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JCP News - Kindle Edition

Issue 48 - December 15, 2011


JCP News on Kindle


Body Art

Fire Thief

Prestidigital Press


Jordan's Fiction

Magic Mansion

Magical Thinking


Attention, Kindle Owners!
I took a brief, informal poll on Facebook about the length of my newsletters, and everyone who answered said they enjoy them nice and long...and I think that's awesome, because they're my way of keeping in touch with you between book releases in a market that's constantly flooded with new books.

But personally, I'm not one to sit and read at my computer, and I wondered if there was a way I could make JCP News more convenient to read. So I poked around and discovered a way you can transfer the newsletter to your Kindle and read it there. It takes a bit of setup (which took me less than 5 minutes, but your mileage may vary depending on how familiar you are with managing your Kindle from your Amazon page.) Once you're set up, though, it's just a couple of clicks to reading JCP News on your Kindle.

(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.)


Dear reader,
December is a busy month for me with releases and re-releases. In the interest of avoiding burnout, I try to do something a little different at the end of the day to unwind. I've been watching reality shows to get ideas for Magic Mansion, though I think mainly what I take away from them is the way footage is manipulated in post-production to tell a story. Life is weird like that, there's no narrative to it. Fiction can't be that way, or else it feels unfinished. So reality shows rely a lot of a constructed, and often contrived, narrative.

Another pastime I've been working on lately is jigsaw puzzles. I think I enjoy them because they don't pull my brain out of my storyverse. They're just something engaging and challenging to do without words. It's all shape and color. And in a way they feel "refreshing" after a long day of dealing with choosing words and putting them in order.

weird shapes

I scored a huge pile of weird jigsaw puzzles at a yard sale to benefit the local food pantry. Some of them were very old. What's interesting about pre-1950 puzzles is that the pieces aren't shaped like you expect puzzle pieces to be shaped. Actually, when I dumped this seascape out and saw the way the pieces were cut, I was annoyed at first. That's not the way a puzzle piece is supposed to look. They're all different sizes. And some of the middle pieces have flat sides. How am I supposed to put the edges together first if the middle pieces have flat sides, too?

But I'm stubborn, and I persevered, and by the time I'd worked on it for a couple of nights, I actually found I enjoyed the challenge of the oddly shaped pieces. I was fully prepared for it to be missing some pieces after all these years, but they're all there. I even finished it despite all the "help" I got. (And you'll see a weird round puzzle over there from the 1960's...I haven't worked up the nerve to try that one yet.)

lots of help

I ran into a friend of mine at the local five-and-dime, and she pointed at a jigsaw puzzle and said, "Isn't that pretty?" And I said, "Actually, I've been doing them lately." Turns out she is too, for the purpose of keeping her mind sharp! Great minds think alike. (And she is a great mind...I think of her as my most productive friend. So we must be on to something.) Maybe she'll want the seascape now that I've done it.

I found another puzzle in my pile from the same company as the funky-pieced seascape puzzle (Guild) but it's from the mid-nineties. The pieces are just regular old pieces. Oh well. It's 1000 pieces. It should keep me occupied for a while anyway!

Read on to find out about more fun stuff to do with your brain...

Puzzlingly yours,

P.S. - I'm a finalist in a "Favourite M/M Author" poll at Reviews by Jessewave. (* You'll need to vote from your computer as the page doesn't load well on the Kindle, but I'd really appreciate your vote! Poll closes 12/20!

One of these re-releases may be new to you!

Body Art Cover


Does everyone have a certain “type” they end up with…whether they want to or not? If Ray Carlucci’s ex is anything to go by, Ray likes his men gorgeous, rebellious, and chock-full of issues. But now that Ray is single again, he has a shot at a fresh start—a very fresh start, since his tattoo shop was gutted by repo men and he can fit all his belongings in the trunk of a taxi.

Ray’s shiny new chauffeur’s license lands him a job as a driver for an elderly couple on Red Wing Island. It’s a cold fall, and since the Michigan island is the summer home to snowbirds who fly south for the winter, it’s practically deserted—save for Ray’s new household and a sculptor named Anton Kopec, who works day and night twisting brambles and twine into the distorted shapes of macabre creatures. Compelling, bizarre, and somewhat disturbing…not just the sculptures, but the artist, too. Ray has a feeling Anton is just his “type.”

Despite their scorching chemistry, when a dead body is unearthed by some workers and a freak ice storm traps them all on the island, Ray can’t say for certain that his new flame isn’t capable of murder. Get Body Art on your Kindle now.

(31,000 word novella)

NOTE: This novella previously appeared in the anthology Partners in Crime 4: The Art of Dying


Fire Thief Cover


Is seeing really believing? Hank would never dream of coming on to the most striking guy at the bar—but it’s his lucky night since Thomas, the burgundy-haired vision in black lipstick and mirrored shades, takes it upon himself to make the first move.

While the encounter itself is mind-blowing, the hot-and-heavy grapple in the janitor’s closet isn’t the only way in which Thomas blows Hank’s mind. Get Fire Thief on your Kindle now.

(3600 word short story)

NOTE: An earlier version of this story appeared in the charity anthology Firestorm.


50 Excruciating Mazes

Just in time for Christmas: got some hard-to-buy-for relatives you need to gift? How about maze books? Prestidigital Press mazes are brutally hard, and each book should keep the recipient occupied for hours. Visit the Prestidigital Press website (* for links my first two books on Amazon: 50 Excruciating Mazes, and 50 Odious Over-and-Under Mazes. You'll also find several downloadable sample puzzles at the Prestidigital Press site that will give you a good idea of the mazes' level of difficulty. Sign up for Prestidigital Press News (* to get a quick email when a new puzzle or magic book comes out.


Oh Goody!

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




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

1 Payback
2 Vertigo
3 Manikin
4 Tainted

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

Body Art
Fire Thief
Kindred Spirits
The Serpent in the Garden
The Voice
Zero Hour: A Dystopian Adventure



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.

Magical Thinking

As I was working on this month's chunk of Magic Mansion, I started thinking about the theme. I think "theme" is a strong but elusive component of any story, and in fact I usually couldn't tell you what the theme of a book I'm writing is until it's most of the way done. I then go back and really hammer it home during edits.

For Magic Mansion, though, it seems to me the theme is about the subjectivity of morality, and how everyone's idea of fairness, of right and wrong, is different. That came through very early on, in chapter one, when John visits the hospital and butts heads with a nurse when, ostensibly, they should have been on the same "side."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Starving Years is really about that too, as is the whole Channeling Morpheus series. Maybe that's my new "thing." From 2000-2010 my writing seemed to be focused on how someone who sees himself as unloveable can be transformed by love (Victor Bayne). Maybe Channeling Morpheus bridges the gap between my old favorite theme and my new one of right vs. wrong in a subjective world, since it really encompasses both.

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


Chapter Twenty



Video Journal - Amazing Fae

When Red Team unveiled their Zig Zag Cabinet, I’ll admit, I was a little scared. It looked really, really good. They’ve got some serious talent over there—especially now that all their deadweight is gone. They’re all pros. Not that the Gold Team members aren’t…we’ve got Ricardo. He’s good.

What’s funny is, back on the first day, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Sue picked me—because, come on, she works in a gift shop. I really thought it was some kind of fluke that she’d come in second place on that first challenge, and Red Team was going to be the team to beat. I even figured if there was one consolation to being on a team full of losers, it would be that I could outshine them.

And then we won. Every single challenge.

I think sometimes luck, or fate, or whatever you want to call it…I think that plays a big part in people’s lives. I wouldn’t have chosen to be on Gold Team myself, but now look at us. We’re kicking some serious ass.

Which isn’t to say that providence is just going to hold your hand and present everything to you on a silver platter. You’ve got to work for the things you want. And I’ll be damned if I ever bomb another challenge.



“Can’t you get a move on?” Iain said. Interns. Honestly. Sometimes it seemed like they were more trouble than they were worth. Even the free ones. But Iain needed to make do with what he had, and he’d be damned if he ended up on the receiving end of yet another one of Marlene’s snotty looks. And he’d be damned if these little twerps kept him from going home at a decent hour, too. “Paint faster, people. It’s not the Sistine Chapel.”

In an ideal world, the studio’s prop room could have provided the necessary accouterments for the show. “I need lots of wands,” Marlene had told him. So he’d put a call in, and they’d sent down a good two dozen of them.

To which she’d responded with a “look.”

If she meant a thousand, she should have been more fucking specific.

When he finally found a manufacturer who was willing to overnight the damn things to him, they cheerfully informed him that they would do just that…after an eight to ten day manufacturing period. Because apparently the need for magic wands was not so great that anyone in the whole damn country would stock a thousand of them.

Which, of course, Marlene needed for tomorrow.

Luckily, once Iain ducked back into his trailer to pace and swear, he spotted the piece of “chalk” he’d given the Math Wizard during the filming of the intro, a piece of dowel covered in white correction fluid, and he had his great idea. Not terribly great—magic wands made from dowels didn’t look nearly as good as the wands from the prop department, which were tapered on one side and carefully finished, with a glossy ebony body and a faux ivory tip—but at least he’d have them in time for the damn stunt.

If only the pathetic interns would stop screwing around and get to work.


As much as Ricardo enjoyed the company of his teammates, the time they spent waiting for things to happen was nerve-wracking. There was a pool on the property, but it was out of repair, drained and off-limits. There was a workout room, but Kevin Kazan was usually in there pumping iron—and the grunting noises he made with each and every curl, extension or raise were, frankly, disturbing (plus there was the thought of his perspiration coating everything…just, ew.) There was a full bar…but with handhelds hoping to spy a bit of interpersonal conflict drifting through their living space, even between challenges, it seemed unwise to give in to temptation and go the unfortunate Ken Barron route. And there was a hastily-manicured section of backyard that seemed ideal for sunbathing, but once Ricardo and Sue spread out their towels, they soon discovered that clouds of gnats from the unkept areas were quick to descend on them. Besides, it turned out the grass had only been painted green. It poked right through the towels and prickled their backs, and it crunched every time they rolled over.

So it was with a certain dread-tinged relief that Ricardo greeted Iain when he strode into the front hall, where the Gold Team members were perched on the edge of the fountain, wagering guesses as to what the odd chemical smell in the water might be. Dread, because the sight of Iain meant the announcement of some weird, contrived activity that would ultimately end in someone getting voted off. But relief, since the anticipation was killing them.

“Heads up, kids. It’s time for your next stunt. Swing by wardrobe, then meet me in the basement at five-fifteen ready to roll in your brand-spanking new swimwear.”

The basement? That part of the mansion had been strictly off-limits to the contestants.

Iain turned and left. Ricardo looked at Sue, who shrugged. No one tried to stop Iain. It wasn’t as if they were under the illusion they he might tell them what they were up against.

As the teammates stood to head over to wardrobe, Muriel said, “Do you think there’ll be pudding involved?”

Fae grumbled, “There’d better not be.”

“I dunno,” Muriel said as they trooped into wardrobe and began making their way past racks of sequins and satin. “I could really go for some pudding.”

While Ricardo scrutinized the three-way mirror to determine which sparkly gold briefs made his butt look shapelier, it occurred to him that he’d presumed he would only don such a costume while lounging beside a serene, blue in-ground pool. The word “Mansion” in the show’s title was no doubt to blame for his misconception that anything in his reality TV experience would actually be glamorous. Then again, some things you just can’t anticipate. Like painted grass. Or giant vats of pudding.

The wardrobe girl stuck her head into his makeshift changing stall, looked directly at his butt, and said, “Definitely that pair.”

Ricardo took a deep breath and nodded. He supposed there wasn’t anything left to do, other than show up and try to make the best of things.

The basement, it turned out, was vast. Its ceilings were high and there were no exposed beams or concrete walls, as would be found in any normal middle-class home. But there was still a dank, utilitarian feel about it, all the same.

The tile floors were set with drains, and the camera rigs and lighting hugged the wall with the electrical box and hot water heater. A four-foot-tall pool with inflatable sides took up most of the set. Hard to say what it contained. A silver solar cover shielded the contents from view.

Bev, Sue and Muriel were right behind Ricardo. Sue looked like Miss Nebraska in her spike heels and gold lamé one-piece with high cut legs. Muriel wore a suit with a plainer cut and a gold snakeskin pattern that left the eye wondering where to look. Bev seemed awkward in glasses, earrings, and geriatric-looking gold paisley swim dress that managed to highlight every unflattering bulge.

