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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Legerdemain

Gabriel Murray is in search of an honest man and the perfect cup of bubble tea in New York City. He has stories published or forthcoming in Ideomancer and We See A Different Frontier. He is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop and reads submissions and writes reviews for Strange Horizons.

When not acquiring cats, Gabriel blogs at orestesdrunk.wordpress.com about interactive fiction and media.
When he looks at you it's obvious he has no idea what manner of fellow you are, and that is how you know that you've got him. No one likes knowledge, after all, least of all curious individuals like Spencer. Oh, certainly he thinks he does--why else would he collect all those fine books, that beautiful blue globe in his conservatory, and all the planets strung on iron rings in glass?--but you're familiar with the tang of curiosity. Mr. Spencer likes not knowing. The pleasure is in the chase, as with copulation; he wants to be puzzled. You're happy to oblige him.
So when he studies you, you meet his eyes and look away. Johanna introduces you with a brave little smile: "Geoffrey, this is my friend Claude," she says to him. She's winding a little strand of tea-colored hair around her index finger while she speaks. Poor Johanna: she is a poetess, after all, and the Spencers believe in free love, but you can see the knot of worry for his disapproval in the tendon of that finger. Even a happy wife would know whose name was on the deed of that house, and you're well aware that Johanna Spencer is not a happy wife. "Claude is a friend of Mr. Partridge's; I met him at the Partridges' salon, in the city. Have you ever thought of coming?"
You can tell that he hasn't. "I'm often busy here. I regret that I haven't had the pleasure…?" He holds out his hand to shake. His fingers are stained at the tips from black ink and blue paints. It makes them look gangrenous.
You take it. He has a strong, steady handshake, one accustomed to sealing business. His fingers are rougher than yours. You linger over them. You meet his eyes--brown, creased around the edges--again briefly, then look away; ah, yes, that's it. He looks troubled already. "Claude is a magician," Johanna is saying. "An illusionist, I mean. He's very gifted."
"Yes?" Spencer lets go of you and flexes his fingers. "How remarkable. Professionally, you mean? Perhaps you'll favor us with one of your--" He pauses. He does have quite a mellow baritone voice, colored with honey. You understand Johanna's love a little better now, and thus also the pieces of her heart. "Tricks," he says. "Before you leave."
You smile. You know the power of your own smile. It makes rows of gentlemen in coats and expensive hats fail to see what's right in front of them. "I endeavor to be," you say. "I understand that you're an astronomer?"
"I am," he confirms with a flash of his teeth. Men love to have their passions identified, just as they hate to identify their passions.
"Then perhaps you'll find a star for me," you say in jest, and know from the way both Spencers quickly look in opposite directions that you've struck the right vein.
Spencer does not try to seduce you in the darkened conservatory. He comes upon you there, however, which is enough to tell you what he is thinking about. You grin and straighten up from your inspection of the planets and pretend that you didn't hear him coming.
His shirt is open in the front. Johanna's likely in bed. "I have seen you perform," he says, and from the wondering way he tilts his head, you can tell that's why he sought you out. "I remember now. You play at Covent Garden, don't you?"
"Every magician plays at Covent Garden," you reply and fish out your pipe; you strike a match. You look at him briefly up over the flame, through dark lashes. "But that doesn't mean that you haven't seen me perform."
Spencer smiles, charmed and chastened. He has a tuft of dark hair under his shirt. "You were convincing," he says. "You make people disappear."
"Gang lords in Camden make people disappear," you correct him through a puff of smoke. "I make people vanish. But thank you."
He's a very bold man in some respects, for he tilts his head at you and asks, "Where do they go?"
You raise your eyebrows. "Where indeed?"
Spencer bites his lip and traces his fingers along the dusty surface of the mantel next to him. When he changes the subject even you're a little surprised, though you endeavor to magnify it for his benefit. "You do perplex me, Claude," he says and crosses his arms. "You come to visit for reasons I don't entirely understand, a guest of my wife's, and yet I'm entirely certain you're not one of her poet beaux," he drums his fingers on his arms, "and I don't know the first thing about you. Or your work. And yet I know you've heard of mine." He looks studious; it sits well on his face. He must have made a beautiful young man. "You mentioned finding stars. You know that I've named one."
