Two Birds in the Hand.
“Presto!” Magnificent Marconi’s gloved hand produced yet another dove, this time a black one. The odd-colored birds’ obsidian feathers reflected the sunlight of this clear day. Another birthday party, another payday. More birds to buy, Magnificent Marconi knew as he released the black and the white one as well to the clear skies, frightening them enough to make them flap their wings hard, putting on an extra show for the cheering kiddies and even the bored parents. He afforded a glance at those bored parents, working on figuring out how drunk they can get without being a driving risk and an embarrassment to the other bored parents and their own kids. One good show, impressed, bright-smiling kids can bring recommendations, bring more work, bringing bigger paychecks.
“Does anybody here like…..candy?!!?” He shouted, making his eyes wide as possible, pretending to scan their excited faces, but inwardly, he was preparing himself for his finale. He flipped a burlap sack out of one of the sleeves of his solid white tuxedo The tuxedo’s only variance was the black carnation that changed colors as soon as one of the children “volunteered” to touch it. He had been in the magic business long enough to know that all audience volunteering was just psychological manipulation. Having the birthday girl “volunteer” always carried the likelihood of adding a little extra bonus to his standard fee, of course.
“I said…..DOES….ANYBODY…..HERE….LIKE….CANDY?!?” He shouted, running around the gathered, shouting group of already sugar-charged children. Again, psychological manipulation kept these children’s attention on his show since they would have already consumed sugar-loaded punch and sodas. If he cared, he would have felt sorry for their parents on the drive home and their nannies when they arrived. For now, he had a job to do.
“Okey Dokey kiddie-dos!!! Listen! Listen! Listen! Listen!.....Shhhhhhhhhhhhh…….” He moved around, making sure to keep eye contact with them. The parents and servants did as well, curious. They knew there was candy giving in one of his tricks, but his brochure didn’t say what he did. “After I get in this bag right here…” he motioned to the burlap bag he produced out of his sleeve “You’re to count to 10! If you don’t…” he made a sad face, even rubbing his eyes as if sobbing…. “No candy. You don’t want that, do you?! I sure don’t!! Let’s do this!” Magnificent Marconi threw the bag over himself quickly, covering his 5’10”, large frame easily. The kids didn’t think about how he could have produced a large enough burlap bag out of his sleeve to do that, but they weren’t the cynical, marginal alcoholics that their parents and nannies and servants were. He was counting on that, of course.
The kids began counting as soon as he even started pulling the bag over his head. The count didn’t matter. The trick was easy to do and it made a huge impression on them and hopefully, their paying parents. The bag looked as if it grew smaller than an adult human male that just slipped into it, as if it was compressing the Magnificent Marconi into something else. “....8!....9!...10!!!” On the final number, the bag exploded, spewing wrapped treats a few yards around the remains of the bag. As the no-longer-curious parents and servants stepped back, gasping, Magnificent Marconi stepped out of the french doors behind his host and a few other gathered parents. “Too much?” The repeated gasps came as they turned, drinks sloshing. Sobriety returning to them, on seeing their paid entertainment standing before them with no apparent explanation. They looked him up and down, smiling wide, blinking, not sure if this was another trick.
“What is your rate? Are you available next month??”
He was usually magnificently booked up 6 months in advance, but the inquirer was rather attractive and telling from the jewels around her neck, ears and fingers, she could afford a hefty bonus in addition to his usual fee….as well as some space in his busy schedule.
“For you, my gracious lady, I can tell that arrangements can be made.” He kissed her hand, bowing like an ancestor from long ago, pleasing to the royalty that he once knew. “Dear madam, check your cell phone for my telephone number. Ask for the Magnificent, the One and Only…Marconi.”
“What…whatever…”, she reached for her purse near her hand on the adult drinks table, opened the clasp and checked her phone. “New Contact Added. Marconi, Magnificent” the green display showed over her husbands’ and childrens’ faces on the flowered background lock screen. Her opened, heavily lipsticked mouth sealed the deal, he knew.
The hostess handed Marconi a magnificent check and then another one. “Thank you for working us in. I dropped the ball and thought we’d end up getting pizza and renting video games.” She shook her head, looking at the group of screaming, hyperactive children busy unwrapping their treasures as they grasped at more after the flavor left their mouths. “My mother-in-law was probably right about me. I’m a terrible planner.”
