Here is a short story that I'm using as the "background" for a Play-by-Post Pulp Adventure RPG that my friend is starting. The sucker is still in the draft stage and probably has typos and words eleded. Overlook those for the time being as I continue to edit.
"No More Prestige" - A Short by the Rev.
Smoky spirals hung in the air over a pair hunched shoulders sitting at the bar. For minutes at a time those shoulders refused to move, except to assist a sleeved right arm raise a shot of Dewars. Larry the bartender—too busy polishing the rocks glass in his hand—intentionally avoided eye-contact with those shoulders, his only patron on this dwindling Tuesday night.
The Larry couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Why here? Slicked black hair, waxed-and-thin mustache, pin-striped three piece with collar and cuffs undone: he could be down at Rick’s listening to that new fella on the Jazz trumpet, tap his foot, take the dejected slouch out of his back. No music here; just the buzz of dim bulbs. No background conversations or muffled arguments; just the squeak of the rag and the glass. Must’ve taken a market hit or had his gal walk out on ‘im. The gentleman tapped the counter a fifth time and Larry sighed. The polished glass clunked softly, gave a droll hum to the rush of Scotch, and slid into the gentleman’s waiting hand.
A soft bell-tinkle from the front door was soon followed by deliberate steps at a quick pace. The polished shoes responsible for those steps paused for a moment at the coat rack, discarded a damp overcoat, and made a beeline for the pair of slumped shoulders who were still in the process of pausing, slouching, and raising whisky. “Ya know, Willie, it’s not really a dive if you’re the only one sittin here.” The polished shoes mounted a nearby barstool. Larry moved to reach for another glass, but a smile and wave of the hand assured him that it wouldn’t be necessary. Not yet anyway. “I just don’t get why you keep comin to a place like this mopin after every show!” The shoes ignored Larry’s loud snort and huffy exit. “Tonight was a total blowout and we’re booked solid for the next two weeks!”
“Come off it Harold. You know I still need time to think.” Willie furtively rubbed at his left sleeve; the movement of the cuff exposed the pattern of a raised, reddish scar newly healed, and Harold shuddered slightly as he glanced down.
“Hey, hey now, Willie, I didn’t mean it that way. But how can I play manager to one of the most successful illusionists this side of Chicago when he’s MIA five nights of the week imbibing the city’s underbelly.”
Huh. The “city’s underbelly.” Harold was so good with words but perpetually blind to his own ironies. Willie rebuttoned his left sleeve, soaking condensation from his right fingertips into the fabric. Five years ago it would have been sickening amounts of champagne, rubbing shoulders with old money at Oxford. Graduate studies, hmph…that really helped me move up in the world didn’t it.
After a pained glare, their only eye contact since Harold’s entrance, Willie returned to his glass. “Do you think she gets claustrophobic in there?” he mused in a mechanically flat tone. “What do you think goes through her head when the saw starts pushing back and…” Willie trailed off, slumping down even further.
“I was hoping to tell you while your spirits were better…” Harold stretched the phrase out. He wasn’t a completely heartless bastard; he knew Willie was still traumatized. “The police reports came in today. One of the assailants is already behind bars.”
“…And how many more does that leave? A dozen? Half a dozen?”
“They say they are working on it!”
“How hard? You know with the mob scare most of the departments can’t spare anyone. But ‘one of Chicago’s greatest illusionists,’ and only ONE of his captors found after three weeks of searching!’” Of course, Willie was a master of irony. He knew the Chicago police departments were never going to find his kidnappers. He also knew he hardly qualified as a “great” in Chicago’s magician world. Country bumkin turned Oxford scholar turned $5-club magician. Real dreamy American escalator.
