A tumbler of scotch, intended to combat stage fright, was beginning to take effect as The Amazing Felix invited a young woman to join him onstage.
A spotlight followed Elyse as she made her way up the aisle then climbed the steps to stand alongside Felix. She squinted in the bright light as she looked out into the crowd.
"Have we ever met before?" asked Felix.
Elyse had been his assistant for nearly six months. "No," she replied.
Felix asked her to "think of a number, any number at all." He told her to concentrate on it and then, after holding a tightly clenched fist to his forehead and grimacing, he announced that the number was four hundred and seventy-nine.
The number had been four hundred and sixty-nine in rehearsals, and that threw Elyse off.
"Close," she said. Alcohol had emboldened Felix but made him confused in the process. "No—I mean that was it!" Elyse corrected. "Sorry, I was thinking of something else. I mean, no, I wasn't thinking of something else!" Increasingly flustered, she just pointed at Felix and told the audience, "What he said." Following tepid applause, she cast Felix an apologetic glance and slunk back to her seat.
With no other audience members on his payroll, Felix changed his approach. Singling out a docile-looking woman in the front row, he asked her to remain seated and to "think of an animal, any animal." He then asked her to say it aloud.
"A wolverine," she said.
Felix pumped his fist triumphantly. "I knew it!"
Some people in the audience were likely impressed, but most were skeptical. "You should tell us what she's thinking before she says it," the woman's husband objected.
Felix treated this suggestion as if it were highly unorthodox, but with his credibility waning, he asked the woman to think of another animal—something with a really long neck. A few seconds later he declared, "You're thinking of a giraffe!" He was about to take a bow when the woman said that, no, she hadn't been thinking of a giraffe; she'd been thinking of a snake.
"A snake," said Felix. "That's what I said."
"No, you said 'giraffe."
"I'm pretty sure I said 'snake.' At any rate, that's what I meant to say."
Upon hearing that 'snake' was what he had meant to say, two or three trusting souls gasped in wonderment; the majority, however, were having none of it. Elyse sighed and slid down in her seat.
"I don't believe you." the husband said.
"I knew you were going to say that," Felix retorted.
The husband openly scoffed and said something rude under his breath.
Doing his best to intimidate, Felix planted his feet well apart and teetered on the front edge of the stage. "Are you calling me a liar?"
"Maybe I am," said the husband, rising from his seat ready to fight.
The audience, eager for excitement, roared its approval.
Elyse knew how obnoxious Felix could become when he'd been drinking, and saw that the situation was spinning out of control. "No, he's telling the truth!" she shouted from the tenth row. "Everyone calm down."
But Felix had passed the point of no return." Look," he said, "I didn't come all the way from Vegas to waste my talent on a bunch of slack-jawed yokels. Trust me, I could be opening for Celine Dion"—a claim that drew loud jeers.
The husband shot back, "If you could read my thoughts right now you'd be crying like a little girl."
That was it. Defiant to the end, Felix dove into the angry mob. Elyse, meanwhile, had seen enough and was escaping through the lobby of the old theatre.
Stepping out the side door onto a quiet street, she pulled out her phone and left Felix a message. If he was going to use 'liquid courage' to steady his nerves then he'd have to face the consequences alone. She quit.
Elyse had always wanted to be a magician's assistant, never a magician, having realized early on that it was the assistants who were responsible for most of the effects on stage, the magicians being little more than pretty faces who waved wands. Her lofty goal was to use magic to convince world-weary people that life still held some surprises. Of course, even if Felix hadn't been so cantankerous, the mind-reading routine would still have been lame; Elyse was therefore delighted when, a few days after the debacle, her agent found her a position assisting a magician named Ernest.
"It's a whole new concept," Ernest told her over the phone. "Everything is strictly above board. It's the most honest magic act you could ever imagine."
Given that Felix's act was simply bare-faced lying, with nothing even clever about it, Ernest's approach seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered: no lies, no fights, no drama.
The first performance took place three weeks later at the Rialto--the same venue where she had performed with Felix.
Ernest, a man with deep-set eyes and an oily manner, stepped onto the small stage wearing a dark suit. He promptly asked for someone in the audience to come up: "Yes—you, young lady!" Looking surprised, Elyse, wearing a long satin gown, left her seat in the front row, and went up the familiar steps to the stage. "Have we ever met before?" he asked.
"Yes," said Elyse matter-of-factly.
"But have we prearranged anything?"
"Well, then, that’s that!" said Ernest throwing up his hands in defeat. The audience laughed. "But the important thing is there's no trickery. My assistant Elyse everyone!" Elyse did a little curtsey as everyone applauded.
