Today’s Crime Cafe guest post and giveaway comes from John Gaspard.
In fact, you can get a copy of the giveaway right here! I’ll let John explain how.
In anticipation of my upcoming interview on the Crime Café Podcast, below is a short story that acts as a pretty good introduction to magician Eli Marks and his world: “The Last Customer.” If you’re more digitally inclined, here are some optional ways you can enjoy the story:
Regardless of your reading/listening/viewing choice, I hope you enjoy this short Eli Marks mystery.
The Last Customer
I thought he was going to be my last customer.
Which was a bit ironic, because after a long day in the shop, he was also my first customer. Such is the sad life of a brick-and-mortar magic shop in this day of online browsing and shopping.
At the moment, though, I was in a bit of a fog, trying to decide if the customer’s shaggy hair would best be described as dishwater blond or sandy brown. In the midst of what I’m guessing you would call a transaction, the bell over the shop’s entrance tinkled. The last customer and I looked at the door as it swung open. For a moment I thought it might have just been the wind, as no one was immediately visible in the doorway. Then I glanced down and saw a kid. He might have been seven or eight or nine or ten—I really have no concept of the standard height-to-age ratio with kids these days. But he looked young.
“We’re closed,” I said, working hard to take any unintended tone out of my voice.
“The sign in the window says Open,” the kid said, glancing around the shop, a little wide-eyed at all the magic tricks, posters, and miscellanea that gave Chicago Magic its old-world charm. At least, that’s what I chose to think. He also might have been looking at all the clutter and dust.
“I haven’t gotten around to flipping the sign,” I said. I glanced at the customer to see if this interruption was having any sort of impact on his mood. He seemed as stunned at the kid’s moxie as I was.
“Well, then, you’re open,” the kid said as he stepped further into the shop. “This won’t take long, anyway. I need your help and I need it pronto.”
The door swung shut behind him, and I exchanged a look with the customer. He nodded a quick assent.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
The kid took a deep breath. “I need to make a tuba disappear,” he said. “Like, now.”
I like to think I’ve heard my share of odd requests in the twenty-plus years I’ve either helped at the magic shop or run it on my own, but this was a new one. Deep down I knew this moment was not an ideal one for tackling new questions, but I took the kid at his word that this would be a speedy exchange.
“Just how do you mean ‘disappear?’” I asked.
“Like this,” he said as he pulled out his iPhone. He had a video from YouTube pre-loaded, and he held it up for me to see. The customer leaned in as well.
I recognized the video immediately. It was David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickens character), pulling off one of his most talked about illusions: making the Statue of Liberty disappear. The pacing of the performance was a whole lot slower than I remembered, but for the television audience—and the small audience watching it live on-site—it was still an impressive feat.
“That’s a pretty big effect,” I said.
“The tuba’s a pretty big instrument,” the kid countered.
“Fair point,” I agreed. “But before we get into the how, maybe it would be best to go over the why.”
The kid sighed as if he was being forced to repeat previously discussed information to a much older, much dimmer person. He wasn’t far off.
“Tomorrow is the talent show at school. Everybody is required to perform in some way. My mom says I have to play the tuba, ’cause of all the money she’s been shelling out for lessons.”
“Then why don’t you just play the tuba?”
“Are you kidding?” he nearly yelped. “A tuba? I’ll be laughed off the stage.”
“He sort of has a point.” This was from the customer, who up until now had been watching this exchange quietly and, I hoped, patiently.
“So, instead,” the kid continued excitedly, “I want to come out with the tuba and then make it disappear. Right before their eyes. As if by magic,” he added, to ensure I was following his not-too-byzantine thought process.
“Okay, that’s a fair premise. How much experience do you have doing magic?”
The kid shrugged. “None, I guess. But it’s only one trick,” he said confidently. “I figured I could just buy something here to make it happen. Nothing too complicated or expensive,” he added. “And nothing too big. I’m already hauling around a tuba.”
“Simple to do, not too expensive, and easy to carry around,” I summarized quietly. This request was a common one, and sadly not just from neophyte magicians. I was happy, not for the first time today, that my uncle Harry was not manning the shop. It was just this sort of request that would have sent him into an apoplectic fit.
