Some things in life are best savored alone—sex is not one of them.
This happy thought occurred to me while piloting a borrowed Ferrari and staring at the smiling couples filling the sidewalks along the Las Vegas Strip. Walking hand-in-hand, they were living, breathing reminders of the sorry state of my own love life.
"Lady! Watch out!"
I heard the shout in the nick of time. Slamming on the brakes, I narrowly avoided sliding the front end of the Ferrari under a tour bus. A sea of Japanese faces appeared like moons in the back window, peering down at me. Then cameras blocked the faces, flashbulbs popping as I shrugged and waved while trying to appear unruffled.
The young man who had shouted stepped over to the car and peered through the open roof, like a judge eyeing the accused. "Are you okay?" he asked. His face flushed, his eyes glassy, he looked like he was still recovering from last night's party or getting a head start on the next one.
"Thanks to you," I said as I restarted the car, which had stalled. "I know better than to think about sex while doing something potentially life-threatening. What was I thinking?" I cringed as the words popped out of my mouth. Even I couldn't believe I'd said that. Clearly, I needed to get a grip: first I couldn't stop thinking about sex, now I was talking about it to strangers. This was so not good.
"What were you thinking?" The kid smirked at me as he took another gulp from the glass clutched tightly in his hand. "Care to… enlighten me?" he asked after wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his sweatshirt which had NYU printed in bold blue on the front.
The sweatshirt looked new. He looked twelve. I felt old.
"Another time, perhaps," I lied. I didn't really intend to flirt with the kid. However, with Teddie, my former live-in, gallivanting around the globe playing rock star for the last six weeks—and the foreseeable future—my prospects looked pretty dim. Teddie and I had been really good for a while. Now, I didn't know what we were.
Sexual self-preservation clearly had kicked in.
"Go easy on those walktails—they're deadly and the night is still young," I said, in a blatant attempt to steer the conversation away from the current topic.
"That drink in your hand, small enough to take with you, but potent enough to leave you puking in the gutter."
The kid's face grew serious as he held up the brew for inspection, looking at it with new- found respect. "Yes, Ma'am," he said, his voice filled with awe.
My smile vanished. Despite careful study, I was still unable to figure out at precisely what moment in time I had gone from being a Miss to a Ma'am. What changed? Whatever it was, I wanted it back like it used to be—along with a few other things, but they would all take minor miracles. While I believe in magic, miracles were pushing the envelope, even for me. I squeezed the paddle shifter and put the car in gear. Easing around the still stationary bus, I hit the gas. The night held an October chill—refreshing as the wind teased my hair. A full moon fought a losing battle as it competed valiantly with the lights of the Strip. I knew stars filled the sky, but they weren't visible in the false half-night of Las Vegas at full wattage.
My name is Lucky O'Toole, and, as I mentioned, the Ferrari isn't mine. It belongs to the dealership at The Babylon, my employer and the newest addition to the Las Vegas Strip mega-resort explosion. By title, I am the Head of Customer Relations. In reality, I'm the chief problem solver. If a guest at the Babylon has a 'situation'—which could be anything from an unplanned marriage, an unfamiliar bed partner, a roaring headache or an unexplained rash, to a wife and kids given a room on the same floor as the mistress's suite—I'm the go-to girl.
Actually, I love my job. And I miss Teddie. As the two appear mutually exclusive, therein lies the rub.
But, enough of that—I had wallowed in self-pity for my allotted ten minutes today. No more private pity party for me; I was on my way to the real thing.
The invitation read:
Inviting all family, friends and former dancers to a farewell party in honor of the forty-year run of the Calliope Burlesque Cabaret. October 26, eight o-clock sharp, backstage at the Calliope Theater, the Athena Resort and Casino. Present this invitation for admittance.
To someone in my position, being invited to parties was part of the exercise, but this was one guest list on which I never expected to find my name. I wasn't family, nor was I a former dancer—although with my six-foot frame, I guess dancing might have been a career path had I not been averse to prancing in front of strangers wearing nothing but stilettos and a thong, with twenty pounds of feathers on my head.