Fae brought up the rear in gold kitten heels and a thigh-length gold sparkle wrap cinched tight over her swimsuit. She strode to a piece of masking tape on the floor Ricardo hadn’t even noticed, and gazed at the wall on the far side of the basement. No doubt steeling herself for whatever new challenge was in store. And hoping there’d be no pudding involved.

Across the pool, the Red Team gathered…what was left of it. Kevin Kazan wore huge red swim trunks with elaborate black criss-crossed lacing at the fly and the side seams. They hung low on his hips, boxy and stiff, and above the waistband, his abs were so cut they didn’t even look real. Jia wore a low-cut red one piece with a glittery black dragon emblazoned down the side. And John towered over them, smooth and tan, lean and natural, in a pair of simple red racing shorts. From across the basement, he looked statuesque, and timeless.

While Ricardo didn’t quite need to give himself a mental cold shower by imagining income taxes or prickly spray-painted lawns…he couldn’t resist admiring. Kevin looked back at him, arms crossed and chin tipped up, as if he read Ricardo’s attention in the Red Team’s direction as a challenge.

Whatever. Professor Topaz rocked a swimsuit like nobody’s business.

“My, my, my,” Monty purred with mock lasciviousness as he was ushered in past the Gold Team. “I’m stoked for tonight’s challenge.”

Sue tittered. Fae was so focused she didn’t even notice. Muriel looked down at her snakeskin bathing suit, then told Ricardo, “You think that was directed at me? Hot damn. Maybe I should’ve gone for the bikini.”

While Ricardo wouldn’t have dreamed of telling Muriel not to get her hopes up, he highly doubted she’d been the object of the handsome announcer’s playful leering. Then again, considering the age difference between himself and John (and the unabashed enjoyment he was getting from those red shorts) he supposed he could be wrong.

Crew shuffled, cameras swept, and finally when everyone was in place, Iain gave his signal.

“Good evening, Magicians,” Monty read from the teleprompter. “Water and stage magic have long gone hand in hand. Back at the turn of the Twentieth Century when it was considered scandalous for a woman to show so much as a bare ankle, Harry Houdini was being chained up in a water tank wearing nothing but a pair of woolen shorts.”

A camera hovered to the side of Ricardo. He put his weight on one foot and made sure his body was at a pleasing angle. But subtly. He didn’t want to look like he was posing, after all.

“Another magical prop that’s withstood the test of time—a prop that is now synonymous with stage magic—is the magic wand.

“Wands are one of the many props typically employed for close-up magic: drawing the viewers’ eyes to the very spot the performer wishes his or her audience to look, to distract from their sleight of hand. They’re not typically used in underwater cabinet tricks.

“So tonight in Magic Mansion, we thought we’d try a little twist…and combine water with wands…in the Wand Pond.”

Stage hands whisked the cover off the pool while cameras circled. The pool was full of water. Muriel sighed. There’d be no pudding tonight.

“Inside this pool, you’ll find a thousand wands.” A spotlight blinked on, shining on a board with four black-painted sticks pinned to it like specimens. “Nine hundred of them are the same size, ten inches long.” Ricardo noted the demo-wands were, indeed, different sizes…but only marginally different. Which would be basically impossible to tell, underwater. “Ninety wands are ten and a half inches long. Only nine wands are eleven inches long. And a single wand is a full twelve inches.

“You’ll be searching for the longest wand. You have fifteen minutes to complete this task. You may only hold one wand in each hand at any given time, and anyone who picks up more than two at a time will be disqualified. In the event that the longest wand found by each team matches, the team who found that wand first and exited the Wand Pond will win the competition. So when you’re satisfied with your wand, hop out of the pool.

“The winning team will spend tomorrow wining and dining with a special V.I.P., but more importantly than that, they’ll go into the next challenge with a big advantage. You’ll have three minutes to confer with your teammates on your strategy, and then it’s time for a dip.

“And if anyone should happen to find the single longest wand, not only will their team win the current challenge…but that magician will be immune in the next elimination round.”

Two handhelds edged into the Gold Team’s huddle. Ricardo saw that, across the pool, they were doing the same for the Red Team…which only had three members.

That wasn’t very fair. Gold Team had five chances in a thousand to find the longest wand. Red Team had only three.

“It’s statistically improbable anyone will find that twelve-inch wand,” Bev said. “And since it’s entirely possible that everyone comes up with a short wand, one of us needs to grab the first wand she sees and hop right back out. That way, we’ll win the time-score. Who wants to do that? Fae? You’re quick.”

“No…not me,” Fae said. “Someone else.”

“Not Ricardo,” Bev said, “Assuming he doesn’t have a problem with water. You don’t, do you?” Ricardo shook his head no. “He’s got the longest reach. He should stay ’til the very end and keep comparing every wand he grabs to the one already in his hand. Chances are, he’ll end up with one of the ninety 10-1/2 inchers.”

“Not you,” Muriel said to Bev. “I got a feeling you’ll be able to spot a long one. Heh.”

“Accounting for the motion and the refraction of the water…well, it’s hard to say what I’ll be able to see until I get in there. But maybe.”

“I’m quick,” Sue said. “I’ll make a grab and jump right out.” Either Sue was a phenomenally generous team player, or she didn’t seem to think she needed immunity, not at this stage of the game. And Ricardo suspected she didn’t.

“Okay,” Bev said. “Good. And since we’ve got a huge advantage in having five players, we should have someone else jump out with their best wand at the five- and ten-minute marks.”

“Instead of grabbing for wands yourself,” Sue suggested to Bev, “what if you worked with the other players and point out which wand we should take?”

“Good,” Bev said. “I like it.”

“Except me,” Sue said. “I’ll just grab and go as fast as I can. Okay, so who wants to go in what order? Me first, Ricardo last, Bev second-last….”

“I’ll come out after five,” Muriel said. Which would make it unlikely she’d gain the immunity…though, Ricardo reminded himself, Bev said it was improbable anyone would find the twelve-inch wand. While she hadn’t said “impossible,” chances were she reserved that word for literal impossibilities, like Kevin Kazan one day waking up as a tolerable human being.

“Okay,” Sue said, “that leaves Fae at the ten-minute mark. Is everyone on board? High five!”

As Sue high-fived Ricardo, Iain called out, “Okay, enough talking. Everyone face the cameras. Monty, you read that next part.”

While facing the cameras didn’t put Monty in his direct line of sight, something compelled Ricardo to sneak a quick look at him. As the announcer read through whatever was on his teleprompter, his eyes widened. Only briefly, but Ricardo saw what he saw. A cold knot of dread formed in his stomach.

On Iain’s signal, Monty smiled broadly at the contestants and said, “Before you dive in, Magicians, there’s just one more thing. Playing with only three team members would put the Red Team at a serious disadvantage.”

Oh, great, Ricardo thought. Just when we get our plan all hashed out, they’re gonna tell us to have two people sit out. Maybe Muriel would volunteer. And who else? Maybe Fae…she hadn’t seemed too keen on the challenge during the whole planning process, anyway.

Monty took a deep breath, and went on. “And so, to even the odds, we turned this decision over to our home viewers—and they have spoken. Red Team, say hello to your new member…Amazing Fae!”

Ricardo had been so sure he was about to hear a directive to sit someone out, Monty’s words didn’t even make sense to him. Not until Fae whispered, “I’m sorry, guys…nothing personal,” and gave the belt of her gold sparkle wrap a tug. It slid to the floor, pooling around her kitten heels…and there she stood in a shimmering scarlet bikini. The gold wrap lay on the floor like a shed skin as she strode away to join the other team—who looked just as shocked as Ricardo felt.

“How long did she know?” Sue whispered, bewildered.

“Wardrobe,” Ricardo decided, because to think she’d been in on the switch any sooner was just plain creepy. “They must have told her then, when they gave her a red bathing suit. Unless she’s colorblind.”

Kevin Kazan welcomed Fae with a courtly kiss on the back of the hand, and she proceeded to whisper urgently to the Red Team while they listened, and nodded.

“Well, that’s just great,” Bev hissed, “she’s taking our whole strategy to our opponents.”

Ricardo had never seen Bev so angry. Cameras swarmed.

“Don’t worry,” Muriel said, “she can steal our strategy, but she can’t take away our talent. Gold Team will win it, because that’s how we roll. We’ll do everything as planned, and with Bev’s eagle eyes, Ricardo will be the one to find the big stick.”

Sue looked like she was about to burst into tears, but she nodded extra-hard in agreement and said, “That’s right, guys. We’ll show them. We are totally winning this challenge. Group hug.”

Ricardo put his arms around Sue and Muriel and bumped heads with Bev. There they were, just “the girls” who’d shared their reality TV initiation on day one with the obnoxious taping of the show’s opening credits. But instead of feeling solid and unshakeable, Ricardo felt suddenly vulnerable, and profoundly exposed.


Chapter 21



“…so I’ll hop out first,” Fae said. “I’m quicker than the rest of you, and I’m taller than Jia, so it’ll be easier for me to climb out.”

“A’ight,” Kevin said, “so to figure out who’s staying in the longest…who’s wearing contacts? ’Cos I can’t see shit once my contacts start sticking to my eyeballs.”

“I had LASIK when I was eighteen,” Jia said. “But I’m not a big swimmer.”

“I’ll do it,” John said. “I swim.” And while he’d never taken an eye test in his life, he had every reason to believe his vision had never been anything less than perfect. The acuity had become obvious in his early fifties, when he and Casey noticed a preponderance of reading glasses cropping up among all their non-magic friends. They’d even tried a few pairs on, for a lark. Casey had looked distinguished in his pair. John’s did nothing but make the room wobble.

Kevin was giving John a hard look—possibly trying to see if he was being overconfident, or maybe if he was wearing contact lenses too, but was willing to risk the discomfort of wet lenses for a chance at winning immunity.

Which, when John considered it against Red Team’s horrific losing streak, seemed like it might not be such a bad thing to have. According to Fae, the Math Wizard had said it was statistically improbable.

Probably. But there were statistics, and then there was Truth.

“Magicians,” Monty said, “take your places.”

Tape marks ringed the broad, shallow pool, interspersed with a pair watertight camera rigs positioned underwater at opposite sides. John found a tape mark and stood on it. He felt a cameraman behind him as he calculated whether it would be foolhardy to take a shallow dive. Not dangerous, no, not if he did it with control. But why hurry? He’d have the entire fifteen minutes to find his wand.

Fae, however, would really benefit from a quick entry.

“On your marks…get set….”

John turned to Fae, whispered, “Leg up,” and cut his eyes to the pool.

Fae understood immediately. She gave a curt nod.


All around the pool, magicians in glittery red and gold swimsuits began boosting themselves over the pool’s sides. John, however, knelt beside Fae instead. He almost catapulted her right to the center—she weighed next to nothing, and her foot felt as small as a child’s against his palm—but at the last moment he reined in and aimed her closer to the pool’s side. She splashed down, went under, burst back up with a wand, then swung herself out over the edge. Sue followed close on her heels, but the seconds the jump-start had gained Fae proved to be crucial.

First wand to Red Team.

John swung his legs into the pool. Immediately, he was startled by the feel of the rods beneath his feet, uncomfortable to stand on, and strangely slippery, too. Wherever a number of them had fallen parallel, they functioned as a sort of conveyor belt, rolling the contestants out of their strides.

And if that wasn’t enough, there were cameras to avoid. And splashing.

And screaming.

He was unsure who’d started the screaming. Possibly Jia—the water was unexpectedly cold. But the manic energy spread fast, and pretty soon Muriel was whooping, Kevin was bellowing, and Bev was hollering over the top of it all, “Not that one! The other one next to it!”

John went under and picked up two wands. Were they ten inches? Ten and a half? He emerged and compared them. They were the same size. Or were they? Maybe they weren’t. Maybe he was holding them wrong. And maybe, in his apprehension, he would throw away the longer wand if he wasn’t careful, thereby letting victory slip right through his fingers.

Honestly, don’t be such a drama queen. The words popped into John’s mind as if dear departed Casey had been commentating on the whole fiasco, lounging on the sidelines with a mai tai in his hand and a lazy smile on his face. If nothing else, you get to ogle the cute twink in the gold trunks. So live a little. Relax.

