DEADLY ILLUSIONS

PROLOGUE

Pinoli’s Restaurant, London - 1st July 1905…

  The door opened to the restaurant, triggering a small bell to alert the maitre’d that a new customer had arrived. A narrow beam of summer evening sunlight illuminated dust particles in the air before the tall man closed the door behind him. He removed his custom-made top hat and, reaching for a handkerchief, wiped some perspiration from his forehead.

      His piercing green eyes searched the long thin room, which was flanked by huge mirrors giving the impression of greater size, and settled his gaze on a banqueting table at the far end. After leaving his hat with the maitre’d he strode purposefully towards the table, deftly side-stepping a waiter carrying a large tray of empty plates. As he approached one of the men seated looked up and spoke.

      "Welcome Henry, everyone’s here and we were just waiting for you."

      "Excellent, David. I have high hopes for this evening. Shall we get straight to it?" replied the tall man.

      There were now twenty-three men congregated, a sense of being on the precipice of achievement emanating from their faces, as Henry took his position at the head of the table. He paused for a moment, collecting himself while preparing to speak.

      Gathered before him were the most prominent magicians of the day. Men of all disciplines; illusionists, conjurors, mentalists. Henry himself was recognised as an exceptional mind-reader. He began speaking.

      "Gentlemen, the history of our fellowship is long, having roots in Egypt even further back than the construction of the pyramids over four thousand years ago.”

      His chronicle took them on a journey through time from the Acetabularii, purveyors of magic in ancient Rome, to Simon the Sorcerer and his battles with the Apostle Peter. He gave vivid detail of the occultists of the Dark Ages, and relived the horrific persecutions of their kind during the Middle Ages. As he spoke his voice grew in intensity and his piercing green eyes locked those listening into a trance-like state. His speech soared to great heights and the magicians, to a man, flew right alongside him.

      Then Henry slammed his hand on the table abruptly, causing waiters and other diners in the restaurant to look over. He leaned over the table, his arms gripping the edge to support the weight of his upper torso, and inhaled deeply through flared nostrils while he glowered at his audience.  

      “But, my friends, magic has come full circle and is no longer hiding in the shadows of the street sideshow and circus tent.”

      He straightened, raising himself to full height and held out his arms, palms facing upwards as if luring an unseen entity to his embrace.

      “We have climbed in stature, once more to perform in front of nobility in the land’s finest theatres, just like the great magician Dedi in front of the Pharaoh all those years ago.”

      He paused briefly, noting with satisfaction that he still had the unwavering attention of the group, as he arrived at the crucial point to which his rhetoric had been engineered. He reduced his voice to almost a whisper.

      “And to remain strong, we must unite. We must put aside the petty differences that cause us to be divided. We must break free from the shackles of individual secrecy that isolate us, and embrace our combined knowledge. Much can be accomplished this way as we have seen from over the Atlantic.”

      There had been attempts at unity before but each time they had been met with too much suspicion. Magicians working together went against the grain. They had always been fearful that if another one of their kind discovered how they did what they did, their feats could be replicated and their livelihoods stolen from them. That is until a couple of years ago, when a handful of magicians in New York met in the backroom of Martinka’s Magic Shop and founded the Society of American Magicians. Since then magicians of all denominations had flocked to be under its banner and had flourished under this new spirit of cooperation. It was said you couldn’t walk down Broadway without seeing a sign advertising another magic show.

      All the men in attendance were aware of the success that the Americans had made of their new magic club and how audiences were at a record high, making the performers rich in the process. And now Henry was banking on the fact that they wanted some of that action over here in England.

      “So are you advocating that we form a society like they did in New York?” David asked, clearly occupying the role of spokesperson at the table.

      “Yes I am. We shall establish our own club here in London. A circle of trust from within which we may prosper, confident that our secrets will not be betrayed. A magic circle if you will, and David I can think of no man more fitting than you to be its president,” said Henry.