That left friend. As the sole individual responsible for shutting down the show, I doubted I qualified under that category either. Perhaps they invited me because of my unparalleled ability to smooth ruffled feathers, or maybe for my irritating inability to overlook a pun no matter how tortured. Who knew? However, I never could resist a good mystery, so despite the niggling feeling I'd received an invitation to my own execution, I accepted.
After having to go back to the office for the invitation, and after the near miss on the Strip, I pulled the Ferrari up to the front of the Athena. Careful to extricate myself from the low-slung car without giving the valet an eyeful up my short skirt, I then tossed the keys to him. Wrapping myself in a warm hug of cashmere pashmina to ward off the night chill, I straightened my skirt, threw back my shoulders, found a tentative balance on four-inch heels, and headed inside.
An aging Grand Dame, the Athena had seen better days. Like a ship marooned on the shoals, torn and tattered by the elements, the Athena had been savaged by time and inattention. Moored at the wrong end of the Strip, surrounded by lesser properties, she now boasted only faded glory. Her carpet stained, her walls dingy and décor dated, she reeked of quiet desperation. While she still boasted 'The Best Seafood Buffet in Vegas' for less than twenty dollars, which brought in some of the locals, her gaming rooms were rarely more than a third full. In Vegas, folks are quick to abandon a sinking ship—even if the slots are loose and the staff friendly.
My boss, Albert Rothstein (also known as The Big Boss), recently acquired the Athena from the previous owner, who had decided the best way to beat The Big Boss was to frame him for murder. In a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse, The Big Boss had eaten the canary—with my help, I'm happy to say.
The fact that The Big Boss is also my father is a closely guarded secret—so close that even I was in the dark until recently, when, facing the prospect of imminent death at the hands of a heart surgeon, The Big Boss decided to come clean. I'm still not sure how I felt about the whole thing, so I ignored it whenever possible. I was pretty happy with the way things were before the big bombshell, so I didn't see any reason to rock the boat. The Big Boss saw it differently; now that he'd claimed me—and made his relationship with my mother public—he wanted the whole world to know. Not a hooker's chance in Heaven, thank you very much. Don't get me wrong; I loved him like a father…always had.
But, who the heck wants to be the boss's daughter?
Expecting the usual sparse crowd, I was surprised to see a throng milling in the Athena's dismal lobby and spilling into the casino. Having spent my formative years in and out of Vegas hotels and my adult life working in them, I rarely noticed the fashion choices of the river of humanity that flowed through. However, tonight their choices were hard to ignore.
Space creatures of all shapes and sizes mingled, giving each other the Vulcan sign of greeting. It was like the Star Trek Experience at the Hilton used to be, but better. While I'm not that well versed in aliens, I thought I recognized a couple of Klingons, a Romulan or two, multiple Ferengi, and a collective of Borg. As the Borg passed, their faces impassive, I thought about saying "Resistance is futile" but I stifled myself. The whole thing made me realize how much I missed the Hilton's hokey institution. When they shuttered Quark's, the Hilton had closed a whole chapter of my youth. Strange new worlds must be explored, I guess.
Scattered among the Trekkers—they'd been Trekkies when I was young, but one vehement Klingon had corrected me and I was not one to argue with an angry Kilngon—were little green men, bubble-headed aliens of 1950s movie fantasy, a Wookie or two, other wild Star Wars imaginings, and several truly original creations. Some of the aliens were even disguised as humans—one of whom I recognized.
Junior Arbogast, hoax exposer, fraud buster, and legend in his own mind, made his living debunking UFO sightings, alien abductions and paranormal phenomena in general. Junior and I had bonded over an interesting outing to Area 51—the local Air Force spook palace north of town and the epicenter of UFO lore. He had spent an hour face down in the dirt, a gun pointed at his head, while I endeavored to talk the Lincoln County Sheriff out of arresting him, and the Cammo Guys, as the security service hired to protect and defend the perimeter were so lovingly referred to, from perforating him. Now, each year when the spookies held their annual convention in town, Junior and I usually found time to have a drink together, which I enjoyed. Yes, he could be arrogant and a pain in the ass, but he was bright and knew BS when he saw it. I liked that about him.
