Excerpt from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Shell Game

By Carol O'Connell

Shell Game
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  • Hardcover: Jun 1999,
    374 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2000,
    416 pages.

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A remote control device lay on the arm of his chair, and a red light glowed below the dark glass screen. He depressed the play button, and the television set came to life in a sudden brightness of moving pictures and a loud barking voice. Malakhai cut off the volume.

Something important was about to happen, but what? His hand clenched in frustration, and drops of sherry spilled from his glass.

She was beside him now, reaching into his mind and flooding it with warmth, touching his thoughts with perfect understanding. A second glass sat on a small cocktail table before her own chair, a taste of sherry for Louisa-still thirsty after all those years in the cold ground.

On the large screen, a troupe of old men in tuxedos were doffing top hats for the camera. Looming behind them was the old band shell in Central Park. Its high stone arch was flanked by elegant cornices and columns of the early 1900s. Hexagonal patterns on the concave wall echoed the shape of the plaza's paving stones, where a standing audience was herded behind velvet ropes. Above the heads of the old magicians, a rippling banner spanned the upper portion of the shell, bright red letters declaring the upcoming Holidays of Magic in Manhattan.

The preview-of course.

So this was the month of November, and in another week, Thanksgiving Day would be followed by a festival of magicians, retired performers of the past alongside the present flash-and-dazzle generation. Beneath the image of a reporter with a microphone, a moving band of type traveled across the width of the screen to tell him that this was a live performance with no trick photography. The cameras would not cut away.

Malakhai smiled. The television was promising not to deceive the viewers, though misdirection was the heart of magic.

The plaza must be well lit, for the scene was bright as day. The raised stone floor of the band shell was dominated by a large box of dark wood, nine feet square. Malakhai knew the precise dimensions; many years ago, he had lent a hand to build the original apparatus, and this was a close replica. Thirteen shallow stairs led to the top of the platform. At the sides of the broad base step, two pairs of pedestals were bolted into the wood and topped with crossbows angling upward toward a target of black and white concentric ovals. The camera did not see the pins that suspended the target between the tall posts, and so it seemed to float above the small wooden stage.

Memory had nearly achieved parity with the moment. Oliver Tree was about to make a comeback for a career that never was. Malakhai leaned toward Louisa's empty chair. "Can you find our Oliver in that lineup of old men?" He pointed to the smallest figure in the group, an old man with the bright look of a boy allowed to stay up late in the company of grown-ups. The scalp and beard were clipped so short, Oliver appeared to be coated with white fur like an aged teddy bear.

"Where has he been all this time?" Even as Malakhai spoke these words, he recalled that Oliver had spent his retirement years working out a solution to the Lost Illusion.

The crossbow pedestals were made of giant clockwork gears, three intermeshing toothy circles of brass. Soon their weapons would release arrows in mechanized sequence, four time bombs set to go off with the tick of clocks and the twang of bowstrings. All the sights were trained on the oval target. The television camera narrowed its field for a close look at the magazine on one crossbow. This long narrow box of wood was designed to carry a load of three arrows.

The camera pulled back for a wide shot of two uniformed policemen on top of the platform. One of them held a burlap dummy upright while the other officer manacled its cloth hands to the iron post rings. Then they both knelt on the floorboards to attach leg irons to the wide-spread feet. And now the mannequin was splayed out across the face of the target. Standing below on the floor of the band shell, the newsman was speaking into his microphone, probably giving the history of the Lost Illusion and its long-deceased creator, the great Max Candle.

Reprinted from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Carol O'Connell.

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