      Every man nodded their assent and Henry proposed a toast to the new club and its first president, David Devant. The twenty-three magicians drank as one and Henry smiled, his eyes twinkling as if amused by hidden thoughts. The group of men congratulated one another, patting each other’s backs and refilling their glasses with zeal. 

***

           A little later, as the celebrations looked set to continue long into the evening, Henry picked up his hat from the maitre’d and quietly slipped out of the restaurant. Across the street, the last remnants of sunlight disappearing into a twilight sky, a horse drawn taxi cab waited. The driver had just opened the boot to extract some hay to feed the horse, when Henry called over to him: “No time for that I’m afraid driver. I wish to return to Euston at once.”

      Henry crossed the street and climbed into the carriage. Once inside he sat silently, contemplating the events of the evening. Everything has gone to plan, he thought. His mind carved out the words and projected them into the atmosphere without a sound coming out of his mouth.

      Three and a half thousand miles away, in the backroom of Martinka’s Magic Shop, a blind man with equally piercing eyes behind his dark glasses silently responded.

      Well done Henry, the Council will be most pleased. 

~~~~

CHAPTER 1

 An examination…

       11:24 a.m. and the sounds of the opening refrain to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars blasted into the sleeping man’s ears. The first four bars of distorted electric guitar, drums, and bass clawed repeatedly at his brain.

      Make it stop, please God, Ziggy Calloway thought, any semblance of sleep fading away as unwanted consciousness took hold. Maybe it hadn’t been such a smart move to synchronise his ringtone to his name, which his parents had proudly given to him in honour of the David Bowie concert after which he’d been conceived.

      A hand emerged from under the duvet and fumbled for the mobile phone laying on the bedside table. Once the hand had found and ensnared its prey it shot back under the duvet. After a few misplaced taps he successfully hit the green button and the offensive noise stopped.

      “Yeah?” he whispered croakily.

      “I haven’t just woken you up have I, Ziggy?”

      “No Mum, I’ve been up for ages,” Ziggy lied, suddenly getting the feeling that his day was starting behind the curve.

      “You haven’t forgotten about your examination today have you?”

      “Of course not, Mum,” he said, and his nose grew with another massive whopper under his belt. “I’m just heading out of the door now,” Ziggy said, trying to sound lively which was the complete opposite to how he felt.

      “Well good luck dear, call me later and let me know how you got on.”                                      

      Mum rang off and Ziggy stared at the time on his phone. Shit, only an hour and a half until he was supposed to be at his examination. He jumped out of bed, instantly noting that his balance and inertia were in total disagreement, while his head swirled with dizziness. He stumbled towards the bathroom and threw himself into the shower.

      Ziggy cursed when the first freezing cold sprays hit him, but the water quickly began to heat up. Ziggy started to come round and he muttered a self-bollocking for getting himself in such a state the night before.

***

       He’d only meant to go to the pub for a couple of drinks, but one thing had led to another and he’d ended up at the Brixton Academy watching the 1980s heavy metal band Killing Joke.

      That alone was no crime but the taste in his mouth reminded him that he’d ended up backstage afterwards, knocking back tequila with the band and showing them the latest card tricks he’d learnt; card tricks that were part of his repertoire and among a number of other tricks and illusions which Ziggy was due to perform today.

      Ziggy Calloway was a thirty-two year old wannabe magician and today he had an opportunity to follow in his grandfather’s, the famous Robert Calloway, footsteps by becoming a member of the world’s most prestigious magic club, The Magic Circle. His interview, which was more of a practical examination in front of some of the senior Council members, was set to take place at one p.m. which meant Ziggy had better get his skates on.

***

      With two minutes to spare Ziggy stood outside the ornate double doors of the Magic Circle Club, panting after the frantic exertions of getting himself and his stuff from Brixton to Euston on time. He looked up at the doorplate with the club’s motto: Indocilis privata loqui, Latin for not apt to disclose secrets.

