The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 1

    The main issue with sawing a girl in half is the question of trust. To the audience it looks as though the trust is between the magician and her assistant. In reality though, there are two sorts of trust at work, and both are critical for a “magical” performance.

    On one level there’s the trust the audience places in their senses. They see the lovely assistant led to the box. They see the box spun around, presumably to assure them that it’s just a normal box. They see the girl being locked securely in the box and they know there’s no way she can get free. Then the magician takes out her giant saw and proceeds to make the impossible happen.

    That’s the other level of trust. The audience wants to believe their eyes, but they’re trusting that the magician is going to show them a tiny miracle. They believe there’s a girl, they believe there’s a box she’s trapped in and a saw that can cut through it. As the saw tears through the wood, they’re glued to watching something that should be horrifying and yet they can clap and laugh because they also believe, in their hearts if not in their minds, that the magician can bend the laws of reality a bit and show them that the world is more than what they perceive it to be.

    “You’re a natural at this.” Way whispered to me as I picked up a comically huge mallet and started hammering on the saw which had gotten “stuck” halfway through the box as part of the act.

    I had to smile at that. While Way was the last person in the world I’d ever want to saw in half, she was also the only person I could ever imagine running a vaudeville show with. I think the audience could sense that too.

    “Apologies for the sawdust, this can get a little messy, as I’m sure you can imagine.” I said, playing to the front row but speaking loud enough to be heard by the back seats. There was a round of mild laughter at the joke. I’d considered playing up the horror element of the routine, but Way had suggested the lighter touch of only making a few jokes that suggested she was actually being ripped in two by the sawblade. Looking at the smiling faces in the audience, I saw she’d been right on that call.

    For her part, Way played the act with smiles and hammy overacting, never for a moment suggesting that she was in peril or pain. In truth that was better acting than it appeared. While I was busy “sawing” through the box, Way had herself contorted into the upper half of it. It wasn’t the hardest part of our show but it also wasn’t anywhere near as comfortable as she made it out to be.

    It was that level of showmanship that had won us the audition at the Chimera Club’s New Talent Night. Not many acts made it past the New Talent Night. A lucky few would get called back for a repeat performance or two but you had to really bring the house down to get a full time contract.

    The amusing thing was that Way and I were more than capable of bringing the house down, in a very literal sense, but we had to manage the performance without relying on any true magic. That was scary in its own right, but comparing our act to the talent we shared the stage with had given me a horrible case of performance jitters. It had taken Way nearly laughing herself silly at the sight of my fretting to remind me of who we were and why we were really here. Where our fellow performers were following dreams of fame and fortune, we were on the trail of a murder which might not even have happened.

    The trail of the missing Guy Mcintyre, uber-wealthy philanthropist and social recluse, had led us to the Chimera Club and its owner “Eddie” Stone, the gangster who owned enough of the city of Los Diablos that they might as well have renamed the place in his honor. Eddie had a lot of secrets and it wasn’t hubris to say there wasn’t anyone on the planet who had better chance of figuring out what they were than we did. Signing on as performers at the club would make it simple to observe the the things that were hidden backstage. Simple, and dangerous, but that’s what made the detective work so interesting.

    Which is not to say that your typical detective would think that way. In fact, to say that two eighteen year old girls weren’t exactly your typical detectives would have been an understatement even on my homeworld and there we had a kitchen sink full of craziness. That we weren’t on my homeworld was probably the first clue that Way and I weren’t your typical eighteen year olds though.  “Jin the Amazing” was a magician but the real “Jin”, the real me, was something a whole lot more.

    Like Way, I was a Dream Lord. I’d woken up one violent, crazy night and understood a whole lot more about the world than I’d ever imagined there was to know. I still thought of myself as an eighteen year old girl, but for the last four years I’d been able to walk between worlds that were joined only by my dreams. I’d met fantastic and amazing people of all species and morphologies and been inducted into the Parliament of Time’s Diplomatic Corp. Oh, and I could change what was real with nothing more than my imagination. That’s what it means to be a Dream Lord.

    Which isn’t to say that altering reality is easy or safe. While we can change the world, Way and I had spent a good part of the last four years learning to recognize all of the various situations where it was a tremendously bad idea to do so. Like, for example, Terra-2407, the parallel Earth we were playing amateur detectives on.

    Terra-2407 was a lot like my Earth, except progress had been delayed a bit. Technologically and socially the people were about a century behind my world. To them it was the modern day, but in my eyes they looked to be in the early years of the 20th century. Airplanes had crossed the Atlantic ocean but not the Pacific yet. The telegraph had been invented, as had radio and the motor car, but people were only beginning to see their lives changing because of them. Women had won the right the to vote, but the Civil Rights movement was still decades off, assuming history here was shaped by the same forces that shaped the history I knew.