"More than one, I would say," you say with a gesture and a light flick of tobacco-ash, which disperses itself over the tiled floor in an invisible film. He's not wrong, of course; you have done your research on Geoffrey Spencer. What a remarkable man he is. "Johanna is a lovely woman. You can credit yourself for finding her as well."
He looks away. Perhaps talk of his wife isn't to his taste right now. "Yes, well," he says, "I'm afraid she doesn't always seem to like it here." Spencer rubs the back of his hands on his face. "I really am dying to know how you perform your trick," he says.
"You'll survive." You shrug and smoke.
He watches you. You know you have him. You knew you had him when you first met eyes, in the foyer with Johanna. But you let him watch you anyway, you slide the stem of your pipe between your teeth and play idly with the rings of Saturn, and when you answer him you make certain that it sounds like an afterthought. "Misdirection," you say. "I think I'll retire, Mr. Spencer. Have a good night."
His stare strips you as you walk away, but you wear more layers than that.
It's you who initiate it finally with Spencer: not in the nighttime, but the following day in his garden. The sun droops in the early afternoon, muddying the sky with its light. It suits you. You couldn't imagine seducing Geoffrey Spencer under the pure high light of noon, and evening is too close to supper and nighttime suits you ill for a grand finale. The lighting is poor and besides, any conjurer can play a trick in the dark.
He's got a walking stick and you've got a hat, which you find faintly amusing as he's perfectly hale and you never burn. He's giving you a tour of the roses, which you suppose is fitting, but it's really serving as a tour of all the isolated corners of his garden maze: perhaps he didn't intend it that way. Perhaps he did. You imagine a serving of both. His face is covered up with a broad straw hat too and he is gesturing with his superfluous walking stick.
You kiss him without preface. When he seizes you it startles even you, and you're a bit surprised that you don't have to do more.
When you're breathless, though, you speak up again: "Does Johanna know you do this?"
"Don't talk to me about Johanna," he growls, his blood too much up to care for niceties; ah, bless gentlemen. "You can't very well think I want to hear about Johanna at a time like this."
You twist out of his grasp, biting back your own smile again. "I hear she wasn't quite so intent on free love when you met her; are you certain she won't object?"
He pins you harder, ire blooming in his cheeks. It just excites him, you know. Proteus, Solomon: they always want to catch it. "Johanna," he says, "is a chit who will not object to anything as long as she'd like to have a career, and that will always be that. Damn you, Claude, have you always been like this?"
"No," is your answer, and it's true. Someone like Spencer is implacable when he wants you, really wants you, and you know Johanna once succumbed to that. Once you might have too.
You go still, and this occasions Spencer to look up for the first time in minutes.
He chokes. "Dear God, what's become of my house?"
You sprawl back on the bench, sun warming you everywhere your clothing's undone. Spencer is incoherent, ranting; what you hear is a rainstorm of applause.
Spencer seizes you by the half-undone cravat. "What the bloody hell happened?" he hisses. "Where is it? Where is my house?"
The rose garden is the sole remnant of the Spencer estate now. A lesser professional would have just sent the house: but what is a great house alone, without its green grounds and spacious lands? You admire your own handiwork, unconcerned, while Spencer shakes you. "Where?" he demands again.
You smile. "Where indeed?"
He drops you and you catch yourself on your hands. It seems to have been unconscious, as he goes off-puttingly pale. "Johanna," he says.
"Well, yes," you say, brushing off the front of your waistcoat. "You needn't worry for her accounts, poor empty little things. I worked on commission."
Panic and bewilderment are starting to bunch up into rage in Spencer's face, you can tell, so you get to your feet and finish fixing your clothing while you've still got a moment. He hasn't got the first clue, of course, but that isn't going to stop him breaking your nose. Or worse. You eye the walking stick; well, at least he hasn't got a pistol. Thank goodness men like him insist on call-outs, and always presume you'll attend. "What are you?" he snarls.
"Misdirection," you inform him and rummage for your pipe.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 16th, 2013


Misdirection is all about knowing that your audience will be skeptical. Illusionists' audiences and short story readers have that in common: they're always looking for the twist. The key is to have them looking the other way.

- Gabriel Murray

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