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Story Excerpt

Quick Change
by Michael Kardos

Art by 123RF


“James, I consider you a friend and a worthy companion,” Suzanna Mudd told me, an assessment that sounded, coming from her lips, less like praise and more like prelude to an indictment. Long ago, we had played marbles together in the dirt. For years, we walked the last three blocks to school together. In class, I was the only student from whom she deemed worthy of cheating. The feeling was reciprocal. Outside of school, we didn’t socialize, a fact that accounted for my perfect attendance. I dreaded graduation.

But now it was 1911, and in the two years since we donned and shed our caps and gowns and our peers began to pair, or flee, or care for ailing parents, or as they simply joined the vast dull hum of adulthood, Suzanna and I, to my surprise and delight, found ourselves in continued proximity because of our mutual employment with her father’s newspaper. I’d been summoning my courage (finally; glacially) to revealing my feelings for her—but hearing, now, about my friendliness and companionability, those most cocker-spaniel of traits, my body clutched in anticipatory dread. Was she terminally ill? Secretly engaged? I didn’t want to hear whatever lay beyond the inevitable conjunction. “But,” she said, “I’m afraid you’re stunted and egocentric.”

I exhaled with relief. Was that all? To my understanding, civilization itself was shaped by the whims of stunted, egocentric men.

We’d been speaking about New York City. She’d never been. Neither had I. We’d never been anywhere, a shared condition we vowed, in time, to remedy, and the recent opening of the New York Public Library provided us with the perfect destination. One million books nestled together; the only image more breathtaking was that of the two of us nestled together for the four-hour train ride.

Her father would never allow it, she told me. Or worse, he’d insist on coming along, to which I said, “Nonsense—I’ll look after you,” to which she said the bit about my being a worthy companion, but.

“What I’m trying to get at,” she said, peering at me through eyeglasses that only made her lovely eyes larger, “is I don’t believe you’d rush to my defense if I were ever truly threatened.”

“Threatened?” I said. “Like by a bear? Because I can’t imagine there are many bears in Manhattan.”

She shook her head and kept walking. It was a glare-filled June afternoon, like an overexposed photograph, and we were on our way to her father’s house—she because she lived there, I to deliver my latest article for edits. The article, about the new beach-umbrella rental sheds opening this summer, had proven surprisingly stubborn, probably because it mattered so little. I’d finished in the nick of time, just an hour before the quick-change artist was due to arrive. All week, his piercing black pupils had watched me from the quarter-page advertisements in the Daily Wave, our earnest newspaper, for which I produced three articles per week in order to afford my horrid apartment over a shop that sold women’s undergarments.

Some days, I finished my twelve column-inches in less time than it took to drink my morning coffee. Suzanna knew about this but didn’t tell her father, though it was no secret that I considered the Wave only after I considered the contents of my cupboard, the dust in the corners of my apartment, and the premature recession of my hairline. But ambition isn’t oxygen, everywhere at once. No; it’s a sharpshooter’s bullet. I refused to tax myself with coming up with new adverbs to describe another nuptial or funeral, but only because I was reserving my passions for what came after my column-inches were done: writing my own fictions and wooing Suzanna. Regarding the former, I had begun achieving a touch of success publishing locked-room mystery stories and was determined to make a literary career. (My father and mother were pig farmers, a life unsuitable to me due to my severe straw allergies and my genuine admiration for pigs.)

My latter project followed a slower trajectory, beginning with those marble games of yore. Now, both twenty-two, we remained kindred spirits. We were unmarried, restless, and faithful to the notion that we would make our marks and our marks would not be in Cape May, New Jersey.

As we walked along now, passing clothiers and the good bakery and the bad bakery, her posture was as erect as ever. Her hair—long, wavy, like gentle ripples of sand—had always drawn glances. But her posture, that was the real show, her body elongated and resolute. “Not a bear, James,” she said long after I’d assumed we’d moved on. “But you’re fundamentally uncourageous. I truly believe that.”

How I burned to prove her wrong! I wanted to reach out—right in the middle of the day, right in the middle of Washington Street—take her by the shoulders, and kiss her. The kiss would be imperfect, off balance and toothy. Afterward, we would stand facing each other, shocked and changed. We would laugh, and maybe cry, because it was a kiss so long overdue.

“I have courage,” I told her.

“That’s sweet you think so,” she said. “But no. The instinct isn’t in you.”


As the advertisements were quick to boast, the Great Lehigh was not only a preeminent conjurer of mysteries but a world traveler. This was true. There was a time, not so many years ago, when he’d performed for kings and inspired more wonder and gossip across the globe than Houdini (to everyone except Houdini).