John took a steadying breath, then searched through the splashing, screaming, wand-waving melee. Sue and Fae stood outside the pool, dripping on the tile floor, adding to the chaos by shouting encouragement at their teams. Muriel slogged through the water with her hair a mass of heavy gray tangles that covered her face. She seemed to be laughing. Jia bobbed up holding her nose with a wand hooked awkwardly in the pinkie finger of that hand. She compared two lengths of wand, threw one back in, then held her nose and went under again. Ricardo broke the surface of the water with a wand in each hand, compared them, and tossed one away while Bev shouted, “Not that one!”

Kevin lurked behind them, eyes riveted to the spot Bev was pointing at.

And despite the fact that he was standing nearly chest-deep in water, John felt somewhat…soiled. Because while he did want to win—enough to launch his new teammate into the pool—it just didn’t seem right to prey on the Gold Team’s strategy.

You can’t control what other people do, Casey used to say. You can try, but the only thing you accomplish is driving yourself crazy.

Too true. John took a deep breath, bent his knees, and went under.

The pool consisted of inflatable blue vinyl sides with a rigid framework holding it up, a sort of semipermanent structure that could be disassembled and stored in the garage at the end of the season. With all the harsh studio lights shining on and through it, the water took on the gentle blue cast that it would in a much deeper pool. It was cold, as if it hadrecently come from the garden hose. And all the splashing was stirring up plenty of bubbles.

John turned his attention to the wands. They covered the pool’s bottom like a fantastic black coral reef. He saw them, beheld them…and then looked deeper. An image popped into his mind. Pine needles. Of course. What else would cheap lumber be made from but fast-growing pine?

The lumber held a stronger sense of itself than a man-made object might, and so it was quite possible that the longer pieces might be located by something a bit more precise than simple trial and error. If only John could figure out, between the splashing and the timer and the cameras, how to communicate “length” to a thousand simple pieces of wood.

Normally, John would take a few breaths to center himself. Underwater, this was not very practical. He closed his eyes, opened them again, and willed himself to feel stillness. A pair of gold trunks flashed by, and…my, what an ass. Stillness. Not so easy. He stood, broke water, took a breath, and went under once more.

He focused on the wood again. It felt somehow…scattered. Baked dry, lathed into smooth regularity, chopped into bits, and painted black. Despite its confusion, it did, however, seem to be “listening.”

John sent the tendril of thought: long?

No, no, no. Not long. The image of the green-needled tip of a tree reaching toward the sky fleeted through his mind. Now that was long.

John broke the surface again. Three minutes had elapsed. He began to doubt he could convey the concept of “twelve inches” to a bunch of painted dowels in fifteen years, let alone fifteen minutes. He took another breath and went under once more.

He pictured a tall tree, and a small tree, and he conveyed that for as long as he could hold his breath. When his lungs began burning a few images drifted up from various wands…but it was more along the lines of, Yes, this is where I came from.

John surfaced again. Jia was swinging herself out of the pool at four and a half minutes to ensure they’d gain another time advantage over Gold Team’s five-minute member. This counter-strategy had stirred up more chaos than the wand-diving. Fae was hauling her out, shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” while Sue leaned into the edge of the pool, screaming, “Stay in, Muriel. You might as well just stay in now!” Muriel, blinded by her own hair, slid on a dowel and splashed under. Ricardo came up with a wand in each hand, and his shoulder connected with Kevin Kazan’s chest. He looked, for a moment, as if he would snap at Kevin to back the hell off—especially as Kevin puffed out his chest and began posturing for a fight. But instead, Ricardo responded with a cool “I know exactly what you’re playing at” look, turned his back to Kevin and went about trying to grab whichever wand Bev was pointing out before Kevin did.

Kevin was gunning for Ricardo. No two ways about it. That realization settled like a stone in the pit of John’s stomach. Because there was competition…and there was envy. And envy, he’d always found, was a True magician’s greatest enemy. It was envy that caused normal, everyday folks to turn on people like John. It was envy that had ejected him from his work at the hospital. And it was envy, John was convinced, that energetically drew in the bizarre accidents that would be their ultimate demise.

In which case…how safe was it really to be prancing around on a reality show, exposing oneself not only to everyone else’s envy…but to drowning, and potentially dangerous spa treatments, and pruning shears? Best not to think of it. Not in the middle of a timed challenge.

John took a breath, went underwater, and tried to convey a little bit longer to the wood. No images came back to him, and no wonder. The concept was too abstract. He took two dowels as he came up, and compared them. They looked the same. And while he suspected that it was counterproductive to attack the problem both mentally and physically at the same time, the screaming and the commotion was making it impossible to focus on just one or the other.

He dropped a dowel, went under again, and tried to convey the concept of “different.”

No. All the same. In every way that really matters.

He broke the surface with two more wands. Yep. The same, all right.

Two, three more dives, and still the dowels were the same. John checked the clock. Five minutes left. Theoretically, Kevin should leave the pool and gain another time advantage. But despite his wet contact lenses, he was circling Ricardo like a shark. And although both teams had planned to leave the pool at timed intervals, other than the ladies who had stepped out when they were supposed to, the rest of the magicians were sticking with the task in a stubborn game of “chicken.”

John gazed at the splashing, screaming hubbub for a moment, considering whether he should simply get out with whatever wand he had in hand…but then he looked above the fracas and saw the sample board on the wall. The wands were arranged from smallest to largest, like the bars of a cell phone service area. Maybe that was a strong enough visual to go on.

He stared at it for a moment, fixed it in his mind, then took a deep breath, and went under.

A few wands stirred as contestants’ bare feet kicked them up. But mostly, they lay still. Waiting.

John pictured the image of the four wands side by side as clearly as he’d just seen it with his physical eyes, and then he sent it to the wood. He held the image patiently, as long as he could while also holding his breath, in hopes that somewhere the barrier between incomprehension and understanding might break. That his intention might leak through.


That’s all? Yes? Yes what? Time was running out.

Another image came to John, a tree with snow on the branches. Yes, some of the lumber in the pool was from the same tree as the lumber on the wall.

He grabbed two random wands, splashed up, and drank a breath of air as he checked them against each other.

The wands he held were still the same length.

He threw them down in disgust.

Longer, he thought, focusing hard on the longest dowel in his mental image. In return, he received flashes of many disjointed ideas. The gentle prick of a bird’s claws. The kiss of the wind. The sound of chainsaws. None of these were good or bad. They simply were.

Another gasp for air, and now the clock had ticked down to the final minute. “That one!” Bev was shrieking. “That one!” and Ricardo and Kevin both dove. John took several deep breaths, and went under himself for the final grab.

As he plunged down and ran his fingers over all the wands, his thumb dragged across the slightly ragged cut edge of the lumber, and a final image occurred to him. The dowels must have been cut on the miter saw from the Zig Zag Cabinet competition…but not one at a time. The saw was massive. The nine hundred short wands would have been cut in huge batches. The ninety medium wands, also. But the nine large wands? The single immunity wand? That would have gone through the miter saw practically alone…or in a pair, if one were to consider the sample on the board.

John sent the images quickly, with no time to spare, of huge stacks of dowels being chopped up in the saw.


Then he sent the notion of only a few. The feeling of the metal table on one side and the air on the other, without a stack of other dowels piled on top. The sound of the blade cutting briefly. There was a pause in which he thought he might be understood—and in that pause, he wondered. Maybe he should have sent the image of two. But no, that would be silly, to emerge from the pool with the twelve-inch wand. It was impossible, and anyone who did it would be accused of cheating. And all John would accomplish was drawing the sort of suspicion, the sort of lethal envy to himself that he was always so careful to avoid.

He focused on his image of a small stack being cut, and he waited.

Yes—oh, yes.

John’s eyes went to a stick that looked just like all the others. He picked it up, then picked up another at random and compared them.

The first stick was significantly longer. At least half an inch.

John’s heart began pounding.

As his excitement welled in him with a wand in each hand, that elusive gap was bridged, and “yes” made total sense now. The underwater landscape of the wands lit up to John’s inner knowing, most of them aglow with the same intensity. A few, though, glowed brighter. And a very few (like the one in his right hand) glowed bright, as the concept of “longer” was communicated and disseminated.

He had one of the longest wands…in his hand. Now.

Out of the pool then, right away, to secure a time score. He surfaced just as Muriel climbed out and Sue wrapped a towel around her shoulders. No matter, it looked as if Bev, Ricardo and Kevin were going to stay in until the bitter end and attempt to win solely by the size of their wand, so even a few-second advantage might help him. He took a step toward the nearest side just as Ricardo surfaced—with a wand in his hand that shone so brightly to John’s inner senses, its brilliance stunned him.

The twelve inch wand.

And Ricardo, with water shimmering off the hard curve of his shoulder, the chiseled planes of his chest, was perfection itself. Yes, John had wanted that wand. And no, he didn’t for a moment begrudge Ricardo for it. Inside, he felt elated.

Until Kevin erupted from the water a heartbeat later, collided with Ricardo, and sent the wand pinwheeling away from his slippery grasp.

“No!” Bev shrieked, as dramatically as if someone has just been killed. And all at once, John saw she was going to dive for it.

He also saw that she was so ungainly in the water, he had a good chance of grabbing it for himself. Even from where he currently stood, three yards away.

He focused, and he dove.

Underwater was a churning mass of wands and bubbles kicked up by flailing feet. Both Kevin and Ricardo had fallen back, knocked apart by momentum and surprise. But despite all the confusion, John focused, and he looked. And there, shining like an invisible beacon among a half dozen other whirling wands, was the longest of them all.

John was almost upon it when Bev crashed down like a cannonball.

A siren shrilled, audible even underwater, and John got his feet under himself and stood.

“And that’s time, Magicians,” Monty said. “Let’s see your hands.”

John was surprised to see he was still holding anything at all. It was the larger wand…he hoped. He looked to the other three magicians to see what they’d come up with…and saw Ricardo covered in blood. “What happened?” John demanded, striding across the pool while the dowels beneath his feet stilled themselves to allow him to keep his footing. “Are you all right?”

Ricardo stuck his tongue out and touched it gingerly with his first two fingers. “Th’s fine. Bith my thung.”

“Wow,” Muriel said, “it’s bleeding like all getout.”

Kevin surreptitiously prodded at the side of his head. He was bleeding a bit too, John noticed. But only a trickle.

“Everybody just stay where you are and let the pros handle this,” Iain said, striding into the frame with two medics in tow. One of them set up a folding chair while the other came to assist Ricardo out of the pool. “Everyone’s got their tetanus shot, nothing to get worked up about.”

John slung an arm around Ricardo to help him to the side, although Ricardo attempted to brush off the assistance. He was unsuccessful; John was bigger. “Th’s fine,” Ricardo insisted. His chest was striped with stark runnels of blood.

“I got a ding on my head,” Kevin pointed out.

Iain squinted at him for a moment, and said, “Okay, fine, get over here and we’ll take a look. But hand your wand to the production assistant first. We’re not shooting this scene again.”

As Ricardo swung his leg over the side of the pool with John steadying him, he met John’s eyes. So much blood. “I’m otay,” he said.

John gave his arm an extra squeeze, anyway…and Ricardo returned the sentiment with a secret (if bloody) smile.

John climbed from the pool numbly. Accident? He wasn’t even sure if his own definition of the word fit with the one in the dictionary. He was given a black robe and directed to join the rest of the Red Team, who waited off camera, watching the medics. Maybe being voted out of the Mansion wouldn’t be such a terrible thing for either of them. Not if the alternative was attracting envy…which might make a True magician’s fortunes take a sickening little twist for the worse.

“Look at him bleed,” Jia murmured…and she wasn’t referring to her team captain who, it appeared, was receiving no more treatment than a dab of iodine.

“It’s mostly water,” Fae said. “It wouldn’t run down Ricardo’s chest like that if it were dry. But I’ll bet he gets a ton of screen time out of it.”

“Maybe next time you should hit me,” Jia said.

Fae shrugged and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”


Results from last episode's vote, Gold to Red:

Which member of the Gold Team will you send over to the Red Team?

Muriel Broom 34%

Amazing Fae 47%

Bev the Math Wizard 19%


Chapter 22



According to the medic who’d stuffed his fingers into Ricardo’s mouth--Bob? Bill? something like that--tongue injuries did tend to bleed profusely, but thankfully, they healed fast. Good to know. He also hinted that once it did heal, he’d be up for coffee. Or drinks. Or whatever. Thankfully, he didn’t find it odd when Ricardo declined to answer, given that he was covered in blood, and practically choking on moist gauze.