    From my perspective, as a Chinese-American girl, it was a weird and unsettling world. I was spared the worst of it in the sense that it wasn’t a reality I would be forced to live in for the rest of my life. As a performer, I benefited a little from the “Asian Mystique”. It helped people believe in the magic shows a bit more, but getting them to take me seriously outside of the performances was another matter. That was a big part of the reason that I’d chosen to appear as I normally looked though. Being dismissed as a lesser lifeform for my gender and ethnicity would have been aggravating under normal circumstances, but given that I needed to ferret out some rather deadly secrets without relying on my dream magics having people underestimate me seemed just fine in my book.

    On another world, discovering who had murdered Guy Mcintyre (or finding him if he was still alive) would have taken five minutes at most. Terra-2407 wasn’t like most other worlds though. The barrier between the real world and the dreaming world, between what was real and what was imaginary, was the most brittle of any world I’d ever been too.

    Using dream magic was possible, but any sort of overt, obvious effect would leave a crack in reality that the world couldn’t heal. On my Earth, those cracks formed in the wake of dream magic but reality was more fluid. History would change and come up with a path that explained why a car decided to suddenly explode that had nothing to do with a dragon breathing fire on it. Or it would decide that the dragon had always been there and the car owner would have “destruction by dragon fire” as one of the coverages on their insurance. Not so for Terra-2407.

    Earth-Glass (as I’d come to call it) would leave the ruined car there as a visible sign of the break in the laws that governed the world. Fixing a fracture like that was a dicey thing. There were decent odds that anything you did it would cause the effect to spread until the world eventually crumbled to illogical dust. The alternative was worse though.

    As a magician I brought wonder forth from the impossible. There’s more than wonder in the dreaming though. There are monsters that lurk in it too and quite a few of them love nothing more than finding worlds like Earth-Glass to slip into and terrorize. Those were not fun fights to be involved in.

    That’s why Way and I had crafted a pair of very “mundane” identities for ourselves when we’d stepped into Earth-Glass. A stage magician and her lovely (and strong) assistant resonated with our overall identities which made them easy to wear while not straining the bounds of reality too much. We were unusual but not unbelievable, especially among other theater performers.

    With Way “cut in half” and still waving to the crowds, I gestured for the stage hands to bring out the water tank for the second part of the effect. The script called for me (with the help of a few burly stage hands) to drop the two separate boxes underwater where my poor vivisected assistant would have to somehow escape from her bonds and reassemble herself before she drowned. While she tried to that, the stagehands would spin the water tank around while I added “magic powders” to it to brew her into a potion that would make me the “most beautiful woman in the world!”

    The “magic powder” was nothing more than colored earth that would make the water murky enough that people wouldn’t notice Way slip out of the one box she’d contorted herself into. The stagehands would be the first to “notice” that she was gone and would form a convenient wall for just a moment while she slipped out of the water tank as well.

    From there it was all on me to fill two minutes with “spells” in the form of rapid fire card tricks and conjurations to keep the audience enthralled and wondering what had happened to my assistant.

    The big finish followed that with me “remembering” how I’d always told my assistant that she was “angel” and “could she please come down now”. Way would then descend on a wire from the roof of auditorium, a quick costume change having dried her off and put wings of downy white feathers on her back.

    Way and I had gone over the routine dozens of times. We had our timing nailed down. I had my patter all worked out and a dozen effects at my fingertips. We’d prepared for everything.

    Everything except a dead body crashing down into the water tank as the stage hands wheeled it out.

    I caught sight of the man’s body, as it fell and had to suppress a surge of anger at the interruption of our act. I banished that particularly idiotic impulse a moment later as the glass walls of the water tank shattered.

    There’s a saying that the “show must go on” but when the stage becomes the scene of a murder investigation the normal rules are suspended. I glanced over the audience and saw that what had been a delightful show was about to become a terrified riot as people fought to escape. Before they could give in their natural and potentially justified panic though I turned to them and hooked my thumb at the body.

    “You’ll have to give us a moment folks, seems someone’s trying to sneak in to the show without paying for their tickets!” I said, giving them a broad smile to let them know it was “all part of the act”.

    It was callous and probably cruel, but sometimes that’s what was called for. Four years of training in the Diplomat Corp had taught me a lot of things, not the least of which was that crowds can be dangerous beasts when they’re spooked, both to themselves and others.

    I wasn’t the only one who keep their wits together thankfully. As though we’d rehearsed it, the curtain guy let the front curtain fall with a dramatic thump as I gave a parting wave to the audience.

    Way was out her constraints and out of the top half of the box before I had a chance to get over to her. Together we walked across the stage to where the body lay.

    “I think he’s really dead.” Joe, one of stagehands, whispered.

    I looked at him and flinched. He was definitely dead. The bullet wound in his head left little doubt of that. What was worse was that I knew him!

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