Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 19
Stories
Expendables
by Orson Scott Card
Schadenfreude
by Michelle Scott
Deathsmith
by Pete Aldin
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Three
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
Expendables by Orson Scott Card
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Growing Pains
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Right Before Your Very Eyes
    by Matthew S. Rotundo

Right Before Your Very Eyes
Artwork by James Owen

The time had come for the finale, the vanish. He could put it off no longer, not without raising suspicion.

Barrett Webster stood center stage and held up his hands for silence. "My friends, tonight is a very special night. What you are about to witness has never before been performed."

A stillness descended over the house.

He kept his face solemn, speaking with complete sincerity. "You're about to see a true vanish. Just like the rest of the wonders you have seen, there will be no cabinets with hidden trapdoors, no curtains to conceal the moment, no smoke or flashes of light to blind you. My assistant, Violet," -- he gestured to her, standing stage left, hands at her sides, chin held high -- "will, quite literally, disappear from sight."

Violet Navarre wore a white gown with a demure cut. Her dark eyes, normally inscrutable and mysterious, flashed with restrained anticipation. She might have a been modern bride just before the ceremony.

Stirrings and murmurs sounded throughout the auditorium. Some of them sounded like right before your very eyes, but no one dared to yell it. Now was not the time. No one would heckle tonight, no one would break the spell. They took their cues from him, ready to do whatever he wanted.

All the while, the hazy creatures in the audience -- the monstrous shapes with the leathery wings and the jack o'lantern eyes, the ones no one but Barrett seemed to see -- continued their silent vigil.

He went over it again, thinking back to when it all started to go wrong -- only a week previous, though it seemed much longer. He would only get one chance at this. And he had just a few minutes left to figure out why.

One week previous. Barrett had been levitating various audience members when he'd caught sight of the first demon.

He had asked for volunteers, and on cue, the backstage crew had brought up the house lights a little. Hands raised throughout the hall. Some stood and waved both arms, jumping up and down, including a couple of kids. Violet -- dressed in a fitted, glittering gown with a plunging neckline, a cascade of wavy dark hair framing her pale face -- handed him a black wand. Not that he would need it. She winked as she walked past and took up her position stage right, showing the audience a lovely length of thigh.

A large woman in the second row was the first. She stood and gave her name as Beryl.

"Ready to fly, Beryl?" Barrett asked.

She nodded, glancing at friends to either side and laughing. Barrett pointed the wand at her.

For a moment, nothing happened. The audience went silent, expectant. Beryl's laughter tapered off. A fleeting doubt flickered through Barrett's mind, that he had pushed his luck too far, that it really wouldn't work this time.

He'd gotten used to those moments. Happened with every miracle.

Then he felt the power welling, that unmistakable transfer of energy flowing from him, and Beryl rose from the floor -- a foot, two feet, six feet. The audience gasped as one. Barrett closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the sweetness.

Beryl looked down, astonished and screaming laughter at the same time. The applause began, swelling until it filled the hall.

Barrett opened his eyes and let Beryl down. She collapsed into her seat, gaping. "It's real!" she said to her friends. "It's really real!"

Barrett glanced at Violet, still standing stage right with a vacuous smile on her pretty face, and went about levitating some of the other volunteers. Next came a squealing teenaged girl in braces, followed by a young couple -- newlyweds, Barrett guessed, visiting Vegas for their honeymoon. And after them, a balding, surly man, standing with his arms crossed as he waited his turn -- clearly a skeptic, certain this was all a scam. Barrett took particular pleasure in the way color drained from the surly man's face when he left the ground. Barrett fancied he could feel the man's fear. Perhaps a couple of somersaults in midair might --

And something shimmered and flickered in a nearby aisle, just catching Barrett's peripheral vision. A shape formed, upright, man-like, but far larger. Something scaly and horned, with eyes that glowed like jack o'lanterns. Leathery wings grew from its back.

Then it was gone.

Barrett almost lost control of the surly man. A fall from eight feet could result in a broken ankle and a hefty lawsuit. Barrett focused on what he was doing, slowly letting the man down. Ashen, the man sat, oblivious to other audience members pounding him on the back and applauding. His eyes never left Barrett.

For his part, Barrett glanced again at the aisle. The strange figure he had seen there -- or thought he had seen -- was gone. He looked around the auditorium for any sign of it, but saw only stunned and smiling faces, heard only cheers and applause.