Since it took nearly half an hour before Ricardo could talk without re-opening the cuts, the makeup team descended with their spray bottles and made sure everyone looked wet once again before they heard the results of the challenge.

The magicians stood, tallest in back, with their wet hair attractively tousled, Gold Team in white terrycloth robes, Red Team in black, like exhausted boxers who’d just gone twelve rounds. The scoreboard had been set up against one of the more attractive walls, and a single camera was planted in front of it. Iain gave the signal, and Monty said, “Remember, magicians, whichever team located the longest wand in the shortest amount of time will win an advantage in the next elimination challenge. And, if any magician has located the single twelve-inch wand, that magician will be immune. In addition, the winning team will be having dinner tomorrow…with David Blaine.”

Kevin Kazan made a startled noise that sounded like a cross between a screech owl and a whoopee cushion.

“That’s right. The winning team will get to pick the brain of the world’s most cunning street magic performer…while the losers clean up the mess left behind from the building of the Zig Zag cabinets.”

Iain shoved a stagehand into the frame, and Monty paused in his reading while the awkward kid with the clipboard whispered in his ear, then scuttled away. Monty appeared to assimilate the “new” information (though Ricardo suspected it had been on his teleprompter all along) and said, “And I’ve just learned that someone may have found the twelve-inch wand. Let’s find out.”

“Monty?” Iain said. “Marlene doesn’t like the way you just said ‘learned.’ Try it again, a little less Aussie.”

“Learned,” Monty murmured. “Learned. Learrrrned. Okay. Got it.”

“Go ahead.”

Ricardo hardly noticed the line being repeated, because seriously? He dry-swallowed around the taste of copper that lingered in his mouth. All that pointing and screaming Bev had done…could she have actually spotted the single twelve-inch wand out of nine hundred and ninety-nine others? And if she did, who had ended up with it? Ricardo? Or Bev? Or that asshole, Kevin?

“Close up on Fae,” Iain called out, and a pair of handhelds swung their focus to her.

“Amazing Fae,” Monty said, “you were the first out of the pool. And the length of your wand was…ten inches. That’s the shortest length. If everyone else also finished with a short wand, Red Team will win this challenge.”

Faye shrugged as if she wished she’d randomly grabbed something in the longer ten percent, but she was satisfied enough that she’d at least been the quickest. Her name appeared at the top of the lit scoreboard with a 10 beside it.

Close-ups were directed toward Sue, and Monty said, “Sue, Gold Team leader, you were second out of the pool. Your wand was also ten inches, which means Red Team is still in the lead.”

Ricardo patted Sue on the shoulder as her score was put up. “Good try.” She sighed, and he whispered, “At least you stuck to the plan.” Though they all knew she would have been faster if someone had thought to help her in or out of the pool. But Gold Team had been working with only their own strategy; thanks to Fae, Red Team had had access to both.

Cameras turned to Jia. “Jia Lee, you might have been the third magician out of the pool, but you were the first magician to find a ten and a half inch wand, thereby cementing your team’s lead so far.”

Jia nodded with satisfaction when she saw her score. Iain told Monty, “Put a long pause before the next number. We’ll break for a commercial there.” Cameras moved on to Muriel.

“Muriel Broom, Magic Mansion’s oldest female contestant, was the next out of the pool. Muriel, do you have any idea how long your wand was?”

“Last time I checked, I was more of an innie than an outie.”

Once the crew stopped laughing, Iain said, “Could you give him a more conventional response in case we need to edit that out?”

“What for? It wasn’t explicit.”

Iain sighed.

“Oh, all right,” Muriel said. She looked at Monty, and said with false brightness, “Why no, Monty, I haven’t a clue how long my wand was. But I sure hope I grabbed a nice big one.”

Monty looked like it was paining him to keep a straight face. “Well, Muriel, you’re in for a treat. Because the wand you found measures…eleven inches.”

The startled silence that followed Muriel’s score didn’t even need to be orchestrated by Iain. Once the shock wore off, Gold Team huddled, and Sue said, “Can you believe how lucky that was?”

“What’s that,” Muriel said, “Like one in a hundred odds?”

Bev said, “No, it depends on how many wands you picked up and compared to—”

“Hello!” Iain shouted. “Did I tell you to talk amongst yourselves? Pipe down and get with the program.”

Gold Team sorted themselves back out according to height. Ricardo observed the Red Team from over the top of Bev’s head. They did not look amused. Cameras backed up to include entire teams in their shots. Monty said, “That puts the Gold Team in the lead. The other four contestants were still in the pool when time ran out, and so none of them has a time advantage. The only way another player can take the lead from Muriel is if he, or she, has indeed found the single twelve-inch wand. Any magician who’s done that will also get immunity in the next elimination round.”

Ricardo’s heart began pounding. The way Bev had been screaming in the pool for him to pick up a particular wand, he’d had himself convinced that she’d spotted the immunity-wand. But in his haste to grab it before time ran out, his jaw collided with Kevin’s head so hard, it was a wonder he’d ended up with a wand in his hand at all.

“Kevin Kazan,” Monty said, “you were one of the magicians with no time advantage. The length of the last wand you discovered was…ten and one-half inches. I’m sorry. You are not the winner of this challenge.”

Kevin glared at Ricardo.

Monty said, “It appeared that both you and Ricardo the Magnificent were after the same wand,” he turned to face Gold Team, “and that the Math Wizard was the one who pointed it out. Bev, is that true?”

“I believe I saw the twelve-inch wand, Monty. But it’s hard to say. My glasses were wet from all the splashing.”

“Ricardo,” Monty said, “do you think you managed to pick up the wand she was pointing to?”

Ricardo’s heart hammered so hard, he thought his tongue wound would burst open and he’d answer Monty with a spray of blood. But his tongue stayed intact as he said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Ricardo, the wand in your hand when time ran out was, in fact…ten and one-half inches.”

Across the pool, a grim smile spread over Kevin Kazan’s face.

“Professor Topaz,” Monty said, “you were also one of the last in the pool, and the wand you selected measured in at…eleven inches. Well done. But Muriel also found an eleven-inch wand, and she’s got a time advantage over you, so unfortunately, you are not the winner of this challenge. Gold Team remains in the lead.”

John nodded stonily.

“That leaves one magician,” Monty said. “Bev Austin, the Math Wizard. At the last moment, Bev, you went under yourself.” Bev nodded. She seemed to be holding her breath. The entire Gold Team was holding its breath. “It seemed like a last-ditch effort. Can you tell us what was going through your mind?”

“Well, I…I can’t even say for sure. I thought I saw the wand. And it looked to me as if Professor Topaz was on a perfect trajectory to get it himself. And then…well, all I could think of was that the Gold Team had to win.”

“Bev, the producers have reviewed the underwater footage from the last seconds of the challenge, and it showed that when you dove down to pick up your wands, you grabbed with both hands, and you picked up a total of three. We did confirm that one of those wands actually was the twelve-inch wand. Unfortunately, because you broke the rules and picked up more than two, your score is disqualified. You will be eligible for elimination in the next challenge. But cheer up, Bev. The Gold Team has won the Wand Pond challenge, and is going into the competition with a huge advantage. And tomorrow, you’ll be spending the afternoon with David Blaine!”

Once most of the camera crew went home and the magicians headed back toward the dorms, shaking with adrenaline and chill, Ricardo heard Bev whisper, “David Blaine, didn’t he used to be on Saturday Night Live?”

Conversation turned to whether Kevin had injured Ricardo intentionally or they’d just managed to bang heads. Ricardo wouldn’t have put it past Kevin to slam into him accidentally-on-purpose, but Muriel said it looked as if everyone was just super-focused and super-motivated, and that they’d all flown into a tizzy when the last few seconds ticked by. And while Kevin Kazan might have nearly caused Ricardo to bite off his own tongue…at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that while a middle-aged mathematician who didn’t know David Blaine from David Spade would be wined and dined by the most infamous street magician of their time, Kazan would be busy sweeping up sawdust.


Though it would have been sensible to try to get some sleep, John wandered the grounds instead until after midnight wondering if the best thing for him to do would be to take a dive and remove himself from competition entirely. Because obviously, in going for the twelve-inch wand (which should have been basically impossible to find, and yet fully half of the remaining contestants had been vying for it) he’d nearly exposed the very secret he’d implored Ricardo, on the day of their first meeting, to keep to himself at all costs.

The secret that a few individuals had access to the Truth, while the rest of the world did not.

His pacing brought him no clarity of mind, but he supposed it would be best to turn in before he drew a freak sinkhole to himself, or a rabid raccoon. Or a rusty nail that might manage to circumvent the tetanus shot John’s contract had obligated him to obtain.

Thankfully, the lights were out in the Red Team’s dorms when he returned. Though the room seemed much more spacious now with only him and Kevin in it, John missed Fabian’s company, and didn’t particularly care to be alone with his team leader. It was a relief to find him already asleep. John undressed and slipped between the sheets of the strange bed with the lights off, and began searching for a pleasant memory to lull himself to sleep—the Alaskan cruise he’d booked to celebrate Casey’s successful run at the Starlight Lounge was usually a good one…though lately he found it seemed a bit stilted and out-of-focus compared to his sharp, vibrant memory of Ricardo taking the stage with him at the tryouts, breathlessly graceful…and, yes, a very cute twink, as Casey would have said.

John was just beginning to drift off to the memory of Ricardo’s eyes flashing as he chimed his silver linking rings together, when Kevin Kazan, in a quiet, singsong voice, said, “Don’t think that I didn’t notice, back there in the pool, Ricardo was the one you chose to help.”

John considered mentioning that while their collision had left Kevin with a nick on the head, Ricardo had been gushing blood…but he decided it was better to keep his eyes shut, and pretend he was asleep.

Allowing themselves to be drawn into altercations was another common way in which True magicians met their ends.

It was well into the wee hours before sleep finally came.


Ricardo poked the steak on his plate. It was too rare, swimming in a pool of its own red juices. Just what he needed to see after all that blood last night. Muriel took a bite of tiramisu and sighed happily. Initially, it seemed that she’d opted for three desserts rather than an appetizer or an entree just for the sake of being…Muriel. But given that Bev’s halibut was dry and Sue’s pasta was mushy, Muriel might actually have been onto something.

Sue poured herself another glass of merlot. “Not that I believe anything they say at this point…but didn’t it seem like David Blaine was actually going to be eating dinner with us?”

“He did try a breadstick,” Muriel noted.

“He stayed eleven minutes, thirty-two seconds,” Bev said. “And I’ll bet it gets edited to make it seem like we were together all afternoon.”

“I wish he could have stayed longer,” Sue said. “He had great hands. But at least he showed us that card flourish. Now we can all say we’ve had a personal lesson from David Blaine.”

Ricardo smiled to himself. That would really stick in Kevin Kazan’s craw.

Bev said, “So have we given any thought to how we want to play tomorrow’s big challenge?”

Gold Team had earned the advantage of knowing what the challenge would be, a head-to-head competition in handling four specific props: hats, cards, silks and rings. They would be allowed to choose which team member played in each round. Red Team was going in blind and being deployed at random (or, more likely, at a producer’s whim.)

Although, did that really matter? Each member of Red Team was a skilled magician. Every one of them was probably good with all four props. Ricardo supposed he should be glad Gold Team won the advantage. At least he wouldn’t need to watch one of his teammates handling the rings while he fumbled through a deck of cards.


Between the dust masks and the leather gloves and the steel-toed boots, John felt as if he should be riveting a skyscraper together instead of swabbing off the wainscoting with a tack rag. But Marlene had insisted there’d be hell to pay if anyone shed so much as a single drop ofblood. Plus, the extreme wardrobe probably made Red Team’s “punishment” look significantly more difficult than it actually was.

Another advantage to the dust masks was the fact that they didn’t exactly encourage communication between the team members. John had gone into high avoidance-mode with Kevin, though he had the sneaking suspicion that it was too little, too late. Never perform True magic when the rabble is close enough to see it’s no trick…including fellow magicians with plenty of technique and no Truth. Especially those. Because they could sense the inner circle to which they would never belong, and their envy was particularly toxic.

Perhaps, John thought, it would have been best to play the assertiveness card earlier, back when they were planning the cabinet, and Kevin had started butting heads with Fabian. Not now that Fabian was gone, and the biggest threat to Kevin’s machismo from his own team—really, the whole game—was John.


