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Authors: Michael Pryor

Tags: #TEEN FICTION

Extraordinaires 1

BOOK: Extraordinaires 1
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ABOUT THE BOOK

Kingsley Ward is in dire trouble. Instead of thrilling the audience with his death-defying escapology, his first performance ends in disaster when his hidden wolfish nature bursts free. That same night, his father is abducted and his home ransacked.

To find Dr Ward and redeem himself, Kingsley braves the Demimonde, the mysterious world that exists alongside our own. He is soon the target of two warring factions: immortal magicians whose diabolical plans will create mayhem at the 1908 Olympics, and the last Neanderthals, whose vengeance will wipe out humankind.

Kingsley needs help. The famous author Rudyard Kipling will assist, but why is he so interested in Kingsley? Evadne Stephens, juggler and weaponsmith, is a Demimonde expert – but what does her mercurial nature conceal?

Bizarre plots. Sinister magic. The extraordinary is about to happen.

For Dora, Erina, Nadia, Kor, Stephen, Tarran, Kate, Zahri, Rebecca, Meelsie, Shane, Raphael, Yu-Jie, Ellise and all the other Loyal Readers out there.

Was he not the Friend of the Stars as well as of all the World, crammed to the teeth with dreadful secrets?

––Rudyard Kipling,
Kim

K
ingsley Ward's wolfishness was a problem. If it weren't the howling, it was the occasional desire to bite boorish people, which was rarely acceptable, no matter how boorish the boor.

If 1908 were going to be a good year, however, he would have to maintain his control when it was his turn to walk onto the stage of the Alexandra Theatre.

He stood in the wings while his nerves did their best to share their discomfort with the rest of his body. Keeping to the shadows, he waited for the tenor (‘Lloyd Evans, the Welsh Wonder') to finish a heartrending – and stomach-turning – rendition of ‘Nellie Dean'. Kingsley understood that nervousness was natural prior to a professional debut. Of course, it was made worse by the possibility of his wild self breaking loose in the middle of the performance.

Which would certainly emphasise the ‘variety' component of this variety show, Kingsley decided.

His left knee gave a tentative tremor.

The Alexandra Theatre in Aldershot wasn't his first choice of venue, but he was prepared to accept that seventeen-year-old novice performers were very much like beggars – choosiness shouldn't be part of their professional entitlements.

He took a deep breath and held out his hands. Steady enough, and his knee had decided it was up for the job, too. He brushed the lapels of his tailcoat and straightened his starched collar for possibly the three thousandth time.

Kingsley was pleased that, so far, the audience had been good-humoured. They had particularly enjoyed the performing dog troupe (‘Taine's Tip-Top Terriers!'). Mr Bernadetti, the stage manager, had admitted in a moment of weakness that the week-long booking looked like being a solid earner.

Kingsley had found Mr Bernadetti to be the most relentlessly gloomy person he'd ever encountered. ‘Not a disaster' was the highest praise Kingsley had ever heard pass the man's lips. ‘Appalling', ‘dreadful' and ‘sod-awful' were the standard descriptions of the acts Bernadetti shepherded around a country that would never appreciate his genius. This genius, from Kingsley's observation, was composed of an ability to browbeat theatre owners, a propensity to organise extremely frugal travel arrangements, and a resistance to suggestion so awesome that, if properly harnessed, it could armour battleships.

The tenor reached for a high note, quickly revised his estimation of his own ability and settled for something on an altogether more achievable shelf, sliding about a little before he nailed it down. Kingsley guessed that the cheeky grin was meant to suggest that the effect was deliberate.

Kingsley took another deep breath and momentarily wondered why he was subjecting himself to this ordeal. Money wasn't a spur. His foster father wouldn't actually allow him to starve, even if he disapproved of Kingsley's abandoning his studies. The lure of fame wasn't strong, either, as Kingsley could quite comfortably live without being recognised on the street.

Was it simply the fulfilment of years of practice? Since his introduction to the world of magic, Kingsley had devoted much of his time to developing his skills. He was prepared to admit that he'd gone about it in a way that even he would have called obsessive in someone else.

Kingsley's fingers twitched. Flourish, cut, drop, produce. Fan, waterfall, palm, display. Repeat. Repeat again.

