Darius the Dazzler by Newton Webb
An Occult Horror Short Story: Magic, morality, and marriage intertwine in this dark tale of a magician's rise and fall in the seductive shadows of the Jazz Age.
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Darius the Dazzler by Newton Webb
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Darius the Dazzler by Newton Webb
1927, New York
In a cacophony of trumpets and saxophones, ‘Harlem’s Nocturnes’ wound down their act. Darius the Dazzler, his sequined waistcoat gleaming, strode onto the dimly lit stage with false bravado, his greased pencil moustache twitching nervously. Beside him, his glamorous assistant and wife, Isabella, stood in all her glory, her dress sparkling under the spotlight.
The audience, composed of slightly inebriated joes in cheap linen suits and cigarette-smoking dames, turned their attention from the speakeasy’s dark corners to the stage. Darius the Dazzler flashed them his practised smile, his eyes wide as he tried to conceal the stage fright churning in his gut.
“For my first act...” he announced, his voice wobbling slightly. He produced a top hat, twirling it in his trembling hands before showing the audience its emptiness. “With a wave and a tip, from my hat comes a rabbit.” A weak applause followed, sprinkled with sceptical laughter. “A magical feat, not just a habit.” He waved his wand over the hat and spoke the arcane words, “Deus, quaeso, lepus in hoc pileo sit.”
Darius plunged his hand into the hat, his eyebrows arching in concentration. His gloved hand lifted the secret compartment and scoured the recesses for a moment, then two, until the quiet murmurs grew into a dull roar. He gave a broad, nervous smile. “Seems the magic’s a bit shy tonight.” The audience, their patience waning, erupted into a cacophony of boos and jeers. “But ain’t that the thrill of the live show, eh?”
“Got something right here that the dame can make disappear,” a heckler from the front yelled, grabbing at his crotch, his cheeks flushed with drink. His comment elicited a round of laughter and catcalls.
A seething rage bubbled within Darius, replacing his anxiety and mortification. His fists clenched as he spun around to face the man who’d dared to insult Isabella. “Now you look here!”
Isabella put a hand on his chest. “Come on, Darius, move on to the next trick. Pay that lout no mind.”
Darius nodded and took a deep breath.
“See? The two-bit broad wants it!” The drunk cackled.
“Darius, no!” Isabella pleaded as he pushed her to one side and leaped down from the stage, walloping the man on his head with his cane, knocking off his hat.
The drunk wrenched the cane from his grasp, stood up, and snapped it over his knee. A ham-sized fist hit Darius on the chin and sent him to the floor. The man’s leather shoes stomped towards him, but Darius, his eyes widening, ignored them.
“Fumpa!” he cried out. In the corner of the room, he had spied his missing white rabbit as it calmly chewed on a discarded pamphlet. They locked eyes for the briefest of moments before the giant bouncer, Saxon, caught him and unceremoniously dragged him to the door. His protests were for nought as Saxon tossed him into the filth ridden alley. Isabella followed, carrying his magician’s case. The sound of jeering followed him out into the cold New York streets.
“You are done, Darius. The Dazzler? What a joke. Darius the Dunce more like.” The manager stood in the doorway with his arms crossed,sneering at him. “I never want to see you back here again.” The door of the speakeasy was slammed shut and the bolts clicked into place.
Isabella offered him a hand and levered him up onto his feet.
“I am so sorry. I don’t know what went wrong.” He swayed, still disorientated from the punch.
“Maybe it is time to apologise to your old man. He’s still got a good job waiting for you.” Isabella said as she quietly led him down the alley towards the main street.
Darius shook her hand off, his eyes flaring. “Never, not on your life. That’s exactly what he wants! He wants me to grovel.” Darius spat on the pavement. “He has always looked down on me. If there was another war, then he’d expect me to be a hero, just like him. But there isn’t, so I must go and work for him. I’d just be his shadow.” Darius shuffled down the street. “I’m my own man. I’ll hit the big time on my own terms or take a dirt nap trying,” he grumbled angrily to himself.
Darius sat at the kitchen table as the clock approached midnight. After his outburst earlier, the bravado was wearing off and depression had well and truly set in. Isabella put two steaming cups of coffee and a pair of bologna sandwiches in front of them.
“What am I going to do, Isabella?” Darius asked. He took a sip of the scalding hot drink.
“You have to speak to your father.”
Darius glared at her. “That isn’t an option, and you know it.”
“We are a week behind on the rent and we’ve lost our only paying gig.” She reached over to stroke his hand. “I know how you feel, but just how many options do we have left?”
Darius sat in silence, his stubborn determination to succeed as a magician almost faltered before he sniffed. “I’ll pawn my watch tomorrow. That’ll buy us some time.”
“Time? Darius, listen to yourself. Please.”
“One week.” He looked up. “If I don’t get another paid gig in a week, then I’ll…” He ground his teeth. “I’ll go and see Father.”
She looked uncertain, but smiled at him.
Shadows stretched long and lean in the early morning hours, cast by the towering buildings lining the narrow back streets. Darius strode on, radiating a false confidence. His chin was up, his eyes steely, belying the fear that thrummed in his heart. The filthy cobblestone lanes echoed with the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the hum of automobiles. Laundry was strung from fire escape to fire escape, fluttering in the cool breeze and adding a homely touch to the otherwise gritty landscape.
