“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, but it is not I who deserves your accolades, for this particular magic is not my doing. It is the power of this cursed blade!” Léger shoots a finger upward. “This hexed blade, a boon from the devils who aid this damned art.” Léger begins to pace. “Ladies and gentlemen, the blade above me has taken the arms of twenty-three men and the lives of thirteen. It was only after that thirteenth death, a freak accident that severed its victim’s spinal cord so cleanly and swiftly that the young man remained perfectly lucid for two minutes after the blade had divided him into two halves, only then did the lumber mill’s owner finally get rid of the saw the workers had named the Devil’s Teeth.”
The blade lowers the last few inches and begins to disappear into the wide leather belts over the Jill and Lucinda’s waists. Although neither woman seems to be in pain, both are overwhelmed with fear. Léger arcs the blade back and forth with an exaggerated sawing motion until it finally emerges on the underside of the gurneys. Léger pulls the blade back through and free, and gestures for it to rise back into the rafters. The women are still fearful and panting but relieved to have seemingly made it through the ordeal intact.
With seasoned panache, Léger wheels both gurneys in unison to the edge of the stage, allowing the audience a moment to inspect them. Then, without warning, Léger kicks at the gurney’s bases and, with a flourish, pulls them apart with his hands, separating them, and their passengers, into four halves. On each of the four gurney sections lies half a body, legs twitching on lower halves, eyes bulging with sheer terror on upper halves. The crowd gasps and shrieks in shock, hands flying to gaping mouths.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen! Remain calm!”
Léger goes to work rearranging the gurney halves, spinning them around one another like a shell game, until they finally come to rest back together, only now Lucinda’s legs are matched with Jill’s upper body and vice versa. Léger eyes each gurney, makes precise adjustments here and there, making sure the alignments are correct. Then with a loud clap and a wave of his hands, he begins to unbind the women, first the shackles, then the belts. When he’s finished he steps away and the women start to tentatively move, sitting up, examining their reconstructed bodies. Lucinda dismounts her gurney first, then Jill. The pair stand there for the audience to see.
The crowd erupts into riotous applause. Jill now stands in her white satin bodice but with Lucinda’s inky black boots and fishnets, and Lucinda still wears her latex corset, but now has on Jill’s frilly white garter belt and stockings. Jill and Lucinda are stunned, exchanging bewildered glances with one another between gazing dumbfounded at their swapped lower bodies.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been wonderful! Thank you and good night!”
The crowd cheers louder still.
“And thank you to the Crystal Theater for an astounding run. Come see us starting next week with Carnaval des Morts at the Luxor. Thank you!”
The audience gives a standing ovation. Léger beams with pride. Jill and Lucinda join him, smiling widely now, dropping the ruse. The trio takes a bow as the curtain falls.
Léger sits at a lighted mirror in a cramped dressing room, catching his breath and basking in the afterglow of the audience’s adoration. There’s a knock on the door, followed by Jill and Lucinda entering. Each is still wearing the mismatched lingerie from their final trick. They’ve brought champagne and three flutes. They all hug and congratulate one another, smiles all around. A steady procession of agents, producers, assistants, and VIPs knock at the door and poke their heads in to offer congratulations and goodbyes, all of which are graciously welcomed and returned.
Léger says, “I think I’m actually going to miss this old place. There was a certain...”
“Don’t say it,” Lucinda tells him.
Léger smiles. “Magic.”
“Not me, baby,” Jill says. “I won’t miss that rickety-ass stage with its uneven boards my heels got caught on every night. Or the stairs. Or the fact that it only seats thirteen-hundred people.” She has to step aside as Léger opens his well-used wardrobe case to hang up his tuxedo jacket. “Or this excuse for a dressing room.” She curls her fingers under her hairline and peels away the blonde wig, revealing her natural brunette. She tosses the wig to Lucinda who opens the lid to a ragged steamer trunk in the corner, dropping it in alongside Léger’s black top hat, a bejeweled turban, feather boas, a pair of chrome hoops, an oversized scimitar, and various other tools of the trickery trade.
“Still,” Léger says. “The old gal’s got charm.”
“To the Crystal,” Jill says, raising her glass.
“To the Crystal.”
An hour later, the Crystal is empty with the exception of the few stagehands it takes to close the place down, and Léger. Alone, he walks to center of the stage. The theater is dark; only the familiar lone beam pierces the black. It’s a nice touch, Léger thinks. He makes a mental note to thank the crew for allowing him one last moment in the spotlight here. He glances up at the real star of his show, his pride and joy, the Devil’s Teeth, before he turns to walk off the Crystal’s stage one last time.
Léger freezes in his tracks. In the darkness, just beyond the edge of the illuminated circle, stands a figure.
“Hello?” Léger asks.