But there -- toward the back of the house, in a corner still hidden in shadow . . . had there been something? Another strange shape like the one that had appeared in the aisle?

If so, it was gone now.

Barrett spread his arms wide, as if to embrace his audience. "No wires! No sleight of hand! No cabinets or curtains! It all happens --"

And the crowd, well accustomed to the prompt by this part of the show, responded as one: "Right before your very eyes!"

It was his tagline, or had been ever since his comeback had begun. Six months earlier, he could barely scrape up engagements for small parties. His long-suffering agent had finally given up on him, as had his previous assistant. Now he was headlining in Vegas.

His glance stole again to Violet Navarre, the new girl. Their gazes met. Her smile was no longer vacant, but rather a very knowing, See, I told you so grin.

Backstage after the show, he went straight to her dressing room, knocked. She opened the door and let him in, having already changed from her gown into a sweatshirt and jeans. She'd put up her hair, preparatory to removing her makeup.

She gestured to the white couch along one wall. "Have a seat." Her alto voice conflicted with her youthful appearance. He'd never been clear on her exact age; he put her in her mid-twenties, tops. But if he closed his eyes when she spoke, he could easily imagine a fifty-year-old woman. "Good show tonight," she said.

Barrett remained on his feet. "Did you see it?"

"See what?" She maneuvered around the numerous bouquets that had been delivered after the show and sat at her makeup table. She smeared cold cream over her eye shadow.

"The . . . so you didn't see anything unusual? During the levitation?"

"Other than the levitation, you mean?" She shook her head, wiping away the cold cream with a tissue.

"Never mind. I guess." Barrett sat on the couch. "So what's next?"

She tossed the tissue into a wastebasket and turned to him. "Glad you asked. It's time, Barrett."

He swallowed hard. "You mean it's time to settle up."

"That's what I mean. Oh, don't look so frightened. I promised it would be easy for you, didn't I?"

"Yes."

"And I've kept my promises so far, haven't I? All those miracles you're performing -- they've made you bigger than you've ever been."

"They have, yes." He'd been a professional magician for twenty years -- close magic, big shows, mentalist gigs, the whole gamut. But the crowds had dwindled over the past five years, perhaps sensing a tiredness creeping into his act. It paled to old-fashioned when compared to the flash and showmanship of young punks like Criss Angel.

Until his previous assistant had left him. Until Violet Navarre had auditioned.

Yes, she'd kept her promises. But she'd told him up front that the miracles wouldn't come free.

"So what's the price?"

"We're coming to the end of this run. You'll finish it with your best miracle yet. Your absolute show-stopper. The one they'll remember you for. A vanish."

"A vanish. Without cabinets, I presume."

"Right before their very eyes."

"What am I vanishing?"

"Me."

Barrett nodded. It would be a good trick -- stunning, really, if done with the right buildup. But -- "And that's gonna be the one they remember me for? Even more than the levitation bit?"

"I'm not coming back, Barrett."

"Not --" He sat up a little straighter. "I'm going to vanish you permanently? You're going to just disappear?"

"Yes."

"But --" He frowned. She had to know better. "That won't play. It's a trick without a prestige. You have to come back."

"Not this time."

He opened his mouth to protest further, but she stopped him with an upraised hand. "Yes, it's breaking the rules. It'll confuse the audience. But there are ways to spin it. Think of the buzz it will create, the aura of danger." Her dark eyes lit as she said it. "They'll be talking about it for years afterward. It'll be the mystery of the decade."

"Mystery, hell. I could get arrested."

"Difficult to get a murder conviction without a body." She waved it off. "You might be investigated, but they'll never pin anything on you. You'll be able to pass any polygraph. You'll truly have no idea of my whereabouts."

He couldn't believe what he heard. "That's a comfort. What about my reputation? I'll never get hired again."

"No such thing as bad publicity, Barrett. You know that."

Again, a moment of disconcert struck him. She sounded so much older than her years. "Won't . . . won't you be missed? Don't you think some family members might be curious about your disappearance?"

A hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth. "Come on, Barrett. You're a bright man. You've figured out by now that I'm not from around here."

Around here -- an interesting way of putting it. Barrett settled against the back of the couch. "I suppose I have."

