by Ethan Hedman
Days like this forced Mike to remind himself that he’d rather have a bastard for a boss than be left without a job. He usually commuted to the store by bus, but needed a slow walk to calm down after a shift filled with angry customers and insults from his grumbling manager. Halfway through his journey home, a burst of applause caught his attention from the nearest street corner. A small crowd had formed beside the sidewalk, captivated by a street performance. Mike joined the circle and silently welcomed the diversion from his day.
The performer was a magician garbed in period attire. He sported a flowing blue coat and a waistcoat to match, with breeches, stockings, and buckled shoes. Long locks of curled hair tumbled past his shoulders, which he was currently using as a prop; he wrapped thick strands of it carefully around a folded card before asking a young boy from the crowd to yank the loose nest of strands straight down. The boy did, and there was no card to be found. Much to the young volunteer’s delight, it was quickly discovered underneath his older brother’s shoe.
More card tricks followed in quick succession. The magician took a particular glee in tossing cards aloft as tricks were concluded, exhausting several decks as they littered the ground. The climax of the show was the most daring. A woman chose a card, showed it to the audience, signed her name on the front, and replaced it in the deck. The magician then closed his eyes, threw the whole deck into the air, and swiftly stabbed a falling card through the back with a dagger. After the woman kindly confirmed it was her card, he bowed and allowed her to pluck the card from the knife to keep as a souvenir.
Mike applauded with the crowd while the magician took one final bow and began to sweep up the mess of cards with his feet. The children who had watched his show quickly volunteered to help, prompting the magician to produce a few candies from behind their ears as tokens of thanks. Mike stood nearby while his fellow bystanders trickled away, waiting until the performer was free from his audience.
“That was great,” he said, walking up and extending his hand.
“Ah, thank you so much.” The magician had a dazzling smile and a firm handshake. “I’m just glad everyone enjoyed themselves.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything that good. Beats the guy who plays guitar outside my apartment.” Mike reached into his pocket and began to fumble with his wallet.
“Oh.” The magician stepped back, as if the thought of taking money repulsed him. “Please, that isn’t necessary. These performances are just as much for my own entertainment as they are for yours. The only thing I really want is to experience the audience while they delight in the magic.”
“Really? You’ve gotta be the first performer I’ve met who’ll turn down a tip.”
The magician smiled and shrugged. “That’s quite likely. I’d rather give than receive. If you feel the need to part with it, give it to someone who needs it more than I do. The next homeless person you encounter, perhaps, unless you have a favorite charity.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I’m fond of Child’s Play, myself.”
“Fair enough. Hey, I only caught part of your show. Happen to know where you’ll be performing next?”
“Ah. Yes, I do, actually. Tomorrow I’ll be right over there.” He gestured at the modern building behind him, an art gallery that Mike hadn’t noticed before. “Inside, that is. I’ll be entertaining people visiting the venue alongside a group of my peers. Don’t worry, you can still give your money away; there won’t be any admission fee. A traveling exhibit is opening here and the curator feels that allowing the general public free access should grant the art some much-needed attention.”
“We ought to be around all day. Let me show you where.” The man sharply turned and began marching through the courtyard towards the building’s tall glass doors. Mike trailed behind, though after a moment the magician slowed his pace so they could walk shoulder-to-shoulder. “Oh, forgive me, I haven’t asked your name.”
“Mike. I missed the top of the act and didn’t catch yours, either.”
“The Great Edmond is at your service, sir,” he declared, using the French pronunciation of the name while flourishing his hand through the air. “That’s my stage name, anyway. You can call me Ed, or Eddie, if you prefer.”
Mike held the door so the pair could enter. The air conditioning was a welcome relief after standing in the sun for twenty minutes. Ed produced a temporary staff badge as if from thin air, waving it at the handful of employees they passed. He deftly navigated the hallways and led Mike to the second level. They stopped before a heavy curtain hanging in a doorway which Ed gracefully slid aside to permit entry.
“The new exhibit,” he said, gesturing at the sizable room. The walls were adorned with art, but the area was otherwise an open space. “You’ll be able to find us around here. Go ahead and have a look, if you like.”
Mike stepped inside and glanced at the walls. It took only a few seconds for him to realize he had little interest in any of the art. “Interiors and landscapes aren’t my thing. I’ve always liked stuff with people better.”
“That’s my preference as well,” Ed agreed, a smile spreading on his face. “Still, on this occasion I find it quite suitable, since my group will undoubtedly be the event’s highlight. Due to the setting and length of my performance it will be more subtle than what you saw before, but you should be rather amazed nonetheless.”