Harold stayed silent for some minutes. Newspaper headlines ran unabated through his mind. “Houdini Hoodwinked,” “Magician Gone Missing, Trapdoors Empty,” “Kidnapping Hits Illusion Industry Hard.” Two months ago Willie had been performing at a local club, the first sold-out gig Harold had been able to arrange for some time. Everything went smoothly: Jeanette was flawless as the new assistant/sawn lady, none of Willie’s trick jackets malfunctioned, even the rabbit had stopped chewing holes through the top hat. So when the power in the building suddenly cut off and was followed by the sound of running and multiple crashes, Harold just thought his most mystical employee had added some new finale to the routine. When the room became eerily silent and the lights did not turn back on, Harold could not even imagine the scene that awaited him: a stage in ruins, a torn pinstriped jacket, and no Willie in sight. The police came, investigated, questioned, but no Willie was found that night. No Willie was found even that week. No, not for another month did Willie finally resurface, lying unkempt and in rags in and abandoned building in Cleveland. Cleveland! How the hell did he get to Cleveland! For days Willie rambled incoherently at the hospital about abduction, black robes, and sharp knives, unintelligible rituals to dragon-demons. Miraculously, though, he had sustained no serious injuries save a massive scar on his left forearm, still bleeding the night he was admitted. The scar had apparently healed, but Willie was still clearly overwhelmed. Night terrors. Cold sweats. Claustrophobia. Nor would he talk with anyone about the experience, if he really did remember anything that happened.
“Look, Willie, I know you are still processing and all, still recovering, but you aren’t going to be able to drink this away. And you can’t just stop performing! You’re a hit!”
“I’m only a hit because of your posters and America’s obsession for another Houdini. It’s smoke and mirrors, Harold. Even before the…” He paused for another sip of Dewars. “…even before the ‘month’ my hands were shaky and unconvincing.” A new wave of ennui overcame Willie’s voice. "All I do is make insignificant things disappear.” As he said this, Willie lethargically reached for his compatriot’s face, eliciting an instinctive jerk backward. With a twist of his fingers, the magician produced a small pencil from behind the other's ear. Seizing a square napkin, the pencil began scribbling furiously under the faint halo of a smile.
Harold recomposed himself, pausing once again as if deciding how best to continue the conversation. “So Jeanette’s been a nice addition to the team.”
“Jeanette’s tolerable.” Willie refused to look up. “Better than Sara. But she’s still like me: talentless and trapped in a box.” The scribbles continued.
“So why stay here!” Harold forgot himself and his composure. “I’m sure Oxford would love to take you and your drop-out ass back. What was your average? Spectacular? World-changing?”
Sarcasm…so Harold was good at sarcasm.
“I was bored. Just like I’m bored now. With you. With ‘magic.’ With Chicago.”
“So let’s make it un-boring! Come up with a new trick. I’ve talked with Micky down the street; he can get us Cheryl the Stupendous’ playbook. We can bring back that displacement act where you become Jeane…” Harold stopped short. The crick in Willie’s neck told him that his magician was much more intent on the finished product on his napkin than in anything being spoken just then. And Harold too was slightly taken aback. All over the front, the napkin had queer hatch markings and indecipherable etchings. Willie began to trace them with this finger.
“What is that?”
“The only interesting thing at this table…”
“Come on, you know what I meant.”
“Sumerian script. Reverse transliterated from lost sections of a prophecy of Zohhak.” Willie smirked; he knew Harold had no idea what he was talking about. Oxford hadn’t kicked him out. He had left after learning everything he could from a distinguished linguistics fellow. Four straight years of nothing but Sumerian, Ugartic, Akkadian, Heiroglyphs galore. Enough to make any scholar wet himself. Rich parents were always good for something, even if they didn't think dropping out after four years from "boredom" was a legitimate reason, even if stunts like these caused family estrangements. He’d always have time to repair the breech, once he actually found a cure for this damned, pervasive ennui.
Harold and Willie rose from their stools. The latter reached for his wallet but was stayed by a glance from his manager. “I’ll take this one if you start hitting these dives a little less? K?”
