Magicians like to keep their secrets. But some HAVE to!
|"Your fifth wife's trousseau!"
"Our newspaper's integrity!"
"That wouldn't fill a thimble!"
"Ali Baba's thieves!"
"Sure! Munchkin sized!"
"Alright, cut the snappy patter!" the chief yelled. "You're all comedians," he snorted. "If you were newspapermen you wouldn't have to read tomorrow's edition to find out what's in it! Out! All of you out!" he shouted as he pushed the staff of the Manhattan Argus toward his office door.
"Except you, Flanagan." He pulled me back. "Was it you guessed Ali Baba's thieves?" The door clattered as he slammed it.
"Well, you was closest. It's Aladdin's genie we got in here," he said as he patted the trunk that was taking up approximately 17% of his office floor space. It was an old-fashioned thing like you see actors lugging around. Brown and battered with brass fittings on the corners, and a domed lid with a yawning lock that could swallow two of a man's fingers. It had taken three brawny movers to haul it into our editor's office while the staff played Information Please with its contents.
"You remember Gondolfo the Great?" the chief continued. "Played the Palladium every year around Halloween?"
"Sure," I said. "Only fellow ever stumped Houdini."
"Well, that's his trunk." The chief tapped it again. "Last that's left of him, too."
"Oh, pick up a newspaper sometime, Flanagan, you might find a career in the classifieds! Man went off his nut a year ago. Got hold of a razor and chopped half his neck away—after taking the ears off a couple of policemen."
"Whew! I must have been chasing a story down in Fort Lauderdale that month."
"And yet you only came back with lipstick on your collar. You're talking yourself out of my confidence."
"Okay, chief," I sighed, and perched myself on the corner of his desk. "What's the skinny?"
"Skinny is that Gondolfo left only a turban and a wand and a small flock of half-molted pigeons at his flop house, but this—" He kicked the trunk a third time. "Turned up in the basement of a theater in Cairo with Gondolfo's name on the tag."
Something thumped nearby—probably a copyboy banging into the other side of the wall, but I fancied it came from the trunk. "And you bought it," I said, "thinking it holds the secrets to his act."
"Psychic, eh? I should have sent you yesterday to cover next Saturday's matches. Gondolfo said he had a pet demon—Macaroni, or something like that—but the secret's in there, and tomorrow at nine the Argus unveils it to the world!"
"Why not today? And where do I fit in?"
"Because I'm otherwise engaged. Roosevelt's in town, and the nation needs at least one Republican at the presser to ask an honest question!"
"Right. Now, the trunk came parcel post, but the key's coming special delivery and I'm late as it is. You stick here and pick it up. And keep it outta the hands of that pack of curs I employ as newshounds!"
"How come you trust me, chief?"
"Because, Flanagan," he said as he grabbed his hat, "you're the only man I know without the imagination to abuse it!"
If only he hadn't said that.
The key arrived in a padded mailer thirty minutes later. I wasted no time calling on Shortcakes. That's what we called Prissy, our society columnist, on account of her strawberry-colored hair. "Meet me up here tonight after the late edition goes out," I told her. "Bring sandwiches and a thermos."
"In your dreams," she giggled.
But come ten o'clock she was there, still giggling, with a hand basket of eats.
The chief's office was dark and shadowy, and the trunk loomed like a low-cut pagan altar, even after I got the lights on. As I stared at it, I couldn't shake the name "Marchosias" from my head—that was Gondolfo's "pet demon"; I'd found the name in the morgue. "What are we doing?" Shortcakes whispered.
"Pranking the chief," I whispered back as I twisted the key in the lock. "We're gonna unload it— Whew! What a bust!" The inside of the trunk was auditioning for the role of "cupboard" in "Old Mother Hubbard." "He thinks there's a pot of gold in there, and he's going to open it up in front of the city tomorrow. But you're going to come popping out like a showgirl in a cake!"
"Don't worry," I assured her. "I'll leave it unlocked so you can crawl in and out. Just be inside before the first shift arrives. Got'cher supper? In you go!"
She was a swell kid, very game, and climbed right in. It was perfectly sized for her, and as I lowered the lid I made sure the hasp didn't click.
She thumped around inside it as I turned away, but I just put out the lights and left.
Naturally, I was plenty early the next morning, but I was still about the fiftieth man to squeeze into the chief's office. He pulled me to the front, and I got to hear a Barnum-esque oration on the history of Gondolfo and his magic trunk. "And now, gentlemen, the secrets of the world's greatest magician will stand revealed!"
I kept the smirk off my face, and not until he put the key in the lock did I notice that the hasp had shut.
The lid rose—
And nothing happened.
Except that the chief lost all his color as he looked inside.
Well, the Argus had its scoop, though it wasn't the one the chief had expected. Still, a story about a body found in the trunk of a famous dead magician will sell papers.
Me, I kept my mouth shut.
I didn't want to have to explain how I knew who the victim was.
Not when there was nothing left of her but a skull and a complete set of white, whistle-clean bones!
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: January 2018.