Ernest then asked if he could borrow a ten-dollar bill from someone in the audience. A man sitting on the aisle raised his hand, and Elyse went over to his seat. She gave him a marking pen so he could write his initials on the bill then had him put the bill in an envelope. Returning to the stage, Elyse fastened the envelope to a stand where it would remain in plain sight for the rest of the show.
Next, she brought out some chains and padlocks and started passing them around so they could be examined by audience members. She even read a note from the manager of the local hardware store where they'd been purchased vouching for their legitimacy.
"You see," said Ernest, raising a forefinger, "there's no trickery of any kind." As audience members nodded in approval, Elyse wheeled a tall wooden cabinet onstage. It was bright red, with some Chinese calligraphy painted on two sides, therefore resembling nothing so much as a piece of magicians' equipment. Even so, several eager audience members were permitted to come on stage and bang on the sides of it, making sure there were no secret flaps or hidden compartments. After they were satisfied, no attempt was made at any sort of illusion; rather the band just played a little fanfare and Elyse wheeled it back offstage, along with the locks and chains.
"Many of you will recall that we still have one bit of unfinished business," said Ernest, gesturing toward the envelope on the stand. In a flash, Elyse was back at the seat of the man who had lent the bill. She gave him the envelope and he withdrew the money.
"Sir, look at your initials," said Ernest as a drum roll began. "Can you confirm that it's the same bill I borrowed from you at the top of the show?" The man gave a thumbs-up sign, seeming genuinely surprised that nothing unusual had happened.
The band struck up as Ernest and Elyse took their bows to moderate applause, Ernest shouting over the music as they headed for the wings, "Remember—there was no trickery of any kind!"
Touring with Ernest for a few months took a toll on Elyse's spirit, making her feel that the wonderful life for which she had been created was somehow still waiting in the wings. "It's just not magic, is it?" she complained. "I mean, it is and it isn't. But mostly it isn't."
It was around this time that she got a call from Felix. The fight in the theater had left him with a few injuries, but now he was now planning his return to the workforce. She'd been hoping he'd pull himself together eventually, and was pleased by how upbeat he now sounded.
"I'm putting together a new act," he told her. "Nothing like the mentalist garbage I was doing before. Now I'm doing magic with cards and ropes and silk scarves—all that kind of thing—no booze required. It'll be a traditional family show."
"Well, in that case, maybe you should have a traditional assistant," suggested Elyse.
"I know, right? That's why I'm calling..."
The following day she paid a visit to Felix's studio. It was in his garage, but given that the door was open and that it was a bright spring morning, it seemed like a perfect place for new beginnings. Felix was brimming with enthusiasm.
"You seem different," observed Elyse.
"I am different!" said Felix, his eyes twinkling. "Everything's different. The Amazing Felix is no more. My new stage name is The Incredible Phoenix! Get it? My anxiety and stage fright have vanished. I've risen from the ashes! Let bygones be bygones and all that sort of thing. The world is a beautiful place, and it's heaven all the way to heaven." He smiled at Elyse in a way that radiated serenity. "And you—you seem different too. Maybe it's because you have something behind your ear." Reaching behind her ear he pulled out a coin. It was the sort of thing seniors do to amuse their grandchildren, but for Felix it was something new and he did it very well. Soon he was demonstrating how he could pull long streams of colored paper from his mouth, make milk disappear from a paper cone, and other tricks that one might expect at a child's birthday party.
"I know you're thinking you've seen it all before," said Felix. But what's different is that when I do it it's real."
"It does seem real," she conceded.
"No, I mean it is real. It's real magic!"
" Have you ever heard of the Green Fairy of Absinthe?"
"Well, I was visited by the Brown Fairy of Scotch.
"If you say so."
"I'm serious. After that awful brawl at the Rialto, I hit rock bottom; but then the Brown Fairy came and set me free. Not only did she take away all my anxiety but she gave me miraculous powers."
"Well, the main thing is you're doing better now."
"You don't believe me, do you?"
Elyse narrowed her gaze.
"Fine; think of a number, any number at all."
"Okay," said Elyse.
"Four hundred and sixty-nine."
"Oh, my Gawd!"
That evening Elyse gave Ernest her resignation, and two weeks later she began rehearsing with Felix. One thing she didn't understand was why, if Felix had actual magic powers, he didn't use them to cure diseases and feed the hungry, etc. Why waste time making handkerchiefs change color? Despite turning over a new leaf, however, it was clear that Felix would never let go of his dream of one day headlining at a big casino.
"But why," Elyse asked during rehearsal, "don't you just make things appear and disappear right in front of people's eyes? Why bother with all these old-fashioned, suspicious-looking props?"
Felix's eyes gleamed. "Showmanship!"
Their first performance took place three weeks later, as Felix took the stage of the Tropicana nightclub in a black tuxedo with Elyse by his side wearing a sequined leotard and tights. Since Felix was taking care of all the magic, there were times when Elyse felt unsure what her role was supposed to be; but she believed in what she was doing, and she believed in Felix. In truth, she was happy to serve as window dressing so long as she had the privilege of sharing the stage with real magic.
