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JCP News - Kindle Edition

Issue 49 - January 15, 2012

CONTENTS

JCP News on Kindle

Introduction

Prestidigital Press

Channeling Morpheus Week

PsyCop News

Blogging Shennanegans

Winners

Jordan's Fiction

Magic Mansion

JCP NEWS ON KINDLE

Attention, Kindle Owners!

I experimented with a Kindle-optimized version of the newsletter last month, and then forgot to include code in it that would allow me to see if it was even being used. D'oh! So I'll do another one this month and track whether it's worth the extra effort or not.

(You're reading the Kindle version now! The success of links to external sites varies so I've removed the ones that don't work well. The links I've left in this version of the newsletter lead to the Kindle store because those work the best.)

INTRODUCTION

Happy January!

It seems like people either love New Years resolutions or they hate them. The resolution-haters are tired of the same old intentions falling apart like they've done every year before, and having a new reason to feel crappy about themselves.

I'm in the love-it camp (Here's my treadmill with an InDesign training video playing on it...I started this resolution early.) I love New Years Day because it's the symbolic beginning of a new phase in my life. It's time to take stock and appreciate where I've been, and plan where I'd like to go from here.

resolution: treadmill

My ambitious goal for 2012 is to focus on my internal compass this year rather than allowing the negative opinion of others to derail me. And I realize it might take more than a year. It might take the rest of my lifetime. But I'd rather start and get partway than to allow people who don't have my best interest in mind to make me doubt myself.

For the resolution-haters out there who don't want to completely dismiss the possibility of making positive changes, I propose the following tweaks to your mindset:

1. call it something else - if "resolution" fills you with disgust and represents "failure" and "yet another reason to be down on myself," re-name it something that's more hopeful, or at least neutral. "Getting more exercise consistently is my topic of focus" is less of a failure setup than "I resolve to lose 50 lbs."

2. don't be so all-or-nothing - small changes make big differences if you can forget about them and allow them to add up. Let's say you want to write more. If you wrote an additional 300 words per day (even starting from zero) you'd end up with an additional chapter a week or a novel a year. You don't need to rearrange your whole schedule, start getting up two hours earlier, quit watching TV and disown all your friends to write 300 words, either. It could take you as little as 15 minutes

3. gentle reminders - Google Calendar (multi-platform) and iCal (Mac) have pop-up alerts. I make a deal with myself to leave the pop-up there on my monitor, annoying me, until I've done the task it's prompting me to do. If your task is a small enough chunk (15 minute exercise, take your vitamin, etc.) then it becomes easier to do it and get it over with than to keep avoiding it. My meditation reminder is blinking at me right now, in fact. Very annoying.

4. start now - if the artificiality of waiting until January 1 annoys you, when you decide there's a change you'd like to make, start now! Or start within a week, if you feel you need to gear up for it. I had a goal to increase my daily wordcount and I got going with it in November rather than waiting for January 1 to roll around, and I'm glad I did! That's how I've been able to bring you such big installments of Magic Mansion!

Until next month, think small, and think do-able!

Jordan

P.S. - high five, I did my treadmill 30 minutes today.

PRESTIDIGITAL PRESS

50 Excruciating Mazes

My maze books are now available at Amazon and B&N! Find free samples of the various maze types at Prestidigital Press website.

It would really help me out if you clicked the tags on these books so they appeared more readily in Amazon searches.If you've bought a copy, I'd love it if you left a good review!

What are Tags?

Tags look like this!

Go to 50 Excruciating Mazes

Go to 50 Odious Over-and-Under Mazes

CHANNELING MORPHEUS WEEK

Channeling Morpheus week kicks off at Brief Encounters Reviews tomorrow, 1/16/12! Come chat about these 2011 re-releases and gear up for the second half of the re-released series coming in 2012! Win a full set of the re-vamped ebooks, read brand new reviews (dueling reviewers, Wild Bill vs. Michael!) and catch an in-depth JCP interview.

Go to Brief Encounters

http://briefencountersreviews.com

Channeling Morpheus 1-5

Channeling Morpheus Bundle

Channeling Morpheus #1-5 are now available in a bundle at JCP Books for only $13.45. Save 10%! (Note, the JCP Books shopping cart doesn't work directly on a Kindle because of Kindle browser limitations, visit from your computer)

 

PSYCOP NEWS

Inquiring readers want to know! By request, I diagramed the dorm room at PsyTrain and the cannery on my LiveJournal. (Click image to go to LJ post)
cannery diagram Dorm room diagram

http://jordan-c-price.livejournal.com/170205.html

http://jordan-c-price.livejournal.com/169884.html

PsyCop Bundle

The PsyCop series is now available in a great big bundle at JCP Books for only $29.99 (that's Among the Living free and 10% off the rest!) Find the bundle deal on any PsyCop story page at JCP Books. (Note, the JCP Books shopping cart doesn't work directly on a Kindle because of Kindle browser limitations, visit from your computer)

 

BLOGGING SHENNANEGANS

I don't think of myself as a poster-child for self publishing. It was just the best option I had at the time, and I've been doing it a lot longer than many authors, since 2007. It's not for everybody. It's a lot of work. And many authors are better off going with publishers so they can focus on the one key element that no one else can do for them: writing the story.

That said, the theme of self-publishing cropped up a lot this month. (Note, while the following links worked on my Kindle, it wasn't very easy to read LJ on it.)

Post:
The old is new again - the nuts and bolts of releasing second electroic editions, guest post on Clare London's LJ

Post:
Self-published does not mean unedited - authors are perfectly capable of hiring an editor

Post:
Thinking about success and clarifying my vision for how to follow my internal compass. What makes a story successful?

Post:
And it's not all serious stuff...here's one about the biodegradable wood cat litter I use.

 

WINNERS

Ta-Da!

The following readers won ebooks of their choice for opening their newsletters!

Julie for opening Rebirth quick link

Gloria for opening December's JCP News

 

JORDAN'S FICTION AT AMAZON.COM

(This month's Magic Mansion installment follows!)

PSYCOP
1 Among the Living
2 Criss Cross
3 Body & Soul
4 Secrets
5 Camp Hell
6 GhosTV
Striking Sparks
Many Happy Returns

CHANNELING MORPHEUS
1 Payback
2 Vertigo
3 Manikin
4 Tainted
5 Rebirth

PETIT MORTS
1 Hue, Tint and Shade
2 Slings and Arrows
3 Moolah and Moonshine
4 Other People's Weddings
5 Spanish Fly Guy
6 Pretty Ugly
7 Sort of Stranger than Fiction
8 One Less Stiff at the Funeral
9 Critic's Choice
10 Wishink Well
11 Happily Neverafter
12 London Eye
13 Spirits and Second Chances
14 Just Desserts
15 Loose Change
16 Media Naranja (Other Half)
17 Immortal Coil

STANDALONE
Betweentimes
Body Art
Fire Thief
Kindred Spirits
Sleepwalker
Starlight
Sympathy
The Serpent in the Garden
The Voice
Verdant
Zero Hour: A Dystopian Adventure

 

MAGIC MANSION

Magic Mansion Cover

I'd love it if you told your friends about Magic Mansion! It's free...and there's VOTING!

Please spread the word and link to it in your blog, Twitter, FB, etc. or post about it to any of your groups.

Feedback

Some readers were disappointed in last month's NSFW tag. Really? You'd want your boss reading over your shoulder about how hard Ricardo thinks he's going to "ahem"? You've got a more liberal workplace than I've ever had. :)

(Note: just in case your co-workers feel the sudden need to see what's on your Kindle, be aware this month's installment also has NSFW content.)

 

Chapter 26

PRODUCER'S WARNING

 


Though the previous night’s farewell dinner had been congenial enough, it followed on the heels of a shoot so long it had drained everyone giddy. That morning’s breakfast felt depressingly sober to John in comparison. Faye, who Jia had immediately embraced as a potential ally, was now the team member who needed to be voted out of the mansion to ensure Jia would stay. Faye had betrayed her winning team, and was now poised for elimination. And Kevin had simply drained a protein shake in two swallows and stormed away in the direction of the gym.

Strains of laughter emanated from the small parlor where the Gold Team congregated over coffee and bagels. John considered joining them. After all, it wasn’t like his presence was any comfort to Faye and Jia. And yet…did he really want to announce his lack of support by blowing off his teammates like Kevin had? No. Better to stay with the Red Team. Dismal as it might be.

High heels on parquet cut the thick silence as the producer Marlene crossed the ballroom. Red Team observed her approach in silence. “Where’s your fearless leader?”

“The gym,” Jia said. It sounded like a snarl.

“How are the three of you holding up?” Marlene asked. “Do you need anything? Aspirin? Self-tanner? A fresh pair of socks?”

“I don’t know,” Faye said. “Do we? I thought one of us was going home.”

“Spare me the melodrama, princess. It’s not as if all twelve of you were going to win the competition. If you don’t need a supply-run….” Faye, Jia and John shook their heads. Marlene planted her hands on her hips and considered them for a moment, and said, “Okay, then. We’re taping the announcement at eleven and going right into the first challenge. There’ll be running involved, so it’s low heels and active-wear outfits.”

John expected her to leave and touch base with the Gold Team, but instead she plucked his sleeve and said, “Come take a walk, Professor.”

John kept Marlene in his peripheral vision down the hall and out into the yard, but he didn’t have a clue what it was she needed to tell him that couldn’t be said in front of his teammates. Unless she wanted a specific reaction out of him once the eliminated player was announced. He supposed he could manage that.

A dry wind played over the loose strands of Marlene’s messy up-do as she turned to face John. She hooked stray hairs out of the corner of her mouth, looked him in the eye, and said, “So this thing between you and Ricardo.”

Inside, John groaned as everything came crashing down. But he didn’t allow it to reach his face. He stared at Marlene unblinkingly until she saw he wasn’t going to react, and she went on.

“I get it,” she said. “Do you believe me?”

John narrowed his eyes.

“Reality shows are brutal,” she said. “With regular TV, game shows or sitcoms or dramas, there’s a point at which the camera shuts off. Not here. And, as a culture, I think we value our privacy—probably more than we know, since aside from extreme circumstances like hospitals or prison, most of us never need to experience life in a fishbowl. Because of that…” she wrapped her too-thin arms around herself and gave herself a squeeze… “you bond.”

John sighed.

“I know it’s hard,” Marlene said. “I know. But pretty soon we’ll be in the final four…and then one final big spectacle of a challenge…and it’s done. You take your trip to Vegas, you schmooze with Copperfield’s guys, you ride the fame wagon as far as it’ll take you, and you and Ricardo can see if you find each other anywhere near as fascinating out there in the real world. Don’t blow it now by getting caught with your pants down. Because if you do—”

“Where did you tape us together?”

“Sonofa—there’s more than one possibility? The prop room, John. There were night-vision cameras in the prop room. I deleted the footage before it went to editing, but let’s face it, there are twenty-four hours in my day just like everyone else’s, and in that time we shoot about two hundred hours’ worth of footage. I can’t screen it all. And frankly, I shouldn’t need to.”

“I understand.”

“If you don’t want to get lynched, stop pulling the rope out of your sleeve and handing it to the mob.”

“No, it’s…it was only last night.”

Marlene looked at him hard. “You’re sure?”

Was he? John’s time in the Mansion and the lengthy shoots were beginning to take their toll. “I think so.”

“Oh, hell.” Marlene shook her head. “You think some of the shit they put you through now is humiliating? Try adding a score. You could be out taking one of your lost-in-thought strolls around the estate—yeah, they’ve taped you doing that—add some dopey music to it, and you come across like you’re on the brink of senility. Or how about some clever editing cuts? Juxtapose a shot of you staring at Ricardo all goo-goo-eyed with one of him curling his lip at the sight of Kevin Kazan. Only it’ll look like you’re the one who turns him off, a dirty old letch pestering him with unwelcome advances. Ricardo is the audience’s darling. If you care about him as much as you say you do…don’t blow it for him.”

While John was delighted to hear that Ricardo was faring well with viewers…. “And going public about a relationship with another man would compromise that? Come on, Marlene. We’re both out. And he’s hardly butch.”

She shook her head. “People see what they want to see—and then they gossip about it on the message boards. There’s a whole thread about how and where he should propose to Sue.”

Of course, Marlene was right. Only a few more challenges, and then he and Ricardo would be absolutely free to do as they pleased. Unless Ricardo won, and that win had strings attached. 

Unless Marlene was right about their bond being volatile, and outside of the Mansion, their chemistry would fizzle.

John couldn’t say what the future would hold, but for now, he could certainly wait a few more days to put the Mansion behind him. He was about to tell Marlene as much and thank her for her warning, when she added, “Neither of you have anything about your personal lives online, so there isn’t any dirt for the casual fan to dig up. And Ricardo might not be particularly masculine, Professor, but you are. I think you should consider feigning an interest in Jia so the powers that be won’t have any reason to read into your longing looks.”

Marlene fussed with her thin cardigan in a finicky gesture eerily like Rose Topaz…and as vividly as if it had just happened that very day, he heard his mother’s voice, sharp and incisive, seething up out of his long-forgotten memories.

What you reading? I never give you this. What you care about Chamorro for? You born in California. You American, Johnny. American. You go around and tell the other kids you Chamorro? You think that make you a big shot? Huh? You special? You different? You stupid, Johnny, that what you are. It no good to be different. It only make people hate you.

Every spiteful accusation was accompanied by a page torn from the book…a library book. Later, John’s stepfather had quietly slipped him two dollars and fifty cents, which covered the cost of having it replaced. But once John had mumbled the excuse about his nonexistent dog eating it and handed over the fee, he’d been too ashamed to show his face in that library again.

The desire to acquiesce to Marlene’s wishes evaporated. 

“I appreciate your concern,” John told her, “but I’m too set in my ways to duck back into the closet. And I respect Jia. She deserves better.”

Marlene didn’t blow up. She simply shrugged. She didn’t have as much personally at stake as Rose had. “Out and proud. Well, good for you, Professor. I guess at the end of the day, you’re the one you’ve got to live with.”

“But it shouldn’t reflect on Ricardo. If he’s the viewers’ favorite…” dare he read into what Marlene was saying? That Ricardo was poised to win? “Don’t let my personal decisions stand in his way.”

___

Eight magicians gathered in the yard. The wind was still high and dry, and Iain had set a few crewmen with leaf blowers to flush out debris from the perimeter of the location to minimize the potential of a wayward leaf or candy bar wrapper flying into a shot. Ricardo was wearing another one of his clingy, sparkly outfits. John had only allowed himself a glance. But the glance was enough to test his newfound resolve to keep his eyes on the prize.

The prize (for John) being the chance to distract Kevin Kazan so Ricardo could take the win.