Built like a fire hydrant, with a shock of wiry dishwater blond hair, pale eyes under heavy, bushy brows, and a nose that had been broken more than once, Junior loved a good fight—the product of a childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. He didn't tolerate fools well, so he had few friends, a fact that didn't seem to bother him. How I managed to stay off his blithering idiot list was an enduring mystery.
"Are you merely observing the mating rituals of alien life-forms, or are you looking for the next Mrs. Arbogast?" I whispered as I sidled in next to him.
"Ah, the great quipster, Lucky O'Toole. I was wondering when you'd turn up," Junior mumbled through a mouthful of hot dog. He swallowed, then took a healthy swig from his gallon-size Bucket-o-Beer. "You jest, but I'll have you know," he continued, "a renowned professor at one of this country's most storied institutions of higher learning postulated that all alien abductions around the world could be explained as a simple cross-species breeding project."
"So everything really is about sex?"
"Especially in Vegas. If sex doesn't happen here, why come?" Junior stuffed in the last of his hotdog and washed it down with more beer.
Why indeed, I thought as I watched the UFO aficionados—some true believers, but mostly half-baked hangers-on who liked a good party with a weird group of folks. I could identify—I lived there.
People and aliens packed in around us, their energy infectious. A television crew trailed one of the local talking heads apparently on the prowl for content for a 'wacky and wonderful' segment for the nightly news. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something.
"What's going on?" I asked Junior, since he appeared to be waiting as well.
"We are all about to witness a spectacular example of professional suicide."
"Really? Whose?" I felt the inner flicker of some primal calling—probably the same unsavory instinct that draws us all to the scene of disaster. I didn't like it.
"Ah," I said, not needing any more explanation.
Zoom-Zoom Zewicki had been a train wreck waiting to happen for years. A former astronaut and the twentieth-something man launched into space, with a PhD in some obscure science from one of the world's foremost universities, Zoom-Zoom had one major affliction: He used to be somebody. In recent years, he had resorted to quirkier and more outlandish stunts to make sure we all remembered that.
"This must be my lucky day. First I get to witness professional suicide, then I get to preside at a funeral."
"My, you're a glutton for punishment." Junior waded up the paper wrapper from his hot dog and stuffed it in his pocket.
"That will be my epitaph," I said, only half joking. "I'm sure 'taking punishment' is part of my job description, but, fool that I am, I didn't read the fine print. So, what treat does Zoom-Zoom have in store for us?" I glanced at my watch—eight fifteen. Fashionably late to the party, I still had a few more minutes before my tardiness would be considered another salvo in my one-man war on the Calliope Girls. The war was a figment of their imaginations, of course, but I didn't want to toss any unnecessary grenades.
Before Junior had time to answer, a hush fell over the crowd. Heads turned as Zoom-Zoom stepped to a podium on a dais at the far end of the lobby.
A short man who kept himself in fighting trim, Dr. Zewicki wore his hair military short, his shirts pressed, his slacks creased, and a look of encroaching madness in his dark eyes. He leaned into the microphone, got too close, then drew back with a jerk as if the resulting squeal was from a snake coiled to strike.
"Thank you all for coming." This time he got the distance to the mike just right. His unexpectedly deep voice echoed around the marble lobby and rippled over the crowd. He waited until the last reverberation died before continuing.
"My statement will be brief and I won't accept any questions at this time. For those of you who wish to know more, I will be holding a formal presentation Thursday night, in Rachel, as part of Viewing Night."
Expectant murmurs rolled like waves through the crowd.
Dr. Zewicki fed on the attention of the crowd like an alien spacecraft sucking electromagnetic energy from a thunderstorm. Pausing, he milked it, then waited a few beats more until every head turned his direction, every voice quieted. Staring at the crowd, a serious expression on his face, he pulled himself to his full height and announced, "I have recently experienced an alien abduction."
The murmurs of the crowd rose on a cresting wave of expectation.
"My abductor's message is simple and two-fold: When we die, they come and take our spirits. Some spirits pass through to the next life, but those of us with unresolved issues—those who were murdered, perhaps—live on with the aliens. And now they wish to open a channel."
The wave of expectation broke into a cascade of excited voices, flooding the lobby with a rushing torrent of questions.
Questions that would remain unanswered: Zoom-Zoom Zewicki had left the stage.