She looked down at herself with disdain. "This body . . . it's not me. It's a shell, a cage of flesh. Where I come from, I'm immortal. I've been exiled here, left to wither and die. I need to get back, but I can't do it on my own."

It was the first time she had spoken so openly with him. At first, it had been enough to know that she possessed abilities she could, by touch, impart to him in small measures -- just enough to enable him to perform magic acts no one had ever seen. It had been unnerving, sure, but Barrett Webster had been too desperate at the time to examine the gift horse. Later, as his career skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, he grew superstitious about it: the gift horse became a golden goose he didn't dare disturb, much less dissect.

"I don't understand," he said. "What do you need me for? Why can't you just vanish yourself back to" -- one hand made vague circles in the air -- "wherever?"

She turned back to the mirror, staring as if she could see through it, beyond it. "Like I said, I'm exiled. The power, the energy -- whatever you want to call it -- has its own kind of . . . fingerprint, I guess you could say, unique to the user. Those who exiled me can sense that, and can block me from returning. They'd destroy this body outright if I so much as tried. So the energy has to come from someone else. And there are none of my kind here." Her face became grim, hard. "Even if there were, I doubt they would be inclined to help me."

"So . . ." Barrett squinted a little as he concentrated on following her. "So if the energy comes from me, it doesn't have your fingerprint on it anymore? Will that work?"

"I think so. These past few months have been a kind of experiment for me. I didn't want to tell you about it until I was sure it would succeed." She glanced at him in the mirror. "That's it. That's the deal. You vanish me, and then you're on your own. I'll leave you with enough energy to carry you through the rest of your life, if you like. But I doubt you'll need it. After I'm gone, I imagine you'd be able to live on the money from your book deals and talk show appearances."

The two stared at each other in the ensuing silence. Barrett got to his feet. "Why did they exile you?"

"I doubt you'd be very interested in the politics of my plane. Suffice to say I made some enemies. When I get back, I'll deal with them."

He took a step toward her. "And this isn't your real body. What do you look like, then?" He tried to picture her with scales, wings, and glowing eyes.

She laughed without humor. Her expression remained stony. "Where I come from, I don't have a body."

"So you really didn't see anything unusual during the show?"

She sighed as if bored. "No, Barrett, I didn't. Now, are you going to live up to your end of our bargain?"

"I -- sure. Yes."

"Good." She went back to removing her makeup.

He stood there for several moments, watching her. She paid him no further mind, not even so much as glancing again in his direction. He said, "We'll need time to rehearse it. About a week, do you think?"

She nodded acknowledgment as she went about her business.

He left. The hallway was empty but for a security guard at the far end. Barrett headed toward his own dressing room, aware of the familiar aches in his feet and back from standing for most of the last few hours.

A week to rehearse. That would take them right up to the last night of this run -- a grand finale.

He'd been in the business for twenty years, performing all varieties of magic. He'd been pretty good at mentalist acts, even before Violet Navarre had appeared in his life. If nothing else, he could still make a decent cold read -- picking up on subtle cues in inflection and body language. And his conversation with her set off warning bells. Something about it --

Oh, there was no point in being coy with himself. The signs were too clear to be denied. She had lied to him. About what, he couldn't tell. But she was lying.

By the third day of rehearsal, the buildup and blocking for the vanish seemed to fall into place. Thank goodness. Barrett spent most of his time distracted by his doubts, and by the shapes he thought he had seen. Violet picked up his slack, even contributing a little quip of her own to the script. Just before being vanished, she would say, "Oh, and if I don't come back, Barrett -- I think I left the iron on in the dressing room."

She would grasp his hand at that moment, and that was when she would send the power into him. All his miracles -- her miracles -- were preceded by some kind of contact between them. The rehearsals were all dry runs, of course, but it would be for real when they went live.

"This one will take a lot of energy," she said as the two of them worked in the empty auditorium. "More than levitation, or any of the other bits. You'll feel quite a surge. Be ready for it."

He always felt a surge when she sent the power pulsing through him -- not an electrical sensation, but a kind of organic, coiling warmth, as if something alive had slipped into his gut and writhed there. It lingered for a few hours after every show, a little longer each time, and always left him drained and nauseated.

After rehearsal, he exited the theater via the stage door. Outside, in a loading area shaded from the blazing afternoon sun, a white limo waited to take him back to his hotel. Whenever possible, he liked to catch a nap before dinner on show nights.