“Well,” I said as I processed the request. “A vanish like that requires a lot of control on the part of the magician. You need to manage the audience sight lines, the lighting, the backdrop. In some cases, the construction of the stage itself. Are you likely to have control of any of those factors?”
I assumed these requirements would sound the death knell for his idea, but amazingly, he actually thought it over for several long moments. Finally, he shook his head.
“No, all we get to do is walk out there and perform.”
“Well, making the tuba disappear seems to be off the table then.”
“Wait—” the kid began, but I held up a hand.
“But that doesn’t mean we still can’t do something magical,” I interjected quickly. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what that something might be.”
Having faced variations on this question my entire working life, I did what I always did: I crossed the store to a large floor-to-ceiling bookcase that lined one wall of the shop.
“The answer we need is somewhere in here,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. The kid had followed me, while the customer stayed by the cash register, his hands still shoved deep into the pockets of his worn and faded Army jacket. From this new vantage point, I decided that his hair color was definitely sandy brown. He stared at me blankly, so I quickly turned back to the task at hand.
The kid stood next to me while I scanned the spines of the books. He looked up at a sign positioned at the top of the bookcase.
“What does ‘793.8’ mean?”
I glanced up at the placard. It had been there for so many years, I had stopped seeing it. Which was odd, given I had been the one to print and post it.
“Well, my uncle Harry has had this habit for years of lending books from the store to magicians rather than selling them outright. In his view, if they don’t like the book, they will bring it back. If they do like the book, they will come back and pay for it.”
The kid looked up at me doubtfully. “How’s that working for him?”
“About how you’d expect,” I said. “Which is to say, not well. And since I felt he was turning this into a lending library, I put up that sign. 793.8 is the Dewey Decimal listing for magic books in libraries.”
He was looking up at me blankly again, so I continued. “A library is a building where you can borrow books—”
He cut me off. “I know what a library is,” he snapped. “I’m just surprised that any of them are still using the outmoded Dewey system instead of the far superior Library of Congress classification method.”
Now it was my turn to stare blankly at him. “You hear the word precocious much?” I finally said.
“Now and again.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said as I returned my attention to the rows of book options in front of me. “I think what we need is something that makes the tuba the cause rather than the effect. So that there’s a reason for the tuba. Otherwise, it will just seem like an unnecessary prop …”
My voice trailed off as I scanned the titles. Most were on magic theory, while others focused so minutely on specific styles of magic (cards, coins, big-box illusions) that they would be essentially useless in this instance. And then I saw what I was looking for and gave a small cry of inspiration.
“This is what we need,” I said as I pulled the book off the shelf and read the title out loud. “Harry’s Magic Emporium.”
I opened the book and began to page through it quickly.
“What’s it called?”
The voice surprised me. I turned to see the customer was peering at us from across the room. He had moved away from his position leaning on the counter and was starting to move across the shop.
“Um, it’s Harry’s Magic Emporium,” I repeated, splitting my attention between the book and the customer, who was now moving toward us. “My uncle Harry wrote it,” I added.
“I remember that book,” the customer said, sounding surprised at the memory. “I had it when I was a kid. In addition to the tricks, there were a lot of dumb jokes in it, right?”
“Yes, tons of them. No one loves a bad joke more than my uncle. But, thankfully, no one loves a great trick more than he does either. Now I seem to remember that he organized the book around the thirteen different types of magic, the list he used to argue with Harry Blackstone, Jr., about all the time,” I said as I continued flipping through the book.
“There have got to be more than thirteen magic tricks,” the kid said, his tone suggesting that he may have wandered into the wrong shop today. On one level he was right, but his statement was off base.
“There are hundreds more,” I said. “But they can all be classified into one of thirteen categories. You know, Production, Vanish, Restoration, Animation, Penetration, Transposition . . .”
Just like any time I tried to name all the Seven Dwarfs, I started strong and then petered out about halfway through the list.