Hopefully Marlene hadn’t been exaggerating about Ricardo’s chances. It appeared she’d been correct so far about the physical nature of the upcoming challenge. Huge circus props were arranged the length of the back lawn, too many to cover with a tarp for a dramatic reveal. It was the type of setup an animal trainer might use—platforms and hoops and a giant ball. But given that the magicians hadn’t even been allowed to use power tools, it was unlikely they’d be coaxing any big cats through the performance. Or even house cats, for that matter.

At one end of each course was a pegboard full of pegs. The other, a fiberglass tiger with a roaring, open mouth.

No, there wouldn’t be any real animals. Just the magicians. And whatever ridiculous task the producers had dreamt up.

The lighting director selected the best spot to have the contestants stand while the sound men miked Monty. Gold Team was pointing and whispering, trying to work out what the challenge might be. John might break the ice with Jia and Faye since he liked them well enough, but they were both wound up tight with the knowledge that one of them was going home.

And, John realized, he knew which teammate that would be…if Marlene had been steering him right, anyway. Because Marlene wouldn’t have suggested he make romantic overtures toward someone who was leaving.

Interesting.

Once the futzing and positioning and throat-clearing was complete, cameras rolled, and Monty donned his on-camera smile and said, “Greetings, Gold Team. Red Team. As you know, circuses are home to many types of entertainers: clowns and acrobats, jugglers and side shows. Another staple beneath the big top is, of course, the magician—and many of you should feel right at home. Welcome, Magicians, to Circus Week.”

The closest John had come to performing in a circus was the county fair. And that was a standard close-up coin and rope act. Judging by the unenthused looks on the faces of the rest of his team, none of them possessed circus experience, either. Not that it would matter. The stunts’ themes were usually tacked-on, flimsy at best.

Although if any juggling were to be involved…John allowed himself a momentary glimpse of Ricardo, who would surely come out ahead in that case. Ricardo had his arm around Sue, who was whispering in his ear. Ah. Yes. The golden couple.

John supposed their closeness could be presented as romantic, even without any clever edits. 

He looked away before his own interest could be filmed, and edited into anything it was not. John had no doubt they could dig up some jealousy music readily enough.

“Many great magicians,” Monty said, “use animals in their acts, creatures as harmless as rabbits and doves, as common as trained horses or dogs, and as exotic as elephants and lions. The animal you’ll be training for this stunt is a Bengal tiger.”

“Get some closeups of the fiberglass tigers when we’re through here,” Iain told an assistant, who jotted it on a clipboard.

Monty paused to give the editors somewhere to cut, then went on. “Training is achieved through patience and repetition, modeling the behavior you wish the animal to perform, and then rewarding him with plenty of treats. Today, each team will ‘train’ their tiger.

“First, you’ll model the behavior by running the course yourself. Jump from platform to platform, through the flaming hoop, and roll the ball across the white line.”

The three round platforms were close enough for an easy jump, the hoop’s “flames” were yellow mylar streamers, and the ball looked to be a red spray-painted yoga ball with a few gold stars stenciled on.

“Next, secure your tiger’s reward, and run back as quickly as you can to ‘feed’ your tiger. The treats are waiting for you inside the pegboard at the far end of the course. Each treat looks the same from this side, but when you pull it from its slot, its ‘flavor’ will be revealed. Green pegs are veggies—worth one point. White pegs are grains—worth two. And brown pegs are meat—worth three whole points. Once you’ve pulled your peg, run back to your tiger as quickly as you can with its treat.”

John glanced at the red-decorated course, and then at the pegboard on the far end. Brown?

Several pegs answered. Yes, yes, yes.

Very good.

“As for the repetition—you’ll do it in the form of a relay race. Only one player at a time may run the team’s course, and at the end of five minutes, the team who feeds the most points to their tiger will win a critical advantage in the next elimination challenge. So be quick, and take as many trips to the pegboard as you can.”

John considered the pegs again. Brown, brown, brown. Yes.

Monty said, “And…one more thing. You’ll be pulling the treats from their pegboard stash and carrying them back to the tigers…in your mouths.”

Faye gave a quiet grunt of disgust. Kevin sniffed.

“After all,” Monty said brightly, “what better way to bond? Unfortunately, not all the magicians present will have the chance to train these fine beasts. The votes are in from the last elimination challenge. One magician on the Gold Team, and one magician on the Red Team…will be going home.”

Monty turned to the Gold Team. “Math Wizard, Muriel Broom, please step forward.” Gold Team gave its ubiquitous group hug, and then the two older members of the team presented themselves on a piece of tape stuck to the grass. “Bev, you might be going home today. Have you got anything to say about your time in the Mansion?”

“Oh, I, uh…. Nobody told me to prepare a….”

Iain made a “keep going” motion.

Muriel whispered encouragement to Bev, who sighed and shrugged, and then said, “Magic Mansion has been quite an experience, Monty. I’ve come a lot farther than I ever thought I might—me, a fifty-nine year old trigonometry teacher. I’ve had some incredible experiences, and I’ve made a lot of good friends.”

“That you have, Bev. And what about you, Muriel?”

“It’s been a wild ride! Who would’ve ever thought I’d be sleeping in a mansion with a camera crew following me around all day? I’ve crossed at least four things off my bucket list in the past couple of weeks. But if it’s my time to go—no biggie. I’ve been itching to spend some quality time with my boyfriend…if you know what I mean.”

Iain went a bit green.

Monty turned to the Red Team. “Jia Lee, Amazing Faye, please step forward.”

In a sudden burst of compassion, John patted Faye on the shoulder. She shot a slightly confused look back over her shoulder as she stepped up to her tape mark.

“Jia,” Monty said, “if this is your last day in the Mansion, what have you got to say?”

“I’m a fierce competitor, Monty, and I gave every challenge my best shot. I was also a team player. I have no regrets.”

Team player? Whose expense was that dig meant to be…ah. Faye was turning redder than her hair. John had assumed they were allies. But perhaps alliances could only take the magicians so far.

“Amazing Faye? Any final words?”

“I want to win, Monty—and anyone who tells you anything different is lying through their teeth. We’re not here to have fun and make friends. This is a game, and we’re all playing it to win. Every last one of us. Red Team, Gold Team, it doesn’t make any difference. I am here to be the last Magician standing, and the color of my medallion doesn’t change that.”

“Strong words, Faye. Unfortunately…you will not be the last Magician standing. You have been voted out of the mansion. And you’ll be going…home.”

It seemed, thus far, that Marlene had been telling John the truth.


Chapter 27

TIGER TRAINER CHALLENGE

Faye tore off her Red Team medallion and flung it to the ground in what, John assumed, was a melodramatic display designed to get the best screen time out of her few remaining seconds. But then she turned and said to Jia, “I’m soooo disappointed I won’t be running around with a mouthful of painted pegs. Make sure the cameras get your best angle while you make a big ass out of yourself.”

Jia crossed her arms coolly and said, “Have a nice trip…home.”

As Faye stalked off the set, Iain followed, begging her to go say goodbye to Kevin. But he would be as likely to stop a speeding freight train. “Oh well,” he told his assistant. “See if we can shoot a private goodbye later, once she’s calmed down. Okay, Monty, go ahead.”

“Gold Team, I’m sorry to say, the player who has been eliminated…is Muriel.”

Another group hug ensued…a very long hug. Long enough that John expected Iain to yell something charming like, “Break it up, we don’t have all day.”

Except that he didn’t. He just watched, while the handhelds circled. And when Muriel finally pulled free from the embrace of her team, she was smiling—but her teammates were all in tears. Ricardo, crying freely. Bev with her glasses off, wiping them on the hem of her blouse. Sue with mascara making twin tracks down her cheeks.

“I love you guys,” Muriel said, walking backwards with the dry wind whipping her gypsy skirts and her long gray hair, blowing them all elaborate kisses. “Remember—Gold Team rules! Now go kick some ass!”

Once Muriel left, the contestants were situated by their fake tigers while a pair of stylists repaired the damage to Sue’s makeup. Kevin, Jia and John studied the course. John rehearsed the moves in his mind: jump, jump, jump. The hoop would be the trickiest part for him, because of his height. But he was also a fast runner. He’d do well on the straightaway return trip. “A’ight,” Kevin said, “I’ll go first, y’all can watch, and plan your strategy.”

Jia shrugged. John wondered if by helping the Red Team win, he was stacking the deck in favor of keeping himself around, or making it more likely that Ricardo would get voted off in the next elimination. He didn’t know. But he’d promised Ricardo he would give it his all. And so he set his sights on a brown peg, and he said, “I’ll go next. I’m fast.”

An assistant came around with clear mouthguards for all of them to wear, two individual pieces, top and bottom. John bit them into place. They tasted terrible. 

“How’m I supposed to grab a peg with this hunka plastic in my mouth?” Kevin complained to Iain.

“Take it up with Marlene. She’s worried you klutzes will knock your teeth out.”

“What difference does it make?” Jia said, muffled through the plastic. “We’re all wearing them. Everyone will have trouble. Not just you.”

Not to be outdone by a girl, Kevin pressed his mouthguards in, crossed his arms, and waited for the signal. An assistant brought Monty an airhorn, which he raised above his head, blasted, and cried, “And you’re off!”

Sue started for the Gold Team. She raced through the course, athletic and strong, while Ricardo and Bev cheered her on.

John, however, kept his eye on his teammate as Kevin navigated the obstacles. He wasn’t a very surefooted jumper, though his hours of inclined crunches had given him a certain amount of physical control. Three jumps across the platforms, through the hoop, roll the ball, and a head-first lunge into the pegboard. Even from where John stood twenty yards away, he saw the flash of white Kevin held between his mouthguards. He’d found a two-point peg.

So, however, had Sue.

Jia elbowed John in the ribs, and whispered, “Cheer.”

John supposed he should. He clapped his hands and called out, “Come on, let’s go, almost there!” While Jia yelled, “Whooo!”

The moment Kevin spat his white peg into the tiger’s mouth, John was off.

The Gold Team had sent Ricardo second, and Ricardo was already at the hoop. Apparently Sue was quite the runner. John didn’t waste any time watching Ricardo—he focused only on himself. Three jumps—there, easy. Through the hoop, with mylar streamers tickling his cheeks. Roll the ball…and then, the pegs.

Brown?

Yes.

He grasped a brown peg in his teeth and ran back toward his tiger, fast enough to begin closing the gap between the Gold and Red Teams. He spat his peg into the tiger’s mouth, and then Jia took off.

Jia was small, but she was fast and agile. The jumps were no problem, and she made it through the hoop much faster than either Kevin or John. Her opponent, Bev…was not quite so dexterous. And that was putting it kindly.

It appeared that Bev was afraid to make the short jump between the platforms, despite the desperate “you can do it” cheers of her teammates. She moved between them with large, cautious steps instead, and rather than jumping through the hoop, she climbed through it one foot at a time.

Jia was already back to the Red Team’s tiger by the time Bev reached the pegboard. Kevin took off.

Gasping for breath, Jia took out her top mouthguard and said, “I could tell that damn thing was green. I could see it past my nose. If I get another green peg, I’m gonna spit it out and take another one.”

“They didn’t say we could do that.” John cautioned.

“They didn’t say we couldn’t.”

John didn’t like the risk. “Don’t give them a reason to disqualify us.”

“There’s no rule against it.” Jia scowled at the obstacle course. “And to do that whole circuit for just one damn point? I don’t think so.”

Kevin was running back with a one-point green peg in his mouth. John told Jia, “Don’t risk it,” and focused hard on the jump to the first platform. He was ahead of Ricardo now—Bev’s slowness had cost the Gold Team. Three jumps, through the hoop, roll the ball…and dare he take another brown? There were fewer brown pegs than the others…but not so few that it would be terribly suspicious of John to take a second brown. He seized the three-point peg from the top row with his teeth. That left one in place lower down on the board for Jia. It was tempting to simply point it out to her to keep her from spitting out pegs and possibly costing the Red Team a potential penalty.

But since John wouldn’t be able to explain how he’d come by the information, he supposed he would need to let the cards fall where they may.

As soon as he spat his peg into the tiger’s mouth, Jia was off, and Ricardo, who’d been neck and neck before with John, was only now turning away from the Gold Team pegboard. He had a brown three-point peg in his teeth. He raced back as Jia leapt through her hoop and bit a peg from the Red Team’s board. 

And spat it out.

“Crazy bitch,” Kevin muttered, through his mouthguard. “What she doin’?”

Jia spat another, and another, and finally settled on the fourth peg she’d chosen. She turned to run back, and John saw she’d decided to keep a two-point white.

John eyed Iain on the sidelines, a cellphone on each ear in a heated discussion with his unseen superiors. Evidently the producers weren’t the only ones who knew how to deliver a twist.

Jia returned and Kevin was off yet again as the timer ticked past the midway point. Over on Gold Team, Ricardo spat his brown peg into the tiger’s mouth, then looked up to watch Kevin bang through the hoop, while on his own team, Bev struggled across the platforms. Just as Kevin lunged for the pegs, a dry wind kicked up and engulfed him in dust. He doubled over, knuckling at his contact lenses, and Iain paused in his multi-phone conversation. “You need a medic?”

Kevin straightened up and blinked away tears, and then shook his head and barked out, “I’m good.” But the momentary lapse had allowed Bev to catch up to him. The hairs on the back of John’s neck prickled, and he turned to see Ricardo watching Kevin’s struggle with a self-satisfied smile.

At least this slip-up wasn’t as obvious as the mylar dove. Though calling it a slip-up was probably quite a stretch.

Kevin grasped a peg and turned toward his team. The peg was green. Bev began her laborious jog back to her tiger with a two-point white peg in her mouth.

“If they disqualify your pegs,” John told Jia, “then that’s it. We lose.”

“And how is that different from every other challenge?”

She had a point.

Bev was no sprinter, and despite the momentary reprieve the dust cloud had given the Gold Team, Kevin outpaced her easily. John glanced over at Ricardo, who was giving Sue a pep talk as she readied herself for her third circuit. Ricardo caught John’s eye and gave a slight shrug—busted. It was time for John to run again before he could come up with a response.

Jump, jump, jump, clear the hoop, roll the ball. Sue had grasped a peg and was on her way back, running hard, when suddenly she went sprawling. Monty’s voice, saying, “Sue is down!” rose over the collective indrawn breath of everyone who’d seen what happened, but Iain called out, “keep going,” and so John left Sue to the care of the medics, stepped up to the pegboard and located yet another brown. How suspicious would it look if he took a third brown peg? Maybe he should settle for green this time…but without knowing whether Jia’s pegs would count or not, could he risk losing yet another challenge? In John’s pause, Sue must have made it back to her starting line, and the sound of Ricardo leaping from platform to platform with unerring accuracy and speed rang through the yard.