Even in the shade, the afternoon heat hit Barrett like a physical thing after the frigid air conditioning of the theater. He swigged distilled water from a bottle he had taken from his dressing room. Heading toward his limo, he spied a balding man he didn't know walking into the loading area. The man stared at Barrett with laser focus.

The theater's security staff was top notch. A guard in a black uniform that accentuated his broad shoulders moved to intercept the stranger. Barrett would have thought nothing more about it, would have just gotten into the limo and headed away, content to let the guard do his job . . . except --

On second glance, he recognized the guy -- the surly man from the other night. The one Barrett had levitated, and hadn't seemed very pleased about it. The one Barrett had almost dropped when he'd seen, or thought he'd seen, that monstrous apparition.

The guard stopped the man some fifteen yards from the limo. The two spoke in low voices, the guard shaking his head firmly.

Barrett hesitated, taking another swig from his water bottle. For that man to be here now . . . too much of a coincidence. Maybe he knew something useful, something to put a doubting mind at ease.

Barrett changed course, headed for the security guard and the surly man. The guard noticed him coming and put up a hand. "No need for concern, Mr. Webster. Everything's under control."

The surly man looked at Barrett, composed and calm -- not agitated or excited, as a fan or a stalker might be.

Barrett said, "Do you have something to say to me?"

"If you're willing to listen," the surly man said. "Just a few minutes of your time." He had a quiet voice.

"Really, Mr. Webster, I can --"

"It's all right," Barrett said to the guard. "Let him through."

"He's not authorized."

"I'll take responsibility."

The guard's face wrinkled as he pondered. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

The guard stepped aside, retreated to his post near the stage door.

The two of them took a few moments to size each other up. The surly man stood half a head shorter than Barrett. Wisps of his thinning hair danced with each breeze. His features seemed inflexible, as if a smile would cause his face to crack and fall off. He wore a blue button-down shirt, tucked -- over a bit of paunch -- into khaki slacks.

"Just a few minutes," Barrett said.

"Of course. Someplace private would be best."

Barrett nodded toward the limo. "Will that work?"

"After you."

They headed for the car. On the way, Barrett glanced toward the stage door. Violet had just emerged. Her gaze lighted on Barrett and the surly man. She frowned and said something to the security guard.

As Barrett and his new friend approached the limo, his driver, Tony, dressed in an all-black uniform and dark shades, got out from the driver's side and opened the rear door for him.

"Thanks, Tony. Give us a few minutes, will you? Get yourself a coffee or something."

Tony nodded and headed for the theater, where Violet and the security guard were still talking.

Barrett gestured for the surly man to climb into the limo, then followed, shutting the door behind him.

The car's plush red interior swallowed up all sound. The tinted windows, opaque from the outside, cast a pall over the view of the loading area.

"Felix Heller," the surly man said.

Barrett knew the name -- mid-level magician, worked on the West Coast. Good reputation for close magic, very skilled, but not much of a showman. With a dour face like that, it wasn't hard to see why. Barrett had never met him.

"You were at the show the other night."

"I happened to be in town, visiting my sister. Your act is generating a lot of buzz. I thought I'd check it out."

"What did you think?"

"That's why I'm here. Mr. Webster, in all my years as a performer, I have never experienced what I saw at your show."

It didn't sound like a compliment. "Well . . . thanks, I think."

Felix Heller grumbled. "I mean it's the most disturbing thing I've ever seen, or felt. What you're doing is not magic as I know it. It's not sleight of hand. You're not using clever apparatus. You didn't levitate me and the others with concealed wires. I don't know how you're doing it, but I have no doubt that it's real."

"Well, that's the idea, Mr. Heller -- to make everyone wonder how you're doing it. I guess with that particular trick, I've even managed to confound a professional magician."

"No. You didn't confound me at all. You performed genuine levitation. And in my experience, there's no such thing."

The interior of the limo felt too confining, too warm. Barrett broke into a stinging sweat. "That -- that's kind of you, but I --"

"You are playing with something very dangerous, Mr. Webster. You almost dropped me the other night. I felt it. Whatever the source of your ability, you don't have control of it yet. But you're inflicting it on innocent people. Sooner or later, someone's going to get hurt, or worse."

