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©02 Levite

part 2

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      With Bill's assistance I became Torgo's biggest fan. Or at least the one that had seen him perform more than anybody else in the area.
      I used a tiny camera to photograph his acts, I bought copies of video tapes of several of his performances at other events. Once actually meeting a person in an alley very early in the morning and paying cash for a tape and a handful of paper.
      "You know I really shouldn't be doing this." He muttered looking around.
      "I know. But I really appreciate it."
      He took the cash and quick-walked back to his car.
      Anybody watching would think I had just bought National Security Secrets, or the recipe for some famous fried chicken, or pictures of the current Miss US in the shower or something. But instead it was a 'members only' video made during a lodge New Year's party with some copies of the program and some other information.
      I looked through the papers first. The program requested that party attendees remain civil and avoid overindulgence. Along the bottom was a note that nudity would not be permitted on the dance floor or dining room. The menu looked good, roast beef or a salmon steak, vegetables, salad, soup, a couple of desserts. The wine list wasn't very extensive but it was adequate. Champagne would be provided for the toast at midnight.
      Then I looked at the entertainment. Besides the magic act, there would be a comedian to open the night and introduce the others. Also on stage was a small band, and an appearance by the lodge's own Stan and Marti. Marti would be doing her most requested number, 'Stand by your man'.
      Now I felt I was ready to look at the tape.
      Torgo's act was early in the evening, but even then, some of the attendees had been to the bar far more than was good for them. He did a short routine of his best tricks and exited via his box. According to a slightly blurry copy of the invoice that had been included with my five AM transaction, Torgo had been paid over five hundred dollars for a fifteen- minute show. I knew from his schedule, also obtained through slightly nefarious means, that he had made similarly brief appearances at about a dozen parties over that weekend.
      There was one thing I liked about the video. Whoever had the camera had been up on stage for part of the act. They were taping the reactions of the lodge members to the tricks, and the posing of Torgo's assistants in their rather skimpy costumes (evidently the guy with the camera was in love with Ms. Hughes because he had taken quite a few very nice shots of her), but there were a few scenes where off to the side I could see into or over the apparatus he was working with. I froze those scenes. One of them I found very interesting and paused it several times as I watched it now for the second time.
      The inside of his 'magic box' where he made various things appear and disappear was clearly visible.
      I had one of those boxes. I got it out for comparison. It was a standard magic box. Lined with black velvet, with a couple of concealed pockets for everything from a deck of cards to a very accommodating hamster. I had bought it at Bill's and had become somewhat accomplished with it. I had even gone so far as to think about ordering a special adapter for it that would allow me to perform a 'magic water' trick. But Bill said it didn't work very good and had a tendency to leak now and then thereby ruining the lining of the box. From what I could tell from the picture, Togro's box was identical to mine. Right down to his not having the water adapter, probably for the same reasons.
      Except Torgo did things with his I could never do with mine.
      His second trick of the night, the first was his entrance from the large box, was a good example. He had walked over to a nearby table and picked up a half empty bottle of wine. He walked back to his stand and put the bottle in the box, pushing it down until it was gone even though the bottle was several inches taller than the box. OK, that's a standard gimmick, the bottom of my box was tricked out to do things like that. But while the lodge members whistled and hollered about fakery, he picked up the box and handed it to his assistant, then he went back to the table and proceeded to distribute full glasses of wine to all six people at the table from the box. Then he took out one for each of his assistants and himself, then he lifted the now empty bottle out of the box and put it back on the table. Then he toasted the people at the table, who returned it sipping the wine. The crowd quit hooting and clapped for a long time.
      The camera showed the people taking the glasses, as it followed his hand back and forth from them to the box I got a glimpse into the box for just a second. The full wine glasses were simply appearing beneath his hand as he reached in.
      It wasn't there, then it was. Just like that. No sci-fi show sparkle of energy, no smoky haze, nothing. Then, something. In this case, a full glass of wine.
      Later the camera caught another bit of a trick that I had seen before. The ping pong ball stunt.
      The tape revealed tiny specks of light when the balls vanished. Not when they appeared, but only when they vanished. In super slow motion I caught a ball in the very act of vanishing. It was half-gone, and where there had been that half of the ball there was a bit of dim light in its place. In the next frame the ball was gone and the small pinpoint of light was visible. Then one frame later, the light was gone too.
      Three frames.
      I knew video runs at just a hair under thirty frames per second. I didn't even want to think about how fast the balls disappearance actually was. It was so quick you couldn't actually see it vanish, and indeed, that one was the only one the video had caught in the act. The others were from one frame to the next a ball to a flicker of light.
      I went back and watched the whole routine again without stopping it. It was impressive. Then as I sat thinking about the show the tape played on. And in a few minutes I was laughing and shaking my head at some of the behaviors of the lodge members.
      Now I could see why my contact said he really shouldn't be selling it. It wasn't because of any secrets it might reveal of Torgo's show, it was because of the antics of the members.
      While the three-man band was on stage singing and playing the members were dancing, undressing, vomiting on the floor, smoking various things, and doing many other things not conducive to the propriety of the club in the view of others. I laughed and thought that maybe they hadn't read that note at the bottom of the program.
      I was treated to Stan and Marti. Stan was much better on the keyboard than I expected, and Marti could almost be called pretty, and she sang good enough that I rather enjoyed her 'most requested song'. But then the rowdier, or drunker, of the members started in and evidently she had entertained them before with a slightly more adult set. She grinned and looked at her husband. He shrugged and checked his watch. Then he shrugged again. Marti started in on another song unbuttoning her blouse as she did so. She never showed much of anything, but she showed enough to egg on the crowd. Finally she simply stopped and waved for the comic to come back out.
      The crowd booed some, then the comic told some raunchy jokes which placated the animals.
      I was still thinking about Torgo and the inside of his magic box and was only vaguely aware that the almost pretty woman had stopped singing. I blinked at the screen and thought about rewinding it but stopped just before I hit the button. It was almost time.
      As midnight neared the tape got worse and worse. Not the quality of the tape, but the revelry and lewdness of the group. Not everybody was engaged in wholesale debauchery, but a good percentage of them were. At the countdown to the new year at least half the crowd was completely out of it.
      The four-hour tape ended as those that could still function staggered from the ballroom leaving many others behind who would evidently wonder if they had had a good time. Until they saw the tape that is.
      I rewound it, then made a copy of Torgo's routine to take with me to Bill's shop. He didn't need to see some lodge member making out with another's wife while his own wife dirty danced with about four others and the woman's husband lay passed out across three chairs. At least I didn't think he did. To tell the truth, I wasn't sure I had wanted to see that, but to get the context of the audience for Torgo's act I thought I had to.

