Authors: Elly Griffiths
Edgar watched Max walking across the grass towards him. You’d know he was a theatrical at once. Was it the well-cut jacket or the fact that he was wearing a cravat rather than a tie? Perhaps it was just his height and general air of well-being. Men in 1950s England didn’t, in general, look tanned and healthy. There was something un-English too about Max’s jet-black hair and the gleam of his white teeth. He strolled through the picnicking families like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Moses in Italian shoes.
Max sat opposite Edgar and ordered coffee from the hovering waitress.
‘Guess who I’ve just seen.’
‘The Theatre Royal ghost?’
‘My God.’ Edgar leant back in his chair. ‘What was he doing?’
‘He’s on the bill with me.’
‘No! I thought he’d left the stage. I thought he was busy being a captain of industry somewhere.’
‘He informs me that he’s become a comedian.’
Edgar pulled a face. ‘Can’t say he’s ever made me laugh.’
‘No, nor me. But, like I was saying in Eastbourne, the money’s in comedy these days. And Tony always wants to be where the money is.’
‘Wonder what his act’s like?’
‘You can see it tonight if you like. Tony suggested that we all go for a meal after the show.’
‘A Magic Men reunion. Very jolly.’
‘Very.’ Max lit a cigarette. ‘So, what have you found out about Ethel?’
‘I contacted the husband,’ said Edgar. ‘He said that he hadn’t seen her for a year. He identified her from the photographs.’
‘She didn’t mention anything on her Christmas card about being separated.’
‘Well, it’s not the sort of thing you put on a card, is it?’
‘I suppose not. Have you any idea why she was in Brighton?’
‘I tracked down her lodgings. She was staying up near the station. We searched the rooms and found this.’
He smoothed out a crumpled piece of paper torn from a newspaper and pushed it towards Max.
It was an advertisement, carefully cut out. ‘Girl Wanted’ was the headline.
Girl wanted for magic act. Must be supple and strong. Contact PO Box 4700.
Max looked at it in silence for a moment. ‘Is this from
‘That’s the interesting bit,’ said Edgar. ‘It looks as if it’s from a paper, but we checked
and the advertisement never appeared there. If you look closely, you’ll see that the typeface is different.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means that this advertisement was specially written for Ethel. Probably pushed through her front door. We didn’t find an envelope. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t one though.’
‘What about the PO Box?’
‘We contacted the Post Office,’ said Edgar. ‘The PO box was arranged and paid for by letter. Signed Hugh D. Nee.’
‘He’s a class act, our bloke.’
‘We don’t even know that it is a bloke.’
‘Come on. You have to be pretty strong to cut a girl in three. And Ethel would have put up a fight, believe me.’ Max was silent for a few minutes, shielding his eyes with his hand. Then he said, ‘Girl Wanted. She was better than that. She was a star, Ethel.’
‘Whoever wrote this advertisement must have known that she’d been in a magic act.’
‘Who would want to kill a girl from a magic act?’
‘That’s what we’re asking ourselves,’ said Edgar dryly. After a pause he said, ‘We think she may have been drugged. Our medical chap said her eyes were dilated. He thought she could have been given drops containing deadly nightshade. Belladonna.’
‘Belladonna,’ repeated Max. Then, almost pleadingly, ‘If she was drugged, she wouldn’t have suffered, would she?’
‘No,’ lied Edgar. They sat in silence for a few minutes as the pigeons pecked the crumbs around their feet. Outside the theatre someone was playing the accordion. ‘The Rose of Tralee’. Then Edgar said, ‘We found this in her room too.’ He took out another newspaper cutting, this time carefully folded, and offered it to Max.
It was a newspaper review, dated November 1949. The yellowing paper showed Max grinning as he pulled roses from his hat. ‘
Max Mephisto Mesmerises in Manchester
Back at the Old Ship, Max was informed that ‘a lady was waiting for him’. He wasn’t surprised. He needed a new girl for his act and a fellow magician had suggested someone who had once worked as his assistant, a Miss French. It struck Max that he could so easily have placed a ‘Girl Wanted’ advertisement in
. This thought didn’t exactly put a spring in his step as he walked towards the lounge where the girl was waiting. No, not a girl, a ‘lady’.
was what had surprised him.
His first glance corroborated the porter’s judgement. Well-cut suit, good shoes, tasteful hat. She looked like a conventional well-brought-up girl: convent school, Pitman’s typing course, perhaps even a year in Switzerland. In short, not at all the sort of girl who usually applied to be a conjuror’s assistant. Ethel, for instance, had been a fishmonger’s daughter. Like Molly Malone. Another waif who came to a tragic end.
‘Miss French?’ Max doffed his hat.
‘Yes. Are you Max Mephisto?’
‘At your service.’ To his own ears he sounded like a parody of himself.
‘You look older than in your posters.’
‘That’s magic for you.’
She smiled, a wide grin that suddenly made her look much younger. She seemed to regret this unbending because she composed herself again immediately, eyes downcast.