Barrett's hands twitched. "All right, you've had your few minutes. Now you'd better --"

Heller leaned in. "I've been thinking about nothing else since that night. And I've done a little research on you. This" -- his hands fluttered in the air -- "this 'right before your very eyes' shtick -- it's all new. Your act used to be pretty standard magician fare." He shrugged. "Like mine, to tell you the truth. Well done, maybe, but nothing extraordinary. Right up until about six months ago. What changed?"

"Get out of my car," Barrett said.

"Your assistant is very beautiful."

Barrett fell silent. His breathing slowed. "What about her?"

"She seems very skilled in her own right, very good at what she does -- distracting the audience. Unusually self-possessed for one so young. I would think I would have heard of her before now."

"You're crazy. That's what you are."

"She's not what she seems. And I can't help but wonder --"

Barrett's hands flashed out as of their own accord, fastening themselves around Felix Heller's throat. Heller's eyes bulged.

No. Not of their own accord. Of someone else's. They were no longer under his control.

Barrett lunged, wedging Heller into the angle between the seat and the passenger side rear door. The man's surly expression was gone, replaced by comical surprise. Heller's limbs flailed, beating at Barrett's back and shoulders, or at the limo's interior -- muted thuds. Heller twisted and kicked, but to no avail. Barrett's hands had locked into place, as if they belonged right where they were.

They squeezed.

Heller's mouth opened, straining. His face turned bright red. His eyes went from surprised to panicked, darting in all directions, as if seeking escape from their sockets.

Barrett squeezed harder, his grip iron. He felt Heller's trachea collapse. The throat became slicked with sweat. And still he squeezed. Strange sounds came out of him.

Heller's eyes rolled back in their sockets, showing only the whites. His face went from scarlet to purple.

In his peripheral vision, Barrett spied a flickering in the air, a shape. A winged and horned figure, standing just outside the car, the glow of its eyes muted by the tinted window, facing him in a three-quarter profile. Its baleful gaze seemed focused elsewhere. It stood stock-still.

The murder took forever. It rolled on and on, and Barrett was powerless to stop it. Some part of his mind screamed, as helpless as Felix Heller.

At last, the man's thrashing weakened. His hands tugged at Barrett's arms. His legs twitched. The acrid odor of urine filled the limo's interior; Heller's bladder had let go.

His struggles became feeble, dwindled to nonexistent. His hands dropped away, and he was still.

Barrett kept the man's throat in that iron grip for several extra minutes, convinced that the moment he released, Heller would spring back to life. His hands were unable to disengage themselves. A pregnant silence fell. Even the screaming in his mind stopped.

Whatever force that had laid siege to his body broke. Barrett snatched his hands away, as if burned. A whine escaped him. He gaped at the corpse. The body slumped and slid down the leather upholstery.

The demon-shape outside the car vanished.

The passenger door behind Barrett opened, letting in light and sound. He screamed and spun, shielding his face with his hands.

Violet leaned in, her expression neutral. Unmindful of the corpse, she looked only at Barrett.

Barrett's mouth bobbed open and shut. "I --"

"Shut up." Her voice was calm. "I talked Tony and the security guard into going inside for a few minutes. Neither one will have any memory of seeing" -- she nodded toward the body -- "him."

Barrett looked back to the corpse, but it was gone. Only the faint smell of urine in the air gave any hint that the body had ever been there. Barrett stared, shock settling over him. His emotional machinery went dead. He spoke in a monotone: "It . . . it wasn't me. It was you. You made me --"

"That's right, Barrett. The devil made you do it. Your conscience is clear -- for now."

But his hands still remembered Heller's sweat-slicked throat, the feel of his crushed trachea. "Why?"

"You might better ask yourself that question. Why did you talk to him? Why did you give him so much as the time of day? Seems to me you've been a bit tentative since the night we discussed the vanish. You weren't thinking of reneging on our arrangement, were you?"

Even in the heat of a Vegas afternoon, Barrett went cold. He looked over his shoulder at her. Her dark eyes focused on him, unwavering, unnerving in their intensity. "I . . . I . . ."

"So I guess in a way, you are just the tiniest bit responsible for what happened. But whatever you were thinking, you'll stay on task now, won't you?" She put a hand on his shoulder. He flinched away from it.