Stunned, I needed a few moments to find my voice. "Did he just say what I thought he said?"
"Tortured souls live on with the aliens and Dr. Zewicki can talk to them."
"I'm sure the Homicide division at Metro will be thrilled to have alien assistance." I shrugged off a chill that shivered down my spine. Talk of murder messed with the Vegas magic—magic that was part of my job to deliver.
Junior looked at me, his face inscrutable. "Talk about a meteor hitting the atmosphere! A lifetime of achievement incinerated, just like that." He snapped his fingers in front of my face.
"The death of a star," I whispered.
"And the birth of a pop-culture icon," announced Junior, his voice as hard as flint. Zoom -Zoom Zewicki had just pegged the fraud buster's bullshit meter.
I left Junior plotting the pulverization of the last remaining pebbles of Dr. Zewicki's reputation, and headed toward the Calliope Burlesque Theatre on the far side of the casino. Working my way through the throng took me longer than I anticipated. I had just reached the edge of the crowd when I felt a hand on my arm.
"Ms. O'Toole?" Young and soft, the voice was unfamiliar.
"Yes." I turned and found myself staring down at a blue-eyed Ferengi.
The alien thrust an upside-down top hat at me. "Would you be so kind as to deliver this to Mr. Fortunoff? He left it in the bar. Normally, I would take it to him myself, but security is not allowing anyone backstage except those invited to the party."
"Sure." I grabbed the hat, surprised by its weight, as the Ferengi melted back into the crowd. That a magician would need a top hat to pull something out of seemed logical to me, so I didn't think the request odd. I peered inside the hat…empty. Turning it right-side up and shaking—nothing fell out. Whatever.
A lesser luminary in the world of the Dark Arts, Dimitri Fortunoff specialized in sleights of hand, mindreading, and other parlor tricks. He performed nightly as the entertainment between the first and second acts of the burlesque show.
I tucked the hat under my arm and strode through the casino. Flashing my invite to the security guard, I pushed through the double doors into another world. While decorations and scenery adorned the audience side of the curtain, creating the illusion of a bright and exciting world, a different, workman-like world existed behind the curtain. The stage was empty, illuminated by bare bulbs that would be extinguished during the show. Scenery hung in the rafters on counter-weighted pulleys. Other accoutrements, including Dimitri's magic tricks, were stuffed unceremoniously into every nook and cranny, creating an obstacle course for the unwary. At the appropriate time during the show, each piece would be moved into position; after its use it would be removed in a well choreographed, painstakingly rehearsed dance.
Forty years of dust and grime, forty years of pain and sweat, forty years of hopes and dreams, forty years of Vegas history—and I had swept it all away with the stroke of a pen. A matter of dollars and cents, the decision had been easy to make. Living with it, however, was a different matter.
Extraordinarily tall, beautiful women in heavy make-up and little else dotted the backstage area, each encircled by friends, family, and adoring fans clever enough to talk their way in. I noticed Zoom-Zoom Zewiki orbiting GiGi Vascheron, the star of the show. No wonder he had disappeared from the stage so quickly.
Shorter women in costume also hosted clusters of partiers. The show photographer darted in and out, memorializing the event for posterity. Everyone talked in hushed voices. If anyone smiled, I missed it.
The few men who danced in the show weren't visible. Neither was Dimitri Fortunoff.
Nobody's eyes met mine as I gently pushed my way through the crowd. However, I felt the daggers hurled at my back, and I didn't really blame them. In their shoes, I'd hate me too.
I found my conjurer in his dressing room hiding from reality.
"Well, if it isn't the grim reaper," he growled when he noticed me filling his doorway. "Did you come to gloat, or are you just slumming?"
A tall man with a barrel chest, droopy features, hangdog eyes and a down-turned mouth, dressed in a poorly-fitting tux, Fortunoff looked more like an undertaker than an entertainer. Slumped in a chair, one leg crossed over the other, a plate balanced in his lap, he eyed me as he forked in a bite of chocolate cake with one hand. The fingers of his free hand worked a coin over and under, from thumb to pinkie, then back again.
A number of plastic glasses dotted the desk and shelves. Plates with partially eaten cake stuffed the small trashcan in the corner.
