and flared his shoulders as Stoker tightened the buckles. This would give him the slack he would later need to escape.
Auerbach picked up the megaphone when he saw the red Mercer pull up. A valet ran over to open the car door. Auerbach looked at Houdini. The magician nodded.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Auerbach shouted through the megaphone. “We present for your pleasure, the most dangerous, the most daring, the most death-defying magician on Earth! Harry Handcuff Houdini!”
The man’s voice boomed, carrying over the traffic of the Boulevard. Fairbanks, donning a sharp white tuxedo, stepped out of his car just in time to see thousands of spectators turning their eyes away from him and up to the rooftop across the street. Houdini gave him a wink.
“Watch Houdini as he escapes a straightjacket secured by an actual officer of the Los Angeles Police Department,” Auerbach shouted. “Is it properly secured, officer?”
Auerbach turned to Stoker who gave the audience a big thumbs up.
“Our magician will escape while hanging from a noose above razor-sharp spikes!” Auerbach continued. “And if the spikes don’t get him, the hungry lion might!”
As if on cue, Slats roared in his narrow pen surrounding the spikes.
“Better still, Mister Houdini has fewer than three minutes before a flaming torch burns his rope in two!”
Auerbach nodded at Officer Stoker, who took the matches and lit an open kerosene torch at the base of the rope, next to where it was wound around the crane’s winch. This was the only true misdirection in Houdini’s act. From down below, the open flame appeared to be directly under the rope, licking at it. But on the roof they could see that the torch was actually six inches in front of the rope and would pose no danger of burning it.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Auerbach boomed. “Let’s hear it for Harry Houdini and the Hangman’s Death!”
The crowd erupted into wild applause. Houdini bowed deeply.
Fairbanks stood dumbstruck, still trying to understand what was happening at the premiere of his movie. Houdini looked to the other side of the car and saw Pickford standing with her arms folded, unamused but somehow unsurprised. She looked stunning in a sapphire blue gown and matching cloche hat.
“Action!” Houdini shouted.
Officer Stoker knelt down and turned the winch slowly. Houdini took one last deep breath as the rope pulled taught around his neck and then gently lifted him off the roof. His body swung forward over the edge of the building, dangling a good thirty feet above the spikes.
“Start the timer!” Auerbach shouted, although he was the one with the pocket watch.
There was a time limit, but it wasn’t the burning rope; it was Houdini’s breath. The magician had positioned the noose in such a way that his jugular veins and carotid arteries weren’t compressed, but his airway was completely cut off. He would have about three minutes until he passed out.
With his neck rigid, Houdini could just barely see the thousands of faces across the street, all of them staring up at him in wide-eyed wonder. All except one.
“Welcome, everybody!” Fairbanks shouted from across the street. “You’re all here for the movie, am I right?”
No one responded. Cameras flashed in Houdini’s direction.
“You’re all here for me—Douglas Fairbanks!”
Houdini adjusted his shoulder to create the slack he needed to loosen the straightjacket. He let out thirty seconds worth of breath to compress his chest slightly.
Two minutes and thirty seconds of breath.
Houdini yanked hard on the sleeves, loosening buckles behind him. Once he got enough slack he was able to lift his elbows over his head. But the rope around his neck prevented him from unwinding his sleeves. He removed the razor blade he had carefully clutched in his closed fist. First he sawed at the sleeve until there was a small hole. Then he reached back as far as he could to saw at the strap that was constraining his arms. It was made of leather and would take a good minute to get through.
“Ladies and gentlemen, who wants to see me in a movie?” Fairbanks shouted from across the street. He held out his arms and smiled. No one paid him any attention.
“Look at me!” he said.
Houdini saw the people immediately surrounding Fairbanks turn and look at him. If they smiled or otherwise reacted at seeing America’s Hero mere feet from them, Houdini didn’t notice.
Finally having the attention of a few dozen people, Fairbanks smiled and clapped his hands together.
“I’m so very happy to have all of you—”
The lion roared below Houdini. Everyone staring at Fairbanks turned back to the stunt. The magician couldn’t see the giant cat, but he would have bet money that Auerbach had one of the handlers prod it.
The poor thing never signed up to be an entertainer.
Houdini saw Fairbanks ball up his fists and storm toward the entrance. It seemed he would admit defeat and go into the theater, barely noticed by the fans who had come to see him.
But that’s not what he did. From the corner of his eye, Houdini saw Fairbanks throw off his tuxedo jacket and leap onto the giant purple drapes that hung from one of the obelisks at the entrance.
“You think you’ve got a show, Houdini?” he shouted. “I’m the king of the show business!”
When he saw Fairbanks begin scaling the purple curtain, Houdini dropped his razor blade. It clattered among the spikes below. The actor, famous for his athleticism, deftly climbed upward.
People turned and finally began to take notice of him.
“There’s Douglas Fairbanks!” an elderly woman exclaimed. “Oh, he’s wonderful!”
Fairbanks climbed the drapes until he was almost at Houdini’s height, then let go with one hand to wave at the crowd.
“Good evening, my friends! Yes, look this way my dear fans! Welcome to The Thief of Baghdad!”
Fairbanks’s antics were drawing eyes away from Houdini, and his one means of cutting though the straightjacket was now somewhere on the ground. From the lack of oxygen, Houdini was beginning to see blackness close in from the sides of his vision.
Ninety seconds of breath.
The leather strap gave a little bit when Houdini pulled his elbows apart. It may have been severed enough that he could break it. He yanked his elbows apart hard and fast, like a chicken with a broken wing. Once, twice, three times. Nothing.
Houdini needed more slack. He closed his eyes and saw one possibility. It was a risk, but he had to take it. With a short, hard exhale, the magician let out all of his breath.
It compressed his chest enough to give him more room. He opened his eyes and saw only blackness and stars. With one hard jerk the buckle snapped and his arms came free from his chest. The sleeves of the straightjacket hung long, like a child in his father’s dress shirt.
Immediately Houdini grabbed the rope behind his neck and gripped it. He pulled up hard, and it gave him just enough slack in the noose to take a long, deep breath. Vision flooded back to him.
Across the street, Fairbanks seemed determined to keep the audience’s attention. He had climbed to the top of the drapes, which were almost at the height from which Houdini was hanging.
“You want daring?” Fairbanks shouted. “You want danger? You’ll get all that and more in my new movie! I am, after all, America’s Hero!”
The crowd cheered for him.
“That’s enough, Douglas. Come down.”
The voice was hardly a shout, but Houdini recognized it as Pickford’s. He looked down and saw her standing by the car, arms folded tightly around her.
But Fairbanks, seemingly unsatisfied with being below Houdini, climbed up onto the vertical neon sign that read, “GRAUMAN’S.”
The man thinks he’s invincible.
Houdini, on the other hand, was all too aware of his mortality. He worked on getting the straightjacket off. His hands would need to be free to pull his neck out of the noose. He began squirming and yanking to free himself.
By now, the crowd’s attention was equally split. Fairbanks was near the top of the sign, grabbing the metal frame between the “G” and the “R.” Again, he let go with one hand and began pumping a fist into the air, riling up the crowd.
There was a sudden groan of metal, and the top of the neon sign snapped away from the wall. Fairbanks grasped the sign tightly, every ounce of bravado drained from him in an instant.
“Douglas!” Pickford screamed.
Houdini saw the actor clinging for dear life as the sign, bent now at an awkward angle, hung three stories above the sidewalk. Fairbanks clung with both arms and legs; he reminded Houdini of a koala he had once seen at the New York Zoo.
The man has charisma, but no courage.
Houdini freed himself from the straightjacket and dropped it to the spikes below. All he had to do now was free himself from the noose, climb up the rope, and then crawl down the arm of the crane to the safety of the rooftop.
Fairbanks’s situation was more dire. The metal groaned again, and Houdini heard the pop of bolts ripping out of concrete. The sign tipped even more, and Fairbanks’s legs slipped off. The actor was now hanging by only his hands over the traffic on the boulevard. He yelped once, and looked like a child who had climbed a tree and couldn’t get down.
“Someone help!” Pickford shouted.
A fat security guard tried to climb the curtain but couldn’t get more than a few feet off the ground before falling back down. Everyone else stared in paralyzed horror.
Pickford looked across the street at the magician.
The magician didn’t know whether it was a plea for help or an accusation. He pulled his head out of the noose, then hung from it with his hands. As he swung his legs up to climb the rope, one of his shoes flew off him. Slats must have thought it was a snack, because the beast let out a mighty roar and jumped up to catch it in its mouth.
Officer Stoker, who had been crouched by the edge of the roof, was startled by the lion’s sudden leap and stumbled backward, knocking the torch over. Burning kerosene splashed everywhere—the roof, the crane, the rope.
“The rope!” Houdini shouted. But Stoker had his own problems. The kerosene had also lit the officer’s sleeve on fire. He was dancing around the roof, trying to extinguish himself.
Houdini had no idea how long it would take the flame to burn through the rope; he hadn’t planned for that eventuality. His best bet was to crawl up the rope and get himself onto the roof as quickly as possible. Houdini followed the threads of possibility; if he crawled down, there wouldn’t be time to get over to Fairbanks. The man would fall.
There was another option, but it might kill them both.
A life of adventure doesn’t start until we take risks.
Houdini climbed up the rope and hoisted himself onto the crane. He then pulled the rope up behind him and slid the noose around his body, just below his chest. He shimmied a few yards down the crane, and tugged on the rope to see if it held. It did—for now.
A gray Studebaker Standard Six pulled up behind Fairbanks’s red Mercer. Charlie Chaplin got out and looked up.
“Douglas doesn’t usually start climbing the walls until after cocktail hour.”
“Clear a path!” Houdini yelled, parting the air with his hands.
Chaplin seemed to understand, and stepped out into the street to stop the oncoming traffic.
Houdini stood on the crane and dove out into the air as far as he could. There was a moment of weightlessness and Houdini muttered a prayer to anyone who would listen. The rope yanked taught. It held, and Houdini swung over the street toward Fairbanks and the tilting sign.
“Grab me!” Houdini yelled as he barreled toward Fairbanks. The actor reached out one hand and Houdini tried to grasp it, but they fell a good three feet short. Houdini swung back toward the crane, over the lion, over the spikes.
He turned his body and saw the flame climbing up the rope. Burnt, frayed strands of rope snapped loose where the fire had the most time to burn.
I’ve got once chance left.
As Houdini approached the crane, he tucked his legs into a horizontal crouch. When his feet made contact with the metal, he kicked off it as hard as he could. He got a good push, but he was now swinging upside down toward Fairbanks. As he saw the neon sign approaching, he realized he would get closer this time—but not close enough.
“Jump!” Houdini yelled.
Fairbanks hesitated only a split second, then hurled himself at Houdini. The magician caught him around the waist and hugged him tightly. They barreled back toward the crane, crashing into it, then swung back toward the street.
And then, a snap.
Houdini’s heart dropped as he felt the rope become slack. He closed his eyes tightly, preparing to be impaled on the spikes.
Dark must die.
The magician hit ground hard, knocking the breath out of him. He and Fairbanks rolled together until they hit a curb.
They had landed in the street in front of the theater, and Houdini lay there a moment, allowing the adrenaline in his body to stop pumping. He took three deep inhales before sitting up.
Cameras began flashing all about them, and Houdini was momentarily blinded. He shook Fairbanks’s shoulder to rouse him.
“Fairbanks, are you alive?”
The man jolted up and took in his surroundings with wild eyes, as if he had blacked out and was unaware of where he was.
“Are you hurt?”
“This is your fault,” he croaked.
“My fault?” Houdini said. “I saved your life.”
“You’re trying to ruin my career!”
Pickford ran up to Fairbanks and threw her arms around him.
“You’re all right, darling!”
Fairbanks stood and smoothed the locks of hair that had fallen out of place.
Pickford crouched by the magician.
“Are you hurt, Mr. Houdini?”
She held out her hand to help him stand.
“Don’t you dare help him!” Fairbanks said. “He ruined our movie premiere!”
Pickford ignored him and helped Houdini up.
“It’s what he had to do,” Pickford said. “He wouldn’t have done the stunt if you had just agreed to go to New York.”
“You’re taking his side?” Fairbanks said.
“I’m not taking anyone’s side,” she said, placing her hand on Fairbanks’s arm. He shook it off.
“I think you are. If you won’t take your own husband’s side, then what’s your purpose? To just stand there and look pretty? Is that all you’re good for?”
Houdini stepped in-between them.
“Now, now. This isn’t her fault in the slightest. I take all responsibility.”
Fairbanks turned on Houdini.
“You,” he said poking the magician with his finger, “have outworn your welcome. Now please get out of here!”
Houdini’s ears tingled and he felt the compulsion to obey Fairbanks’s command. But he knew now where that place of resistance was in his mind. He quickly found it and held onto it.
Fairbanks looked at him curiously. The actor composed himself and smiled with as much charm as he could muster.
“I said go away, Mr. Houdini. Get out of this town, and don’t ever come back.”
It took effort to resist, but Houdini focused internally and held his ground.
Fairbanks turned bright red, and his eye began to twitch.
“Damn you!” he yelled, and stormed off down the street.
