It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe. A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe’s stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe’s ghost appears in Doyle’s hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself. This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Hjortsberg including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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By William Hjortsberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 William Hjortsberg
All rights reserved.
The magician stood alone in the shadows backstage. Short, stocky, and middle- aged, he parted his dark shock of wiry gray-flecked hair straight down the middle. A surprising number of men still sported this Gay Nineties barbershop quartet look at the start of the Jazz Age, the brave new tommy gun decade when flappers and bathtub gin became as American as apple pie and the G.A.R.
Despite impeccable tailoring, the magician's evening clothes looked perpetually rumpled. He had never been known as a fashion plate. When just a teenager first starting out, he wore suits several sizes too large, like a kid in hand-me-downs. Perhaps this was deliberate, a misdirection worthy of a master in the arts of deception. Watching him, one never suspected the starched dickey and wrinkled soup and fish concealed an athlete's body honed by years of diligent exercise.
It was not his nature ever to be idle. Waiting in the wings before his turn, listening to the house orchestra play an Irving Berlin medley, he kept his hands busy with a pair of lucky silver half-dollars. He rolled them from knuckle to knuckle across the backs of his hands, a flourish as difficult as any known in magic. The coins moved with delusive ease, round and round, propelled by an imperceptible flexing of his tendons. His eyes slid shut. His head slumped forward. He looked like a man in a trance, the rotating coins part of the deepest meditation.
The magician was the headliner, the most famous name on the big-time vaudeville circuit, topping the bill at the Palace, one thousand, eight-hundred simoleons a week for two shows a day. He listened to the applause surging and crashing beyond the footlights like storm-driven surf. The orchestra's string section trembled on the last notes of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" as if overwhelmed by the frenzied clapping. "Conrad and Speers," the ballroom dancing team, were getting an enthusiastic hand. The magician had never seen their act, but the reaction to their finish gave him great pleasure. A warmed-up audience meant his own reception would be enormous.
"Dapper Dave" Conrad and Violette Speers traipsed off hand in hand, pausing behind the stage right tormentor. Draped in shadows, the magician watched them exchange hissed insults, their faces sudden savage masks of hate. In a moment, it was time to waltz back on for a final bow, and the frozen smiles snapped into place like instant makeup.
Conrad and Speers were an act in one. They performed on the apron between the footlights and a painted drop, making entrances and exits without a curtain, timing their calls precisely. Smiling, ever-smiling, they swirled into the wings in each other's arms as the applause died and the majestic house curtain descended.
A stagehand hauling the show drop aloft whispered: "You two were a panic. Knocked 'em dead." Conrad and Speers stalked past him without a word, heading for their dressing room dour as prisoners walking the last mile. The magician watched, not comprehending how they endured such hell on earth. The years he and his wife had worked as a double were the happiest in his long career. A momentary smile eased his stern expression.
The interlude, a lively jazz tune, segued into the familiar strains of his act intro, jogging the magician out of his dime-museum memories. He made one last check backstage, his fierce, slate-blue eyes taking it all in. His equipment stood in place between a sequence of drop curtains. Everything had functioned smoothly when he and his assistants tested the props earlier that day. He saw Collins and Vickery in position and the rest of the team waiting on their marks. Ever the perfectionist, the magician scanned the stage; his hawk's gaze detected that the new girl had forgotten her plumed turban. Mary, her name was. Mary something. No time to mention it now. He made a mental note to dock a five-spot from her pay.
The act drop rose and the lights came up. Iris, the showgirl longest in his troop, stood center stage, waiting for the applause to die down. The magician slipped a silk packet smaller than half a stick of gum into his mouth, concealing it between his cheek and lower jaw. Years ago, he made these himself, staying up late into the night, winding silk in the flickering gaslight of a hundred nameless cheap hotels.
They were manufactured for him now in lots of a dozen by Martinka and Co. As a boy, he'd often wandered into the famous magical supply house, unable to afford even the cheapest five-cent trick; in 1919 he bought the entire business lock, stock, and barrel. The tiny custom-made packet nesting inside his mouth seemed a talisman, his entire career wound within its minute coils.
When the applause crested, Iris began her lilting spiel: "Ladies and gentlemen, direct from a triumphant tour of the British Isles and star of the recent smash hit motion picture The Man from Beyond, the Palace Theater proudly presents the world famous escapologist, that magnificent master of mystery ... the Great Houdini!"
A fresh tumult of applause greeted the magician. He strode onto the stage, framed by a bright pair of follow spots, his slightly bowlegged walk in no way detracting from his inherent dignity. His grave demeanor suggested ancient ritual: a priest at the altar; yet his words had the easy confidence of a man utterly at home in the limelight.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen ... "A brief nodding bow acknowledged the ovation even as his hands went up to silence it. "A great pleasure to be back in my hometown, entertaining the finest and most discerning audience on the face of the earth." The faint hint of a smile and a lifted hand stifled ripplings of renewed applause. "I got my start more than a quarter of a century ago, playing engagements on the Bowery at Coney Island and in Tony Pastor's great theater, which some of you must remember, down on Fourteenth Street in the old Tammany Building ..."