‘May I?’ Max took the seat next to her. Good hands too, he noticed. Well-kept nails.
‘I understand that you’ve had some experience with Ray Fellows.’ Aka The Great Raymondo.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I did a season with him in Hastings.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Various box tricks. Sawing in half, disappearing, that sort of thing.’
‘Yes and The Bowsaw.’
‘Selbit was the first person to use a girl, you know. Before him, assistants were always men.’
A glimmer of that smile again. ‘Girls bring in the crowds. That’s what Ray used to say.’
‘Ever do The Zig Zag Girl?’
‘No. Is that what you’re going to do in your act?’
‘No.’ If Max was sure of one thing, it was that he’d never do that trick again.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘It’s a version of The Blade Box. Have you ever done anything like that?’
‘No. Ray steered clear of knives.’
‘Very sensible. Essentially, it’s just another box trick. The cabinet is deeper than it looks. You flatten yourself against the back. I put the swords in one by one and take them out one by one. It can be very tedious, but my way’s a bit different.’
‘Ray said you always had a special way of doing things.’
‘Very kind of him. Well, Miss French, are you interested?’
‘Oh yes,’ she said composedly.
By now he was definitely intrigued. ‘Tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your first name?’
‘How old are you, Ruby?’
‘Unlike me, you look younger than your years.’
He had wanted to make her blush, but she continued to meet his gaze calmly. Her eyes were brown with very white whites.
‘What have you been doing since you left school?’
‘This and that. I lived in France for a while. Now I’m a secretary for an insurance company.’
I was right about the Pitman’s, he thought.
‘And you want to be a magician’s assistant?’
This time the colour did flood her cheeks and she lifted her head defiantly. ‘No. I want to be a magician.’
Max couldn’t bring himself to watch Tony’s act. From his dressing room he could hear some fairly decent laughs, but with satisfyingly long pauses in between. The audience obviously didn’t know quite what to make of Tony’s cheeky chappy persona. Max half-expected Tony to appear at his dressing room door, boasting of how well he had done, and was very glad when his solitude remained undisturbed. He heard the music for Geronimo start up (loud enough to drown out the sound of crashing clubs), and went back to playing Patience.
Once again, Max was the last act on the bill. Waiting for his entrance, he watched the chorus girls high-kicking their way through the can-can. The stage was small, so the end girls were almost completely hidden from the audience. A good thing too, from what Max could see. The girls clattered past, panting and giggling. As they ran up the stone stairs, Max could see Tony standing in the shadows watching them. He was just the sort of man to stare at chorus girls. The ‘Danse Macabre’ started up,
floating hesitantly across the footlights. Max waited for his bar and then strolled on stage, adjusting his bow tie. They were the same as any audience anywhere, an amorphous mass who could be made to breathe and think as one. Monday first house was notoriously tough because that was when the landladies got their free tickets. An audience full of landladies was enough to reduce seasoned pros to tears. But in Brighton it was always a slightly more cosmopolitan and forgiving crowd. Certainly, Max felt himself riding on what was almost a cloud of goodwill. He knew that he was working well. The laughs came easily and, when he pulled the pearls from the handbag of a stout dowager in the front row, there was a genuine ‘ooh’ of delight.
He had decided that the girl in the audience trick had become a bit tired. If people came to more than one show, they would be sure to notice that it was always the same person pulled from the audience, a ‘stick’ they were called in the trade. So he had asked Ruby to come on stage with the cabinet. She still had her old costumes, she said. They had run through the act that afternoon with Ruby in her little blue suit, as efficient as the secretary she claimed to be. So Max’s double-take as the sequinned, fish-netted figure pirouetted onto the boards was completely unstaged. And she was good. As Max twirled the cabinet round and plunged the swords into the floorboards, she was always in the right place. A wiggle of feathers disguised the moment when the false back was facing towards the audience, a sidestep allowed Max to place
the cabinet exactly on its mark. She knew the trick, Max realised. Was she planning to perform it herself one day?
Max had seen The Sword Cabinet performed in Italy when a magician cut through a melon to show the sharpness of his blade. It worked very well, the texture of the fruit and the fact that it was about the size of a human head added to the fear factor. But melons were in short supply in England, so Max used an apple. He liked the whole Adam and Eve connotation, but it did mean that you had to get your slice right. Ruby placed the apple on the stage and Max raised his sword. He saw the blade flash in the lights and then it came fizzing down through the apple to crash into the boards. ‘No drum roll,’ he told Franz. ‘I need the sound of the sword on the wood.’