Chaplin put his hand on Pickford’s arm.
“I’ll go talk to him,” he said. “His ego’s been wounded. He just needs some time to cool down.”
Pickford nodded and squeezed Chaplin’s arm. He then ran off after Fairbanks. The actress turned away from the crowd. She tried hard to keep a strong face, but tears escaped her eyes. Houdini wanted to place a comforting hand on her but thought better of it.
“Do you want me to send these people away?”
Pickford shook her head. She exhaled all the hurt and frustration in one big breath, and when she inhaled a smile appeared in their place. It was, Houdini thought, a trick as good as any he could pull.
She turned back to the crowd that had witnessed the whole ugly scene.
“My apologies for the unrehearsed spectacle,” Pickford said. “We’re actors; we’re not used to going off-script. Please stay, and enjoy the movie.”
Pickford turned away. Houdini saw her hands were shaking.
“Would you like to get a drink somewhere?”
She nodded. Houdini grabbed her by the elbow and ushered her into the nearest taxi. They drove down the boulevard in silence.
Houdini didn’t know whether his stunt was a miserable failure or a resounding success. He supposed by tomorrow he’d find out one way or another.
TWO SIPS INTO his brandy, Houdini could feel the alcohol traveling in his bloodstream, through his heart, into his brain. If he concentrated hard enough, he’d be able to feel the ethanol connecting to nerve receptors and releasing dopamine.
But alcohol dulled his introspection. The more he drank, the less he’d be able to sense how the brandy was affecting his body. Every sip made things worse. Every sip made things better.
“You act as if you’ve never had a drink,” Pickford said.
“Not one like this,” Houdini said.
Not one with you.
“What are you drinking?” Houdini asked, nodding to her bright pink cocktail.
“The Mary Pickford, of course,” she said, taking an undignified swig that left a dribble on the side of her cheek. “White rum, pineapple juice, grenadine, and maraschino.”
“You have your own cocktail?” Houdini asked.
Houdini shook his head.
“My drink of choice already has a name. Water.”
The bar was dark but Houdini thought Pickford smiled. It was just as well that he could barely make out her face in the candlelight; he couldn’t be mesmerized by her if he couldn’t see her.
Houdini ran his fingers along the vertical metal bars that made a cage around their table.
“This is an odd place. The Jail Cafe. Who wants to pay to be imprisoned?”
“Does it make you nervous?” Pickford asked.
Houdini shook his head.
“If anything, I feel at home. I’m an escape artist, remember.”
Pickford wrinkled her nose as the waiter walked by in a prison uniform.
“I think it’s tacky,” she said. “But this is Hollywood, and everything has to be an attraction, I suppose.”
For all of Pickford’s grumblings, it was she who brought them there. Their taxi driver had driven aimlessly for three or four miles until Pickford finally directed him to the hilly Ivanhoe neighborhood between Hollywood and Downtown. The entrance to the Jail Cafe was at street level on Sunset Boulevard, but to get to the restaurant, patrons had to walk down two flights of steep concrete stairs embedded into the hillside. At the bottom was a legitimate restaurant by day, and a speakeasy by night. The irony of them breaking the law in a prison-themed restaurant did not escape the magician.
“I know why you like this place,” Houdini said. “Because it’s dark.”
Pickford grabbed the stem of her cherry and swirled it in her drink.
“Do you ever miss your privacy?”
“At times,” Houdini said.
Pickford let out a sigh so long and sad it was as if she were exhaling her very soul.
“I grieve my privacy as if it were a child who died from a slow illness. It’s a terrible loss that no one warns you about when you go into entertainment. When I wake up each morning, there’s the briefest of moments when I forget that it’s gone. I feel normal; I feel free. Then I roll over and see Douglas snoring, and I remember who we are. What we are. And I remember that my privacy is dead, and no amount of longing shall ever bring it back.”
Houdini didn’t relish his fame, nor did he resent it. It was a necessary part of being a magician, just as danger was.
“You didn’t have to go into acting,” he said.
“That’s true, but also untrue,” Pickford said, finishing her drink and beckoning to the waiter for another. “With a face like mine I was put on the entertainment track as a child. And once that train picks up speed, it’s difficult to jump off.”
Pickford’s next drink came quickly. She snatched it from the waiter before he could set it down.
“And Fairbanks, how does he fare with the attention?” Houdini asked.
Pickford barked a laugh.
“Douglas eats it up. He was made to be famous; it’s part of his very being. After all, how can someone with charisma express his force of presence if no one is there to appreciate it?”
Houdini hadn’t considered the truth of that insight. If Fairbanks’s charisma were as much a part of him as introspection was to Houdini, the actor couldn’t help but be the center of attention. The notion gave him second thoughts about stealing the spotlight from Fairbanks on one of the most important nights in his career.
“I’m sorry for my stunt,” Houdini said. “There were opportunities to call it off, but I became prideful. And I wanted to punish your husband after what he did to me. Pride and vengefulness, these are ugly qualities I’m ashamed to own.”
Houdini sipped his brandy again even as his body told him not to. His head was becoming fuzzy.
“Douglas never apologizes,” Pickford said. “You and he, you’re polar opposites. Everything about him is external. All of his energy flows outward. It’s part of what I love about him, and part of what drives me crazy.”
Another gulp of her drink.
Is that her second, or her third?
“You, all of your energy turns back in on yourself,” she said. “Every action is questioned, reasoned, analyzed. Everything about you is internal. Douglas lives in the world. You live in yourself. It’s quite refreshing.”
“How so?” Houdini asked.
“You don’t need any attention from me,” Pickford said. “You’re perfectly self-sustaining. I don’t have to be Mary Pickford around you. I don’t have to be your audience. I can be nobody. I can simply be…nothing.”
An alarm began to sound in Houdini’s head, but it was distant and muffled, and with so much brandy he couldn’t understand what it was warning him about.
“We should get you home,” Houdini said.
He paid the tab and had the bartender call two cabs. He then walked Pickford back up to Sunset Boulevard, holding her arm as she stumbled up the steep staircase. The street was empty, both directions wandering off into blackness broken only by a string of street lamps.
It was so quiet Houdini couldn’t believe they were in the middle of a city. The air was mild and pleasant, and it carried the faint smell of sage and other native plants that were foreign to him. Cloaked in darkness, Pickford’s face and body were reduced to intertwining curves of purple, blue and black.
“You can take the first cab,” Houdini said. “Your husband will be worried.”
“I can’t go home,” Pickford said. “Not until Douglas sleeps it off. He’ll be all apologies tomorrow.”
“A hotel then,” Houdini said.
Pickford shook her head.
“They’d recognize me. It would be the gossip of the town for weeks. We can’t afford that publicity, not America’s perfect couple.”
“Where, then?” Houdini asked.
“Wherever you are staying.”
“No,” Houdini said. “It isn’t smart.”
“Douglas says I lack smarts altogether,” Pickford said. “Please, I can’t be alone.”
Houdini knew right then and there he should turn and retreat down the street, without waiting a second more for his cab to arrive. He should turn away and never lay eyes upon Mary Pickford again. But he chose not to.
Pickford pulled them under the closest street lamp and removed her hat. Her golden locks flowed about her. In his mind, Houdini scrambled for all of the tools meant to defend against a situation like this: steadfastness, forbearance, faithfulness. But they felt awkward and slippery in his head, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite grasp them.
“Please,” she said. “I want to be nothing. I want to be no one. Just for a night.”
All he could do was stare.
I can’t. I won’t. I want to.
He felt every cell of his being turn toward her, offering his full attention. His full submission. This was the inescapable brunt of her beauty. Hers was a trap from which there was no escape.
“Kiss me,” she said.
THE PHONE RANG as if from inside Houdini’s head. It vibrated along the fissures of his brain and felt as if it were ripping them apart. He opened his eyes, attacked by morning sunlight, and quickly shut them again.
But the phone wouldn’t stop. By the ninth or tenth ring, he was up from his bed and stumbling across the room to the wall-mounted phone. He picked up the receiver and was about to speak into the mouthpiece but was interrupted before he could start.
“What were you thinking, saving Fairbanks from his stupid antics?”
Louis B. Mayer spat out the words, as if he couldn’t stand to have them in his mouth.
“What was I supposed to do,” Houdini asked, “let him die?”
“You were supposed to steal the spotlight away from the movie, that’s what. Instead, you let Fairbanks join in on your shenanigans and suddenly it’s the most elaborate publicity stunt for a movie ever. Have you seen the papers?”
Houdini rubbed his temples.
“I’ve been sleeping.”
“It’s the headline of every newspaper, with a photo of you and Fairbanks swinging across Hollywood Boulevard like Tarzan and Jane. Just listen to this crap!”
Houdini heard the rustling of newspaper.
“The Los Angeles Times says ‘Houdini Rescues Fairbanks Before Movie Premiere.’”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Houdini said.
“The Examiner calls it ‘a stunt as dangerous and daring as The Thief of Baghdad promises to be.’ The Daily News says, ‘United Artists steps up its game by bringing the action of their movies to the streets of Hollywood.’ Everyone is giving them credit!”
Houdini opened and closed his fist.
“I did exactly as you asked. I can’t help what the press says about it.”
“You shouldn’t have allowed Fairbanks to get involved. That’s where you messed up.”
“Very well,” Houdini said. “Give me my pay and I’ll be gone this same day.”
“Pay you?” Mayer let out a mirthless laugh. “It’s United Artists who should be paying you. Fairbanks told the New York Times the stunt was all part of their movie premiere. He said they hired you to entertain the waiting crowds. You won’t get a penny more from me. If you want a paycheck, ask them!”
Houdini stopped on something Mayer said.
“The New York Times reported on this?”
“Are you kidding me?” Mayer said. “This story has gone international. It’s the top headline from Hollywood to Hong Kong. The Chinese are probably reading about me right now, laughing rice out their nostrils.”
The plan had worked, then.
“Pack up and get off my studio lot,” Mayer said.
The phone went dead.
Now it was just a matter of waiting. How long would it take Atlas to reach Los Angeles? Two days? Three? There would be plenty of time to prepare himself.
He pulled up the bedspread and jumped when a dark thing tumbled out of it. For a moment he thought it was a rat. But it sat there motionless, a dark blue blob of fabric. It was Pickford’s hat.
His stomach dropped like a bag of rocks thrown into the sea.
What have I done?
Memories of the previous night came flooding back into his mind, a tidal wave frothing with regret.
Was it the drink that caused him to falter? Was it Houdini’s loneliness in this strange city? No, it was something more. It was Pickford’s beauty. It was mesmerizing. It was supernatural.
Beauty was the one talent men had fought and died for since the beginning of history. It brought the Achaeans to the gates of Ilium. It cost Samson his strength. Houdini had underestimated its power.
At first he couldn’t bring himself to touch the hat. Nor could he pull his eyes away from it. He stood there a long time, warring with the quiet piece of felt.
Finally, he picked it up and smelled it. Light traces of Pickford’s floral perfume remained; he smelled bergamot, lemon, neroli, and orange. He could see her face, feel her long golden curls in his hand. It was alluring and sickening at the same time.
I am a weak man, growing weaker by the day.
The magician pulled the hat away from his nose and stuffed it in his pocket. It was his mistake, and he had to make things right. Not only because it was the right thing to do, but because he couldn’t face Atlas on his own. He felt his chest to make sure the Eye was safely around his neck. It was time to gather the others together; he would need them all. He pushed away the question that continued to nag at him.
After what I’ve done, will they even help me?
HOUDINI’S FIRST STOP was to a post office on Wilshire Boulevard. In his mind, he had written a long and detailed explanation of everything he had done, and everything for which he would beg forgiveness from Bess. But he knew his wife, and she didn’t have patience for long explanations or flowery apologies.
In the end, his letter was simple:
My dearest Mrs. Houdini,
I have let you down in every way imaginable. I have betrayed your trust and our covenant. There are no excuses for my actions. Sometimes even knowing oneself is no safeguard against oneself.
After I face my pursuer, I will make my way to you. How we proceed after that is up to you.
He mailed the letter. It wasn’t as good as a confession in person, but he wanted to make sure she would know the truth in case anything happened to him when Atlas arrived.
Twenty minutes later, he was in a taxi, climbing up the windy roads above Beverly Hills. Like a forest of pine trees on a mountain, the houses were thick at the base of the hills but grew increasingly sparse as they gained elevation. This land was on the outskirts of Los Angeles and difficult to access. He couldn’t imagine anyone who would want to live in a place as remote as Beverly Hills.
As they entered the gates to Pickfair, the native shrubs of the California hillside vanished, and in their stead grew acres of pristine grass, as flat and uniform as a putting green. From the taxi, Houdini saw tennis courts, stables, and even a private in-ground swimming pool. He had never seen such a thing.
Pickfair sat at the peak of the highest hill in the area, a queen on a throne overlooking her subjects. Houdini had heard that the property was a renovated hunting lodge, but if it were, there was nothing left of its former life. The house was massive, with more windows than the magician could count. He resisted calling the giant structure a house, but it didn’t feel like a mansion either; the green roof and striped awnings were homey and inviting.