As he spoke, a lithe showgirl named Wilma wheeled forward a cloth-draped table with a round glass fishbowl as a centerpiece. He asked a member of the audience to loan him a handkerchief and a dozen eager hands fluttered with silk and cotton in abject surrender. He was charming them now, a sudden smile erasing the years, the handsome face a boy's mug once again. "And just to show I have nothing up my sleeves ..." With a quick tug, his celluloid cuffs pulled away, along with the sleeves of his tux, both fastened with snaps above the elbow.
The first trick was all deft patter and mechanicals. He showed them the clear glass fishbowl, rapping and tapping to prove its solidity. Wilma pulled the paisley drape aside, displaying the table's bare legs. Houdini placed the borrowed handkerchief in the bowl. It vanished in a flash of igniting magnesium paper, deftly palmed from Iris when she'd handed him the hankie.
Rewarded with renewed applause, Houdini's dazzling smile grew several degrees brighter and he milked the hand, pulling yard after endless yard of rainbow-hued silks from out of a seemingly empty bowl. Wilma gathered up the excess, winding it around her slender waist with a ballerina's twirl. The impossible multicolored flow continued uninterrupted, accompanied by a crescendo of clapping, until at last the borrowed handkerchief appeared, knotted in the middle of this silken harlequinade, and it brought down the house.
Houdini had the audience in his hip pocket. There was nothing to the trick. They loved it because they watched a legend, a wizard who walked through brick walls and leaped manacled into icy rivers. Prisons on three continents had failed to contain him. In 1906, with much ballyhoo, stripped naked and searched by the authorities, he had escaped from the condemned cell that had held Charles Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield.
Over the years, he had accepted every challenge. Padlocked into water-filled milk cans, nailed in crates and piano packing cases, sealed inside giant paper envelopes and iron boilers welded shut on stage, he escaped from them all. He was once chained within the carcass of a huge squid found on a Cape Cod beach. It stank with formaldehyde and he nearly suffocated, but in five minutes he was free.
For more than a quarter century, each escape had appeared more impossible than the last. A thousand times he'd stepped sweating and disheveled into the spotlight, a testament to unimagined heroic exertions. More baffling still, when the volunteer committee removed the cloth screen, the confining challenge would be standing intact on stage, ropes and chains in place, padlocks still fastened.
His mystery and daring captured the imagination of an entire generation. At almost fifty, the magician retained energy equal to that of a man half his age. The week before, to publicize his Palace opening, he'd eagerly hung upside down, trussed by his heels, five stories above a vast crowd on Times Square, wriggling out of a strait jacket in under three minutes.
"Five years ago, ladies and gentlemen, I made an elephant disappear several blocks from here on the stage of the Hippodrome, the world's largest theater." Houdini said this without the shadow of a smile, invoking a cathedral hush within the gilded auditorium. "Tonight, I'm going to perform the world's smallest wonder ..." Scattered applause indicated old-time fans recognizing the introduction to "The Needles," a trick Houdini had performed with success since before the turn of the century.
A request was made for a volunteer from the audience and Iris ushered a portly gentleman with a golden Shriner's crescent dangling from his watch chain onto the stage. Houdini bantered with the man, breaking the ice by asking his name and where he lived, making him feel at ease. He showed Mr. Elmer Conklin, of 809 Lexington Avenue, a paper of sewing needles and a small spool of thread. "Are these anything other than common everyday items which might readily be purchased at the five-and-dime?"
"They are not, sir." Mr. Conklin nervously handed them back, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his blue serge vest.
"Observe carefully. Houdini swallows them."
Mr. Conklin watched, amazement overcoming his stage fright, as the magician mouthed the needles and thread. Back in the summer of '95, when Houdini and his wife had toured with the Welsh Brothers Circus, an old Japanese acrobat had taught him to regurgitate at will. So blasé he often fell asleep while performing as the bottom man of a balance-pole act, Sam Kitchi was a swallower, ingesting ivory balls, coins, watches, and once, to the amazement of the young magician, a live mouse. Houdini practiced for weeks with a peeled potato tied to a string, strengthening his throat muscles, perfecting the art of retroperistaIsis.
The magician focused his raptor's stare on a bewildered Elmer Conklin, swallowing in quick succession the needles and thread, followed by the packet from Martinka's. Gripping them halfway down his esophagus, Houdini invited the volunteer to examine his mouth with a flashlight provided by Iris.
"Glad I'm not a dentist," the stout man stammered, unwittingly getting a good laugh as he peered at the magician's molars. "Folks, there's not a thing in there I can see.... Talking about under his tongue and everything. I'm satisfied his mouth is empty."
Iris took back the flashlight. Wilma handed Houdini a brimming glass of water. "Hot work always makes me thirsty," the magician quipped, drinking down the liquid without apparent difficulty. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you and Mr. Conklin have just seen me swallow a needle-book and a spool of thread. I return them to you ... thusly ..."
Houdini regurgitated the gag from Martinka's. The needles and thread remained clenched in his throat. He plucked at the end of his tongue, pulling a single thread from his mouth. Threaded needles dangled every inch or so, a lethal silver fringe glittering in the spotlight. Houdini's arm extended full length, prompting wild applause from the astonished audience.
