Inspired by the following Decamot items: Witch, Jane, book, Phoenix, teacher, herring gull, a well, tower bridge, boots, pumpkin
"From Circus Clown to Derren Brown," said Jane from the back of the taxi.
"What?" asked the driver looking into his rear view mirror. He realised that his passenger was speaking into a microphone, and so returned his concentration to the road.
"I'm about to treated to 'A Magical Evening with the Amazing Camelot' AKA Tom Riddell AKA... Note to self: Must Google Camelot's real name - I'm sure even 'Tom Riddell' is a stage name. Tom Riddell sounds one of JK Rowling's characters, from The Order of the Phoenix maybe. A witch or a wizard perhaps."
"Riddell's rise to fame has been little short of meteoric. Just a year ago, he was playing Pablo the Clown in one of the Cirque du Soleil productions. Now he's booked out the Ivor Novello in St Martin's Lane for his all new magical evening. Is he just cashing in on the popularity of the likes of Derren Brown, or is he actually offering something new?"
"As an unusual pre-run publicity event, Camelot/Riddell/ Mr ? has invited a small collection of... Hmmm what are we? Critics? Witnesses? Cheerleaders?" she paused for a few moments. "...to enjoy, or maybe to endure ... a sample of his up-coming show. And presumably to then spread the word after this... 'This' what?"
She rummaged in her large leather handbag and brought out the gold-edged envelope that contained the invitation she had received from Riddell. She removed the card. On one side was printed:
October 31st, 10PM. Bring an open mind. And a pumpkin.
And on the other, was the address. She spoke into her microphone again.
"What shall I call it... I dunno. How about a 'soirée'? That sounds suitably pretentious!"
"'ere we are love."
Jane looked up. They were in Holland Park outside Tom Riddell's mid-row townhouse. She could see from the taxi that this was a single residence, not one divided into multiple flats. She had to admit, she was impressed.
"Bet Riddell comes from old money," she said into her microphone.
She thrust her MP3 player-recorder into her large leather handbag and got out of the taxi.
"£5.65 please love," said the driver leaning out of the window. "And don't forget your pumpkin."
She gave him a tenner and leaned back into the rear of the taxi. She removed the pumpkin that she'd bought at Borough Market and closed the door. As the driver sped off for his next fare, Jane hurried up the eight steps to a very impressive Victorian front door and pulled on the antique door-bell handle.
The door to the town house opened and a butler ushered her inside and guided her to a large drawing room. The room was decorated with exquisitely painted silk wallpaper. The woodwork of the skirting boards and wainscoting was painted a deep maroon red gloss. Around the room were magical artifacts and on the walls were framed posters of shows from the golden age of theatrical magicians. There was a coal fire burning in the hearth and hanging in pride of place over the mantelpiece were a pair of Scottish Claymores. And above the swords was a stuffed herring gull.
Five people were already present, each holding a drink and chatting. They all turned round as Jane came in.
"Ah Ms Black, please do come in," said Tom Riddell, a tall imposing figure immaculately dressed in an expensive Italian suit. "Thank you so much for coming. I'm sure you all know who each of you are, but let me formally introduce you. This is Christopher Rose, the well known chat show host; Sir Rory Prowse, recently retired professional rugby player; Winifred Willows, everyone's favourite weather reporter on national television; Esther Strong, undoubtedly the most enthusiastic TV science teacher on the airwaves; and last and by no means least, everyone: This is Jane Black, features editor for one of our national dailies."
"Nice pumpkin," said Christopher.
"Didn't everyone bring one?"
"No," said Christopher. "Just you."
"Oh," said Jane feeling a little foolish.
"We were all given something different to bring," said Winifred. "My invite said to bring a large bag of candyfloss."
She pointed to a low coffee table where sat a large bag of candyfloss alongside a model of Tower Bridge, a rugby ball, and a sealed pack of white record cards. Jane wandered over to the table and placed her pumpkin with the other miscellaneous items. She looked at Riddell and raised an eyebrow.
"A good ice-breaker I thought," said Riddell. "Something to talk about before getting down to the main business of the evening."
"And that main business would be a sample of your upcoming show?"