Darius dodged round a steaming pile of horse manure. He could hear the cacophony from the main thoroughfare, even this far back. The raw shouts of the street vendors melded with the discordant honks of drivers and the ceaseless chatter of the city’s denizens. He nodded benevolently at a young man, who scowled back at him in return as they passed. The stench of horse manure mingled with the sharp tang of smoke from nearby factories and the underlying hint of the salty Hudson River. He passed several back-alley bakeries, speakeasies and shops until he found his destination, ‘Paddy’s Pawn & Antiquities’.
Paddy’s was a dismal shop. It reeked of old wood, musty books, aged leather, and human failure, dusty violins, tarnished silverware, weathered books and unwanted junk
Paddy was sitting in his usual place, perched behind a wooden counter, protected by a steel screen. A treasure trove of pawn tickets, jewellery, and dollars was boxed up at his side. The glimmering light from the bare bulbs overhead cast dancing reflections off the gold and silver items that lay in the steel reinforced glass cabinet below.
Darius paused as he approached the counter. The pocket watch was a gift from his father on his eighteenth birthday. He looked into Paddy’s eyes. Paddy gave him a knowing smirk. He’d seen this conflict before, a thousand times.
“Greetings, my good man, the name’s Darius the Dazzler, and have I got a beaut of an item for you? A genuine—”
“Cut the gab. Hand it over and I’ll tell you what it’s worth,” Paddy interrupted.
Pulling out the pocket watch, Darius presented it to Paddy with a gracious gesture.
“Forty dollars for thirty days, eight bucks for interest.”
Darius froze, his eyes flaring. “Forty dollars? This is a masterpiece crafted by the Hamilton Watch Company. I’ll not accept a loan for less than half its shelf value. One hundred dollars. I won’t budge an inch.”
“Forty dollars, or there’s the door, you mook.”
Darius adopted a more obsequious stance, plastering a beneficent smile on his face. “Maybe if you gave it another gander—”
“Forty bucks.” Paddy leaned back, crossing his arms.
“You bloodsucker, you leech, you parasite, you—”
Paddy jerked a thumb towards the exit. “Take it or scram.”
A soft voice, barely a whisper, echoed. “Seal the deal, then purchase me and I’ll make you wealthy beyond belief.”
Darius spun around, trying to pinpoint where the voice was coming from.
“Well, are you gonna hawk it, or are you just gonna flap your gums?” Paddy raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
“Over here, you gibbering imbecile.” The voice continued. “I’m covered by something ghastly. Is it linen? Please don’t let it be mere linen.”
Darius wandered away from the counter, following the sound. Confused, he lifted a cloth off a burnished antique mirror. It had a captivating shimmer to its glass. As he looked into it, his own reflection morphed into the impressive visage of a man sporting a top hat and a meticulously curled moustache.
“You can hear me?”
“Yeah, I can hear you. How are you talking to me?” Darius looked behind the mirror to see how the trick was being performed.
“Oh great, you’ve lost your marbles.” Paddy folded his arms. “All right mister, time to go.”
“Shh, say nothing. You are upsetting the mortal. Just buy me.” The man in the mirror pleaded. “I can make you rich. My magic is powerful beyond your imagination.”
The corners of Darius’s mouth curled up into a hopeful grin.
I’ll never have to grovel to the old man again.
“How much is this mirror?”
Paddy looked at him shrewdly. “Forty dollars.”
“Of course it is,” Darius muttered bitterly as he handed over the pocket watch.
He left the pawn shop holding aloft his new mirror. The tarnished, glistening object shimmered, and the aged magician appeared in the centre.
“Well done, old boy. You have just taken the first step towards joining an elite group as a master of the arcane arts. Of course, I’ll need something too, a body, for instance, so that I can leave this mirror.”
“I’ll do anything, I promise, but I can’t help you unless I get money, and fast.” Darius could hardly breathe, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation was percolating in his gut, forming a cocktail more potent than any glass of Bee’s Knees. “I have a problem. I was supposed to return with money for the rent.” He sucked at his teeth. “I don’t suppose you can conjure–” he waved his hands dramatically “–or magically summon forth dollar bills?”
From within the mirror, Cornelius flared his eyes. “In a way, my dear boy. We’ll do it in the most time-honoured of sorcerous traditions, using the wondrous power of illusion.” Cornelius hesitated. “Tell me, are you familiar with the card game Poker?”
Darius nodded slowly. “Yes, but I have no luck with the cards.”
“Luck?” Cornelius looked as though he had just tasted something foul. “Magicians don’t deal in luck. We calculate. We study. We win. Now, I just happen to know a little Sumerian cantrip that will sway the fates in your direction.” Cornelius smirked, his face filling the glass.
Darius felt his heart beating with excitement. For the first time since he’d embarked on his quest to become a magician he was beginning to feel a strong stirring of hope.
He stepped out and walked tall through the labyrinthine heart of New York. Illegal speakeasies thrummed with jazz, bathtub gin joints leached cigarette smoke. It was a given that every such establishment harboured a clandestine back room, alive with the clink of whiskey glasses and the rustle of playing cards. He’d performed at enough of these places to know his way around.