Iris took hold of the thread and backed away from the magician, suspended needles unspooling continuously from his mouth as she gracefully crossed the stage. Houdini basked in the ovation. The cheers surged through him, more powerful than the transports of love. Iris held her slender arm high in the air, pinching the end of a fifty-foot catenary curving back to the magician's open mouth. All along its length, hundreds and hundreds of needles winked and gleamed, flashing reflected light like fangs in the savage, ghostly smile of an invisible monster.CHAPTER 2
A quiet night at the Twenty-ninth Precinct, unusually quiet for a Friday, although business most often picked up after the theaters let out. Manning the desk, Sergeant Heegan remembered the grand old days before Prohibition when the Tenderloin was the beat of a rookie's dreams. Not that the payoff from the speaks wasn't every bit as choice as back when torpedoes like Gyp the Blood and Monk Eastman brawled, bribed, and bought the house a round. Just a bit too genteel and refined nowadays to suit Heegan's tastes. He preferred his sin out in the open.
Graft, on the other hand, needed to stay under the table, and when roly-poly Leon Fishkin waddled in off the street, bold as brass in his ritzy cashmere topcoat, offering up a thick envelope adorned with the embossed logo of the Zebra Club, the desk sergeant tossed it back in his bloated face, telling him to stick it where the sun don't shine. Much offended, the portly bootlegger stormed out of the station house, sputtering like an overheated Tin Lizzy.
"The nerve of that fat louse, waltzin' in here and wavin' his dough around like a come-on man at the two-dollar window, when any dumb jerk knows how the pickup is made." Sergeant Heegan addressed his remarks to a lone cop typewriting in the bull pen behind the booking desk. Busy hunt-and-pecking his way through a robbery report, with his tie and collar removed, the sandy-haired detective didn't glance away from the noisy Remington Standard No. 10 or offer as much as a grunt in reply.
Never satisfied with an inattentive audience, the desk sergeant shrugged and turned back to the New York American, folding the newspaper to the sports section, his lips silently forming Damon Runyon's account of a sparring match between former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Luis Angel Firpo, the Argentine contender. Heegan whistled between his teeth in grudging admiration. Seemed the old dinge completely bamboozled the "Wild Bull of the Pampas."
It was only an exhibition workout but, round after round, not a glove landed on the Negro. Johnson was forty-four, two years younger than Heegan. The middle-aged Irish cop considered himself one tough customer in spite of the silver frosting his thin red hair, yet deep in his heart he knew for damn sure no money on earth could induce him to step into any prize ring with some dago bone-crusher like Firpo.
The telephone rang, shrill as his old lady on a nagging fit. "Damnation!" Heegan set the paper aside and reached for the candlestick instrument. "Twenty-ninth Precinct," he barked into the mouthpiece, "Heegan speaking." The operator connected him with a near-hysterical woman. Her frantic voice echoed like the insistent buzzing of a hornet trapped in a bottle. The desk sergeant held the black, bell-shaped receiver several inches from his ear. Although often accused of being a touch deaf, Heegan had no trouble making out every word.
"I saw it with my own two eyes," the woman screeched. "My apartment faces the street on Thirty-eighth. It came right along as big as you please and turned the corner onto Ninth Avenue."
"A gorilla, you say," Heegan inquired with more than a trace of a smile.
"A great big hairy ape!" The woman's descriptive powers were doubtless enhanced by all the hoopla for last year's Eugene O'Neill hit on Broadway.
"You sure it's not just some drugstore cowboy in a raccoon coat?"
"Officer! Will you please listen to what I'm telling you? This was some kind of monkey. It had a young woman in its arms."
"Carrying a woman ...?"
"I saw her long blond hair trailing down over the shaggy black arm. Horrible ..."
"Madam, sounds to me like you've observed a frolicsome couple on their way to a costume party."
"This is not Halloween!"
"A simple masquerade, ma'am. Don't go troubling yourself with thoughts of any gorillas."
"Shouldn't you alert the Zoological Society and all menageries and circuses?"
"I'll be doing just that, ma'am. Have a pleasant evening." Sergeant Heegan hung the receiver on the hook and laughed out loud. "Get a load of this," he hooted, spinning around in his oak swivel chair. "Some dumb Dora thinks she's seen a gorilla on Ninth Avenue ..."
Excerpted from Nevermore by William Hjortsberg. Copyright © 1994 William Hjortsberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. Hocus pocus,
2. Monkey business,
3. A varray parfit gentil knyght,
4. Isis in search,
6. The writing on the wall,
7. Heegan of homicide,
8. The game is afoot,
9. Tripping the light fantastic,
11. Perchance to dream,
12. Says damon runyon à,
13. By the sea, by the sea,
14. Making whoopee,
15. Ask me no questions,
16. And if i die,
17. The million things she gave me,
18. Ghost of a chance,
19. Finders keepers,
21. The pleasure of your company,
22. In the good old summertime,
24. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
25. Trick or treat,
26. Under the knife,
29. A wow finish,