"Looks like you've had a party."
"The world moves on, Dimitri." Mesmerized, I watched the coin dance between his fingers. "The Big Boss is spending millions refurbishing this place, turning it into Las Vegas' first eco-friendly, totally green hotel."
"Eco-friendly in a town known for depleting all the available local natural resources… an interesting concept."
"We like to appear to do our part."
"You should know," I fired back. "Besides, I've heard you've moved on."
"Yeah? How so?"
"Rumor has it you're the Masked Houdini."
A magician who hid his identity while exposing famous illusions for a national television audience, the Masked Houdini had aroused the ire of illusionists far and wide. In fact, when we announced he would be doing the Houdini Séance on Halloween, several death threats had appeared in my office—some for me, some for the Houdini. The police were unable to trace the notes, but we'd heightened security as a precaution.
"The rumor is just that, a rumor. No truth to it," Dimitri intoned. His eyes held mine briefly, then skittered away.
"Right. Truth or not, somebody obviously believes it. I wouldn't take the threats lightly." This was old ground for us, but I felt the need to cover it once more.
"I'm touched by your concern."
I might have imagined it, but I thought I caught a glimpse of a grin lift one corner of his mouth, then vanish.
"Don't let it go to your head," I said. "I'm just covering my ass. If the Masked Houdini doesn't show up on Halloween, I'm toast."
This time I was sure I saw a smile.
"Did you bring me a present?" Dimitri tilted his head toward the hat under my arm.
"Not me," I said as I thrust it at him. "A Ferengi."
Dimitri raised an eyebrow.
"Don't ask. The UFO folks… " I trailed off, figuring that was enough of an explanation.
He took the hat. His brows creased into a frown when he felt the weight. Reaching in, he pulled out, of all things, a rabbit, surprising us both. "Cute, but trite, don't you think?" he scoffed.
Snow white, his black nose flaring excitedly, the poor creature looked terrified. Reaching to pet it, I noticed something tied to its dainty, jeweled collar.
I unfurled it and my blood ran cold.
In red lipstick, someone has scrawled 'DIMITRI FORTUNOFF MUST DIE'.
Dimitri paled. He dropped the rabbit as he fell back in his chair, grabbing at the bow tie knotted around his neck.
I snagged the bunny just before it hit the floor.
"Water. I need water." Dimitri's face was now turning crimson. "I can't breathe."
"Molly," I screamed, shouting for Dimitri's assistant, as I put the bunny down. She hadn't been in her cubicle when I'd walked by earlier, but she had to be close by. "Molly!" I knelt by Dimitri and managed to get his tie unknotted and his collar loosened. I was opening my mouth to shout again, when the girl materialized in the doorway.
"What happened?" Molly asked looking flustered and out of breath. Trim and sturdy, she had an athlete's body and an efficient manner. Her dark hair was cut in layers and styled to look unkept. Concern clouded her brilliantly blue eyes as she looked first at Dimitri, then to me, then back again.
"He's just had a shock. Get some water, would you?"
Dimitri gulped air. When Molly returned with water, he gulped that too. His normal coloring slowly returned, and his breathing settled back to a steady pace until a sheen of sweat was the sole remaining evidence of his panic attack.
"Are you okay?" I asked when I thought he could answer.
"Fine." He pushed himself upright in the chair and set about retying his tie. "Well, as fine as anyone could be after having their life threatened."
I sat back on my heels, my knees pressed together. "I found using Thumper as a delivery vehicle particularly menacing, didn't you?"
He gave me a sneer. Molly hid her smile behind a dainty hand.
I pushed myself to my feet, then realized the bunny was nowhere to be found—he had escaped in the commotion.
"Molly, you better go find that rabbit. He'd certainly liven up the show, but I'm in enough trouble with the girls already."
She glanced at the magician, then bolted.
"Do you want to cancel tonight's show?" I asked, turning my attention to Dimitri. "We really should call the police."
"And then what?" Dimitri mopped his brow with a multi-colored scarf, then tucked it back up his sleeve. "All the other threats have been false alarms and the police have found nothing."
"You have a point. They haven't been successful with the notes delivered to my office addressed to the fool who hired the Masked Houdini—which, by the way, would be me. I've increased security. I don't know what else to do."