Ruby pranced into the cabinet. Her last smile to the audience was nine-tenths composure and one-tenth fear. Max didn’t know if the apprehension was acting or not, but it was very effective. Now the drums rolled and Max plunged in the swords one by one. He knew Ruby was in place because she had tapped twice on the side of the cabinet (inaudible beneath the crashing timpani). Even so, he felt a sudden unreasonable fear for her, thinking of Ethel – so trusting, so desperate – offering herself to a man who actually did cut her into pieces. Glancing into the wings, he saw that Tony Mulholland was still there, watching. What was he playing at? It was an unspoken rule that you never watched a magician work from backstage. Was Tony trying to steal his act after all? When all the swords were in place, Max spun the cabinet, showing that the
long foils had gone all the way through. The tips at the back were fakes, added from the inside by Ruby. The audience gasped, the orchestra reached a crescendo and Max started to withdraw the swords, one by one, stretching the moment to breaking point. When Ruby emerged, smiling and waving, she caught his eye and winked. For a second, just for a second, he felt completely at a loss.
‘I like your new assistant,’ said Tony. ‘She’s cute.’
‘Cute?’ said Max. ‘Did you make that trip to America after all?’
‘She was good,’ said Edgar hastily. ‘Where did you find her?’
‘She worked with another magician,’ said Max. ‘He recommended her. She’s not a permanent fixture though. Just for this week.’
‘Love ’em and leave ’em, eh, Max?’ Tony downed his drink. ‘You haven’t changed.’
They were in a small French restaurant. It had been recommended by Franz, the conductor at the theatre, so, predictably, the food was bad but the band was good. Tony hardly seemed to notice what he was eating. He was knocking back the wine and boasting about his prowess on stage and off. Though from what Edgar had seen of his act, Tony wasn’t quite ready to storm Hollywood just yet. Tony declared himself ‘in the vanguard of comedy’, and certainly the audience at the Theatre Royal hadn’t known quite what to make of the angry young man in the American suit who refused to tell them any jokes. The most
successful part of his performance had been when he had performed mind-tricks on members of the audience. ‘What colour are you thinking of?’ That sort of thing. Max looked irritated and said that this was classed as magic, but Edgar thought that it was more like being stuck with a bore on the train. Tony was asking the questions, but he was only really interested in his own responses. ‘Red!’ he cried out triumphantly. ‘He’s thinking of red.’
‘It’s always red with the men,’ he told them, ‘blue with the girls.’
‘But what if it wasn’t red?’ asked Edgar. Green was his favourite colour.
‘Oh, they always agree,’ said Tony. ‘The trick is making them think that they were thinking of red.’
‘What if they say something surprising?’ asked Edgar.
‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘you must never show you’re surprised. That’s the magic of it.’
‘It’s not magic,’ Max said grumpily.
The band segued into another little Hungarian number. They were the only diners left in the place and the waiter looked as if he couldn’t wait to see the back of them. Tony, though, called for more wine.
‘It’s a reunion,’ he said. ‘A Magic Men reunion.’
‘Why so nostalgic about the Magic Men, Tony?’ asked Max. ‘You didn’t seem so keen at the time.’
Tony didn’t seem to hear him. ‘Do you see anything of Bill these days? And what about Major Gormley?’
‘Major Gormley’s retired,’ said Edgar. ‘Lives on the south coast somewhere. Bill’s married. Lives in London, I think.’
‘So old Bill got married,’ Tony filled Max’s glass, spilling some in the process. ‘I thought he’d never get over Charis.’
Edgar didn’t look at Max. He watched the wine stain spreading on the tablecloth. It had started as roughly the shape of Italy, but now seemed to be forming the rest of Europe, like one of the maps at the start of the war showing the Nazis advancing.
‘None of us will get over Charis,’ Max said roughly. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
‘But Bill really loved that girl,’ Tony was saying, his voice thickening with claret-sodden emotion. ‘He really loved her. You know, I still can’t believe that she’s dead.’
I loved her, Edgar wanted to say. I loved her and she loved me. But it had been Bill that she had chosen in the end. Bill who, when Charis was killed, had had the status almost of widower. Now he was a husband.
‘It was a long time ago,’ said Max. ‘A lot has changed since then.’
‘Yes,’ said Tony, ‘I’m a comedian and Edgar’s a policeman. But you’re still a magician.’
‘I’ll always be a magician,’ said Max, lighting a cigarette. ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.’
‘You’ll have to think of something soon,’ said Tony. ‘Variety’s on its last legs. When I was in the States …’ He shot a sidelong glance at Max. ‘It was all about television. Have you heard of Milton Berle? He’s a comedian, a huge television star. That’s where the money is these days, believe me. But magic would never work on television.
People need to watch magicians up close. No, you’re finished, my friend.’ He lapsed in silence.
‘Television will never take off in Britain,’ said Edgar. ‘I can’t imagine people gathered round one of those boxes watching fuzzy little shapes. It’s not like the wireless.’
Tony’s burst of eloquence seemed to have exhausted him. He slumped in his chair, ash from his cigar dropping on the floor. Max gestured for the bill.
‘Let’s get the great television star home,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a hard day’s magic ahead of me tomorrow.’
Edgar got out his wallet, but Max waved him away. ‘I may be finished,’ he said dryly. ‘But I can still pay the bill.’