"Excuse me sir," said the young man. He was about twenty-five, bespectacled, with tawny hair and a little shorter than expected. He wore a rumpled gray suit and strode across the maroon carpet of the hotel lobby. The man he was speaking to was leaning on the concierge desk. This man was older, looking to be in his thirties though he was not. He had an air of casual confidence, a man with the appearance of complete command of his life and circumstances. He wore an ivory suit with a silk magenta vest and a wide pink tie. And a short cape, made of the same ivory material as the suit. Even in Las Vegas, he stood out.
"How may I help you?" he turned and asked the young man, in a velvety deep voice.
"Uh, I'm a big fan," said the young man. He felt awkward and uncomfortable now that his was in the presence of his his long-time quarry.
"Would you like an autograph?" asked the magician, a little disinterested.
"No, actually, I was wondering if you'd be able to answer a few questions," said the younger man. "I-I know you're very busy and all, but you see, I'm learning to become a magician myself."
"Ah," said the magician with a smile. "I see."
"Would have some time maybe?"
"I have all the time in the world," said magician,"but I'm afraid I can't divulge my secrets."
"Well sir, I'd really like to be your apprentice."
"Are you sure this is the line of work you'd like to be in?" The magician looked the younger man up and down appraisingly, then smiled from one corner of his mouth.
"Yes, very much so."
"Well, maybe we should retire to the lounge and have a little chat."
"Um, yes! Yes, thank you. That would be, absolutely great." The younger man beamed, unable to believe the graciousness of the magician. "I mean even just five minutes would be--just fantastic. Yes."
"Excellent," said the magician. He started to walk to towards the lounge. The young man followed him eagerly. They found a pair of overstuffed leather chairs in a darkish corner of the lounge. They order drinks and the magician removed his cape gracefully and draped it over the arm of his chair. He took out a silver cigarette case from his coat pocket and lit up. He offered a cigarette to the young man, and he took it, but being a non-smoker, did not light up, and instead awkwardly put the cigarette in a pocket. The magician thought this amusing.
"What would you like to know?" asked the magician when their drinks arrived.
"Well, to begin with, I noticed that you never use accomplices. You don't have any assistants on stage, nor do you take people from the audience. It's actually remarkable, because most tricks require other people either as distractions or to aid in the execution of a trick."
"Yes, that's true. But the general public doesn't know that. To them, it doesn't make me seem like a better magician. Only others truly interested in the magical arts will know that."
"So, why do you do it?"
"It's the challenge of course," the magician took a long drag on his cigarette. "Magic is all about novelty. If you do the same thing all the time, or the same thing as other magicians, eventually the audience catches on."
"Yeah, but you're stuff--it's so different." The young man scooted forward to the edge of the chair.
"Yes, it is," said the magician.
"And the water trick you do, where you suspend it in a sphere above the audience, then make it change shape several times, then somehow turn it to ice--I'm just blown away by that. I can't figure it out at all." The young man looked past the magician, lost in thought.
"That's a good one," said the magician, chuckling.
"I know you can't tell me how it works, but I just wanted to say it's absolutely amazing."
"Well, I don't think you would believe me if I told you."
"I might surprise you," said the young man, smiling.
"You believe that everything has a rational explanation, don't you?"
"For the most part. I know when it comes to magic, there's always a rational explanation. Everything ultimately obeys the laws of physics."
"Hmmm," the magician smiled then laughed heartily. "Then you are not easily fooled."
"No, I would say not."
"Perhaps, a demonstration," said the magician. He picked up his drink, waved his hand over the front of it, and the little pink umbrella resting on the side lifted up, unassisted, and hovered, twirling slightly, in mid-air between the magician and the young man. The magician set the drink glass back down, and looked intently at the young man.
"That's really cool!" exclaimed the young man.
"Yes, it is, isn't it. Tell me how I did it."
"Well, uh..." The young man looked at the umbrella intently.
"Go ahead, you can touch it," said the magician.
The young man waved his hand over and under the umbrella, then circled his hand around it. He repositioned himself on the chair and furrowed his brow. He glanced at the magician with a little bit of consternation. Then he poked the umbrella with his finger. It toppled over upside down, but remained in mid-air. Then he picked it up. It moved easily with his grasp. He brought it close to his glasses and examined it thoroughly. Then he held it out to the original mid-air position, and let go. It dropped to the carpet. The young man scratched his head.
"Uhm, I'm not sure. Normally there would be strings, or maybe magnets or something...I don't really know."
"Does that bother you?"
"I'm a little freaked out, yes, kind of."
"That's a very normal, human reaction."
"I mean, I know it's a trick," said the young man. "But I just don't know how, not yet."
"How can you be sure you know that it's a trick?"
"It just has to be."
"Because all magic is just tricks."
"You're absolutely certain, after what you've just seen with your own eyes?"
"You're not so certain now are you?"
"I-I, it has to be."
The magician fished in his pocket and took out a small business card. On it was a just a phone number. He handed it to the young man.
"Call this number when you figure it out," said the magician, extinguishing the cigarette and getting up. "If and when you do, I'll let you be my apprentice."
"Uhm, thanks," said the young man. He sat and watched the man leave, confidently walking across the lobby. When he was gone, the young man leaned down and picked up the umbrella, and twirled it between his fingers. He sat back in the chair, downed the rest of his drink, and comtemplated the trick.
Over the next twenty years, the young man turned into an accomplished magician. He sawed women in half. He levitated over stages. He disappeared in boxes and reappeared at the back of theaters. He had televised specials. He made a harrier jet disappear and reappear on a soundstage. But he could never make the cocktail umbrella float in mid-air, unsuspended by strings. The older magician had long since left the public eye.
He carried the umbrella and the card with him everywhere. They grew worn. At night, in whatever hotel he was in, in whatever city he was in, he laid them next to the alarm clock, and stared at them until he fell asleep.
One morning, when he had no shows later in the day, he picked up the card and called the number. The old magician answered on the first ring.
"I don't know that it is a trick," said the younger magician.
"Are you sure?" asked the older magician.
"I've thought about it everyday. I've tried to replicate many ways. I can't get the same effect. I thought for years that it was absolute genius. But now I must confess, I don't think it is a trick at all, just something different. Something beyond me."
There was a long silence on the phone.
"Come back to Vegas. Meet me in the lounge where we met before. Next week, this exact time. Settle your affairs."
The phone clicked. The young magician canceled his shows. He wrote a will. He said goodbye to his employees. He left for Las Vegas. He waited in the lounge at the appointed time. A man walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. The younger magician turned around.
"Hello," said the older magician. He was dressed conservatively, and wore dark sunglasses, but had not aged at all.
"I-I...hello," said the younger magician. He held out his hand, but the older magician refused to shake it.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
"It's not about the magic you know."
The younger magician looked down at the carpet, now worn and faded.
"I think I guessed that a long time ago."
"Give me your hand."
The younger magician held out his hand again. The older magician took it in both of his, then pressed them together hard. The younger magician felt pain radiate up his hand, but he said nothing. The pain continued up to his shoulder, then his neck, then it enveloped his head. He felt suddenly warm. The room blurred, and he fell to the chair. There were sounds and colors and calmness, then focus returned. The pain was gone. The older magician was gone. There was the smell of cigarette smoke in the air. On the carpet was the pink umbrella, brand new. The carpet was clean and new and vivid. There was an empty drink glass next to the chair opposite, with condensation droplets clinging to it. The younger magician picked up the umbrella, and placed it in the air between the chairs. It held it's position. He smiled. He looked at his hands--young again. He laughed.