"You're getting notes, too?"
"Just lucky, I guess." Hands on my hips, I tried to look stern. "Seriously, I think you should cancel the show."
"No." Dimitri looked adamant. "The show must go on."
He didn't smile, so I don't think he meant that as a joke.
"Well then, come on." Grabbing Dimitri's hand, I gave him a tug—neither of us was particularly eager to cancel the final performance in a forty-year run. "This is your swan song. Make the most of it."
"I wish you hadn't put it quite like that."
"You'll be in front of a packed house," I said as I brushed myself off, then straightened his tie. "What could possibly happen?"
The mood in the front of the house was even more somber than backstage, if that was possible. Patrons filed into the theatre—the most important among them following the ushers to long, communal tables placed perpendicular to the stage, seating six per side. Guests of lesser importance were left to fend for themselves. If any of them wanted a beverage of choice, they had to get it themselves at the bar window on the left side of the theatre, the queue for which already snaked halfway across the large room.
Statuesque women greeted each other with hugs and air-kisses. Some cried while their escorts shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. Nobody smiled when they looked my direction.
I felt like a creep.
Unaccustomed to being in the midst of so much hostility, for a moment I was flummoxed. Casting my eyes around the room, I finally spied a safe haven—a small gaggle of elite magicians. Purportedly the members of the Magic Ring—a secret ruling society within the mystical arts community—I had checked them into The Babylon yesterday and taken charge of their VIP stay.
"Mr. Mortimer." I greeted the man who had made all the arrangements for the group. "How are you enjoying Vegas so far?"
"It's been lovely, thank you," Mr. Mortimer said, his eyes lighting up when he saw me. "And this show is a particular treat."
A short man, almost as big around as he was tall, Mr. Mortimer had dancing eyes and a quick smile. A ring of snow-white hair circled his otherwise bald head. The buttons of the silk vest stretching across his blossoming midsection looked ready to burst, but he appeared unconcerned.
"We were so sorry to hear the show is closing," he continued, clearly unaware he was talking to the harbinger of death.
"It's one of our favorites—a Vegas institution."
"Where are you sitting?" I asked.
He consulted his ticket. "Table Seven."
"Me as well. May I show you the way?"
We worked our way down to the front and took our seats as the lights dimmed and the orchestra played the first chords of a lilting tune. The curtain parted and the company of clothed dancers, male and female, took the stage in a rousing cabaret number. The audience, many of whom were former dancers, whistled and clapped for their compatriots. When the topless ladies, or the nudes as they are referred to in the business, sashayed onto the stage, the admiration of the audience grew louder. Some of the women smiled, but most stayed in character.
Despite having seen my share, topless shows remained a mystery to me. First, the women weren't even buxom. With the shortest of them measured at five foot ten and none of them weighing more than a hundred and thirty pounds, how much bust could they be expected to have? Of course, my initial expectation had been they would all have been enhanced like most of the strippers in town, but that was not the case. A sort of weird reverse discrimination prevailed in Vegas: the very best showgirls must be au naturale. I bet those women's boobs were the only natural things left in town. Heck, even the grass outside The Wynn was plastic.
Wishing I had taken time to wait in line for a drink, but worried I might not have lived through it, I sat back, tried to relax, and watched the show. At the completion of several rousing dance numbers, each punctuated by the appearance of the nudes, the curtain fell on the first act.
After a brief moment, the curtain again parted. The scenery had disappeared. A large rectangular wooden crate resembling a phone booth with a glass front and sides stood vertically in the center of the stage. Shiny brass angles attached along the edges with neat rows of rivets, held the box together. Although it was hard to tell, I thought the crate was full of water.
Mr. Mortimer and his friends gasped in unison. Leaning over, he whispered in my ear, "That's Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Chest."
"Houdini? Like Harry Houdini?"
Mr. Mortimer nodded. "I can't imagine where Dimitri got it."
Our eyes shot back to the stage as Dimitri Fortunoff appeared, clad only in old-fashioned swimming attire. Molly and several of the dancers accompanied him. The magician waved to someone off stage, then glanced up as a block and tackle descended from the rafters. It bore a wooden plank, cut with two round holes.