He recalled how, once he'd discovered the marvels of the craft, he'd worked the cards until his fingers bled. Then he'd moved from sleight of hand to other aspects of magic, pursuing something that beckoned to him without ever making itself clear. At one stage he'd even perfected what he'd thought was the acme of his craft: pulling a rabbit from a hat. He'd soon given this up. He was sorry for the indignities suffered by Oscar, his rabbit, who went on to live a happy and indulged life as Kingsley's least critical audience.

Despite his edginess, Kingsley smiled when he recalled Oscar. With twin motives, he'd begged his foster father for a pet rabbit. It was to be part of his magical act, but it was also a test. Small furry animals tended to rouse certain animal impulses that sometimes came upon him unexpectedly. He wanted a rabbit so that he would become accustomed to their presence and react to them in a civilised manner.

At the time, he'd never thought he'd become so attached to the bright-eyed, affectionate creature.

Two stagehands hurried past, waist-coated, sleeves rolled up, off to indulge in the mysteries of stagecraft to which they'd been initiated and Kingsley was still an outsider: possibly shifting sandbags, possibly sweeping, or possibly conducting arcane rituals in the fly tower overhead. Kingsley had no idea. In his short time as part of a professional troupe, he had come to realise that it was a different world, one replete with its own mysteries.

‘Nellie Dean' dragged on, Lloyd Evans wringing every bit of sentiment from the song, much in the same way a washerwoman would wring water from sheets – but without as much finesse. The tenor stood right out on the apron, as close as he could get to the audience, and reached towards them, arms extended, a picture of heartfelt longing. Kingsley admired the way he was enjoying himself – even if the audience wasn't as convinced as he was.

Certainty. Lloyd Evans had it, Kingsley realised. Call it confidence, or poise, or self-possession, Lloyd Evans
believed
in who he was. He believed so much that it went a great way to convincing the audience to go along with his performance.

Kingsley was convinced. Some performers simply owned the stage. Showing no doubt, they gave themselves to the audience wholly and completely.

While Lloyd Evans strolled into his last verse, Kingsley touched his scarlet turban, making sure it was straight. He'd thought the turban a fine idea initially, as it covered his curly, fair hair as well as adding what he hoped was a much-needed air of mystery, but the dashed thing had a habit of slipping. A freckled stagehand crouched at the base of the fly tower was enjoying Kingsley's nerves and knuckled the peak of his cap with mock respect.

Kingsley bridled for an instant. A growl rose at the back of his throat before he clamped down on it by biting so hard his teeth hurt. To make sure, he brought his hands together and squeezed them until his knuckles creaked.

To distract himself, he launched into another check of his stage necessities, patting his jacket to make sure his sleight of hand materials were in place before going on to check his chains, manacles and the all-important metal trunk. As a seventeen-year-old tyro magician, Kingsley didn't have the luxury of an
ingenieur
, the craftsman who could construct equipment for him. However, he'd always been a solitary lad so he didn't really feel the lack. Never lonely, he told himself, just independent.

Even without the assistance of an
ingenieur
, escapology was Kingsley's real passion. Dexterity meeting strength meeting showmanship. It was performance of an altogether more elevated sort. He could, if he chose, see escapology as a metaphor for his life, breaking free of restraints and that sort of thing, but he preferred to think of it as the perfect expression of his desire never to give in. Once he had his teeth into something, he hung on until he was finished.

In the wings opposite, the stage manager rolled his eyes when he saw Kingsley looking about, and pointed at the straitjacket, the ropes and the handcuffs that he had ready on the props table. Kingsley settled, as much as he was able. He'd had enough dreams about being left, embarrassed, alone on the stage with no props and no equipment – sometimes with no clothes on, dreams being what they were.

His heart began to pick up pace as he recognised the final bars of the ballad. Lloyd Evans, down on one knee, fists clenched over his heart, assured Nellie Dean that she was his heart's desire – just in case there was any doubt left. The orchestra ambled to a finish, the individual members deciding that enough was enough.

The stalls were full, even though it was a Thursday. The balcony and circle were empty, however, apart from one lucky spectator on the far right of the house, leaning over so far that his chin was on the rail. Kingsley could just make out the lights glinting on his round spectacles.