      It was common knowledge that the penalty for giving away secrets to lay people was expulsion from the club, but Ziggy was still worried that he’d have to share the intricate details behind his wall-walking illusion, quaintly named Horizontal Levitation, with other members. It had taken him three years to perfect the extendable suction cups and miniature winch system which were the props behind the trick. But if that was the price of fame and fortune, then so be it.

      He opened the doors and walked in, hauling behind him the trunk containing his magical paraphernalia. He gazed around the large entry vestibule, his eyes searching the multitude of photographs of magicians past and present, until he found one of his grandfather prominently positioned in the hall of fame. Filled with pride he manoeuvered himself and his bulky box of tricks to the reception desk.

      “Ziggy Calloway reporting for duty.” he announced, trying to turn on a charm that he believed was lethal for attracting women.

      The receptionist, a pretty thirty-something, was clearly immune to Ziggy’s powers and replied with brisk efficiency: “Ah yes, Mr. Calloway, I have you here.”

      She continued whilst reading from her computer, “Arrival one p.m. You will be in the Devant Room and you have precisely one hour to set up. The Examinations Secretary, Mr. Lafarge, will arrive at two p.m. accompanied by two other members of the Council and you will perform for no longer than thirty minutes.”

      She stopped abruptly and raised her head towards Ziggy with a look that signalled the conversation was over and it was time for him to remove himself quickly from her presence. With his ego slightly bruised by the receptionist’s unnecessarily cool manner he retreated, dragging his trunk noisily behind him.

***

      He followed signs to the Devant Room where he found the door open and went in. It was a large room, empty except for a table with three seats facing a make-shift stage, complete with curtain and spotlights.

      On one of the walls was a large painting of David Devant, the first President of the Club. Ziggy opened his trunk and started to unpack his props. It only took him fifteen minutes from the hour he’d been given to prepare for his show, which included changing clothes into a smart grey three pieced suit.

      Ziggy disliked wearing suits, preferring the more casual look of boot-cut blue jeans and black leather jacket, but this performance merited smart attire. He recalled his grandfather’s words clearly: “Clothes and manners may not maketh the man, but once he is made they greatly add to his appearance.” He smiled, thinking he could suck it up for gramps just this once.

      At precisely two p.m. the door opened and in strode a tall man around fifty years old, with short cropped blond hair and a distinguished patch of silver at each temple. He was followed by two older men who walked deferentially behind him. The three men walked to the table and took their seats facing the soon to be performer.

      Ziggy’s nerves started jangling and he thought this was how contestants on the X Factor must feel at their auditions. The obvious leader, who was playing the Simon Cowell-like judge on the panel, spoke first.

      “Good afternoon, my name is Michael Lafarge and I’m the Examinations Secretary. To my right are Donald Stanton and George Turner, fellow members of the Council,” he glanced down at his notes, “and you are… Ziggy Calloway.”

      He looked up at Ziggy with raised eyebrows and asked, “Are you by any chance related to Robert Calloway?”

      Such an ordinary question, one which considering the setting and Ziggy’s surname should’ve been the most natural question in the world. Yet as Lafarge asked it Ziggy felt strangely intimidated. He looked up at Lafarge and tried to hold his stare, but the man’s piercing green eyes blazed with a queer intensity, pulsating as though they were changing size, shape and even colour. Ziggy concluded that the best place to look was down at his feet. This guy’s far scarier than Simon Cowell, he thought, a shiver running the length of his spine. He raised his head slowly as he collected himself and managed a reply.

      “Yes, he was my grandfather.”

      “Well, if you have anything like your grandfather’s skill I’m sure we shall be mightily impressed. Now please will you commence.”

      Lafarge and his two henchmen leaned back and waited expectantly. The performance lasted for twenty-seven minutes and when it was finished the three judges rose as one, clapping enthusiastically. Ziggy thought it had gone well; only one small stumble before smashing the performance out of the ball park with Horizontal Levitation.