John grasped a brown peg and ran back toward the tiger.

“That’s nine points Professor Topaz scored for Red Team!” Monty cried. So much for flying under the radar.

Jia was hopping the platforms as Kevin readied himself in case he might be able to make one more circuit—though the timer now had less than thirty seconds to go. Jia made it to the pegboard, spat out a green peg, and kept the second peg she’d chosen. John saw it was a brown.

Kevin looked back over his shoulder at John. His eyes were red. “Wanna tell me where the other browns are?”

John stared at him blankly.

“No? You sure? ’Cos you don’t wanna mess wit’ me, old man.”

“It’s random,” John said calmly. But Kevin didn’t buy it. He gave a derisive scoff, then set off for yet another leap through the course as Jia brought home a brown.

Ricardo came in with another white, and Bev set off for another circuit, but as Kevin grabbed another peg and pounded back toward the Red Team’s start line for all he was worth, she’d barely struggled through the hoop.  Kevin’s hard-won peg was a low-scoring green. But he gave John a pointed look as he spat it into the tiger’s maw anyway.

The airhorn sounded to end the challenge. Bev spat the green peg she’d been carrying out on the lawn, threw her arms in the air, and slowed to a walk. “Good try, Bev,” Ricardo shouted. “Good try.”

“Everybody take five,” Iain called out. “Medic, go have a look at Sue’s knee. Jia—you’re a royal pain in my ass, you know that, don’t you?”

Jia tossed her hair.

Kevin dropped his spitty mouthguard into an assistant’s bucket, and said, “The two of you should leave the strategy to me.”

“And you should leave the comedy to Chip Challenge,” Jia said. “Your precious strategy is a joke. It hasn’t panned out once.”

John relieved himself of his mouthguards, and kept an eye on his opponents as Jia and Kevin squabbled. Gold Team was huddled together, hanging on Bev’s every word. No doubt she’d pieced together each team’s score.

And no doubt it all came down to Jia being disqualified or not.

Stylists came around to blot Jia’s brow and tousle John’s hair more attractively, and an aide brought Kevin some eye drops. The remaining contestants—only six of them now—were lined up opposite the scoreboard, three men in back, three women in front. John couldn’t say anything to Ricardo, even though they were standing side by side. Because the cameras were on him—and he was just as close to Kevin.

Once the crew cleared the set, Iain said, “Go ahead.”

“It was a very close race,” Monty said. “Let’s take a look at how each team fared. Gold Team—”

“Cut,” Iain said. “Marlene doesn’t like the way you pronounced ‘fared.’ Do over.”

“Faired,” Monty said, missing the R completely. “Faired.”

“Replace it with ‘did.’”

“Got it.”

“Go ahead.”

“It was a very close race. Let’s take a look at how each team did. Math Wizard Bev, you struggled through the circuit. If you had been able to complete your last run, you would have netted your team a total of four points. However, the clock ran out on you, and your final score was three.”

Bev nodded grimly. Monty wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know.

“Jia Lee, the luck of the draw was not on your side. The first peg you selected was green. And so you decided to take matters into your own hands…or, should I say, teeth. What was your strategy?”

“I could see the color of the peg once I pulled it out, Monty. And I wasn’t going to settle for another green.”

“Jia, with your unconventional methods, despite the poor start, you ended up scoring six points for the Red Team.”

Jia crossed her arms and nodded.

“Ricardo the Magnificent, you seemed right at home running that course. And you also didn’t end up with a single green peg. Your first run netted you a two-point white, your second run a coveted brown, and your third run another white. Your final tally is seven points.”

In John’s peripheral vision, Ricardo nodded. John didn’t dare turn to look and gauge his expression. Who knew how an on-camera “look” of any sort could be construed?

“Sue, you took quite a spill there.” Monty’s voice softened. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Monty. I’m tougher than I look.”

“Indeed. You picked yourself up and brought home one white peg and two browns, scoring a total of eight points for your team. Well done.”

Gold Team clapped. Kevin shook his head, fuming.

“Kevin Kazan, you were the only magician to bring four pegs back for your team. An impressive effort. Unfortunately, two of those pegs…were green. Your final score…is six.”

Kevin stared fixedly at the scoreboard and didn’t move a muscle. Neither Jia nor John commended him on his four complete runs. Jia, because she loathed him. John, because he was busy wondering how he’d gotten so carried away with the game that he’d given in to the temptation of pulling three brown pegs. Not one other contestant had drawn three pegs of the same color. Not one.

“And, of course, our big winner tonight with nine points is…Professor Topaz, our oldest remaining contestant at sixty-three years of age. Not only were you incredibly lucky with three brown pegs, Professor, but you sailed through that circuit faster than any other contestant. Our producers tell me you were an accomplished surfer in your day.”

As John admonished himself not only for choosing all three-point pegs, but for drawing the envy of every other player by also beating them in time, every handheld turned to him. And he realized he was expected to give a response. “Yes,” he said, searching for banter, and failing. “I was.”

There was a long silence, and Iain made a “keep going” motion.

John said, “I’ve always been fond of the ocean.”

When Monty saw John had nothing more to add, he said, “Well, you’ve certainly kept yourself in great shape and given all the younger players a run for their money. You, Professor Topaz, have proven yourself a force to be reckoned with.” Meant as a compliment, no doubt, but the other players didn’t need him to keep fanning the flames of envy. “That’s nine points to the Red Team, thanks to you.” Would he ever stop hammering it home? “That means Red Team has won their very first challenge. Well done, Professor. Well done, Red Team.” 

John did his best to appear satisfied when, in fact, all he wanted to do was groan. He inclined his head gravely.

The final score read:

RED TEAM - 21 points

Professor Topaz: 3 − 3 − 3 (Total 9)

Kevin Kazan: 2 − 1 − 2 − 1 (Total 6)

Jia Lee: 1 − 2 − 3 (Total 6)


GOLD TEAM - 18 points

Sue Wozniak: 2 − 3 − 3 (Total 8)

Ricardo the Magnificent: 2 − 3 − 2 (Total 7)

Math Wizard: 1 − 2 (Total 3)


“Red Team, please step forward.” John, Jia and Kevin separated themselves from the Gold Team. John put his hand on Jia’s shoulder—not so much as a show of support, but because his knees were shaking with more than the fatigue of running the challenge. Jia reached up and placed her hand over the back of his. Kevin crossed his huge arms. “As the winners of the Tiger Trainer Challenge, the Red Team has won the opportunity to make an important strategic decision. This choice will effect the course of the rest of the competition, so use it wisely.”

Jia squeezed John’s fingers. John tried to steady himself with a slow breath.

“Jia…Professor…Kevin…you may continue this challenge as the Red Team…or you may dissolve the teams entirely, and proceed as individual competitors. Consider your decision carefully, because once the team colors come off, there’s no going back.”

The end of Red Team would mean John would be free to ally with whomever he chose.

The end of Red Team would mean he could take Kevin out.

But the end of Red Team would also mean there’d be nowhere to hide. John would need to play hard to stay in the game. Even though that meant drawing the caustic envy of the other players, and worse, all the other players’ supporters, onto himself.

 Before John could decide whether he would need to use reverse psychology on Kevin to make him dissolve the team, Kevin took two steps forward and said, “Monty, it’s time to see what everyone here got. I say bring it. I ain’t scared of y’all. Y’all want a piece of me? Come and get it. Fuck Gold Team. Fuck Red Team. ’Cos I’m gonna win dis thing. Me. Kevin Kazan.”

The set went deathly quiet, except for the sound of the wind rustling the palms. Iain lowered his phone, and said, “That’s fine. Go ahead.”

“Red Team,” Monty said cheerfully, “or should I say, ex-Red Team…how do you feel about Kevin making that decision without consulting you?”

Jia let go of John’s hand, tipped up her chin, and said, “It wouldn’t be the first time, Monty. There was a reason Red Team lost almost every challenge. It carried its deadweight right at the helm. I say good riddance to the Red Team. I’m better off without it.”

“Strong words. And what about you, Professor?”

As diplomatically as he could, John said, “Now, it’s every man…and woman…for themselves. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Iain called out, “Let’s get a shot of you throwing your medallions in a pile over there on that green patch of grass.” The magicians arranged themselves in a semicircle and did so. The red-ribboned medallions were pitched in first…but Sue, Bev and Ricardo couldn’t seem to let go of theirs. Sue sniffled back a tear. And then Bev stifled a sob. Soon Ricardo was hugging them both and kissing their hair, while Jia tapped her foot and Kevin Kazan rolled his eyes. Cameras circled them for a minute or two, but finally Iain said, “Come on, kids, chill out. Nobody died here. You’ll get to keep the damn medals.”

Sue shot him a disgusted look, but then she obediently stepped forward and dropped her gold-ribboned medallion into the pile. Bev pitched hers forward in an awkward underhanded toss. And Ricardo stood with his medallion in his hand one final moment, gazing at it thoughtfully. He kissed it, and dropped it onto the pile.

Yes, indeed, John thought. Every man for himself.


Chapter 28

SPECIAL SURPRISE


“Red Team is gone,” Monty told the magicians, “and Gold Team is gone, and instead the strongest half of the contestants remain—three women, and three men, each of you with a very good chance of making it into the Final Four. The former Red Team won the privilege of deciding your fates…for all of you. But in doing so, they’ve not only done away with the teams…because, you see, there’s a twist.”

Just when John had assumed things couldn’t get any worse. A few more days, he told himself. Hang in there a few more days.

“The power to decide whether to play in teams or singles wasn’t the only prize up for grabs in this challenge. There’s a second reward at stake.”

Monty turned to the scoreboard, and immediately, all the letters and numbers began scrolling and flashing into random characters as the board rearranged itself. When the cameras had all the footage they needed, Iain signaled to an offscreen assistant who pressed a single button, and when the lettering unscrambled, the board read as follows:

TIGER TRAINER CHALLENGE

1. Professor Topaz: 3 − 3 − 3 (Total 9)

2. Sue Wozniak: 2 − 3 − 3 (Total 8)

3. Ricardo the Magnificent: 2 − 3 − 2 (Total 7)

4. Kevin Kazan: 2 − 1 − 2 − 1 (Total 6)

5. Jia Lee: 1 − 2 − 3 (Total 6)

6. Math Wizard: 1 − 2 (Total 3)

“Since there are no longer teams, the Magicians who will receive the second prize are the top three scorers: Ricardo, Sue, and the Professor. Kevin, it looks like your own strategy has served you poorly yet again.”

“I don’t care ‘bout no dumb-assed challenge reward,” Kevin said belligerently. “I’m here to take the top prize. Everything else is weak. Think you can distract me with some stupid dinner, some shopping spree? Nuh-uh. I’m better off finishing this competition myself.”

“All right, Magicians,” Monty said, “you’ve worked hard today. Go get some rest. Tomorrow, the top three will get their special surprise…and then you’ll all compete in an elimination challenge.”

John walked back to the mansion numbly, losing himself among crew so he didn’t need to figure out who among the contestants he should or shouldn’t talk to, and what he should or shouldn’t say. Though it was awkward when the stylist who usually did his hair fell into step beside him said, “You’re not seriously sixty-three, are you? I’d put you at fifty. If that.”

“Clean living,”  he told her.  And Casey would have laughed himself silly at that, given that they would snort, smoke or swallow whatever their friends put in front of them—though neither of them were enamored enough with the party drugs to take their relationship with them anywhere past a simple flirtation. Ah, Casey. You’d have plenty to tease me about over this fine mess.

Too easy, babe. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. You give me scads of ammunition by taking everything so damn seriously. 

“Good genetics,” the stylist said. “Men inherit their hair from their maternal grandfathers.” 

John had never known any of his grandparents, but he wondered if Rose would have been pleased to hear it. You could never tell with her. Although she enjoyed a compliment, she considered Guam a dirty word, and every reference to it was taboo. He veered away from the stylist, planted himself at the bar, and set about helping himself to the very good scotch, though he supposed he should be careful not to overindulge. He didn’t want to roll into his room stinking drunk and give Kevin a chance to erode his confidence even more.

Or to let Kevin provoke him into revealing a Truth that couldn’t be un-shown.

“There you are.” Marlene parked herself beside John as he swirled the remains of his first drink around the bottom of his glass and did his best to talk himself out of a second. “Somehow I imagined that the guy who crushed the competition and rid himself of Kevin Kazan all in one fell swoop would look a little bit happier. What gives?”

“It’s just nerves,” John said. “The stress of the unknown. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“You should be celebrating the fact that you made it this far and not drowning your sorrows.” She considered her next words for a moment, and the plunged ahead. “Initially, you were picked for the show because we had a race quota to fill. You know how it is. Token black. Token Asian. And those Tongan guys on the last few seasons of Weighty Matters were a big hit among several demographics, so a Pacific Islander was a big score for the Mansion.”

“What are you saying…you picked me because I’m Chamorro?”

“Not me, personally. The executive producers. Plus you’re older, too. And gay—Ricardo hadn’t signed on yet at that point. They wanted to represent a wide range of races and ages and everything else, half women, half men. You, Bev, Jia…quotas. Nobody expected anybody but the young white men to still be standing this far into the game. Well, except Jia—she’s got a pretty good following and a reputation for being a good performer and a smart businesswoman. You, on the other hand, haven’t made any big waves lately in the magic community—and yet, here you are. Which just goes to prove that you never can tell who’s going to crumble under the pressure and the competition, and who’s going to thrive.” She screwed the top back onto the scotch, and said, “Believe me, Professor. You’re thriving. But tomorrow, you’ll need your strength. So cut yourself some slack and figure out how to go to your happy place tonight. Without this.”

John allowed himself a small smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

Marlene held his gaze for a long moment, then reached into the pocket of her black cardigan, and pulled out a key. She dangled it in front of John.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Since you’re not on the Red Team anymore, no sense in you bunking with Kevin.”

Frankly, that was the best thing John had heard all day…but he’d never had access to a room that locked. It didn’t make sense. Not with the dorm-style arrangements and the players and staff going in and out. While Marlene was friendly enough with him, he sensed a test of some sort…especially right on the heels of her warning that he keep his hands to himself when it came to Ricardo. “And what have I done to merit a lock?”

“Only four dorm rooms were set up—the other big bedrooms had problems that couldn’t be patched up with a few coats of paint, but the servants’ quarters are still in pretty good shape. I’ve had your stuff—and Bev’s—moved down there so that each player is truly on their own now. But it’s pretty far off the beaten track. We wouldn’t want any interns stealing your underwear and selling them on eBay. So…they’re locked.”

Most definitely a test. Probably another night-vision camera.

Still, John was eager to tuck himself into bed without waiting for Kevin Kazan to accuse him of some sort of nonsense in the middle of the night in that ridiculous, trumped-up ghetto affectation of his.