Lloyd Evans doffed his bowler to the audience, bowed and exited the stage. The assistant stage manager replaced the number 5 with a 6 on the display board. A sweeping rustle indicated that the audience members were consulting their programs and wondering whether to stay for ‘Item 6: Lorenzo the Great' or nip out for a choc ice.

Deep breath
, Kingsley told himself.
Flex those fingers.

Ignoring the glare from Mr Bernadetti, he took a moment and pressed both hands together in front of him. He closed his eyes and dropped his head. When he straightened, he was no longer Kingsley Ward, novice conjurer, but Lorenzo the Great, the Master of a Thousand Mysteries.

He caught the eye of the orchestra leader. Immediately, the carefully chosen snippet of the overture from
Scheherazade
wafted over the auditorium. Two stagehands scuttled onto the apron in front of the garishly painted backdrop, carrying the small table that was essential for the first half of his eight minutes.

Eight minutes. Much could be achieved in eight minutes.

He strode from the wings with the last notes of his introduction still alive. He raised a hand, forefinger extended, and was caught in the flare of a spot. Without speaking, he regarded the audience, his face aloof and commanding, a performer not afraid of silence. As the darkened auditorium gazed back, another part of him roused. This part was more base, more animal – his wild self was alert. It was aware of the audience, curious and waiting, a many-headed beast in the darkness. It could smell them. A thousand different odours announced their presence to his lupine senses as clearly as if he could see them. In their anticipation, audience members made small noises in the hush – shifting in seats, shuffling feet, a cough or two. Above, slight noises came from the fly tower, stagehands ready to move and watching the newcomer below with professional interest. On either side, in the wings, other performers waited for their cue, or lingered to see what the new boy was up to.

His wild self built a picture of his surroundings in an instant, aware for threats, ready to fight or flee.

Kingsley stiffened. This wouldn't do. He needed to be an urbane, commanding conjurer, not a wolf backed into a corner. He pushed his wild self aside and launched into his patter.

This was a vital step in the whole performance. The audience was already primed, full of expectations from hearing the lush musical introduction and from taking in his appearance. They were ready to see magic, but he had to give them permission to
believe
. After all, the program announced that Lorenzo the Great was about to present illusions. His carefully crafted routines would simulate the extraordinary, but if the audience wasn't on his side, they would simply remain tricks. He had to invite them to
be
part of the illusion, to hand over doubt and to collaborate in creating something wonderful. If he commanded with the right touch of authority, they would surrender to him and share in the astonishing.

Kingsley had seen this happen again and again while he studied the performances of the greats, going to their shows and noting every gesture, every portentous announcement, every action dominating the stage and drawing the eye of each audience member. Chung Ling Soo, Adelaide Herrmann, Devant and Maskelyne at St George's Hall. Each of them had their method for inveigling the audience and making them co-conspirators for the duration of the show.

Kingsley's introduction was designed to claim the audience by invoking the mysteries of the East. Hint and allusion, nothing that could be contradicted outright, his beginning was a miracle of concision and misdirection, revised and honed again and again, usually late at night after Kingsley had finished studying. His Indian background helped, what he could remember of the time before his foster father brought him to England. Steamy, heady exoticism with the wilderness calling, while underneath darkness lurked and life was valued in ways that were both extraordinary and unknowable.

It was verbal sleight of hand. By the end of his delivery, he knew he had them. The quality of the silence told him that the audience was his. He paused and held the silence again, unafraid. It was his, after all, something he'd created.

At that critical moment, a mighty crash resounded from off stage left. Laughter erupted from the audience, nervous and sudden, rippling and then growing, running along the rows of stalls like mice through wheat. The precious mood of complicity was shattered.

The laughter grew. Kingsley winced, which only provoked more hilarity. He glanced into the wings to see the freckled stagehand sweeping up the remains of a large glass jug and shrugging. His mates around him mirrored his grin.

Kingsley had heard about the traditional testing of new performers. In the weeks of rehearsal he'd endured some chaffing backstage, but he hadn't thought it would continue into his actual performance.

BOOK: Extraordinaires 1
7.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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