“I don’t have cash, but I can front this rather fine antique mirror.” Darius bowed obsequiously to the thugs in front of him. They scoffed at it. This was the fifth such den of iniquity. He had tried to find a game that would allow him in. Each den was poorer than the last as he strove to find someone who would accept his mirror as collateral.
A man in a cheap linen suit puffed on a cigar as he regarded Darius with an ill-favoured look. “You think you can join us by bartering that copper trash?”
Darius ignored the sputtering from Cornelius. “This is not copper. This is nothing other than the finest bronze, a relic from ancient Egypt. It is a masterpiece worth at least a thousand bucks, two thousand even, to a collector, a connoisseur of the period.”
A slippery looking devil, with a pencil-thin moustache, was sitting in the shadows in the gloomiest corner of the room. He gave Darius a greasy grin. “That’ll be a fine addition to the downstairs shitter. Please the wife no end.” He pulled out a pair of bills. “I’ll front you twenty bucks with the mirror as security. It’s a ten dollar buy in for the game.”
“Only twenty dollars?” Darius sputtered.
“Take it,” Cornelius said. He gave a dark chuckle. “It’s all we need. Soon he’ll be so desperate he’ll give us the clothing off his back. Now, head to the toilet and cut the palm of your hand, nice and deep, and listen closely. I want you to say ‘Sukunsu Ramansu.’”
Darius paused. They poured drinks from a bottle of whiskey at the centre of the table. The man with the cigar offered a glass to Darius.
”You’ve got to be joking,” Darius spluttered.
“All real magic needs sacrifice. It’s the circle of life. You get nothing for free,” Cornelius said.
The man with the whiskey shrugged. “Could’ve just said ‘no.’”
Darius bit his lip. “I need to hit the john real quick.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve just got here.” The player with the pencil-thin moustache complained.
“I’m really sorry. I’ll be quick,” Darius promised.
“Remember ‘Sukunsu Ramansu!’” Cornelius yelled from the mirror.
Darius scuttled out to the main bar. Finding the toilets there, he sought refuge in one of the cubicles.
Why am I doing this?
He pulled out his pocket knife and clicked it into the locked position.
Because a magic man in a mirror told me to. I’m going insane.
He took a deep breath and sliced into his sweaty palm. It was harder than it looked. The combination of the pain and the blunt knife meant his forehead was covered in a sheen of sweat by the time a line of thick carmine red swelled up in his palm. “Sukunsu Ramansu,” he muttered. His eyes widened as the blood disappeared, his hand shook as deep, aching pain ran up his arm and he bit on his arm to stop himself crying out in pain. He looked round. Nothing seemed to have happened. The worn paint of the cubicle was just the same, no sparks, no lights, no smoke, just the ammonia scent of stale urine. But, glancing down, his eyes widened in amazement. The cut in his hand had already healed and there was no trace of any blood.
Darius returned to the table. He picked up the cards that had been dealt to him, with a newfound confidence, despite their dismal content. Darius looked up at the other players. He could see the card backs mirroring their fronts. Much to the other players’ suspicion, he grinned and shuffled his cards into order. “Well, gentlemen, let’s play, shall we?”
Darius burst through the front door with glee on his face. “Isabella! Isabella, pour us both a glass of gin. I have magnificent news.” He thudded the mirror on the living room table.
“Careful,” Cornelius hissed.
Isabella came into the room and Darius grabbed her hands, swinging her in a clumsy waltz around the tiny flat.
“Did you get much for the watch?” Isabella asked.
“More than I’d expected. Here, this will keep us going for a few weeks.” He pulled a wad of grimy notes from his jacket, which she immediately squirrelled away in a coffee tin.
Her eyes travelled to the mirror. “What is that?”
“That is for a new act. Oh Isabella, I met someone, and he taught me such secrets. I was sworn to secrecy, otherwise I would happily teach you the forbidden arts of the ancient world.” Darius kissed her exuberantly. “I need tomorrow to practise, then I am getting my job back. They won’t be able to resist my new tricks.”
Isabella grinned with reflected enthusiasm. “That’s wonderful, but you remember your promise, don’t you?”
“If I don’t get a good job by the end of the week, I promise you I will abandon my dreams and beg my father for a job in the firm.” Darius pulled her close. “But I won’t have to, because this time next week I’m going to be famous.”
Isabella danced with him. “I believe in you D, I really do.” Pulling apart, she left to pour the last of the gin into two glasses.
Cornelius, within the mirror, was drinking a martini. He looked wistfully at the drink. “If only it were possible to get drunk in this infernal prison.” He tossed the empty glass behind him, and Darius heard it shatter. Another glass materialised in Cornelius’s hand, and he beamed at it. “Still, the fun is in the trying.” His eyes narrowed. “Don’t celebrate too much. We have much work to do tomorrow.”
Darius nodded, paying attention until Isabella arrived with the gin. Then he gently dropped a woollen blanket over the mirror, despite Cornelius’s sputtering indignation and led his wife into the bedroom.