"Exactly," said Riddell. "And as we're now all here and the ice sufficiently broken, let's get started."
"Yes, let's," said Jane.
"With my new show I want to bring something new. Tell me: What normally comes to mind when you think magic shows?"
"Rabbits from hats," said Winifred.
"Magic wands and magic words," said Rory.
"Scantily clad assistants," said Christopher. Rory guffawed.
"Tiresome card tricks," said Esther Strong.
"All interesting answers," said Riddell. "Jane: What do you think of when you think about magic shows?"
"Care to elaborate?"
"Smoke and mirrors, sleights of hand, cold reading, palmed props, a well rehearsed stooge, doppelgangers. Anything to distract and mislead the audience."
"Steady on old girl," said Rory.
"That's what I think of too!" said Riddell.
"Really?" said Jane sounding sceptical.
"I want to convince you tonight that my show, A Magical Evening with the Amazing Camelot, will contain no misdirections, no cheap tricks, and no cons."
"Really?" said Jane sounding even more sceptical. "And how are you going to do that?"
"Improv," Riddell replied. He was met with five blank stares. "It's going to be an entirely improvised show. Completely unplanned and unprepared."
"What, you mean like at the Comedy Store," said Christopher. "But with magic instead of jokes?"
"So how will that format work?" asked Christopher.
"I'll get members of the audience to suggest a magical idea, and then I'll perform it."
"Without any preparation?" asked Jane.
"Exactly," confirmed Riddell. "Would that convince you that I'm not 'cheating'?"
"I guess that all depends on what ideas the audience comes up with."
"I guess it does."
"Or rather what ideas you subliminally encourage them to come up with," said Jane.
"So suggest something, and we'll see how it goes," said Riddell.
"I can't help feeling I'm being played," said Jane
Riddell just smiled. There was silence in the room for a few moments.
"How about mind reading?" suggested Christopher.
"We can start with a little mind reading if you wish." said Riddell. "The problem with mind reading though is that only the subject knows whether or not the mind reader is accurate. It's not really much of a spectator sport, but let's give it a whirl. I want each of you to think about something that you and you alone know, and about which you're slightly embarrassed. I'll come to you one at a time and try to read what you're trying to conceal."
He stood in front of Christopher and looked deep into his eyes for a good 20 seconds.
"You started dyeing your hair when you moved from radio to TV."
"I guess that's no real surprise to anyone," said Christopher laughing. "But I've got to admit, that is was I was thinking about."
Riddell stood in front of Rory next.
"Now this is interesting. It concerns your final Calcutta Cup, and your match-winning try."
"Yup," Rory agreed.
"The ball never crossed the line, but you accepted the applause and celebrated anyway."
Rory laughed: "Don't tell the Queen, she might take back my knighthood!"
Riddell spent just seconds in front of Winifred.
"Winifred, you're scared of heights, and wish they'd stopped sending you to make your forecasts from the roof of the TV studio whenever there's a storm brewing."
"You got me!" Winifred agreed.
He moved on to Esther and stared into her eyes.
"For all your protestations to the contrary, you resent never having been made lead presenter on Nature Watch. And you think your co-host is a prima donna."
Esther went red, and quietly nodded.
"Just parlour games," said Jane. "I'm not sure how you got them thinking about those specific secrets, but they were all here before I arrived. During your ice-breaking I suspect you had plenty of time to winkle out those little treasures while you were waiting for me."
"I do agree. Most mind reading that you see on TV or in the theatre is simulated; and those four little nuggets, whilst causing a little discomfort for my guests, I could probably have discovered with a little research. Let's move on to a more concrete magical demonstration."
"Oh no. Before we go on, do me!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure!"
"OK, if you insist. I think you'll be the hardest to convince here."
He stared at the reporter in the same way that he had the other four guests. Eventually he said:
"You think I'm a charleton."
"I think everyone here knows that's what I think."
"That's fine, but I don't like the title of the piece your writing about tonight's ...," he paused for a few seconds. "'Soirée.'"
Jane hesitated a little before replying:
"You don't like being compared to a clown?"
