Illusions of Magic

The Illustrated Novel by J.B. Rivard


Illusions Of Magic

J.B. Rivard


Chapter 1

Chicago, 1933

It was quarter past four, yet almost dark. They parked where the curb was broken, and Nick lifted a bag of sabers from behind the seat. He wore a cape over his dark suit and tie. Connie leaned against the passenger door, cocked her leg on the running board and held a handkerchief against her shin. She had tied a scarf over her tight curls, but was still in costume. The right leg of her bloused pants was pulled up over the knee to keep the blood from staining it.

Nick circled to the passenger’s side, dropped the bag and gestured. “How’m I supposed to unload with you leaning on the door?”

Connie stared at him with narrowed eyes, then looked down and studied her injured leg. Nick was once more reminded that her smooth profile seemed stolen from a Greek statue.

“Well?” he said.

“Well, yourself.” Connie wore a light coat over the sequined top that bared her midriff. They’d just returned from playing the matinee at the Minerva. She stopped dabbing her shin and moved away from the door. “It hasn’t occurred to you it hurts?”

Vernon Street was wet from melting snow with water standing in the chuck holes. Some dirty snow still dotted the ground between the sidewalk and the curb. Nick opened the car door and began tugging at the topmost cardboard box in the jumble behind the seat. “I’ve reminded you before. You have to watch out when you slip into that side of the cabinet.”

“But it’s dark. You can’t see—”

“Yeah, of course. Otherwise, the Vanishing Harem Dancer doesn’t vanish. You have to be careful.”

“Careful. And quick.”

“And quick.” He relaxed his grip and looked at her.

“And nimble.”

He gave her a look that said: So? He said, “Yeah.”

A growing tiredness clouded her eyes. “Quick. And nimble, but careful.” Her lips curled into a half-smirk. “In the dark.”

The wound on her leg was bleeding less now. Nick grasped the box again and lifted it, sagging onto the seat with its weight. She moved in and helped him wrestle the box out the door. He grunted as he deposited it next to the front wheel. “Are you complaining?”

“Twelve bucks? It barely buys groceries.” She locked her hands onto her hips. “We’re not making it, Nick.”

 “Things are changing. Have you seen who’s playing the Edgewater Beach? What a fabulous venue. Big bands, comedians, all the front line entertainers. I’m telling you, things are changing. We’re going to be fine.”

Connie tossed her head dismissively. “The highfalutin Edgewater Beach Hotel is for big-time spenders. And with the depression, where are ordinary people getting the money? They don’t have it. They stay home, listen to all these guys on radio. For free.”

“We’re in transition, Connie. You remember when we were playing three nights a week, working on contract? Vaudeville was rich, we lived high. We didn’t notice that things were changing right in front of us. The talkies have cooked vaude’s goose. These movie theater guys, there’s no stopping them. They get the celluloid cheap. Okay, so people pay to see the stars, the big names. But people still love magic—look at Houdini! And Harry Blackstone. He packed ‘em in at the Edgewater.”

“Oh Nick! You’re better than Blackstone ever was. But people aren’t coming to the Minerva to see ‘The Amazing Mr. Z.’ They’re coming to see Frankenstein.”

“Things’ll pick up soon. This depression won’t last. Roosevelt’s been elected. He’ll get us moving.”

“Radio’s becoming very popular. There aren’t magic acts on the radio, Nick.”

Nick’s hand flew up, tossed the shock of black hair that fronted his right forehead. He trained his dark eyes fiercely on Connie in the manner his years of stage training had taught him. She looked away, yanked the scarf from her head and handed it to him. “Can you tie this around my leg?”

He continued the glower for a moment before kneeling and wrapping her wound in the scarf. “You’ll be okay now. Walt told me those pictures of you kneeling on the trunk were beautiful. He said—”

“That guy Walt—he’s a friend?” She’d met Walter, the squat, fat manager of the Minerva, on the day of their performance. He smelled bad, chewed endlessly on garlic while claiming it was good for digestion. After she complained about the billing, where they were tagged on the theater’s marquee sign as ‘ALSO LIVE MAGIC’ underneath ‘FRANKENSTEIN STARRING BORIS KARLOFF,’ Walter countered by complaining of  their stage gear, saying, “You need all this stuff? Where’m I supposed to find the room?”

Nick stood up. “Walt’s trying to help out. There’s a squeeze on him too, y’know.”

She frowned. “With one booking a month? Nobody can live on one booking a month, Nick. And I won’t be so beautiful in bandages, either.”

A tanker truck roared by on Vernon. Its wheels tossed giant fans of water over their car and beyond. Connie felt mud clods drop on her shoulder. Nick quickly turned his face away, but felt cold wet spots seep onto his skin. Connie glared after the truck, turned and gave Nick a hard look.

Nick removed his cape and shook it in an attempt to shed the water. “Listen. I’ve got a great idea for new patter for the ‘sabers’ thing.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the ‘Maiden Pierced by Seven Sabers’—you don’t need to fix it.” Connie tried to brush off the clods. “Do you care if I’m hurt? Do you care for the way we live? Do you care if I’m freezing out here trying to stop the bleeding? No. All you do is dream of the Edgewater Beach. All you can think of is how to spruce up the patter for the saber illusion.”

“It takes ideas,” Nick said. “I have ideas. Like producing doves, maybe, out of the air. With bigger illusions, it would be more spectacular…”

She turned away sharply. “I’m tired of it, Nick. All of it.”

“Tired of the act, you mean.” He stopped shaking the cape.

“No.” She turned toward him. “I need a life of my own.”

“I know it’s been a tough year,” Nick said. “It’s a strain on both of us, and—”

“I just can’t live with you anymore,” she said, her hands tightening into fists.

“You mean …” Nick’s throat seemed filled with phlegm. “You’re not going to—you’re not running out on me…”

Connie said, “Maybe.” For a reason she did not understand, a tear came to her right eye. “I need—I need to be on my own, Nick.” She brushed the tear away, shivered, relaxed her stance, said, “I’m going to live with Jack and Noddy.”

“Going to Liver Jack’s? Jeez.” For the first time he could remember, Nick Zetner couldn’t find words to describe what was happening. And holding that cape out in front of him felt silly, so he lowered it, gave Connie a wounded look. “I—I just don’t understand.”