The stage lights are bright and hot, too bright even for the small audience waiting in the red velvet seats in the small theatre; and so dazzling for the stage's sole occupant. The man who stands florid faced and sweating in the full force of the glare is small and pot bellied. The suit he wears might have been smart on another man, but the sleeves of the jacket, the trouser legs are too long. In contrast, the buttons of his shirt strain to hold in his paunch. The top hat set at a jaunty angle on his head further diminishes any sense of grace, obviously a cheap, fancy-dress shop affair. The self proclaimed "Mysterious Marvello, Reader of Minds" is quickly loosing the sense of mystique that his professed occupation is so closely associated with. Then again, the pitiful audience he has managed to draw are casually dressed at best and in many cases, slightly inebriated. Showmanship would likely be lost on them.
Only one audience member is of a higher caliber. She sits in the shadows at the back of the theatre. Other patrons glance sidelong at the red velvet dress in which she is enveloped, at the Italian lace shawl draped casually around her shoulders and at the diamonds clasped at her throat. "Has she got the right place?" They wonder, but do not dare to ask. There is something about the set of her square jaw, the way she holds herself, the way her dark hair sits perfectly about her shoulders, that forbids questions. There should be nothing out of the ordinary about her features, but she wears that average face with a pride that makes it extraordinary, unique and intimidating. Her grey blue eyes are too small for her face, but the glitter in them is cunning. Those eyes alone are fixed unwaveringly on the stage.
As yet unaware of the force of her gaze, "The Mysterious Marvello" quietly runs through his programme. It's easy to pretend to have abilities you do not possess, make people believe you can read minds when you cannot, but using that real ability, seeming to be a charlatan, it is so much harder.
A few clichés dispel suspicion somewhat.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen." He begins, rubbing his damp hands down on his suit nervously as he does. "Tonight, you will venture into the land of the mysterious and strange." He pauses, slightly too long, allowing them to sigh inwardly. "Tonight, I will astonish you with my mind reading powers." He feels this audience being lulled, through boredom, to sleep. Perfect. "I will need," he says, dropping his voice to an exaggerated undertone, "a volunteer."
He has to squint hard to see beyond the lights to the dark auditorium, where perhaps half a dozen hands are raised; some tentatively, others with the surety of drunken bravado.
Leaning back slightly on his heels, the man on the stage tips his top hat down over his eyes and allows his lids to flutter closed. In the dark, he deepens his breathing, steadies his hands at his sides. There is nothing he can do to change the beat of his heart, however. It is quick in his chest, blood rushing to his face in anticipation. With a deep, carefully controlled breath, he allows his mind to slip outwards. He feels the thoughts of the audience jostling with his own, clamouring in his ears for attention. It is all he can do to keep them out.
There is an art to the choosing of a volunteer. For a comedian, it must be someone who can laugh at himself, be made a fool of and leave the stage with only the barest trace of chagrin in his smile. A magician's volunteer is easily distracted, their eyes rove around the theatre and can be relied upon to be induced to look somewhere else during a slight of hand.
A mind reader is an exception. There are two ways you can go for a mind reading volunteer. One is the one who's story you can guess from their appearance, the one in the uniform that goes with their career, the one with the name badge. This method has its limitations. You can feel the audience think "there is no need to be a mind reader to know that."
The only other choice is a plant, a friend in the audience, who's life you reveal while they invite shock to distort their features and the audience, more often than not, shake their heads and whisper "it's not genuine you know." They're all saying it, but all phrase it as a revelation known only to them.
Our man on the stage has no need to state the obvious, no need for tricks or a plant. He has the genuine ability and seeks to practice the fakery. The volunteer who's mind he reads like the pages of a book must seem a friend in on the act. Therefore they must be alone. Only they may leave the theatre knowing there was no plant here. More than one and the show could gain reputation, a following, could be revealed as the genuine article when it cannot afford to be, could attract the attention of those he would rather forget. If the volunteer is drunk, so much the better. They'll forget what happened.
In the minds of the three girls in the front row, arms flung in the air enthusiastically, the mists of alcohol curl around the senses, softening them, blocking the ability to remember. They're dizzy and giggling; ideal, except they're together. Girls night out.
The third row reveals the third volunteer, a middle aged man, redder in complexion even than the magician himself, tattoos cascading down his arms in an inky waterfall. The alcohol in his mind is not so much a fog as a tornado, methodically destroying all coherent thoughts. Too far gone to be of any use. It's telling how many of his audience only come in under the influence of alcohol.
The fourth volunteer remains blissfully un-inebriated. The magician can just see his work suit, well shined shoes and neatly parted hair. The hand is raised half apologetically, but with a smile. Why not volunteer? It's just a bit of fun after all. Looking into his head, he sees a comfortable, happy life. David Green the marketing executive is nothing special, comfortably settled, engaged to a nice girl, Claudia from accounts. The man is amiable, not averse to a laugh, level headed and boring. Utterly dull. He's alone, Claudia's at dinner with friends. He could be used, it just wouldn't be very exciting. As a showman, the magician needs a big reveal. There is none in the head of David from marketing.
He cannot really see the final volunteer, hidden as she is in the dark, but the audience gasped when her slim white arm rose. Is she serious? Her eyes say deadly so. Slowly, the magician reaches out his mind to the woman in red velvet. She smiles calmly and prepares.
