Wren Lockhart, apprentice to master illusionist Harry Houdini, uses life on a vaudeville stage to
escape the pain of her past. She continues her career of illusion after her mentor’s death, intent on burying her true identity.
But when a rival performer’s act goes tragically wrong, the newly formed FBI calls on Wren to speak the truth—and reveal her real name to the world. She transfers her skills for misdirection from the stage to the back halls of vaudeville, as she finds herself the unlikely partner in the FBI’s investigation. All the while Houdini’s words echo in her mind: Whatever occurs, the crowd must believe it’s what you meant to happen. She knows that if anyone digs too deep, secrets long kept hidden may find their way to the surface—and shatter her carefully controlled world.
Set during one of the richest, most vibrant eras in American history, this Jazz Age novel of illusion, suspense, and forgotten pasts is perfect for fans of The Magician’s Lie, challenging all to find the underpinnings of faith on their own life’s stage.
“Prepare to be amazed by The Illusionist's Apprentice.” —Greer Macallister, bestselling author of The Magician's Lie and Girl in Disguise
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The Illusionist's Apprentice
By Kristy Cambron
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Kristy Cambron
All rights reserved.
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
— 1 Corinthians 15:55
December 31, 1926
Mount Auburn Cemetery
Agent Elliot Matthews stared down a firing squad.
The potential executioners held firm in their stance with camera lenses and pencils cocked, all ready to fire. And fire they would, splashing sensational bulletins across the next day's newspaper headlines.
A slew of brash young journalists assembled in the famed Mount Auburn Cemetery, focused on the job at hand. They stood in formation at the front of the crowd, photographers tinkering with cameras and reporters tapping pencils against notepads, all with the itchiness of glorious anticipation.
Elliot hated feeling hemmed in, with the press and scores of onlookers closing ranks. He wanted a full view in the event something erupted without warning, so he and his partner melted along the side of the gathering, opting for a perch along the old stone fence bordering Bigelow Chapel. They were still surrounded by the overhang of trees, but at least they would have a clear view of the front row.
The faces in the crowd weren't morose like one would expect to find in a cemetery on such a frigid day. They smiled and chatted, their curiosity piqued as they waited for the show to begin.
Police stood by, too, poised to arrest anyone who dared to cause a stir.
And that's all Elliot could think it was. A stir.
A media frenzy in what should have been a place for mourners and gravediggers. Instead, a crowd of onlookers — spiritualists and press — had shown up at the public invitation printed in the Boston Globe the previous Monday: Famed Medium Horace Stapleton to Defy Death in Public Ceremony on New Year's Eve.
What a terrible waste. Elliot had seen a crowd of mourners fill a cemetery before — one too many times — and didn't want to be haunted by the host of memories the current setting dared trigger. Not wishing to think back on things he couldn't change, Elliot turned away and settled his attention on the landscape. If his objective was to forget, staring down lifeless trees seemed safer than watching a bunch of nail-biters in trench coats and fedoras.
The canopy of trees formed a bower on all sides. Mist invaded, curling around the trunks of aged sycamores and maples. An icy drizzle coated the leafless limbs, making the scene look like a fragile glass world.
"See that?" Elliot elbowed his partner.
Agent Connor Finnegan responded with a full-body turn and a squint in Elliot's direction. "Noticing something, boss?"
He coughed into his palm, a puff of breath on air. "Besides the zoo in front of us?"
"The trees." Elliot motioned to the line of sycamores and the only spot broken in the row of trees shadowing the chapel's stone border. "Odd. In a well-known and meticulously manicured cemetery like this, the grounds keepers leave a spot untended in full view of the chapel. It's just there. Barren. Lifeless. Like a tree fell and they neglected to replace it."
"But it's all barren, isn't it?" Connor looked around. "Everything and everyone's dead here. Shame we have to spend our New Year's Eve in a cemetery. We've been summoned to the event of the year —"
"Says who?" Elliot shot back before he could help himself. It wasn't the time to get caught up in the happenings of the society column. Connor should know that.
"Says me. And anyone with a brain rattling in his head. At the event of the year — maybe the decade — with scores of reporters and all of Boston's high society present, we have to spend it looking at a couple of trees on a hill?" He clapped his hands together in front of him, his brow furrowed. "Sometimes I wish this job had a little more action to it."
Connor was a roughneck of an agent with a thick New Englander's accent and shades of pretension he shouldn't yet own for barely a year with the Bureau. But he wore it well. He could be laid back when it suited him, but obviously not when forced to brave the punishing midwinter temperatures for a mockery of a display.
"More action isn't always a good thing. But yeah, Ace. That's why we're here. To notice what other people don't, action or not."
"Trees ... Figures." Connor heaved a sigh. "Don't tell me we were sent all the way out here to look at landscaping. Notice something more interesting, why don't you? You tell me that missing tree is somehow connected to a dame and maybe then I'll listen. How 'bout you find a nice pair of gams for us to appreciate while we wait for the show to start."
"I submit that class wasn't a requirement when I applied for this job."
"And we never said you shouldn't look for it down the road either." Elliot tossed the thought away and turned his wrist to check his watch. "It's nearly noon."