"Is this part of his normal act?" one of Mr. Mortimer's compatriots asked.
"Not as of a month ago," I replied, a ball of dread growing in my stomach.
"Ladies and gentleman," Dimitri began. "As you all know, tonight is our last show and I've been perfecting a special escape for you."
When he paused, you could hear a pin drop.
"Harry Houdini, widely considered the best of all time, developed the escape I am about to do for you. First, my ankles will be placed in this stock." He held up the wooden board, removed an open padlock, which released the two halves, allowing it to be positioned around his legs.
An assistant then bent, threaded the padlock through two D rings, one on each half of the stock, and snapped the padlock closed.
"Thank you," Dimitri said to the girl, then continued. "After volunteers from the crowd have checked all the apparatus thoroughly, I will be lifted and lowered head first into the chest you see here, which is filled with water. My beautiful assistants will then padlock the top in place."
A nervous murmur rippled through the room.
"You must be convinced the chest is nothing more than it seems, that I have not tampered with it in any way. Now for the volunteers." With one hand shielding his eyes from the lights, he looked over the crowd. His eyes came to rest on our table. Pointing at us, he said, "You. All of you. Would you be so kind?"
Catching my eye, he shook his head at me, so I remained behind as the magicians at my table filed onto the stage. Zoom-Zoom appeared from backstage and joined them even though he hadn't been called.
Dimitri didn't seem to mind. As he watched, the men examined every pane of glass, every nook, every cranny of the chest. When they had apparently satisfied themselves, Dimitri asked them, "Could you see any alterations in the chest that might explain an easy escape?"
Each of them shook his head. "We could not," announced Mr. Mortimer in his stage voice—apparently he'd been voted the group's spokesman, as the others remained silent, merely nodding their agreement.
"What about you?" Dimitri pointed to one of the magicians who looked most unhappy at being singled out.
A hawkish man with angry eyes, he glared at Dimitri. "If this box has a trick, I do not know it."
"Why don't you ask Mr. Houdini?" Before the man could answer, Dimitri turned to address the crowd. "Some of you may be too young to remember the acclaimed mentalist, but may I present The Great Danilov."
The crowd clapped politely as Danilov took a bow, and shook Dimitiri's hand. After a whispered exchange with the magician, Danilov hurried off stage.
"Or you?" Dimitri pointed to Dr. Zewiki. "You claim to talk to the dead. Maybe Mr. Houdini will speak to you."
"Doubtful. No one ever said he was murdered," Zoom-Zoom hissed as he ducked backstage.
The other magicians filed after Danilov and retook their seats as Dimitri announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, these men are part of an august group of magicians. If they can't see how I perform this escape, then it must be a very good trick indeed."
"I have a really bad feeling about this," Mr. Mortimer again whispered in my ear as he settled himself in his seat. "It's long been believed the secrets of the chest died with Mr. Houdini."
"Could Mr. Fortunoff have a new trick up his sleeve?" I asked.
"There are only so many ways to get out of a chest filled with water and locked from the outside."
I didn't like the hint of impending doom in his voice. I fought with myself. I wanted to stop the whole thing. But what if he really could get out of that contraption? He wasn't suicidal, as far as I knew, and I was in enough trouble already. Against my better judgment, I decided to let the show go on.
We watched as the assistants first checked the shackles and tested the block and tackle. Then they helped the magician as he was lifted, then lowered into the tank. Quickly the women lowered the lid and snapped several padlocks in place around its edge, effectively securing it to the chest—with Dimitri clearly visible inside.
I held my breath as the assistants drew a curtain around the chest and left the stage. Apparently the rest of the audience felt as I did—they didn't move. Not even a whisper broke the silence.
An eternity passed. Then another.
The audience grew restless. Nervous whispering buzzed.
Finally someone shouted, "It's been too long. Somebody get him out of that thing."
Other voices joined in agreement.
"Come." Mr. Mortimer ordered as he rose to his feet and grabbed my hand, pulling me with him. His friends fell in step behind us as we started for the stage.
We had made it to the first step when Molly ran out from stage-left. Her face was stricken, streaked with tears.
"Oh my God! He's dead!"