The taxi drove under the porte-cochère and dropped him off at the front door. Fear radiated from Houdini’s chest, rippling throughout his body. He took a deep breath, focused all of his attention on it and shrunk it down to the size of a pinhead. He then put the fear in a glass jar in his mind and screwed on the metal lid.
The door opened before he could even knock. The housekeeper stood there, built like a bulldog with the face to match. She had a full apron tied about her.
“Good morning,” Houdini said. “Is Mr. Fairbanks here?”
“No,” she snapped, folding her thick forearms as if in challenge.
“What about Mrs. Pickford?”
“You’re not welcome here.”
Her accent was thick; she was French, or maybe French Canadian. Houdini looked past the woman and thought he saw a shadow move inside.
“But I didn’t even introduce myself.”
“I know who you are. We don’t want your silly tricks here, Mr. Houdini.”
She spat out his name like a curse word. Obviously she was under orders not to let him in. But by whom?
Houdini peeked again past her, taking in the freshly polished marble floors of the foyer and the brightly buffed handle on the door of the coat closet. Everything was immaculate.
“You run a tight ship,” Houdini said. “And yet you’re a bit sloppy yourself.”
The bulldog raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
“Your apron is off-kilter,” he said. “It keeps slipping, doesn’t it? It’s because of the knot you use. It comes undone too easily.”
She tugged at her apron self-consciously, straightening it out.
“There is nothing wrong with how I tie my apron.”
“If you’d allow me, I could show you a better knot.”
Houdini slid behind her quickly and pulled her apron strings loose.
“Excusez-moi!” she said.
She reached her hands behind her to swat Houdini away. In one swift move Houdini threaded the apron strings around her wrists, binding them together in a bowline knot. Before she had time to pull away, he took the remaining slack and tied a cow hitch knot to the handle of the closet door. It would hold her for a minute or two, maybe longer if she wasn’t willing to rip the handle out of the door.
She pulled against her restraints.
“Nom de bleu!” she said. “How dare you!”
“Just one of my silly tricks,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
The kitchen had all the charm of a converted English farmhouse: exposed wooden beams, pale yellow cabinets with antique fixtures, and a rustic table that looked like it had been hewn from Lebanese cedar from the days of Solomon.
Reading a newspaper at the table was Douglas Fairbanks, sporting a casual navy blazer and white pants. There was a red handkerchief in his breast pocket and his hair was slicked with pomade in a way that looked like the wind was blowing it back. He could have been on the cover of Country Gentleman.
Fairbanks turned at the sound of Houdini and smiled as if the man were a house guest.
He then returned to the newspaper. Houdini stood there a moment, unsure of what to say. It wasn’t fear holding him back, but something else: His pride resisted apologizing to the ungrateful man whose life he had saved.
An honorable man owns his mistakes, regardless of who he has wronged.
“I’ve come here to apologize,” Houdini said. “I’ve wronged you terribly.”
Fairbanks refused to look up from his paper.
Houdini was at a loss of what to say.
“Of course,” Fairbanks said. “All this talk—about you wanting to team up to use our talents for the greater good, to thwart those who would use their gifts for evil. But then you attempt to ruin the greatest artistic achievement of my life.”
“You’re talking about the movie,” Houdini said.
“Of course I’m talking about the movie! For all your mischief, you’ve failed to humiliate me. I’m going to use your stunt to my advantage. We’re reshooting parts of the movie today. There’s going to be a wonderful scene in which the hero is being hanged for larceny in the palace courtyard. Hungry lions pace below, waiting to devour his body. But the thief escapes his death by unbinding his hands, pulling himself out of his noose, and then using the rope to swing across the temple courtyard and slide down one of the grand palace banners. Sound familiar?”
“It’s very clever of you,” Houdini said.
“Yesterday’s stunt will all seem intentional. Except for the part where you took too long to escape, and left the star of the movie hanging from a sign, about to plummet to his death. How very unprofessional of you. I doubt anyone will want to hire you again.”
Hotness flashed through Houdini and he clenched his fists to keep himself in check. No one had the right to criticize his work, least of all the man who nearly messed it all up. But he refused to let himself be baited into anger; that wasn’t what he was there for.
“You misunderstand me,” Houdini said. “That’s not why I’m here to apologize.”
“I came to apologize because of your wife.”
Fairbanks set down the paper. Fire burned in his eyes.
“What about my wife?”
“Because of the way he treated me.”
Houdini and Fairbanks looked up. Pickford was standing in the doorway in a silky pink robe. Her hair was tied back with a matching bow.
“How he treated you?” Fairbanks asked.
Pickford walked in and poured herself a cup of coffee.
“Not only did he try to ruin your movie premiere,” Pickford said. “But he was positively rude to me after you stormed off. There I was, forced to manage the crowd all on my own, and he simply laughed and refused to even explain himself. Isn’t it true, Mr. Houdini?”
Her eyes glared at him. Her eyes pleaded with him.
“I have committed worse crimes than that, Mrs. Pickford.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she said, “but I don’t care to hear about them.”
“But it’s only right to explain myself,” Houdini said.
“We don’t want your explanations,” Pickford said. “We want nothing else from you. Quite frankly, Mr. Houdini, I’m bored of you.”
She pulled the ribbon loose and allowed her hair to cascade down her shoulders, her beauty turned up to full throttle.
“Now if you don’t mind, please leave us be.”
Her expression was fierce but Houdini saw the pain behind it. Even angry, she was beautiful. Houdini felt all of his attention being pulled toward her; he forced his eyes downward.
“Atlas is coming,” Houdini said. “You’ve promised to help if I brought him here.”
“You heard my wife,” Fairbanks said. “She’s bored of you.”
“But you promised.”
Fairbanks offered him a smile dripping with pity.
“Promises are the tent poles that keep a friendship standing,” Fairbanks said. “But since we have no friendship to support, the tent poles are meaningless. Now go, Mr. Houdini, and never come back.”
Houdini felt his ears tingle with Fairbanks’s words. He might be able to resist one of them, but combined their powers were overwhelming. His compulsion to leave was too great to ignore.
“Yes, of course I’ll go. Good day.”
Fairbanks was already staring back at his newspaper, but Pickford’s eyes remained on him until he turned away.
He walked through the foyer, past the housekeeper who was still tied to the door handle. Houdini pulled her apron strings and loosed her, stepping out of the way as she spit at his feet, then followed with a string of expletives in French.
The door slammed shut behind him as he walked down the driveway, and then the gates shut behind him as he exited the property.
Houdini was shut out of Pickfair, shut out from the people he meant to befriend. And it was all his fault. Now he was alone again, with an object of immense power, and a man of colossal strength on his way to get him.
HOUDINI CALLED CHARLIE Chaplin’s home half a dozen times, and half a dozen times he didn’t answer. When the telephone operator began to recognize Houdini’s voice and patch him through automatically, he gave up.
The magician went to United Artists to look for him there, but he appeared to have vanished. Chaplin’s assistant, a stiff young woman who clung to her clipboard and notebook as if they were the tablets of Moses, said she had no idea where he was or when he’d return. By the deep creases around her grimace, Houdini gathered that Chaplin had a habit of wandering off unannounced.
The assistant grudgingly offered Houdini a seat outside the closed door of Chaplin’s office. Houdini wondered if perhaps the comedian was also angry after yesterday’s stunt and was avoiding him. As soon as the assistant left, Houdini picked the lock to Chaplin’s office and peeked inside.
Chaplin wasn’t there. It was a handsome space, with dark woods and leather furniture that felt more like a banker’s office. One wall was plastered with framed photos of Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks posing with a wide spectrum of famous people: actors, politicians, and dignitaries of every sort. Houdini began to realize that his fame and influence as a magician only went so far; the star power of Chaplin and his friends was truly international.
The three actors traveled the world with an ease that was difficult five decades ago, and virtually impossible five centuries ago. Houdini wondered if the 20th Century’s vast improvement in communication and transportation would prove to be their demise. Calamity Jane had told him that every great talent was born in a place and time for a reason, to make a difference where they were. But with advances in technology, every great talent—every Burden, as she called them—could easily leave his or her hometown and pursue selfish desires. Maybe it wasn’t destiny that had brought them all to Hollywood, but merely self-interest.
He waited outside Chaplin’s office for hours, deliberating over what to do. With the comedian missing, and neither Fairbanks nor Pickford willing to help him, he was back to where he started. Worse, he was a sitting duck.
Finally, he gave up on Chaplin and decided his only option was to leave Los Angeles before Atlas arrived. He simply wasn’t equipped to take on the giant man by himself.
Houdini returned to the MGM studio lot, packed his few belongings, and was headed downtown by early evening. The last rays of sun had just escaped the city, and he’d be doing the same.
La Grande station was a beautiful Moorish-style building, anchored by a grand copper dome whose roof had a brilliant blue-green patina. The magician sat in the domed waiting room, stirring a chamomile tea that had long grown cold. It didn’t matter. The midnight train would soon arrive, and Hollywood would quickly become a memory, along with everyone in it.
Houdini would take the overnight train to Santa Fe. In a couple days he’d be back in New York. And then what? Could he even continue his career as a magician with a killer on his trail? It sounded unlikely. Whatever he did from this point on, he’d have to figure it out on his own. Alone.
A newsboy near the terminal entrance dumped his unsold stack in the trash and walked out. With hardly a soul in sight, he had given up on selling any more newspapers that night. Houdini walked over and picked an issue out of the bin; it was the evening edition of the Examiner.
The top headline caught his eye, in no small part because his name was in it: “HOUDINI FLUBS STUNT; NEARLY KILLS FAIRBANKS.” It was an exclusive interview with Douglas Fairbanks, who explained to the reporter that Houdini was supposed to escape the noose and then throw the rope over to him; Fairbanks would then swing across Hollywood Boulevard to the delight of spectators who, after all, had come to see him. But, Fairbanks said, Houdini took too long to escape, and had hired an incompetent assistant who set the rope on fire. It was a careless mistake that could have set the whole block ablaze. He cautioned anyone against hiring “that old geezer” ever again.
Houdini fumed. Had the reporter never wondered why Fairbanks included Houdini in the stunt in the first place? Or why Fairbanks had climbed a sign not meant to handle his weight? Perhaps the reporter had asked these things, and Fairbanks had kindly requested that he not write about them. He was Douglas Fairbanks, after all, and people did as he requested.
Houdini’s train finally pulled into the station, and a wave of arriving passengers flooded the terminal: couples on vacation, business men home from trips, an occasional family. The once-quiet space suddenly echoed with voices and footsteps.
He set down the paper. As healthy as Houdini was for his age, he suddenly felt very old. Most men at fifty weren’t crawling through sewers or dangling from nooses with ropes on fire. They didn’t sit in tanks of water holding their breaths for minutes at a time. They were bankers or salesmen, and they were saving their money and waiting for the day when they could collect their pensions and retire in comfort.
Old age and death, these are the things from which no one escapes.
A new generation of magicians and illusionists would soon overtake him. Maybe he should retire while he was still on top, while he was still the undisputed king.
The magician looked up. It took him half a second to recognize his wife in this unexpected location. He jumped up to embrace her.
“What are you doing here?”
Bess had a purse and small suitcase. Years on the road had taught her to travel light.
“I’m here for you,” she said. “I packed and left the moment we got off the phone. But why are you at the station?”
“I’m leaving,” Houdini said. “I was heading back to you.”
“Did you make the friends you wanted, then?”
Houdini thought immediately of Pickford. His face reddened and his palms became clammy.
“No,” he said. “I’ve made no friends. I’ve made nothing but mistakes. We need to talk. But first, let’s get on that train heading back.”
“But I’ve just arrived after days of travel,” Bess said. “I don’t want to spend another moment on that thing.”
Houdini picked up her suitcase.
“The man after me, I’ve lured him to Los Angeles. He’ll be here any day. We’ve got to get out of the city.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!”
A station attendant stood on a chair, shouting through a megaphone to the people in the waiting room.
“I regret to inform you that the train to Santa Fe has been canceled,” the attendant said. “There’s been a malfunction with the tracks. Please try again tomorrow morning.”
Houdini walked over and caught the man as he was leaving.
“What do you mean, a malfunction?”
The man looked around surreptitiously, then leaned in.
“I’m not supposed to say, but the tracks outside Barstow have been damaged. They need to repair them first.”
“Why is that such a secret?” Houdini asked.
“Because a section of track was ripped clear out of the ground,” he said. “The steel was bent and is completely unusable. They can’t figure out how it happened. An earthquake, they’re saying, though some of the repairmen suspect sabotage.”
The attendant leaned his head in toward Houdini’s, like housewives at tea time sharing gossip.
“Maybe from Southern Pacific rivals. Or the automobile industry. My theory is, it was Standard Oil.”
I have my own theories.
He checked his watch.
“Are there any other trains going anywhere else?”
The man shook his head.
“That was the last train.”
“Then how do we get out of Los Angeles?” Houdini asked.
“You don’t,” the attendant said. “Not tonight.”
HOUDINI HAD NO choice. He and Bess were stuck in L.A. for the night.
The red car went south, all the way to the town of Santa Ana, but it was closed for the night. He thought of taking a taxi down to Orange County, but he doubted he could convince a driver to go that far.
