I aM GoIng 2 kiLL u JaniE.
A shudder ran down her back and her hands trembled as she reread the smudged newsprint pasted to the otherwise blank sheet of paper. This was the third threat she’d had in as many days. First, it was a phone call. A muffled voice. An indirect threat. A wicked laugh. The day after that she had woken up to see a knife stabbed cleanly through her bedroom door. All the doors and windows were still locked and latched from the inside, with no sign of a break-in. Now the threat was more direct. And the paper she held chased away all doubt. Somebody was going to kill her.
But why? And who?
She had contacted the police after the phone call. They had told her that such calls were common for people in show business, especially attractive people who may cause certain others to be jealous, and that there was probably nothing to be concerned about. However, they tapped her phone line to monitor all future calls, and they mounted surveillance cameras outside her Los Angeles apartment. “Lots of screwballs around here,” they told her. “I doubt it’s anything serious. Just go on with life as usual.”
When she performed that night, she was on edge. She was suspicious of everybody. Her fellow assistant, Angela Evens. The prop man. The lighting and effects man. The announcer, Dan Roberts. The volunteers from the audience. Even the Great Gilchrest was a suspect on her list. His plastic smile and hypnotic voice nauseated her even more than usual, and she could not tell if the façade was for the audience, or herself.
She tried to shake the uneasy feeling. She had worked with these people for years; it simply couldn’t be anybody she knew. Get over it and focus, because your act is soon, she told herself. The show must go on.
She watched the Great Gilchrest repeat the same magic acts that she’d seen a thousand times before, and remembered how spellbound she’d been the first time she had seen him perform. Now to her eyes the sleights of hand appeared so obvious and cliché. And yet the audience applauded. They always applauded. They didn’t want to know how it was done, and they still felt the sense of wonder she had once felt herself. Perhaps, sometimes, it was better not knowing…
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Great Gilchrest will perform the trick that you have been waiting for so patiently,” Dan boomed theatrically through the loudspeakers hidden in the ceiling. “He will now saw his beautiful assistant in half. Please give the courageous Janie Dalworth a hand, remembering that this is a very dangerous trick and that this may be the last applause poor Janie will ever hear.”
The applause of the audience seemed to take on a somber tone. Janie felt paralyzed as the oft-repeated rhetoric of the announcer took on a new meaning to her. Smiling, Angela came up to her and gently guided her towards the box on the table in the stage’s center. “Don’t mess this up,” she hissed under her breath, her smile unwavering. “If you’re this out of it, you shouldn’t have come. I can do it better anyway.”
Janie put on a fake smile, bowed, and approached the steps to the table. Her body went numb as a black bag was pulled down over her head. She climbed the stairs slowly, Angela assisting her with each step. Cautiously, she lowered herself into the box. She let her neck settle into the neck brace at the top of the box, and inserted her slippered feet through the bottom.
“Now, folks, we will make this a little more interesting. As if this trick is not dangerous enough, Janie will now be manacled to the box. If anybody cares to inspect the manacles, please step up now.”
Janie was unable to see the smattering of people who came forward, and didn’t care enough to listen to what they said. She knew the handcuffs were real. She didn’t need it verified.
“Has everybody determined to their satisfaction that the manacles are real?” the announcer inquired.
Murmurs of agreement followed.
“Very well. Janie will now raise her hands above her head and lay them where everybody can see them. She will then be securely shackled to the table.”
Janie heard the rattling of chains as Gilchrest and Angela fastened them to the hoops bolted down to the table. She raised her arms above her head. Nobody could see her wince and stiffen as the shackles were then fastened around her wrists, ankles and neck. Was it her imagination, or was Gilchrest fastening them tighter than usual?
A daunting thought disturbed her. What if Gilchrest wants me dead?
“Janie, would you be so kind as to wiggle your fingers and toes for the audience, to assure them no trickery is involved?” It took her an instant for the words to register, but she obeyed.
Who here knew her phone number, knew her address, knew their way around her house? Gilchrest. Who here had the ability to break into her house, put a knife cleanly through her bedroom door, and leave without a trace, the doors locked behind him? Gilchrest. And who here had a motive?
She remembered vividly the day she overheard Gilchrest and his promoter having a heated discussion a couple years back. She had but lately been a dancer at the Golden Tiger, until she was fired that night for not being ‘friendly’ enough with the customers, and was walking past the dressing rooms when she heard raised voices and stopped. The promoter was saying that if Gilchrest wanted to move up from seedy nightclubs and become a real class act, he needed to go big, and to go big he needed a partner. Specifically, a pretty partner to draw eyes away from his sleights of hand. If Gilchrest wouldn’t do that, then he wouldn’t go anywhere, and there was no point in having a promoter at all.
“You bring in another magician, and she learns my tricks, I swear I’ll kill her. I’m the Great Gilchrest, and I worked hard to master my craft. I’ll be blasted if I’ll let some vipress take that away from me. If you’re going to hire a pretty face, she had better not have a brain behind it,” Gilchrest snarled in reply.