Chapter 23



Shooting began early on the day of the Four Props Challenge. Ricardo barely had time to finish his crunches before a PA came to the dorms and told him to meet his team in the ballroom. He chose his stretchiest outfit—no binding waistbands or even flowing sleeves today. The sparkly black stretch top and lycra slacks fit like a skating costume. He didn’t want anything to get between him and those rings.

It occurred to him, as he soared down the stairs two at a time, that this was the first challenge he’d actually been excited about participating in. And maybe, if he was really lucky, he’d even be up against Kevin Kazan. Because if that jerk wanted to butt heads again, Ricardo was totally up for it. Big time.

He paused in the doorway and scanned the ballroom. Something tall and tarp-covered dominated the far end of the room. The scoreboard, currently unlit, lurked to the side. Still more crates and boxes waited among the lighting and camera gear—stacks of them.

It was going to be a long shoot.

He joined his teammates on a sofa covered with a gold throw. Sue had on an adorable pink hotpants outfit, Muriel was in her traditional fortune teller getup, and Bev had chosen a tweed pants suit. Ricardo supposed it looked better on her than the swimdress. Across the room, the Red Team assembled on a couch covered in a red throw. They all wore black—Kevin annoying in a glitzy track suit, sideways baseball cap and too much jewelry, John sleek and elegant in a formal suit, Jia particularly stunning in a tuxedo-styled bodysuit with a halter closure that bared her arms and shoulders, and Fae looking like Fae, intense and slightly too thin, in a very short minidress. He didn’t suppose he missed Fae, exactly, because she’d never really bonded with the team, not in the way everyone else had. But even though her defection hadn’t been her idea, the way she’d gone about it left a bad taste in his mouth that went far beyond his wounded tongue.

Which still throbbed…though he wasn’t going to let that discomfort get in the way of showing whoever was chosen to oppose him that if there was one thing he knew how to handle…it was linking rings.

Crew milled around and fussed with small details, while stylists made the rounds and primped everyone’s hair and the script supervisor went through some lines with Monty, and finally, about an hour and a half later, a hush fell over the bustling people on the sidelines (who the home audience never got to see) and cameras rolled.

“Today,” Monty said, “the Gold Team will pit their skills against the Red Team in a multi-part challenge that includes four classic stage magic props: playing cards, colored silks, magic hats, and linking rings. Since Gold Team won the Wand Pond competition, they’ve been able to select which player they think will handle each particular prop the best.”

Damn straight, Ricardo thought. I can hardly wait.

“The member of the Red Team who will play in each leg of the challenge will be chosen at random.”

And if I end up pitted against Kevin Kazan, I’ll show him a thing or— Ricardo’s thoughts cut off abrubtly as his eyes fell on John’s.

Oh my God. What if they pit me against John?

As though he’d thought the very same thing, John cocked his head and gave a very slight nod, as if to reassure Ricardo that it would be okay. Which wasn’t actually all that reassuring…because in a one-on-one competition, someone would win, and someone would lose.

“And tonight,” Monty said, “any members from the losing team who do not win their leg of the challenge…will be up for elimination.”

There was a pause while Iain put a couple of stagehands in place for some sort of big reveal, in which Bev whispered, “But how will they determine the losing team? There are four competitions—what if each team wins two?”

Great. Not only do I need to worry about being put up against John…but at the same time I’ll probably be getting judged by some other criteria I’m not even aware of. In a way, figure skating had been a hell of a lot easier. At least when he was on the ice, he knew what he was being judged on.

Once the scene was blocked, taping resumed. Monty said, “The first part of the Four Prop Challenge is the playing card shuffle. Math Wizard, you have elected to play this round for the Gold Team.”

“That’s right, Monty. I’m very good with cards. I use them extensively in my act to teach addition and subtraction—and the children pay much closer attention when you present the cards with fancy cuts and flourishes.”

“Very good, Bev. And the Red Team magician you’ll be playing against in this challenge is…Kevin Kazan.”

Oh Jesus. Sure, Bev could handle a deck, but Kazan could cut and shuffle with a hand tied behind his back. Literally. He was going to eat Bev alive. Not only that, but pitting him against Bev raised the odds (to a point that even Ricardo could calculate) of going up against John himself: one in three.

“Your objective,” Monty said, “is to hold on to as many cards as you can, and finish your round with the highest number. Rank cards are worth their numbered value. Face cards are worth ten. Aces are worth eleven, and jokers are worth twenty. And you’ll be gathering those cards…in these.”

Stagehands hauled off the tarps and revealed a pair of tall, clear-sided cabinets.

“What are those,” Sue said. “Phone booths?”

Muriel said, “I was thinking shower stalls.”

Iain called, “Hit the air,” and a pair of compressors chugged to life. Motion erupted inside the clear cabinets as if they were a pair of giant snow globes. But instead of snow swirling through them, it was a red, black and white flurry cards.

“Aren’t those things usually filled with dollar bills?” Muriel said. “You’d better watch it, Bev. A playing card’ll give you a pretty wicked paper cut.”

When the footage of the unmanned cabinets was adequate, Iain cut the air, and let the cards settle, then handed Bev and Kazan each a pair of safety goggles. Bev attempted, without success, to fasten hers over her prescription glasses. “Can’t I just get a sports band to hold on my regular glasses?

“Seeing is overrated,” Iain said. "This stunt is more about luck."


“Look, you chose this challenge. Kevin had it assigned to him. And you don’t hear him complaining, do you?”

Bev stoically put on the safety goggles, then perched her glasses on her nose in front of the goggles. She and Kevin stepped inside the booths and closed the doors behind them. Cameras rolled. “You’ll have one minute to gather all the cards you can,” Monty announced, “and your time begins…now.”

Kazan’s hat flew off, which made Ricardo smile…until he saw that Bev’s glasses had blown off, too. Thankfully, the glasses seemed to be the only vulnerable part of Bev’s costume. Her suit was sturdy and her short gray hair, even being whipped around, didn’t seem to get in her way. “Good thing I picked the scarves,” Muriel whispered. “Can you imagine me in there with my skirt flying up around my neck? Though it would be pretty funny….”

Bev flailed. Kazan flailed. And both of them were pelted by cards. It was difficult to tell if either of them had managed to catch any cards, let alone who was in the lead. Ricardo couldn’t imagine what it must feel like from inside the booths. Like trying to catch butterflies without a net. In a tornado.

But what if those butterflies were willing to meet Bev halfway?

There was no time to lose. Almost ten seconds had already elapsed. Ricardo threw his attention toward Bev’s cards, focused his ability, and nudged them toward Bev. And act natural, he hastened to add. He didn’t need a replay of the pink mylar dove incident from tryouts.

It was subtle, but the cards around Bev took on a different type of swirl, as if maybe she’d just planted her foot in front of the blower in such a way that the wind cabinet’s dynamic changed. Instead of bouncing into the ceiling and then falling down the sides, the cards formed a cyclonic loop—a good portion of them at the level of Bev’s grabbing hands. Ricardo was so pleased with their performance that he didn’t get a look at what Red Team was up to until it registered, in his peripheral vision, that Kazan had gone completely still.

Ricardo shifted his focus for just a split second, and the cards he was coaxing toward Bev erupted in an ecstatic, chaotic dance. As for Kazan…well, he’d apparently discovered that he could trap the cards against the top of the booth. And Bev? If the thought had even occurred to her, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Even if she stretched high, her fingertips couldn’t quite reach the ceiling.

Before Kazan managed to grab too many cards, the timer buzzed and the cards dropped. But Ricardo had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that the discovery of the trapped cards by the ceiling had given Kevin an unbeatable edge. Stagehands released the magicians from the booths, and they stepped out, Bev with a windswept hairdo at odds with the rest of her outfit, Kevin with his necklaces all spun around the wrong way and hanging down his back. “All right, magicians,” Monty said brightly. “Show us your cards!”

“Make sure the numbers are visible and face them toward the camera,” Iain called out. “Hold ’em steady for a dolly zoom.”

Bev arranged her cards, frowning, and held them up. There was a face card in front. That was good. Right?

But then Kevin fanned his hand…and Ricardo saw he’d captured at least ten cards. At least.

“Let’s start with Gold Team,” Monty said. “Bev, you’re holding a queen, a jack, and a nine. That gives you twenty-nine points.”

Bev nodded. She didn’t look thrilled.

“And Red Team leader, Kevin Kazan, you have a three, a five, a seven, a king, a two, and a four.”

The moment Monty announced the number on Kevin’s last card, Bev’s face fell, and Ricardo knew he wouldn’t have to bother trying to add them up.

“The winner of the first leg of Four Prop Challenge,” Monty said, “with thirty-one points, is Kevin Kazan for the Red Team.”

A PA handed Bev her glasses. Ricardo watched Bev walk back to the gold couch with a sinking feeling in his chest, but he greeted her with, “Good try, Bev, you did great,” to which Muriel and Sue added their own sympathetic encouragement. Crew hauled away the clear booths, and several large cardboard boxes were dragged to the center of the ballroom floor. An assistant pulled a top hat from one of the boxes, then another, then another, setting them upside-down on the floor until the entire center was covered by a sea of top hats.

“One hundred and forty-four,” Bev said. “Twelve dozen. A gross.”

Once the hats were arranged, the assistants cleared the set, cameras rolled, and Monty said, “The next leg of the challenge involves magic hats…and the Gold Team selected Sue, its leader, to perform this challenge. Come on up, Sue, and tell us why you were the best person for this challenge.”

“Well, Monty, since I work at the gift shop at Magicopolis, I’ve handled lots of different props, from toy magic tricks for children, to cheap souvenirs, to decently-made entry level props. If we needed to demonstrate the use of a false chamber hat, I would be the most familiar with it.”

“Good reasoning, Gold Team. We’ll see if it pans out for you. And the randomly selected magician you’ll be competing against from the Red Team…”

Please be John. PLEASE BE JOHN.

“…is Amazing Fae.”

Ricardo’s heart sank. He was going to be put up against John, he just knew it. And if they competed with linking rings—be it juggling them or counting them or marching around with them stacked on top of their heads—Ricardo would win. Because the rings were his props. Even if he wasn’t trying to influence them like he did with Bev’s cards, he was so connected to the way they felt and sounded (and even smelled), they’d still pick up on whatever it was he wanted them to do.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” Muriel whispered. “You look a little green.”

Ricardo shook his head. “I’m fine,” and shifted his attention back to Monty.

“Pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Monty read from the teleprompter, “is such a common magic trick that one might say it’s even become a bit of a cliché. But finding a rabbit in a hat among a sea of other things…might prove to be more difficult. Especially when your opponent is trying to find that rabbit first. Ladies, take your places, and when you hear the buzzer, begin searching. The first magician who finds a rabbit is the winner. Ready…set….”

The buzzer sounded. Sue dropped to her knees, while Fae bent at the waist to thrust their hands into the nearest hat. Sue pulled out a stuffed ladybug. Fae pulled out a small teddy bear. Both of them flung the toys over their shoulders and reached for another hat. Sue pulled out a plush monkey, a stuffed dog, a rag doll. Fae pulled out a plush parrot and toy cat. Sue waded forward on her knees. She was quicker, and the pile of stuffed carnival toys behind her was obviously growing faster than Fae’s.

Sue’s progress was not lost on Fae, who decided to use the fact that she was still standing up to her advantage. She leapt into the center of the field of hats in her stiletto heels and began working from there. It hadn’t seemed as if the assistants who’d set up the stunt placed a “winning hat” in any one particular spot…but Fae’s decisive move toward the middle made Sue start working even faster, grabbing hat after hat. She tried to speed things up by shaking the stuffed toys out, one hat in each hand, but the contents were packed in tightly enough that she needed both hands to get them out. In her excitement, she began flinging both the toy and the hat, and soon so many plushies and hats were flying, it seemed as if the whole ballroom had turned into one big card-grabbing booth.

Soon there was a cry—a triumphant shriek so startling Ricardo couldn’t say who it had come from. But then he saw Fae standing tall, brandishing a blue and purple stuffed rabbit over her head, waving it gleefully, while Sue sagged down onto her hands, hair hanging in her face….and the churning dismay in Ricardo’s gut told him that now he’d not only end up pitted against John, but now he’d need to try for all he was worth just to keep Gold Team from losing a member….

“Fae,” Monty called out, “that is not the winning rabbit. The producers are telling me you’ve found a donkey.”