      The three men’s faces had lit up with admiration when he’d walked up the wall at the back of the stage and touched the ceiling before walking back down, as if mocking the theory behind Newton’s laws of gravity. There had been many levitation acts across the years, but Horizontal Levitation surpassed them all due to its simplicity and that, being so portable, it could be performed almost anywhere.

      Once the judges were seated, Lafarge spoke in a tone intended to be reassuringly friendly: “You certainly do have some of your grandfather in you, young man.” But Lafarge’s attempt at friendliness didn’t cut the mustard. There was something too unsettling about the man.

      During one of his card tricks Ziggy had become distracted by thoughts which he could swear weren’t his own. He’d approached the judges’ table and asked Lafarge to pick a card and read it before concealing it in the envelope provided. Ziggy had known with absolute certainty that the card Lafarge had picked from the deck was the seven of clubs, but inexplicably   every time he pictured it in his mind’s eye the image of the three of spades appeared.

      He’d started to wonder whether the tequila he’d been drinking the night before was of the mescal variety and he’d inadvertently swallowed the worm. He’d soldiered on, completing the trick successfully, but was left with the nagging sensation that he hadn’t been the one in control of events.

      Lafarge wrapped up the proceedings on a positive note, stating that Ziggy had passed the examination and that his admission just needed to be rubber stamped by the Club’s Council. That should take about a week to arrange, and then they would send him a formal acceptance letter. The three men said their farewells and left Ziggy to pack up and leave.

***

       On the way out Ziggy felt very satisfied with himself. Never one to duck a challenge when it came to the opposite sex, he decided to make another attempt at laying some groundwork with the pretty   receptionist. After all, he’d passed the exam so he had every right to be a little cocky now he was a member-elect of the Club.

      He sauntered up to the reception desk, as much as it is possible to saunter lugging seventy-five kilos of trunk behind you. Casually leaning on the reception desk he narrowed his eyes, adopting a facial expression that in his mind was smouldering.

      “I think you secretly like me, and that’s why you were so short with me earlier,” he schmoozed.

      The receptionist looked up from her computer, eyed Ziggy up and down and said: “I suppose I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.”

      Round one to the Ice Queen.

***

      “A Jack Daniels for the new Paul Daniels” slurred Gibson jokingly as he returned from the bar clasping two glasses and putting one in front of Ziggy.

      “Cheers mate.” Ziggy said as he picked it up and took a good slug of his favourite drink. They had been at their usual corner table in the Crown and Anchor pub on Brixton Road, less than a hundred yards from Ziggy’s flat, for over two hours already. They were celebrating Ziggy’s success and were both well on the way to creating the following day’s hangover.

      “Anyway, she’s totally in to me,” Ziggy stated optimistically, having updated Gibson on his encounter with the Euston Ice Queen earlier in the day.

      “It doesn’t sound that way to me,” Gibson countered, “but then again you think every girl fancies you.” He laughed out loud and asked: “Zig, do you remember the time you tried to chat up Danielle from behind the bar?”

      Not his finest moment Ziggy had to concede, but then again nobody had a one hundred percent success rate with the ladies, except maybe Hollywood stars with their chiselled looks and bank balances bigger than the UK economy.

      But mere mortals had to accept failure sometimes.

      The problem for Ziggy was that his failure rate was higher than average, so he had to try harder to hit the numbers. Consequently, he sometimes just had to jump in with both feet without doing his homework.

      “It would’ve taken more magic powers than you possess, my friend, to lure Danielle into your spider’s web,” said Gibson, with a wicked grin.

      “You’re not wrong there,” Ziggy lamented, “you could’ve told me that she batted for the other side before I declared my undying love!” The pair laughed heartily and Gibson toasted Ziggy’s success once more.

      “Gibbo, do you think it’s possible to read people’s thoughts?” Ziggy asked out of the blue, changing the tone of the conversation to a more serious one.

      Gibson Hunter was Ziggy’s oldest and best friend and they’d known each other for over twenty years. They’d attended the same junior and senior schools but whilst Ziggy went on to study Theatre Design at the London University of Arts, Gibson had taken a series of low wage jobs and was currently working behind the bar at the Brixton Academy.