There was no evidence the damaged rail lines had anything to do with Atlas. Houdini’s stunt had occurred only yesterday evening; it would take him days by train, and a private airplane was unlikely for a man of that size and on such short notice. The more Houdini thought about it, the more preposterous the idea became.
I’m just being paranoid.
He and Bess took a taxi back to the apartment at MGM. The studio lot, with its high wall and guard stations, was the safest place to stay.
The guard at the main gate recognized Houdini and let him inside. Apparently Mayer hadn’t blackballed him yet. The backlot was silent at this time of night. Houdini and Bess walked through the set of a frontier town, by a cluster of dark log cabins. There was a small pond at one end of the dirt road with a willow tree drooping over it. All it lacked was the sound of crickets and perhaps a few fireflies.
“It’s magical,” Bess said.
Houdini wondered if the cabins looked anything like the settlement where Calamity Jane had grown up in Montana, or later in Wyoming. He found himself wishing he had asked her more questions in the brief time he had spent with her. Jane had known what he was even before he fully understood it. She seemed to think he would have a purpose greater than magic. But she was also crazy, driven to insanity by voices in her head. Houdini sighed.
I’m longing for advice from a madwoman.
The Houdinis crossed from dirt onto cobblestone, taking a shortcut through a glamorous Parisian street. With a little light, music and people, it would have been indistinguishable from the real thing. But in its darkened state, it looked like an abandoned shell of something once glorious. Would that be their marriage, after Houdini had told his wife what he had done? Would the heart of their relationship die, and there be nothing left but a hollow corpse of memories?
Finally they passed by the pirate boat, walking close to the hull. Sails whipped in the light breeze and Houdini jumped at the sudden movement. But there was no one there.
At last they reached the sound stage, entered the side door, and climbed up the stairs to his apartment. He fumbled for his key but he needn’t have bothered: His door was ajar.
Houdini stiffened. He held Bess back and peered through the crack of the door. It was silent, but from the corner of the couch he saw a trail of cigarette smoke snaking its way up through the air.
“I’d invite you in but you already live here.”
Houdini rushed inside, relieved to see his friend.
“What are you doing here?” Houdini asked.
“Waiting for you, old man.”
Bess stepped inside the room.
“Charlie, this is my wife.”
Chaplin stood and took Bess’s hand.
“Mrs. Houdini, a pleasure to finally meet you,” Chaplin said. “Behind every great magician is a great magician’s assistant.”
“Thank you,” she said. “A pleasure as well.”
“Where have you been?” Chaplin asked Houdini. “I’m nearly through an entire pack of cigarettes.”
“I was at the train station. Where were you?”
Houdini’s eyes passed over a wooden crate that had the word “ARMY” stamped on it.
Chaplin picked up a crowbar lying next to the crate.
“During the war, I sold war bonds with Mary and Doug,” Chaplin said. “We made some friends in the military. I called in a favor.”
He wedged the crowbar underneath the lid and pried it open against the groan of nails. Inside, there was a small arsenal: two rifles with bayonets, half a dozen grenades, and a backpack with a long hose coming from it.
“A flamethrower,” Chaplin said. “Surely the strongest man on Earth can still burn?”
“Does this mean you’re still in?” Houdini asked. “You’re not abandoning me after the horrible stunt I pulled?”
“I made a promise,” Chaplin said. “And you’re my friend. Besides, your stunt will probably triple our ticket sales. I’m not angry; I’m ecstatic.”
“Thank you,” Houdini said. “For sticking with me.”
He looked at the weapons in the crate. He had never so much as held a real pistol in his hand.
“I don’t like this,” he said. “We’re not equipped to use them. We’ll only end up getting hurt.”
“You know what will get us hurt?” Chaplin asked. “An eight-foot-tall man who can squeeze our heads like juicy grapes. Frankly, I’d rather get shot by you.”
“Mr. Chaplin is right,” Bess said. “If he’s as dangerous as you say, we’re going to have to be dangerous as well.”
“We?” Houdini said to his wife. “Absolutely not. You are getting on the first train back to New York in the morning.”
“I’ve been by your side since the day we met,” Bess said. “What makes you think this is any different?”
Houdini could not let Bess help him fight Atlas. He would target her—try to hurt her to get Houdini to give up the Eye. And if anything happened to her…
Life without Bess would be no life at all.
Houdini had to make her leave, at any cost.
“I’ve been unfaithful,” he said to her.
Bess stared at him, blank-faced. She seemed not to understand, as if Houdini had muttered something in an alien language.
“Did you hear me?” Houdini asked. “I’ve betrayed you. Not twenty-four hours ago.”
Chaplin let out a low whistle and focused intently on the ground between his feet. Bess simply stared at him. He may as well have told her that gravity now worked in the other direction.
“But you couldn’t—” she started, but she was interrupted by a man’s blood-curdling scream.
Houdini and Chaplin ran to the window just in time to see a guard booth in the distance go spinning upward into the air, as if caught by a whirlwind. It was weightless for a split second before it went crashing back down toward the ground. Houdini saw the terrified face of a guard still inside it.
“What on Earth was that?” Chaplin asked. “A tornado?”
Houdini shook his head; he knew exactly what it was. He pulled Chaplin from the window and flipped off the lights.
“There’s no way he could have gotten here this fast, not unless…”
He looked at his wife, her unreadable eyes still latched to him.
“He’s been following Bess.”
HOUDINI GRABBED A rifle from the crate and loaded it.
“Who was she?” Bess asked.
Houdini stuffed two impact grenades into his pockets.
Chaplin choked on his cigarette and erupted into a coughing fit. Bess’s eyes swam in grief. The name somehow made it real.
“Do you have any idea the danger you’re in?” Chaplin said. “I’d take a romantic drive up the coast with Atlas rather than face Douglas scorned.”
“We’ll worry about that later,” Houdini said.
Chaplin lifted the flamethrower and heaved the backpack on himself. Houdini watched impatiently as Chaplin struggled to strap the heavy backpack on.
“What?” Chaplin asked. “It has style.”
“I want to talk about it,” Bess said.
“I’m sorry,” Houdini said. “Right now we have to get out of here.”
Bess reached for the other rifle. He caught her arm.
“No, Mrs. Houdini.”
“How am I supposed to defend myself?” she asked.
Houdini didn’t want her to defend herself; he wanted her to escape. There were only weapons in that crate. Was there nothing he could give her to protect herself?
The Eye. It reproduces the great talents.
If Bess could see potential outcomes the way Houdini could, she’d be able to escape on her own should anything happen to him.
Houdini pulled the chain around his neck and produced the small conical object. It was heavy in his hand. The magician looked at it carefully. On the brass bands around the ends, tiny arrows were etched into the metal pointing inward. Houdini lifted it up to his eye and looked through the small end. In the dim light he saw Bess through the other side, repeated a dozen times in a little grid of diamonds.
“Look into this,” he said.
Houdini looked into the smaller end of the Eye while Bess looked into the wider end. Through the dark tunnel between them, he could just make out his wife’s eye. It was blurry, like a photo out of focus.
He leaned in closer. Bess’s eye suddenly slid into sharp focus and lit up as if illuminated from the inside. Houdini saw a bright flash of light and felt a jolt, like a thousand pin pricks throughout his body. They both staggered backward.
“Are you alright?” Houdini asked.
She stood there a moment, her eyes closed.
“I’m not hurt,” she said. “I know that. But I’m angry at you. And I’m scared. My heart is racing, I can feel the blood coursing through my veins, and the oxygen in my lungs, and, and—”
“It worked,” Houdini said.
Bess grabbed her head on both sides as if trying to make it stop.
“It’s too much for her,” Chaplin said. “All that awareness, all at once.”
“I’m sorry,” Houdini said. “I thought it would help.”
Instead of helping his wife, he had incapacitated her.
“We have to go,” Chaplin said.
Houdini took Bess by the hand. They burst through the front door and down the narrow hallway to the stairwell. Fear coursed through him, but it sharpened his senses and made him feel alive. Houdini stopped the others by the doorway at the bottom, projecting in his mind the threads of possibility available to them. If they ran toward the ghost town, they’d hit a dead end and would be trapped. If they ran toward the Mexican village, they’d run smack into Atlas. If they ran straight, however, they could make it to the rear exit so long as they ran at full speed without stopping.
“Come on!” Houdini said.
They ran out of the building, past the deserted pirate ship. They made a sharp turn and ran through the Parisian neighborhood, in the opposite direction of the main entrance. Chaplin tripped on the hose of the flamethrower and went tumbling head over heels.
Houdini ran over to him and pulled him up.
“We have to keep moving!”
But circumstances had now changed, and that avenue was closed to them. As they continued down the cobblestone street, Houdini saw someone turn the corner ahead of them and face them. Someone, or something.
The dark beast.
There it was, that hairy, amorphous blob Houdini had seen on the streets of New York. It wobbled toward them, slowly but with purpose. Houdini pulled Bess behind him, her eyes glazed over. Chaplin yelped and jumped behind the two of them.
“What is that? My guinea pig nightmare!”
“Other way!” Houdini shouted.
They turned back down the street and hid against the hull of the pirate ship. Houdini was focusing on their options when the ship began to groan. He saw the massive vessel tipping in their direction, falling on top of them. The hull would easily crush them.
Houdini pulled Bess straight along the hull while Chaplin turned and ran directly away from it. The high-pitched squeal of ripping nails and splintering wood filled the magician’s ears. He and his wife cleared the hull and turned just in time to see the giant mast crashing down upon Chaplin.
Houdini climbed over wood and rope and sails. In the middle of the wreckage his friend stood, in a tiny wedge of undisturbed space between the main mast and an observation deck. Destruction circled him. He seemed frozen with fear, but otherwise unscathed.
“How did you survive that?”
“Lucky break,” Chaplin croaked.
Houdini turned toward the fallen ship and saw him: the giant man. He seemed even taller and thicker than Houdini remembered, a statue of Zeus in a seersucker suit. His clothes were dirty, torn, and stained with sweat.
“Can I safely assume that is Atlas?” Chaplin asked. “Or is there someone larger we’re holding out for?”
Houdini pointed the rifle at the giant man and fired. It hit Atlas in the cheek and he grabbed it in pain.
“I think you cracked a tooth,” the giant man growled.
“Who are you?” Houdini asked.
“I’m Atlas,” he said. “Like your friend said. I rather like that moniker.”
“Who are you really?”
Atlas squeezed his cheek and popped the bullet out. Blood dripped down the side of his face.
“It’s none of your concern,” he said. “If you give me Newton’s Eye, it will save us all a lot of pain. But especially for your wife. If you try to keep the Eye, I’ll pluck out both of hers.”
Atlas was watching Bess, but Houdini redirected his attention by removing the Eye out from under his shirt. He dangled it in front of him like a carrot to a horse.
“Tell me what you want it for,” Houdini said. “Maybe I’ll support your cause.”
“Perhaps you would, perhaps not,” he said. “I’ll tell you this much: You may be stingy with your talent, magician, but I plan to be generous with mine. The world needs more strength.”
There was a clicking sound, and Chaplin let loose a stream of flame from the end of his nozzle. It was intended for Atlas, but the hose must have been heavy and unwieldy, because Chaplin sprayed fire all over the fallen ship, creating a wall of flames.
“Come on!” Houdini shouted.
He yanked Chaplin by the elbow and pulled him out of the fallen sails of the ship. He grabbed Bess and they ran through a prison scene of some sort, a maze of bars and high cinder block walls. Hopefully they could lose Atlas in it. Chaplin dumped the flamethrower as they caught their breath.
They came out the other side, and found themselves running down the set of a suburban street in a wealthy East Coast neighborhood. There were at least a dozen house fronts, plenty of places to hide. Houdini motioned to a large Colonial home to their left with a door slightly ajar.
“Perhaps we should—”
Atlas burst through the front door of the home, taking out a large section of wall with it.
“Colonial was never my style anyway,” Chaplin said.
They ran through the front door of a Victorian home across the street, which was nothing but a facade with grass behind it.
They ran through a forest, and Houdini wasn’t sure whether the trees were real or fake. It was thick at first, but opened suddenly into a glade.
“Bess, are you alright?” Houdini asked.
But his wife was catatonic, her eyes unfocused, her mind overwhelmed with internal awareness.
Houdini saw the walls of a castle off to the left. He saw the backside of a row of brownstones to his right. All of it was fake; all of it as flimsy as cardboard to Atlas.
They wouldn’t be able to fight the man; all they could do was hope to escape. Houdini focused internally; he saw a possible way.
They ran down the straight paved road in front of them to the MGM water tower. It was a massive storage tank a good eight stories in the air, perched on top of four metal legs. In case of fire, it served as a quick and close source of water.
The tower was surrounded on three sides by one-story buildings that made a U-shape around it. At the base of the tower was a fire truck. It was the only car Houdini had seen on the backlot. Houdini jumped in the driver’s seat, already reaching up his sleeve.
“Dump the tanks!” he said to Chaplin.