“A what?” Fae turned the stuffed animal around and looked at it as if it had just spoken to her itself. “That’s no donkey! How is that a donkey?”

Sue barked out a gleeful laugh and dove back into searching while Fae was still stunned by the revelation that the long-eared toy in her hand was not, in fact, a rabbit. “Ha!” Muriel said. “Look at the tail! It’s got a little donkey tail!”

Fae flung down the purple donkey so hard it bounced.

“Go, Sue!” Muriel called out, and Ricardo and Bev joined in. “Go, Sue! Go, Sue! You can find it, Sue!” And the Red Team began cheering, too—although it had not occurred to them to do so until they heard it start in the Gold Team. Everyone was shouting. Hats were flying—and giraffes and bumble bees and even a smiling hot dog—until finally Sue surged to her feet, held a fuzzy pink animal high, and shrieked, “Is this it? Is this the rabbit?”

From the tip of its long ears to the end of its cotton tail, it sure looked like it was. Fae reached into one more hat (pulling out a stuffed guitar) as if she figured she should keep on searching, just in case, but the look on her face told Ricardo what Monty finally confirmed just a moment later. “That is indeed the elusive rabbit, Sue. Congratulations. Gold Team wins the second round of this challenge.”

For just a moment, Ricardo was elated. But once the floor was cleared of hats and covered instead with silver rings, he somehow registered that he was hearing his own name…and that the time had come for him to face his signature props.

“Ricardo the Magnificent,” Monty said, in that dazzling accent of his, “why have you chosen to represent the Gold Team in the Linking Ring portion of the Four Props Challenge?”

Against John, no doubt. Against Professor fucking Topaz. His idol. Jesus. Who he would need to try and beat. Now he knew how dumbass Kevin Kazan felt when he got Fabian Swan eliminated. Ricardo swallowed hard, but the lump in his throat stayed exactly where it was. Was it possible to forfeit? No, he couldn’t do that. He owed it to Bev and Muriel and Sue to win. But it was what he wanted to do—crawl away and go back to working bachelorette parties and be tipped with singles in his g-string and the occasional margarita.

“Hello?” Iain called out. “Answer the man…sometime today.”

“Uh…what was the question?”

Iain made a “go ahead” signal, and Monty repeated, “Why have you chosen to represent the Gold Team in the Linking Ring portion of the Four Props challenge?”

“Linking rings are my best trick, Monty. I’ve been juggling them ever since I was twelve. When I heard there was a ring challenge, I jumped at the chance.”

“Fair enough, Ricardo. You’ll have your chance to prove just how adept you are at handling the rings. And the Red Team player you’ll be pitting your prowess against—”

I think I’d prefer to die rather than hear you say it. Can that be arranged?

“—is Jia Lee.”


Chapter 24



Ricardo couldn’t have been more stunned if Monty marched up and bitch-slapped him.

“Are you okay?” Sue whispered. “Iain just said for you to go stand on your mark.”

Ricardo stood. His feet felt numb. His hands, too. And he wasn’t sure he remembered exactly how to breathe.

Jia waited for him at the masking tape X. Although she was just over five feet tall, she managed to look a foot taller, imperious and stern. Ricardo belatedly reminded himself that his stretchy outfit wouldn’t allow for sloppy posture, and he squared his shoulders as he tried not to be too obvious about swallowing past the lump that remained in his throat.

“Miss Lee,” Monty said, “you’re known for taking the traditional acts of magicians like Ching Ling Foo and Tchin-Chao, and performing them with a modern twist. Even today, these rings are sometimes still called Chinese Linking Rings. Do you think that will give you any advantage?”

Jia stared at Monty coolly for a long moment, and then said, “I guess we’re going to find out.”

Ricardo looked at Jia, and then at the rings. And then he realized that she had a linking ring routine in her own wildly popular act, Apple Blossom Vanish.

And she was good.

“Magicians, you will have three minutes to see exactly how many of these rings you can link together. But to make things a little more interesting….”

No—I don’t want interesting. I want to perform with my linking rings!

“You’ll do it…wearing mittens.”

Ricardo attempted to smile gamely for the camera…but he simply couldn’t do it. Early on in the game, he’d told Amazing Fae that Magic Mansion had nothing to do with talent. It was about spectacle. But now, as he truly felt that sentiment deep in his gut, his disappointment was overwhelming.

Maybe Fae had been right. Maybe it really was all about humiliation, so the viewers could bask in their schadenfreude as they picked each magician off, one by one.

As the thought crossed his mind, he heard the minuscule whir of a handheld lens zooming, and he felt someone lurking just to his side. Closeup. He forced himself to smile.

Assistants brought out the fleece mittens—one gold pair and one red—and Ricardo and Jia were positioned face to face in the center of a great spread of silvery rings. And even as Ricardo was balking at the thought of groping through them with ridiculous mittens on, as well as the cameras and the humiliation and the pressure (and the strangely sickening relief that he was not actually competing against John after all, at least not today)…Ricardo realized that he could feel something.

Cool. Round. Shiny. Filled with that delightful chimey sound they’d make if he struck them together.

Their familiarity calmed him. And so he was able to meet Jia’s eyes, and wait for the signal.

“Ready? Set?” The buzzer bleated. “Go!”

Jia and Ricardo both dropped to their knees. It hurt. Ricardo ignored the pain.

The whole trick of linking rings was that some had a small slot in them that allowed another ring to pass through. That was no big surprise. The pleasure the audience took when they watched a linking rings act was all about the performance. They knew there was a slot somewhere, probably covered by the performer’s thumb, but they were willing to suspend disbelief as long as that performer could juggle, or do handstands, or dazzle them with witty banter, or mince around in high enough heels.

Ricardo always focused on his slotted rings rather than his solids. Knowing where the gap was positioned at all times was critical in keeping the chain from falling apart. Slotted, he thought, and the first ring his mittened hand fell on was slotted. It took three tries to pick it up with the fleece mitten—that thing was slippery—but he did it. Slotted. Then he grabbed two solid rings, forced them in, and pulled them to either side so the slotted ring was in the center.

He looked up. Jia had four rings linked already.

Slotted! Again, he found the correct type of ring immediately, but needed to try multiple times to grasp it.

“So, linking rings are your big thing,” Jia said, “huh?”

Why was she talking?

“Are you scared I’m going to use my ancient Chinese secret on you?”

Did she know Ricardo was talking to the rings, and she was deliberately trying to throw him off? He grabbed at a solid ring several times, then looked up to see if she was still ahead of him. She was—now by two rings.

“I’m not even very fond of the trick,” Jia said. “It’s kind of obvious, when you think about it—but it is tradition. Have you seen my act?”

“Yes.” Ricardo pawed desperately at a ring, then linked them as quickly as possible. “It was great.”

“Thanks. You know why it’s so popular?”

Ricardo linked another ring, and then looked up, expecting to see Jia ahead now by three. Instead, he saw why she was linking circles around him. She had hung her ring-chain from the crook of her elbow, and was using two hands to pick up the ring, one to push down one side of the ring so the other side popped up, and then the other hand to actually grab it. “Because you’re good?”

“Because I’m the only female Chinese conjurer on the whole circuit. That’s why.”

Ricardo popped a slotted ring up on one side and grabbed hold of it in a single try. Much better. He began linking as quickly as Jia.

“The first week-long engagement I ever landed, you know what the promoter said to me?” Jia slammed two rings together with a chime. “That maybe I should turn up my accent a little.” She grabbed another and shoved it onto her chain. “I don’t have an accent.” Another ring. “And I’m sure as hell not going to put one on like Margaret Cho when she’s making fun of her mother on Comedy Central.”

Ricardo’s chain was now trailing along behind him. He added a ring. “So…you want to be known as a good magician. Not just a Chinese magician.”

“You don’t get it—I’ll always be a Chinese magician. At least here, in America. That’s all I will ever be.” Jia linked another ring. “If I went to China, I’d probably be known as the American magician.”

Ricardo’s concentration slipped, and he felt his chain grow lighter. He looked, and three rings at the end of the chain had slipped the slot and fallen off. Should he grab the three rings together and add them back on? He didn’t know. The rules hadn’t specified whether he could pick up more than one ring at a time or not. And after Bev getting disqualified with the one-in-a-thousand twelve-inch wand in her hand, he wasn’t about to tempt fate. He just needed to work faster and keep his focus.

“Maybe I grew up in Oakland and maybe I don’t have an accent,” Jia said, “but I’m still proud of my heritage. So I don’t do a Chinese conjurer act just because I’m Chinese.”

I can’t lose another ring. Please, please, please stick together. Ricardo sent the thought urgently as he linked another ring, and the timer ticked down to the last ten seconds.

Jia’s rings chimed. “Because if I don’t do the act and do it with dignity, with pride, someone else is going to come along and exploit themselves for the novelty. I need to be so good that no one would even bother trying to imitate me.”

Apple Blossom Vanish had stuck with Ricardo for days afterward. And, if he were to be completely honest with himself, he’d even felt somewhat envious that Jia (who was ten years younger than him) had such an elaborate set and gorgeous costumes. But he’d never once questioned that she deserved them. Because she really was that good.

“And that,” Jia said, as the last seconds slipped away, “is why I need to win.”

The buzzer sounded. Ricardo tried to see how long Jia’s chain of linking rings stretched, but it was impossible discern which were linked, and which weren’t, among all the other rings on the floor.

“Magicians,” Monty said, “You may take off your mittens. It’s time to see how you scored. Holding only the last ring in your chain, you will step away from the linking area. When the final ring clears the other unlinked rings, you’ll be told to stop. Ricardo the Magnificent?”

Ricardo nodded. His knees felt shaky and his wounded tongue tasted like raw liver. But when he pulled off the stupid mittens and touched the bare metal, he felt a tingle. A connection. A joy.

“Step forward.”

Please hold together.

Though he had the advantage of being able to talk to the rings, Ricardo walked slowly, deliberately, aware that with every step, he faced the possibility of one of the rings snagging on the pile, and a slot turning and aligning with its neighboring ring, and a big hunk of his chain dropping right off.

Please hold together.

“Stop,” Monty said, and Ricardo froze. He looked back over his shoulder—carefully, moving only his head—and saw his chain of linking rings extended several yards back before it ended just at the edge of the remaining unlinked rings. “Jia Lee? Step forward.”

Taking her cue from Ricardo, Jia stepped out of the ring pile with excruciating slowness and grace. She might not have had any choice but to embrace her roots and play the role of “Chinese conjurer,” but seeing her there in her black halter dress and Geisha-inspired makeup, Ricardo had to admit: she damn well played the hand she’d been dealt for all she was worth. And if she ever wanted to retire from magic…she’d make a kick-ass Bond villain.

Closer, she stepped. One pace. And another. And just as Ricardo realized, numbly, that she might keep on walking—she drew abreast of him, and Monty said, “Stop.”

“Okay, kids,” Iain called out, “stand still. We’ll have the official counters in and out before you know it.”

Ricardo listened to his pulse pounding in his ears as the chains were counted and then double-checked. If they were being that careful…the score must be close. Horribly close.

After approximately forever, Iain called out, “Got your numbers, Monty? Okay, go ahead.”

“Jia Lee. In three minutes, you’ve managed to link thirty-eight rings. Unfortunately, four of those rings slipped off the end of your chain as you walked out of the linking area, which leaves you with thirty-four. Will that be enough to cinch this part of the challenge for the Red Team?

“Ricardo the Magnificent, you lost a few rings early on in the challenge. Did he manage to keep enough together to beat Jia’s score?

“The tally is in. Ricardo, your final score is…thirty-six rings. Gold Team has won the linking ring phase of the Four Prop Challenge!”

Ricardo was aware, numbly, of cameras scrambling and his teammates cheering as he rejoined his team. He wanted to be happy. But mostly he was so overwhelmed, he just wanted to vomit.


“You know you got to win this one,” Kevin told John, “if you want to stay on the show.”

John sat on the red sofa, back straight, legs crossed. He kept is eyes on the assistants clearing the rings, and didn’t respond. After Kevin’s accusation the night before, whether he realized John had heard it or not, it seemed silly to reward him with anything more than the most minimal civility. It felt liberating, in a way, to be able to stop pretending he thought Kevin was anything more than an odious little punk.

“’Cuz if Red Team loses this challenge,” Kevin went on, “and the home audience gotta vote someone off it, and I’m immune…who you think they gonna pick? One of them foxy babes? Or you?”

