Authors: Dan Koboldt
To Betty Dietrich (Nanny), the first true believer.
“I never leave home without three things. A deck of cards, a pair of shades, and an eye for easy marks.”
n the night of his strange job offer, Quinn Bradley was making things disappear. He worked nights at an off-ÂStrip theater in Las Vegas, where show magicians came in two classes. One was the quick-Âfingered hack, the kind that copied everyone's tricks to use on drunken tourists. The second class, the true illusionist, ran less common. Illusionists were magic's elite, masters of distraction and misdirection. The Strip drew both classes from all over the world, just as its game tables and bright lights drew ill-Âfated gamblers.
It was Saturday nightâÂshow night in VegasâÂand the club was packed. Word about Quinn's new trick must have gotten around. The crowd was a typical Vegas mix: mostly marks, most of them drunk. Half a dozen of the more persistent copycats. And talent scouts from three major casinos, easily picked out as the sober guys wearing two-Âthousand-Âdollar suits.
Quinn surveyed the audience from a hidden alcove backstage.
About damn time the casinos started scouting me.
He'd been a second act off the Strip for nearly two years. Countless hours of practice and training and equipment design. They'd ignored him as long as they could, because he was from here. Recruiting him wouldn't bring the fanfare of nabbing a performer from New York or London.
But they can't ignore me any longer.
A man in a dark suit stood behind him. He was tall, and wore the suit well. Light hair, delicate features, and that youthful clean-Âshaven look of Nordic ancestry.
“You shouldn't be back here,” Quinn said. Backstage was off-Âlimits to everyone. The last thing he wanted was some wannabe poking around his props and equipment.
“We need to talk.” He had a faint accent, definitely European, but Quinn couldn't place it.
“I don't know you.”
“I'm Lars Thorisson.” He offered his hand.
Quinn ignored it. He wasn't about to let a stranger touch his hand two minutes before a performance. “Did you say Thor's son?”
“Thorisson. It's Swedish.”
And I'm probably not interested.
The last thing he needed was a distraction. “I'm about to go on.”
“You're going to get a job offer tonight.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“You shouldn't take it.”
“The company behind the offer .Â .Â .” Thorisson began. He glanced behind him, lowered his voice. “Let's just say you don't want to get in bed with them.”
Quinn could have smiled. He knew what this was. “Oh, but I suppose your employer can make a better offer.”
“I'm not here to make an offer.”
“Then I'm not sure why we're talking.”
“I'm doing you a favor, Mr. Bradley. Here.” Thorisson snapped his fingers once. A playing card appeared in his fingers. Jack of spades. Decent sleight of hand, for an amateur. He held it out.
“Not bad,” Quinn said. He took the card, and knew right away it wasn't a normal. Too heavy, and not enough flex. “What is this?”
“A way to get in touch. When you realize you're in over your head, push down on the jack's face,” Thorisson said.
“I'll think about it.” Quinn made as if to tuck the card behind his ear, palmed it into his sleeve.
If Thorisson was impressed, he didn't show it. “You'll regret taking their offer,” he said. “Trust me.”
Quinn chuckled. “I grew up in Vegas. I don't trust anyone.”
The noise in the theater picked up. Quinn looked out, saw that the emcee was ready for him. When he turned back, the man in the suit was gone. The emcee's voice boomed an introduction.
“Here he is, folks. Quinn Thomas!”
Quinn Thomas wasn't much different from Quinn Bradley, but in Vegas, you never gave away anything for free.
He smoothed the jacket of his tuxedo one more time, and took the stage. He felt all of their eyes on him. The energy in the room was palpable; even the drunks were quiet. His breathing was too quick, and he was sweating. Damn that guy in the suit. He couldn't afford to screw this up. Not with the scouts watching how he handled himself, how he engaged the crowd. A bad performance in Vegas could kill your career. Quinn had no family, no job prospects, no dreams. The career was all he had. But he couldn't show that.
It was all part of the illusion.