Chaplin took to unstrapping two metal barrels attached to the back. They’d move much faster that way. The massive barrels, full of water, clanked to the ground off the back of the truck and began rolling down the path from which the trio had come. Chaplin helped Bess into the passenger seat, then jumped in the back.
Houdini stuck his pins in the ignition and worked the engine. It was a different kind of lock than he was used to, but it was still a lock. Focusing on the picks, he could feel as they touched the delicate pins sliding into place.
“Faster would be better,” Chaplin said.
“I’m on the last pins.”
“You’re on pins, but I’m on pins and needles. Look.”
Atlas bounded up the road toward them, his pants half burned and smoking. He picked up the first water barrel as if it were an empty can of green beans. Not even Houdini and Chaplin together would have been able to lift it.
“Either he’s angry or he’s thirsty,” Chaplin said. “Let’s not find out.”
The giant man lifted the barrel over his head with both hands and hurled it at the truck. Chaplin yelped but Houdini kept his focus, even as it came whirling at them. Houdini felt the barrel whoosh over their heads and go crashing into the building behind them. He glanced up only long enough to see the giant hole it had made in the wall.
That would’ve taken our heads off.
The second barrel was rolling its way toward Atlas.
“Hurry!” Chaplin said. “I’m a comedian. I don’t want to die of anything but laughter.”
Houdini grabbed one of the impact grenades in his pocket, turned, and hurled it at Atlas. It arced through the air, a direct hit onto Atlas’s feet. Houdini and Chaplin ducked, anticipating the explosion. Nothing happened. The grenade bounced harmlessly off Atlas and tumbled along the ground.
“Did I mention the army gave me old weapons stock?” Chaplin asked.
Houdini returned to the truck, feeling the last pin in the ignition slip into place. He turned the picks and the engine roared to life.
Atlas picked up the second barrel and heaved it over his head, this time aiming more carefully.
“I don’t think he’s going to miss this time,” Chaplin said.
To get out of the small quad made by the buildings surrounding them, they had to first drive toward Atlas. Houdini released the brake and threw the truck into gear.
“I see,” Bess said.
“What?” Houdini asked.
He felt Bess reaching into his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“I see the way,” she said.
She grabbed the second grenade and stood up.
“Bess, sit down,” Houdini said.
“Drive,” she said.
Houdini floored the truck toward Atlas and Bess threw the grenade as hard as she could—not toward Atlas, but at the closest leg of the water tower. The explosion propelled them forward. Houdini felt burning heat on the back of his head.
He watched Atlas as they approached; the barrel remained suspended above his head, but the giant man’s attention was drawn behind them. When Houdini heard screeching metal he knew why.
Houdini glanced back only long enough to see the damaged leg of the water tower crumple and give way. The top-heavy tower was falling over, and it was headed straight for them.
He floored the engine and swerved around Atlas. As soon as they reached the corner of the building, Houdini whipped the car to the left as hard as he could. The car fishtailed, but he held the wheel tight and managed to straighten it out.
The high-pitched screech of metal was nearly deafening. Houdini turned to see Atlas running away from the tower, but there wasn’t enough time for him to escape. The tank of the tower crashed down upon him.
The blast that followed reminded Houdini of the news reels he had seen showing bombs dropping during the Great War. There was a rush of wind as water and shrapnel exploded against the ground. The ground shook as if the moon had crashed into the Earth.
“Harry, drive!” Chaplin said.
Houdini was so entranced by the havoc he barely saw the tidal wave rushing toward them. He turned the truck away from the site of impact and drove, but the water caught up to them and swept the truck up off the ground. Houdini lost all control of the vehicle and soon they were spinning in a circle at the whim of the water.
The ride lasted only half a minute as the water spread and dissipated. They found themselves turned forward again just as the last wave of water lapped against one of the guard posts at the rear exit. A guard stood inside, petrified as the truck glided toward him. Houdini pressed the brake, but the car slowed of its own volition, its front bumper tapping gently against the guard post.
Houdini and Chaplin hopped out of the truck into ankle-deep water. The guard watched them, dumbstruck.
“One of your toilets overflowed,” Chaplin said. “You should check that out.”
Houdini helped Bess out of the truck and the three sloshed past the guard and out of MGM Studios. They broke into a full run as soon as they hit the sidewalk.
“ARE YOU SURE you want to do this?”
Houdini nodded. There was no time to waste.
“That water tower fell right on him,” Chaplin said. “If the impact didn’t kill him, he surely drowned.”
Houdini opened the door to the black Tin Lizzie parked in Chaplin’s circular driveway. His mansion cast a shadow over them, hiding a low-hanging moon in the west.
“The one thing I’m learning is not to underestimate any of us,” Houdini said. “Including Atlas. And even if he is gone, we don’t know what has happened to that little beast.”
“His furry sidekick gives me the willies,” Chaplin said. “Whatever it is.”
Houdini got in and slammed the car door. In the dead quiet of Beverly Hills, it sounded loud enough to wake the entire city. Bess was already in the car, silent since they left the backlot.
“And you’re sure about the Eye?” Chaplin asked.
Houdini felt for it under his shirt. It was becoming a habit.
“I’ll hold onto it until we figure out what to do with it. Or until you find someone who can destroy it. You’ll promise to look?”
Chaplin winked and flashed a smile.
“I’ll talk to Mary and Doug after things have cooled down.”
According to Pope Benedict, the Eye couldn’t be destroyed—not by normal means, at least. But there were other great talents out there in the world; Houdini wondered if one of them might have the skill to unmake it.
The magician had pressed his friend for help on their car ride back to Chaplin’s mansion. Under the ruse of scouting for new actors and film locations, Chaplin agreed to use United Artists as a front to hunt for other Burdens. Between Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks, they had both access and funds unparalleled by anyone in the world. If anyone had a shot at finding the others, it was United Artists.
Houdini and Chaplin embraced.
“Good to see you, old friend,” Chaplin said.
Houdini turned the ignition and the car sputtered to life, but not without a fight. It was Chaplin’s first purchase after coming to Hollywood, an old jalopy Houdini doubted would make it over the state line.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Houdini,” Chaplin said, leaning into the car and gently kissing her cheek. “Your husband, he loves you more than magic.”
Bess’s mouth twitched but she said nothing.
The two drove in silence. After a number of confusing turns, they found themselves headed east out of the city on the National Old Trails Road. For the first few hours it was a well-paved road with two lanes in each direction. At some point in the night it became one lane, and as the sun rose in front of them, they found themselves on a gravel road somewhere between Barstow and Needles.
Still Bess didn’t speak. The towns grew smaller, the gas stations less frequent, and sometime after the state line, the road became dirt. The potholes became too much for the Tin Lizzie, and during the late afternoon the car limped, wheezed and finally died within a mile of Flagstaff.
During the hot and dusty walk into town, Houdini tried to speak to his wife.
“If I could only explain—”
She held up her hand. He fell silent.
Houdini might have tried to follow all of the potential threads of conversation, to find the one that would truly convey the spellbinding pull of Pickford’s beauty, to fully express the depth of his regret and shame. But now his wife could also follow all of the threads of possibility to counter his approach. There would be no end to it. Bess wanted him silent, so he would stay silent.
In Flagstaff, they caught a train bound for the East Coast, and spent their hours in uncomfortable silence. In Dallas, Bess picked up a newspaper and read about Houdini’s stunt at the Egyptian Theatre—the one he hadn’t yet told her about. She gave him a long, disapproving stare. Houdini was happy she looked at him at all.
Also in the newspaper was a report about the destruction at the MGM backlot. Louis B. Mayer had called it a freak accident; the damage was attributed to a faulty leg of the water tower, which had collapsed and destroyed a number of sets. A security guard had been killed.
The rest of the trip was a blur. They got off in New Orleans, then took a train northeast toward Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York.
Once they got off the train at Grand Central, the past couple of weeks sloughed off the magician like a dry, old skin. The Houdinis took the subway to Harlem, and walked the final block to their brownstone. Houdini entered their home first, just to be safe, but everything appeared to be in order.
While Bess showered, Houdini bought groceries and prepared their favorite dish, chicken paprikash with spätzle. He had cut up the dough for the dumplings, and was checking the water to see if it was hot enough when Bess entered the kitchen, her hair still wet.
She took his hand.
“Where’s my kiss?” she asked.
“When you left here two weeks ago you promised two kisses. One for then and one for now. I’m collecting on the second one.”
“But aren’t you furious with me?”
“There will be plenty of time for hurt feelings, for arguments, for accusations of betrayal,” she said. “But not today. Today we are home, and we are safe, and I couldn’t be any happier.”
Houdini pulled her in tight and kissed her like he’d never kissed anyone before. There were beauties out there in the world, but none of them compared to Bess. Bess was his.
“Go,” she said. “Clean up and I’ll finish supper.”
Houdini turned but stopped in the doorway.
“You’re feeling better, then?”
“I’m learning to control your gift,” she said. “To balance the internal and the external. Your talent, it really is magic.”
“You know I don’t believe in the supernatural.”
“Maybe it’s not supernatural,” Bess said. “Maybe it’s simply natural. The way I see it, your gift, and the gifts of the others, are what we all should be, and it’s the rest of humanity that has fallen short.”
Houdini thought his wife even more insightful than himself.
“We should go into hiding for a while,” Houdini said. “And I think we should give up magic. For our safety.”
Bess approached him and held a wooden spoon under his chin, wielding it like a knife.
“We will not hide from the world,” she said. “You have a gift, and we will protect it at all costs—except at the cost of not using it.”
She patted him lightly on the cheek with the spoon.
“We will continue your magic, you and I. Even if it kills us.”
Houdini was never more proud of his wife, and never more frightened for her safety.
When he went upstairs, he found their luggage from the trip laid out on the bed, including the newspaper they had picked up in Dallas. What concerned him about the story of the MGM backlot was not what the article said, but what it didn’t.
There was no mention of a giant man, alive or dead.
CALAMITY JANE POURED a tumbler four fingers high of Gilbert & Parsons Hygienic Whiskey, and thrust it into Harry Houdini’s hand.
“I only drink whiskey,” she said. “Hard liquor for a hard life.”
Jane would bet a gold nugget that there was more alcohol in that one glass than the magician had consumed in his entire twenty-six years of life. Houdini brought the glass to his nose, gave it a whiff, and suppressed a gag.
“You better work on your tolerance, boy,” Jane said. “You may need it some day.”
“I can’t see what for,” Houdini said.
Jane poured herself a glass, downed it, then poured herself another.
“You drink too much,” Petey told her.
Jane ignored the voice in her head and set to loading the rifle on her cot. When she finished, she set it on her lap, pointed at the small wooden door at the front of the train car.
She shared a car with both the cook and the seamstress of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. It was cramped and cluttered, but the colorful blankets Jane had hung for privacy gave it the intimate feel of a child’s play fortress.
Houdini, who was sitting in the only chair, forced himself to take a sip of the whiskey. By his expression it looked as if he’d just swallowed gasoline, which wasn’t too far from the truth. Gilbert & Parsons was what you bought for quantity, not quality.
As the sun set south of Cheyenne, Jane adjusted the flame of the kerosene lamp with her arthritic fingers. She looked out across the flat plains on which she had grown up. This stretch of track was thirty miles from the closest town, and the isolation made her uneasy.
“Four years ago I asked you what your real talent was,” Jane said. “You remember?”
The two hadn’t seen each other since their short encounter in Minnesota. Houdini was still on the vaudeville circuit, but from what Jane heard he had dropped the cards from his act and was gaining a reputation for his dramatic escapes.
She had seen his name on the marquee across the street from the Wild West show. It was a small theater, but Houdini was the headlining act.
“Well?” she asked. “Are you just a great magician, or is there something more?”
He stared into his glass. There was a thoughtfulness in his expression that had been absent a few years ago.
“I spend long hours thinking,” he said. “About magic, life, all sorts of things. The longer I sit the more aware I become of myself. My heartbeat, my breathing, the functions of my body. And then, it’s as if I can see myself from the outside.”
“It’s your Burden,” Jane said. “Your unique gift, and your unique challenge.”
“And you,” Houdini said, “you said you get hunches. About what?”
Jane looked out the window and took in the hard-packed land along the tracks. Her eyes weren’t good, but patches of grass along the tracks appeared to be flattened, as if horses had been there.
“All sorts of stuff,” she said. “Mostly danger.”
Houdini looked up at her, his eyes blazing.
“It’s been getting stronger.”
Jane nodded and twisted uncomfortably on the edge of her cot. Her sciatica was worse every day.
“Petey used to be an occasional whisper,” she said. “Now he damn near runs my life.”
Jane pointed to her head. She didn’t try to explain Petey to anyone, but she didn’t bother to hide him anymore, either. Her intuition had become sharper as the years went on, which meant that Petey became more talkative. It had gotten to where he almost never shut up anymore.
“I listen to Petey whether I’m keen to or not,” she said. “I don’t have much choice.”
The train chugged along rhythmically, the slow heartbeat of a mighty beast. They’d reach Denver by noon the next day, perform two nights of shows plus a matinee at the local vaudeville theaters, then turn right back around for Wyoming, all in under seventy-two hours. It was a grueling schedule on Jane’s broken-down body.
Out the small window, she could see a knoll up ahead, the only change in landscape for miles around.