"On the contrary: clowns form the backbone of the circus community. They provide a vital narrative continuity in all circuses from the Moscow State to the Cirque du Soleil. No, it's the Derren Brown comparison to which I object! I don't want him to become the albatross to my ancient mariner. And to answer your unasked question: I'm neither cashing in on the popularity of the likes of Derren Brown, nor offering something new. I intend to illustrate something ancient. An ancient art. Some call it a dark art. I just call it Real Magic."
Jane did a mocking slow hand clap.
"That's a good trick. I don't know how you know what I was dictating in the back of the taxi. I suspect you arranged for me to chose the right one and had it bugged."
"If I told you that the Christmas tree-shaped air-freshener irritated your nose and made you sneeze, would you be any more impressed?"
"Not really. I think it would just prove that you arranged for a specific taxi to pick me up from the station. That air-freshener would make anyone sneeze."
"OK, how about this: Your brother's death was not your fault."
"How could you possibly have known that he had a nut allergy?"
"How did you..."
"After all, you were only eight at the time."
"No one outside the family knows..."
"And would an eight year old understand how dangerous one little nut can be?" Riddell switched to a childlike, mocking tone: "How harmful could a likkle bik of chockie brownie be?"
"I.. I.. I.. "
"Death by choc ..."
"Stop it," demanded Winifred.
"It's just parlour game," said Riddell ignoring Winifred's outburst. "Isn't it, Jane?"
"STOP," Winifred yelled. "Can't you see she's upset. That was very clever of you Tom, but now just let it go."
"I'm fine," said Jane, trying to compose herself. "Let's move on to one of Tom's more concrete magical demonstrations.
"How about a card trick that I don't find tiresome?" said Esther. "That should challenge even the Amazing Camelot."
"OK. But I have no playing cards in the house. So I'll have to..."
"Improvise," suggested Christopher.
"Exactly," Riddell replied. "Christopher, would you mind taking the wrapper off the record cards that you kindly brought with you.
Christopher did so.
"Do you have a pen on you?"
Christopher reached into his jacket and removed a Mont Blanc ballpoint.
"Select a record card and write on it the name of a playing card."
Christopher did so.
"Now place it face down on the table. And hand me the remaining cards."
With a flourish, Riddell tossed the cards into the fire. They caught light and flared in the grate. He then leapt to his feet, yanked one of the Claymores off the wall by its handle, waved it over his head and brought the blade swiftly down through the pumpkin and back up again without touching the table. He returned the sword to the wall.
The guests looked down at the pumpkin now lying in two perfect halves on the table.
"What's that?" said Rory pointing to a small shiny rectangle amongst the pumpkin seeds and pulp oozing out across the table. He picked it out and shook the seeds off it. "It's a playing card."
"Turn it over," said Riddell. "It's the Jack of Spades," said Rory.
"Christopher, would you mind..."
Christopher was ahead of him. He was already waving the record card in the air. He lay it down on the table so the other guests could see what he'd written on it: the letter J and the picture of a diamond.
"Tiresome?" Riddell asked looking at Esther.
"I would grudgingly have to admit that, no! Not tiresome at all!"
"Hey hey hey hey," said Jane. "Forcing a card, or the suggestion of a card, is classic misdirection and manipulation. The flare in the heath and the slicing of the pumpkin - classic distraction."
"But you brought the pumpkin," said Christopher. "You're not suggesting Tom switched it are you? It's bloody enormous!"
"No I'm not. But I am suggesting that there was sufficient distraction for us to not know where the card came from."
"That's fair," said Riddell. "It was probably unnecessarily dramatic of me."
They were all quiet for a while.
"How about levitation," Winifred piped up. "That's always impressive."
"Sure why not," replied Riddell.
"Who shall we levitate?" asked Winifred.
"I'm game," said Esther.
"No," said Jane. "I've got a better idea: Levitate Winifred's candyfloss."
"Sure why not," replied Riddell. "Winifred, would you mind just taking it out of the bag and placing it on the table.