"Good." Connor rubbed his hands together. "Because my face is starting to freeze. The sooner this clown starts and finishes his show, the better. My insides are screaming for a cup of joe. And I can't tell you how many party invites I had for tonight, and I'm poised to miss out on all of them if something doesn't happen soon."
Needing something mundane to occupy his mind, Elliot pulled the ivory-faced lighter from his pocket — the one his father used to own. It had been his favorite, one Elliot remembered now only in memories of days before the Great War. But even those had begun to fade as time passed. He flipped it back and forth between his fingers, waiting for the show to begin.
The crowd hushed then, drawing their attention.
"It appears he's not going to make you wait any longer."
Elliot tipped his chin forward. "Look."
On the hinges of his words, a figure broke through the mass of people, the center of the crowd parting around him.
Flashbulbs flickered, lighting up the man's purple velvet coat and top hat. He was rail thin but elegant, moving with haughty purpose as the sheen on his long coat reflected the light with each drawn-out stride.
"Doesn't look like much." Connor curled up the side of his lip. "But he makes up for what he lacks in stature with gumption, eh? Houdini's not even two months cold in his grave, and this guy's already organized a public parade to discount his memory."
"Entertainers thrive on their media attention. We knew it wouldn't be long before characters like Stapleton would step out in the public eye again. They'll try to discredit Houdini's memory or make a bigger name for themselves now that he's out of the picture."
"So you don't believe Stapleton is a real medium?"
"Doesn't matter what I think. In this line of work, it only matters what we can prove. Remember that. Stapleton's an illusionist. That's a fact. Beyond that, I wouldn't try to guess."
The showman climbed two steps onto a platform that had been erected — a clumsy but wide setup of wood and paper streamers that had been strewn about and were now frozen by the misty rain that still clung to the morning air. The paper became a skeletal backdrop that danced in its fight with the wind, lending a macabre feel to the makeshift stage.
In front of the setup, the chilling image of an open grave.
In clear view of the press, the excavated earth was piled into a mound behind the pit, its top darkened by the rain. Gravediggers stood off to the side, heads down against the wind, holding fast to shovels and picks.
The crowd rumbled with murmurings. Stapleton raised his arms, quieting them with confident control. "It has been said that no man holds the authority over death." His voice boomed, an Irish accent clinging to his words.
Connor rolled his eyes heavenward. "Five clams says the accent's a fake."
"Shh." Elliot frowned, though not from Connor's comic zeal. Somehow, he knew what was coming next.
Stapleton held the crowd's undivided attention. "Many have claimed to be great illusionists. And that is all they are. Trick-makers. They grasp your money in their pockets, tearing your eyes from the truth with evil deceit. But I ask you — who here has lost someone? Any sweethearts whose futures with their soldiers were cut short? Any mothers who've buried their husbands or sons? Would you not wish to hear from your beloved just once more? Could mere illusionists help you in this endeavor?
I think not."
Elliot had to swallow the distaste growing more bitter in his mouth.
Both he and Connor had been assigned to the case as silent observers — proof that the federal government would investigate claims of fraud into characters who would mislead the public.
But they were on strict orders not to get involved — unless, of course, they had to keep the peace.
If he had his way, Elliot would cuff Stapleton and haul him before a judge on principle alone. To manipulate the hearts of hurting people was beyond dastardly, but this man seemed to be almost enjoying it.
"So what is truth? I seek to enlighten you. With no trickery. No illusions ..." Stapleton punched a fist in the air, professing, "Just plain and simple power from the other side. Power to give you back what you've lost ... And I shall put this power on display today, right before you."
Elliot's brows tipped up. Well, Houdini may have dealt a blow to this man's career once, but Stapleton certainly has no confidence problem now.
"That's right. My dear members of the press," Stapleton shouted, looking down at the crowd with a thick layer of sympathy. "Many of you have stood watch all night, in the deteriorating weather, inspecting each shovelful of dirt and every swing of the pickax as it was brought down to cut the earth before me. We have representatives here and a medical doctor selected by our distinguished Mayor Nichols's office, as well as both state and federal law enforcement and a few choice guests to whom I have extended personal invitations — all to lend credence to what you are about to witness.
"You've been shown the authentication of the plot by which we now stand, for a Mr. Victor Peale, who has been confined to the grave these twenty years. And yes — you've doubted, even as you watched with your own eyes ..."
Stapleton pointed a bony finger at the crowd, singling out the presence of disbelievers like a plague among them. "But I submit before you, humble as I may, that death is not the final chapter."
Connor groaned, making Elliot crack an unwanted smile. He glanced away from Stapleton's onstage antics, opting to scan the faces of the people packed in before them. Watching. Willing them to see truth. To turn around and go back home. Didn't they realize it was an outlandish claim from a career illusionist? That it was not possible to bring a man back from the grave after that much time? Yet they stood on. Transfixed. Their mouths gaping and confidence clinging to his words.
A shame. The man is just beating his gums, but they're still eating it up.
Stapleton's spell fell to blanket the gathering like snow. Who would be bought in after the show? Who would eventually fork out money — and worse, their hope — to this character in the days and weeks to follow?