“Ask him my question,” Petey said.
Jane hocked a mouthful of mucus into a spittoon she kept by her cot.
“Of course I’ll ask him!” she said to the air. “Why do you think I brought him here? And before you lay into me, Imma drink as much as I want.”
Whiskey was the only thing that would shut Petey up. She knew it would kill her sooner rather than later, but it was worth the few minutes of silence.
Houdini sipped his drink in an effort to ignore whatever argument Jane appeared to be having with herself.
“Petey wanted me to ask you a question,” Jane said. “What’s on your gravestone?”
It was a nonsense inquiry, even to Jane herself. But when Petey was insistent about something, it was best to give him what he wanted.
“My gravestone?” Houdini asked. “I don’t know, and I hope not to for some time. Why do you, er, why does he ask?”
“I dunno,” Jane said. “Just a hunch, I s’pose.”
It sounded like a riddle, sleight-of-hand for the mind. Petey had become increasingly inscrutable, as if he didn’t even trust Jane.
“I imagine my gravestone will have my name,” Houdini said. “And below that, perhaps it will say ‘The Greatest Magician on Earth.’”
“I reckon it might.”
She saw little brown specks appear on top of the knoll, like fleas on the back of a dog—except these fleas grew larger as they charged the train. Jane yawned.
“You don’t seem impressed,” Houdini said.
“I think there’s more to you than that,” Jane said. “I get a sense about you. Petey does too.”
Houdini was a showman, but Jane could tell he took little pleasure in the attention. He performed for the love of magic itself. There was something pure in his motivations, something virtuous about the man himself.
“Tell him what I told you about magic,” Petey said.
Jane grimaced and brushed him off. She became aware of hooting and hollering from somewhere nearby.
“Petey wants me to tell you that magic is important, but it isn’t the meaning you’re looking for. Magic is the means. Remember that. Magic isn’t the meaning, it’s the means.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Houdini said.
Petey started to explain but Jane downed the rest of her glass. It was enough to confuse him and shut him up.
“Think of it like this,” Jane said. “Magic is a train. It will get you places. But the destination is never the train itself.”
“Then what is my destination?” Houdini asked.
The car door burst open and a filthy man, eyes wild with fear and excitement, pointed his gun at the magician. Jane pulled the trigger on the rifle that was already aimed at his chest. The crack of her firearm bounced off the walls, drowning out the screams of the cook and seamstress in the back half of the car. The man staggered from the impact, hit the wall behind him, and died before his body hit the floor.
“You must protect your talent, and cultivate it,” she said, casually popping the bullet casing out of the rifle. “Use it, but don’t boast about it. Men would kill for talent like yours. Don’t you ever let them.”
Houdini had his hands over his head, cowering into his seat. Eventually the magician mustered the courage to look up. He took in the dead man, a six-shooter in one hand and a burlap sack in the other.
Jane nodded. It was the reason she had invited Houdini for a drink when she heard he had hitched a ride on the train. A city slicker like him, clean cut in a nice suit, would get fleeced by a gang of outlaws, and probably killed. Jane had a hunch it was her duty to protect the young magician, even if she didn’t quite know why.
“Maybe you should give some more thought to that gravestone,” Jane said. “You never know when you’re going to need it.”
Houdini couldn’t tear his eyes away from the robber.
“And you?” he asked, his voice still shaky. “What will yours say?”
“That’s easy,” she said. “It’ll say, ‘Here lies Calamity Jane. Most of her stories were hogwash, but the best ones were true.’”
She drank straight from the bottle.
“I reckon I’ve lived enough stories to make myself a legend,” she said. “I got a hunch you’ll have your share of stories too. Maybe next time we meet you’ll have some to tell me.”
“I’d like that,” Houdini said.
“You’ll never see him again,” Petey said. “You’ll be dead. I told you, you drink too much.”
Jane paused. A smile broke out across her face. She let out a long, rasping laugh before erupting into a painful fit of coughing.
“Are you all right?” Houdini asked.
Jane took another swig from her bottle and knocked hard on the side of her head, right on the spot where that incessant voice lived.
“I’ve never been better.”
IF MAGIC WAS Houdini’s train, it had derailed.
He and Bess holed up in their cabin in Vermont for the next three months, weathering a blizzard of bad press. There were no shows for the magician to do because of the fiasco in Hollywood. Fairbanks had painted Houdini as old and incompetent, and the large theaters that once welcomed the magician now found excuses not to book him.
The blackballing ultimately worked out in the magician’s favor. Smaller, less picky venues were still glad to host the world-renowned entertainer, and they required little advance notice for their shows. Often ads in local newspapers would appear only the day before a show, if at all. Sometimes the performances were simply word of mouth.
In this way, Houdini and Bess traveled the Northeast, performing in small towns at vaudeville halls they would have scoffed at a year ago. They always stayed under false names, and never disclosed their hotel to anyone, not even the theater owner or stage manger.
During those days, Houdini’s act wasn’t needlessly risky. He revived some of his classic escapes, and even returned to some of the intricate sleight-of-hand tricks he had been forced to abandon in the larger venues. His illusions were as complex as ever, but they lacked the flamboyance he once felt pressured to give an audience. The magic he performed was for himself, not for the insatiable expectations of others.
Houdini heard whispers that he had lost his touch, that he was afraid to perform anything dangerous after his failed stunt in Hollywood. He let the comments pass over his head like harmless wisps of clouds. During the Hangman’s Death, he had very nearly died, and by no fault of his own. Bess would have found out the next day when she picked up the morning newspaper. What an awful way to discover your husband’s death.
What is worth dying for? Bess, and only Bess.
He no longer felt the need to push himself to the brink for the amusement of others. Whatever legacy he left in magic, Houdini wanted his greatest legacy to be his devotion to his wife. If magic was the means, Bess was the meaning. As a precaution for her safety, Houdini insisted that Bess wear the Ring of the Fisherman whenever she wasn’t on stage assisting him. She scoffed the first few times but eventually gave in.
Despite their public shows, they weren’t careless; Houdini became as detail-oriented over security as he was about his performance. He left long lists of written demands for the stage manager the day before a show—doors to be locked, windows to be secured, doormen to be posted at all entrances. Every evening when he entered his dressing room, he checked to make sure a fresh white carnation had been placed on his vanity. Once, in Punxsutawney, when it had not, he grabbed Bess and led her out.
“No show,” Houdini told the stage manager as they stomped through the foyer.
“We have to!” the frazzled man said. “We have guests arriving in thirty minutes!”
“You made promises…” Houdini said.
He walked to a side door that led to an alley. He pushed it, and it opened, unlocked. Furthermore, there was no doorman there to guard it.
“…That you didn’t keep.”
“Some minor oversights,” the manager stammered. “We meant to do them.”
“An honest ‘no’ is safer than a dubious ‘yes.’”
The magician and his wife exited the theater.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“The carnation,” Houdini said. “It’s the last to-do item on my checklist. If it isn’t there, then I can’t count on any other item being completed.”
The Houdinis left that town and never returned.
After months in hiding, and the subsequent months on the road, furtively hopping from town to town, Houdini began to feel that life could start getting back to normal. It had been more than a year since his trip to Hollywood, and large venues were now extending invitations to perform after public memory had faded. For the first time since his visit to California, he allowed himself to hope that perhaps Atlas really had been killed.
Charlie Chaplin had done as he had promised, and had convinced Pickford and Fairbanks to help in the search for a Burden who might be able to destroy the Eye. Last Houdini heard, Chaplin was in Texas scouting out a young engineer who had an unusually keen sense of how machines and other processes worked.
Of Pickford and Fairbanks, Houdini heard nothing.
During long periods of travel, Houdini took the opportunity to put his expertise down on paper. His book, Houdini on Magic, would reveal all of his illusions, would explain every sleight-of-hand movement and detail every escape. Houdini decided that his secrets would not go to the grave with him in the manner of so many magicians before him. If his illusions revealed raised up a generation of magicians more talented than he, all the better. He would live his life with an open hand, not a closed fist.
One late October evening in Montreal, Canada, the tap of his typewriter was interrupted by a soft rap at the door. Houdini and his wife were staying down the street from the Imperial Theatre on Bleury Street, in a posh hotel with glittery chandeliers and floor mosaics so intricate the tiles looked as if they had been laid in by elves with forceps.
The hotel commissionaire announced himself, and Houdini answered the door. The man’s cheeks were ruddy from being out in the biting autumn wind. He held a cream-colored envelope in his hand.
“This came for you by air mail,” he said. “It must be urgent.”
Houdini took the letter and tipped the young man generously. The magician had all of his mail delivered to a post office box, then had the commissionaire stop by each evening to pick it up.
The piece of mail was made out to him, with no return address. He opened it up and read:
I’ve been trying to contact you, but you are as elusive as one might expect of an escape artist. I must speak to you about rather urgent matters. It concerns something I have. Something very valuable.
Please extend your show one extra day. I am on my way and will find you at the theater.
It was the first time he had heard anything from Mary Pickford since he left Hollywood. He had not expected the two to ever cross paths again.
What could she want of me?
He pocketed the note and made a call to the theater. Because of Halloween the next night, there was nothing on the schedule; the owner said he’d be delighted to have Houdini perform one more evening. Houdini thanked him and hung up.
Bess appeared from the bathroom dressed for the celebratory dinner they always had on their last night in a city. She wore a long black skirt and a high-necked white blouse that was intricately embroidered with tiny pearl beads. She looked stunning.
“Mrs. Houdini, I’ve extended the show by one night.”
She eyed him curiously.
“That’s against the precautions you established for yourself.”
“I know,” he said. They never stayed more than three days in any location. “We have a special request.”
She considered this, nodded, then took his arm.
“Let’s have a little bit of wine tonight,” she said. “Before we return to the States.”
Bess drank as infrequently as Houdini, which meant only one thing.
She’s uneasy with this. As she should be.
If only Houdini could see the possibilities more than an hour or so into the future. He’d know whether this was a necessary exception, or a foolish risk.
“Very well,” Houdini said. “A final drink.”
Tonight, or forever?
THE NEXT NIGHT, the two of them walked over to the theater at dusk, and Houdini found himself scanning the streets for the woman with the golden curls. He didn’t see her, but then he probably wouldn’t anyway; everyone was bundled up head-to-toe against the first snow flurry of the season.
At the theater, doormen were posted at every entrance as usual. The stage manager, Marcel, had taken special care after he had heard about Houdini storming out of another theater. The magician and his wife went to his dressing room to change into their costumes and rehearse, even though their act was as automatic and natural as brushing their teeth.
The door was locked, and Houdini opened it with his key. When he entered, he looked by instinct to the white carnation on the vanity.
It was gone.
He opened the door further and saw a woman seated in the room’s only armchair, twirling the carnation in-between her fingers. She stood. She was dressed all in black, including a black hat and black veil that completely covered her face.
“Mr. Houdini,” she said.
He noticed that she was clutching something to her chest, a lump covered by her black shawl.
The magician turned to his wife.
“Mrs. Houdini, this is Mary Pickford.”
Houdini had no idea how his wife would react. He had, over the past year, dropped in pieces of the puzzle until his wife saw the entire picture of his time in Hollywood.
Bess smiled and bowed graciously.
“What a pleasure it is to meet you,” Bess said. “You must have come here in a hurry. You have no winter jacket. Here.”
Houdini watched his wife remove her own coat to give to the woman at the heart of his indiscretion.
I don’t deserve this lovely woman.
“You poor thing,” Bess said. “You’re shivering.”
As Bess wrapped the coat around her, there was a sharp and sudden cry. Bess backed away, confused. It hadn’t come from Pickford. Or had it?
The woman pulled the dark blanket off from the thing she was clutching.
It was a child.
He was about five months old, with an expression that was solemn but thoughtful. Everything about him echoed Mary Pickford: the round face, the high cheekbones, even the sparse mop of golden curls on his head, fine as cornsilk. There was only one part of him that was clearly not Pickford’s—the dark, piercing eyes.
Those indisputably belonged to Houdini.
Bess looked at her husband. Houdini looked at her. She turned back to Pickford.
“Let’s see if I can find you some hot tea.”
Her voice was tight and unsteady, a tightrope walk across her vocal chords.
Bess, you’re leaving us to talk alone.
“Thank you,” Pickford said.
She left. Houdini stared at the boy a long while in silence.
“Do you want to hold him?” Pickford asked.
Houdini nodded vaguely. None of it seemed real. The magician hung his jacket on the wooden chair at the vanity, then took the boy in his arms. He was heavier than Houdini expected. The child smelled of talcum powder and lavender. When Houdini thought of Samuel, their imaginary son, he never imagined how his child would smell.
“I can’t,” Houdini blurted out. “I mean, I never thought I could. Bess and I tried for years.”
Houdini became aware of a torrent of sadness running through him, like an underground river he had only just discovered. How had he not been aware of it sooner? How could he not know what his heart so truly desired? Even the most introspective man, he realized, could hide things from himself.
His life of magic had led him to this specific point in time, but it was ultimately a job, not a legacy. It was meaningless compared to the little boy cradled in his arms.
Magic is the means.