Also true, however, was that times change, and since his return to the States, the Great Lehigh had been out of the limelight. But now, after several years, he was back with a new act, testing it in select smaller venues before moving on to performances in Philadelphia and New York and Chicago. Hearing about his visit last month from Casey Clark, who managed the Forum Theatre, I’d immediately foreseen three articles: an advance feature, followed, upon his arrival, by an in-depth interview. And after the performance, a review.

I’d hurried straight to Sid Mudd’s office and made a case for my own special insight into the quick-change artist’s machinations. “Misdirection,” I told him, “and the red herring. These techniques aren’t so different from—”

“You’re giving me a headache,” Mudd said. “I get it. You’re a mystery man, he’s a mystery man.” He knew about my recent short stories. “Fine. It’s yours. But demand a full-page ad. Lord knows he can afford it.”

Now I stood on the platform beside Casey holding a bow-wrapped box of saltwater taffy while the train (an engine plus three cars) ground to a stop. This was the Great Lehigh’s fabled Caravan of Amazement: the first car, for the quick-change artist himself, was modeled after Queen Victoria’s saloon carriage, and replete with stateroom, parlor, kitchen, and observation deck. The second car, rumored to be as luxurious as the first, was for his pet Pomeranian. The third car housed the crew, as well as stage sets, costumes—everything needed for the performance. All around us, Cape May was enacting its own gusty performance. Brine in the air, waves smashing on the beach. Whipping winds shoving layers of gray across the sky. A fierce storm without rain.

A man in a beige coat stepped off the first car onto the platform, carrying a worn black satchel, and I was reminded about the artifice of promotional photos. The real man was less than average height, and with no music to his step, no boldness in his bearing. His moustache, which in his photograph extended perfectly parallel to the ground, drooped like leaves of a forgotten houseplant. I told myself not to be disappointed. We build up the wealthy and successful in our minds.

We approached him, and Casey introduced himself.

“I’m Willard,” the man said. Casey and I exchanged a confused glance. A few more men and one woman stepped off the same car carrying their own bags. The crew, I realized, just as the door to the second car opened and a man stepped onto the platform wearing a fur coat and a toothy smile. He came over. I was wrong. The quick-change artist more than did his photo justice, and I felt myself taking a half-step backward as Casey once again introduced himself.

“When can we check out the theater and begin unloading?” asked the Great Lehigh.

“Whenever you like, sir,” Casey said. “After supper?”

“Anything wrong with now?”

Casey said now would be fine. I gave him the subtlest of elbows to the kidney. “And this is Mr. Piper,” he said.

“From the Daily Wave,” I said. “Please, call me James.” I handed the quick-change artist the box in my hands. “This is saltwater taffy, made right here in—”

“Sticks to my teeth,” he said, and passed the box to the stocky woman. He gazed around, sniffed the air. Clapped his hands once, which got his crew’s attention. “Well, let’s do this.”

As he turned to walk away, I blurted out, “Your publicist said an interview would be—”

He swiveled and peered at me as if I were something washed ashore, a cracked shell or maybe a small dead fish. “Come by my car at ten o’clock.”

Ten o’clock was terrible, too late to finish the piece for the morning edition. Besides, Suzanne had made me promise to debrief her about the interview afterwards, and a midnight rendezvous, even having to do with the Wave, would never sail with her father.

“Is there any chance—”

“No,” he said. “Whatever it is, there’s no chance.”

A small scar above his left eyebrow gave the man’s stare an added edge of intensity.

“Ten is perfect,” I said.


“And your dog?” I asked. “Is it true her car is as . . .”—I considered my euphemisms—“comfortable as your own?”

“Her car? Do you think I’m crazy, man? Ginger rides with me.”

It was a quarter past ten, and the Great Lehigh was true to his word. At ten he’d been waiting just outside the second of the train cars. I had anticipated the extravagance of the Queen Victoria’s carriage car yet was unprepared for the effect of experiencing it firsthand. Every surface gleamed; anything capable of being carved or molded—table and chair legs, doors, lamps—was done so with intricacy in mind. We sat together on blue velvet chairs, he and I and Suzanna, whom I had invited along, believing she’d find it interesting. Believing, too, she’d be grateful to me for giving her this glimpse into a life of wealth and extravagance.

The dog in question—primped brown fur haloing a graying muzzle—snored atop a nearby velvet loveseat.

“Then what’s inside the third car?” Suzanna asked.

