New York 1905—The Vanderbilts. The Astors. The Morgans. They are the cream of society—and they own the nation on the cusp of a new century.
Thalia Cutler doesn’t have any of those family connections. What she does know is stage magic and she dazzles audiences with an act that takes your breath away.
That is, until one night when a trick goes horribly awry. In surviving she discovers that she can shapeshift, and has the potential to take her place among the rich and powerful.
But first, she’ll have to learn to control that power…before the real monsters descend to feast.
Please enjoy this excerpt of The Glass Magician, available 4/28/2020.
Although the Majestic Theater had just as many seats as the theater Thalia had played in Philadelphia, the performance that evening was much better attended. It had been six months since Thalia had last played New York City, but some of the stagehands remembered her.
“Hey, Lady of the Lake,” one called when he saw her. “Welcome back to the big time.”
“Oh, Ed, I’ve seen bigger,” Thalia replied sweetly.
Ed the stagehand rolled his eyes. “You’re too young for that kind of talk, Miss Cutler.”
Thalia left Ed behind as she made her way toward the dressing rooms. Although the Majestic Theater was in the Cadwallader Syndicate, not the Keith Syndicate, backstage was no different. It was full of shadows and smells—sweet greasepaint, stale sweat, cheap perfume, and even wet dog hair from one of the animal acts.
The dressing rooms at the Majestic, unlike those at some theaters, were worth the argument it took to get one. Thalia wasn’t the headliner, so there was no designated room with a star on the door for her. The rest of the cast shared the two bigger rooms, one for men and one for women. The women’s dressing room had mirrors on one wall and a screen to dress behind. It wasn’t perfect privacy, but Thalia had experienced much worse. There were theaters out on the circuit with so little thought given to the performers that Thalia had to change in her room at the boardinghouse before the show.
Behind the screen, Thalia buckled herself into the pigeon squeezer, which fitted over her corset and chemise. Once she had the doves safely stowed, she donned the white Lady of the Lake gown with its hanging sleeves. The extra fabric made it easy to produce the doves on cue without giving away their point of origin. Thalia unpinned her fair hair and combed it to fall smoothly over her shoulders and down her back. The gilt circlet of the Lady of the Lake’s crown was the finishing touch. Thalia made sure she had it on straight and pinned firmly in place before she shook out her voluminous skirts and stepped forth. A black Solitaire clog dancer in a blue dress immediately took her place behind the curtain.
To put on her greasepaint, Thalia had to jostle for room in front of a well-lit mirror. Singers, dancers, and acrobats were doing the same, but Thalia held her own against them all. She finished up her face with a dot of red beside the inner corners of her eyes and put enough kohl on her light brown eyelashes to darken them to visibility.
By the time Thalia joined Nutall in the wings, she was fully in character, head high, back straight, the genuine regal Lady of the Lake with every swoop of her sleeves. She reminded herself to keep her chin up, the better to show off the line of her throat. Thalia knew she was no Lillian Russell, but she strove for that kind of elegant self-possession.
Nutall shifted his attention from the ventriloquist act onstage to Thalia. “There you are. Ready to impress them?”
Thalia gave him her widest smile. “Ready to catch a bullet.”
“Don’t even joke about it.” Nutall squared his shoulders. The ventriloquist finished up and took his bows. The pit orchestra struck up Thalia’s music. Nutall smiled back at Thalia. “Break a leg.”
Although their act was announced as the Lady of the Lake and the Siege Perilous, Nutall ignored the mistake until it was time to replace the old trick with the new. They moved through the routine dove by dove, until it was time for the big finish.
Nutall’s voice was smooth as aged brandy and as deep as London fog, pitched to reach the last row of the seats in the highest tier of the cheapest balcony. “Tonight, for the first time on the New York stage, you will be privileged to witness the Lady of the Lake performing the most dangerous of all feats of stage magic: the Bullet Catch. First things first. Ladies and gentlemen, Solitaires, Traders, and Sylvestri, may I have a volunteer from the audience?”
The man they’d planted in the audience volunteered enthusiastically. Fortunately, the crowd was lively, so there were other members of the audience clamoring to be chosen. Nutall brought him up to the stage, where Thalia opened the case with her father’s muzzle-loading rifle. Thalia showed the weapon to the audience with great panache. Shopping the prop, as her father had called displaying an item of equipment to best advantage onstage, had been Thalia’s specialty since she’d grown old enough to go onstage as her father’s assistant.
Nutall issued his next command to the volunteer. “Please take a moment to inspect this deadly missile. Do you agree that it is a musket ball of solid lead?”
The volunteer agreed it was. At Nutall’s bidding, he scratched his initials on the surface of the ball with Nutall’s own penknife.
Thalia then made the most of the gestures it took to load the rifle—fine black powder, carefully measured out before the performance ever began; then wadding; and finally the rifle ball—then a pantomime of tamping it all down gently with the rod from beneath the rifle barrel. Thalia pretended to present the loaded rifle to their volunteer, but Nutall intervened.