No reply. The glow from the spotlight’s beam bleeds into the dark and reveals only the man’s outline. Slowly a smile forms on his face, his lips parting to show his glinting teeth, reflecting the white light. The figure steps forward. Léger’s knees threaten to collapse. A film of sweat instantly coats his palms. The figure is wearing a black suit and tie, impeccably tailored. His hair is oily black, slicked back. A pointed goatee juts from his chin. Léger blinks to make sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him. They aren’t. The man’s skin is blood red and shines like polished leather. A pair of horns, the size of thumbs, protrude from his forehead. Behind him, a prehensile, forked tail lazily coils and weaves. His smile widens.
Léger’s voice is hesitant. “Are you...” he begins.
When the red figure opens his mouth to speak, the sound is scratchy and distant, like a needle dropping onto an old record. “I am.”
Léger can only stare.
“Am I not how you imagined me?”
He is. Exactly. Léger suddenly remembers a crayon drawing he did as a child, showing himself on stage, performing magic in a tuxedo, pulling a white rabbit from a top hat. To his left, he had drawn the Devil, his unseen guide. Now, here he stands.
“You have something that belongs to me. You didn’t think you’d get to keep it forever, did you?”
Léger knows. He glances ruefully upward at the saw.
The Devil says, “You owe me.”
“Please, ladies and gentlemen! Remain calm!”
The audience at the Luxor, easily five times larger than what Léger was accustomed to at the Crystal, refuses the command, growing all the more fevered instead. Léger spins the gurneys with the grace and precision of a seasoned dancer. Jill and Lucinda are appropriately distressed, pantomiming a barely contained fear that they may never be whole again, forever separated from their lower halves. Léger lines up the gurneys, stooping to eye each one’s alignment, tweaking them with a nudge. Satisfied, he stands tall and claps and waves his hands over the women. With the subtlest flicker of a signal from his fingers, he silently asks for the crowd’s help. The dark power needed to reconstruct these bodies is no small thing. It will need to be invoked, summoned from some other place. The crowd raises their incantations to the rafters, lending to the Astounding Léger strength, and to his Lovely Assistants courage.
Léger surveys his enthralled audience, basking in their empowering applause as they themselves revel in this almost cruelly anticipatory ritual. He steals a glance at Jill and then at Lucinda. Behind their exaggerated masks of fright is the acknowledgment they were all, right here, tonight, at the height of their very real powers.
Léger unbuckles their restraints and steps back as Jill and Lucinda go through the act of testing out their reattached, mismatched legs in amazement. The crowd erupts in astonishment and relief. It’s rapturous.
The Luxor’s dressing rooms are cavernous compared to the glorified closet the three of them used to share. Léger stares at himself in the mirror, still in his top hat. He replays the show in his head, as he always does; the bits that went over better than he’d expected as well as the parts that fell flat. He can’t think of anything to assign to the latter category.
There’s a staccato knock on the door and Jill and Lucinda let themselves in. They’re virtually vibrating with post-show energy. They pace and circle one another, buzzing, ostensibly critiquing their performance but really just reliving it.
“How hard did they bite on the Pendulum gag?” Jill says, eyes wide.
“I know!” Lucinda bounces. “I couldn’t believe it. They never went for it like that at the Crystal.”
“Do we even need the blindfold? I think tomorrow night I’ll not use it.”
Lucinda nods. “Yeah. It might be better if the audience can see your facial expression.”
“You want to be the one to do the Assistant’s Revenge tomorrow night?”
“Sure, if you don’t want to. That might be a good time for you change into the genie get-up?”
The women chatter until Jill notices that Léger has scarcely acknowledged them.
“You okay, John?”
He simply stares at his reflection.
Finally, he snaps out of it, blinking his eyes. “Yeah, that all sounds good. The Pendulum gag. Yeah.”
Jill and Lucinda exchange a quick glance and shoulder shrugs. Each woman kisses Léger on the cheek on their way out of the dressing room. Lucinda smiles at his reflection and says, “Nice job. You killed them tonight.”
The women leave the Astounding Léger alone in his dressing room.
He stands and walks to his wardrobe case, peeling off his tuxedo jacket and hanging it up inside. He removes his top hat and slowly moves to his trusty steamer trunk, once a commanding presence in his old dressing room, now small and insignificant in his luxurious new accommodations. He pauses for just a moment and then lifts the lid.
“Nice job,” a voice drifts up from the trunk, scratchy and distant. Mocking. It coughs and then begins to laugh. “You killed them tonight.”
Léger looks down at the disembodied head nestled among the costumes and stage props. Somehow the head has managed to get itself into the sequined turban, only the red, thorn-like horns that jutted from its brow keeping it from fitting perfectly. Just below the jawline and pointed goatee, the neck has been severed clean, a darkened bead of blood, redder even than its skin, has congealed along the perimeter. The head smiles up at Léger, white teeth flashing. “That’s my saw, you know.”
Léger looks at the head, his lips curling in disgust before slamming the trunk’s lid closed again.
“That’s my saw!” the voice emanates from within, muffled but easily audible. “You owe me!”
The Astounding Léger walks, trancelike, out of his dressing room, shutting off the light on his way out. He closes the door behind him, glancing at his stage name and big, glittery star adorning it. He walks away, the voice in the room audible halfway down the hall.
“You owe me!”
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