While waiting for the spectacle to begin, I cut and shuffled a deck of cards with my left hand, keeping the ace on top, practicing a skill I would never again use. The goose-honk of a squeeze-bulb car-horn announced the impending arrival of the hearse. I dropped the deck in my jacket pocket.
Giggling bathing beauties stood planted on the running boards of the approaching lemon-yellow Packard. Its nose-end acted as a ship’s bow, parting the crowd which swept back in rippling waves. Curtains cloaked the windows of its stretched-out cargo hold. The vehicle rolled to a stop at the brink of a neatly-carved rectangular pit.
Flappers in their tube-like dresses, the tassels on their knee-high hems shimmying, strained against the cordoned-off perimeter. Some blew kisses. Dandies, resuscitated after a night of celebrating Prohibition—genteel gentlemen for whom daylight was a curse word—balanced on their toes to witness the hullabaloo. Young nippers roosted on tombstones; some braved the roofs of mausoleums.
With dainty back-kicks, the beauties sprang from the running boards. The front and back cabin doors swung open and five beefy men climbed out. They glared at the offensive sun, tugged at their cuffs and screwed on their top hats. After delivering indifferent waves to the audience, they rounded the hearse. One opened the rear compartment, grabbed the handle at the head of the coffin within and hauled it backwards on its rollers. The others took hold of the side grips and lifted. They lugged the pine box, carrying it over to and setting it down beside the gaping grave. The casket lid flipped and presto! Richard French, The Famous Frenchini, popped up to the cheers of the crowd.
“Hello, my fine admirers!” the magician called out, his arms spread wide as though he could embrace the entire breadth of the mob. “Prepare yourselves to bear witness the single greatest feat in the history of mankind: An escapade not to be beheld by those of feeble in breast or weak in constitution. I, the Famous Frenchini, will slip free from the bony fingers of the merciless reaper and escape the bonds of death!”
I had to hand it to Richard: he knew how to throw a funeral. Lurking in the shadows cast by the spotlight of Houdini’s fame was a pack of aspiring escape artists who hungered to be the latest -ini. French had risen above the ambitious rabble. With the bonny good looks of a photoplay star and the bombast of P.T. Barnum, his celebrity had swelled well beyond his mediocre skills as an illusionist.
Not fair. Showmanship is a crucial part of the magic trade, and Frenchini was a master of pure audacious theater. I was a master of jealousy.
“Alan!” Someone recognized me and slipped through the crowd, heading my way. It was Mark Buchanan, the Amazing Something or Other. He had an act so forgettable even those who knew him couldn’t remember his stage name. Nice guy, though. He reached out to shake my right hand and, in a moment of shock I’d seen hundreds of times before, noticed it was not there. I shoved the stub of my wrist into his hand.
“What …?” he couldn’t even finish his question.
“I lost it during the Great War,” I told him. “I checked the Army’s Lost and Found. Lots of body parts, none of them mine.”
He didn’t know what to make of my sense of humor or whether it was humor, and not just angry spitting in the sand.
“I thought you were here with the magician’s crowd,” he said.
“Forced retirement. I’m covering this event for the Evening World.” I tapped a knuckle on the top page of note papers taped around the forearm of my right sleeve. “I usually handle the city hall beat, but Cobb, my boss, knows about my pre-war stage act, so he sent me here. He wants a front page scoop on how it’s done.”
Under normal circumstances, I’d never rat out an illusionist, but Frenchini dared his fellow artists to do just that, offering a five hundred dollar reward to the first person who could show how he performed his miracle—how he had escaped being buried alive. He vowed the coffin and all items devised to secure him would be made available afterwards for inspection. In my estimation, that seemed like too reckless a promise: the Famous, not-even-great, Frenchini was begging to be exposed.
A pair of policemen in brass-buttoned coats affixed handcuffs to French’s wrists. “Tighter!” Frenchini shouted and, as the manacles pinched his flesh, the magician grimaced and demanded again, “Tighter!”