Ed escorted Mike back to the entrance, idly chatting as they passed a variety of other themed galleries. “It’s been a pleasure,” he said as they returned to the courtyard, “and I do hope you’ll enjoy yourself tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.” Mike looked at the gallery’s glass facade again, studying the hours of operation. “Closes at eight, huh? I won’t offer you money again, but could I buy you a drink once you and your group wrap up tomorrow? There’s a halfway-decent bar a few blocks away. It’s nothing special, really, but the beer’s always cold.”
“Another gracious offer, but I’m afraid I’ll be unavailable.” Ed fidgeted in place, tilting side-to-side. “Actually, if you have the time, I could offer you a drink, but it’d have to be right away. It may be a bit early, but I’m expected by the rest of my group. There’s something of a meeting that has to occur with us before an event like this. You’d be most welcome to come along and meet everyone, if you like.”
“Oh. I’m not busy, but I don’t want to get in your way.”
“Nonsense.” Ed waved away the remark. “We have a fine time together as we start to prepare. It’s more of a pleasant social gathering than any sort of serious professional undertaking. And there’s no obligation for you to stay, of course; you can leave whenever you like without the slightest risk of offending us. We’ll be there long into the night. Besides, our performance tomorrow will be all the more entertaining if you meet everyone beforehand.”
Mike was convinced. They hailed a nearby taxi and headed to Ed’s given destination. Classic reggae softly emanated from the car’s speakers through the short ride. Upon arriving at a tall condominium Ed insisted that he cover the fare, producing a folded twenty dollar bill from behind the driver’s rear-view mirror. The cabbie grinned and chuckled as the taxi rolled away.
“That’s the wonderful thing about simple tricks,” he said as they entered the condo and made their way to the elevator. “They’re quick, they’re easy, and they can always snag a smile. Hardly any effort is expended, and someone’s day gets just a little brighter.” Ed tapped the button for the 23rd floor. “To be completely honest, it’s actually a trade. I offer them an unexpected surprise and they offer me a brief moment of total adoration. Believe me, there is no greater feeling.”
The elevator slowed and opened its doors. Ed led them to the leftmost unit and halted in front of it. “Ah. Mike, I should tell you now, this is likely to be something of a dress rehearsal. We haven’t done this sort of work in a few months and are all getting back into character. Don’t be surprised if my friends are a bit… eccentric.”
“No problem. I’ve got an older brother and sister. He’s a used car salesman and she’s a real estate agent. They’re always in character, even at Thanksgiving.”
Ed laughed and nodded. “Good. You should feel comfortable enough here, then.” He knocked twice, waited, and knocked again. After a moment a woman in a bright red sari answered the door.
“Welcome back, Eddie,” she said. Mike noticed a hint of an Indian accent. “You’re nearly the last to arrive. Who’s your friend?”
“Sangita,” he said, with a quick twirl towards his companion, “this is Mike. Mike, may I introduce Sangita, a brilliant and beautiful dancer who ardently refuses to be my assistant.”
“There’s hardly enough time between jobs for me to spend on your hobby,” she said before turning her attention to Mike. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Do come in.”
“Thanks. Nice to meet you, too,” he said as he crossed the threshold. He noticed that Sangita had bare feet. “Shoe policy?”
“Oh, we certainly don’t have one,” Sangita said. “Make yourself comfortable however you see fit.”
“Her shoes stay off, my shoes stay on. Give me just a moment and we’ll get you that drink,” Ed said, closing the door and rushing off into another room. Mike opted to keep his footwear and took a moment to get his bearings. The condo was quite upscale and spacious, though it was presently swamped by a motley crowd.
Sangita ushered Mike inside as he started to scan his surroundings. A set of musicians clad in red jackets sat on a worn leather sofa, though two had set their instruments aside. The third, a bearded man wearing a dark kilt instead of the trousers his companions favored, was cradling a bagpipe on his lap. He spoke quickly in a thick accent that Mike could hardly understand. His comrades laughed as he greeted the newcomer with a nod and a wink.
A woman with sleek black hair lay on a chair in the corner, her bare legs dangling over one of the arms. She took occasional drags of a cigarette, watching and grinning as a young blonde girl instructed a shaggy dog in a variety of hoop-jumping tricks. She commented occasionally, too softly for Mike to hear at a distance, but always with a sly grin. The dog was elated each time it was rewarded with a treat and pat from its tiny trainer.
The nearby sliding glass doors revealed a large balcony outside. It was the one part of the condo which seemed to be sparsely occupied, and with good reason: a pair of men in poofy shorts were swinging and thrusting at each other with fencing swords. Both swung their foils wildly, far too quickly to keep their blades at a safe distance from their opponent, though each somehow managed to deftly avoid each incoming blow.
