He looks out at the audience — one thousand three hundred and twenty six seats, every one filled, bankers and politicians and schoolteachers and children. They're sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes darting between the six cameras that follow him around, waiting for him to speak, to surprise and entrance and delight them.
He is, after all, the world's preeminent magician. And this is, purportedly, his last show. And where another performer might be thinking of the audience, of the show, of the tricks that he should be pulling off — all he can think about is the last time he did this trick. It was for an audience of one, and it ended much sooner than he meant to.
And without meaning to, his fingers give the slightest tremble as he holds the deck of cards in his left hand, remembering the motions, playing through the actions in his head, the illusion, the turn, the finale, where a card was left on the table, face down.
But that was then, and this is now, and he made her a promise. He remembers the oldest tenet of show business, and he takes a deep breath and starts the speech — the patter, as they call it, the story that both distracts and enhances the performance.
"Fifty-two cards, ladies and gentlemen, fifty-two separate, distinct cards. Four suits, thirteen cards per suit, the ace through the ten, the jack, the queen, the king. I'm sure you all know this, but just in case one of you hasn't seen something like this before, I want to start by assuring you it's all real."
Roll up the sleeves, spread the cards out, get to work.
He first got into magic at the age of eight — his big brother had seen a Youtube video, bought a book, and took a coin out from behind his ear. He was excited, and asked for more, and got to see a few more tricks; clumsy and unpracticed as they were, it opened up a whole world to the little boy. For a few weeks, they were an inseparable pair, teaching each other and showing each other and practicing with each other, trying to spot the sleight of hand. But his brother was older, and thought of this only a diversion, and soon a girl came by and the older brother lost interest in spending time with the younger brother, preferring to spend time with the girl, instead.
But Jay, the younger brother, he kept at it — practicing with cards, and coins, and toys, and small knickknacks, under the encouragement of his mother and amused interest of his father, and soon started attending magic shows, studying the local magicians and trying to add their tricks to his repertoire.
He brought his skills to school after a few months of practicing, and demonstrated his skills at the talent show. He didn't win — that went to a singer, a girl with an incredible voice — but he got attention, and curiosity, and the admiration of his peers, and that was enough for him. It became a way to break the ice, to make friends, and to pass the time, and that was enough for him.
Then, when he was fifteen, a girl transferred in to his high school from California, and she had apparently seen the greats at Vegas — Ricky Jay, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Jeff McBride, and Copperfield. He tried some magic in front of her, and she watched him carefully, and then told him — and everyone else — where the coin was hiding, when the double-lift happened, and how the pencil was tucked into his pants when no one was looking.
Everyone laughed — but no longer with him — and the magic was lost, and he wasn't asked to do magic again for months. When he offered, they just shrugged casually, as high schoolers do, and said things like 'but it's all just sleight of hand', and 'are you just going to deal the second card again'?
"But— I have new tricks!" He said, but they weren't interested anymore — it was passé. And he realized how much he had been doing it for the admiration of others, and without the admiration, it became harder to practice, harder to shuffle the cards over and over, knowing that no one wanted to see him master this latest shuffle, or hear the stage patter he was memorizing.
It got to the point where he almost didn't want to do it anymore, but one day, out of the blue, the girl — Rachel — asked him to do a trick for her. He almost declined, but she insisted — just a few, she said, because it had been a while, and if he didn't have any prepared, how about the next day at lunch?
"So you can take them all apart?" he asked, quietly enough that no one else would hear.
"Only if you're sloppy," she said, and smiled at him.
It was a challenge — and one that soon spread to others around them, as everyone heard that the school magician was going to perform again, for the critic that saw through all of his magic as soon as she arrived. What would he come up with? Would she be able to see through him again?
There was a crowd there at lunch, gathered around the center tables, where Jay sat patiently, deck of cards in hand, his fingers trembling only a bit.
"Nervous, Jay?" someone called out. "Your hands are trembling!"
"Absolutely, Winston," he responded, and then smiled, offering a challenge. "But not nervous enough to guess a card that you picked."
The crowd pushed Winston forward, and he obligingly took a card.
"Okay," Jay said. "Shuffle the deck." And Winston does, and then smirks, handing it back to the magician. But right after he touches it, he frowns, looking down at it — his hands have only covered it for a moment.
"Did you hide the card, Winston?"
"What, can't find the card now? Magic failing you?"
"No, Winston," he says, and gestures to the deck. It's actually right here, the top card on the deck. Why would you leave it on the top?"
"I didn-" Wilson doesn't finish, snatching the top card and revealing that, yes, it is indeed his card. "How did you—"
"Easy," a voice calls out, and the crowd parts for Rachel. "He lifted the card when everyone's attention was on you, when he asked you if you had hid the card."
