Nick flipped the rusty padlock open and entered the shed he rented—for an added three dollars—from the landlady. Not that the three bucks mattered much; he hadn’t paid any rent money for three months running. He stared at the jumble of equipment, cartons and bags. Finally he gathered up two cartons of magic gear, and trudged back to the apartment.
Five weeks had passed, and still there were no bookings from Walt. He sighed, grasped a deck of cards and stood before the mirror. He began a series of card flourishes, the ribbon spread, the thumb fan, the cascade. After warming up, he began slow Herrmann passes, then Classic passes, studying his hands in the mirror. He gradually increased the speed, looking for the slightest deviation from expected movements, anything that might arouse the suspicion of an observer.
Twenty minutes later, with thumb muscles burning and fingers tingling, he put the deck aside and dug into one of the cartons looking for the silk production gear. He pulled an elongated, curled toe out and realized he’d accidentally grasped one of Connie’s gold-glittered harem shoes. It was a reminder, as though he needed it, that he could no longer feature the Vanishing Harem Dancer or the Maiden Pierced by Seven Sabers. With no bookings for ‘The Amazing Mr. Z’s’ magic act, however, that hardly mattered, either. He wondered about Connie though, wondered if she missed that shock of jet black hair over his right temple, his dark, penetrating eyes, his slender good looks. What about his ‘dash,’ or as his press clippings described it, his savoir faire? Was he not regarded as the best of the new magicians—even by his peers?
He tossed Connie’s shoe to the floor and dug further into the carton. There, he located the silk production gear, but a muffled ring coming from low in the box distracted him. He pulled the production gear out, then dug deep and from the bottom lifted a small article of silver metal. For a long moment he stared at the old bicycle bell.
He pressed the bell’s thumb lever, which at first resisted the pressure. However, when he released the lever the bell responded with a weak metallic ring, which promptly went silent, as though it had abruptly been blanketed with cotton.
Suddenly he was fifteen—or was it sixteen?—ringing the bell on his bike, riding alongside Iris Jane Marker near Burnham Woods. She replied with two rings of her bell. They laughed and repeated, while tracing curves in the street with their bikes. Her face, a clear and innocent oval, her dark hair—done up in the latest style—were all clear. Yet her eyes, those deep dark orbs that he imagined held the secrets of the ancients—he simply couldn’t make them out after so many years.
Abruptly, these images from his past vanished. He stared at the bell, at the rusty clasp that had once secured it to Iris’s handlebar. How had it gotten into his carton of magic equipment? He couldn’t remember, nor could he remember ever possessing that bell. Surely he was mistaken; it had to be the bell from his bike. He turned it over and examined its underside. There he found a telltale dent, now rusty—a dent inflicted when the bell struck pavement—as Iris fell trying to avoid a chuckhole in the street’s blacktop.
Now he recalled rushing to her, clasping her skinned-up knee, helping her up, aiding her onto her bike to ride again. And too, the look on her mother’s face, later, when she viewed Iris’s bloody leg. Now he also saw Iris’s eyes, a touch of sadness in each.
A deep longing came over him. He longed to ask, “What about the bell, Iris? How did I end up with it?” The bell, he knew, was damaged beyond repair—but what about the two of them? “What,” he longed to know, “—what happened to us?”
“Mr. Z?” The voice of his landlady interrupted. “Somebody on the phone for you.” Nick hurried to her apartment and took up the receiver in the dining room.
Liver Jack said, “You ain’t gonna believe what I’ve got for you, Nick. You gotta come over to my place. What a swell deal—”
“Is Connie there? Is she—”
“No, no. Connie’s not here—she didn’t have nothing to do with this. Just get yourself over here.”
Nick watched as Danny Hinkley turned and strolled to the window. He squinted a little, as though his vision needed help, raising the heavy jowls that flanked his puffy lips. Nick fixed a tight smile on his lips and clutched the hat he’d insisted on keeping. “Liver Jack said you might have a job for me. In connection with the break-in at the bank. The Washington Park Bank.”
Hinkley turned toward him. “Uh-huh.” He rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “What’d you think of that?”
Nick wanted to say, ‘Okay, Abercrombie, I’m here, aren’t I?’ But instead he said, “I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Hinkley. My business isn’t hot these days. The rent’s overdue, and I’m, well…” Nick paused and smiled. “I’m broke.”
Nick felt the older man’s eyes probing him, assessing his hair, his chin, his eyes, even his shoelaces. He refused to move, kept the tight smile, even though a loose spring in the settee’s cushion kept jabbing him.
Hinkley turned away and said, “I need a sharp, slick fellow for a certain job. But I don’t know you. Don’t know anything about you.”
“Liver Jack said—”
“Forget that.” He turned to Nick. “I’m dealing with you, one on one. Why should I hire you?”