Unable to sleep, Darius left his wife’s bed before sunrise and went to the mirror. He removed the cloth, but the glass only showed his own sleep-deprived face looking back at him. “Psst,” he hissed. He waited, then tried again, louder, “Cornelius?”
A head appeared wearing an eye mask and a nightcap. Cornelius scrabbled at the mask with his hands, then peered blearily through the mirror at Darius. “When I said don’t celebrate too much, I did, of course, mean get your eight hours of sleep. I can’t have you falling asleep at the table while I struggle to teach you elementary Enochian.” He waved his hand and a china cup materialised in it. “What I wouldn’t give for a cup of real coffee. There is a limit to what the placebo effect can achieve. What time is it, anyway?”
“I sold my watch.” Darius shrugged. “The sun hasn’t risen, though.”
“The sun hasn’t? Oh, heavenly hosts, save me from these savages.” Cornelius looked round at the cramped kitchen-living room combo. “You live here? I barely got a glimpse of your barren prison complex before you tossed that filthy rag over me.”
“Filthy rag?” Darius picked up the woollen blanket and self-consciously folded it. “Isabella’s mother knitted that. It’s for our first child.”
Cornelius gave a look of disgust. “Well, burn it and save your child from its scratchy embrace. The poor thing. You might as well wrap it in burlap.” He pursed his lips. “Now that you’ve rudely awoken me, perhaps you could find us somewhere private, so we can practise away from prying eyes.”
“That will be a problem. Our apartment is quite small.”
Cornelius gave Darius a long look. “You absolutely are not practising in here. I shall teach you the secrets of the ancients, mystical incantations that are not for the ears of the common people, even if you are married to them.”
Darius pondered, pacing up and down the cramped room. “I don’t know anywhere, I…”
“You don’t know any cafés that will let you practise after hours? What about public houses? Taverns? How about warehouses? I’m sorry, this is New York, isn’t it?”
“Well, none of them will be open now.” Darius scratched the back of his neck. “I could ask around at nine, I guess.”
Cornelius replaced his eye mask and adjusted his nightcap. “Well then, what a wonderful interlude into what had previously been a marvellous sleep. You can wake me when we are somewhere private. Just keep me away from nunneries. I’ve had bad experiences with nuns.”
Finding a convenient place to practise was harder than Darius had expected, warehouses were a bust, nobody wanted to leave him unsupervised and surrounded by goods. Bars, well, they didn’t want him to be left unsupervised with their alcohol. Eventually, he struck lucky. One of the local diners had a back room for playing cards. Since nobody in their right mind would play cards at 9 o’clock in the morning, it was standing empty, a vacant room bringing in no income. Consequently, Darius was offered the room for a pittance, with the understanding that in the unlikely event of someone starting a game he would have to leave immediately.
Under these somewhat humbling terms, it meant nearly two stressful days until Darius could actually begin his training. During this time, Darius was feeling sick with excitement, Cornelius was left feeling frustrated under his blanket and Isabella was well aware that her husband was up to something, but she had no idea exactly what that might be.
When Darius finally got Cornelius and his travelling case of magician’s equipment together in privacy, he was so keen to start that he thought he would burst. There was a squeaking sound from his case as he pulled out a small cage of rats. The first spell of the day had been using his own blood to summon them. This was a trivial task in New York City, a vast urban settlement where you are never more than a few feet from a rat.
He placed the mirror on the table and stood ready.
“First lesson,” Cornelius said, “Sacrificing rats discreetly will save you pints of personal blood loss.”
Darius adjusted his suit as he returned to the speakeasy from which he had been expelled under such ignominious circumstances.
As he entered, the manager paused in his task of polishing a glass to swear. “I told you never to return here, Dunce.”
Saxon looked up warily and cracked his knuckles.
Darius smiled and bowed, “My name, dear Harold, is Darius the Dazzler and I am only here for the briefest of moments, just long enough to buy you a drink of the finest bourbon, and then I shall depart.”
Harold looked at him suspiciously, but relented. “Five minutes.”
Darius reached into his jacket where a pigeon lurked and snapped its neck as he muttered “Sh’teh u’d’mach”
The glass in the bar owner’s hand burbled and suddenly filled with a dark red liquid. Harold dropped it down onto the wooden bar, where the glass slopped its contents over the astounded patrons. He sniffed at it suspiciously. “It’s wine.”
Darius bowed again. “Only the best for you, Harold.”
“I thought you said bourbon.” Harold pushed away the glass. “That’s weird, I’m not drinking that.”
“It’s magic wine. It gives you luck.”
One of the patrons eagerly reached for the glass. “I’ll drink it.”
Darius smiled. “A man of taste.”
He gulped it down before coughing. “I think it is corked.”
“Of pedestrian taste.” Darius snatched the wine from his hand and downed it.
Urgh, that wine is vinegar.
It burned as it flowed down his throat. “Lovely. Lovely magic wine.” He smiled.
Harold was still looking at the glass dubiously.
“As you can see, my powers have grown considerably,” He doffed his hat to Harold. “Could you examine my hat, please?” He offered it to the landlord, who looked inside it suspiciously, tapping the inside to check for a false bottom. “Now place the hat on the bar–not on the spilt beer. Show some respect!” Darius recomposed himself. He discreetly used his newly sharpened pocket knife to slice his palm, “Ayeh ha’arnevet sheli,” he chanted.
