Wednesday Sampler: The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
December 16, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Wednesday’s Sampler is an excerpt from The Magician’s Lie, a historical suspense thriller from Greer Macallister.
As one reviewer said: This debut novel is historical fiction that blends magic, mystery, and romance.
Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband’s murder – and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless-and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.
July 23, 1905
Six o’clock in the evening
Tonight, I will do the impossible.
The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true. I will show them worlds that never existed, events that never happened. I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world.
Before that, now, I will gather my strength. I will remain motionless, barely even breathing, here in this chair, while preparations happen around me, to me. I feel the feathery touch of brushes on my cheeks, on my chin, as my face is made up for the stage. I feel a heavy thumb press down on my eyelid.
Another hand lightly, lightly edges it with kohl. Fingers twist and pin my hair into place, snap a heavy gilded bracelet onto my wrist. It’s not possible to ignore the hands, but I focus on not reacting to them, on not reacting to anything.
I go through the act inside my head, rehearsing my patter and my gestures, seeing the whole night unfold. I welcome the crowd and take charge of the theater. I produce hats from nothingness. I transport coins through the air with a snap of my fingers, turn¬ing gold into nothing into gold again. The details of each scenebloom and dive and swarm through my head as I picture the evening from first curtain to final bow, here in the chair, silent and still. Without giving any outward sign, I dance on the inside, hearing every trilling and tender note of the music, practicing every elegant step.
When it’s time, I rise on command and step into the dress held out for me, bowing my head. The dress is always last. This is how we proceed every night, and at least in this way, tonight is the same as every other. The hands close up the back of the dress, waist to neck, and then turn me around to pass three tiny buttons through three tiny loops, covering my throat, and my costume is complete.
Onstage I will act as I always act. I will do many impossible things. I will make mysteries of scarves and coins, enchant the audience sweetly, misdirect their attention to take them by surprise. I will entertain and flatter. Then I will close the show, as I always do, with the Halved Man. I will cut a man in two, severing him through his trunk, and he will scream for mercy as the blood pours forth. The audience will be unable to believe what they see, but neither will they be able to reject it. It will look entirely real.
Then I will heal him. He will spring up whole again, wiping away the blood from an expanse of flawless skin, as if there had never been a wound. My healing powers are legendary, though no one really knows their true extent. They don’t know how I wish away my own injuries, the cuts and bruises, the burns, the broken bones. It isn’t part of my legend, but it’s part of my life.
I’m escorted to the stage, as I always am, another set of footfalls moving exactly in concert with mine.
This is the routine now, every night.
This is the life of the most famed female illusionist in the world, very nearly the only one in existence, the life I have made for myself through luck and talent and sheer will. This is the life I have decided to leave behind. This is the life I will end.
Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time.
Tonight, I will kill him.
Seven o’clock in the evening
The magician raises the ax high over her head, lets it hang there a moment, then brings it down in one broad stroke.
The sound of splintering wood rings through the theater. At the same time, there’s a scream. It sounds like an animal, but Holt knows it’s a man. It’s the man in the box, a box the woman onstage just drove an ax straight into. Blood gushes out over the sides of the box, pooling wetly on the floor. He almost vomits.
The blood’s got to be fake. This is an act, he reminds himself, all an act.
His friend Mose whispers, “Like I told you, right? Never seen anything like it!”
“Never,” agrees Officer Holt.
As latecomers, they’re standing all the way at the back, behind the seated crowd, and he looks over the heads of several hundred silent Iowans, holding their collective breath. Even from here, he has a clear view of the stage. Earlier in the magician’s act, there were elaborate sets, like a life-size replica of ancient Rome, with a dozen dancing slave girls and lute players galore. Now there is only the magician, and her ax, and a man’s head and feet protruding from the ends of a long box like a coffin on tall wheels, now half-split through the middle and seemingly soaked with blood.
She raises the ax and swings it down again, workmanlike, as if it were only wood she’s splitting. The man bellows once, twice more, and then falls silent.
The audience waits.
When the magician tosses away the ax, it clatters to the floor with a sharp report, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. She lays her bare hands on the splintered wood and slowly, slowly pushes the two halves of the broken, bloody box apart. She shoves half of the box offstage to the right, returns to the center, and shoves the other half offstage to the left.
Holt finds himself leaning forward, rapt.
At the edges of the stage, ribbons of black smoke rise in slow cur¬rents. The smoke swirls and grows, spreading in inky clouds towardstage center, until the magician—standing with her long, pale arms thrust into the air, waiting—is swallowed whole.
There is a noise like a thunderclap, and the black smoke turns white.
Another noise, and the smoke is gone altogether, along with the magician.
Then there are murmurs from the front of the theater. A distur¬bance in the audience, shifting motions, turning heads. Something’s happening in the front row. Holt can’t see what it is, trapped in the back with his roiling gut. He wants to surge forward. He burns to know how this all ends.
All at once, everywhere around him, applause breaks out, so loud it hurts his head. People gasp, whisper, cheer. The magician is on the stage again—how, when did she get there?—with her arms outstretched once more. The sight of her takes what’s left of his breath away. Her face floats like a moon above the high neckline of her sparkling black dress. One porcelain cheek is splashed with blood.
Then he sees what has amazed the audience. She welcomes to the stage the man from the box, whole again. The man grins and waves. Once broken, now healed, as if the horror and the blood of minutes before had never been.