The magician's mind only brushes hers, but one touch is enough. Here there are not the cacophony of thoughts he expected. Those are protected by an invisible wall. Only two words enter the magician's ears as he is flung back into his own head.
The patrons watch, confused, as the magician staggers back a few steps, head clasped in his hands. Then, eyes wide, pupils tiny as he strains past the light, he squints desperately into the back row, trying to find her. His old name, that voice from the past, still ring in his ears. They've caught up with him. In spite of everything.
He finds her seat, but she's well positioned in the dark. All he can see is the light, glittering on diamonds. He doesn't really need to see anything else. He still remembers the musical lilt in her voice, her small smile and the shameless avarice hidden deep in her eyes.
What, he thinks, does she want with me? Whatever it is, she won't get it.
In the audience, the volunteers, unaware of the inward struggle, stare up at their hands uncertainly. Do they drop them?
"Come on mystic Meg." Volunteer three slurs. "I'm missing good drinking time for this."
"What?" Asks the magician absently, then "ah, yes. Drinking time. You know, alcohol's really wonderful stuff, absolutely fabulous. In fact, I think you could all do with a drink. I'm sure my good friend here could take you somewhere. Mind you, he's already had enough for alcohol poisoning. Ah well, can't be helped. Go and drink, all of you. Nothing to see here, show's over, goodnight." He stumbles from the stage, leaving the last words to trail over his shoulder, his top hat tumbling from his head in his haste to flee the theatre.
The audience members sit confused and disgruntled. He can't just leave, surely? They paid good money, admittedly not much, but some, to enter. While they mutter under their breath, the lady in red velvet, with a slightly apologetic smile at the disruption she has caused, makes her exit. With a speed and dexterity enviable in the high heels she wears, she takes the steps two at a time, stepping brusquely out of the main doors of the theatre just in time to put out a hand and stop a collision with a breathless and disheveled mind reader, who hurtles out of the stage door with a bang.
"Felix!" She exclaims, voice treacle smooth. "You've really let yourself go. Look at this!" She taps his belly with one hand, while with the other quietly clamping his wrist in the iron grip he remembers so well.
"Miss Glass." He stammers, struggling to no avail as she steers him firmly along the pavement.
"Oh." She laughs. "Ana, please. Can't say I think much of your new show darling, I must say. Very shabby; I felt over dressed."
"Well, the company may be a little less sophisticated, but at least everything's legal and no one tries to kill you. It's a step up from your lot." Ana just laughs, warmly, mellowly, while her cold fingers squeeze his wrist tighter.
"You loved it really. I mean, "The Mysterious Marvelo," I ask you. You left us, you could have got a boring job and a nice suit and a young fiancée like that lovely gentleman in front of me, but you didn't. You set yourself up with some mind reader's show malarkey and spend your time using that extraordinary talent of yours to look like a fake. It's not a life anyone would choose to have, Felix. Face it darling, you're an addict. You just can't give up that power can you. No. So you use it, everyday. Just in the bad mind reader setup, no one can find you. It's clever darling, top marks for camouflage. Just none for an enjoyable life."
"Not top marks for camouflage either." Felix mutters. "You found me."
"Oh, but I've had trackers on you since you left us. The agency would never have found you." For a moment they stop at a traffic light and ruby red bathes her face in a devilish hue.
"So they won't find me." Says Felix, teeth gritted.
"Yes." Ana replies, tapping one long fingernail against his wrist. "The thing is... We need you for one more job." Felix dares to think to say no, but that long fingernail jabs into his flesh and jams the words in his throat.
"It's not much. We just need you to pick up a school pupil and deliver him to Anderson."
"So it's kidnap now is it? Sounds like Anderson's style."
"It's not kidnap." Ana hisses, grimacing in distaste as the train of her dress trails through a small, muddy puddle formed around a blocked drain. "It will be soon, though. He's one of our lot and the agency are onto her." The magician actually stops in his tracks, halting her with him and drawing nasty looks from the pedestrians forced to step into the road to get past.
"So I'd be doing this under the agency's nose? After everything I've done to avoid them?"
"Yes." Ana confirms. "They've given Brown the assignment."
"Brown." The Magician shivers visibly. "You know I won't do it."
"You have spent the last six years avoiding him." she replies. "You want to let him have some school kid instead?"
"Don't you pull the guilt trick on me!" He yells, too loud. Under the scrutiny of passers by he drops his voice hurriedly. "You're pulling me into this to save your own skin, I won't do it."
"You will." Miss Glass replies confidently. "Otherwise the agency get an anonymous tip and your stint in hiding is done. You will be contacted with further details, the school address, times, cover story, drop off point etcetera." She grins again. "It'll be just like the old days. We'll give you protection afterwards if you want it, bodyguards, a safe house if you need it, the full works. When the coast is clear, you can go back to being "The Mysterious Marvello," if that's what you want." She turns away, raising one white, long fingered hand. "So long."
Felix is left standing wretched on the pavement, watching her receding figure and listening to the clack of her heels on the pavement, the street lights painting his face a sickly yellow. With deep regret, he things with longing of David from marketing, wishing their lives could be exchanged.