      “You’re the expert Zig, being a magician and all,” Gibson replied neutrally.

      “Not the same thing, mate. What I do are tricks. But what I’m asking is whether there are people with the actual ability to read another person’s thoughts… as if they’re reading words off a Karaoke machine?”

      From the direction of the bar came the loud ring of a bell and a shout: “Last orders at the bar!”

      Gibson jumped up in a hurry, “Best double up mate, it’s last orders. I’ll get them and you can pay me back when you’re rich and famous,” and with that he was off, barging through the crowd of other mid-week drinkers trying to get served before the bar closed.

***

      Ziggy’s thoughts, meanwhile, turned to Lafarge and the uncanny feeling he’d had while in his presence at the Magic Circle Club. Those piercing green eyes reminded him of a story his grandfather had told him many years before.

      Robert Calloway had been a famous illusionist in the 1950s, and a pioneer of radio and TV magic. Ziggy had worshipped his grandfather and from a very early age wanted to be a magician too. The old man had taught Ziggy a few card tricks and some mentalist techniques which Ziggy had used to his advantage in the playground by winning pocket money to buy sweets.

      His grandfather had also told him stories of other great magicians and Ziggy recalled one in particular about a mind-reader around the turn of the last century, whose eyes appeared to change colour during his tricks. It was said of Henry Alexander that he needed neither props nor assistants. He could perform feats such as carrying out actions that audience members were only thinking about, and locating hidden objects by reading their minds.

      Ziggy’s grandfather had pointed out Henry Alexander in an old photograph of the original twenty-three members of the Magic Circle, which was taken on its inaugural night at Pinoli’s restaurant in 1905. The photograph had been treasured by his grandfather, having been given to him by his mentor, Albert Morden, who had also been present on that momentous evening. His grandfather had said it was likely to be the only photograph of Henry Alexander in existence, as he always shied away from cameras saying that the moments they captured should be allowed to evaporate into the past.

      When Robert Calloway passed away he bequeathed all his magic-related belongings, including the old photograph, to Ziggy.

***

       Later that evening, after the pub had closed and Gibson had gone to the Brixton Academy chasing further nocturnal activities, Ziggy returned to his flat and decided to root out the old photograph, which was not such an easy task considering the state of disarray in which his own worldly chattels were kept.

      Ziggy had been single for two years, and his bachelor lifestyle was evident in his ground floor flat. It wasn’t that Ziggy was particularly untidy, or any more untidy than the average single male apprentice magician in the twenty first century, it was just that he wasn’t wired up with enough domesticity genes for that kind of stuff to hit his radar. The place was simply a mess.

      After about twenty minutes of searching he found the old photograph in an odds and sods box which contained everything from old mobile phone chargers to used AA batteries. He sat down on his sofa and examined it. At the front of the group of magicians stood two men shaking hands. One was David Devant, Ziggy recognised him from the large painted portrait he’d seen in the Devant Room at the club. The other was the man his grandfather had pointed out as being Henry Alexander.

      But it couldn’t be, because Ziggy was staring at the face of Michael Lafarge!

      Ziggy sat bolt upright and rubbed his eyes in disbelief, the effects of the alcohol consumed earlier in the evening quickly replaced by a huge rush of adrenalin to his system. His heart started pounding and he looked at the photograph again.

      Sure enough the tall man standing at the front of the group had an extraordinary likeness to the man who had overseen his examination this afternoon. There were differences in hair styling and possibly colouring too, he couldn’t be precise on that one from looking at a black and white photo.

      The man in the photo had a neatly trimmed beard and Lafarge was clean shaven, another minor difference.

      But the eyes, the same piercing eyes.

      Ziggy’s mind exploded with questions, but the one that shrieked the loudest was how could they be the same person if the photograph had been taken one hundred and twelve years ago?

~~~~