There was silence as Darius froze before he grinned at Harold. “Could I have my hat back, please?”
Harold lifted the hat, gasping, along with the few spellbound patrons, when he saw that underneath it sat Fumpa, Darius’s white rabbit.
“Ah, Fumpa, I wondered where you had got to.” Darius swiftly scooped him up from the bar and returned him to his crate in the travel case. “I think that is enough magic for now. I save the truly powerful magic for a paying audience.” He looked slyly at Harold. “I don’t suppose you know where I can find one, do you?”
Harold’s eyes narrowed. “Fine, I’ll give you a trial session starting tomorrow night.”
“Why thank you, I recognise an astute businessman when I see one. Though I need to warn you, my rates have doubled. I shall bring along several very expensive components and, like all businessmen, I have to cover my costs.”
“Fine,” Harold growled. “I’ll accept that, for the trial show that is, we can discuss your rates afterwards, if you pass probation.”
The sound of raucous laughter and a roomful of voices raised in heightened expectation filtered through the storage cupboard door. Isabella and Darius stood waiting in the wings for the introduction of their act. Darius had been working four nights a week for two weeks now, and the speakeasy was abuzz with excitement as patrons packed the establishment to the brim, drawn by the tantalising prospect of witnessing Darius the Dazzler’s performance.
As he adjusted his collar in the mirror, Isabella said. “It ain’t right, Darius, and you know it.”
“What isn’t right, dear?” He ran a lint roller over his red suit jacket.
Isabella paused, collecting her thoughts. “Before, when you were doing your act, I knew it wasn’t popular, but it was honest.”
“Honest? Darling, all magic is based on the twin pillars of misdirection and deceit,” Darius said, puffing out his chest.
“I think that cleaning out the dead rats from the inside of your jacket is quite a big difference, D.” Isabella grabbed Darius’s arm. “Talk to me. What are the rats even for? You don’t use them in your act, so why do you kill them?”
Darius sniffed. “They are less bulky than pigeons, but awkward to keep restrained in my jacket, hence the restraining tubes.”
“What do you use them for?”
Darius ignored her. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I can be, I don’t do nothing out there. You do all the tricks solo now.”
Isabella’s whispers were loud enough to make Darius look at the cupboard door with some concern. “Hush, your beauty serves as a distraction. It allows me to work my magic unseen.”
She whacked him on the arm. “I’m not just an ornament, I want to be part of the act. Why won’t you tell me anything?”
“A magician never–”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Isabella glared into his eyes. “I have supported you through thick and thin. We were a team until you got that mirror.”
Darius smiled at her. “We are still a team, only now, I’m making bank for us.”
They heard Harold introducing them.
“Here we go.” Darius was grateful for the interruption. “Brace yourself.” He threw open the cupboard door and strode onto the small pub stage. The lights reflected off his sequinned jacket as he beamed at the audience. A rousing applause greeted him. He glanced back when he noticed the absence of Isabella. She was still in the store cupboard, looking uncertain. He raised his hands above his head. “And introducing my glamorous assistant, Isabella”
Isabella glared daggers at him, before professionalism settled in and she walked out to join him on the stage. Catcalls and wolf whistles greeted her as she curtsied.
Triggering one of his sacrificial rats, Darius waved his wand. A shower of sparks flew over the audience’s heads, hung suspended in the air, and illuminated the room before slowly fading. “Ladies and gentlemen, the magic you are about to witness today was born in Ancient Mesopotamia, before being refined by the mystics in the East. The Pharaohs themselves stood humbled by it.” He bowed. “These sorcerous secrets have never before been seen in America and you are as privileged to witness them as I am to perform them for you.”
The audience watched spellbound as Darius began his routine.
For this final act, Darius summoned ropes, which uncoiled like snakes to secure Isabella to the wall. “Great Osiris, judge of the dead, guide these blades. Oh, sweet Isabella, I trust you to be free of sin, I do.” Flashing a dark grin at the audience, he waved his wand and three knives rose into the air. “But will Osiris be so lenient? I can only hope and pray that he sees you as I do.” The first dagger flew across the room and thudded into the wall, missing her thigh by an inch.
“Blessed Osiris, we praise you for your mercy. Dear audience, I must now invoke the cleansing words to save my sweet assistant from the wrath of the gods.” Darius chanted a few words in Ancient Egyptian and purple smoke rose up around Isabella.
Osiris wasn’t done. A second knife hurtled through the air and barely missed her neck. The third knife wobbled in the air as if indecisive as Darius theatrically threw his hands up in the air and raised the volume of his chanting. The third knife shot forwards and parted Isabella’s hair as it hit the wall. She had tears in her eyes as she sobbed with relief, gasping as the ropes parted and the fear began to leave her system. Shakily, she headed back to the store cupboard.
“Give it up for my brave Isabella, everybody.” The audience clapped and cheered as the room erupted in a standing ovation. Darius took a deep bow, soaking up the adulation with a triumphant gleam in his eye. Harold, the landlord, his face flushed with the success of the night, made his way through the ecstatic crowd. “I would like to thank my good friend Darius the Dazzler personally for his exceptional performance tonight and cannot wait to see him perform again tomorrow at the greatest magic venue in New York.”
