When the Great Fantoni changed his act, he came to me. No more the top hat and cane. Gone too were the cloak and the white gloves. “I’m beginning to resemble too much of the audience,” he blustered. “A stage magician should be distinctive. Exotic!”
With that, he rifled the wardrobe department, opening every trunk, every armoire, and tossing costumes over his shoulders in his search for his new outfit. No prizes for guessing who would have to tidy that lot up, I thought.
He settled on a floor-length robe of midnight blue silk, suggesting, with an arch look in my direction, that it would look even more resplendent if ‘someone’ were to stitch on a moon and some stars… He fashioned a turban from a length of gold fabric, for which I found a jewelled brooch and a feather for decoration. He seemed delighted with the overall effect as he admired himself in the mirror but then, his face fell.
“I look too much the gent,” he said. “My face is still the Great Fantoni’s. I need a new face.”
I got to work on him with the crepe hair and the spirit gum. He fidgeted in the chair. “There hasn’t been anyone asking for me? At the stage door?”
At first I took this to be a rather desperate query. The man was hungry for admirers and recognition, I thought, but the truth turned out to be quite the opposite.
“You must let me know if anyone asks for me – for the Great Fantoni, I mean. Especially if they sport suspenders and flat caps. And if they have Irish names. Promise me, you’ll let me know right away.”
I gave him my word. He examined his new reflection. I had given him a long, drooping moustache, like a Chinese mandarin. And he nodded in approval.
As well as his appearance, the Great Fantoni overhauled his entire show. I was recruited to stand in the wings and while he, having dispensed with his white-tipped wand, wiggled his fingers around over his props, it was my job to shake a sheet of metal suspended overhead, simulating rolls of thunder. It was a thrill for me, a step up from the wardrobe department – for I had always wanted to be in show business. But, up close to his act, I could see what he was doing. How he misdirected attention so he could stash playing cards in his voluminous sleeves. How he stored doves and rabbits in compartments in his table. How, in fact, the whole thing was rigged. It was all built on lies and deception and, from this close angle, seemed to me tawdry and vile, and lacking in the glamour I had craved all my life.
But as I watched, I learned. I even took to practising in my spare time, developing my sleight of hand and my patter. I would out-magic the Great Fantoni, or Presto Bongo as he was now calling himself. Every night he demanded to know if anyone had asked for him. I pieced things together: Fantoni owed money – gambling debts, most probably – to one of the gangs that operate in this side of town.
One night, two roughs in suspenders and flat caps appeared at the stage door. They gave old Jim a lot of hassle until I placated them with two complimentary tickets and directed them around to the front entrance of the theatre. I hurried to Fantoni’s dressing room. “They’re here!” I gasped. He nodded; he had been expecting this for weeks.
“The show must go on,” he said. I think he was attempting to sound noble.
If he was nervous, I couldn’t see it. He handled his tricks and illusions as though nothing was wrong. At the climax of his routine, when he raised his hands aloft, I reached for the strap to rattle the thunder-sheet but it was not there.
Two men in the front row got to their feet. Two gunshots rang out and the magician fell to the floor. Quickly, the curtain was closed. The gunmen tore from the building. I dashed to Fantoni’s side. His robe of midnight blue had fallen open. There was the sheet of metal, strapped to his chest.
But the magician was dead. I had told the men in flat caps to aim for the jewel on his turban. After all, we McNallys must stick together.
And now I’m top of the bill.