"You didn't have to --"

"I'm not taking any chances, Barrett. Nothing is getting in my way, not even you. Understand?"

He kept silent, staring past her.

She grabbed his face with one hand, forced him to look her in the eye. "I said, understand?"

Her touch was fiery against his chilled skin. "I understand."

"Good." She released him and straightened. "Go back to the hotel. Get a good nap. You look like you could use it."

She turned to go. "Wait," Barrett said.

She paused. "What now?"

"He had a family. He said he was visiting his sister. She's going to wonder what happened to him."

"Yes. The police might even track him this far, if he drove himself. You might be questioned." She shrugged. "So what? Keep your composure, and the trail will end here. His body will never be found."

"But I thought you couldn't do a vanish on your own. I thought that's what you needed me for." Even as he said it, he marveled at his own words. A measure of the magnitude of his shock, perhaps, that he would fixate on such an inane detail at this time.

"You're not going to vanish me, Barrett. You're going to send me somewhere I can't get to on my own. As for him -- I simply moved the body."

"To where?"

"Bottom of Lake Mead, if you must know. Go back to the hotel, Barrett. See you tonight."

She walked away. Tony and the security guard emerged from the stage door.

Barrett's nap that afternoon brought him a reenactment of Felix Heller's murder, as did his night's sleep for the next three days. The repeat appearance of the demonic figure hovered over those nightmares, but the expression of surprise on Heller's face haunted him the worst. His subconscious even added some new details, treating him to visions of a vast body of water at night -- Lake Mead, no doubt -- and of a corpse floating to the surface, pale, bloated, hideous.

The police never came. Whether that was Violet's doing, or whether Heller had taken the bus to the theater that day, Barrett couldn't say.

The night after the murder, the demon figure showed up again during the act, as Barrett sawed Violet in half. She lay quiescent and smiling as he drove sheets of metal through her midsection and into slots in the sectioned, wheeled table. Then he separated it, with half of her on each section. No cabinets, of course. Right before their very eyes. Violet had once suggested making the trick über-realistic, complete with geysering blood and spilling viscera, but Barrett had balked, knowing his audience would have run screaming for the exits -- or lynched him on the spot. She had claimed to be only joking at the time, but he wasn't so sure of that anymore.

The effect without cabinets was quite disconcerting enough, what with a sawn-in-half Violet beaming her radiant smile into the crowd while the other half of her, ten feet away, wriggled her feet and bent her legs, revealing those shapely thighs. On occasion, Barrett discerned moans of discomfort under the tepid applause that always greeted this part of the trick. Only during the prestige, when he put Violet back together and she stood before them, whole once more, did the applause swell from polite to thunderous.

And the winged thing with the jack o'lantern eyes shimmered into view stage right, in full view of the audience. But no one seemed to notice. Not even Violet -- though Barrett thought she may have been at pains to avoid glancing in that direction.

The demon lingered, unmoving. A sort of haze obscured it, as if it weren't fully there. It faded away moments later. But during the rest of the show, he thought he saw those glowing eyes appearing momentarily in random places -- in the darkness beyond the front edge of the stage, or in the shadows of the wings.

Barrett did not give his best performance that night. He flubbed numerous lines, missed two cues, and performed only perfunctory levitations. He left the theater without taking any curtain calls, sprinting for the exit.

The next night, he saw two demons during the levitation -- one in the balcony, the other near a fire door. Hazy, standing stock-still.

Tony the limo driver began asking Barrett if he was feeling well. So did the security guard. Violet and he spoke only when necessary -- until the night of the last show in the run.

The manager of the theater had already started clamoring for a return engagement. Barrett had deferred to his agent. And had stopped returning his agent's calls.

He sat in his dressing room, staring into his mirror. Publicity stills and press clippings had been taped to it, allowing a small window for practical use. No matter. He could only see Heller writhe and squirm. He held a makeup sponge in one hand, with half his face still undone. Tissues stuck out of his tuxedo collar at comical angles.

Violet knocked and entered. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it.

She wore a white gown with a demure cut. Her hair flowed, her makeup so well applied as to be invisible. Her dark eyes shone as if lit from within.

Barrett jerked from his reverie, cold all over. His mouth went dry. With a shaking hand, he began applying his makeup again.

"Lonely at the top, isn't it?" she said.