The drab theater had one redeeming feature: a massive bay window that looked out over the desert to the lights of the Vegas Strip. The marks seemed to enjoy a view of why they'd come to the city of sin. For Quinn, it was a constant reminder of what he wanted. What he worked for. They were all there, framed in the glass: The Mirage, Treasure Island, Mandalay Bay. Glowing in the night, waiting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement,” Quinn said. He spread his arms wide, as if in apology. “You're not on the Vegas Strip.” Light laughter from the crowd. Maybe a few looks of genuine surprise.
“Don't worry!” Quinn said. “You made the right decision, coming here.” He flashed a grin. “Who'd like to see a magic trick?”
The audience cheered. He got it started with some parlor tricks. Humor and sleight of hand, for the most part. He pulled a watermelon out of a top hat; the audience always loved that one. It wasn't exactly groundbreaking, but ten minutes of small stuff got them warmed up for the main event.
He doubted they were ready for
Stagehands delivered Quinn's only prop, a brass candelabra with eight unlit candles. Quinn held up both of his hands, palms out, to show that they were empty. This part was all about building the audience's trust; in the business, it was called “the prove.” He lowered them over the candles, clapped once, and spread them wide. Eight wicks burst into flame. Simple sleight of hand, but the audience ate it up.
“My favorite thing about magic is that it's completely unbiased,” Quinn said. “It goes wherever the magician goes.” He gestured to the window. “You didn't go to the Strip tonight for your entertainment. You came here instead.”
That was his cue for the stagehands; they dimmed the lights. The audience could only see the candles, Quinn, and the window behind him.
“And the magic did, too,” he said.
He raised a hand over the left-Âmost candle. “It's not at The Venetian.” He snapped once; the flame went out. And behind him, The Venetian's elegant columns, unmistakable on the Vegas Strip, winked out of view. A few members of the audience gasped, tugged at their neighbors, pointing.
“Nor at Treasure Island,” Quinn continued. Another snap, and the sprawling pirate-Âthemed casino fell into darkness. The audience was buzzing now. One by one the candles went out, and with each, a landmark casino disappeared as well. Caesar's Palace. The Bellagio. MGM Grand. When Quinn extinguished the last candle, most of the Las Vegas Strip was dark.
There was no keeping Âpeople in their seats. They crowded the stage, pressing forward to the window. Velvet ropes kept them back just enough. Quinn stole a glance at the casino scouts. They were trying to keep the excitement from their faces and failing badly at it. One of them took out a phone and dialed, probably to check on his home casino.
Stagehands guided the audience back to their seats. The emcee announced Quinn's name again; he bowed. At that moment, all of the casinos on the Strip popped back into view. The applause was thunderous. He'd always loved that sound. He let out the last half-Âbreath he'd been holding. He'd done it.
The theater owner waited for him offstage. Rudolph “Rudy” Fortelli was fifty pounds overweight and perpetually sweating over a bad spray tan. He'd grown infamous in Vegas for a vicious self-Âinflicted business cycle. Step one, buy an old theater and fix it up enough to attract a good show. Step two, marry the show's starlet. Step three, lose both in a nasty divorce. Rudy had backed a new horse in Quinn, but a good one. Club profits had more than doubled.
Good thing I'm not the marrying kind.
“Incredible, Quinn. Just incredible!” the man gushed. They shook hands.
“Aw,” Quinn said. He waved off the compliment. “You put together a great audience.”
“We're having a good night. The bar's doing well.” Rudy wiped his hands on his sports jacket, suddenly nervous. “IâÂI think I spotted some scouts in the audience,” he said.
“Were there?” Quinn asked. He couldn't hide his smile.
Rudy's face fell. “You wouldn't leave me, would you?”
“I don't know what I'm going to do yet,” Quinn said. It depended on what the scouts said, what offers they made.
Rudy's eyes had the sheen of desperation. “I'll double your pay. Triple it!”
“It's not about the money,” Quinn said, and it was true. He'd worked for years to have this shot. To see his name in the neon lights.
Rudy buried his face in his hands. “Oh, God! It'sâÂit's happening again!”