Marlene led John past the crowded kitchen, through the craft service staff, into a plain, sturdy hallway with several small bedrooms branching off either side. Two rooms across the hall from one another had a paper star taped to the door: one had Mrs. Austin written on it in marker, and the other, Mr. Topaz.

Mrs. Austin? It hadn’t occurred to John that Bev might be married. Then again, how well did he really know anyone in the Mansion?

“We’re sending dinner to your rooms tonight. Chicken, fish or veggie?”

“Fish, please.” John supposed he should be glad his meal wouldn’t consist of painted pegs.

While he waited for dinner, he checked his things. Everything appeared to be intact—even his underwear. His new room didn’t have much to explore. There was a narrow twin bed that smelled of mothballs, a plain bar on which to hang his wardrobe, and a nightstand. At least there was a small window, and it looked into an overgrown part of the yard that John could potentially pretend was anywhere. The solitude was the thing he welcomed the most. And he hadn’t allowed himself to fully acknowledge how much he’d been missing it.

The mattress squeaked as John lay down with his dog-eared Hemingway, but despite the bed’s discomfort, he felt more at home, more relaxed, than he had since he’d first arrived. He read, but only perfunctorily. Mostly he listened to the sounds of the house: the dry wind outside, the rap of the pneumatic nail gun in the yard, the clatter of gear being shifted, the rise and fall of crew’s voices down the hall. He was half-asleep by the time he realized that the rapping had changed, and it was no longer the construction crew outside, but someone tapping on his own door. Marlene, no doubt, making sure he hadn’t gone back for the scotch. Or maybe his new neighbor Bev, hoping to form an alliance with him. 

What he really hoped was that it was Ricardo. Despite Marlene’s cautions. And despite the fact that he was doing his best to pretend he didn’t. He opened the door, and yes—it was Ricardo…who slammed the door behind him and threw his arms around John’s neck, silencing the protest John was about to make with a lingering kiss.

Though John regretted it, he was the one to turn his mouth aside, and say, “Wait.”

“My tongue’s a lot better today—almost good as new.”

“Not that. I’m sure we’re being taped.”

“There’s no camera in here. I asked a lighting tech. He said there wasn’t.”

John touched Ricardo’s hair. It was free from styling products, soft and natural. Without makeup, in his jeans and his T-shirt, this would be how he would look at home, just him and John. The anticipation was a delicious pang in John’s chest. It seemed as if he’d forgotten how to look forward to something…until now. “We can’t be sure. And whatever we do in these next few days, these last few challenges, could affect us for the rest of our careers.”

“Why would anyone care about us?” 

“You never know. The less gossip we provide people with, the more we can keep the focus where it needs to be. On our talent.”

“Talent?” Ricardo scoffed. “This show doesn’t even have anything to do with magic. If there was one thing I agreed with Faye about, it’s that. Magic Mansion stunts aren’t about anything but dumb luck.”

“Like the grit that happened to blow itself into Kevin’s eyes.”

Ricardo couldn’t quite suppress a smile. “You could tell, huh?”

“Ricardo…” John stroked his cheek. “Be careful. When you’re obvious about using True magic…it doesn’t end well.”

“It’s fine.” Ricardo rose onto his toes and coaxed another kiss from John. His lips were too sweet to resist—but thankfully he showed mercy and ended the kiss before it went anywhere John would regret. “No one will ever know.”

“Humor me. You’ve got looks, and talent, and style. Enough to win on those qualities alone.”

“You really think I could win?”

John gazed hard into Ricardo’s eyes. “I know you can.”

“I dunno.” Ricardo slipped his arms around John’s waist and trailed his fingertips down the seat of John’s pants. “I’ve got some pretty stiff competition.” A few more of those caresses and that would be true…literally. Ricardo released John and took a step back. “But I’ve been thinking about what you said. If it ever does come down to you against me, I want you to go full-out and give it everything you’ve got. If it turns out I lose to you—that would be just as satisfying to me as winning the big prize myself.”

___

The matter of whether or not his room had come with a hidden camera or two did plague John, just on principle. After breakfast the next morning, he returned to his new room and scoured the molding and the wallpaper. Plaster? Yes. Wood? Yes. Metal? Yes. The Mansion showed him the impression of dozens of tiny nails holding the lathe to the studs. 

Camera? The house didn’t answer. 

Fine, what was a camera made of? John thought. Circuitry? Glass? Plastic? No, the Mansion claimed. Nothing like that.

It was somewhat reassuring, he supposed, but revealing something with his True magic was certainly not foolproof. Not if he couldn’t figure out the right questions to ask.

An assistant brought John his breakfast and told him to be in the lobby by eleven in his formalwear. John did his best not to read into it…though he dreaded that the formalwear had something to do with the “special surprise” he’d won with the conspicuous use of his talent. The other magicians joined him in the lobby, looking sparkly or sleek. Except Bev, who seemed to have dressed for a PTA meeting in a tweed suit and sensible shoes.

A black stretch limo with Magic Mansion decals on the doors awaited them at the foot of the stairs—a tight squeeze for all six of them plus a handheld. But at least the cameraman was willing to sit next to Kevin. “What do you think your big surprise is going to be?” Bev asked Sue and Ricardo…because while they were no longer wearing their Gold Team medallions, they still functioned as a single unit.

“I dunno,” Ricardo said. “Do you think we’ll finally get to perform?”

Kevin’s overly loud reply startled them all. “Why don’t y’all ask the Professor? He seem to know a lot o’ things.”

Everyone went quiet. Jia narrowed her eyes as if she might be ready to launch into yet another squabble…but instead she opted to watch and wait.

When no one took his bait, Kevin went on as if someone had indeed prompted him. “Like the brown pegs. Seem like he knew were all o’ them were. Don’t it?”

“Oh, shut up,” Jia spat. “You’re just jealous.”

“I got nothin’ to be jealous about. I made four runs by myself. None o’ y’all made four runs. Only reason I didn’t win…was ’cos I didn’t have Miss Marlene whispering sweet nothings in my ear.”

“What are you accusing him of, exactly?” Bev demanded. “Cheating? Or sleeping with the producer?”

The limo pulled up in front of a theatre before she could make Kevin explain himself. He just crossed his arms and smiled knowingly as the moods of all the magicians took a steep plummet.

John knew he should have gone for at least one white peg. Now look where his poor judgement had gotten him.

When the limo doors opened onto a red carpet, there was no time left for should-haves and what-ifs. Dozens of Magic Mansion fans were gathered, many in red or gold, since they wouldn’t know the teams had been dispensed with until the prior day’s taping had been edited and aired. A few young Asian women appeared to be cosplaying Jia Lee in Geisha makeup, dragon gowns and haughty sneers. Someone toward the back was waving a hand-lettered sign that read Bev equals Winner! And a pair of awkward pre-teen girls in front wore custom jerseys with Team Ricardo stretched across their training bras.

Iain, already in place with a bullhorn, said, “There’ll be time for autographs after the show. For now, just act excited and cheer as each contestant walks from the limo to the building. Magicians, one at a time.”

John watched each of his competitors disappear through the limo door to bursts of raucous cheering. Of everyone, Ricardo did seem to inspire the most adulation. When John unfolded himself from the confines of the limo and donned his top hat, the crowd actually went silent for a moment, staring up at him as if they were startled by his physical presence…but then someone called out, “Professor!” and a cheer rang up for John.

He nodded to the fans as he strode regally up the red carpet—particularly the youngest of them. He’d always connected well with children who hadn’t yet had their sense of wonder stolen from them. Though he did note, as he stepped into the theatre, that the crowd cheered just as enthusiastically for Kevin.


Chapter 29

BLAST FROM THE PAST


John waited stage right for the lighting techs to finish their tweaks and the audience to be seated. He peeked out at the theatre, a new 120-seater on Le Brea, red velvet upholstery disappearing behind the fans as they filed in and found their places. Kevin, Jia and Bev were positioned in the front row with a pair of empty seats buffering them from the rest of the crowd, and a handheld parked in front of them to capture their reaction to whatever was about to unfold. Ricardo and Sue were sequestered off-stage. Apparently they were to receive their “surprises” separately.

Unless the surprise was, as Ricardo had guessed, simply an opportunity to perform. John found a gap in the curtains and scanned the audience while a sound man miked him. Not a full house. But almost. Not bad at all for a weekday matinee. It had been at least five years since John had performed in a venue as classy as this. And as Iain cleared the stage and gave the lighting tech a final note, the house lights dimmed, and John found the dread in his heart begin to lift…and eagerness take its place.

Monty stepped out from stage left, followed by a spotlight. Applause rang through the auditorium.

“Welcome, Mansioneers, to a very special taping of Magic Mansion in which you’ll get to know your favorite magicians…a little bit better.”

An assistant told John to hit the mark stage right. John stepped out to a blinding spotlight and a swell of applause. Monty was polished and handsome in the intense stage lighting, and for all that he and John had never spoken more than a few pleasantries over the craft service table, it felt comfortingly familiar to see him in this strange and public context.

“Professor Topaz,” he said, “your career in magic spans the longest of anyone in the Mansion, stretching all the way back to the fifties, when you handled doves for your uncle, Illusionist Glen Forrest.”

The lighting engineer killed the spotlight, and a slide appeared on the wall behind John, twenty-five feet high. It was so oversized, it took him a moment to recognize it—though it was perfectly clear to the audience. It was a shot that had appeared in Hugard’s Magic Monthly in 1958—the halftone huge and grainy at this size. Glenn, Rose, and John in the middle, with Glenn’s too-big top hat sliding over his eyes.

“Your act took a detour when you went off to college…” The slide changed. John in his cap and gown, with hair past his collar and the then-new beard he’d grown so attached to. A draft dodger if ever there was one. “…which led to your stint teaching at Berkley that earned you the name ‘Professor.’”

Two semesters as adjunct faculty in the English and Lit department. Hardly a stellar career.

“But the call of magic ran deep in your veins…and soon it was no longer enough to wow your audiences on weekends and semester breaks.”

The shot of John performing at Marin County Sunflower Fest in a skin-tight long-sleeved T-shirt with hair down to his shoulders flashed onto the wall. Well, it was fashionable then. Where did they get these snapshots, anyway?

“Many magicians take assistants, but you preferred the focus and intimacy of solo performing and close-up illusions.”

The ubiquitous promotional shot John used for most of the eighties covered the wall. Tuxedo, top hat, gloves, and a single coin poised between his fingers. Aside from the ruffles on the tuxedo shirt and the absence of gray streaks in his beard, he looked very much like he did today.

“Although when you were forty-nine, you finally did take on a partner.”

Of course not. John always performed alone.

And then a shot of John and Casey on the beach in Laguna appeared. Shirtless. Laughing. In shell necklaces and horribly dated hair. With their arms around each other—clearly more than just good friends.

“Casey Cornish was known as the Gentleman Magician—quick with a joke and a smile. The complete opposite of the ultra-serious Professor Topaz. But as they say, opposites attract.”

Another shot of them dancing at their neighbor’s wedding, Casey in a white tux and John in black. Slightly drunk, judging by the way they were clinging to one another. Only marginally less intimate than the photo of them feeding each other wedding cake that they would hide when Mrs. Cornish visited.

Someone in the audience gasped. But other than that single indrawn breath, it was quiet enough to hear the whir of the slide projector fan and the backstage murmurs as crew shuffled people around behind the curtains.

Monty said, “Those were some very good years…” 

More photos. A few performances, but more personal shots of Casey and John. The Halloween they had dressed up as each other (John had even shaved for the occasion—their friends went crazy over that). Their fifth anniversary in Maui. The two of them posing with the red convertible Casey had surprised John with when he turned sixty—where they’d christened the front seat. And the minuscule back seat. And the hood.

“…until last year, when your partnership came to a sudden…and tragic…end.” Before the final image shone forth, John knew with cold certainty what it would be. 

Casey’s obituary.

He felt the shape of it as its projected image covered his body—Casey’s last promotional headshot, smiling wide, blond and blue-eyed and devastatingly handsome. And the headline, Beloved Entertainer, “The Gentleman Magician” Casey Cornish, 64.

John’s name hadn’t appeared in the article. A few highlights of Casey’s career, a brief mention of the accident, the fact that he was survived by his mother, Irene Cornish, and donations to cover the expense of the cremation requested in lieu of flowers. What the obituary hadn’t said was that everything Casey had amassed in those sixty-four years of his—including the trip to Maui, the red convertible, and indeed the very townhouse where they lived—had never been paid for. Certainly, Casey had probably intended to settle his tab—someday. But he’d always presumed he had plenty of time to chip away at the debt, since undoubtedly, he would live forever. He was an optimist that way.

Quite the opposite of John.

John was aware, distantly, that the stage lights had come up. But the shock of seeing his life so crassly splayed across the stage and summarized in a few glib sentences had left him completely and utterly sideswiped.

“Professor Topaz?” Monty said quietly.

John forced himself to focus…and only then noticed the tension in Monty’s shoulders, and the fine lines of strain around the eyes. And that he’d clenched his own hands into fists. He took a deep breath and released them. His palms stung where his fingernails had dug in.

“Your friends tell us it’s high time for you to spread your wings and make your big comeback, and they’ve elected one of your oldest and dearest pals to come and wish you well…in person. Your agent, Dick Golding.”

Well. That explained where the photos had come from. Dick would never stop pestering John for that big gay memoir now.

John turned to watch Dick’s appearance stage left, and Monty added “…and your late partner’s mother, Irene!”

But….

John’s mind stalled on the very notion of seeing Casey’s mother—even as she appeared, with her ninety-year-old’s bursitis gait, waddling across the stage toward him on Dick’s arm.

I don’t even know what to call her.

Monty turned to Dick and said, “How does it feel watching the Professor on prime time TV?”

“I always knew he had it in him, Monty. He’s got star quality. Always had it.” He locked eyes with John. “You’re doing great, John. Keep it up. Hang in there.”

“Irene, what do you think Casey would say if he could see Professor Topaz now?”

There was a lag between the question and the answer, as there usually was with Mrs. Cornish. Her hearing was not what it had once been, and it took her a moment to piece together whatever she’d lip-read with the context and come up with an appropriate response. “My son would be dreaming up all the ways he could spend the quarter-million grand prize,” she declared loudly. The audience laughed; they thought she was joking.

Monty thanked them for coming, and then Dick stepped up for a handshake that turned into a hug while the audience applauded. And John supposed he would need to hug Mrs. Cornish too—though when he’d attempted it thirteen years prior, she’d stiffened up so badly he hadn’t tried it since. She felt a lot smaller now—but this time she actually leaned into his embrace and held him for a moment, and patted his back with a few good whomps. “Come by the house when you get a chance,” she said, no doubt thinking that speaking directly in John’s ear negated the fact that she was miked. “The yard looks terrible.”

