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art by Jason Stirret

Spirit Gum

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."
"Come to mine, and you are doomed to be disappointed."
"Please do!" added Sally excitedly. "Go to hers, and then report back to our audience." She could see from his face that he was weakening, that he liked the thought of the attendant publicity, so she threw in the clincher. "Report back, and this show will donate ten thousand dollars to your favorite charity!"
He smiled and shrugged. "How can I refuse?" He turned to Nimza. "Next Tuesday?"
"How about tonight?" she replied. "I have nothing to set up, and nothing to hide."
"Eight o'clock?"
She nodded her consent. "And which of the departed do you wish to contact?"
"I would like," he said at last, "to talk to my wife."
The Great Bellini had always had an inquisitive mind, and his hands were forever in search of a puzzle to solve. He kept them busy building devices for use in his show, and left them scattered about the house. By the third year of marriage Patricia had banished them to the basement. Though he'd had the run of the house since she died, he still confined his research to that single room.
Having only been recently anointed by the press as an anti-psychic crusader, he had much less experience with séances than he would have liked. Though every wall in his basement hosted a bookcase choked with books, he could find only one or two dealing with the subject, and these often contained news reports from Houdini's day describing various crude tricks. He knew from experience that today's audience was more sophisticated, always trying to guess how a trick was done instead of sitting back and enjoying the show. A modern medium, therefore, would have to employ a different strategy. She would have to go high tech.
Thanks to the enmity he'd built up with his rivals by exposing their tricks, Bellini had on hand a wide variety of surveillance equipment, including bug detectors that he used to sweep his hotel rooms. More than once, a rival had bribed a maid to plant a listening device under a lamp or in an alarm clock in order to determine the identity of the magician who would be the Great Debunker's next victim. In addition to an RF Detector, he packed a pinhole camera that he would use to record the séance. If he was unable to expose Nizma on the spot, all was not lost. There was always the possibility that he could do it later, upon analyzing the tapes and photos.
After studying all the possible visual tricks, he moved on to sound. He knew there were frequencies that, while inaudible to the human ear, would cause sensations of fear and paranoia in the listener, so he gathered a few microphones and amplifiers and placed them in his bag.
The last thing he did before he left for Simza's was to stop by the photograph of Patricia which hung over the fireplace. He'd taken it on the beach in Playa del Carmen, while they were on their honeymoon. He'd gone to back to the suite for a towel, and when he'd returned, he'd found her standing ankle-deep in the surf, facing the setting sun. Her eyes were closed and her face upturned towards the sun, as if in supplication. He'd snapped the picture without her knowing and hung it on the wall long after she'd passed.
They'd spoken about his career before she died. He'd gone through a dry spell after they'd first met, when he was merely Malcolm Bell, stage magician. For no particular reason, the bookings had dried up and he'd been forced into a string of cruise ship gigs that kept him away from home for weeks at a time. He'd been so exhausted that he'd collapsed into a couch instead of into Patricia's arms and, because she hadn't been expecting him, she'd left the TV on. Mordecai the Magnificent was perched uncomfortably on a purple couch that clashed horribly with his tux and top hat. It was daytime television and the lighting made him look like an underdone turkey, and Malcolm Bell had thought to himself, I can do better. Over dinner that night, Patricia had suggested a stage name and the Great Bellini was born.
It was that thought that carried him out of the house. He'd been in the illusion business for nearly twenty years and in the business of debunking them for five. He was going to put another phony medium out of business, and he felt absolutely no hesitation about it, no compassion for her whatsoever. Simza's "predictions" had contributed to the suffering and murder of a young girl and the suicide of her father. She'd given false--and doubtless fleeting--comfort to hundreds of others. It was time for Nuri Simza to be exposed, and the Great Debunker was just the man for the job. He could do better.
Nuri Simza lived across the Bear Mountain Bridge in a small township in Rockland County in a sprawling McMansion that sat on a plot of converted farmland. Bellini had just freed his satchel of recording equipment from the trunk when Mike Harding pulled up behind him in a blue minivan. He'd been sent by the studio to do an "on location" segment for the Sally Thomas show, and had brought along a video camera which he balanced on a shoulder mount.
