art by Jason Stirret
by Mike Resnick & Jordan Ellinger
Before he was The Great Bellini he was just plain old Malcolm Bell. He had a knack for magic tricks--illusions, he called them--and what had been a hobby became a profession. He met Patricia when he selected her from the audience to assist with a trick, married her within a month, and remained passionately in love with her until the auto accident took her from him a decade later.
It was when Mordecai the Magnificent came over from England and began drawing huge audiences--audiences that used to pay to see Bellini--that he reconstructed Mordecai's greatest illusions, performed them on television, and then, ostensibly to prove that there was truly nothing magical about them, showed the viewers exactly how they worked.
This boosted his popularity so much that he exposed a couple of other rivals' secrets on stage, and then did the same with his own tricks before anyone else could. Suddenly he was more in demand as the great debunker than he had ever been as the Great Bellini. He was hired to expose phony psychics and seers, he was a frequent guest on television's leading variety and talk shows, he performed his own illusions (and then explained them) to packed houses and was booked for two years in advance. If Patricia had just been there, his life would have been perfect.
It was her insurance policy that directed his attention to a man named James Teller. A former stockbroker, Teller claimed to have been struck by lightning and, as a result, developed the ability to predict the futures market. On its surface, the claim was ridiculous, except that it worked. It worked so well that the board of New West Insurance bet the farm on Teller's predictions, a bet that earned them fat bonus checks and lavish Christmas parties in Vegas. By the time it all came crashing down, Teller was eighty-two million dollars richer and there wasn't any money left to pay Patricia's claim. The Great Debunker didn't need the insurance payout, but New West's seventy-three hundred other clients did.
Bellini's experience was in sleight-of-hand and stage magic, but he slipped into finances like he was slipping into a familiar set of gloves. Magic had always been about human psychology, and he found the same to be true of the stock market. Show the sucker in the audience a puff of smoke and he won't see your assistant slipping out of a hidden compartment. He exposed Teller's puff of smoke and hidden compartment inside of two weeks. Teller's victims didn't escape unscathed, but sixty-two cents on the dollar was enough to keep them out of the soup kitchens. A woman from St. Paul's shipped him a carrot cake by way of thanks. He'd never had much of a nose, but when he warmed it in the oven he smelled Patricia's baking again and couldn't bring himself to eat it.
Because he rarely paid attention to the headlines, he didn't notice as news of his involvement in the investigation made its way through Bloomberg News then to the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, the story growing as it jumped from one medium to the next. Because he'd made his name debunking magicians and Teller was a self-proclaimed psychic, the papers all anointed him the new Harry Houdini and proclaimed that he'd launched himself on a crusade to disprove the existence of the spirit realm. It didn't matter that he'd unmasked Teller with the same analytical tools that an SEC investigator might have used in a securities fraud case. The story that drew the most readers was the one that depicted him as a crusader and so that was the story that got told and re-told and embellished upon.
He'd been invited onto a talk show hosted by Sally Thomas, a former nightly news anchor trying to make the lucrative leap to daytime, to talk about the Teller case when he first met Suri Nimza. Sally Thomas had not yet shed the habit of journalistic neutrality and because the Great Bellini represented the secular realm, she'd had one of her producers dial a psychic hotline, and Nimza was what it had coughed up. Nimza was something of a national spokeswoman for psychic mediums and had been called in by the police to locate bodies when the cadaver dogs came up empty. She had scored enough triumphs to have her name splashed across a few regional papers. The investigative work, she claimed, was a public service she performed for free; the psychic hotline was how she paid the bills.
By chance, a cashier from Frankfort Kentucky was in the audience, and in the middle of one of Nimza's self-serving monologues she stood up. She had tears in her eyes and clutched her arms together tightly as she swayed on her feet. The women in the seats behind her whispered for her to sit down, but she wouldn't budge. Though Sally Thomas caught sight of her, she waited until a commercial break to acknowledge her.
"Shame on you, Sally Thomas," she said, "for letting that woman on your stage. Suri Nimza murdered my daughter!"
A couple of burly security guards in black had edged up the aisles towards her. She rolled her eyes nervously at them, but then forged bravely on, cutting off Nimza's shocked denial. "When my daughter disappeared five years ago, Suri Nimza told us she'd run away and was living in Mexico. The police believed her. Even my husband Daniel did--"
"That's not true!" Nimza interjected.
But it was too late. Sally Thomas' journalistic instincts told her where the real story lay, and it was in the studio audience. She waved off her security guards and signaled the cashier to continue.
"My daughter was taken by a serial killer who kept her in a room in his house for three months before she died. All that time the police were looking for Emily in Mexico…" Her voice broke and there was total silence in the studio for half a minute until she continued. "She was in a house two blocks away. Two blocks!" she shouted. "Danny shot himself when he found out."
The cashier collapsed into her chair and began sobbing uncontrollably. The women around her, strangers only a moment ago, leaned forward to comfort her.
Harding swung the camera around to focus on Nimza. Her face had drained of color, but her lips were pursed and her gaze firm. She glanced at the camera and then visibly relaxed. "First of all, I'm very sorry for your loss. Losing family members is always a terrible tragedy. But as a medium, all I can do is rely on the spirits for guidance, and despite popular belief, they are not infallible. Sometimes they're wrong, and in very rare cases there can be tragic consequences." She could see that she wasn't getting through. "Even doctors make mistakes," she added lamely.
She paused a few seconds to regain her composure, and her tone became smoother, more confident. "But when the spirits are right... I've helped hundreds of people locate their loved ones. The sheriff of Broward County made me an honorary deputy for pinpointing the location of Evelyn Smithson's body in 1,100 square miles of the Everglades."
She sat back in her chair and tossed off the next line like it was just an afterthought. "I'm no fraud. Even the Great Bellini would be able to tell you that if he attended one of my séances."
Sally scurried over to him with a microphone. "Would you?" she asked, sensing another story in the making.
"This is hardly the time..." he began.
"I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear," said Nimza adamantly.
"Madam, I do not condone séances," said Bellini. "I expose them."