The crowd claps, grinning, as she takes a seat opposite him, and everyone crowds in.
"So, Jay," she continues. "Have a trick for me?"
He gulps, and then smiles and takes three cards from inside his backpack.
"Sure," he offers nonchalantly, and battle is joined.
"I have three playing cards," he says. "This card" — and he flips over a card, labeled 'this'. "This card" — and another card labeled 'this' — "And that card" — and flips over a card labeled that.
"All you have to do is keep your eye on 'that' card, and tell me where it is." he says, and as he says it, he moves the top card to the bottom.
"That's easy," Rachel says. "It's on the bottom."
"Well, no," he says, smiling, and flips over the bottom card. It's a 'this' card.
"It's on the top, then!" Someone yells out, and Jay shakes his head.
"Nope!" he says, and he flips over the top card — also a 'this' card. And he pauses for just a moment, and just as someone's about to say that it's in the middle, he spreads the three cards out, flips over the middle card, and it's also a 'this' card.
"Well that's cheating — you're using three of 'this' card." He shakes his head, again, and flips over the bottom card — 'that' card. And then the top: another 'that' card. And then the middle, and, yes, 'that' card it is.
Rachel prods him.
"So you have three of this and that cards?"
"No," he says, and lays them down one at a time. "In life, you get a little of this
" — and he sets down a 'this' card — "A little of that
" — and he sets down a 'that' card — "But not much of the other
" — and he sets down a card that hasn't previously been seen, with the word 'other' on it.
There's silence for a moment, and then the room erupts in applause — one that's held for three, then five, then ten seconds, until everyone is silenced again by Rachel standing up. Jay can see the focus on her — is she going to tell them all how he did it? Does she know?
"That," she says quietly, "was very good. I think I know how you did it, but I can't be sure. Double-lifts, maybe...but I couldn't see them happen."
And another cheer goes up, as Jay allows himself to smile for real. He shakes her hand, and is subject to many claps on the back as the crowd disperses.
"You're one of the best that I've seen, Jay," she said to him afterwards, when it's just the two of them on the steps outside, waiting for the bus. "Promise me that you'll keep going, no matter what, okay? You're as good as my dad, and that's something."
"Who's your dad?" he asks, his interest piqued.
"I'll tell you later. Promise me you'll keep it up, okay?"
"Okay," he says, and then blushes as she slips her hand in his.
Jay goes into and through the audience, asking for volunteers here and there, performing close-up magic but with a large crowd, counting on the cameras to display his work to the masses, as he successfully guesses eighteen picked cards in a row, deals himself four aces after dealing someone else four kings with a normal shuffle, and flicking a king into a wooden board at the center stage, and then having an audience draw that same card from his deck. He does a bit of illusory magic too, producing coins and wallets and watches from audience members after a simple handshake or hug, each illusion building on the previous one.
He's chattering throughout, telling a story — his story, in fact — about how he got into magic, about how he learned to do this and that, and he weaves the tale deftly with his tricks, with references to the real world, references to friends and fellow magicians that the audience may have seen. He even spoofs their tricks, once or twice, improving on them subtly, or adding an extra flourish on top.
He earns smiles, and laughter, applause and astonishment in kind, and he seems perfectly content, a master in his element, a ruler watching over his domain, dispensing magic, at will. He's building them all up, slowly, to the conclusion, the finale, the prestige. He's looking for someone special, though, someone he can bring up to the stage, for the finale: he's always been a close-up magician, and he knows what he wants his final trick to be. He's looking, and then he sees her.
He stands there in the semi-dawn darkness, watching as the clouds slowly turn pale and rosy, as the sun peeks over the horizon and breaks free from the mountain ranges. The sound of slow, steady breathing comes from behind him, a sound that competes with the soft riffling of a deck of playing cards that he shuffles from hand to hand, steadily, slowly.
Every so often, he picks out a card — and then resumes shuffling, resumes listening, resumes watching the light creep down the wall. And then he shuffles it back into the deck, and picks it out, again and again. Often, he smiles, one practiced but still convincing; every so often, he frowns, when the card isn’t quite what he was hoping for.
The breathing pauses for a moment, and he stops shuffling, waiting for her to release her breath, holding his own as well. Then she yawns, and he relaxes, and a genuine smile appears on his face.
“Jay?” she asks.
“Pick a card, Rachel,” he says, softly, coming back and taking a seat on the bed.
“It’s seven a.m., you prat,” she says as she rubs the sleep out of her eyes, but she’s smiling and she does as he asks. A seven of hearts, and she kisses it before handing it back to him, facedown.