The act was a hit, playing in numerous nightclubs and small theatres. No doubt it would have received more attention if audiences had understood that it was more than mere conjuring, but Felix was on cloud nine.
Things came to a head one night when they were back at the Rialto. (The theatre's new management was unaware that The Incredible Phoenix was the person who had practically started a riot as The Amazing Felix.)
Backstage, amid lights, curtains, and ropes, Felix stumbled upon a box covered in Chinese calligraphy that Elyse recognized from her days with Ernest. (Ernest's act had become nonviable without Elyse's glamour to sustain it, so he became a sales rep for a flooring company—something for which he was temperamentally more suited—and abandoned his old props.) Of course, Felix loved suspicious equipment. "Maybe I'll try it out later," he said.
Halfway into the act, Elyse was carrying a tray full of paper flowers offstage when Felix whispered to her, "Bring out the Chinese cabinet next. Just follow my lead."
She wheeled the cabinet onto the stage, spinning it around for Felix as he pounded on all sides to demonstrate their solidity. Next she opened the cabinet door, and Felix stepped inside. After closing the door and giving the box another spin, she didn't know what to do. Felix had told her to follow his lead, but nothing was happening. Feeling a bit embarrassed, she opened the door a crack. Sure enough, the box was empty. She flung it open wide, then stood alongside the box with one hand on her hip and the other raised high over her head. The audience went wild.
Usually it's the assistant who disappears, not the magician, so this put Elyse in a strange position. She didn't know where Felix had gone and wasn't able to continue the show without him. For a little while, she just stood there waiting.
"He's gone," she finally said to the audience, who by now had fallen quiet. "I mean he's really gone." Panic took hold as she started looking frantically among the other props. The audience watched in confusion as Elyse scurried around, on and offstage, most people assuming it was part of the act. "Show's over!" she told them, drawing some nervous laughter. "Seriously, I mean it. Something terrible has happened. Somebody call 911!"
The audience had left by the time Lieutenant Munro arrived with two investigating officers. The lieutenant assumed that Felix had somehow fled the building as a publicity stunt or some sort of scam to avoid creditors, but the two officers were determined to take the missing person report seriously.
Munro talked to the Rialto's nervous manager about possible hiding places and escape routes while Elyse helped the two junior officers as they examined and photographed the Chinese cabinet.
Later, Lieutenant Munro, notepad in hand, sat down with Elyse in the front row and began to question her.
He wanted to talk about the incident at the Rialto six months earlier—at which time no charges had been laid—but Elyse redirected Munro to her more pressing concern that Felix might not be able to come back.
"Felix can't always control his magic," she confided. "Like this one time he borrowed a hundred dollar bill from me so he could make it disappear, then for some reason he couldn't make it reappear. He said that's just the way things happen sometimes. I felt really bad for him."
Munro smiled faintly. Of course, there was no way a police lieutenant was going to believe that Felix had vanished into nothingness, and in any case, Elyse couldn't bring herself to reveal Felix's secret. "Tell me what this guy is like as a performer," said Munro, flipping over a page in his notebook. "Is he big on self-promotion would you say?"
"Oh, I'm sure he could be a much bigger star if he put his mind to it."
"Good at sleight-of-hand?"
"Umm..." she began, then trailed off.
"And what about his timing?" Munro continued. "Is it anything special?"
"Oh, his timing is brilliant," Elyse enthused, adding upon reflection, "You could say it's impeccable."
"Well," said Munro, who liked his notes to be accurate, "is it brilliant or is it impeccable?"
"Lieutenant, I've got something over here!" interrupted one of the officers from the rear of the stage. Elyse and Munro went to have a look, as did the manager and the other officer. "Check it out," he said, pointing to an overturned tray and scattered playing cards. "Signs of a struggle." Elyse explained that the props were in disarray because she'd been tearing the place apart looking for Felix. The officer continued, "And then there are all these locks and chains—as if someone were planning future abductions. And obviously the big box..." he added, casting a suspicious glance at the nearby Chinese cabinet.
The first officer having run out of steam, the second officer now tried a different tack. "How did you feel when Felix disappeared?" he asked Elyse, turning to face her with a cold stare. "Were you happy?"
"No—quite the opposite."
"So perhaps you were angry that he abandoned you?"
"He filled you with rage," suggested the officer.
"No! No, it wasn't like that. Look, there's something I need to tell you—all of you—something about Felix. I know you'll find this hard to believe—I didn't believe it myself at first, but—"
Suddenly the front of the Chinese cabinet burst open and out stepped Felix with his arms outstretched.
"I'd go with impeccable!" he said.