She did so. Six pairs of eyes fixed themselves on the large round bundle of candyfloss. As they watched, it twitched slightly and then started to move. First it rolled around the table. Then it slowly started to rise. When the ball of candyfloss was about two feet below the ceiling, it started to moved slowly horizontally, back and forth across the room. There were a few gasps. They all gaped, seemingly mesmerised, as it floated around like mini pink cloud.
"Wow," said Winifred.
"You've got to admit that's impressive," said Christopher looking over at Jane.
"Now make it rain," said Jane.
Almost immediately droplets of water started to appear on the underside of the pink cloud of candyfloss. And then they started to fall. The cloud of candyfloss was undeniably raining. As it passed over Winifred, she lifted her head backwards and opened her mouth as the droplets fell onto her face. She howled with delight. Rory, Christopher, and Esther joined in with her laughter. Jane looked perplexed.
"That's some classic magic tricks, each tailored to your requests. How am I doing?" asked Riddell.
"I don't about the others, but that was bloody amazing," said Christopher.
"You're too kind. Let's finish off with something a little less pedestrian."
"Like what?" asked Rory. "I don't see how you can top that." He pointed to the little pink cloud still floating above them.
"You tell me. I don't want you to think that I've pre-arranged the grand finale. I want you to be convinced the magic is real."
The five guests conferred for a few moments.
"How about a disappearing assistant trick?" asked Christopher.
"Why not. Another classic," said Riddell. Often done with a trick cabinet and an assistant whose in on the illusion. But tonight, we'll have to improvise. Jane, can we use your handbag for this final magic demonstration?"
"I suppose so," she said placing her bag on the table. "But do be careful with it, it's genuine snakeskin."
"So I see," said Riddell with a hint of distaste in his voice. "Black moccasin unless I'm very much mistaken."
"27 of them to be precise."
"Yes," he said stroking the bag gently. "Agkistrada piscarus, also known as the cottonmouth."
As he spoke, the bag slowly started to writhe.
"A semi-aquatic serpent, native of Florida. Capable of rearing up and delivering a painful, fatal bite with its mighty fangs if antagonised."
He snapped his fingers sharply as he said this. The bag leapt upwards, off the table. It opened and rapidly snapped shut again. Then fell back on the table.
Everyone jumped. Then they laughed.
"Hey, what did you put inside my bag?" asked Jane.
"Absolutely nothing," Riddell replied. "Take a look inside if you don't believe me."
Jane leaned forward and gently slid the bag towards herself. She carefully opened the clasp and peered inside. She reached in and removed her purse, MP3 recorder, and makeup bag. She held the bag and shook it.
"You've put something in it, I'm sure you have."
Rory and Christopher both leaned forward to get a look inside.
"Go on, have a rummage," said Christopher.
Winifred laughed nervously.
Jane put one hand deep into the bag. Then with an odd look on her face, she slid her hand in deeper.
"I can't find the bottom," said Jane.
"Stop mucking around," said Winnifred.
Jane placed her head on the table as she plunged her arm ever deeper into the bag.
"Obviously it's not my bag. I don't know how you switched it without my noticing, no doubt a clever distraction. I've got to admit, this is a clever trick. It feels like my arm's going further than the table, and yet I still can't get to the bottom."
Esther ducked under the table. "I can see your legs and your boots under the table, but not your arm," she said.
"Oh this is no good." Jane opened the bag wide and peered inside. She leaned in deeply, with both hands and head disappearing from view. Then suddenly, the bag seem to come alive. It snapped shut over Jane's shoulders. She screamed. The bag writhed again and began to creep over her body drawing her in ever more deeply. It then seemed to pull her further inside. Jane toppled forward, her legs coming off the ground. The bag seemed to give one almighty tug, and opened itself impossibly wide. Jane shot inside, and as her legs disappeared from view, the bag snapped itself shut again, giving out a large belch as it did so. It then resumed its original size and fell silent.
The remaining four guests sat stunned and motionless staring at Jane's handbag.
"Bravo," said Christopher finally breaking the sustained silence, and started to applaud.
"Bloody amazing," said Rory joining in with the applause.
"How do you get her back again?" asked Winifred nervously.
"Oh that's the whole trick," said Tom Riddell, a wicked smile appearing on his face. "She's not coming back."