Simza answered the door in a sedate grey pantsuit, looking very much like the professional businesswoman. She shook both their hands, then invited them into a richly decorated foyer, complete with marble flooring and a sweeping staircase leading up to the second floor. Mike got a few establishing shots, then lowered his camera.
"I have to admit that I expected something different," he told Simza.
She smiled gently. "A silk dress, maybe a bejeweled turban?"
He blushed. "Frankly, yes."
"A holdover from the days when gypsies peered into crystal balls from the backs of covered wagons," she said. "Mediumship has grown into a serious profession and we tend to dress professionally. These days, the only people who wear silk are showmen like the Great Bellini."
"Magicians sell entertainment and dress appropriately," replied Bellini. "Mediums claim to be selling truth and dress like politicians."
Simza's smile froze on her lips. Her eyes darted down towards Mike's camera, then back up at Bellini. She relaxed slightly. The comment hadn't been filmed and was therefore of no real consequence. "Well," she said, clapping her hands together, "let's get started then, shall we?"
They followed her through the house to a small, tastefully decorated library. Each wall was covered by floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stacked high with leather-bound volumes of varying sizes with golden titles embossed in tiny fonts on their spines. A dozen sheets of ancient paper sat beneath a rock carved to look like an Easter Island moai. There were no windows, merely a small oaken table covered in glass that sat against one wall.
If Simza seemed perturbed by the number of devices Bellini had brought with her, she didn't show it. She offered them an herbal tea she'd brought back from India, and left them alone to prepare it.
While she was gone, Bellini placed a small wireless webcam atop a bookshelf, then set his laptop on a nearby table. He was careful not to switch it on until after he'd swept the room for listening devices with the RF Detector. There was no sense in generating a false positive.
"All right," said Mike as Bellini pulled a black plastic box out of his case, "I'd like you to talk a little about what you're doing for the benefit of the viewing audience, if that's okay." He raised his camera to his shoulder and flipped it on.
"This is an RF Detector," answered Bellini. "It detects radio frequencies given off by hidden cameras and listening devices, and should tell us if she's using any technological tricks to communicate with an assistant who may be offsite." He pointed at the small needle in the metered display. "If this needle hits the red zone, we'll know she's cheating."
Mike moved in for a close up of the RF Detector's display, as Simza returned with a silver tea set, which she set down on the end table beside Bellini's laptop. A sweet floral fragrance filled the room. Simza poured a cup and offered it first to Mike, then to Bellini.
"No, thanks," said Bellini. "I wouldn't want any member of the viewing public to think I might have been drugged."
Simza's eyes darkened. "We can warm it up later. You said you'd like to talk to your wife... Patricia?"
"Indeed," answered Bellini. "But first, please remove your shoes."
As a former magician, Bellini knew all of the advantages a correctly prepared wardrobe offered. False pockets, cut away socks, voluminous sleeves... He checked Simza for any sign of duplicity with all the enthusiasm of an airport customs agent, but found none.
When he was satisfied, she darkened the lights and sat at the table. Bellini turned on his devices and let the screen of his laptop darken into sleep mode. Mike had previously agreed not to film the séance itself, so he sat in a nearby chair with a small pad of paper he could barely see in the dim light.
After Bellini had found his seat, Simza reached across the table and clasped his hands. Hers were slightly warm from the teacup, but dry. He found that as his eyes adjusted, he could see her in the shadowy light.
She closed her eyes and bowed her head, her fingers tightening on his. Despite himself, Bellini felt a sense of anticipation. The Great Debunker had never before exposed a trick in real time. Usually, it took weeks of careful study to determine how an illusion was accomplished and then to expose it. By accepting Simza's challenge on national television he had agreed to a kind of duel, one that would see either Simza or himself fall. He did not intend to fall.