“You get the idea,” I finally said, still paging through the book in hopes that inspiration would leap from one of the pages. The room was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being paper on paper as I scanned rapidly through the book.
“Do you serve crabs here?”
The question came from the customer and I froze in mid-page turn. I looked over my shoulder at him.
“The patron says, ‘Do you serve crabs here?’ And the maître d’ says, ‘We serve everyone, sir, let me get you a seat.’” The customer laughed at the joke, shaking his head at the memory. “I thought it was funny long before I understood what it meant.”
I nodded in agreement. “I had that same reaction to a lot of Harry’s jokes. They were like little joke time bombs, set to go off at a later, unknown date. Like, Why is six afraid of seven?”
I looked from the customer to the kid. The kid had no response, but the customer thought for a moment and then laughed.
“Because seven eight nine,” he said, smiling for the first time since he’d entered the store.
“This is great,” the kid said without inflection. “Big laughs. But can we focus on my disappearing tuba?”
“Right,” I agreed, turning my attention back to the book. “I think our best bet would be to use the tuba as a production tool of some kind, sort of like a magician’s top hat. Do you have a stand for the tuba?” I asked without looking up from paging through the book.
“Of course I do, the thing is as big as I am,” the kid snapped. I got the sense that, to his young mind, I was the stupidest person he had ever met.
“That will help,” I said, flipping quickly to the chapter on production.
“Do you only have one copy of the book?”
This was asked by the customer, who had moved again and was now standing silently behind me. I successfully squelched a yelp.
“Nope, Harry has a ton of them,” I said, reaching up and pulling another copy off the shelf. I handed it to the customer, who took his hands out of his pockets for the first time as he grasped the book and began to page through it.
“What if we did this,” I began, seeing a chapter on silk productions. “What if you came out and started to play, but only got some odd sounds out of the tuba. Like, you know, something was stuck in the horn.”
“The bell,” the kid said.
“It’s called the bell. The whole thing is the horn. The part you can reach into is called the bell.”
“The bell, whatever. What if that were the premise: you keep trying to play something with the tuba and you get horrible sounds out of it and you keep pulling different odd things out of the horn? The bell.”
The kid smiled and nodded. “Sure, that would be fun. But there’s limited space in the bell. I mean, there’s not as much room as you might think.”
“Not a problem, we have ways around that,” I said as I handed the book to the kid. “Go to the index and look up servante,” I said as I turned away and began to scan the products on the shelves.
“What’s a servante?” the kid asked as he dutifully turned to the back of the book.
“It’s a secret way to make things appear and disappear,” I said. “Magicians use them all the time.”
“Cool,” the kid said as he focused on his search.
“Indeed,” I said absently. I was looking for items that were designed to pack small and transform to full size with very little effort. I saw a black-and-white cane that would do the trick, pulled it off the shelf, and then reached for a compact bouquet of roses.
“Here’s one you’ll like,” the customer said suddenly. I spun around, but he had his face buried in the book. “What musical instrument is found in the bathroom?”
He must have seen that I was busy looking for props, so he turned to the kid and repeated the question, barely able to contain his amusement. “What musical instrument is found in the bathroom?”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t know.”
The customer laughed as he gave the answer, sort of killing the joke while completing it. “A tube of toothpaste. Get it? A tuba toothpaste. You should use that one.”
“Sure thing,” the kid said flatly, imitating the response of every comedian I’ve ever met when a lay person offers a joke for their act. “I’ll get right on it.”
I cut into the conversation, laying out items on a nearby counter. “I don’t know the sequence yet,” I said as I arranged the ragtag selection of props. “But these are all things you can hide in the horn—sorry, in the bell—or in a servante we put behind it.
It took a few minutes, but between the kid and me, we structured a short but funny act that involved him pulling an impossible number of items out of the tuba, but still getting poor results every time he blew into the horn. While we worked, the customer leaned against the bookcase, paging through the book in his hands. Every few moments he would let out a small giggle or a yelp of recognition at a re-discovered magic trick or a long-forgotten joke.
“Now we just need a closer,” I said as we looked over the props we had assembled. “A final topper.”
