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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Malakhai inclined his head toward Louisa's chair. "I never thought Oliver would be the one to work it out."

Indeed. The retired carpenter in magician's silks had once been the most ordinary member of the troupe, a boy from the American heartland, stranded in the middle of a world war and without a clue to get himself home. So Oliver had only made it as far as New York City. Perhaps Paris had spoiled him for the midwestern prairies that spawned him.

And now Malakhai remembered one more thing. He touched the arm of the dead woman's chair, saying, "Oliver made me promise you'd watch this. He wanted you to see him in his finest hour."

The camera was panning the plaza. "There might be a thousand people in that park. Millions more are watching this on television. No one in our crowd ever had an audience that size."

Oliver Tree had surpassed them all.

More lost time was restored to Malakhai as he reached down to the cocktail table and picked up the formal invitation to a magic show in Central Park. He read the words in elegant script, then turned to the woman who wasn't there. "He's dedicating this performance to you, Louisa."

The rest of the text was a bit cryptic for Oliver. A hint of things to come?

Malakhai faced the screen as the two policemen finished cocking the crossbow pistols. The gears of the pedestals were all set in motion, toothy brass wheels slowly turning. A clockwork peg rose to the top of its orbit and touched the trigger of a crossbow. The first arrow was launched and flying too fast for the eye to track it. In the next instant, the burlap dummy was losing stuffing where the metal shaft had torn its throat. The next bow fired, and the next. When every missile had flown, the cloth effigy was pinned to the target by shafts through its neck, both legs and that place where the human heart would be.

The uniformed officers climbed to the top of the platform, unlocked the irons, and the demonstration dummy fell to the floorboards. They picked it up and carried it between them. The sawdust bled down the stairs in their descent. They made one last tour of the pedestals, cocking the weapons, allowing more arrows to drop from the crossbow magazines.

Oliver Tree stood at the base of the stairs and handed his top hat to another magician. Then he donned a scarlet cape and pulled the monk's hood over his white hair. As he slowly climbed toward the target, the long train of material flowed over the stairs behind him.

When the old man reached the top of the staircase, he stood with his back to the crowd and raised his arms. The cape concealed all but the top of the oval target. The scarlet silk sparkled and gleamed with reflections of camera lights. Then the cape collapsed and fell empty to the wooden floor. In that same instant, as if he had materialized in position, Oliver was revealed facing the crowd, spread-eagle across the target, bound in chains by hand and foot, himself the target of four armed crossbows. The gears of every pedestal were in motion. Soon the arrows would fly.

Malakhai clapped his hands. So far, the timing had been flawless. If the volume had been turned up, he might have heard the first round of applause from the audience in the plaza. Oliver Tree had grown old awaiting this moment.

The magician jerked his head to one side-the wrong side-as the gears on the first pedestal stopped and the bow released its arrow. Oliver's face contorted in a scream. There was blood on his white tie and collar. His mouth was working frantically, no doubt begging his captors to stop the rest of the crossbows from firing their arrows and killing him. Oliver's cries for help went ignored by the policemen and the reporter. They had apparently been informed that the great Max Candle had used these same words in the original act-just before dying in every single performance.

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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