___

Ricardo wasn’t sure who he thought Dick and Irene were as they waited together in the wings. John’s agent and Casey Cornish’s mother? Wouldn’t have occurred to him in a million years. 

He was too busy trying to wrap his head around the fact that John and Casey had been a couple! Of course Ricardo was familiar with Casey—the Gentleman Magician embodied a kind of dazzling flamboyance another gay magician could hardly miss. On one hand, it seemed as if Ricardo should have figured out John’s passions ran deep. But in his own defense, John was so impenetrable, it took a hand down the front of Ricardo’s pants for the attraction to register. And of course John hadn’t been single all this time just waiting for Ricardo to show up. But before he’d seen the photos, he would have found the notion of Casey and John together totally implausible.

There they were, though. Holding one another. Laughing.

What hit Ricardo the hardest was the knowledge that John’s smiles hadn’t always been mostly sad.

John, Dick and Irene exited stage right as the slide changed to an adorable blonde majorette, and Sue stepped out, dazzling in four-inch heels and a glittery silver gown with a plunging neckline.

“If you’re planning on making a move on her,” a voice behind Ricardo whispered, “think again.”

Ricardo swung around nearly expecting Kevin Kazan…though Kevin was in the front row. Plus the fake ebonics weren’t there. The guy behind him—decidedly Caucasian in his Brooks Brother suit—was most definitely not Kevin. “What are you talking about?” Ricardo said.

“Whoa, just kidding.” The guy shifted a dozen pale yellow roses to his left hand and presented his right for a handshake. “I’m Gary. Sue’s boyfriend.”

Ricardo shook Gary’s hand numbly. He was still reeling from the John-and-Casey revelation.

“You are gay,” Gary said. “Right?”

“What do you—? Yeah. So what?”

Gary wiped his brow in an exaggerated “phew” gesture. “You know how it is with magicians. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

Sue’s slideshow began, though of course, it wouldn’t span nearly as many years as John’s. She was barely twenty-three years old. There she was, adorable in a ladybug costume. And jumping on a trampoline with her sister. And chubby-cheeked and pot-bellied in a pink leotard and ballet shoes.

“Every time your theme song comes on,” Gary said, “I have a good laugh.”

“What?”

“Your theme song. You and Sue.”

“Gold Team had a theme song?”

“No, no, no…when you guys are holding hands or whatever. Lovebird music.”

Sue playing a grand piano at a recital. Sue with a Miss Teen North Dakota sash and rhinestone crown—she actually had been a Midwestern beauty queen. Ricardo had just been wrong about the state. Wow.

“So how’s she doing, really?” Gary said. “What do you think her chances of winning are?”

Did this Gary guy not realize Ricardo was competing for the same prize? “Fine. I guess.”

“Because there’s really no money in magic. Not unless you’re one of the top acts. But the two-hundred-fifty grand would really launch her modeling career.”

All she ever talked about was wanting to take the stage at Magicopolis as more than just an assistant. “She never mentioned modeling to me.”

“Not yet. She needs some work. Shave a little off the nose, some lipo around the waist, and she’d be damn near a perfect ten.”

What? Ricardo turned and took a better look at Gary. How old was he, twenty-five? His hairline was already starting to recede.

Onstage, Monty said, “And now, Sue, your very own cheering section is here to root for you…can you guess who it is?”

Sue smiled widely. “Is it my parents? My sister?”

The moment during which Sue and Monty held eye contact stretched—another of those pauses where a commercial break could be inserted—and then Monty exclaimed, “It’s your boyfriend, Gary.”

Sue’s smile shifted. Even from where he stood, Ricardo saw it go brittle.

Gary didn’t notice. He strode out onto the stage and presented Sue with the bouquet, and said, “Golden flowers, for the leader of the Gold Team.” When she accepted roses, she looked every inch the starlet—how dare that balding douchebag say she needed work? She bent to accept a kiss on the cheek, taller than him in her heels. And she stood with her arm around him and proclaimed, when Monty inquired how she felt, that it was a good thing she’d made such great friends in the Mansion to keep her from getting homesick.

The “happy couple” exited stage right. An assistant told Ricardo to take his place, and Ricardo put on his broadest smile and walked out onto the stage. The audience erupted into applause—not just applause, but a standing ovation. His smile went wider still, genuine now as he sketched a magician’s bow for them, theatrical and good-humored, and the applause swelled even louder, sustained for a moment, and finally ebbed enough for Monty to begin speaking.

“Ricardo the Magnificent—better known then as Ricardo Hart—got his start in the frozen north, in Minneapolis.” The stage lights dimmed, and a shot of kindergartener Ricardo, his cousin Joey from St. Paul, and a skinny, grayish snowman with a decidedly weird look on its face appeared behind them, filling the far wall. 

“Ricardo’s love of show business was apparent early on.” A third-grade Ricardo dressed as Dracula for Halloween replaced the snowman shot. Ricardo stared at the saucy tilt of his head, and deep in his gut, recalled the exhilaration of donning the cape and dabbing on his mother’s lipstick. Even then, clearly, he’d been gay. He never realized his infatuation with men in tuxedos had begun that early.

“But he didn’t always want to be a magician.”

“Yes, I did,” Ricardo said under his breath.

“Ricardo’s first love was sports. A powerful competitive skater, Ricardo placed in the Marshall’s World Cup, took second prize at Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic, and even trained for the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.”

A shot of Ricardo with a mullet and Krista with extreme mall hair in painfully nineties black-and-aqua costumes mugging triumphantly around their Campbell’s trophy filled the stage as the audience murmured. “Krista Franke, his skating partner and high school sweetheart, the recipient of the prestigious McLoraine Figure Skating Scholarship, was the perfect match for Ricardo’s athleticism and flair.”

Another shot of Ricardo and Krista, this time in a spiral sequence, Krista in a catch-foot position and Ricardo in an arabesque. Good form.

“Unfortunately, life had other plans for them. Accepted by different colleges, the pair found the distance between them prevented their Olympic dreams from becoming a reality.”

And the Tom of Finland comic book might’ve had a little something to do with it, too.

“But there was another arena in which Ricardo could put his athletic skills, and his discipline, to work.”

Ricardo smiled and nodded, baffled by the way Monty’s script kept emphasizing what a jock he was.

“Magic.” 

A publicity shot of Ricardo juggling rings in his first and only headlining show appeared. Ricardo’s costume was so clingy you could bounce a quarter off his athletic ass. Someone in the audience wolf-whistled, and then a spate of laughter rippled through the crowd.

“And here he is today, at the height of his career.” A bachelorette party photo with a drunk bridesmaid on either arm appeared. Thank God he was wearing a tux, and not a g-string full of dollar bills. There were certainly enough of those pictures to go around.

“Ricardo, how would you rate your chances of taking Magic Mansion’s top prize?”

Better than he’d ever dared hope. Pretty damn good, in fact…but Ricardo knew better than to gloat. “Hard to say. There’s some tough competition here, but I’ll do my best, Monty.”

“That’s the spirit—the competitive spirit!”

Ricardo didn’t think he’d just said anything particularly competitive.

“And to celebrate, we’ve arranged for someone to be here who’s always fueled that competitive drive!”

The stage lights came up, and curtains parted stage right…framing a dark-haired woman in an elegant black gown and a gold corsage. It wasn’t until she’d walked halfway across the stage that Ricardo realized it was Krista Franke.

Ricardo embraced her, flashing back to all the times he’d lifted her on the ice. It hardly felt real. Monty asked her what she’d been doing—coaching skating, and raising two beautiful girls—and Ricardo stammered out how great she looked, and after a few more lines about who might win the grand prize in Magic Mansion, Monty bid the audience goodbye, the house lights came up, and the cameras turned off.

Iain strode out with a wireless handheld microphone and said, “That’s it, folks, thanks for coming. You can pick up your posters in the lobby—and the Magicians will meet you there for photos and autographs in ten.”

Krista Franke on one side of him and Iain on the other—it was like Ricardo was half in and half out of a dream. “You really do look great,” he told Krista. “All grown up.”

“And you look like you’ve aged about two years in the past twenty,” she said. An assistant directed them backstage, and they made their way toward the dressing room. “It’s kind of weird, actually, watching you on the show. It’s like the only thing that’s changed is your hair. I thought you might look different in person. More made-up. But you don’t.”

Ricardo blotted his forehead, which felt clammy now that the hot spotlight was no longer on him. “The years have been great to you, too. You’re in fabulous shape. Two daughters. Wow.”

“Our oldest, Michelle, is fourteen.”

“Wow.” It was the only response Ricardo could think of. 

“When they flew me out here, she was dying to come. I had to tell her no, she needed to stay in school. She was so devastated she cried until she threw up.”

Ricardo turned to look at Krista to try to figure out what the sudden edge to her voice was all about. “Teenagers,” he said.

“You think I care if she misses a few days of school?”

“I don’t—”

“I couldn’t stand the thought of her fawning over you—because you are all she ever talks about these days. She eats, sleeps, lives and breathes Ricardo the Magnificent.” Krista glared at him while he scrambled to figure out what she expected him to say, and then she turned away and whispered, “Just like I did.”

“Krista….” 

She was stiff when he gathered her into his arms, but eventually she relented, and allowed herself to sag against him. “I told myself I wouldn’t cry.”

“Seriously, don’t. The cameramen can sense it a mile away.” Ricardo waited while she took a few deep breaths to try to stave off the tears, and then he whispered, “I really am sorry about the way it all turned out. You were my best friend. The last thing I wanted was to hurt you.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling myself all these years. That you couldn’t help it. That you didn’t know. That you never intended to hurt me.” She did look up and meet Ricardo’s eyes, then, and fresh tears glittered on her lashes. “And now, here you are, doing the same exact thing to Sue.”

“Hold on—Sue? This is about Sue? Krista, she knows I’m gay—and as far as Gold Team’s concerned, I’m one of ‘the girls.’ I’m crazy about Sue—she’s my best friend in the Mansion. But that’s all she is.”

“Then why are you going along with this whole ladies-man persona? Are they paying you? Did you sign some kind of contract? I figured you’d finally be in touch with who you are—but now you’ll need to keep playing it straight to appease all your…your… fans.”

A handheld wandered in when Ricardo was trying to comfort Krista, and Ricardo snapped, “Just give us a minute.” An assistant followed, and told him he needed to get to the lobby for autographs. It was hard to say whether any amount of explanation would make Krista believe he’d had no idea he was being butched up in post-production. Or, for that matter, whether anyone else would believe it…or they’d simply presume Ricardo didn’t have the integrity to be as open about his true self as John.

“C’mere, Krista,” Ricardo said. “Look up.” He fixed her eye makeup with a few dabs of concealer. Her face had matured, but her eyes were still the same. “I haven’t even seen the show. I hadn’t realized anyone was putting a spin on me. And now that I know, I’m putting an end to it.”

The autograph session wouldn’t have been nearly as uncomfortable if Ricardo hadn’t known about Krista’s fourteen-year-old. But now when a dozen high school girls mobbed Ricardo in the lobby, he found himself baffled by the intensity of their adoration. Unlike Ricardo’s fans, Bev’s came in all ages, from children to retirees. Jia attracted mostly Asian girls dressed like her, and leering men of every race…who would be nearly as happy to pick up a Jia-lookalike as they would be to score with The Dragon Lady (as she was now being called) herself. Sue’s fans were mostly twenty-somethings, both men and women, and Kevin’s fans were mostly overweight males, and a couple of girls with boob jobs and too much makeup. John had the fewest fans gathered around him…although the ones who approached him were in tears.

The staff had told the small crowd to get their posters signed and move along, but teenagers have plenty of practice at being devious when they hide whatever it is they do from their parents. A cluster of girls in gold-sparkle hoodies positioned themselves so that they were blocking the view of Ricardo from the nearest assistant, and the one in front whipped out a shiny pink scrapbook and said, “Can you autograph this instead?”

“Sure.” Ricardo hoped he didn’t screw it up. It looked like a lot of work had gone into it.

The girl fanned it open…and Ricardo saw it was full of photos. Photos of him. Every publicity shot from his website had been printed on glossy photo paper, pasted in, and surrounded with glittery dove and star stickers. The bachelorette party shot where his silk shirt was open to his navel was featured…on at least half the pages.

He hadn’t realized how creepy the adulation of a group of teenage girls might actually feel.

“There’s a good spot,” he said, and signed it quickly so she could get it out of his sight.

Then her girlfriend said, “Can you sign my arm?” and all of them giggled.

Ricardo glanced up at Kevin Kazan. The women flanking him were more the “sign my tits” type. The thought of these kids shedding their acne and awkwardness and braces, and growing into that sort of fan, made it difficult for Ricardo to write his own name. He suggested signing the backs of their hands—which they thought was a stellar idea—and then posed for a photo with his arms around all of them holding up their autographed hands proudly like glittery pink-nailed gang-signals.

It was barely three by the time the Magicians were loaded back into the limo, but Ricardo felt worn out and used up, as if he’d just done back-to-back matinees. The other contestants looked just as beat. Although the handheld had stayed behind and the players were all alone, no one spoke until they pulled in to the Mansion’s circular drive. And then, just before the limo door opened, Jia turned to Kevin and said, “So, genius, you still think the Professor’s sticking it to Marlene?”


 

Chapter 30

AFTERMATH


Marlene scrolled through the writers’ latest brainstorm, nixing the various lame suggestions on what sorts of challenges might be fun for the final four. It would have been easier to have mapped it all out beforehand, but like the contestants themselves, the producers needed to be flexible and think on their toes to make reality TV work.

The trailer door banged open, killing her concentration. “What is it,” she asked Iain, “here to gloat about the look on Ricardo’s face when you paraded his old girlfriend out?”

“So that’s what the two of you do in here.” Definitely not Iain, given the sharp Australian accent. Marlene dropped her iPad and turned. Monty stood in the doorway, hands on hips, looking pissed—and surprisingly threatening for a vapid blond him-bo. “Figures.”

The very last thing Marlene wanted was a big scene. “C’mon, get in here. Close the door behind you.”

Monty slammed the door. “It’s not right, what you did.”

“Let me explain something to you. The contestants’ contracts are nothing like yours. You’re an announcer. You say your lines, and you go enjoy your work visa. What they signed up for was different. Anything goes.”

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. You’re driving down the street and a puppy runs across the road. Which way’re you gonna swerve?”

“Although I doubt you’re willing to let me convince you, I’m being honest when I say these were not random acts of cruelty. We de-villainized the Professor and helped Ricardo into the heartthrob role he was meant to play.”

“Yeah? And what about Sue?”