He seemed a little bit pitiful, and Quinn felt for him. Rudy had given him a gig when the casinos wouldn't even talk to him. He put an arm around the sweaty man, steering him back toward his office. “You'll be just fine. I've got my replacement lined up already.”
“No, no. Won't be the same,” Rudy moaned.
“It'll be better,” Quinn promised. “She's the real deal. I wouldn't leave you with anything less.”
Rudy looked up. “Did you say âshe'?”
Quinn laughed. “Don't even think about it! Now, change your shirt and let's go bask in the crowd.”
He was going to enjoy himself a little bit, for once. It felt like the first deep breath he'd taken since his parents had died. He could still see the disappointment on their faces when they asked if he'd made it yet. If he'd done something with his life. Finally, he'd be able to say that he had, even if it was far too late to tell them.
The audience gradually cleared out, filing like automatons to the bar or to the slot machines. Quinn signed a few autographs, shook hands, and made nice with those who came up. All the while, he kept his eyes on the three casino scouts. They were on their phones, which he took for a good sign.
Near the back of the theater, a man and a woman were also sticking around. They weren't regulars; Quinn could tell that right awayâÂyou learn to size up marks in an instant if you're going to get anywhere in this racket. He noticed the suits weren't flashy enough for anyone in the entertainment business. Good posture on both of them, though. Beyond that, they were a mismatched pair. The black guy looked like a linebacker, right down to the military buzz cut. He cased the room constantly, but was casual about it. The woman was tiny by comparison, but more businesslike. And watching Quinn like a bird of prey.
The scouts got up and started working their way to the front. He felt a thrill in his stomach. Three of them coming to talk to him at the same time. He was going to have a bidding war on his hands. He only hoped Rudy got back in time to savor the moment.
Still, the Âcouple at the back kept distracting him. She had something metallic in her hand. Bigger than a phone, smaller than a tablet. She hadn't recorded him with it; he'd have noticed. She seemed to tap out a brief message before putting it away.
Almost simultaneously, three phones rang in the pockets of three expensive suits. The casino scouts halted in their casual circling and answered.
That can't be good.
He watched each of their faces flicker from puzzlement to acquiescence. They turned in their tracks and made for the door.
“What the hell?” Quinn muttered. Damn it, they'd been on their way up to him! He thought about going after them, but there was no time. They were already out the door.
Had someone burned his trick? No, that wasn't possible. In his early years, he'd fumbled an illusion or two. He knew the way the audience changed, when they figured it out. That hadn't happened tonight. If anything, it was the best show he'd ever given.
He felt like he'd been punched in the gut. There went the bidding war and the competing offers. His promising future. Poof. Gone. As quick and inexplicably as one of his own tricks.
e sat in a chair at the front of the theater, waiting for Rudy. Replaying the whole performance in his head. The audience reactions, the applause. Everything had been perfect. But the scouts were gone. A shadow fell over him and he looked up. “RudyâÂ”
But it wasn't the owner. It was the big guy from the back of the theater. He was over six feet, and had to weigh at least two-Âfifty. All of it muscle.
“Good show, Mr. Bradley,” he said.
“Do I know you?” Quinn asked. That the guy knew his name, his real name, put him off. Then it dawned on him that the Swedish guy had known it, too.
What the hell's going on tonight?
“My name's Logan. My boss would like a word.”
Quinn stood up, and tried to balance the glimmer of hope with caution. “Absolutely. Let me grab the theater owner, andâÂ”
“No need for that,” Logan said. He put a massive hand on Quinn's shoulder and steered him down the aisle. “Let's just have a quick chat.”
Damn. He'd really hoped to have Rudy around, to help drive up the price. To make them work for it a little.
A little turnabout is only fair.
As he walked, Quinn sized up the man next to him a bit more. Logan was a little older than he'd thought at first glance. Maybe mid-Âthirties. His suit was tailored, too. More expensive than it looked. Quinn glimpsed something in the inside pocket, some kind of metal case. A chance to get one ahead, where any decent magician wanted to be. So he stumbled and half fell against him. “Oh, sorry.”