They shook hands before Darius turned to bow once more to the audience, who were still cheering enthusiastically, hoping to incite him to make more magic.
His ecstasy at the crowd’s appreciation dimmed when he glanced over to the storage closet and saw his Isabella weeping.
Guilt wracked him and, with a final bow, he walked off the stage towards her with as much speed as he could muster, while still maintaining his composure.
“My sweet, what is it?” he asked as he closed the door behind him. He tried to wrap his arms around her, but she beat her fists against his chest.
“Free of sin? You bound me against the wall, and I don’t even know how. Then you, who, as far as I know, have never thrown a knife in your life, hurl three of them at my face?” She held up a shorn lock of hair. “This is how close you came to killing me, Darius.” She eyed him venomously. “Never again.”
“I’m so sorry, I promise you though, you were never in any danger, my mastery of the arcane—”
“Listen to yourself.” Her voice echoed through the small room. “You believe your own lies. These are tricks, Darius, not spells. You don’t speak to Ancient Egyptian gods.” She shook her head sadly and her eyes locked with his in a pleading gaze. “You used to trust me. You used to show off your skills and include me in your practice.”
“I didn’t have any skills back then. I was just a rude amateur. I’m embarrassed at–”
“Back then? You mean last week?”
Darius didn’t know how to approach his wife. He shook his hands as he tried to think of the right words.
If only there was a spell to make everything better? Maybe Cornelius knows something?
A sharp rapping on the door disrupted his chain of thought.
Darius gave an apologetic look to his wife. Instead of accepting it, she turned away from him. He opened the door to see a sharply dressed man waiting outside.
“I saw your show.” His teeth looked predatory even as his eyes glittered with awe. “And I have to say, I have never seen magic like that.”
Darius preened. “Why thank you, I’ve spent my life researching the dark arts and travelling to the hidden places of the Earth.”
Behind him, Isabella gave an angry snort.
“Well, Darius, it paid off, and it’s about to pay off even more. I’m Benny Maroni, I am a talent scout and I think that in a few weeks, with my guidance, you are going to become rich, rich beyond your wildest dreams.”
Darius licked his lips. “I am?”
“Darius, I have, on my books, some of the wealthiest casinos in the city. We do a brief stint in New York, and then we are heading to Vegas.” Benny rubbed his hands together. “And all I ask–” he looked shrewdly at Darius “–is a meagre… twenty percent.”
“That’s amazing. That’s great. Where do I sign?”
Benny clapped. “I knew that today was going to be a great day! I’ll just go and get the paperwork.”
Darius turned to Isabella. His eyes were glimmering with excitement.
“Darius, you have two options. Either tell me the truth and involve me fully, or I’m leaving you.”
He looked at her, stunned. “What? Didn’t you hear the man? We’ve done it, we’ve hit the big time.”
“You haven’t listened to a single word I’ve said, have you?” Isabella wiped her eyes.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t. Fame blinds you. Are your secrets really worth more to you than us? I’ve stood by you for four years.”
Darius grew angry. “You liked me when I was a loser, is that it? When we scraped for cents, exhausted, tired, and humiliated.” He scoffed. “That’s it, isn’t it? You feel threatened by my success. You are just like my father. Constantly trying to keep me down.”
He grunted as Isabella shoved him to one side and stormed out.
“Baby doll, where are you going?” he called out. “I love you!”
Benny returned. “Trouble with the broad? Don’t you worry, the money you’ll get from signing this contract will buy you ten broads. Hell, you could have twenty broads.”
Darius numbly sighed, his mind still distracted by Isabella. He didn’t understand her reaction at all, but he did know that she’d be expecting an apology.
Rain had been bucketing down all evening. Despite that, Darius had walked home. He had needed to clear his head. Also, he was aware that his breath stank from the fortifying bourbon Benny had been more than happy to stand him. With faint hope, Darius carried a bunch of flowers. He’d spent the last of his money on them, trusting that he would soon be earning so much more.
He stood at their front door, reflecting on his situation. Diplomacy won out, and he knocked instead of letting himself in with the key.
There was a long wait before Isabella, her eyes puffy, opened the door.
“I’m so sorry. I got caught up in everything that was going on.” He handed over the waterlogged flowers. “I love you, Isabella, and I can’t do this without you.”
She looked at him. Her eyes hurt until she lowered her gaze and took the flowers. “I don’t want to leave, but I can’t go on like this.”
Darius took off his jacket, hanging it on the back of a chair. “I know and I understand. It is just… My mentor warned me that if I tell anyone else my secrets, the magic won’t work anymore. I am just so scared Isabella. I feel as though my whole life has been leading up to this moment.”
“I just don’t see where I fit into this new life.“ She sat down. “I wish we had alcohol.”
You and me both, doll.
“This new life? It is meaningless without you. Please, you’ve come all this way with me. Just give me one more week, I beg of you. One more. If you still aren’t happy, then I’ll quit and go and work for my father.” Darius said the last few words with disgust. “I… promise.”