Ah…so that’s what was eating him. “I seem to recall advising you to wait until she was eliminated…and remember what you told me?”

“This is all a big power trip for you, right?”

“You said, ‘Sue’s a big girl. And there’s nothing here that says we can’t see each other.’ Sound familiar?”

Monty held himself so taut he was shaking, and Marlene prepared herself for a barrage. But after a few careful breaths, he only said, “She’s gonna leave him, you know.”

“Then you have nothing to be upset about.”

Monty probably had a few more angry accusations to hurl, but instead he just shot Marlene his best blue-eyed prettyboy fuck-you glare, and turned toward the door.

“Since you’re here,” Marlene supposed she really shouldn’t give in to the urge to be catty, but she didn’t take very kindly to threats, “I have a note for you. Read all your lines. Seems that you skipped one in your conversation with Professor Topaz, when you were supposed to ask him how seeing his boyfriend’s obituary made him feel.”

“Yeah?” Monty headed out of the trailer, then tossed back over his shoulder, “There must have been something in it I didn’t know how to pronounce.”

___

Funny, what a huge difference a day could make. Yesterday when Ricardo had slipped through the kitchen into the old servant’s quarters, his belly had been aflutter with the giddy prospect of being alone with John. Now it felt as if it was full of lead.

He stared at the paper star with Mr. Topaz written on it for a moment, and considered simply turning back around and soldiering on through the rest of the show…but the thought of doing that made him feel even worse than he already did. And so he knocked.

John answered. He’d hung up his tuxedo jacket and removed his cufflinks, and his bare wrists flashed through the cuff plackets—fodder for Ricardo’s fantasies if ever there was any. But that wasn’t why Ricardo was there.

Tears? No, John was dry-eyed. As somber as it was humanly possible to be? Yes, that. And Ricardo wouldn’t have realized the depth of John’s sorrow were it not for all the shots of him smiling and laughing that had just played across the backdrop of the stage. “Are you okay?” Ricardo asked.

John closed his eyes for a moment, gathered himself, and then opened them again and said, “Actually, it’s a relief.”

“What is? Being outed?”

“And having Casey’s death thrown in my face.”

“How could that possibly be a relief?”

“Now…there’s nothing more they can use against me.”

It was John who initiated the embrace—or tried to. Ricardo was all stiffness and tension. John disengaged, and murmured, “What is it? Are you angry with me?”

“With you?” Ricardo wrapped his arms around his leaden stomach and shook his head. “Meeting you is the only good thing that’s happened to me here.” Scenes from the last few weeks played through his mind like a slide show. “And you know what the crazy part is? I don’t actually know you at all. It’s my own damn fault, too. I fell for my own idea of Professor Topaz—that poster of you with the gloves and the coin and the one eyebrow raised? Oh yeah. I have it hanging on my bedroom wall. In my mind, that was you. Tux, top hat, and that smoldering look like you have X-ray vision—that’s how I imagined you were. All the time. Twenty-four seven.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t you dare apologize. It’s not you. It’s nothing to do with you. Fan-worship isn’t about the star. It’s about the fan, whipping up some completely fabricated image in their mind and then glorying in it and pretending it’s real—but there’s no actual relationship there. It’s totally one-sided. And I think what scares me the most is that I almost let myself be so carried away by the Professor Topaz who lived in my mind…that I would have missed getting to know the real John.”

John reached for Ricardo’s hand, slipped his agile fingers into Ricardo’s grasp, and gently pried Ricardo’s arm away from his body. Ricardo did allow himself to be held now, but his heart was still heavy with disappointment and anger. “They’ve taken Ricardo the Magnificent and run with him,” Ricardo said, “and I don’t even recognize him now. They’ve been doing it for weeks. I had no idea. And I won’t be a part of it anymore.”

John pressed a kiss to Ricardo’s temple. “It’s almost over.”

“No…that’s not good enough. It is over. For me. Whatever the next challenge is—I’m throwing it.”

John tightened his arms around Ricardo. “Even if you did, you wouldn’t be voted off. Ricardo the Magnificent is too popular. Whether you approve of him or not.”

“Then I’ll quit.”

“You signed a contract—and it’s not worth damaging your career for the sake of making a statement now. Once we’re out of the Mansion, you’ll have plenty of chances to tell your side of the story. Everyone will be salivating for an interview. You’ll get your chance to set everything straight.”

“Straight. Right.” They stood together in their awkward embrace while crew bustled in the distance of the Mansion, and finally Ricardo said, “If I got hurt doing a stunt, they’d need to let me out.”

“Don’t say that,” John snapped, flinging Ricardo away to arm’s length and digging his fingers hard into Ricardo’s upper arms—and that X-ray vision look from the Professor Topaz poster blazed forth, far more intense in real life than it could possibly be in a photograph. “Don’t ever say that.”

“But I—”

“Don’t even think it.”

“Oh, hell…I can’t believe I just—”

John backed Ricardo into the wall and pinned him there. “Life…is so precious. Promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I’m sorry. I will.”

John’s mouth found Ricardo’s, more with desperation than with passion. This was Ricardo’s idol—not just a performer named Professor Topaz, but a person, an actual, real man. A man with hopes and dreams, disappointments and fears. A man who’d had a life full of experiences for Ricardo to share and understand. And though it was tempting to not only think “Professor Topaz,” but “Professor Topaz half-undressed from his tuxedo,” as strong hands raked down Ricardo’s sides, when a breath caught as their kiss deepened, mostly what Ricardo thought…was “John.”

John slid the kiss from Ricardo’s lips, whiskers tickling over jaw, and buried his face in the crook of Ricardo’s neck. The sound of breathing filled the room then, as if their lungs sought to find something in the very air to anchor them together. Ricardo wouldn’t have thought he’d be capable of responding to a kiss or a caress—not now, when reality as he knew it had just been stripped bare, and revealed as a trite charade. And yet, John’s hands sliding around his ass, grasping it, working it, John trailing scorching kisses across his throat, now felt like the only reality that was actually worth knowing.

When John’s hands shifted and slipped down Ricardo’s waistband, Ricardo actually moaned. John was relentless in his persuasion. “Don’t use your True magic,” he pleaded against Ricardo’s neck. “Not here. It’s too dangerous.” His hand closed around Ricardo, stroked him to stiffness in a few sure caresses. “I won’t lose you too.”

“John….”

“Promise.”

John slid his thumb over Ricardo’s slit, once, twice, and a spot of wetness welled to slicken the tiny stroke to devastating perfection. “I promise,” Ricardo gasped. John thumbed him again, and a shiver raged through Ricardo’s core. “I swear.”

John’s other hand wrapped around Ricardo’s ass, fingertips prying the cheeks apart, and everything else fell away—the Mansion, the competition, the hideous autograph session and the awkward limo ride afterward and the knowledge that Ricardo was being presented to the world as something he was not—and everything ceased to exist but a fingertip teasing at Ricardo’s hole. Teasing…and making its own promise.

Need blossomed in Ricardo, so strong and pure it washed away the anger and the dismay. It might only be a temporary solution to obliterate the events of the day in an act of passion, but at the moment, that hand, those lips, those fingers, were the only thing that mattered anymore. 

“Please,” he said raggedly. John shifted his grasp on Ricardo’s cock and treated it to a slow, deep stroke…and with his other hand, he pressed he very tip of his finger in.

The need deepened into a desperate ache—as if John’s caresses had not only found the real Ricardo Hart beneath the veneer of Ricardo the Magnificent, but gone deeper still, to a place where names meant nothing, and instead there were only wordless, formless Truths surging together in all their blazing glory.

John flicked his wrist, and Ricardo’s stretchy pants snapped down around his thighs, exposing him in all his throbbing need. And before Ricardo registered what was happening…John knelt before him, and took Ricardo’s cock deep into his hot, wet mouth.

Bliss. 

Someone made a very loud sex sound…and Ricardo realized distantly it must have been him. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but that amazing thing John was doing with his tongue, that sublime flutter while he sucked, and sucked, and sucked, and now his finger was buried to the knuckle and oh my god you have to stop because if you don’t I’m gonna—

“Wait.”

John paused.

“In the bed. Please.”

John stood, towering over Ricardo briefly, then swung him around and lay him down on the narrow bed. Ricardo was helpless to assist as John yanked off his shoes and pulled down his pants. His arms felt numb, like he’d forgotten how to work them, but once he managed to get his own shirt off, he couldn’t stop staring at the bulge now straining at the front of John’s trousers. “Do it all,” he said, because a blowjob really wasn’t enough at this point—and yes, it seemed reckless to tell someone to take him without a condom, but all the rigamarole they’d gone through to get into the Mansion had involved not only vaccinations and physicals, but a totally clean bill of health. It hadn’t actually been “tetanus” Iain was referring to when Ricardo had bled out into the Wand Pond, after all.

John trailed a caress down Ricardo’s belly, smiling his sad smile, and then sat up straight and began unbuttoning his tuxedo shirt. As if he’d just read Ricardo’s mind, he said, “Don’t worry about that. The Truth is more powerful than a condom, anyway.”

“It is?”

“Just…not strong enough to stop a car.” John slipped his shirt off and hung it from the footboard. If this act had been happening anywhere else, Ricardo would have begged him to leave it on—to simply open the front of his trousers and have at it half-tuxedoed. But what they were doing, here and now, was more important than any fantasy, however well-cherished it might be. Once he was shirtless, John stood, watching Ricardo watch him. His body was tall and lean and dusky-skinned. Classic and timeless. And then he eased his slacks open…and revealed his thick, dark cock.

Ricardo arched his back, yearning to feel it sink in—now, finally. For real. He fumbled the lotion from the Magic Mansion welcome basket off the nightstand and squeezed half the tube into his palm. “Hurry,” he said—and he couldn’t have articulated what the rush was all about, just that he needed it—now.

He took John’s cock in hand—so solid—and pumped it in his slick fingers. John closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, and breathed in great, deep gasps. Ricardo spread his legs and guided John there between them, pleading with the tilt of his hips for John to do it. After all this waiting and wanting and hoping, to finally make everything complete.

The entry was bright with pleasure-pain, sparkly as sequins on lamé, and the penetration felt as if it would go on and on and on…but finally, John’s pelvis pressed into the curve where the backs of Ricardo’s thighs met his ass, John’s entire body covering his…and then a pause, so he and Ricardo could bask in that magical moment.

When the bliss ebbed enough for Ricardo to seek more, he flexed his hips and encouraged John to keep going. John planted his elbows in the mattress, pressed their foreheads together, and began the primal grind where their bodies would start to get acquainted. Ricardo’s hands were free to roam, mapping the hills and valley’s of John’s back. Lower still, he paused—top, or switch? John made a small sound of encouragement against Ricardo’s mouth, and Ricardo worked his fingers into the cleft of John’s ass, stroking his taint, teasing his hole, dizzy with the desire to give John as much pleasure as John was giving him.

They moved together, finding their stride, chests pressing, hips clashing. The room was awash with the sound of their desperate breathing, punctuated by the rhythmic creak of the ancient bed. When John slipped a hand between them, a few strokes was all it took to bring Ricardo to the brink, and he clutched John’s ass hard as he peaked—a moment of sure and utter joy, fleeting—and although it couldn’t last forever, profound. His awareness changed once he’d peaked, allowing him to be conscious now of John’s breath huffing against his neck, the sheen of sweat covering them both, the scent of his own seed as their bellies smeared it between them.

He clutched John tightly, urging him deeper, harder, whatever it took to bring him the same sweet release where Ricardo was now basking in the aftermath. With a contented sigh, he wrapped his thighs around John—and something shifted, something very, very good, and John’s breathing grew erratic, his thrusts turned to hard jabs, and finally he stiffened all over, gasped, and shuddered his warm, wet release.

Ricardo could have stayed that way forever, clenched against John, with abs, hips and ass deliciously sore, both of them reeking of wilted hairspray, designer lotion and sex. And for all that John was continually pleading caution, he was content enough to stay that way too—and finally his breathing deepened, his leg twitched once, twice…and Ricardo realized, as he drifted off too, that he’d never thought John would let his guard down enough to actually fall asleep.

Maybe John truly did feel like there were no more twists the Mansion could throw his way.



Chapter 31

BIG TOP CHALLENGE

-DRAMATIC MUSIC-

“Last time, on Magic Mansion, we said goodbye to some special players,”

(Muriel) Remember—Gold Team rules!

(Gold Team) -CRYING-

“And the teams…were dissolved.”

(Kevin) -BLEEP- Gold Team. -BLEEP- Red Team.

(John) Now, it’s every man…and woman…for themselves.

“The three top Magicians won a special prize.”

(Jia) Wooo!

“A visit from their loved ones…”

(Sue, to Monty) It’s a good thing I’ve made such great friends in the Mansion to keep me from getting homesick.

“…that could spell trouble.”

(Gary, to Ricardo) If you’re planning on making a move on her…think again.

(Ricardo, with Krista) Just give us a minute.

“The competition is heating up.”

(Faye) This is a game, and we’re all playing it to win.

(Sue) I’m tougher than I look.

(Faye, privately) -CRYING-

“And soon, someone else…will be going home.” 

(Bev) I’ve come a lot farther than I ever thought I might.

(John) We’ll see how it all plays out.

“I’m your host, Monty Shaw, inviting you to stay tuned. It’s up to you to decide, who will make it to the final four…in Magic Mansion.”


___


Wrenching himself away from the narrow servants’ bed in the cool gray dawn was one of the most difficult things Ricardo had ever done—particularly when he wanted nothing more than to run up to the turret, fling open the window and shout at the top of his lungs that he was falling madly in love with John Topaz.

He’d slept better in John’s arms than he had since he’d arrived, so he was able to shower, hit the treadmill, and duck back into his room before any of the other contestants stirred. He was working off his post-coital giddiness with an extra set of crunches when an assistant brought him a breakfast bagel and told him to be at wardrobe in twenty. 

Today’s costumes were circus-themed. The wardrobe assistant gave Ricardo a few leotards to try on. The white spandex number made Ricardo’s spray tan look amazing. He turned and regarded his profile in the full-length mirror, and said, “Do you have anything…gayer?”

The assistant gave Ricardo her typical doesn’t-miss-a-thing once-over. “Costumes don’t get much gayer than that.”

Ricardo turned to the other side and eyed his butt. “You think?”

“Not without adding chaps…and I’d never hear the end of that. Besides, your package looks great as it is. Chaps would be overkill.”

True.

She wrapped his wrists in tape to complete the acrobat look, then told him to send Professor Topaz in. John murmured, “You’re killing me,” as they passed each other in the hall. Ricardo did his best not to indulge in a happily-gloating smirk.

