The Final Performance

“Ladies and gentleman, I give you…the Great Santini!”

Applause as the magician popped onto the stage in a burst of smoke. His tailed coat was of the finest quality, but his face was long, pale, with a foolish chin not quite covered by an attempted Mephistophelian goatee. He wave with an affected air to the audience, then turned to his assistant.

“Thank you, Sandra, for that lovely introduction. But, if you’ll forgive me, I don’t think you are quite dressed for the occasion.”

Sandra looked down at her own tailed coat and tie.

“What is wrong with it?”

“It is not quite…what is the word? Chic. If you will…”

He raised his cape before her, hiding her from view of the audience. With the deftness of long practice, she stripped off her fake formal wear and gave the knot at the back of her head a quick tug. The whole thing took less than five seconds, and as Santini swept away the cape, she stood in the exact same pose, but now dressed in the sleek, form-fitting silvery costume, her dark hair flowing free.

More applause. Sandra gave her required smile.

At least this is the last time, she thought.

Sandra – that was not her given name, but she had been going under it for a while now and she rather liked it – was thoroughly fed up with the ‘Great Santini’. At times she wondered whether the man was quite in his wits; he seemed to think of nothing but his act, of which he was ridiculously proud. Off stage, he went about as though in a perpetual daze, his eyes lifted to the ceiling, humming to himself. He was a little like a child that way. Except, of course, when they were together. She’d been obliged to put on a somewhat different performance then.

I really am a talented actress, she reflected as she assisted him with the tired ‘dove’ trick. The idiot actually thinks I like him.

“My sweet dove,” he always called her. When he remember her existence at all.

The bird flapped limpidly in his hands as he held it up to the applause of the audience.

She’d not taken up with him out of choice, or not exactly. She’d gotten herself into a bit of trouble with her previous boyfriend and had needed a new job – and a new name – quickly. No one would look for someone like her with someone like Santini, and for good reason.

But that was a long time ago now, and the hunt had died down. Besides, they’d cycled back to that very same town, which appealed to her artistic tastes. Back where it’d begun, and now it was time to move on. She meant to get out of the magic trade and back into more lucrative business.

Her last boyfriend had combined the two. The Amazing Mantoli (funny how so many of them went for Italian names). That had been fun, not to mention profitable. She wondered whatever became of him; probably still in jail, unless he’d managed an escape trick. He might even be in the audience tonight. The thought gave a genuine tone to her smile as she assisted in the disappearing box trick. It would do him good to see that she’d gotten the better end of the deal after all.

Sandra had been making her plans quietly for a while now. There wasn’t much she needed to take with her, and it all fit in a purse. As soon as the performance was over, she would hurry back to her dressing room, change, take the money out of the safe – Santini had actually been stupid enough to give her the combination – and she could be at the train station in ten minutes. After that, well, she had contacts in other cities. It wouldn’t be hard to find her way into another, more interesting job.

It wasn’t as though anyone could find her either. She doubted whether Santini even knew her real name, and she’d been living outside the law for so long and changed her own appearance so often that there wouldn’t be even a trace of her for him to follow. That fact had probably saved her life more than once when she came to think of it.

Again, her thoughts went to Mantoli – his actual name was Greg – possibly in the audience, or else sitting in jail. He probably wouldn’t be very happy with her either.

The Great Santini selected a volunteer from the audience for his ‘teapot’ trick. Sandra led the blushing youth up onto the stage, smiling at him as though she thought him an enticing specimen. Really, she was laughing at the thought of Santini’s stupid face when he came back to the trailer tonight after his usual meet and greet with the audience, only to find his little dove had gone and flown. She could just picture him, like a lost child, bewildered and alone.

Santini finished the teapot trick, to the wonder of the young man and the applause of the audience. He beamed proudly on them.

To her own surprise, Sandra felt a slight pang. Her smile even flickered a little. All of a sudden it wasn’t so funny. Was she really so mean as that, to take joy in the mere thought of hurting a silly little idiot like that?

I guess I am, she thought.

Maybe she wouldn’t take all his money after all. Just enough. After all, he couldn’t help being a fool.

The sword-box trick was next, with her laying inside a box, her smiling face showing out of one end while he stuck blades in it. It was a simple matter of being flexible enough to slide into the correct position so that they passed her by (and it helped that they weren’t as sharp as they appeared). Momentarily, she wondered whether he suspected anything. Surely not. She’d been careful in making her arrangements, and anyway he wasn’t the noticing type.

Still, she reflected, some people might wonder whether it was really wise to come up and perform these kinds of tricks with a man she was planning to jilt and rob. But Sandra knew there was no danger. Even if Santini knew all that she was planning and all she thought of him, there could hardly be a safer place for her to be than here on stage. Because a magician could survive being robbed and humiliated, but a trick gone wrong would be the final disaster. It would ruin him completely. The only way he’d do something like would be if he knew for a fact that she meant to kill him. And probably not even then.

No, there was no danger here on stage. She almost wished there were. That might be a bit of a rush. The danger, if there was any, would be afterwards.

But, alas, there really wouldn’t be any. Santini wasn’t the violent type. That was one of the reasons she found him so boring. And with that thought her heart hardened again and she forgot her momentary regrets.

The performance wore on, as dull as ever, and Sandra did her part all the way to the grand finale. This was the water trap illusion. It was a pretty simple trick, but it went down well with audiences. First a huge glass water tank – about the size of a small swimming pool – was wheeled on stage. Then she would be shackled hand and foot, gagged, and sealed inside a steel drum, which was set on ta trap door over the top of the tank. It was played as an escape act, where she had only one minute to escape from the drum before being dropped into the water. Only, she never did escape, and the barrel would drop into the water. Whereupon Santini would say something about having to use magic to rescue her, and he would wave his cape in front of the tank and hey presto! Sandra would appear high, dry, and unbound right in front of the tank.

The trick was, of course, that the barrel was not as solid as it appeared. There was a small entryway concealed between two ridges on the back end, facing away from the audience. It was a simple matter for Sandra to slip her manacles – she had a key hidden in her costume – and slide out and behind the tank, ready to pop out again at the climax of the trick. The door was, of course, very narrow, and only someone like her, slender, flexible, and extremely skilled, could manage to slip through.

They’d done it a thousand times, and Sandra went through the motions of climbing to the top of the tank, flashing a brave smile to the audience, then letting herself be shackled and gagged almost without thinking, still contemplating the real moment of escape that would follow.

Santini lifted her up, cried his familiar line of “Good luck, and Godspeed!”, and set her carefully inside the barrel. She waved cheekily to the audience as she dropped into the narrow space.

That’s all, folks! She thought. And good riddance….

Then, as Santini was lowering the lid over her head, Sandra happened to glance over the rim into the wings. And there she saw something. Something the meaning of which didn’t fully register until the lid had snapped shut over her head.

It was a girl. A girl waiting out of sight of both the other stage hands and the audience. A girl who had been dressed and made up to look just like her.

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