“And have you resent me for the rest of your life? This is the second time you’ve asked me to give you ‘one more week’.” She rested her head in her hands and sobbed.
Darius reached out to her. “I asked you for one week to prove I could make a success of being a magician, and I proved it beyond even my wildest expectations. I am asking you now for one more week to prove I can make you happy.” He winked at her. “If I am as lucky as I was before, then I’ll make you the happiest woman in the world. ”
She sniffed. “One week?”
“One week, baby, that’s all I ask.”
Isabella nodded with resignation and Darius felt his heart swell with hope.
Under the neon glow of Cleopatra’s Casino, a sign emblazoned with “Darius the Dazzler: Magic Like You’ve Never Seen!” flickered. A crowd of eager gamblers lined up around the block for the premiere performance. Inside, Darius stood confidently, his hands on his hips as he watched the crew setting up his new and elaborate stage equipment.
In just two hours’ time, the audience would be filing in to watch Darius give the performance of his lifetime.
He strutted to his dressing room.
The mirror had been mounted in pride of place. Cornelius was waiting for him. “Well then, how is the big star feeling? Are you ready? Have you memorised the incantations? Are your rats wriggling and full of life force?”
Darius beamed at him, taking a deep breath. “It’s mad, absolutely mad, to think that all of this has happened in the last few weeks. Not even a month ago, I was broke and penniless, now–” he gestured to his dressing room.
“Yes, you are quite the man. Just imagine how your father will feel. Soon you’ll be wealthier even than he is.” Cornelius fluttered his eyelids in a condescending manner.
Darius scoffed. “It still won’t be enough to earn his respect. He’ll still tell me about how he served in the trenches and that I’m a weak and spineless boy.”
“Well, who needs him? You’ll soon have a luxurious mansion, servants, everything you deserve.”
“And what about you?” Darius asked. “You’ve been so good to me.”
Cornelius flicked at an imaginary speck of fluff on his jacket. “Who? Me? Oh, I’ll be alive again dear boy, you’ll have found me a body.”
Darius nodded. “Yes, yes, I will. You’ve done right by me and I’m going to do right by you.”
“I never doubted it for an instant.”
“I’d best go and see Isabella. She is nervous about the show. She wanted to rehearse being sawed in half.”
Cornelius nodded. “Of course. You’d think she’d trust you by now. She wants to rehearse everything. But in rehearsing an act, you remove its authenticity.” He dismissed the notion with a theatrical shake of his head. “No, it wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do one bit. Only you and I can practise the incantations. The secrets of magic must never leave the sanctity of the magician - apprentice partnership.”
“I really should go to her. Her stage fright has been getting worse.” Darius bowed to Cornelius, who tilted his head in farewell.
Darius knocked on Isabella’s door, opening it as she called out her permission.
What he saw took his breath away.
She had finished her hair and makeup and was wearing a tight sequined bodysuit. Her cap glistened as though covered with a thousand jewels. It was topped with a huge ostrich feather. When she looked at him, it was through eyes lined with black kohl, surrounded by a smoky eye shadow.
“Darius, I’m shaking. I can’t do this,” she confessed, looking at her hands through her long elbow-length gloves.
Darius knelt before her and kissed her glove. “Every fear, every worry I had melted away when I saw you just now. You look spectacular.”
“But I don’t know what I am doing. I’ll just be tottering around on stage and following instructions. I don’t like it Darius, I’m not happy.”
“This is our debut, our premiere. The audience will be enamoured by you. They’ll experience every act with the innocence of your eyes. Your nerves, your shock, your awe, they’ll be with you every moment of your journey. This performance will be exceptional. They’ll never, ever forget it.” He grinned. “It’ll haunt them for the rest of their days.”
The grand theatre was packed with an expectant audience. The air was heavy with perfumes, cigars, and the electric rush of anticipation.
Darius watched from the wings, puffing nervously on a cigarette, as the warm-up act gave a competent if traditional performance. The assistant was a young thing, who carried herself with a certain grace, but she wasn’t a patch on his Isabella. He glanced at his wife. She was sitting, wide eyed and anxious, sipping a dry martini and tapping her foot against the side of her chair. Darius never drank before a performance. Normally, neither would she, but the poor dear was suffering from an acute case of stage fright.
She’ll settle into the role soon enough.
For the umpteenth time, Darius adjusted his jacket. Despite it being tailored to his body, and despite the custom made rat harnesses, which were far more comfortable than his homemade ones, he just could not get comfortable. The vast crowd, which he’d always believed would motivate him with an electric excitement, instead filled him with dread.
What if I make a mistake? I can’t be Darius the Dunce again, not in front of hundreds of people.
He reached for his case.
Just one more cigarette. Then it’ll be time for me to go on.
As the support act wound up and the compère introduced him, his nerves faded.
It was time… Darius set his shoulders and marched confidently onto the stage, an uneasy smile was smeared across his face. He gave a noble wave of his hand and a flawlessly choreographed bow. He just needed to perform as he’d practised. To introduce his act, Darius sacrificed his first rat.
Even Isabella seemed to enjoy herself as they approached the final act. The crew brought out an ornate coffin on two wheeled trestles. She climbed up a set of portable stairs and into the coffin. Crossing her arms on her chest, she calmly lay back.
