Beyond the Velvet – Michael Santiago

Venue upon venue, theaters sold out before ticket prices were disclosed. The time of entrepreneurial entertainers in Victorian England was at an all-time high. Some were high with the notion of fame. Others were drunk with it. But Salazar, stoic and steady, reached the pinnacle of the arcane within the breadth of four years–a notable feat for the inconsequential act of preplanned illusion. He never wavered or backed down at the alluring prospect of reaching the grand stage, The Mother Maiden. It welcomed only a few, yet it spun out even fewer elitists. 

Demand often exceeded maximum occupancy. The grandiose interior was cobbled with silk curtains woven in Egypt, timber floors crafted by the Dutch, a stage designed from the French, and jade sculptures carved in China. The theater was an international display of fine exotic imports, and of colonialist might. Glamor struck the hall as guests poured in to see the next would-be wonder. Jesters, magicians, ventriloquists, musicians and cabaret dancers crowded the inner bowls backstage, waiting for their grand entrance to illicit resounding applause.

Among the hopeful, Salazar and his wife, Mina, tinkered with artifacts unique to their performance. They prepared as he anxiously awaited his name to be called to the center stage. Meanwhile, she began filling a four-meter-tall tank with water–the instrument for the grand finale. Turning to her husband, she said, “Do you really think we have a chance here? We are out of our league, and I am not even talking about the act. Look around.”

An auspicious look took over, as he turned to his wife he said, “Mina, our act… our magic is going to transcend one’s pigmentation and creed. With what I have concocted, they will forget that we even look different to them.”

Interrupted by trumpets, the presenter regurgitated the usual verbose introduction voice beyond the curtains yelled, “Gents, ladies, are you prepared to be blown right out of your seats? Brace, for we have a delectable line up of talented performers to pour through these halls. From Jesters, and yes, heckling is permitted, to those who manipulate the unexplainable. I am Taylor Smith, captain of this ship, and I welcome you to the grandest arena in all of England, The Mother Maiden.”

Echoes of applause resounded throughout as the performers were making last minute adjustments to their act. Salazar, emboldened, raised his hand towards his face as a sliver of light escaped the main stage and shone on the pair. Momentarily using the spotlight, engorged by his wife’s beauty, he snatched her in for a kiss, and said, “Do not worry. Tonight is where things take a turn for the better.”  

Taylor capitalized on his status as the premier host in all of Sussex. He reveled in it.  The audience admired him for his dashing looks, tenacity, and charm. To him, he was Julius Caesar peering into his gladiatorial arena atop his podium. With more fame than those presenting, he often berated those lacking similar complexions or from far-off lands, and his felicitous quips never failed to give the crowd a spectacle. 

Taylor sardonically stated, “Up next, we present a new face. One unlike any we were sure to see on this grand stage. Let him mystify you with unexplainable parlor tricks from the savage lands to the east. A land that will undoubtedly be gobbled up by our glorious matriarch soon enough. Without further ado, give a round of applause, if you’d like, for Salazar Hosseini, master of the Persian arts.”

Tossing the satin velvet flaps aside, Salazar walked on stage and offered a pretentious bow to a displeased audience. Met with booing, he formed a gleeful grin and gestured for an assistant to accompany him. Mina rolled out a large, faux emerald chest.  Reaching her hand inside, she pulled out a pair of finches from a brass wire cage. 

Salazar grabbed one finch per hand, showing the onlookers that they were ordinary birds. Then, he clapped and rubbed his hands together as the audience bore a unifying grimace. Horrified by the act, a heckler shouted, “Is this what you primitive animals do where you’re from?”

The crowd’s response was unnerving, but he maintained the fluidity of his act and displayed both palms. Untainted by what appeared to be finch sacrifice, his hands were clean. Bewildered to what had happened, the attendees loosened up and looked on with curiosity. 

As he started to hum a melancholic tune, he called for the two finches to reveal themselves. One beak, and then the second, prodded their way out of his top hat. They chirped and fluttered around the hall as Salazar began to grin. Pleased with the applause, he took a more genuine bow, and looked over to wink at his wife. 

Grimace morphed to astonishment. The audience, hypnotized by the flitter of the finches, beckoned for more. 

Salazar whispered into Mina’s ear, “Honey, I think we can skip to the final act. The alternative one. You remember the protocol, don’t you?”

“We haven’t practiced that trick enough. What about that underwater disappearing act we planned for?” she suggested.

“Look at them. They are stupefied, mystified. We’ve yet to feed them a sliver and they are begging for more. We came to this stage to show them that they are wrong about us. Let us give them an act they’ll never forget,” he replied.

The begrudged presenter hesitantly began to clap, rallying the audience for another trick. “There we have it. A dazzling show of magic by the likes of these two. What say you, shall we have more?” Taylor yelled.

An unsatiated crowd began to shout for the show to continue. Grinning at the audience, Taylor tossed his left arm in the air and shouted, “Bravissimo, let’s continue the show.”

With a candid nod, Salazar urged Mina to get the instrument for the final act. She reached back into the emerald chest and clenched the grip of a howdah pistol. Handing the gun to Salazar, she paced backwards for five meters and stopped.

Salazar looked to the audience and raised the pistol with a firm grip. Bouncing his gaze throughout the hungry crowd, he said, “This is the resurrection. Two shots fired from this double barrel gun would be enough to dispatch even the most ferocious of beasts, but tonight, I will use this weapon on my wife. Do not be alarmed, for her death shall be temporary.”

The plan was foolproof: load two blanks into the weapon and spin the illusion of death.  She had two squibs filled with goat blood strapped to her chest. Both were connected to a pull string that would induce this murder mirage. And then, with a few phony incantations, she would rise and walk back over to her husband. Seemingly denying her passage down the river Styx. The audience would be none the wiser.