There were plenty of others milling about the rooms. Mike tried not to stare too long at anyone, smiling politely and then averting his eyes when a glance was thrown in his direction. After a few moments, he was rejoined by the magician. “Sorry for the wait, Mike, I wanted to ensure that the snakes were secure. Now, then, let’s see about that drink I promised you, shall we? Ah!” Ed exclaimed, entering the adjoining kitchen. “Just who I was hoping to find. How are you, Brother Gilbert?”
“Ed!” A plump friar wearing a roughspun robe rushed over, grappling Ed into a hard embrace. “Welcome back, my boy, welcome back!”
“Thank you. Gilbert, let me introduce Mike, a recent acquaintance of mine who fancies the occasional drink.”
“Good, good.” The friar clapped Mike on the shoulder, though it felt more like a punch. “Anyone who likes a good brew is a welcome friend in my book.”
“Ah, thanks,” Mike said, leaning against the counter to recover from the bulky man’s well-intentioned slam.
“Would you do us the honor of granting us a drink from your stock, Brother?”
“One drink? Bugger that. Have as many as you like! Here, now, I’ll pour us a toast to start with.” Gilbert bustled over to a cask he’d set next to the sink and poured three glass steins of ale, taking great care to examine each one in the light before chuckling with approval. “There. Now what is it we’re drinking to, lads?”
“New friends?” Mike suggested.
“A noble toast, indeed. To friendship, then.”
The trio clinked their steins together and drank. It was the first of many drinks which Mike would happily accept. Over the course of the first hour he was swept around the condo and introduced to everyone attending the wild gathering. He drank with them, danced with them, and eventually sang with them. In a matter of hours he was quite lightheaded. He could not remember attending a more fantastic and flamboyant party in his lifetime.
Though he had thoroughly enjoyed himself, Mike finally felt the time had come for him to take his leave. The sun was long gone and many of the gathered guests had retreated to quiet, secluded conversations among their peers. Ed reluctantly agreed, having promised that Mike was free to leave at his leisure, but insisted on walking him downstairs and once again paying for his cab fare.
Once they had returned to the sidewalk below, Ed offered his hand. “Thank you, truly, for accepting my invitation. It was wonderful to socialize with someone a bit more ordinary than the members of our colorful bunch for a change.”
“No, no, thank you, it was great,” he said, using the handshake as an excuse to right himself. “Oof. I had too much of Gil’s beer.”
Ed laughed, signaling a nearby cab. “Don’t worry. The effects of that brew will wear off before you even realize it. Really, thank you for joining us. Your presence made the occasion all the more special, and it’ll be some time before we can have a gathering like this again.”
“No worries,” Mike said, clambering into the taxi. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes. Oh, Mike? Pick a card.” Ed unfurled a deck in his hand and waited for Mike to make a selection. Mike quickly grabbed from the middle of the deck, not wanting to keep the cabbie waiting. Ed smiled. “Good choice. Keep it. I’ll finish the trick tomorrow.”
Mike nodded and closed the door, inspecting his card: the King of Hearts.
Ed had been right about the beer; by the time he stepped out of the cab he was as clearheaded as he had been in the gallery’s courtyard. By the time he showered and made his way to bed he felt exhausted, but was excited to see the group again tomorrow.
He arrived at the gallery in the middle of the day. Mike navigated the building along the same path Ed had led him, making his way upstairs. The heavy curtain which had separated the exhibit from the rest of the gallery was gone.
Mike was confused as he entered the room, as none of Ed’s group were present. He hadn’t seen any of the performers as he made his way here, and there didn’t seem to be any promotion for Ed’s big event. People just milled about the long room with meandering strides and whispered commentary about the art. It was an ordinary day at the gallery.
And then, as he started to glance at the walls, Mike’s jaw dropped.
A jovial friar from the Middle Ages was shown lifting a glass of his brew to inspect it in the light. He stared lustily at the drink he had labored to craft. The monk’s wide grin and round form were perfectly depicted in an oil painting, the plaque mounted below indicating it was from the late nineteenth century. Beside it hung a black-and-white photograph of a snake handler from Miami Beach, marked as having been taken in 1992.
Mike’s eyes widened as he crept through the collection, already eerily familiar with its contents. A lithograph depicted Scottish musicians from the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars playing a tune for the regiment marching beside them. Nearby, a charcoal sketch showed a magician’s assistant in a sheer blouse lounging casually in a chair, puffing a cigarette while watching a young carnie girl train her dog to jump through hoops. A woman in a brilliant red sari was shown dancing in a small silk painting from Rajasthan while an inked page of a yellowed fencing manual portrayed a pair of Italian duelists.
The largest piece of all was a French tapestry hanging proudly in the midst of the rest. It showed a gathering of nobles watching a show with great attention. Their gazes were transfixed on a magician; a beaming, flamboyant Frenchman who brandished the King of Hearts.
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