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Dark Magic

For an audience attending Peter’s magic show, it was about the experience.

Entering through blackened front doors, patrons stood in an unheated lobby listening to a haunting piano composition by avant-garde composer Philip Glass. No food or drink was sold, although ecofriendly programs were available, provided a ten-dollar donation was made to a homeless shelter which Peter supported.

Fifteen minutes before the curtain rose, ushers clad in black led ticketholders down a long, claustrophobic hallway that had not been painted since the days a sausage-processing plant had occupied the building. The stains on the walls were dark and menacing.

The hallway led to a cozy six-hundred-seat theater designed by the magician himself. The stage had no curtains or visible props, just a handful of shadows produced by muted lighting. The seating was tiered, the chairs plush and comfortable. From the ceiling hung silk screen posters of famous magicians past. Houdini, The Amazing Dunninger, Thurston, Blackstone, and Carter the Great all gazed down.

Once in their seats, patrons were handed a sheet which outlined the house rules. Cell phones and cameras were forbidden, as was any electronic recording. During the show, Peter would invite members of the audience to request tricks from his repertoire which were not on the bill. Whenever possible, he would accommodate them.

The format was unique. Peter wanted the audience to be a part of the performance. To accomplish this, he took chances, and could not always predict how each show would come out. It was risky, yet he’d discovered it was why people came to this unlikely area of the city to see him work. They wanted to be part of something unique, and he was not about to disappoint them.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Anything’s Possible,” Liza’s voice boomed over the PA. “Before we begin to night’s performance, please turn off your cell phones. Remember, no electronic recording of any kind is permitted. Thank you, and enjoy the show.”

The house lights flickered before going dark. The theater grew hushed. A flash of light hit center stage, followed by a curling puff of smoke. Peter stepped through the cloud wearing a perfectly tailored black Italian suit, his black hair worn short and slicked straight back.

“Good evening, and welcome to my show,” he said.

The applause was generous. He was becoming the face of magic to a generation that had grown up social networking on computers, his tricks endlessly discussed on forums, Web sites, and in chat rooms. For many, the scrutiny would have been unbearable; for him, it was simply another opportunity to showcase his art. He stepped to the foot of the stage.

“I was bitten by the magic bug as a boy. I bought my first tricks at the age of eight, and practiced until I could do them right. It took a long time. While I was practicing those tricks, I imagined all the things I would do if magic really was possible. This became the focus of my life: I wanted to turn the things I’d imagined into reality. I suppose you could say that I became a magician well before I was able to perform a single trick. Being a magician started in my imagination, and has never stopped. Please enjoy the show.”

He stepped back. A collective gasp filled the theater. The empty stage had been transformed into an enchanted sanctum filled with beautifully decorated props and apparatus. Like the young magician, they’d simply appeared out of thin air.


For the next hour, Peter did everything a wizard could possibly do. Objects appeared, disappeared, were burned and made whole, elongated, autographed, and vanished, without any visible clue to where they’d gone. A long darning needle was thrust through the magician’s arm, yet produced no blood or visible wound. Eggs became birds; cats turned into barking dogs; the lovely Liza was transformed into a ghost, her essence flying across the stage where it entered into a bottle like a genie. Before the audience’s disbelieving eyes, the bottle grew to giant size, with a giggling Liza curled up inside. A pistol was shown to contain real bullets. It was fired at the young magician, who caught the bullet between his teeth, and spit it on a plate. A member of the audience was asked to write the name of any playing card on a piece of paper. The paper was burned, and the ashes rubbed on the magician’s forearm, causing the name of the card to mysteriously appear. A borrowed dollar bill was given a vigorous shake. More bills appeared, the money floating into lucky hands in the audience.

To close the first half, Peter clapped his hands three times in quick succession, and a puff of smoke enveloped him. When it had cleared, he’d disappeared along with every prop on stage.

The audience cheered. It had been a breathtaking joyride of deception, with each trick building purposefully to the next. Now, it was time for everyone to catch their breath.

The intermission was short. Few people left their seats, content to talk among themselves, and compare notes about what they saw, and didn’t see, to try and make sense of it all.

The second act soon followed. For many, this was what they’d come for, the test of wills and skills that Peter presented to his audiences each night. It started innocently enough, with the young magician standing downstage.

“You just saw my favorite magic,” he began. “Now, it’s your turn. If you have a favorite trick, or something you’ve heard I’ve done, raise your hand, and I’ll try to accommodate you.”

Down in the first row, the five ladies from J. Walter Thompson smiled up at him. He leaned toward the lady celebrating her birthday with his eyebrow upraised. The psychological reaction was impossible to resist, and she raised her hand.

“Your name please,” Peter said.

“Katherine,” the birthday lady replied.

“Today you’re celebrating your birthday, aren’t you, Katherine?”

“Why yes, I am.”

“And this is your twenty-ninth birthday, correct?”

Katherine was several years older than twenty-nine, and grinned.

“What trick would you like me to do, Katherine?”

“Read my future,” she replied.


Reading the future was Peter’s most requested trick. People who believed their future could be predicted were perfect subjects, and through body language and facial expressions, often communicated their innermost feelings and desires to him. He began slowly. “You are currently in the middle of a relationship, but are fearful it won’t work out. Give it time, and you’ll know exactly what course to take. Your job at the advertising agency is going well; there may be a promotion in the works. You own a dog which you adore, and you wish you could spend more time with him. I see many more pets in your future.”