“Woah, woah, now Salazar, there is no need to slay your wife in front of these fine folk.  Are you sure you two can’t just settle for divorce?” Taylor quipped.

The audience chuckled, and Salazar said, “All good things must come to an end. Isn’t that right, Mr. Smith?”

“A magic man and a comedian. We’ve got a special one here, folks,” Taylor replied.

In an uproar, the crowd began chanting, “Take the shot. Take the shot.”

As Salazar closed his eyes, the tension of the trigger tightened until the pop of two rounds exited the barrels. The act appeared to be a success. Mina fell right on cue and the goat blood pooled around her. She was so still; even managing to hold her breath to avoid any movement. He waved his hands in an irregular pattern and began reciting an ancient Parsi hymn intended to raise the dead. Clapping three times in a circular motion, he called for his wife to return to her body and rejoin the mortal realm, yet she didn’t budge.

“It appears this Persian hocus pocus of yours needs a little fine tuning,” Taylor chuckled.

Unamused, Salazar walked over to Mina and recited the passage again, yet nothing occurred. Still no breath. No movement. “Love, this isn’t the time for this. We need to finish the act,” he whispered. Tapping her forearm, he noticed the squibs still intact and that the blood was her own.

Shocked and terror-stricken, his mouth gaped, and his eyes became lifeless.  Redirecting his gaze to the crowd, the harsh, blinding spotlights revealed that the trick had failed.

Taylor walked over to Salazar and whispered, “Pity, your magic didn’t seem to work this time.”

“Ladies and gents, there seems to be some technical difficulties, so an intermission is in order. Please, stock up on refreshments, light up a fag, and use the washroom. The show will recommence in fifteen minutes,” Taylor said to the audience.

Kneeling before his wife, Salazar picked her up and began walking her breathless body off stage. However, before he could exit, Taylor tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Thank you. Now, get this savage bitch out of here. Oh, and before I forget, I don’t know how you managed to con your way to this premiere, but you will not be stepping foot on any stage in Sussex. Let alone the whole of England. Magical man or not. Oh, and take your voodoo shit back to whatever hole you slithered out of.”

A rebuttal eluded him, as his mind was preoccupied with the macabre, and of the words he uttered backstage minutes ago. With a deep gulp, he stumbled towards the exit. He was draped in disbelief; consumed by chagrin. Carrying the cadaver, he bellowed as his back collapsed against a wall. The weight of remorse grew heavier than the body. Staring into Mina’s eyes, hollow, unoccupied eyes gazed back.

Unbeknownst to Salazar, he grieved adjacently to Taylor’s dressing room. A muffled commotion could be heard from within. 

He placed the body gently onto the ground and planted his ear firmly against the dressing room door. The chatter became clear as he heard Taylor say, “Can you believe these people? Well, only one remains, and after tonight, he’ll take himself and his dead bitch back to his desert land. Far from here. They have no place in this country, and never will. Just a shame we cannot do his grand act again. It’s not like it took Sir Isaac Newton to replace the blanks with live rounds without anyone noticing.”    

“Replace the live rounds,” Salazar repeated.

He jerked, backing away from the door, looking at his wife once more. Mortification morphed to menace swiftly. Now, riddled with scorn, he marched back to the stage to retrieve the pistol. Gleaning over the weapon, he tucked it into the left pocket of his lavender show coat; exiting the stage as trumpets signaled the end of intermission.

Faint steps in the distance grew louder as Taylor approached the velvet curtains. Brushing his hand in his hair with a pompous smirk, he stepped beyond the velvet with a grand gesture of self-importance. He flailed his hands in a flamboyant fashion as he pranced around the stage. The theater slowly repopulated as everyone began to find their seats. Taylor took a momentary pause from his shenanigans and shouted, “Please, everyone be seated. We have a wonderful show for you. Our next act will be delightful and disgusting. A French contortionist capable of dislocating every bone in his body. Under a mysterious guise, and an even stranger moniker. Everyone, welcome The Mandible to the stage.”

The burly Frenchman walked on stage raising his arms in the air to hype the crowd. He placed one hand on his jaw and snapped it to the left. It hung in place bound by loose skin. Grotesque consumed the crowd as they looked on.

Backstage, Salazar scrambled to Taylor’s dressing room. Rummaging through each drawer, he tossed the place upside down in pursuit of a single lead bullet. Behind the door, an idle coat rack had yet to be checked. Reaching into the side pocket, he pulled out a single round and loaded it into the pistol. Sweaty palms clenched the ironclad grip as he exited the room.

On stage, The Mandible snapped every finger back into place with a spine tingling crack. He roared at the crowd, inciting applause for every bone popped. Masked with repugnance, Taylor joked, “Folks, I’m close to spewing breakfast.”

Lingering behind the curtains, Salazar stormed the stage for one final act. Squinting down the sight, he aimed the pistol at Taylor and fired.

Taylor slowly drifted his view down to his abdomen and placed both hands onto his gut.  Spewing blood over breakfast, he turned around to see Salazar lower the gun, and as he fell to his knees, he muttered, “You’ll hang from the gallows, savage.”

Peering into the audience, Taylor collapsed face first. As the blood pooled around him and the smoke from the barrel dissipated, the audience gave a standing ovation. Salazar turned to the crowd as they chanted for more. 

As he squinted from the blinding rays of light from above, he began to wonder who the real savages were.

Michael Santiago is a serial expat, avid traveler, and writer of all kinds. Originally from New York City, and later relocating to Rome in 2016 and Nanjing in 2018. He enjoys the finer things in life like walks on the beach, existential conversations and swapping murder mystery ideas. Keen on exploring themes of humanity within a fictitious context and aspiring author.

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