He dropped the sponge, fumbled to pick it up. His fingers wouldn't coordinate with each other.

"Relax, Barrett. It's almost over. After tonight, I'll be gone, and you'll be the most famous magician in the world. Isn't that what you want? Everybody wins."

He paused, looked at her in the mirror. Only part of him registered her words.

Violet went on: "Never mind. I came to wish you a good show. You've been pretty rough the last few nights. Understandable, I guess. But tonight, you need to be spot on -- especially for the finale. No lapses in concentration. We'll only get one chance at this. If you really want to be rid of me, you'll pull it together one last time. Think you can manage it?"

He stared at her in reply.

Some of the gleeful light faded from her eyes. "Yes, you can. And you will. See you on stage."

She left him alone.

Barrett finished with his makeup. His hands stilled their trembling; his fingers remembered how to work together. "One last time," he whispered. He liked the sound of that.

He doffed the tissues stuck in his collar, put on his tuxedo jacket, and headed toward the stage. On his way down the hall, he puzzled over her words: We'll only get one chance at this.

He wondered why that should be.

Waiting in the wings as the house lights dimmed and the opening music faded up, Barrett slipped into a strange calm. Whatever was about to happen would happen. He could take some meager comfort in knowing it would all be over soon.

He took the stage on cue, to roaring applause.

It was a good show.

The crowd, knowing it was the last night of the run, cheered longer and louder than they ever had. It may have been the best audience in Barrett's career. He allowed their energy to recharge him. As always, Violet touched him with small doses of her power at strategic moments. The mentalist portion of the act went over big, drawing huge laughs as Barrett teased out all manner of embarrassing but accurate truths from audience volunteers.

As he worked, he kept watch for those jack o'lantern eyes. And he found them.

By the time he'd moved into the second portion of the act, featuring the animal tricks, the pyrotechnics, and the telekinesis, he'd spotted at least four demon-shapes, around the stage and throughout the house.

The use of Violet's power drew them; that much had become obvious. Maybe they had always been there, ever since the act had begun. Maybe he had only started noticing them as the tricks had become more and more outlandish, requiring ever greater discharges of the magic. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became.

And Violet saw them, too.

He knew it now. He made a point of observing her whenever he spotted one of the demons. She never missed a cue, her smile beamed as radiant as ever, but his cold reading skills discerned a tension, a stiffening in her body language whenever the creatures manifested.

We'll only get one chance at this.

The act neared conclusion. He levitated volunteers to their amazement and delight. The demons formed a small but growing audience of their own.

And the time came for the vanish.

As he worked through the buildup, as he tried to make sense of all that had happened, the memory of his hands around Felix Heller's throat rose again. Barrett maintained his composure by sheer force of will.

He said, "Watch very closely, ladies and gentlemen. Concentrate. Don't allow yourselves to be distracted. Don't whisper to your neighbor. If your cell phone vibrates, ignore it. Try not to even blink. You might miss the moment. And believe me when I say you will never get this opportunity again."

He crossed the stage to his lovely assistant. "Violet, are you ready?"

Her voice rang out in the silent auditorium: "I am." Then, deadpan: "Oh, and if I don't come back, Barrett -- I think I left the iron on in the dressing room."

Bursts of laughter sounded. Barrett allowed himself the faintest of smiles, a quick upturning of the mouth, a slight raise of an eyebrow, and was serious again, even grave.

"Good luck, Violet." He took her hand and kissed it.

She sent the power into him.

The jolt was far stronger than any of the previous times. Not just warm, but hot. His stomach went queasy in an instant. He straightened, stumbled a little, but managed to cover it with a deft turn on his heel. He stepped a few paces away from Violet.

In his mind, he saw the manner of bringing her home plane into phase with this one, the way of using his hands to direct the energy. And heard her voice, a message she had sent along with the power: Kar-am-tharuum. Remember the name. You must have it firmly in your mind when you send me. It helps to say it aloud.

And he knew without being told that it was the name of the place he would send her to, the place from which she'd been exiled.

Kar-am-tharuum.

The magic thrummed through him as he faced the audience.

A host of demons stood among them -- over a hundred, glowing eyes, horns, scales, wings. Balcony, aisles, even standing among the rows, though no one complained. Hazy. There, but not there.

And he understood at last what Violet had meant about having only one chance at this.