“Oh, my God! You’re so right!” Katherine exclaimed.

He had batted a thousand with Katherine. It hadn’t hurt that her pants were covered in dog hair. Before he could field another request, a voice with a thick British accent rang out.

“Hey! I have a request. Pick me!”

The voice came from the last row. A patron rose from his seat, and the spotlight quickly found him. Peter could not believe his eyes. It was the Grim Reaper, in the flesh.

“Call 911,” he whispered into the mike in his collar.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Liza whispered into his earpiece.

“Just do it.”

“What should I say?”

“Tell them we have a dangerous person here.” To the man he said, “Your name, please?”

“If you were psychic, you’d know that,” the man shouted back.

A murmur rippled through the crowd. Whoever he was, he was about to ruin the show.

“I’m looking through the ticket log right now,” Liza said. “Here we go. The ticket was picked up at will-call. The name used was Wolfe. No first name.”

How appropriate, Peter thought. The Grim Reaper is named Wolfe. He brought his hand to his forehead, and pretended to concentrate.

“Your name is Wolfe,” he announced.

The man in the last row blinked. Score one for the good guys, Peter thought.

“Very good,” his heckler said.

“Thank you. I rather like it myself. Now, what is your request?”

“I have an object in my pocket wrapped in tissue paper. Tell me what it is.”

“Of course. Please come up on the stage.”  

“No. Tell me what it is first.”

Zack appeared in the back of the theater, ready to hustle Wolfe out the door. Peter had something else in mind. If he could get Wolfe on the stage and stall, the police could come and arrest him.

“Sir, for all I know, you could have a dozen objects in your pocket, and want to trick me,” Peter told him. “If you’d like me to tell you what a particular object is, come onto the stage, and I’d be happy to oblige you.”

“You win.”

Wolfe hustled down the aisle, and climbed the stairs to the stage. He was built like a rugby player, and had one scar on his left cheek, another beneath the hairline on his forehead. The horrific image of dead people in Times Square flashed through Peter’s mind. It was him.

“Please take the object from your pocket so we all can see,” Peter said.

Wolfe removed the mystery object from his jacket pocket. It was wrapped in white tissue, and not very large.

“Tell me what it is,” Wolfe said.

The theater had grown deathly still. Peter gazed at the object. He’d been plumbing people’s thoughts since childhood, and didn’t think Wolfe would pose any problems.

“The object is something you always carry with you, isn’t it?” Peter asked. 

“Yes, it is.”

“And you’ve had it for a long time.”

“Right again.”

“Here’s what I want you to do. Form a mental picture of the object in your mind. Imagine yourself wrapping the object in tissue paper earlier to night. Can you do that?”

 “I suppose.”

“Do so, and I’ll read your thoughts, and tell you what the object is.”

Wolfe scrunched up his face and Peter read his mind. A picture filled with shadows began to form. The shadows faded away to reveal Wolfe standing in a dingy hotel room by a dresser. On the dresser lay a leather wallet, a handful of change, a Zippo lighter, a passport, and a worn pocketknife. Wolfe wrapped the pocketknife in tissue, and slipped it into his pocket. The picture disappeared. Peter smiled thinly. He was going to end the show on a high note, Wolfe be damned.

“The object in your hand is a pocketknife,” the young magician said. “Am I right?”

Wolfe opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Please answer me.”

“You’re bloody good, you are,” Wolfe said.

“Thank you. Please show the audience that I’m correct.”

Wolfe tore away the tissue paper to reveal a worn pocketknife with a mother-of-pearl handle. The resulting ovation was long and hard.

“The police are coming,” Liza said into his earpiece. “Do you want Zack to grab Wolfe when he comes off the stage?”

“Yes,” Peter whispered back. “I’ll tell him.”

Peter began to escort Wolfe off the stage. Only the Grim Reaper had something else in mind. Flipping open the knife, he pointed the blade at the young magician.

“We’re not done,” Wolfe said.

The savage look on his face was as easy to read as a newspaper headline.

“You came here to kill me,” Peter said.

“I most certainly did. You’re the best I’ve ever seen.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wolfe flashed a sick grin and charged him. Someone in the crow screamed. Not to night, Peter thought. Taking a hand- flasher from a hidden pocket in his jacket, the young magician fired off a load of flash paper that went straight into Wolfe’s eyes.

Wolfe staggered backward, the knife slipping from his hand. The sarcastic Brit didn’t seem so menacing anymore. Peter slugged his attacker in the mouth.

Zack leapt on the stage, and tackled Wolfe from behind. The two men began to wrestle.

“The police have entered the building,” Liza said into his earpiece.

A pair of New York’s finest came huffing down the aisle. They did double-time up the steps, and joined Peter on stage.

“Where is he?” one of the cops asked.

Peter looked at the spot where Zack and Wolfe had been standing. Both men had disappeared. He knew what had happened, and motioned to the cops.

“Follow me,” the young magician said.

Dark Magic
by by James Swain

  • Mass Market Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765367912
  • ISBN-13: 9780765367914