The Last Illusion - By Rhys Bowen
New York City, July 1903
Ladies and gentlemen. For my final illusion I will perform a feat that will amaze and astound you—a feat never before attempted in the history of magic, a feat fraught with danger and horror.” The showman, presented to the audience as the stupendous, sensational Signor Scarpelli, paused for dramatic effect. The atmosphere in the theater was electric. A lovely young woman stepped from the shadows at the side of the stage. She was dressed in a white spangled costume that revealed shapely legs right up to mid thigh, and she was wearing white fishnet stockings and knee-high white boots. The illusionist, a dapper little man with an impressive handlebar mustache, extended his hand to her and she took it, moving gracefully into the spotlight. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the lovely Lily. Tonight I shall attempt to saw this exquisite young lady in half.”
There was a gasp of horror from the auditorium. I think I must have given a small gasp myself. I glanced at Daniel, seated beside me, and was annoyed to see that he was grinning. As a policeman who had seen everything, he was not likely to be alarmed by a mere spectacle onstage. I, still very much the unsophisticated Irish country girl, had been baffled and impressed by the simplest tricks that had started this evening of illusion at Miner’s Theatre on the Bowery—doves that appeared out of nowhere, then were placed in cages, only to vanish again, hats that produced great bunches of flowers, and even clever card tricks. Frankly I’d never seen anything like it and was enjoying myself immensely. As much as anything I was relishing an evening spent with my intended for once. It wasn’t often that a New York police captain like Daniel Sullivan found himself with free time to take his lady love to a theater.
A large contraption was being wheeled onto the stage. It was covered in a red velvet cloth, which Scarpelli whipped away dramatically to reveal a table on legs on which reposed a large, oblong box, garishly painted with flames and shooting stars. He then spun it around to show that it had small openings at either end. Scarpelli then opened the box lid and let down a front panel to reveal a white-satin padded interior, as one might see in a superior type of coffin. Then he extended his hand to the girl.
“I’ll now ask my lovely assistant, Lily, to step inside this contraption of horror,” he said.
Lily smiled and waved to the crowd as she allowed the Great Scarpelli to assist her into the box, where she lay while the lid was closed, leaving her head exposed at one end and her feet sticking out of the other. The box was then latched with two large locks. From the orchestra pit came a low, ominous drumroll. Signor Scarpelli then produced an impressive-looking saw, bent it, and waved it around.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a common ordinary saw, with which I’m sure the gentlemen among you are familiar. This particular specimen has been sharpened to perfection, in fact I’m sure any one of you would covet it for your own woodpile. Allow me to demonstrate.”
A male assistant now pushed out a small table on which lay a log of wood. Scarpelli removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to saw most efficiently through the log until the two halves fell onto the stage floor.
“So you’ll agree that I should have little problem slicing through such a delicate specimen as sweet Lily,” he said, giving the audience a wicked grin. “Right then. To work. Drumroll if you please, Maestro.”
The drumroll started again, louder and louder until it filled the theater with sound. I could almost feel those around me holding their breath. I knew I was holding mine. Carefully he placed the saw on the middle of the box and started to move it back and forth. It went through the top layer of wood like butter. We could see it protruding with each thrust, lower and lower. It must have reached the girl’s body by now. Suddenly, over the noise of the saw and the drum, there came a bloodcurdling scream. Screams echoed back from the audience. Some people had risen to their feet. Some ladies were already swooning. It was clear that something had gone wrong.
“Holy Mother of God,” I heard myself muttering.
Signor Scarpelli extracted the saw with difficulty, threw it down, then rushed around the table, and began