John kept looking straight ahead. If there’s anything that makes a heckler crazy, Casey used to say, it’s when you don’t even notice they exist. While John wasn’t exactly shocked that a member of his own team had turned on him, he was a bit surprised it had happened so soon.

Although it was right on the heels of the Wand Pond, in which John had been very nearly taken the big prize…and he’d used True magic in the attempt. Maybe Kevin had sensed it. Carefully, John slid a look in Kevin’s direction—and then looked deeper.

Dead inside. That explained the hostility. Oh, the friction probably made mundane sense, too, if Kevin were to begin winnowing out players who might pose a threat to him whether or not they were on his own team. But plenty of events were caused by reasons that ran a lot deeper than what showed on the surface.

Crew swept the rings away, then brought out a table-shaped item draped in cloth. A pair of chairs were placed on each side of it, facing one another, as if they were setting up a tea party for John and Muriel rather than a challenge. Once the props were in place, Monty read, “Last but not least, we have the magic silks portion of the Four Prop Challenge. Gold Team, you selected Muriel Broom to perform. What was your reasoning behind that?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Monty?” Muriel smiled and patted down her peasant blouse. Tiny bells jingled from her bracelets as she shook out her flouncy skirt. “I’m the one who’s best at accessorizing.”

“Very good, Muriel. And joining you in this challenge is the last randomly-selected Red Team member, Professor Topaz. Magicians, have a look at what’s in store for you this final round.”

Stage hands whisked off the covering, and revealed a table constructed of plexiglass. Its top was a deep box, filled entirely with colored scarves. John craned his neck to see the upper surface of the tabletop. It was opaque, with two holes cut through it, one on each end.

“Magicians have long been known for producing silk scarves from a number of unlikely places,” Monty said. “The fabric is durable enough to make parachutes from, yet it’s whisper-thin, and can easily be packed into a ball, palmed and concealed. Tonight you won’t be concealing a silk, though. This challenge is about finding one.

“This specially-constructed table holds over three thousand squares of silk—and while the contents are visible to both your teammates and the cameras, you’ll only be able to touch the silks, not see them.”

“Get a dolly shot of the black table top,” Iain directed, and the dolly camera rolled in and swooped over the table. While a few handhelds circled it.

Once the cameras backed up, Monty added, “Here’s how it works, Magicians. You’ll place one hand into the box and draw out a silk. You must remain seated at all times, and you may only pull out one silk at a time. If two or more silks stick together and you pull out more than one, you will earn points in the amount of the total number of silks in your hand. In other words, two silks, two points, and so on. You will continue drawing silks for three minutes. At the end of that time, whichever magician has the least amount of points—the lowest score—will be the winner.”

Iain said, “Let’s get a shot of the magicians behind the table, looking down at it.”

John and Muriel stepped over to the table. John nodded at Muriel. She smiled at him, eyebrows high, as if she’d just asked him a question and was waiting for the answer. Although…maybe that was just the way her eyebrows looked.

With John and Muriel in position, Monty continued. “This might lead you to play slow and careful. After all, if you don’t draw as many silks, you won’t have as many chances of incurring a penalty. However, there are several white silks scattered throughout the table. If one of you pulls a white silk, and only a white silk, you will be the immediate winner of this portion of the challenge, regardless of how many points you’ve racked up. In addition, you’ll win a week-long stay valued at five thousand dollars in a luxurious terrace suite at the Las Vegas MGM Grand, and a special guest appearance in the show of the legendary David Copperfield.”

“Well, that’d be fun,” Muriel said, “wouldn’t it? Maybe they’ll give us a comp to the buffet line, too.”

“Hold on, Monty,” Iain said. The light’s bouncing off that table and creating a glare. We’ll need to change the angle.”

Several assistants and a technician came out to reposition the table—apparently it was quite heavy—while John turned over Kevin’s warning in his mind. He would need to win this challenge. Not for the week at the MGM Grand or the phenomenal opportunity of appearing in the show, but to stay in Magic Mansion for one more challenge. Because if that bully Kevin were focused on John…maybe he’d leave Ricardo alone.

If John won, it meant Muriel would not, and John wasn’t thrilled about that…though since it was a competition, one of them would need to lose. He turned to her, and she to him (eyebrows raised) and he offered his hand, saying, “Good luck, Muriel.”

She smiled and reached toward him…and when her hand touched John’s, her True magic jolted him like an electrical current. She pulled him down to her level, and his body obeyed like it had no will of his own. He bent his head so she could whisper in his ear, and she leaned into him and said, “Don’t let that dumb gym rat intimidate you, John. Loosen up and enjoy the ride. You didn’t even notice that cute twink’s ass in those stretch pants—and him all hot for you. I’m going to be seriously disappointed if you don’t hit that.”

As if a breaker had flipped, the Truth, suddenly, was gone. It drained from Muriel’s hand like water. “Casey?” John whispered.

Muriel blinked. “Is that what I said? Casey? Heh, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Anyway, good luck.” She pumped his hand up and down a couple of times, then released it. “You’ve got to take me with a grain of salt, Professor. I dropped a lot of acid in my day.”

John was seated at the table, Muriel across from him. He could see through the hole, which was barely bigger than the diameter of his arm. Red, green, black, gold, blue. No white. Digging around in the silks without pulling any out was a viable strategy if he didn’t want to risk getting points off. But, as with life, caution would have its own risks. If John acted by choosing not to act, Muriel could very well pull a white silk and win everything: the trip, the show, and the entire Four Props Challenge for the Gold.

John shifted his gaze and saw the Gold Team watching him over Muriel’s shoulder. Ricardo’s eyes widened when John met his gaze. Nothing ventured, nothing gained—and perhaps he had Casey’s blessing to actually pursue something beyond a furtive tryst with Ricardo, or perhaps Muriel had just been reading John with her talent and channeling it into the sort of message he thought he would want to hear.

Whichever the case, with the delicious weight of Ricardo’s gaze on him, John resolved that it was, indeed, time to really try.

“Rolling,” Iain said. A buzzer sounded, and Monty called out, “Go!”

John pulled a silk. Red. And blue…damn.

Monty announced, “Red Team starts with two—and remember, in this challenge, the magician with the fewest points will be the winner.”

Across the table, Muriel teased a green silk out of the hole. Then a black.

John pushed his hand deep into the silks to try again.

“To your right, Professor,” Fae yelled.

The focus of the Gold Team shifted, as the other three members kenned to the fact that they could be helping Muriel. John reached in and to the right. “Farther,” Fae yelled, and Jia called out, “A little more. A little more.”

Bev screamed, “Right there, Muriel. Right there!” and Muriel pulled. White flashed, but green also.

Monty said, “It’s not alone, so it doesn’t count. Two points to Gold Team.” Muriel was undaunted. She flung it to the side and thrust her hand back into the hole while the mingled silks floated gently toward the floor.

“There! There!” Fae called, and John pinched the scarf that seemed to be closer to Fae’s line of vision and teased it carefully from the mass. It cleared the hole by itself…but it was yellow.

“Not that one,” she called.

Muriel laughed, and drew a pink scarf. “There’s a trick to pulling just one, huh?” she said to John. “But you get the feel for it after a few.” She pulled out another green.

“Indeed.” John reached back in, and tried to find the spot Fae had been guiding him to before. “Right there,” Jia called again. John pulled…and saw the scarf was blue before it even cleared the hole. He pulled hard, and two more came out with it.

“That’s five for the Red Team,” Monty said.

Half a minute was gone. John reached and pulled. Muriel did the same. They each found a rhythm, a speed, that allowed the silks to slide out without bringing along one of the others more often than not, though John racked up another five points, and in a particularly clingy draw, Muriel four.

Two minutes had passed, and it became obvious that if he didn’t find a white silk, Muriel would claim this challenge. And although John was loathe to do it for fear of drawing more spite toward himself, he focused on his True power, sent it surging through his fingertips…and then zeroed in on the idea of “white.”

It was so much easier to convey “white” than “the longest wand” that the response from the silks was practically immediate. Yes came from a place somewhere in the middle. Yes, from deep down in the pile. Yes, from the opposite corner.

Yes, from the spot toward which Fae and Jia had been trying to coax John.

John walked his fingers through the silks carefully. White?

No. No. No. No. Yes.

He pinched it between his fingers. White—are you sure?


The timer was ticking. Only fifteen seconds to go. If John pulled more than one silk, he’d never have time to find another white, and Muriel would win the stunt. Slow. Steady. But were there any other colors stuck to it? Hard to say. And just as he began to draw it from the opening, he sent the request, only white.

Whatever silk had been trying to cling (red, it seemed like, because it thought he could do with a darker pocket square) understood him, and released.

With ten seconds to spare, and Jia and Fae screaming themselves hoarse, John drew the silk from the hole.

“Is that…?” Monty said. “Yes, it’s a white silk. Professor Topaz has successfully drawn a single white silk. Not only will he spend a week at the MGM Grand and enjoy a guest appearance with David Copperfield, but Red Team wins the silk scarf portion of the Four Props Challenge.”

Chapter 25



Ricardo covered his face with his hands. He tasted blood…God only knew what he’d done to his tongue during the last few seconds of the damn scarf challenge. He had no idea how his reaction would be interpreted. Disappointment over Red Team stealing the victory at the last second, he hoped. When really, he was just excruciatingly relieved it hadn’t been John who’d lost.

“Well, that does it,” Bev said. “Two Reds and two Golds. I’m sure they have a nice twist in store.”

“Don’t think that way,” Sue said. “Maybe they’ll let us all—”

“Okay, kids,” Iain called out, “line up in front of the table and pay close attention to Monty.”

Ricardo tended to think Bev was onto something. Whatever a tie meant, it probably wouldn’t be good.

They lined up, John center back, as the tallest contestant, Ricardo to one side of him and Kevin Kazan to the other. Sue, on Ricardo’s other side, was tall enough to stand in the back row, especially in her heels, and she took Ricardo’s hand and squeezed. Thankfully, Ricardo caught himself before he slipped his other hand into John’s. He turned to him instead, looked him in the eye, and said, “A spot with David Copperfield? Way to go.”

“Thank you,” John said gravely. Which gave Ricardo a special thrill, since onstage, it was the way Professor Topaz said pretty much everything.

“Tonight,” Monty told them, “eight magicians battled it out head to head. We had four winners, and four losers—two on Gold Team, and two on Red Team. There is no losing team.”

Sue squeezed Ricardo’s hand hard. He squeezed back and told himself to be happy that even though he couldn’t do the same with John, at least they were standing there side by side—and (barring a very cruel twist) neither one of them would be going home.

“Unfortunately, there is no winning team either, and only one person can be the last magician standing in Magic Mansion. And so, in the interest of fairness, our viewing audience will be sending home one member from each team.”

Sue gasped, and Ricardo held on tight as she swayed. Sue hadn’t had one of “her girls” go home since Charity Young…and truth be told, no one missed that awful dummy of hers.

“You’ll have tonight to celebrate the winners and say goodbye to your fast friends at a lavish dinner party in your honor. And tomorrow, we’ll announce who the viewers have chosen to stay…and to go.”

The formal dining room looked pretty enough, with its champagne fountain, white roses and sparkling candelabra. But Ricardo was exhausted, bone tired, and nauseated from the stress of the day. His tongue tasted like pennies and he suspected if he did manage to swallow any food, it might very well come right back up.

His teammates’ voices registered: Bev saying it was statistically unlikely she would get to stay much longer anyway, and Muriel saying that she’d had a blast at the Mansion, and she’d only done it for a lark anyhow, and Sue saying that it wasn’t fair one of them had to go home since Gold Team, in her opinion, had not officially lost. But mostly he allowed himself the luxury, while the cameras were still setting up and scoping out their best spots, of gazing at John. He tucked a red silk into his breast pocket, then looked up at Ricardo, and smiled. It was a sad-ish smile, and heart-wrenchingly handsome in the way it fit him just so. Like the black suit, and the pocket square.

“Earth to Ricardo,” Muriel said. “Have some champagne. You look like you can use it.”

As Ricardo sipped his champagne, which helped numb the awful taste of his tongue a bit, craft service hauled in huge platters of finger-foods, cheeses and fruit, canapes and shrimp. The dining room was in fairly good shape, even the spots the cameras weren’t shooting, and food was actually better than the fancy dinner they’d had for eleven minutes with David Blaine. And slowly, between the champagne and the camaraderie of his teammates, despite the fact that he would need to bid one of them goodbye, Ricardo felt the horrific anxiety of the day begin to ebb. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was enjoying himself. But eventually his knees stopped trembling, and he felt he could carry on a conversation without marking the location of the nearest trash can in case the urge to spew took over.