Willie gave a grin and half skipped, half stumbled to the coat rack. He hadn’t brought a coat. Harold joined him and the both left out the bar’s front door, followed by the soft tinkling of the bell behind them. Outside the light rain had stopped, but a mist still clung tightly to the space between earth and sky. Neon glows from the dark early morning cast a green shade along the currently taxi free street. Harold looked left, looked right, and turned toward a Willie who was ambling in some random direction.
“Hey, hey, hey. Look, it’s late and I still have the “Thin Moon” booked for tomorrow night. Why don’t you go get some rest? After the show we can talk about you taking a break for a week or so to ‘figure things out,’ hmmm?” Willie was only half paying attention—thanks to Dewars—but nodded anyway. The trinkets and bobbles at 37th and Ford could keep him occupied after a good night’s sleep. Besides, as much as he ragged Harold, he really did think Jeanette was a nice choice; he’d be happy to see her tomorrow night, even in the context of this life of inane trickery. “Alright, I’ll walk you back to the shop.” Harold’s grip was firm on Willie’s right shoulder, quite firm. But the magician took little notice. He was enjoying the neon mist, letting the coolness refresh his face and ward off sleep until he could land on the pillow in his 2nd floor apartment. Maybe tonight the dreams wouldn’t come back. Dreams of being confined in a small cell, dreams of rope burns on his wrists, dreams of furious shouting in Akkadian. Actually, the only shouting voice he recognized in those dreams was his own, a reminder that his Akkadian accent needed a little work. But enough…
Willie recognized his magic shop from blocks away and always greeted the front door with the same quirky phrase. Harold rolled his eyes. If the manager had had his way, “Open Sesame” would have closed years ago so that Willie could be an exclusive stage magician. Naturally, Willie had refused. He had no interest in being tied to the fickle interests of a crowd for either his income or his sanity. “Open Sesame” was as much a refuge for him and his odd collections—on the 2nd floor—as it was for fledgling illusionists in this part of town. Willie made a beeline for the front door but was quickly stopped short by Harold.
“No no. I’ll get it.” With an awkward run, Harold approached the door and fiddled with something in his pocket. Did Harold have keys to this place? It was late and Willie really was not quite sure. The door opened. Willie walked in.
Silence was thick in the shop’s foyer. Odd since the cuckoo clock behind the desk was old and rickety. Willie searched with hand and shuffling foot for the light string but tripped over something knobbly and jointed on the ground. The coat rack? He hadn’t left the coat rack on the floor. What happened next was a complete blur. All the lights in the shop came on simultaneously. In the daze of sudden brightness, two burly hands forcibly grabbed Willie’s pinstripes and shoved him up against a shelf of knocked-over finger guillotines. When the stars subsided, the magician found himself face to “face” with a robed and hooded figure. Actually, half a dozen hooded figures strewn throughout his ransacked shop. Crystal balls lay shattered on the floor; playing cards fell haphazardly in all places. A plastic bust of Houdini himself collapsed cockeyed along a middle row of jumbled "magic" books.
“I hope you plan on cleaning this up,” Willie spat. The hooded figure was stoic, immovable except for a tightening around Willie’s arms.
Two of the robed figures parted. Harold stepped forward haltingly, spectacles askew, wispy hair standing straight up. “I’m sorry Willie. I really am. They found me two days ago. Said they’d do my wife in, bankrupt my career. I’m so sorry, Wil…”
“Oh Shut Up!” Another voice emerged from one of the hoods. “We have him now; your family is safe. Git!” Harold, with a last hesitant glance, bolted out the door.
“Well, well, well. Willie the Wonderful, back in our clutches? Still not making any better decisions for your acquaintances, I see. Still getting a lot of satisfaction from parlor tricks and aces? You left us once? Now twice? Come on, Willie, you can’t just up and abandon the fraternity. What would the master say?”
“The damned master won’t say anything as long as I keep refusing, you archaic scum,” Willie retorted with not a little enthusiasm. Sure his life was in serious danger...again, but this was exciting. “My answer was no in England, my answer was no in Cleveland, and my answer is still no. Now leave my shop before I put down more of your pawns.” The threat to the robed man was not idle. He had escaped twice before. He would do it again.