Barrett took a deep breath, went off script: "I'm sure many of you wonder how I do it, how I perform these miracles night after night. Would you like me to let you in on the secret?"

The backwash of the stage lights allowed Barrett to see the first few rows of seats. A couple of audience members exchanged puzzled glances.

"The truth is, it's not me at all. It's her." He opened his hand toward Violet.

Her forehead creased.

Nervous laughter from the audience -- the human part of it, anyway.

"She's the brains of this outfit," Barrett said. "My job is just to hit my marks and say my lines. Isn't that right, Violet?"

"Barrett?" Her voice held a warning tone. "What are you doing?"

"Most of you folks aren't aware of it, but we have some special guests tonight. They could be standing right next to you, right now, and you wouldn't even know it."

People began looking around, craning their necks. Murmurs spread, ripples in a pond.

"Oh, you can't see them. They're watching from . . . somewhere else. They're not quite in phase with us -- not yet, anyway. But once I perform this last trick, I think that will change." Barrett swallowed. "They're here for me."

The murmurs became a buzz.

He glanced over his shoulder. "Aren't they, Violet?"

Her forehead smoothed; her dark eyes narrowed. "We have a deal, Barrett."

"They sense the energy. They're watching for you. They're here to make sure you don't return." The power coursed through him, filling his body. If he didn't let it out soon, he might burst into flame. "My fingerprints instead of yours. So they come for me, while you make your getaway. That was the plan all along, right?"

"Barrett, I swear I don't know what you're talking about."

The cold read was far too easy. Even without the extra juice from her, he would have seen the lie. It coated her like a layer of dust. She had grown desperate.

"That's why there will only be one chance at this. Whether I succeed or fail in sending you back, they'll tear me apart for trying. And that bit about leaving me with enough power to last the rest of my life?" Barrett chuckled. "Very funny. I can see why you have so many enemies."

"You can't back out now. We have a deal."

It was more than desperation. He could hear the quaver of real fear in her voice. Violet Navarre, who had always been so smooth and polished, who had manipulated him so masterfully, who had literally made Barrett into her puppet, was suddenly afraid. Of him.

And in that moment, he understood why. The energy, of course. So much of her power, churning inside of him. She was as vulnerable as she would ever be. For the first time in their relationship, he held the strings. If only he knew what to do with them.

Then, with dawning surprise, he realized he did know.

He had to move quickly, before she figured it out. He extended his hands. To the audience, he said, "A little change of plans, folks. I'm going to show you a different trick -- one my lovely assistant taught me."

And he sent the power out at her.

It hit her hard enough to stagger her backward. Her face went from stony to wide-eyed. Her mouth dropped open; strange clicking sounds came from her throat.

Barrett bore down before she could think to resist, gritting his teeth, body shaking with the force he exerted on her. The last of the energy she had given to him drained away.

Violet hand's moved, jerky, like those of a marionette controlled by an amateur puppeteer. She had been much better at it, more smooth at the controls. She grunted, her mouth straining, contorting. The word emerged, each syllable dragged out of her: "Kar . . . am . . . thaaa . . . ruum."

And the air in the theater shimmered as one plane came into phase with another.

A whoosh of chill air blew through the auditorium. And the screaming began.

The demons were there now, standing in sharp, hellish relief, the haze gone. The audience members scrambled over each other in a rush to get away from them. The glow of their eyes cast a flickering ambience.

Yet they had nothing to fear, Barrett knew. And neither did he. The energy that had bridged the two worlds hadn't come from him. It bore someone else's fingerprint. That person was the only one in danger tonight.

The creatures extended their taloned hands toward the stage and took wing.

Violet's scream, amplified by her microphone, pierced the rising cacophony. The demons answered with grating screeches of their own. The nearest of them reached the stage, jaws wide to reveal mouthfuls of sharp teeth. They battened on her.

Barrett turned away. Something warm and wet splashed against his back.

Violet had been right about one thing: people would be talking about this night for years afterward.

And he had to get out of here fast, before someone thought to blame him, however rightfully, for the carnage. On unsteady legs, he exited stage right.

Barrett needn't have worried. He went unheeded by the screaming audience members, the fleeing backstage crew, or the swarming monsters. As if he'd become invisible to all of them. He might have laughed if he hadn't been so terrified. Instead of Violet, he had disappeared -- right before their very eyes.


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