He shuffles, slowly, deliberately, watching as she watches him instead of the cards, and then throws in a flourish, a completely unnecessary bridge that they share a grin at. And then he finishes, and spreads out the cards on the fluffy bedspread, gesturing dramatically.
“One of these cards is your card!” he says, and then, “Flip one over.”
She does — and it’s a four of clubs. Before she can even shake her head, he’s started to speak.
“Oh, looks like it’s not that one. Huh. Flip another one?”
And she does — and it’s a six of spades. Now she’s grinning. “You messed up! You messed up the trick!”
He arranges his face into a confused expression, and then starts flipping over the other cards. Other hearts, clubs, diamonds, face cards, everything but the seven of hearts. Only after all the cards have been flipped does she realize that this wasn’t a coincidence, that this was deliberate, and she scowls as he looks innocent, though she can see the beginning of the grin on his face.
“All right,” she says, with a huge eyeroll. “Where is it?”
He shrugs, looking down. “I dunno, Rachel. Under one of the other cards, maybe?”
She just crosses her arms over her chest, knowing that he’ll give in sooner or later, and after a few seconds, he throws up his hands. “You know, there was more patter! Maybe, well, maybe we just need a bit more light—”
And she can already tell where he’s going with it, and reaches over to the lamp to turn it on. A tug on the chain, and the light illuminates the room — a light that just happens to hit the opposite wall and include the shadow of a card: the seven of hearts.
She tries — she really does — to keep the smile off her face. But as she thinks through it - the fact that the light shining through meant that he would’ve had to cut the hearts out of the card, that he would’ve needed to plan this while she was sleeping — she can’t help but be at least a touch impressed. Her smile only broadens as she looks towards him, at the hoping-but-trying-not-to-show-it expression on his face, and she reaches out and grabs his sleeve.
“Okay, I’m impressed. C’mere, you,” she says, and draws him down to her, and the cards are brushed aside, carelessly.
It's been years since he's seen her, years since they mutually agreed to part, each understanding that wasn't working out, though they couldn't quite articulate why. And yet, to him, it feels like it was yesterday that he was sitting in that hotel room with her, watching the sun rise, and the day before that when he was fifteen and performing for her the first time. And in an instant, he knows what he's going to do, has made up his mind on the finale, and signals the assistants that he's made a choice.
It's fitting, he thinks, as he remembers the old story about the magician and escaping fate only to find it again. And so, as his show builds to the finale, he steps back to the center stage, looks around, and then asks for a volunteer.
Rachel raises her hand, and he makes eye contact only briefly, making a show of looking around, of going through the entire audience, before he chooses her, as she knew he would, as he knew he would.
She takes a seat opposite him and the cameras swivel down low as he takes a seat as well, and spreads a deck of cards out on the table before shaking his head and taking out three cards from his jacket pocket.
"You know, I do a lot of tricks with a pack of cards," he says, starting the patter, as they both smile, lightly, tightly, keeping their secret between them, two conspirators acting on a stage for an audience of a thousand, "but I've found that my favorite trick is one that you only need three cards for. It's about simplicity, I think, about boiling things down to the essentials. Like in life, you know?"
"You see, in life, you have some time for play" — and he puts down a card marked 'play' — "and some time for work" — and he puts down a card marked 'work', and they smile at each other, for the briefest of moments — but there's still a show to put on for everyone else, even though the two of them know that this is now a show for one.
But Rachel obliges, and says all the lines when Jay expects her to, and he goes through the trick beautifully, fingers perfectly steady, double-lifts completely invisible. She sets him up for the ending:
"So life is just about balancing work and play, then?"
"No," he says, shaking his head, and she indulges him in a tilt of the head, one that they both smile at, again.
"In life, you're going to have a lot of work
" — a pause, here, and a card set down, face up, as the cameras focus on it.
"And a lot of play
, as well" — and with it, another card, another moment as the cameras display it to the audience.
"But the most important thing of all is something that can be hard to find, something that may be elusive, something that may disappear if you're not careful. The most important thing in life is to make sure that there's a lot of love.
" — and this last card he flips over and then hands directly to her, as the crowd rises to its feet and starts clapping, as the curtain falls, as the two of them stare at each other from across the table, as she reaches out to take his hand once more.
------------------A/N:I don't usually do author's notes, but I wanted to add a short one here, given the heavy card-trick-action at some stages. This is an ode to magic as something that I've always enjoyed as an amateur: I am the older brother of this story, someone who briefly experimented with it whereas my younger brother is the magician in the family. The tricks described are all real tricks, most notably the this'n'that trick; which is one of my favorites. Others described are mainly from the incredible work of Ricky Jay, particularly this show that he did. Thanks for reading!