“Sets, instruments, everything we need to put on the show,” he said, “including . . .” The Great Lehigh lifted the champagne flute to his lips. Our glasses were heavy crystal with swan etchings. I was terrified of setting mine down too hard on its marble coaster. “Well, I shouldn’t tell you,” he said, with a slight smirk. He drank quickly—this was his second glass in only a few minutes, and I wouldn’t have bet on his sobriety even when I arrived. “Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.”

He was no actor; clearly, he invited speculation. He wanted to deepen the mystery of himself before I slid a sheet of paper into the typewriter. But speculation took time, and he’d granted me just thirty minutes. I opened my notebook and began to ask him my prepared questions. He wasn’t a very good interview, maybe because he’d given too many of them. I continued to endure his prepared, banal answers to my prepared, banal questions, feeling the opportunity for real insight evaporating. Finally, the Great Lehigh saved our interview with a loud, uncovered yawn. It was so disrespectful I wanted to thank him. I shut my interview notebook and, assisted by the glass of wine, asked him what I actually wanted to know.

“When you create your act,” I said, “how do you see the whole thing?”

He held his empty glass, eyeing it as if trying to sleuth out where the liquid had gone. “Come again?”

“I want to write mysteries,” I said. “I mean, I do write them.”

“So you’ve told me.”

It’s true. I had told him, shortly after entering his carriage, in the hope that he might see me as more than just another small-town journalist.

“He’s very good,” Suzanna added. “I’ve read them all.”

For which I’d thanked her before. I thanked her again now. “The trouble is, though,” I said to the quick-change artist, “I never seem to be able to see around the story to the beautiful reveal.”

The wine, plus my confession—never before uttered; not to Suzanna, and barely to myself—made my face heat to an almost unbearable temperature. But it was true. I held deep doubts about my own talent, which maddened me all the more because of all the things I was learning to do. I’d always had a knack for intriguing premises, but I had been studying Henry James for his syntactical playfulness and Charles Dickens for his brilliance with character quirks and demeanor (and names). I had tried penning stories with Poe’s brooding moods and Conan Doyle’s stodgy narration. By now, I could do many things. All I could not do, in fact, was simply that which a writer of mysteries must: be one step ahead. Be clever. And despite the many admirable qualities of my stories, the result of hours of toiling at my desk reworking sentences until they shined like gems, they weren’t clever. I knew this because I was cursed with being just clever enough to know what my stories were: simply, grievously polished. There was no magic to them. Nothing ineffable rising above the technique. And while my recent publications should have buttressed me—should have been evidence that I was not toiling in vain—I couldn’t help suspecting (no; knowing) that my publications re-sulted not from editors reading my work and falling off their chairs in astonishment, but rather from those same editors being desperate to fill up an issue, editors as hurried and deadline-driven as Sid Mudd, coming across a manuscript that would need little copyediting, a manuscript that would, at least, make its readers feel clever. I couldn’t shake the belief that these editors didn’t celebrate, between the acts of finishing my story and mailing my acceptance. They shrugged.

The Great Lehigh seemed to be deliberating whether to continue his pat answers or indulge me. Finally, he cracked his neck, sat back in his chair, and said, “Are you writing a story now?”

I told him I was.

“Tell me the premise.”

I told him. A prisoner is found murdered in his own locked cell.

“Many possibilities there,” he said.

“I agree. I’ve developed several of them. Each is more predictable than the last.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Suzanna said, but I felt she’d spoken less to comfort me than to reinsert herself into the conversation.

The Great Lehigh reached into the breast pocket of his blazer and removed a pack of playing cards. He slid the cards from the pack and began to shuffle and cut them elegantly without once looking at his hands.

“The key,” he said, “is to start with a breathtaking ending. Begin with that. Then devise your method backwards.”

“But I lack the imagination—”

“I’ll tell you my secret, if you want. I have only one.”

“Please,” I said. “Of course.”

He set down the pack of cards, learned toward me, and said, “Practice.” Sensing my disappointment he quickly added, “You don’t understand. You think you do, but you don’t. I’m saying practice more than anyone can fathom. More than anyone would believe was possible. You’ve probably thought of a half-dozen solutions to your prison-cell murder. Try thinking of fifty. Winnow it down. Choose the best one and write the ending ten different ways.” Now that he was no longer reciting canned responses to familiar questions, he sounded passionate and a little desperate. A bit of spittle collected on his lower lip. “When I change from one costume to another in the blink of an eye, some call it magic. Some call it trickery. Some call it a miracle. They’re all wrong, and in the same way. They’re looking for the shortcut—the loophole. They could never imagine how much practice went into doing what they just saw!” The Pomeranian’s ears twitched. “Practicing moves tens of thousands of times over years to shave off tenths of a second. That’s my secret. No gimmicks. No trickery. Just work. What I’ve just said does not go in your paper.”