He was actually a bit tipsy by the time he wandered off to the bathroom, which only made sense. Even though the food was pretty good, his tongue wasn’t allowing him to enjoy anything that needed chewing, and the bubbly went down crisp and smooth.

The parts of the Mansion that weren’t currently taping were poorly lit and even a bit ominous. Ceilings were high, and in the dark, Ricardo’s footsteps sounded strange. It didn’t smell like a regular house. It smelled like a museum, or maybe an old library. And the mirror in the bathroom closest to the dining hall was speckled with dark spots where age had worn the silver backing away, which gave it a spooky, decayed feeling. He was glad enough to do his business and return to the party, but as he hurried back with his mind on the dining room, someone grabbed him by the elbow and spun him against the wall.

Kevin Kazan itching for a fight was his first thought—but Kevin Kazan was roughly the same height as Ricardo, so Ricardo wouldn’t find himself looking at a goatee and a red bow tie rather than Kevin’s stupid sideways hat.

Lips fell on Ricardo’s mouth. Urgent. Needy.

Kevin Kazan probably didn’t kiss like that, either.

Ricardo slid his arms around John’s neck, though he turned his mouth aside. “My tongue is a mess,” he said.

John stiffened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think—”

“Don’t be sorry.” Ricardo held on to him and stopped him from pulling away, and even managed to coax him into another brush of the lips. “Just be careful.”

John pressed his lips to Ricardo’s, more gently now, but not chaste, not at all. He held Ricardo to the wall, pinned by chest and hip, with a chair rail prodding into the center of his back and a rough bit of plaster catching at his hair, while his tongue teased at Ricardo’s mouth.

When John broke the kiss, he was breathing hard. Ricardo, too. “We shouldn’t stay out here in the open,” John said, but Ricardo could protest that he frankly didn’t care, John added, “Follow me.”

John slipped around the corner, stealthy as a secret agent in his trim black suit, and Ricardo followed. He headed into the ballroom, then made a beeline for the screened-off parlor where props and equipment were stored. Perfect. If there were cameras in there, they’d be piled on the floor, not rolling, which meant…Ricardo’s heart pounded at the thought…that they could get away with doing pretty much anything.

The room was dark, but enough outdoor security lights seeped through the filmy curtains to allow them to pick their way through the clutter of furniture and gear. John paused in front of an old love seat at the far wall, turned to Ricardo, and held out his hand. Ricardo stepped forward, and in that moment, the disappointing reality of Magic Mansion fell away, and he could ignore the smell of sawdust and distant decay, and pretend that it was just him, and just John. They were together, alone. And this was their mansion. Their window, their curtains. Their love seat. And yes, it was a silly fantasy, since John probably just wanted a quickie, and Ricardo was probably reading into things, and no one owned a mansion these days, but who cared? Because this really was Professor Topaz, in the flesh. That was the only part of the fantasy that actually mattered. And that part was definitely real.

Ricardo stepped into John’s arms, and John bent his head to press his forehead to Ricardo’s. Not kissing him, not yet. Just holding him. And even that motion sent Ricardo’s heart soaring. “You look fabulous,” John said. His hands slid down the stretchy top. “Did you wear this to distract me?”

“Oh my God, no—”

“Shh. I’m kidding. I do that, sometimes.” John murmured the words against Ricardo’s lips as his hands dropped lower, hesitated, and then slid lower still, to cup Ricardo’s ass.

Now there was something to fantasize about. John grabbing him. Spreading him.

Taking him.

Ricardo moaned.

He nearly thrust his tongue into John’s mouth, but at the last moment a metallic taste threatened to spoil the mood. He turned his head so his face was buried in the crook of John’s neck instead, and he rubbed up against John, hungry to press together everywhere. His groin butted John’s thigh, and John let out a small gasp. “You’re so hard,” he whispered, fingers pressing deeper into Ricardo’s glutes, kneading them roughly. “I haven’t even touched it yet.”

“Please,” Ricardo gasped.


Ricardo almost didn’t catch the question. It sounded more like a breath. But if John thought it was a turn-on to hear Ricardo begging, he was more than happy to oblige. “Because I want you so bad it hurts. Because every day I see you and I can’t touch you and hold you and kiss you, it’s like torture to remember how you kissed me, and how you touched me, and I’m dying for you to do it again. To do more. To do it all.”

John guided Ricardo to the love seat and lay him back. It smelled faintly of mildew—but even that couldn’t detract from Ricardo’s hottest fantasy come true. John covered Ricardo with his body, kissing him slowly, gently, and occasionally his hips dipped down and brushed their groins together—and within a few slow grinds, John’s straining bulge caught up with Ricardo’s. And maybe they’d get off like that, rubbing together like a couple of college kids in the utility closet at a mostly-straight kegger. It wouldn’t be quite as good as the main event—feeling John inside him—but it would be a pretty damn satisfying opening act.

“Yeah, like that,” Ricardo said, when their bodies brushed in a particularly keen way. John dipped his hips and did it again. He fit his mouth to Ricardo’s and allowed their bodies to slide, for the sensation to build—and maybe it would be just as intense like this. Maybe more. “So good,” he breathed into John’s mouth as everything rushed down, down, down, and the tingle of impending release began to build. The slowness of the stimulation, the indirectness of it, made it all seem even headier. And when he came, he could already tell…he was going to come hard.

When John stilled, and when that elusive stimulation ebbed before his climax, Ricardo actually whimpered.

John shushed him quietly.

Once Ricardo wrested his awareness from his own throbbing dick, he realized he heard something other than the sound of their breathing and the gentle creak of the love seat.

He heard footsteps.

John put his mouth to Ricardo’s ear, and said, “Be still.”

Ricardo nodded.

The footsteps echoed through the ballroom, ringing loud. High heels. Ricardo wondered if maybe Sue had come to check on him and make sure he was okay—and that would be fine. Sue wouldn’t make a big stink about finding him in a compromising position with the Professor. But then someone spoke, and it wasn’t Sue at all.

“Where you wanna go?”

Holy crap. Kevin Kazan?

“I dunno.” And Amazing Fae? What the heck? “Where’s a good spot?” she said. “Here?”

“Okay. Get yo’ fine self over here, then. Let’s get busy.”

No one else, right?Ricardo hadn’t even heard Kazan coming. His gym shoes barely made a squeak on the parquet floor. He hoped there would only be the two of them.

But, no. There would only be two people present for what they began doing. Rustling sounds ensued. And then wet sounds: mouth on mouth sounds. And breathing.

Ricardo almost laughed—not because the situation was even remotely funny, but as release for the anxiety that had been building all day. His erection seemed like it would be happy to keep on going with what he and John were in the midst of—he was that close—but after a minute or two, it grudgingly began to flag.

Eventually, Ricardo attempted to distract himself by counting. He was somewhere around the three-hundred mark when finally the deep-kissing sounds stopped, and Fae said, “How’s my hair?”

“It’s good.”

“Okay. We should go back.”

John held Ricardo still for a long moment after her the sound of her heels receded on the ballroom floor.

“I hope that’s not the standard Red Team greeting,” Ricardo whispered.

John sniffed out a small laugh. “Don’t worry about Kevin. He’s very much not my type. And the feeling is mutual.” He pressed his lips to Ricardo’s forehead and then pushed himself up into a seated position. “I’m sorry. This was too risky.”

Ricardo sat up and pressed himself to John’s side. “No, don’t say that.”

John hesitated, then said, “I haven’t felt like this about anyone for a long time.”

Really? Ricardo’s heart pounded wildly, and before he could check himself, he said, “Me too.”

“Come with me to Vegas. I want you there, at the MGM Grand.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

And the silence that hung between them once they had both said their piece was awkward, but profoundly wonderful in a way that Ricardo would cherish forever.

“John,” Ricardo said finally, because he’d had a rollercoaster of a day, and it seemed that he couldn’t just let it slide, “when I thought I was going to up against you, head-to-head, I nearly choked.”

John sighed.

“The chances of that happening are getting pretty good,” Ricardo added. “The longer both of us stay here, and the more players get voted off.”

John found Ricardo’s hand, took it between both of his, and squeezed it. (And it felt nothing like holding hands with Sue.) “Promise me something,” John said.

“Not until I hear what it is.”

“Promise me that when that time comes, you won’t pull your punches.”

“Do you even realize what you’re asking? I can’t try to take you down.” And then the laughter Ricardo had needed to swallow down just moments before threatened to turn to tears, and his voice went wobbly. “You’re my hero.”

John raised Ricardo’s hand and brushed his lips across the knuckles. “Then give me the respect of your full effort. If I should happen to be the last magician standing…I would hate to think it was because you’d gone easy on me.”



“I haven’t felt like this in a long time.”

“Me too.”

The studio door slammed, and Marlene hit the digital marker to take the footage back to the point where Fae and Kevin entered the storage room, before Iain could fling himself down in front of the monitor. “Well,” he said. “How’d my lovebirds do?”

“See for yourself.”

In the greenish night-vision glow, Kevin and Fae kissed and grappled. She kept her hands planted firmly on his shoulders. He looked as if he couldn’t tell if he was supposed to cop a feel. Despite their stiffness—which wouldn’t be too noticeable in a two-second clip—they both managed to kiss with lots and lots of tongue in a decent semblance of enthusiasm.

“Not too bad,” Iain said. “And how about that ‘I’m so Chinese’ speech from Jia?”

“That was actually pretty impressive,” Marlene said. “I think we can use the whole thing. Did the writers come up with that?”

“Nope. I told her that if she wouldn’t go make out with Kevin, then she’d need to find some way to endear herself to the audience, or else pretty soon the Mansion door would be hitting her in the ass.”

Marlene might not be fond of Iain’s tactics, but he did know how to motivate a contestant. That much was true. “And what about Muriel and Bev?”

“What about them?”

“Any particular footage where they had their moment in the spotlight?”

“Oh, who cares? All those old farts should’ve been gone by now. Nobody wants to see someone their grandma’s age in a bathing suit.”

Marlene ignored him. “Bev’s enthusiasm made the Wand Pond pretty lively. I’ll recommend that.”

Through the speaker, the Professor’s voice said, “I’m sorry. This was too risky,” and Ricardo answered, “No, don’t say that.”

“What the…?” Iain sat up straighter, and clapped his hand over the control pad before Marlene could stop the playback.

“I haven’t felt like this in a long time.”

“Me too.”

“Oh my God. The Professor is kissing Ricardo’s hand.”


“Hot damn, look at ’em. Now that’s what I wanted to see from Kevin and Fae.” Iain watched with rapt fascination as the Professor lovingly stroked Ricardo’s cheek, and Ricardo clasped his hand there for a moment, then turned it to kiss the palm.

“We should go,” Ricardo said.

“Holy crap—now they’re frenching each other.”

“Honestly, Iain, like you’ve never seen two men kiss.” While Iain flailed his hands in an “icky” motion, Marlene reached over and stopped the playback.

Iain treated Marlene to a bratty smirk. It was the most alert she’d ever seen him after 10 p.m. “So Topaz has been a fag all along?”

“Don’t use the word fag, you’ll get sued. And, yes, don’t you know anything? John Topaz and Casey Cornish were a big item.”

“Professor Topaz has been your favorite since day one. Maybe you should recommend these two homos as Magic Mansion’s big romantic couple.”

Marlene sighed. “You know that’s never gonna happen.”

“Why not?” Iain put on a mocking voice. “It’s not as if the viewers have never seen two men kiss.”

“You know all the giddy thirteen-year-olds on the network’s message boards think Ricardo and Sue are an item.”

“Future fag hags.”

“Go home, Iain. Just go home.”


“The dining hall is empty now, save for the echoes of the laughter and voices of eight formidably talented magicians. And of those magicians…two will be eliminated.

“On the Gold Team, it’s spiritualist Muriel Broom versus The Math Wizard, Bev Austin. On the Red, it’s lovely Amazing Fae versus exotic Jia Lee.

“I’m your host, Monty Shaw. Be sure to cast your votes, and tune in next time, when the female population will be drastically reduced…in Magic Mansion.”


Cast your vote after Chapter 25 at by 12/22*