“You have inspected this rifle, sir. You stand witness that the ammunition is properly loaded down to the last grain of gunpowder?”
The volunteer agreed all was as it should be.
Thalia glided across the stage to take her place on a wooden pedestal. She stepped up and struck a queenly pose, holding the enamel cup out in her most regal manner.
“It is my honor to be the man to pull the trigger,” Nutall announced. “Solitaires, Traders, and Sylvestri, prepare to witness a living wonder of the modern world. The Lady of the Lake will use her great powers to capture the rifle ball before it can pierce her breast. Her powers are great, but even the greatest stage magician can suffer a mishap.” In an aside, Nutall added, “If you have children with you, I suggest you cover their eyes.”
Thalia held her cup high.
Nutall called, “My lady, are you ready?”
Thalia, mindful of the circlet she wore, inclined her head only slightly as she nodded her consent.
Nutall commanded the pit orchestra. “Drumroll, please!”
The pit orchestra gave him his cue, a snare drumroll worthy of a firing squad.
Nutall leveled the rifle at Thalia’s breast and paused, as if to savor the moment. He took careful aim at the cup in her hands. In his top hat and evening clothes, his shoe-button- black eyes somehow appeared closer set than usual. He was the very picture of a noble English gentleman, entitled to shoot beauty in any form, whether it wore fur, feathers, or a frock.
The sleight of hand was over. Thalia already held the volunteer’s leaden rifle ball, the one marked with his initials. She had switched it for a duplicate when loading the rifle, palming the scratched original out of sight until it was time for it to reappear when she caught it in her cup.
Now, with nothing more than the force of her personality, Thalia would convince a theaterful of people that they could not trust their own eyes. She took a deep breath of sheer, delighted anticipation. This was the real magic. Traders might Trade. Sylvestri might work wonders with a forest. But no one but a stage magician could show people what it looks like to violate the laws of physics.
Thalia could smell the excitement of the audience. She knew what that meant. The stirring sight of Thalia held at gunpoint, valiant and vulnerable, spoke to something dark inside the watchers. This might be the night the trick failed. This might be the night they saw a woman shot down before them.
Thalia kept her eyes on the muzzle of the rifle Nutall held. She didn’t have to look at Nutall. Her entire attention was focused on directing her audience.
The drumroll broke off as Nutall lowered the rifle. Intent on some imaginary flaw in the sight, he inspected the gun while the crowd stirred, speculation fanned hotter by the delay.
Of all the tricks in stage magic, the Bullet Catch was the most dangerous. There was always the chance someone in the audience might join in with a firearm of their own. The spell Thalia wove with her manner and gestures, the spell Nutall wove with his voice, these were all the protection she had from such mischance.
When the drumroll resumed, Thalia kept her shoulders square and her head high. Here it comes. Make it look good. With the greatest possible delicacy, Thalia widened her eyes and flared her nostrils, permitting a flash of fear to show in her expression.
Nutall aimed the rifle again, this time with confidence, and squeezed the trigger.
The gunshot rang out; the audience gasped. Thalia mimed something striking her cup with terrific force, jerking as if her knees had tried to buckle, maintaining her balance on the pedestal with great difficulty. As Thalia’s balance changed, she made the pass that slid the volunteer’s rifle ball into the cup. She let her expression soften, fear vanquished by triumph, but did not permit herself to smile. The pit orchestra’s triumphant fanfare was short but perfectly timed.
Thalia held the cup high as she let the rifle ball roll around the interior. Smiling only slightly, she stepped down from the pedestal to permit their volunteer to peer into the so-called Holy Grail. Even though he’d been in on the act from the first moment, still he registered wonderment.
Yes, that was the mark he’d made. Yes, that was the rifle ball he’d handled. Yes, the Lady of the Lake had caught the bullet in midair. It should have struck her in the breast. The man gazed at Thalia in awe.
Thalia stepped away before the man’s admiration of her bosom crossed the line of good taste. This was vaudeville, after all, decent entertainment suitable for the whole family. Burlesque had no business at a respectable joint like the Majestic.
Thalia moved smoothly from one side of the stage to the other, offering the cup to the audience’s view. She made the bullet slide and rattle as she turned the cup.
Thalia knew to the split second when the applause peaked. Milking the audience was for performers who earned far less applause. She took her curtain call, sharing the ovation with Nutall, who bowed as she curtseyed. She made her stately way into the wings just before the closing curtain would have swept her off anyway.
No one over the age of six honestly believed Thalia had caught the bullet in the cup. But no one in the audience could tell exactly how the trick had been done. The pageantry that Thalia and Nutall had given them was easier to believe than the laws of physics. In that place between what the audience knew and what it tried to guess, that was where Thalia made her living. That was her magic. That was her power.
The Bullet Catch was just a trick. The danger, however, was completely real.
Copyright © Caroline Stevermer 2020
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