Elliot shook his head for the poor souls. The man's claims were clearly too sensational to be true. He couldn't help but pity the lot of them. Then something odd caught his eye, drawing his attention away: a flash of fiery crimson buried behind a sea of black woolen coats and hats.
A figure stood off to the side of the crowd, alone.
Sheltered by the haven of a great oak, she was hidden beneath a crimson hood and cape that spilled down to dust the frozen ground at her feet. The garment hid fragments of dress quite eccentric for a woman: a high-collared man's shirt peeking out at the neck, a gold bow tie, black trousers, and matching over-the-knee riding boots. And while the dress piqued Elliot's notice, it was the woman's reaction to Stapleton's words that would not allow him to look away.
Hers was an aura of contradiction.
She owned flaming-red hair with blunt-cut bangs and waves that just peeked out from the hood. And though she projected the illusion of poise, the tips of her hair had caught on the wind and brushed the side of her face, seemingly without her care. Her lips were pursed and her glare pierced the stage, as if she possessed emotion barely held at bay. She clutched at the front of her cape with one gloved hand and held a gleaming black walking stick in the other. She leaned on it, like a stake she was attempting to drive into the ground.
Elliot tipped his head to one side. It's a disguise.
A good one, no doubt.
Anyone looking at her would notice the peculiar clothing first. But the woman's mannerisms were decidedly forced. Something had infuriated her, and Elliot wanted to know what it was.
"Connor," he asked, dropping his voice low. Elliot tipped his chin toward the cloaked figure. "Have you ever seen her before?" Connor tossed a glance in the woman's direction, then turned back to Stapleton's onstage flailings. "She's one of that lot."
"You know. The vaude performers. Like Stapleton. Though she's one of the more infamous ones on the circuit."
Elliot watched her, the curiosity of her presence holding his attention fast. "A vaude performer, hmm?"
"Don't tell me you've never been to one of those seedy song-and-dance halls before. Or with your father's money, at least one of the more well-to-do theaters?" Connor failed to veil the mocking in his tone. "If I didn't know of your years at the Bureau, I'd have guessed you were the rookie instead of me. It's vaudeville, Elliot. And Wren Lockhart is her name."
Elliot gritted his teeth each time his family's money was brought into a similar conversation, as if that assured his position in society without any merit to his own choices. But Connor was young and just shy of tactless, so Elliot let it slide. "That's her real name?" Elliot paused. "Or stage name?"
"What does it matter, really? She's one of them. But if it's stems you're looking to gaze at, please don't let it be the type in trousers. I'd think you'd have a swankier view with the dancers. I know I'd much prefer it."
"I'm not gazing at anything," Elliot snapped, keenly feeling the dig at his clumsy understanding of entertainment trends.
"It's just ..."
Elliot shook his head, still watching the woman. "Something.
I'm not quite sure yet."
"Well, you'd better get sure." Connor took a cigarette out of his inside pocket. He struck a match against his thumb and cupped his hand to tender the end with a deep inhale. "Because here we go."
Stapleton had moved on from the theatrics of his grand entrance to the marvel of the main act. He stood with his shoulders back and chin notched high. A rich, almost grandfatherly warmth spread over his face as he smiled. "And now? It begins."
The sudden roar of an engine ripped through the air.
An auto chugged forward, taking the slack out of a length of chain against a pulley hoisted to the side of the stage. Metal popped and tightened and the crowd jumped.
"He's not ... ," Connor whispered, the cigarette dangling off his bottom lip, threatening to flutter to the ground.
"Oh, but I believe he is," Elliot said, just as the corner of a coffin appeared at the inside edge of the grave, rising up, up, up. The chains creaked with the tension of metal-to-metal friction.
Connor swore under his breath and spat the cigarette from his lips to grind it out beneath the sole of his shoe. He grumbled about not getting paid enough for something or another.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen" — Stapleton's voice slithered through the trees — "the moment you have all been waiting for. The power no one before has harnessed! I shall defy the laws of nature ..."
The auto slowed, then kicked into reverse, lowering the coffin into the gravediggers' waiting arms. They steered it to the platform with a soft thud, then backed away from it.
The crowd let out a collective gasp.
"It is quite alright, I assure you. But who among you can claim the fortitude to stare death in the face?" Stapleton scanned the mass of onlookers with a raised eyebrow. "Who dares to open this crypt and give a man back his life? Who will aid me in summoning his soul from the depths of the hereafter to life among us once again?"
The crowd pulsed with energy. Women edged back, abhorred by the thought of being chosen to resurrect a decayed corpse. Members of the press leaned in, craning their necks to see, though none proved bold enough to volunteer. So all waited. Looking left to right. Watching. Expecting something — they just didn't know what.
Elliot kept his feet firm, only migrating his glance from Stapleton, to the crowd, and back to the cloaked woman perched at the fringe of the action. She hadn't moved a muscle, just stood there, haunting the shadowed outline of the oak
Excerpted from The Illusionist's Apprentice by Kristy Cambron. Copyright © 2017 Kristy Cambron. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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