Tears escaped his eyes. Joy and grief and saline.
Houdini heard a kind of humming coming from the boy. Rather, he felt humming. It was like vibrations of music but without the music itself. Houdini chalked it up to being emotionally overloaded. He collected himself.
“What’s his name?” Houdini asked.
“Hennessey. It was my mother’s maiden name.”
“Hennessey? What an awful name. Do the poor boy a favor and change it before he enters grade school.”
The baby started to cry, as if embarrassed by his own name. Pickford took him back and sat down in the armchair.
“I should have told you sooner, but I couldn’t track you down with all of your traveling,” she said. “And I didn’t want to complicate things for you, either. But I had to come now. He’s in danger.”
“From whom? Fairbanks?”
“Did he know?” Houdini asked.
“As quickly as you knew,” she said. “Those eyes, those intense, dark eyes. There’s no mistaking him.”
“What did he say?”
“Not much,” Pickford said, “but he broke a lot of things that day. He tried to live with the child, for months he did, but it drove him to madness. He left this week to film a movie on location, and told me the boy had to be gone by the time he returned. I don’t blame him. It’s my fault.”
Houdini pulled out the wooden chair and sat on it.
“What are you saying?” Houdini asked. “That you want me to…”
He stared at her black veil, and the strangeness of it suddenly struck him.
“What’s wrong? Is someone dead?”
“No, it’s just… I’m not myself these days. Or perhaps I’m more myself. I don’t know.”
Houdini stood and walked over to her. He touched the edges of her veil.
He pulled it up, slowly, and gasped at what he saw.
What has happened to her face?
She hurriedly pulled the veil back down.
“The boy,” she said, either in response to his thought or to change the conversation. She put him back into Houdini’s arms. The child fussed a bit but didn’t cry.
“I took him to get his first vaccination,” she said as she reached into her purse. She removed a small pin, then grabbed the boy’s hand and pricked his finger.
Immediately he began wailing.
“Shh, my darling,” she said to the boy. And then to Houdini: “Watch.”
She squeezed his finger and out oozed a drop of blood—if it could be called blood at all. It was unlike any Houdini had ever seen.
“He’s ill,” Houdini said.
“I don’t believe so,” Pickford said. “I snatched him from the doctors before they could prod at him and rushed home. Douglas wouldn’t listen so I went to Charlie. I showed him, and—”
The child’s wails nearly drowned Pickford out.
“Quiet, my boy,” Houdini said. “It’s not so bad.”
He kissed the boy’s pricked fingertip, then jolted. It felt as if he had just stuck his lips against an electrical outlet. The feeling reminded him of the one time he had used the Eye on Bess. In his mouth he could feel the tiny drop of blood that had touched his lips.
He swallowed. It entered his system, and he could feel it moving through his body, a distinct and separate entity, as if it had a life of its own. Others without his gift for introspection would never notice, but Houdini could tell it was something unique.
Houdini searched himself as he followed the path of the blood, and then noticed something quite odd. As he scanned his body, his range extended outside of his skin. He followed the edges of his ability, and was surprised to become aware of the heartbeat of the boy. Houdini could feel the child’s breath, sense the steady flow of his blood. It was as if the boy’s body were his own. The magician focused and reached past the boy, surprised to discover Pickford’s heartbeat within his range too. He could sense her motivations as well—not as distinct thoughts, but as a jumble of pictures, ideas, feelings, and memories. It was like looking at a blurry photograph. This was the first time he had ever been able to see inside someone else, and he realized that Pickford, and probably the rest of the world, lacked the internal clarity and order that he had. It was like walking unannounced into someone’s messy apartment.
The magician dug into Pickford’s psyche a bit more. He felt guilty, as if going through someone’s underwear drawer. What he discovered pleased him: He found a deep, passionate love for Douglas Fairbanks embedded deep within her. It was a strained, conflicted love, but it was real. And for Houdini himself he found fondness and trust, but no love.
“You’re right,” Houdini said. “He’s special. He’s powerful.”
Perhaps more powerful than Newton’s Eye.
He followed the threads of possibility, wondering if they would go further while in the presence of this boy. Perhaps he’d be able to see days, even months down the lines of options.
But when he followed the first thread, he saw only blackness, like a sensory deprivation chamber, with no sound and no feeling. It was sudden, like a radio losing power. He then followed the next thread of possibility; it was the same, abrupt darkness and nothingness. And the third and fourth and fifth. Every thread followed a different path, but each ended in the exact same place.
The magician gasped. He understood. Within the next half hour, every possibility converged at only one outcome.
But why, and how?
Houdini reached once more to see how far his range of introspection would go. It left the dressing room, flowed down the hall and up the ramp toward the audience. Houdini became aware of two heartbeats making their way backstage. One was a tiny shriveled thing, hardly stronger than a mouse’s. The other was a robust, bear-sized heartbeat that pounded in Houdini’s head like a war drum.
The magician focused on the owner of that massive heart, and he sensed a single-minded desire. The distance made it difficult, but he tried to discern the intention, the goal. It was for a person. No, it was for a thing. An object. A tool.
Houdini shot up.
“Atlas is here.”
BESS WALKED IN with a tray of tea.
“Shut the door!”
It was too late for any of them to make a break for it down the hall. The dressing room had no windows and no other exits. It was little more than an oversized broom closet. There would be no escape.
Houdini scanned the room frantically, for what he didn’t know. A weapon? Something to call for help? There was nothing; only some stage makeup, an assortment of handcuffs and picks, and the wardrobe that held his costumes.
He hoisted the child up and put him in Pickford’s arms.
“We have to hide you.”
Bess closed her eyes silently for a moment.
“Atlas,” she said.
Houdini nodded. He opened the wardrobe and lifted all of the clothes off the hangers, lying the stack over the back of a chair.
“He wants the Eye, but he’ll hurt you both if he sees you. And the boy…”
If being around the boy had such an effect on his talent, Houdini could only wonder what he might do for the others.
“Whatever you do,” he told Pickford, “You can’t let him have the boy. Hide him. Send him far away. Whatever you have to do.”
He felt for a hidden latch at the back of the wardrobe. It was a trick piece that he used to have in his show, but it was broken and he hadn’t gotten around to fixing it.
“Get in!” he said.
He stuffed all three of them in the shallow space designed for only one person. When he tried to close the false back, it popped open again. The latch was faulty and the door tended to swing open of its own accord. Bess leaned out.
Her eyes glowed with fear. He didn’t want to know what she had seen down her own threads of possibility.
“Two kisses, darling,” she said. “One for now and one for later.”
Houdini leaned in and kissed his wife fiercely.
“I’ll wait,” she said. “For my second kiss.”
“You’ll get it,” Houdini said. “I promise.”
In this life or the next.
There was a knock at the door of the dressing room.
“Coming!” Houdini said.
He was about to shut it again when he had a thought. He pulled the Eye off from around his neck and hung it on Pickford’s.
“Hide it well, and tell no one. Not your husband, not Chaplin. No one. The fewer who know the better.”
Down every thread of possibility, he had seen Atlas get the Eye. By giving it to Pickford, it left his future. He couldn’t tell what would happen to it from that point on.
“Get Mrs. Pickford out of here and call the police,” he told Bess.
There was a pounding at the door this time.
“Just changing my trousers!”
He took one last look at Bess, then the boy. Staring at those brooding eyes, a thought struck him.
“Destiny!” he whispered. “He’s my reason for being in Hollywood. I know it!”
He shut the panel and replaced the clothes, praying the latch held.
The dressing room door burst off its hinges, and Houdini ducked to avoid the flying door. There, at the entrance, stood Atlas. It felt like déjà vu.
“I don’t have it,” Houdini said.
The man ducked and angled his torso to fit through the doorway. When he stood, his body filled the space. He looked around as if the Eye would be lying about somewhere.
“Where is it, then?”
“After our encounter, I wanted nothing to do with it,” Houdini said. “I threw it into the Hudson River.”
The giant man picked through objects on the vanity, touching Bess’s make-up brushes with a gentleness that belied his size.
Houdini saw movement in the doorway. From behind Atlas, the dark beast scurried into the room. For the first time Houdini got a good look at it. It wasn’t a monster, but a person—someone either very small or hunched over. The person was wearing a cloak and hood made of long, dark, luxurious hair—human hair.
“Check his jacket,” Atlas said.
A white, bony hand appeared from the folds of the hairy cloak and began to rifle through the jacket lying on the chair. Atlas approached Houdini and felt his pants pockets. He ripped the top button of Houdini’s shirt to see if the Eye was around his neck.
“If you did throw it away,” Atlas said, “Then there would be no reason for me to chase you down.”
“Exactly,” Houdini said.
“Then there would be no reason for you to live on the run, which is what you have been doing for the past year. We only caught up to you this time because you stayed an extra day.”
He grabbed Houdini by the throat, his entire hand nearly wrapping around the magician’s neck, and lifted him off the ground.
“You must have the Eye. A man hides only when he has something to hide.”
“Don’t kill him,” a whisper of a voice said. It came from the person in the cloak. “Not yet. Here.”
The shriveled white hand held up Pickford’s letter from yesterday. Atlas took the note and read it.
“Perhaps she has it, then,” the beast said.
“Who is she?” Atlas asked.
Houdini decided that he wouldn’t say another word for fear of slipping up and giving Pickford away. Atlas had never seen them together in Hollywood; there was nothing publicly linking them together. She would be safe, if only she and the boy could get out of the room.
I have to create a distraction.
Houdini removed the longest pick from his sleeve and stabbed at the giant man’s face. It was a futile effort. Atlas flicked the magician aside like a twig. Houdini flew against the vanity mirror, shattering it into pieces. The shelf below it collapsed under Houdini’s weight, and he fell to the floor. There were cuts on his face and his wrist felt broken.
Houdini saw that Bess’s jewelry box had tumbled open. There, scattered about the floor with inexpensive earrings, barrettes, and necklaces, was the Ring of the Fisherman. Houdini covered it with his left hand as he rolled over, and with his other hand covered a plain gold chain much like the one that held the Eye. He kept them pinched in the palms of his hand as he stood. To others, it would look as if he held nothing.
Atlas closed his hands into boulder-sized fists.
A gasp escaped from the wardrobe. Houdini coughed to cover it, but Atlas cocked his head. Houdini had to distract him.
“Tell me, Mr. Atlas, what’s your legacy going to be?”
Atlas walked over to the wardrobe and looked behind it.
“Once you have the Eye, and use it however you intend—what are you hoping to leave to the world?”
Atlas peered inside. Houdini prayed to anyone who would listen that the latch would stay shut.
Don’t move, my son. Don’t say a word.
The giant man rummaged through the clothes until he came to the back wall. He looked at it a moment, then threw the door shut.
“I’ll leave a lesson,” Atlas said. “Strip away a man’s fancy clothes, his money, his titles and connections, and at our very core, we have only our strength to rely on. Humanity’s true leaders are the strong.”
There was a creaking sound from the wardrobe. Atlas looked back, and stepped toward it again.
Everything I love is in that wooden box.
“Atlas!” Houdini said.
He held up a loose fist and let the gold chain dangle out of it. Misdirection at its simplest.
“If you want the Eye, you’ll have to wait until my show is over. You’ve never seen my disappearing act, have you?”
Houdini slipped on the Ring of the Fisherman. Atlas’s big brows furrowed in confusion as he tried to zero in on the magician’s location.
The dark beast was blocking the doorway, so Houdini thrust it aside. The tiny being was so light and fragile it went tumbling over and smashed into the wall. The magician then darted out of the room, making loud footsteps as he ran.
Houdini didn’t need to look behind him to see if Atlas was following. The thunder of footsteps and the explosion of breaking walls was evidence enough.
HOUDINI SPED PAST Marcel, the stage manager.
“Houdini, is that you?” Marcel said, looking around. “The show is starting. Come on!”
The magician had been running for the exit, but Marcel gave him an idea.
Houdini stopped in his tracks and turned sharply left. He stuffed the gold chain into his pants pocket and jumped up the five steps onto the stage behind the curtain. A live orchestra was finishing the last few bars of “Charleston,” the song meant to cue him on. The curtains burst open: spotlights blinded the magician and applause deafened him. This was typically his element, but right now the external stimulation made it difficult to think.
I have to buy as much time as possible.
The applause died as people looked around at the seemingly empty stage. Houdini slipped off the Ring of the Fisherman and suddenly appeared. There were gasps and then more applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said as loudly as possible, “thank you for coming. Merci.”
Atlas stormed onto the stage, every footstep cracking the wooden floor below.
“Tonight we have a special guest—a strongman!”
Atlas eyed the crowd uncomfortably. This was what Houdini had hoped for. Enough uncertainty to make the giant man pause.
“Magic is the art of manipulating the eye. A good magician directs the audience where to look. And where not to.”
Houdini stepped toward Atlas, who cocked his arm. The magician slipped on the ring and ducked just as Atlas took a wild swing at him. Gasps and applause from the crowd.
“In this way, magic is much like life,” Houdini said, sneaking quietly across the stage toward a table of handcuffs. He knew people had a sense of him on stage, but they couldn’t quite get their eyes to look in the right place.