The kid and I stared at the props, silently willing them to provide the answer we were looking for. The thick silence was broken by the customer.
“What about, what do you call it, one of those things?” he said, holding the book in one hand and gesturing toward his mouth with the other. He began to mime, yanking at his mouth, pulling us both into an impromptu game of charades.
He shook his head and then quickly flipped through Harry’s book, finally finding the illustration he was looking for: a young man pulling a seemingly endless paper streamer out of his mouth.
“A mouth coil,” I shouted, feeling like I’d just won something. “A streamer mouth coil!” I moved behind the counter, trying to remember where we kept them and hoping we hadn’t run out.
“That will be great,” the kid said, beaming. “I’ll let the audience know that the bell is finally empty, then blow into the tuba one last time. I’ll still get a horrible sound, and then I’ll start pulling the streamer out of my mouth. That will kill. Thanks!”
He looked over at the customer, who was still paging through the book as he walked away from us. The customer looked up, realizing that the compliment had been directed at him.
“No problem,” he said to the kid, then he looked at me. “If it’s okay, I’ll take this book,” he said. “I had one as a kid. Loved it. Really loved it.”
“Is that all you need?” I asked slowly.
He smiled down at the book. “Yeah, this will do. But,” he added, patting his pockets as he glanced at the kid. “I forgot my wallet.”
“That’s okay,” I said, gesturing toward the 793.8 sign over the bookcase. “Remember, this is Harry’s lending library.”
“Great,” he said as he looked back at the book, flipping the pages happily. “Thanks a lot.”
He opened and closed the door, his attention still focused on reliving the memories the book was providing. I breathed a deep sigh, but my reverie was short-lived.
“Boy, this looks like a lot of stuff,” the kid said slowly, scanning all the items on the counter. “I don’t think I can afford all these props.”
“Not to worry,” I said, gathering them up and starting to load them into a brown paper sack. “On occasion, the lending library concept also extends to magic props,” I lied. “And this is one of those occasions.”
“Really?” He clearly couldn’t believe his good luck. For my part, neither could I.
“Really,” I repeated as I walked him to the door. “Come back after the show and let me know how it went.”
“And return the props,” he added.
“Yes,” I agreed, having already forgotten that caveat in the sudden flurry of feelings of relief.
I saw him out the door and turned to head back to the register, where the small bag the last customer had brought still sat by the open cash drawer. I flashed back to that moment—was it only ten minutes ago?—when he had first thrust it at me, demanding the contents of the cash drawer, poking what he said was a gun from the pocket of his worn Army jacket.
I looked down, wiping at the rivulets of sweat that had been running continuously down the back of my neck. Most of the contents of the cash drawer were already in the bag, as he had demanded. The other half was positioned on top of the drawer, ready to follow their compatriots.
I was about to put all the money back in the cash register, when a thought occurred to me. I stepped back to the shop’s front door and locked it, turning the deadbolt as well for good measure.
And before I returned to sort out the mess at the cash register and calm my racing heart, I also had the presence of mind to do the one thing I wished I had done thirty minutes earlier. Or an hour. Or right away this morning, before that first—or last—customer walked through my door.
I flipped the sign in the front window with such force that I nearly pulled it off its string hanger.
From Open to Closed.
Because right now I was many, many things.
But open for business was not one of them.
John is author of the Eli Marks mystery series as well as three other stand-alone novels, “The Sword & Mr. Stone,” ”The Greyhound of the Baskervilles” and “The Ripperologists.”
He also writes the Como Lake Players mystery series, under the pen name Bobbie Raymond.
In real life, John’s not a magician, but he has directed six low-budget features that cost very little and made even less – that’s no small trick.
He’s also written multiple books on the subject of low-budget filmmaking. Ironically, they’ve made more than the films. Those books (“Fast, Cheap and Under Control” and “Fast, Cheap and Written That Way”) are available in eBook, Paperback and audiobook formats.
John lives in Minnesota and shares his home with his lovely wife, several dogs, a few cats and a handful of pet allergies.
PS: This is awesome! 🙂