The robed person took a step forward. “You took the icon. Did you think we would simply let you go? You took the mark. Did you think we could give you up?” At the mention of the mark, Willie’s forearm scar pulsed in excruciating pain; he could still feel the tear of the ritual knives and hear the drone of acolyte chants. The hooded figure continued “…all the power, all the magic we offer and you stay here in this trinket shop!” The figure strode over to the counter and picked up a Chinese finger trap and put it on. “This…this is five minutes of distraction. But this…” Suddenly the finger trap burst into flames after a succession of inaudible phrases; the fire left neither scar nor ash on the speaker. “This magic is worth pursuing.” Another short pause and the figure strode back toward Willie pressed up against the shelves. “And this is your last chance to finish Zohhak’s ritual. Return to the fraternity, take an innocent’s life, or your name will be erased from the ledger.” In this moment, Willie was certain that he had never heard any word uttered with more malice than "erased."
Willie glanced toward the nearby shelf. Perfect. Within hand’s reach was trick desk-bell. “Ok, Darion, ok. You, the Fraternity, the master, you win.” He scrunched his face into the picture of resignation. "Let me down, I’ll undo my sleeve, and we can finish the ritual.” Willie’s word’s bled sincerity. Why wouldn’t they? His job was to lie to crowds. The figure pinning him to the shelves loosened up, and the pinstriped magician reacted with lightning speed. Letting out a jumbled mutter, he slammed his right hand onto the desk-bell, fell to his knees, and clenched both hands to his ears. An aural shockwave burst from the bell, shattering nearby glass. The unprotected ears of the black-robed figures were soon assaulted by the peeling sound of something like a 50-foot gong, the force of which sent all of them reeling, rupturing eardrums. In a moment, Willie was on his feet, leaping over prone figures, dashing for the stairs. The stunning spell would only last a few precious moments.
Once on the second floor, he ducked hastily into the first room on the right. By the bedpost was a knapsack. He flipped open the side pocket to reveal an obsidian, serpentine statue. The Icon. Good. Palming the statuette, he slipped the bag over his shoulders and emerged back into the hallway, only to be greeted by the noise of stirring bodies below. Into the spare room. Willie hastily locked the door and fished around in his jacket pocket. Chalk. I need chalk. He produced the white utensil and began furiously tracing a 6-foot rectangle on the wall, scribbling phrases, patterns, and hieroglyphs as he went. He could hear boots on the landing. He dropped the chalk and dove into his back pocket. Napkin. With his right finger he traced the name of a city above his chalk “mantle” and began humming a long-forgotten tune. A pound on the spare-room door. Willie gripped the Icon tight in his left hand; his scar shone bright orange under his sleeve. Winding up, he slammed his right palm into the middle of the rectangle, sending chalk dust flying into the air.
The spare room door crashed open under the weight of a robed shoulder. Six figures entered the tiny room. A tiny piece of chalk lay on the floor next to a crumpled and shredded napkin. The nearby wall was a mess of smeared chalk and the vague outline of a gentleman with an upraised arm. Willie was gone.
“Damn. Again?!?” The leader of the robed figures sent his own fist flying at his nearby lackey. “I told you! Check his pockets the next time you secure him. We need that icon. I’ll start making the calls…We strike him in daylight next time; he won’t be able to use his magic when the sun is up...
Smoky spirals hung in the air over a pair hunched shoulders sitting at the bar. For minutes at a time those shoulders refused to move, except to assist a sleeved right arm raise a shot of Dewars. As if noticing for the first time, the hand attached to that arm brushed chalk-dust from the lapel of a pinstriped jacket. New York City is much nicer than Chicago. Maybe in a couple of days I'll telegram Harold and tell him I'm in Boston. Took the quick train.
Yeah. Willie was good at sarcasm too.