“People will distract you, trying to get you to look one way when, really, you should be looking another.”
He picked up a pair of handcuffs, which to the audience must have appeared to be levitating. Atlas ran for the table and smashed it in half with one fist. Houdini quietly stepped out of the way.
“If there’s one escape I could teach you, it would be to escape what the world tells you is important, and instead look for what really matters.”
At the back of the audience, Houdini saw two figures, barely more than shadows, sneaking their way toward the front door. He instantly recognized the outline of Bess in front, guiding Pickford with a sleepy little lump against her chest.
“Ask yourself, what is worth dying for? Your work? Your status? Your wealth? All of those things die off when you do, maybe sooner.”
Bess and Pickford stopped a moment to watch the stage.
Run, my dear wife! Run and call the police!
“I never believed in the supernatural, but I now believe there is magic. Magic in the love of friends and family. Magic in what you would do to protect them. When your love for someone transforms them for the better, it’s the greatest magic in the world.”
Atlas lunged toward Houdini’s voice, quicker than the magician expected. Houdini jumped to escape him, but Atlas’s hand clipped his shoulder. Houdini landed hard, and the ring came tumbling off his finger. It bounced and then rolled to the front edge of the stage, about to fall into the orchestra pit.
The giant man grabbed Houdini by the front of the shirt and pulled him to his feet.
“There is no power in magic,” Atlas said. “But power itself is rather magical.”
He pulled Houdini close to him.
“I’ve heard you brag that you can withstand the punch of any man,” Atlas said. “Is that true?”
Before Houdini could react Atlas walloped him in the stomach with massive force. Houdini flew across the stage and crashed into a stone column at the far end. Sharp, burning pain shot up and down his body. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t even think about anything except the fiery bolts of pain.
Houdini grabbed the decorative ridges in the column and pulled himself to standing.
“It’s true,” he said, coughing up blood. “Only you didn’t give me the chance to brace myself.”
Houdini took a rasping breath and looked inward. Three of his vertebra were fractured and the nerves going to one of his legs were damaged. There was a soft, squishy mass above his bladder that he had trouble identifying until he realized it was what remained of his appendix. His pancreas had been bruised and a section of his small intestine had been severed clean in half. Houdini gingerly touched a bulge that was forming to the side of his belly button. There was massive internal bleeding.
In short, I am dying.
He collapsed onto his hands and knees. Somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, he heard people in the audience murmuring to themselves in concern. His head was spinning with nausea and the corners of his sight had gone dark. Through his blurry vision, he saw the Ring of the Fisherman, teetering on the front edge of the stage.
A voice came to him. Calamity Jane. She had said something to Houdini so many years ago. What was it?
Men would kill for talent like yours. Don’t you ever let them.
Why it was so important, Houdini didn’t know. He pulled the gold chain from his pocket and bunched it into a ball.
“You win, Atlas,” he said.
He stood, and with as much strength as he could muster, he threw the chain into the dark recesses of the back stage. Atlas scrambled for it.
Houdini stumbled over to the ring. He flipped open the cap and pulled out the white tablet Pope Benedict had told him about. He stuck it on his tongue. It was unbearably bitter, but he forced himself to swallow.
Dark must die.
He didn’t know what the chemical was, but he could tell it was powerful, and that it would work quickly to finish him—much faster than Atlas’s blow to his stomach. The ring tumbled from his grasp and clattered into the orchestra pit.
When Houdini looked up, he saw that Bess and Pickford were gone. They were safe. He had bought them enough time to escape. There was a faint sound of sirens in the distance. Houdini doubted the police could subdue Atlas, but they would delay him even further. They would buy more time.
Once Atlas discovered Houdini’s ruse, would he chase Mary Pickford down, or was her identity still safe? And what would she do with the boy? If the giant man continued to hunt her, it would be too dangerous to have him with her. He could only imagine how Atlas might use him, what his unexplainable power might do for the other Burdens. Pickford needed to send him away. But could she bear to part with him?
As he observed his dying pulse pumping the poison through his body, he noticed his son’s strange drop of blood still inside him. His body had not absorbed it; rather, it resided there, comfortable and self-sustained, as if it were its own entity.
Houdini focused all of his gift on that one drop, every last bit of energy he had.
I love you, my son. The sacrifice is worth it.
He held onto that drop in his mind, cradling it as if it were the boy itself. There was a calmness in knowing there was nothing left for Houdini to do but die. He had done his job. He had left his magic to the world. And he had discovered his true legacy.
A life of adventure doesn’t begin until we take risks.
That has been a defining mantra of the past year for me. It has guided me into new relationships and led me to new cities. It has given me the courage to pursue my writing while taming the fears over finances and job stability. It has helped me live the past year with an open hand instead of a closed fist.
Thank you to my parents and sister for supporting my pursuit of adventure. It’s the enduring love of family that gives us the strength to adventure in the first place. Love is home, and it’s easier to strike out into the unknown when we have a home to which we can return.
Thank you to Tino for being my partner in the adventure. And for also being the adventure itself. Change is not easy, and growth even harder. You push me to grow every day, and I am grateful for it (usually in retrospect, after I moan and groan about it).
Thanks to the Burbank Writers Group for their feedback on early drafts of this novella. Thanks to my proofreaders (Tino, Dyanne, and Ben) my cover designer (Tamara) and my illustrator (Francesca). And thanks to everyone who read this book in advance and gave feedback.
If you’ve enjoyed this book, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. There’s more adventure to come. If we’re open to it, there always will be.
EVEN THE SUN was conspiring against Nina Beauregard, she was sure of it. It bore down upon her face like a celestial spotlight, revealing every laugh line, every forehead crease, every sunspot that her Yardley’s English face cream had promised to remove.
What do the British know about sun?
She stepped out of the car and pulled on a hat with a brim so wide it could have been a flying saucer. It hid her from the daylight and, she liked to tell herself, the jealous eyes of pedestrians on Hollywood Boulevard.
The harsh sunlight reminded her of that fateful screen test she had done for Mr. Selznick—the one where the gaffer had neglected to use a light filter to smooth out her face. He had done it on purpose, she was convinced, because he favored Vivien Leigh for the role. That was why Beauregard had lost what was bound to become the greatest role in 1930s cinema—that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
“If you wouldn’t mind.”
The man who had driven her handed her a pair of shaded glasses. They looked like the typical sunglasses that were becoming the fashion, but when she put them on they completely blocked her vision. There were even small flaps on the sides that prevented a peripheral view.
The driver took her arm in his to guide her down the sidewalk.
“If I may.”
You certainly may.
Although he was older, he was one of the most attractive men Beauregard had ever met. His strong jawline, his salt-and-pepper hair, his piercing blue eyes—she couldn’t believe he was merely someone’s help. He should have been a star, like her.
They walked two or three blocks, though in which direction Beauregard couldn’t tell; the man took a number of sudden turns that must have been intended to confuse her. After walking across some uneven pavement, he placed Beauregard with her back against a concrete wall and told her to wait. The wall was hot against her back.
She was sweating heavily underneath the green, long-sleeve crepe gown, but she didn’t show her arms in public anymore. It was all because of that wretched screen test with Mr. Selznick, when she had taken off her caped coat underneath the hot studio lights, and they had stared at the skin hanging from her arms, jiggling like twin turkey necks. True, Beauregard was more than a decade older than Scarlett O’Hara was described in the book, but she had better experience and better credentials than the rest of the actresses combined. She was from Georgia by way of Louisiana. She had grown up on a plantation. Her grandfather had been a Southern general in the war, for heaven’s sake. If anyone deserved to be Scarlett O’Hara, it was Nina Beauregard.
And instead they give it to an Englishwoman.
She heard the man’s footsteps; it sounded as if he were pacing back and forth. After a few moments there was a sound of scraping stone and the man took her arm again. They walked down a steep flight of stairs, descending into air that was cold and stale. They reached the bottom of what must have been a small room, because Beauregard could hear the sound of her heels echo off nearby walls.
“Please sit,” he said. She obeyed.
Beauregard became aware of someone else in the room, someone standing just inches from her.
“If you do this, there is no going back.”
The voice was a whisper, so soft and neutral that Beauregard couldn’t pick out any defining characteristic. It could have come from a man, a woman, even a child. It might have come from the wind itself.
“There are dangers,” the voice said. “Not in the procedure. In the outcome.”
“Yes, yes,” Beauregard said. “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t already decided. Continue on.”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you simpleminded? I said continue on!”
The driver removed Beauregard’s glasses, but it did her little good. The room was dim, lit by only a single line of tiny glowing lights in the ceiling. The figure in front of her was wearing a baggy white doctor’s coat and white pants. Covered with a surgical mask and hygienic head covering, the person revealed no more information than when Beauregard couldn’t see. Even the doctor’s eyes were covered in strange medical goggles.
“Will it hurt?” Beauregard asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said.
Anything worth doing has a cost.
Beauregard didn’t mind pain for a purpose. She was already suffering from a face that, year after year, looked less like her July 1926 cover in Photoplay. Wasn’t that pain enough? If the results were even half of what the driver promised, she’d gladly swallow a burning coal and wash it down with metal tacks.
The doctor removed a small object from a box. It was polished wood, conical in shape with one end larger than the other. Both ends were flat and had circular pieces of glass set into them, secured by brass bands around the edges. It looked less like a medical device and more like a trinket from an antique store.
“Look into it,” the doctor said, holding up the larger end to Beauregard’s eye. She leaned in and looked into it. There was nothing to see. It was dark, with only a hint of light coming in through the other side.
Beauregard saw the doctor crouching down to be at eye level with her. She heard the doctor remove one side of the goggles.
Then Beauregard saw a blurry eye looking through the other end of the device. When it came into focus she saw that it was big, hazel, and quite attractive. But before she had the chance to consider it, the eye seemed to fracture into a thousand little eyes in a kind of honeycomb pattern. One of those tiny eyes began to glow. It became bright very quickly, and Beauregard had a sense of staring directly into the sun. She was about to pull away when there was a sudden jolt, as if she had been shocked by electricity. Then she did pull away, but apparently that was the end of the procedure because the doctor took away the device and quickly pulled the goggles back on.
“Go,” the doctor said.
Beauregard stood, but she felt disoriented. She had a fading blind spot over one eye and she had the sense of tingling all over, the way a limb falling asleep feels when it starts to wake.
The doctor turned away and said nothing more.
“How do I know it worked?”
The driver, who had waited in the corner, grabbed Beauregard’s elbow and turned her to a wall. He reached for something and flicked on a switch. Lights flooded Beauregard’s face, so bright that she had to close her eyes. She was standing in front of a dressing room mirror lined with bulbs.
She slowly opened her eyes and looked at herself. She saw nothing especially different. Not at first. But after a moment, she saw a quivering near her eye, as if she had developed a small twitch. The crow’s feet around her eyes rippled like a current in the ocean, and then disappeared altogether, smooth as a glassy sea. The same happened to her laugh lines and the creases on her brow.
At first she thought it must be her eyes adjusting to the light, but she next noticed her lips swelling to a fullness she’d never had, not even when she was eighteen and full of curves. Although she had lipstick on, she could see the natural color of her lips deepening. Her eyelids pulled upward like someone retracting a curtain, leaving her fresh-faced and youthful looking. Beauregard’s brittle hair was dyed black, but she could see it becoming full, glossy, and shiny before her eyes, with a fullness even the best stylist in Hollywood had never been able to give her.
She smiled, and saw that even her teeth were whiter and seemed stronger. The front right tooth, which had always been slightly crooked, had straightened itself out.
“It’s a miracle!”
“Is it?” the doctor said, placing the device back in the small box on the table.
Beauregard felt her arms becoming firm and lean in her sleeves. She looked down at her hands. Her brittle nails, which were always breaking these days, were now growing out before her eyes. The skin around her knuckles pulled taut and became smooth. The liver spots on her hand, which she always covered with foundation, appeared to be gone. It wasn’t just her face; it was everywhere.
She needed to get out of that room. She needed to go home, to inspect every inch of her new body in front of a full-length mirror.
If only this had happened before my screen test with Mr. Selznick.
“How much do I pay you?” Beauregard asked. She was prepared for anything, and she would offer anything. Her car. Her home. Her soul.
The doctor turned back to her.
“You fail to understand. You’ve just paid in full.”
The Sixteen Burdens is now available on Amazon in both paperback and digital format.
A Finalist for the JukePop/Black Hills Press Summer Writing Project (2015) Harry Houdini has a talent unlike any other—and it isn't magic. The world's most famous illusionist has escaped death countless times because of his supernatural ability to see potential outcomes. But his secret talent is about to be revealed. When a man on the run seeks out the magician for help from a deadly pursuer, the only outcome Houdini sees is death. Even so, he must perform his most dangerous illusion to lure a supernaturally strong man to Hollywood, where he and a band of other uniquely gifted friends can confront him. It's a risky move that will force Houdini to decide who can live and who must die. An origins story of The Sixteen Burdens, this standalone novella takes place fifteen years before Gray Studebaker finds himself in the middle of the hunt for Newton's Eye. Read Houdini's Last Trick before The Sixteen Burdens to get the full backstory of this series inspired by the gaslight fantasy.