Nick grasped his hat by the crown and stood up. “You’re right. I’m just a guy off the street. There’s a thousand more out there.” He pointed with the hat, then clamped it on his head at a rakish angle. “I’ll be taking my leave, Mr. Hinkley.”
Hinkley said, “Sit down, Mr. Zetner.” He raised his hand as if to stop Nick. “You don’t understand. You come highly spoken for, but I need to know more about you.”
Nick checked for deceit in Hinkley’s eyes. Maybe he was less the tiger than he let on. “Like what?”
“Sure.” Nick slowly eased down onto the settee, parked his hat on his knee. “Born here. Scraped through high school, got conscripted in 1918 to the field artillery to save France for the French. Back in the U.S. after the war, I knocked around some but didn’t get arrested. Tried different jobs, settled on making a living from deceptions I learned during high school.”
“Deceptions? What kind?”
“Conjuring. Sleight of hand. The fancy word is prestidigitation. When there are bookings, I call the business ‘The Amazing Mr. Z’. It’s a magic act that has played quite a few stages around town, though at the moment it’s not much in demand.”
“An entertainer, eh?” Hinkley ran both hands slowly through his gray hair. “Are you any good?”
“Mostly good notices.” Nick stood, flipped his hat to the settee. “I tell and illustrate stories. Like the man who had lots of money.” He pulled a silver coin from his pocket and held it up. “He threw it all around, carelessly,” he said, tossing the coin in the air from hand to hand.
“But,” Nick said, now holding the coin edgewise between thumb and finger of his left hand, “one day he decided to invest in stock.” He closed his right hand around the coin. “The market dropped, and he bought more stock. But the stock went straight to zero.”
Nick fanned his right hand upward, palm outward, to show that the coin it had grasped was gone. He smiled at Hinkley. “The man lost all his money. Proving that throwing your money around carelessly is much wiser than investing.”
Hinkley smiled faintly, but Nick saw he was mystified by the trick.
After a moment of recovery, Hinkley said, “Okay, but let’s see the other hand.”
Nick showed both the front and the back of both hands. No coin was visible.
Hinkley said, “You’re not bad, Zetner. Can I call you that?”
“Sure.” He saw that The Vanishing Coin Act had once again baffled a wary audience. “Just don’t call me ‘Amazing’,” he said. He smiled broadly, retrieved his hat and sat firmly down on the settee.
Hinkley raised his hand to the level of his chin, and lifted his forefinger. “Those rapacious scoundrels,” he said, dragging it out gutturally, “emptied all the safety-deposit boxes at the bank, including mine. I lost some valuables, some money, but they also took a tan envelope. It’s manila, a bit larger than a business envelope with thin purple stripes across it.” Using both hands, he drew an image in the air. “The flap’s closed with sisal wound between cardboard buttons. There are no marks on it, but its different appearance identifies it. I need that envelope back—quietly, with no publicity. I don’t care how you do it—can you get it back?”
Nick asked, “What’s in it, Mr. Hinkley?”
Furrows deepened on Hinkley’s brow. “I’ll pay a ransom for its return. With the contents undisturbed, of course.”
Nick nodded, said, “Assuming I can get near these greaseballs, and assuming they’d give up the envelope—what about blackmail? Are you married?”
“Oh yes.” Hinkley spread his hands wide and gazed upward. “My Martha is the spirit that lightens my day.” He smiled. “The godsend of my life.”
Nick said, “So you don’t want to tell me what’s in there ”
“If I described the contents—I’d have to—” Hinkley closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. He opened his eyes and gazed at the wall behind Nick. “Because of that, and the difficulty of the job, I’m not only willing to pay your expenses, I’m prepared to pay you a substantial reward for the recovery of the full contents. Ten thousand dollars in cash.” His eyes fixed intently on Nick. “What do you say to that?”
To Nick, locating the squad of brunos that dumped the bank’s safety-deposit boxes seemed as unlikely as finding roses blooming in a glacier. And even if the heisters still had the envelope, it was less than even money they’d let go of it. But a payday for expenses sounded too good to refuse. “How would I identify the full contents?”
“The photographs look quite ordinary,” Hinkley said. “Just people having fun—I doubt the scoundrels will bother them. There are exactly nine of them in the envelope. Just nine.”
“This is going to take time. How long will I have?”
“Maybe you’ll recover the envelope quickly. But it may take a while. I hope not.” Hinkley removed a paper envelope from his trousers rear pocket and handed it to Nick. “This will cover your expenses for now. Inside is a telephone number which you’ll use to contact me if you need more. Other than that, you’re on your own.”
“Just one more question, Mr. Hinkley.” Nick stood and fingered the brim of his hat. “Those nine snapshots, why’d you keep them? Why didn’t you just destroy them?”
“Not that it’s pertinent to your task, Zetner,” Hinkley said, without expression. “Let’s just say I enjoyed visiting with them from time to time.”