“Can I have some volunteers from the audience who, free from compulsion, will ascertain that my beautiful assistant is lying at peace in the coffin and at the mercy of the saw?”
He picked seven of the raised hands at random, and they all solemnly checked the coffin. One serious looking man even knocked on the bottom of the coffin to check for secret compartments; another to Darius’s disapproval waved at the audience.
“Do you confirm she is in the coffin? Darius asked, as he gestured towards Isabella. Only the fates and the merciful gods, guardians of the sacred light, can protect her now.”
“She needs Jeezus,” bellowed a large witness in a floral hat. “That’s what she needs.” The audience laughed.
“I thank you.” He gave a respectful bow to his audience. “You may return to your seats now.” With a sinister smile, he drew out a huge, razor sharp saw which glittered with evil intent. “I ask you all to make the sacred incantation with me. Only with your help can I save my beautiful wife.” He placed the saw into a pre-cut guiding grove. “Ani mitpalel elecha.” With one hand, he sacrificed a rat. “Ruhot atikot shel kedem.” Closing his eyes, he said the final incantation. “Hatzili et ishti.”
The saw cut deep into the wood and slashed down as he vigorously tore through the pine coffin. The first screams started, and he smiled at his wife’s theatrical efforts. The saw continued. The pitch and volume of Isabella’s screams suddenly escalated, and the audience released a collective gasp.
Dial it back a notch dear, that’s a bit too much.
As if she heard him, silence followed, save for the sickening crunch of the saw as it breached the coffin’s other side. The blade was dripping with blood as Darius pulled apart, with a flourish, the two sides of the rent coffin for everyone to witness.
The long and shocked silence of the audience was followed by a wild screaming, and pandemonium as spectators scrambled to escape the living nightmare in front of their eyes. Screams bounced and echoed off the walls. A crush formed as they all panicked and desperately forced their way towards the exits.
Darius frowned in horror and disbelief as he stared blankly at the bloody remains of the coffin and of his wife. As the police were urgently summoned, he finally joined his audience in their screams. Tearing at his hair with his hands, he vomited in horror as blood and innards bled out across the stage floor. Ashen faced, he collapsed in all the gore, his clothes and body stained with the blood of his love.
The interrogation room was cold, the walls stark and oppressive. Darius was handcuffed to a cold metal chair. He’d lost his trademark top hat. He sat in his cape. His red suit was now stained brown with dried blood, tears were running down his cheeks. Darius ignored the detective, Detective O’Malley, who paced before him, staring at the table in shock.
“Listen, Darius, Dazzler or whatever you are called,” O’Malley said, his voice gruff, “this isn’t one of your stage shows. We have witnesses - they all saw what happened to your wife. Cut in half, right on stage! And all you’ve got is some cock-and-bull story about magic mirrors and ancient spells?”
Darius lifted his head. “Detective, I can save her. I just need my mirror. You see, it holds the soul of Cornelius the Conjurer–”
“Save it for the stage.” O’Malley cut him off, slamming his hands down on the table. “You expect me to believe that mumbo jumbo? That’s your defence?”
Before Darius could respond, the door to the interrogation room burst open. A junior officer whispered urgently into O’Malley’s ear. The detective’s hardened demeanour shifted to confusion, then anger. He stormed back to Darius, his fist connecting sharply with the magician’s jaw.
“You think you can make a fool out of us?” O’Malley accused, his voice seething with contempt. “Using us for your cheap tricks, for publicity?”
The handcuffs clicked open, and Darius rubbed his aching jaw, bewildered. O’Malley yanked him up and dragged him through the maze of the precinct. The bustling activity of the station seemed a blur as he pulled Darius toward the front foyer and threw him forcibly onto the tiled floor.
Like a vision amidst the chaos, Isabella stood.
Alive. Whole. Smiling.
No, not smiling, smirking. His relief quickly turned to confusion. “Isabella?” The last time he saw her, she’d been unmistakably, gruesomely, dead. Suddenly, he exhaled, smiling with relief. “Cornelius saved you, Oh, thank God.”
“Quit your acting, nobody believes you, Dazzler, and get out of my station.” O’Malley snarled. “You’re free to go, no charges. But hang around and I’ll book you for wasting police time.”
As Darius stumbled towards Isabella, his mind reeled.
How is this possible? Have I fallen for my own illusion?
Isabella’s eyes met his, but her expression seemed alien, unfamiliar.
As they left the precinct, stepping out into the bustling streets of New York, Darius felt his heart grow cold. “Cornelius?”
“Hello, my dear boy, I must thank you for clearing out the spirit and preparing this body for me. It’s far more athletic than my last one.”
“No,” Darius staggered back.
“You never even bothered to learn the magic, did you?” Cornelius, in Isabella’s body, shook her head. “You just parroted out whatever spell I told you to. You are completely addicted to fame.” She smirked. “You made it so easy.”
A tear rolled down Darius’s cheek. “Isabella, I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Cornelius laughed scathingly, “No, my dear boy, you just didn’t care.”
If you enjoyed this free short story, then please consider Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1. My first collected works on Amazon containing sixteen short stories and novellas by Newton Webb.