Sue and Jia were waiting by the fountain, both of them cute as can be. Wardrobe had put Jia in a slinky red snake-charmer ensemble, complete with latex snake, and Sue in pale blue stunt-rider costume with a cowboy hat, high-heeled white cowboy boots and decorative silver spurs. “Holy crap,” Jia said to Ricardo, looking directly at his crotch. “Watch where you point that thing.”

Ricardo and Jia laughed, and it seemed as if Sue would too…until her chin trembled, and she gave a loud sniff. Tears welled in her eyes. Ricardo knelt beside her, took her hand, and said, “Suze? What is it?”

“I can’t stop thinking…about yesterday.”

Neither could Ricardo. But not for the same reason. “Homesick?”

“What? No. Not at all.”

“Okay….” Then Ricardo had no explanation for the tears.

“It’s the boyfriend,” Jia said. “Gotta be. Probably something he said.”

Sue squinched her eyes shut, then nodded. “Gary. His name is Gary.”

“Did he propose to you?” Jia asked.

Sue nodded again.

Maybe they were tears of joy. “And…you said yes?” Ricardo guessed. 

Sue screwed up her face and shook her head no. 

Ricardo supposed they hadn’t actually looked like tears of joy, only that he’d been hoping they were. One thing was for sure. He felt relieved Sue hadn’t accepted that weenie’s proposal. He sat down beside Sue and put his arm around her, and the dam broke. She mashed her forehead to his shoulder, cupped her hand below her eyes to keep from getting mascara on his leotard, and started to weep. “I told him…we’d talk about…it later.”

“Hey, c’mon,” Ricardo said. “We’re gonna be taping a challenge any minute now. Stop making your eyes puffy.”

“He’s right, you know,” Jia said. “And that was smart, what you told that guy. What was he thinking, trying to force you into making a decision like that when you’ve got this competition on your mind? Some people just don’t get it. He probably thought he was doing you a favor. Self-centered dope.”

Sue did laugh, then. A timid, wet chuckle. “He is kind of a dope.”

Jia patted her knee. “Just because someone asks you to marry them doesn’t mean you’re obligated to say yes. Women are trained to put everyone else’s happiness above their own. But you wouldn’t be doing him any favors if you went ahead with it when you didn’t really love him.”

Sue’s tears slowed as Jia warmed up to her tirade of advice.

“Who says you need to get married, anyway? You know what I think? You need to get to know you better. Work on your career. Pick up a few hobbies. Figure out what you want out of life. And this guy, if he’s not willing to wait? Then screw ‘im.”

“Screw him,” Ricardo repeated.

“Yeah,” Sue echoed. “Screw ‘im.”

“Screw who?”

Kevin Kazan. Ricardo felt his heart sink at the sound of Kevin’s voice. Why couldn’t he have been the one eliminated instead of Faye? The three Magicians sitting on the edge of the fountain looked up—screw you undoubtedly hanging there at the edge of Jia’s tongue—but she contained herself, and instead they just looked.

Kevin was all bulging oiled pecs and blackletter tattoos in a strong-man costume, with a broad leather belt, leopard print shorts, and thick leather cuffs.

Ricardo’s wardrobe assistant had been wrong. There was a costume gayer than the white leotard. It just wouldn’t have fit him. And, damn it all, the black bowler they’d dug up looked good on that creep, too. Ricardo was jealous for a moment there…until John stepped out of wardrobe.

John towered over Kevin in his trademark top hat—but this one had a red band to match his red bow tie and brocade vest. The vest was fitted within an inch of its life—no doubt a few staple-gun tacks were in place to make it look as painted-on as it did, contrasting gorgeously with the flowing sleeves of the white silk shirt. His plain black slacks were tighter than he normally wore them, too, leading Ricardo’s eyes down, down, down the long stretch of his thighs. To his over-the knee black leather boots.

And his whip.

“You’re drooling,” Jia whispered.

Iain bustled into the hall with his phone at his ear, saying, “…I know it doesn’t look as realistic, but if we used actual popcorn we’d be fending off seagulls all day….” He trailed off his phone conversation, gave the contestants each a long look and said, “Not bad. But where’s Bev?”

The door to the third wardrobe room opened, and there Bev stood, all in white, filling the doorway. The entire doorway.

They’d dressed her as a clown.

It was a Perrot clown at least, classic white-on-white, and not the comedy whiteface type that’s the subject of many a phobia. Even so…it wasn’t exactly Bev’s most flattering look. Perrot’s outfit was supposed to be elegant. Bev appeared as if she’d just wandered out in her very large pajamas.

Iain stared for a moment, and then said, “Okay, let’s go. We don’t want the big slushie melting on us.”

They trooped outside, where Iain took a second look at Sue and sent her off to the stylists to have the bags under her eyes dabbed with hemorrhoid cream. Ricardo didn’t have much attention to spare for Sue’s predicament, though. He was too busy taking in Monty in his ringmaster ensemble, all skin-tight white riding pants, shiny knee boots and high-cut red tux jacket with tails and yards and yards of gold braiding and fringed epaulets.

And the bleachers.

And the bouncy house.

And the crane at the far end of the lot with six trapezes hanging from it.

“Wow,” Bev remarked. “Is that red Kool-Aid in the swimming pool? Muriel will be so disappointed she missed it.”

A carpenter tacked a sign that read Kevin above one of the trapezes. A sound man at the top of the bleachers announced a check, and a musical note blasted from the platform that shook the palm trees. A pickup truck with a bed full of ice backed up to the red swimming pool and a bunch of assistants started shoveling it in.

“They’re not gonna make us go in there,” Jia said, looking apprehensively at the pool. “Are they?”

Ricardo suspected they were. And that once he did, his package in its white leotard would look nowhere near as impressive.

Once the shuffling and the prep were complete, the contestants lined up with Monty facing them, and the cameras rolled.

“Welcome, Magicians, to the final challenge of Circus Week. In many ways, life is like a circus. It’s colorful and loud. It’s full of dizzying highs and plummeting lows. It’s got its fair share of clowns. And it often…leaves you hanging.

“In this elimination, you’ll be contending with your very own circus, Magic Mansion-style. Today, each of you will be a circus of one in a timed challenge. First, it’s up the bleachers where, at the top, you’ll find a calliope. Play a note to announce your circus has come to town, then run back down and proceed to the refreshments.

Monty turned to the bouncy house. “Next, it’s a trip through the attractions—complete with popcorn.” An assistant opened the front panel to reveal the blowup pen was filled with foam packing peanuts. “Once you’ve had your fill, it’s into the pool to slake your thirst with a refreshing frozen drink.

“Your goal is to complete these tasks in the least amount of time, racking up the fewest seconds on the scoreboard. And then, it’s showtime. And your performance…could change everything.”

Everyone looked to the trapezes.

“Each trapeze is marked with a name. Find yours, jump up, grasp the bar with your hands, and hang on. Every second you’re able to stay on your trapeze is a second you’ll be able to use strategically to adjust your score. Are you ready?”

“Flexed arms on the trapeze,” Kevin asked, “or locked elbows?”

“‘Are you ready’ was a rhetorical question,” Iain called out, striding up with a clipboard. “Here are the actual rules.” He guided an assistant through the course, showing everyone specifically which marks they needed to hit, ending with the trapeze dangle. While they watched, wardrobe assistants replaced their shoes with gymnastic flats so no one popped the bouncy house with a heel or a spur. “And on the trapeze,” Iain told Kevin, after he consulted with each of his phones, “straight arms. This isn’t a chin-up challenge. Questions? No? Okay, Monty, go ahead.”

“One more thing.” Monty indicated the scoreboard, which now showed six positions—with a white line above the bottom two. “Someone who falls below this line…will be going home. So move fast, and hold on tight.”

Ricardo’s focus was all on the bleacher stairs. He could take them, no problem. But Sue, beside him, was readying herself too. She was a strong runner, with long legs. And speaking of long legs, John would probably make short work of—

An airhorn sounded, and Monty shouted, “Go!”

Ricardo ran.

John was off like a rocket, bounding up the bleacher stairs like they were regular stair-steps. Petite Jia fell behind quickly. Ricardo pounded up the metal seats neck and neck with Kevin and Sue. A blat of a calliope, and John was already on his way down, huffing, “Be careful,” at Ricardo on his way past.

Up top, Sue slapped the calliope keyboard first, then Ricardo, and right on his heels, Kevin. But Kevin didn’t stay in fourth place for long—he gained ground on the way back down the bleachers, and pulled ahead of Ricardo. The calliope bleated above them as Jia finally gained the top, while poor Bev was still struggling up, one step at a time.

The bouncy house was rocking by the time Ricardo leaped into the packing peanuts. It looked as if it should have been easy enough to power through them, especially since the guy who’d demonstrated the stunt had done it in a less than a minute. But the demo guy hadn’t had three other flailing magicians in there with him. Ricardo took a step, and someone else fell, bouncing him off his feet. Ricardo didn’t go down, exactly, with packing peanuts surrounding him on all sides. But neither could he lever himself up. Everywhere he tried to push off, with either a hand or a foot, he only sank deeper into the packing foam.

Finally, unable to think of any other way to propel himself toward the bouncy house exit, he attempted to swim. The foam peanuts geysered up in a whispery crunch. Someone else fell—or maybe the same someone—and the displaced force caused a wave that rippled through the fake popcorn. Ricardo found himself propelled forward, and suddenly the exit was in site. He clawed toward it, foam susurrating all around him, when behind him a distinct crack sounded, followed by a gasp and a curse.

Ricardo realized he’d never heard John say, “Fuck,” before.

He turned to look, flailed, and smacked his hand against the vinyl wall. Unlike the packing peanuts, which only sifted away under his grasp, the wall had some grip to it. Not a lot—it was flexible, after all. But enough. Splay-fingered and glad for the sweat on his palms that allowed him to stick, Ricardo dragged himself along the inflatable wall until he came to the gap. In a spill of packing foam, he tumbled down the exit slide and onto the lawn…the first one out.

He allowed himself only the smallest glance behind him—Kevin and John were bursting out of the popcorn foam, though who was gaining leverage by holding on to whom was unclear.

Then John brushed away the packing peanuts that were clinging to his face, and Ricardo saw it was covered in blood.

Paralysis locked Ricardo in place, until he saw John had no intention of stopping—and neither did Kevin. Ricardo turned and ran toward the pool, but the momentary hesitation had cost him. Kevin drew abreast of him by the time they reached the edge of the pool. John not only passed them, but launched himself into the slushy red water with a powerful jump that carried him nearly a quarter of the way across the pool’s length.

Ricardo did his best to imitate the maneuver, and actually had a moment, mid-air, when he thought he might gain ground on Kevin by virtue of being more aerodynamic.

And then he hit the water…and the cold hit him.

A 55-degree ice rink was one thing. A 55-degree swimming pool was another. He burst out of the water, gasping, but the cold was like a fist that locked his ribs tight to his lungs, squeezing out his breath. Kevin bellowed in pain when he plunged in, and the encouraging sound of his agony propelled Ricardo forward. John had already climbed from the pool by the time Ricardo reached the far ladder, grabbed it…and fell back in. His hands had seized up with the cold, numb and weak. His feet, then. He’d need to do most of the climbing with his feet.

But just as he grabbed at the rungs to take another try, Kevin nailed him with a red, cherry-flavored splash, knocked him back, and scurried up the ladder himself. That fucker probably can’t even feel his hands anyway, Ricardo thought, nerve damage from all that damn weight training.

“And Professor Topaz takes his trapeze in just under three minutes,” Monty called out.

 Ricardo was elated—but only for a moment. There was still some kind of “strategy” in play…and no doubt Kevin would use that strategy to try to take out his biggest competition: John.

Kevin dashed across the lawn. He was a plodding runner, but he had a good head start. Ricardo followed, tucking his hands into his armpits as he did, in hopes of warming some feeling into his fingers. 

“Kevin Kazan is at the trapeze in three minutes, four seconds! The Professor is still holding on.”

Ricardo skidded to a stop beneath his trapeze, blew once into each of his hands, then jumped up and grabbed.

“Ricardo the Magnificent at three minutes, eight seconds.”

Four seconds—Kevin only had four seconds on him so far. That was wasn’t long. Ricardo would just need to catch up with Kevin, somehow, by dangling longer from the damn bar.

Unfortunately, as he hung there by his frigid, aching fingers, Ricardo realized that dangling from the bar was difficult after ten seconds, painful after twenty, and downright excruciating after thirty. He chanced a look to see how Kevin Kazan was doing. Kevin was looking right at him.

Smiling.

Damn it. If there were only a way to knock that bastard off his trapeze—with what, a packing peanut? He’d hardly notice. And there was no dust to throw at him either; the grounds were a soup of red slush. Ricardo’s shoulders burned, really burned, and his fingers were screaming.

“The Professor’s been holding on for nearly a minute…and Sue’s out of the pool!”

Sue dashed across the lawn, leapt up and grabbed her trapeze. She was sucking air in huge sobs.

“Kevin and Ricardo hanging past the minute mark, too. Bev jumps into the pool as Jia climbs out. It’s still anybody’s game.”

“Hurts your hands,” Kevin said cheerfully, turning to John. “Don’t it?”

John didn’t answer. 

“Shoulders, too. Back, sides…. Think how easy it’d be to just…let…go.”

“Jia’s almost at the trapeze.”

“Can’t feel too good, what with the taste of blood in your mouth.”

John looked straight ahead.

“Hands burning. Delts. Pecs. You’re shaking, old man. But me, I could stay here all day.”

Still, John resisted the bait.

Kevin kept going. “Don’t even know who smacked you back there in the popcorn…do you? Wasn’t me. I was at the other end of the castle. Who else got it in for you, huh?” 

“Shut up,” Ricardo gasped.

Kevin ignored him. “You think anyone care ‘bout what happened to your man? That’s old news. All they care ‘bout is the quarter-mil, and you standing in their way.”

John closed his eyes, gave a grunt…and let go.

Monty said, “And the Professor is done, as Jia takes her trapeze. Great job, Professor Topaz.”

The seconds ticked by, pain raging through Ricardo’s muscles…and that bastard Kazan was still fucking smiling.

“Ohmigod,” Sue gasped, as she let go, too—with Jia’s fingers slipping off right after.

“Sue is out. Jia is out.”

Ricardo shut his eyes and focused. It would feel so good to let his hands slide from the bar. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. Unfortunately, no matter how strong the will, the body can only be pushed so far. Despite how hard Ricardo tried, eventually he felt his fingers…begin…to slip.

His knees felt like rubber when his feet hit the ground. “And Ricardo the Magnificent is done. Well played, Ricardo. And Bev is struggling with the ladder—that’s four times she’s fallen back in.”

“Go, Bev,” Sue called, and Ricardo turned to cheer on poor Bev, who shrieked as she forced her way through the frigid red water.