The room grew very still, but Bellini's gaze did not. His eyes were in constant motion, studying Simza's reflection in the glass tabletop, watching the dark spaces where her arms disappeared into her sleeves, the fluttering of her eyelids. An audience watches what the performer wants them to watch. Bellini watched everything else.
When the temperature in the room dropped, he listened for hidden fans, and when he heard nothing he checked the papers beneath the moai for movement that would betray an air current. They were as still as the dead. He frowned, then looked back at Simza.
Her eyes were wide and staring, her lips vanishingly thin. A stray lock of hair had fallen in front of one eye just like Patricia's had. "Malcolm," she said, her voice unnaturally high. "I'm lost, Malcolm. You've got to help me."
Bellini realized that he was bending Nimza's hands at an uncomfortable angle and forced himself to relax. This wasn't Patricia. This was Simza playing a cruel joke.
"Where are you now, Patricia? Are you in our favorite restaurant?" How well had Simza done her research? Would she give the correct answer?
"Malcolm..." Her voice faded out. Simza seemed to relax, as if the séance was over, and he felt a deep sense of satisfaction steal over him. Simza hadn't known the name of the restaurant and had avoided the question. She was a fake.
Suddenly, the medium lurched in her seat. Her nails dug into the back of Bellini's hands. "Carmine," she said urgently. "I decided on the beach that we'd name him Carmine."
Carmine. The name stabbed him through the gut and he tore himself loose from her. A chair overturned behind him and he felt the bookcase hit him hard. Simza's eyes were stark points of white in a dark room. Her hair, her eyes, her posture... she was Patricia. And she'd known the name of their son.
When they'd gone back to their suite that night in Playa Del Carmen, she'd told him she was pregnant, that she'd been thinking about their son. They'd held hands and talked well into the night about the life their child would live, dreaming dreams for the son they'd never have. She'd died before she even started showing. They hadn't told their parents.
The light in Patricia's eyes seemed to dim and then she blinked.
She was Simza again.
The medium rose, taking note of his position in the room, and smirked. She wheeled on Mike triumphantly. "Film that," she said, indicating Bellini with a wave. "The Great Debunker pressed up against the wall like a frightened child."
Anger flared in Bellini's chest. Anger and humiliation. He forced himself to relax as Mike's camera rose, its dead eye an aperture to Sally Thomas' millions of viewers. He used his anger to thrust aside thoughts of Patricia, bury them under the cold hard shell of the Great Debunker. Simza hadn't won their duel. She hadn't bested him. He could do better.
"Not at all," he said. "I have merely come to a realization." His gaze darted to the webcam and then the RF detector. The needle still hovered in the black. He snatched it up, then brought it close to the webcam, knowing that it would pick up the wireless signal the camera was sending to the laptop. Sure enough, the needle rose into the red.
"You'll want another close-up of this," he said to Mike, holding out the display. "She's cheating."
Somewhere far away he seemed to hear a scream, but he ignored it. The Great Debunker ignored it. He was putting on a show, as he had for nearly twenty years. As Mike leaned in to get his close-up of the incriminating needle, Bellini's eyes connected with the lens and its millions of viewers.
He was an illusionist by trade and he was creating his greatest illusion.
Eight years later.
The heat in Budapest can be hard for tourists in the summer. It bakes the streets and sends the people into cool, air-conditioned cafes that dot the banks of the Danube.
Far away from these oases of caffeine, a solitary man steps out of a taxicab. His brow is covered in sweat that threatens to smear his make-up and loosen the spirit gum that affixes a beard to his face. He checks the small scrap of paper that bears an address and, finding it, steps up to a house.
He emerges, disappointed as usual, just a few minutes later. The cabbie hasn't even shut off the engine. He hands the driver a few bills and then asks to be taken to the airport. There's a woman in New Delhi who claims to be able to channel the dead. It's only a six-hour flight and the Great Debunker's next show isn't until Friday.
He removes a small photo of Patricia standing in the surf from his wallet. He touches her lips, then quietly puts it away and stares out the window as the world passes him by.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 8th, 2013
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