“Stop doing that. It was perfect timing that I had just become available and your neighbor found my email.” His dark green eyes on his browned face was framed by his straight, shoulder-length black hair. He stood a few inches taller than the gathered wives, husbands and half-listening servants. He welcomed the reputation he had for confusing people when they tried to guess his nationality, his subtle accent, where he learned his stage-craft and his background in general. When party hostesses went to hire him, the background check came out clean, as he intended. School in Virginia, living with his parents, worked as a printers’ apprentice in North Carolina for his father-in-law after he married hastily. He took over the print shop after his father-in-law passed on, but ran the business into the ground after the divorce. He served in the military for 2 years. Honorably discharged. No children known.
Nothing illegal in any background search. Exactly as planned.
“You’re too kind. I would tell you that I’ll pass along your card to recommend you, but it looks like that won’t be needed.” She laughed inside, trying not to crease her face before the botox party in a couple of days. Just making sure not to look like she needed it. To Ryan, Magnificent Marconi’s off-stage name, she didn’t need it. Too bad she would never understand the need for secrecy.
“Thanks. Leaving? What about your….stuff?” She nodded to the tables, implements and costumes that he brought and set up in the yard, now being overrun with sugar-charged children.
“I’ll be back for it later. The kids never bother it.”
“You sure? They can be vicious about things left out in the open.” She laughed openly, risking wrinkles again.
“I’m sure. Thank you for your concern.” He grinned and winked down at her. “I have…safeguards in place.”
She looked from the items in the yard, sun bearing down on them, the children and their greedy hands, candy smeared faces and then back to Ryan. He had vanished.
He scoped out the place carefully before accepting the job. These big houses had plenty of yard space between, not like in the suburbs where they were built close enough to climb into each others’ windows or doors. Problem was a sheltered building to check in. He found the gardeners’ shed. He knew they wouldn’t be working today with a childrens’ party on the grounds. No taking a chance in running one of them over, no matter how spoiled and obnoxious they got toward them.
Ryan set up for ritual as quickly as he could. Waving his hands, the air inside the dark, stale shed lit up from candles that appeared, floating in mid-air. He had set up a small table with a surface from some tools in the shed. Modern civilization has conveniences, he thought to himself. Very little, but some. Rubbing his hands, chanting a few arcane, long-forgotten words, he snapped his wrists out, holding a staff as tall as he in one hand. Touching the makeshift table, a circle with images of the letters of those words lit up, adding to the glow of this tin-sided room. He moved around, clapping his hands and moving his fingers to make signs that few living beings had ever seen, even back in his day many centuries ago. His tuxedo changed into an iridescent pearl-white robe with a single black rose insignia on his back, covered partly by the hood draping down his back.
Ryan paused, holding the palms of his hands together vertically in front of his face, eyes closed. He breathed slowly, mumbling to himself. The hair on the back of his neck let him know the ritual was working. He was sealed off from the world. The dirty tin siding of the shed, stained with used oil from changing, grass cuttings and mold re-shaped itself into a background of stars amidst a dark vacuum with another anomalies in their company.
Red and yellow letters characters formed themselves in front of him. No voice accompanying, just lines alight. Spelling out a greeting and some instructions. He knew better than to ask where this writing came from. He replied. “I return your greetings and understand your instructions, my lords.” He bowed respectfully, arm under the folds of his pure-white robe, head down.
He was never 100% certain where the writing was coming from, but so far, they had no problem if he was bowing in the wrong direction. His new-found power came at a price.
Servitude to some greater…..beings. Gods, Angels, even devils…who knew. But despite being alive long enough to witness empires rise, prosper, fall and to repeat the cycles again, to amass fortunes, lose them, regain them, marry and/or bed women and men by the thousands, go on adventures that most today only read in history books or in similar accounts in fiction books and cinema, he lived what is considered a “full life”. Much more than what is considered “full”. Bloated. But he remained grateful. Even with the price he is paying.
“Do you understand what is required?” The glowing, fiery letters spelled out.
He nodded and answered in the affirmative with his head down a bit. He had dreaded this since the display his “masters” gave him. His adopted planet laid waste to wave after wave of fires, floods, falling rocks descending that were bigger than the state he performed his little party tricks in.
“We know you have grown fond of your home and your experiences, but you were selected long ago to join us due to your latent talents. You will not be alone. There are others of your kind that will join us after the cleansing.”