I wanted to believe him because it would mean magnificence was under my control. But I feared he was like a gull explaining flight to a heavy-boned, wingless creature.

The quick-change artist wasn’t done. “And what I’ve given up,” he said, taking another drink. “No one considers that either. Whom I’ve shunned, what I’ve missed in the service of total commitment. I once had family and friends. Now I have staff. True professionals, keepers of secrets . . . but it’s not the same. I pay them well for their loyalty.”

“You’ve traveled the world,” Suzanna said. “You’ve met King George.”

“It’s true, young lady. I’ve been party to pomp, to spectacle. But I’ll tell you something. I have seen the world, and the world is fickle. It loves you one day, and the next day it decides it prefers a half-size Hungarian huckster with flexible joints.” He chased his words with the last of his wine. “This is real. Sitting here with you both.” He picked up the bottle and looked at it with disapproval, and then at me. “This damn bottle is empty, and you’re a damn struggling artist, and you”—turning to Suzanna—“are simply damn delightful—but not simple, this I would bet my life on.” He walked to a tall cabinet with the nearly steady gait of a man used to riding the rails, except the car wasn’t moving. In the cabinet were various liquors, and he returned with three fresh tumblers and a bottle of scotch. He opened the bottle and poured.

“Now,” he said to me, glass raised, “tell me more about your prison-cell story. I’ll wager the solution is already within your grasp.”

I told him. And while he shuffled his cards, he spoke about lightness and darkness, about expectation and its denial. Above all, he spoke about wonderment. I jotted notes so I’d forget nothing. Suzanna tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, her telltale sign of deep concentration, and got into the act: not perfunctorily. Not to remind us of her presence. She was part of this, and I felt proud of her, proud to have invited her tonight, and we all laughed at something the Great Lehigh said, and I imagined our laughter carrying outward past the train car, the station, carrying on the wind all the way down the beach, and when the bottle was empty, our conversation was not, and we stayed at it, talking and tinkering, inching our way toward some breathtaking leap of the imagination, and then the Great Lehigh swallowed more scotch and let it slip that it was a wild animal in the second car, a 500-pound beast, part of a new routine, possibly his greatest ever, and he would tell us more except he wanted us to experience it fully. It was becoming exactly the evening I’d hoped for when I imagined getting to spend time with this most accomplished of performers, and I reminded myself of this and reminded myself of this, and gradually I was able to stop stealing glances at Suzanna, whose rapt expression had not once, in all these years, been gifted to me.


We shuffled along the quiet dirt road, Suzanna and I, toward our side of town. I imagined the bustle of New York City at this time of night, or even Atlantic City. There, we would just be getting started.

She stopped. “Oh, shoot.”

“What is it?”

“I was supposed to get him to agree to an ad. My father . . . that’s why he let me come.”

“I’m sure tomorrow—”

“No, he was quite clear about it.”

We’d been walking only a couple of minutes. I turned around. “Then let’s head back.”

She started back with me a few steps, then stopped again. “You know what?” she said. “You go on home. I don’t mind going alone.”

It was late. The only light came from the moon. The only sounds were crickets and the wind blowing through a grove of scraggly trees. “Didn’t I promise to look after you?” I said.

“I can look out for myself.” She sounded more stern than the moment warranted. Then her voice softened. “Really. You go home.”

I watched her in the moonlight and my world tilted. “Are you sure?” My voice sounded as needling as saw grass.

She reached out and touched my arm. “Good night, James.” She began walking back to the station.

We went in opposite directions. When she was out of sight, I retraced my steps to where we’d parted ways and sat in the dirt. I clenched and unclenched my fists and listened to the crickets.

She was right, of course. I was not courageous. Not ever. I lacked the very instinct that bears and wolves and sharks and all the world’s brutes possessed in abundance. But instinct becomes unnecessary in the face of planning, I told myself, and decided to believe it.

I stood, brushed off my pants, and started home. One day wasn’t nearly enough time to develop an ironclad alibi for what I had to do. But a day was all I had. The Great Lehigh had only the one show before moving on to Philadelphia and then New York. And I knew, as much as I ever knew anything in this sluggish seaweed of a town, that if I failed to act, when the train pulled out Suzanna would be on it. . . .


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024 Quick Change by Michael Kardos

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