She was a performer, she was out of work, and she was desperate. She opened the door and walked right in. “Oh!” she gasped, a hand flying to her mouth. “What are you doing in the women’s dressing room?”
“This is NOT the women’s dressing room,” the promoter told her. Gilchrest simply stared at her. Still wearing her tight, sequined costume, she was used to being stared at.
“Are you sure?” she asked, unconvinced.
“Absolutely positive. The women’s dressing room is down the hall,” the promoter said impatiently.
“Well, then it shouldn’t say ‘Women’s Dressing Room’ on the door.”
“It doesn’t,” he snapped.
“Of course it does. Every women’s dressing room has a sign on the door,” she said stubbornly, swinging around and promptly banging her head on the door. She rubbed her forehead with a look of deep consternation.
“Lady, please, we were discussing grownup things. The room you’re looking for is down the hall and to the right. Would you mind…”
“Wait,” Gilchrest exclaimed suddenly. His tone switched instantly to a soft purr. “Madam, we would like to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
And she had been hired.
What if he finally discovered that the dumb blonde bit was an act?
What if his threat had been serious?
All of the hundreds of ‘what if’s that flowed through her mind vanished like white rabbits as she heard the clank of metal and knew that the Great Gilchrest was displaying the saw to the audience for inspection. Yes, the saw was real. Yes, the saw was sharp.
While the eyes of the audience were elsewhere, Janie contorted her body into the far side of the box, her hands, feet and head immobile. When Gilchrest touched a hidden lever, the side of the box she was leaning into would slide outward just slightly, allowing the saw to slide past her with just centimeters to spare. Her avoidance of the blade relied solely on Gilchrest hitting that lever, which put her life completely into his hands.
Her heart was pounding in her ears and she could hear the blood flowing through her veins as the saw began its back-and-forth motion above her. The sound effects of a saw going through wood played in tune with the blade, but she knew it was really only cardboard separating her from its sharp teeth. He still had not hit the lever.
Sometimes, Gilchrest would hold out until the last second to hit the lever, letting the suspense grow and spread. The only way to know for sure that he wasn’t going to hit the lever was when the cold serrated edge tore into her skin. She braced herself for that moment, holding a scream in the back of her throat for when the moment came. Would the audience think the scream was just part of the act? She pictured the Great Gilchrest smooth-talking his way out of her death, making her lifeless body just another prop in his show.
The internal clock in her head was ticking down to the moment when the saw would either glide past her or through her. Her held breath burned a fire in her lungs. She released it and tried to lose some of her tension, enabling her to squirm even further to the side. She knew it wasn’t far enough.
The time had come. The saw hung above her. The blade caught, then pressed down. Her body went limp, her eyes squeezed closed. Then… SNAP. The lever was hit, she was moved away from the blade, she was safe for the moment. She lay there drained and motionless, usually part of her act, now simply a side effect of the adrenaline rush before. Her breath came in ragged gasps that she struggled to conceal. It wasn’t Gilchrest who sent the note. She was not going to die.
Later that night, long after the show had ended, Janie slid under the silk sheets of her bed and prepared for a long rest. The day had been harder on her than she had ever expected, and she had heeded Angela’s advice and took off from tomorrow’s show. Now if she wanted to sleep until noon, she could, and she fully expected to.
She had scarcely drifted off before she heard a noise. It was barely perceptible, and followed by silence, but with her heightened sense of awareness she had heard it. Instantly alert, she reached for the lamp on her nightstand, but it wouldn’t come on. The power must be out, she thought, swiveling her legs off the bed and planting her feet on the floor.
She reached for her cell phone to find the flashlight app. The phone wasn’t there. Somebody was already here.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” a purring voice asked, a beam of light from her phone illuminating the magician’s face from below, the light and shadows forming a spectral image at the foot of her bed. It quickly disappeared.
“What do you want?” Janie blurted, backing up until her back touched the hardness of her headboard.
“You know what I want, Janie,” the voice said, now coming from the right side of her room. Knowing how easily Gilchrest could cast his voice, the direction it came from was little indicator of where he was.
“What? What do you want?” she repeated with a touch of hysteria.
“I want you, Janie,” the voice replied from the left. “I want you dead.”
She heard a revolver cock in the darkness. “The least you can do is show yourself while you kill me,” she said, gathering what strength she could muster.
As if by magic, the lights snapped on. He loomed over her, barely three feet away. She recognized the gun he held as one of the guns they used in their Magic Bullet act. Only this time, she wasn’t going to use the stage gun to shoot a blank at him that he’d pretend to catch and throw through a target, which in reality was shot by a second gun from across the stage. He was going to shoot her. She clutched her pillow to her chest as if to use it as a shield.
He pulled the trigger.
The noise filled the room.
She sat there, and they stared at each other a moment before she dropped the pillow to reveal what she was holding. “Is this what you’re looking for?” she mimicked, as she fired the real gun point-blank into his chest.
He coughed and staggered back, confusion written on his face. “How…”
“I switched them when we packed up. You’re not the only one with fancy fingers. Goodbye, Not-So-Great Gilchrest. Now you disappear.”