He looked up. “There are?” For centuries since his initial training in the Arts, he only knew his “master's” company. Friends, lovers, business acquaintances came and went, but he could never fully reveal what he knew and what he was doing here. He suspected that there were others, but if he did meet them, he never knew it. He had been busy with lovers, money and acquiring knowledge like the parlor tricks he used to amuse himself. He used none of his magical training for the shows he put on. He lived long enough and had enough money this time around to hire the talents of a second-rate escape artist named Houdini and a fairly talented stage illusionist named Blackstone. From the foundations of what he was taught, he gained a reputation at children’s parties. Using his knowledge of the human condition, he knew how to manipulate their attentions, emotions and other senses. It has been a fun side project. An ironic one. Pretending to a magician while using actual magic to bring about the end of the world. All part of his assigned duties as a Shielder. A title and a role that his “masters” gave to him. For these centuries since his initial training, he worked to bypass certain disasters that would have wiped out the human populace.
Asteroids that were meant to cave the earth’s surface in on impact.
Ice ages that would have frozen all green and fleshly forms quickly and horribly.
Diseases that mortal men’s science would have been helpless to stop, much less cure without destroying each other.
His spells and powers that he was taught diverted all of those and others.
True, there were other events of the above named that happened in recent history, but not to the degree he diverted.
At the last meeting with his “masters”, he found that he and his kind that he just now found out about, were powerless to stop the coming holocaust.
He began to open his mouth when he was interrupted by quickly drawn words. “We cannot intervene. Our touch would bring about far worse chaos than any civilized species in the cosmos. The end of all conscious existence.” Once again, they anticipated his question. “Do not despair. We will bring you and your fellow servants into our embrace for your service to our noble children.”
He waited for another answer to the question that came to him. Instead of the glowing, fiery words that danced in his vision, his mind filled with images and noises of seemingly conscious, walking, talking creatures of unimaginable horror and beauty scattered throughout stars and planes of existence that he never suspected possible. Time and time again, natural disasters of all sorts obliterated them and other races, empires, peaceful and brutal alike. Conquerors and peace-mongers. Merchants and scholars. All fell under the rubble of structures of many levels of scientific and engineering prowess that no human could begin to understand save through…..magic. Yes, he was shown races of beings that seemed to master the rituals and chants that he used. They found a way out of their dilemma, but not all of them. Some, stubborn enough to believe that they were blessed by gods unseen, even to them, perished with their suns’ supernova.
Ryan found himself on his knees, panting and sweating as the visions faded into unconscious memory. He rose, considering brushing dirt off of his pure white robe, but knew that he was not standing in the shed in Northern California, where he was assigned.
“We mean no offense by inundating you with these images, our good soldier. That was a quick, brief history of our purpose, our experience. Life in this universe is harsh and dangerous. The radiation that destroyed many other worlds and life-forms on them would turn your fellow humans to ash in moments were it not for the shields which their scientists call belts and credit to the iron core of this planet. Our apologies for shocking you.”
“It’s quite alright. I understand what you were doing. Thank you.”
“Now for your last mission. Gather anything of your mortal lives that you wish to bring with you and begin the last rites. We will send you to the temple location on your signal.”
“The last rites? Do you mean…”
“Yes.” The letters seemed to glow red as if showing the importance of this mission. “We know that it has been many an age since you were taught this ritual, so a scroll will be provided at the location.”
“I…..I’m ready.” He admitted to himself that he would miss this existence. Pizza, hot dogs and football games started to grow on him as much as gladiatorial games of old did. The lovers he took came to mind. The ones that he actually did feel for, anyway. The novels and works of art created by the artisans of this world varied in depth and talents, but the act of creation was a courageous act in and of itself. “It’s a pity.” He said as he found himself back in his garage apartment that he used to stay inconspicuous and low-key, packing what few mementos of his lives that he kept. Some clothes, even though he knew he probably would be wearing the white robe with the black rose on the back like he wore now. He paused at some of the picture frames, but packed them away quickly. He knew this was coming, but he wished that he could warn everyone around him. No. No. Not wise. Panic would be coming soon enough and he didn’t need to add to it.
Satisfied that he was done, he tapped his chest with the black rose ring on his right forefinger and then vanished.
A neighbors’ television set, ignored by most of the guests near it was suddenly the center of attention when a suited woman with panic in her eyes told the camera about a large asteroid the size of the moon approaching the earth to collide with it in mere hours. She was interrupted by a man in a crooked tie that sat by her side to tell the same, now shocked and horrified audience that quakes in the bottom of the ocean have triggered tsunamis forming waves of more than 2 miles high approaching most of the coasts of the continents. The two well-dressed humans looked at each other with tears in their eyes and held hands while noises of grief could be heard off-camera.