Kevin finally let himself drop from the trapeze as Bev hauled herself out of the pool and began trudging her way across the lawn in a waterlogged, pink-stained clown suit. By now everyone was cheering for her, even Kevin. Though Ricardo suspected he only did it so he didn’t come across as a complete jerk by kicking the underdog when she was down.

Bev paused to catch her breath, hands on knees, drinking great gasps of air, although the respite racked up still more time to her score. No doubt she was painfully aware of each and every second. Finally, when she could straighten up, she leapt up and caught the bar while all the other Magicians cheered wildly. She hung there, still gasping for air, for twelve seconds. And then she dropped.

Iain called cut.

One assistant wrapped Ricardo in a robe while another pressed a cup of black coffee into his hands. Ricardo was shaking so hard his teeth actually clattered together. John had been taken off to the sidelines where a pair of medics fussed over his nosebleed with ice packs and gauze. Bev sat on the lawn with her head between her knees like she was about to faint. Jia was ranting about freezing to death. Sue had collapsed into a sobbing heap. Kevin, though, simply stood there in his robe with that fucking smile fixed in place, and looked around in triumph at each of his competitors.

“Okay,” Iain said, “listen up. We’ll get some portable heaters out here to dry you off, but then we’ve got to go right into the scoring.”

The scoring. Great. Why not just declare Kevin the winner of the whole damn thing and save everyone the trauma of another gauntlet of challenges?

Bev raised her head from her knees and asked Ricardo, “Did they say how the trapeze time was being counted?”

“No. Not yet.”

She wrung red Kool-Aid from the hem of her blouse. “Pay close attention when they do. It’s probably going to change everything.”



Chapter 32

PLAYING THE GAME


John’s head ached. He had no idea whose elbow had found his nose in the bounce castle…but it only served to cement his growing unease at the necessity of using his True magic to stay in the game. A bloody nose was negligible in the grand scheme of things…but from here on out, he’d need to stop relying on the Truth before an accident occurred that he couldn’t simply shrug off.

When it was all said and done, he refused to put Ricardo through the needless loss he’d endured himself.

In both his hands, with its face carefully concealed, he held the card he’d filled out according to the rules Iain had explained, and then clarified with a few phone calls and re-explained following Bev’s persistent questioning. John hoped it would be enough, but he couldn’t be sure how the other Magicians had played their strategies.

A podium was arranged for the Magicians that hid the heaters at their feet from the camera, and also gave them something to hold on to so their shivering wasn’t quite so apparent. The scoreboard stood before it, with the white line separating the two lowest positions from the rest of the group. Iain sent Bev to the podium while the cameras found their places, as Sue and Ricardo whispered about what this next round of the competition might mean.

Cameras rolled, and Monty read from his teleprompter, “The results are in from the Big Top Challenge. Let’s see how long it took each of the Magicians to take to their trapeze.”

The scoreboard flashed, and random characters scrolled through the empty squares…and finally flickered into the contestants’ names…and their scores.

1. Professor Topaz 2:59

2. Kevin Kazan 3:04

3. Ricardo the Magnificent 3:08

4. Sue Wozniak 4:09

_________________

5. Jia Lee 4:25

6. The Math Wizard 5:41


While they’d been given the official times with which to make their strategic decision…the numbers looked a hell of a lot more threatening on the massive screen. Especially with the huge white line two-thirds of the way down.

“Impressive scores,” Monty said. “But this challenge is not only about strength, speed, endurance and luck—it’s about strategy. Each player was given the option of improving their score by the amount of time they dangled from the trapeze…or applying that time to one of their competitor’s scores as a penalty. Let’s see how each Magician chose to play their strategy.”

Cameras rallied around Bev.

“Math Wizard,” Monty said, “this challenge was clearly a struggle for you.”

“I’d claim that age had something to do with it, Monty, but considering the Professor’s score, it would be ridiculous to use my age as an excuse. I’m out of shape. That’s that.”

“Still, you did finish the physical leg of the challenge—proving you have a lot of heart. As to the strategic part, you were given an important decision to make. You hung from the trapeze for twelve seconds—and that means you can either improve your own score by those twelve seconds…or you can apply them to someone else’s score as a penalty. Bev, since you’re our resident numbers guru, I’m sure everyone’s eager to hear the logic behind your decision.”

“Well, Monty…my score was so low to begin with that it was unlikely any of the other Magicians would penalize me by adding their hang-times to my run-time. Unfortunately, the spread between my score and the others, combined with my poor performance on the trapeze, ensured that even if I applied my strategic points to my run-time, I’d still come in dead last.” Bev’s voice was strong, but in her hands, the card she was clutching shook. It could have been the cold…but John wasn’t entirely convinced of that. 

“In the end,” Bev went on, “my decision might or might not make a difference, depending on how all the other Magicians vote. But I opted to apply a twelve-second penalty to one of the stronger competitors.” The whole set went dead quiet as she flipped her card, and read aloud, “Kevin Kazan.”

On the scoreboard, Kevin’s time changed to 3:16.

John swallowed, and realized his throat had gone coppery dry. He’d hardly dared hope anyone but Ricardo and Jia would vote to push Kevin below the elimination line. But Bev’s twelve-second penalty, though small, was exhilarating to see applied to Kevin’s score.

“Ricardo,” Monty said, “you’re up next.”

John swallowed again. Iain knew what everyone had written on their cards. What did it mean for Ricardo to go second? That his strategy was negated by someone else’s? Maybe John hadn’t actually done enough to draw Kevin’s fire. Maybe Kevin had used his insanely long hang-time to knock out Ricardo.

“Ricardo, your athletic background was clearly evident in the way you handled yourself out there on the course. You were neck and neck with the Professor and Kevin coming through the Big Top Challenge course, and you had the second-longest hang-time on the trapeze. More importantly…you’ve also focused your time in the Mansion on building alliances rather than making enemies. What did you choose to do with your discretionary hundred and nine seconds from the trapeze?”

In his robe and his pink-stained leotard, Ricardo raised his head high, leveled a cool gaze at Monty, flipped his card, and said, “I also chose to add my seconds to Kevin Kazan.”

Kevin’s time went from 3:16 to 5:05.

“That puts Kevin Kazan in fifth place, and more importantly, below the white line. But this game isn’t over yet. Professor Topaz, let’s see how you played your strategic seconds.” John stepped up to the podium. He was more accustomed to cold water than the others, and he felt very calm as he faced both Monty, and the scoreboard. “Professor, you ran the course in the fastest time, and you also hung from your trapeze for an impressive eighty-seven seconds. What would you like to do with that time?”

John did his best not to gloat as he turned his card and said, “I’m adding those eighty-seven seconds to Kevin Kazan.”

Kevin’s score was now 6:32. Last place.

“Next…let’s hear from Jia Lee.” Jia stepped up to the podium—but her normal haughty confidence was marred by a furrow in her brow as she stared at the scoreboard and tried to calculate minutes and seconds in her head. “Jia, when you were a member of the Red Team, you made no secret of the fact that you often disagreed with the decisions made by your team leader.”

“That’s true.”

“You had eighteen seconds on the trapeze. How did you choose to play your strategy today?”

Jia looked hard at the board and shook her head. “I saw I was in second-last place, and…well, it hadn’t occurred to me that putting Kevin below the line would have pushed me above. So I thought my best bet for staying above the white line,” she turned her card, “was to add my penalty to Sue’s score.”

Sue’s time went from 4:09 to 4:27, and she dropped from third place to fourth by a mere two seconds.

It was Sue’s turn at the podium next. Her typical poise was gone, and instead she was a bedraggled, shivering wreck. “Sue,” Monty said, “you made good time through the course, though you seemed to struggle in the pool.”

“It was freezing, Monty. You’d be surprised how it feels. It actually hurts. My legs just went numb.”

“You managed to hang onto your trapeze the longest of all the women, thirty-one seconds. What did you choose to do with that half a minute?”

Sue looked back at the seated contestants shook her head once, and began to sniffle. When she tried to speak, her voice was small and choked. “I saw how close I was to the bottom of the list, and I knew there was an elimination…and I thought the same thing as Jia. I’m sorry.” She turned her card. 

It read Jia Lee.

Jia’s score went from 4:25 to 4:56, and dropped back down below Sue’s.

“There’s one more Magician left to hear from,” Monty said, “but before we do, there’s one more thing I’d like to add. A single player won’t be going home as a result of this challenge.” John almost felt encouraged by those words, until the stiltedness of their delivery registered. “Instead…there will be two.” 

Cameras swung to the scoreboard, and the white line leapt up to the center of the list. Jia, now firmly below it, gasped and covered her face with her hands. John stared at the scores in dismay. Kevin had hung on that trapeze longer than any of them. If he added that time to John’s or Ricardo’s score, was it possible they’d fall low enough to displace Jia and end up on the chopping block? Minutes, seconds, it was all too difficult to add in the heat of the moment.

“Kevin, you received a penalty from half of your competitors. What’s going through your mind right now?”

“Can’t say as I’m surprised,” Kevin asserted, shooting a grim look over his shoulder toward John. “This is a game, and it makes sense to gang up on the biggest threat so you can take him out. When you got more looks, brains and talent than everyone else, and they all know it, that’s the price you pay.”

“He’s gonna get voted off,” Ricardo whispered gleefully, but Bev answered, “You can’t count on it—not yet.”

“One thing’s for sure,” Monty said, “you had the greatest amount of stamina when it came to holding on to that trapeze. You stayed on for a massive two minutes, twelve seconds.”

John tried to add that time his own score and compare it to Jia’s, but it was no use. Minutes, seconds. He couldn’t even think. 

“And so,” Monty said, “the results of this challenge hinge…on your strategy.”

“Oh, great,” Jia groaned.

“Kevin Kazan, what did you choose to do with your hundred and thirty-two seconds?”

Kevin swung fully around to look at each of his competitors in turn, then faced Monty again, and said, “I knew them other players had alliances, Monty. I knew I had to watch my back. And so I chose…” he flipped his card. And he paused.

And he smiled.

“…to keep my points for myself.”

The scoreboard flickered, and Kevin’s time went from 6:32 to 4:20, launching him up past Bev, past Jia, and even past Sue. All the way to third place.

1. Professor Topaz 2:59

2 Ricardo the Magnificent 3:08

3. Kevin Kazan 4:20

_________________

4. Sue Wozniak 4:27

5. Jia Lee 4:56

6. The Math Wizard 5:41


John stared at the numbers, sure that there must be some error. That Kevin couldn’t possibly be in third place after John, Ricardo and even Bev saddled him with a penalty. But Sue started to cry again, and Bev muttered, “Aw, nuts,” and the frigid certainty that the scoreboard was indeed correct settled in John’s gut, colder even than a pool of ice cubes and cherry Kool-Aid.

___

A long, hot shower helped to dispel the chill of the Kool-Aid dip, but it didn’t do much to mitigate the dread John felt in knowing that although he himself had managed to land in Magic Mansion’s final four…so had devious, resentful, and perhaps even dangerous Kevin. He would need to be careful. And he would need to do his best to keep his energy calm, to ensure he drew as little destructive envy to himself as possible. He accepted the heartfelt congratulations of the crew for his performance in the Big Top Challenge with as much humility as possible, then he adjusted his route to swing past the bar and help himself to the very good scotch. No one stopped him from commandeering the bottle. In fact, one of the chefs gave him a turkey club to enjoy along with it.

John paused in front of his door and balanced his tray on his hip while he dug his key out of his robe pocket, but when he finally found it and raised it to the lock, he saw his door was ever so slightly ajar.

Cameras. No doubt someone had tucked one into every nook and cranny. Now they’d undoubtedly make him out to be an alcoholic for the sake of adding to the drama. He toed the door open with the sole of his shower sandal, considering exactly how risky it would be to do another True sweep of the room, when he got a good look at the actual culprit who’d broken into his room.

Sprawled on his bed in a pair of skimpy black briefs, hands tucked behind his head, smiling…lay Ricardo.

John set the tray on the nightstand, and said in his best serious voice. “Who let you in?”

“A three-pin lock? C’mon…I could’ve picked that when I was twelve—blindfolded. You’ll need to do better than that to keep me out of your bed.”

“Indeed.” He looked Ricardo up and down. The skating, the juggling—that must have been what was so perfect about his physique. Yes, he was meticulous about hitting the gym, but not just for show…and the results were captivating. “You’re not concerned anyone saw you coming here?”

“Concerned? Heck, I made sure they did. I told everyone I ran across I was paying you a visit. And that I hoped wardrobe let you hold onto those thigh-high boots.”

“Ricardo….”

“I’m proud of who I am. And I’m proud of us. I refuse to sneak around—I have nothing to hide.”

Nor, after the huge Casey revelation at the theatre, did John.

He allowed his robe to slide open, climbed into the creaky bed, and pressed himself up against Ricardo, pushing his back to the wall. Ricardo’s eyelids dropped half shut, and he luxuriated in the press of their bodies with a long, contented sigh. He eased into a kiss, slow and gentle—and when, after several easy moments, he was satisfied, he said, “We made it to the final four, John. We team up against Kevin…and one of us has got to beat him.”

“Nothing is sure,” John said—and yes, he was fully aware of what a downer he could be. And so he added, “But this, now, is the biggest prize I could hope for.”

___

VIDEO DIARIES

Jia Lee

Let’s face it, I’m an illusionist, a performer. Not a mathematician. I tried to protect myself—and I totally blew my chance at knocking Kevin out of the game. 

That’s gonna haunt me. 

For sure.


Bev the Math Wizard

I’m out of my league at this point, and I’m well aware of it. Strategy can only take you so far—especially now that we’re competing as individuals, and I don’t have a team to take up the slack for my physical limitations. I’ve got aches in muscles right now that I didn’t even know existed.

On the plus side—seeing Professor Topaz tearing through that course was pretty darn inspirational…when I get home, the first thing I plan to do is look into a gym membership.


Sue

I miss my Gold Team.

This isn’t fun anymore.

-CRYING-

I’m so…disappointed. 


Kevin Kazan

Look out, yo, ‘cuz Kevin Kazan in the final four. That quarter-mill prize? I’m gon’ crush anyone who gets in my way.


“Tough talk. It’s been a big day at the circus for our six remaining Magicians, and now two of them…are going home. Who’s it going to be? The modern-day Chinese conjuror who’s proved that even in a man’s world, every woman has a fighting chance? The fifty-nine year old grandmother of three who’s made it this far on brains instead of brawn? Or the inspirational Gold Team leader, who’s bereft without her team?

“I’m your host, Monty Shaw, bidding you farewell until next time, when it’s up to you to decide…who will make it…to Magic Mansion’s final four.”

 

Cast your vote after Chapter 32 at http://jordancastilloprice.com/magic by 7am CST 1/23*