      All day Saturday Bill and I went through the copy of the tape, and the original because the copy had lost a little quality. And the pictures we had, and the tape from the charity benefit as well.
      And Bill laughed just as hard as I had about the members, and he was sorrier than I was that Marti hadn't done the full burlesque routine down to at least her underwear. We rewound it and watched the magic routine again.
      Then Bill froze the tape.
      It was a full face on shot of Torgo.
      "The eyes." He said.
      And I saw it.
      Those eyes.
      "Where have you seen that kind of stare before?"
      A chill went up my back. "Charles Manson." I muttered.
      "Rasputin." Bill said with a nod. "And Harry Houdini."
      "Among others." I agreed. "So Torgo has a maniacal stare. What's that got to do with his making ping pong balls vanish?" But before I even asked the question I knew the answer. So I didn't give him a chance to answer. "Rasputin was said to have Mesmeric powers over the Tzar and his family and be able to control the minds of others even at some distance."
      "And when the time came they almost couldn't kill him." Bill grinned.
      "Houdini was the greatest escape artist and magician ever."
      "And one of the greatest spiritualist debunkers and fraud detectors ever."
      "And Manson fancied himself some sort of god and had people butchered."
      We sat and stared at Torgo's face. Other than the eyes, it was completely expressionless.
      Without a word I ran through the lodge show again. He never seemed to really smile. Yes, he used a stage smile. One of those Used Car Dealer things. It was part of the act. But as for a real smile like he was having a good time or thought it was funny that somebody was waving money at him to make his assistants outfits vanish. Not only didn't he not smile, he never showed any emotion, even mild annoyance at a drunken heckler.
      "Have you ever seen one of his tricks not work?" I asked Bill out of the blue.
      He thought for a second. "I don't think so."
      "I know I haven't. He's never even dropped one of those ping pong balls. He's never spilled water out of the glass. He's never missed catching a Chinese Ring while he's juggling and linking them..." I pointed to the screen where three linked rings were flying through the air. He caught them, linked the one he was holding to them, and tossed the chain back into the air and received another ring from Mae. Flawlessly executing the difficult move.
      "I've seen him in person at least a dozen times, he's never goofed."
      Bill sat and frowned at the screen. "That's not natural."
      "I agree."
      We sat and watched the next trick. Once again, it was without gaff.
      "I want to know how he does it." Bill said seriously. "And it has nothing to do with professional interests."
      I looked at him. His tone of voice had made that chill return. "What are you thinking?"
      "What else do you know about Houdini?" He asked me.
      "Just the basics. I'm not an expert by a long shot."
      Bill reached over and stopped the tape. Then he got up and went to his bookshelves. In a minute he found what he was looking for and returned with another video. "This was never released. But..." He handed me the box while he put it in the machine.
      "The Dark Houdini?"
      "Just watch."
      It appeared to be an amateur documentary. But it went into some detail and spoke authoritatively on the subject, even interview the few surviving people that had worked with the great magician on stage. The subject. Houdini and the dark arts. They even quoted period newspaper articles that mentioned in passing such things as sorcery and mystical abilities. Even pieces about his funeral called him a 'master of the dark arts'.
      When it was finished I found my mouth to be very dry and my hands shaking as I handed Bill back the tape box. "You think that's what we're dealing with in Torgo?"
      Bill didn't answer until the tape was back on the shelf. "I can't really think of any other explanation." He turned to me. "Can you?"
      "I wish I could."

      Then my research took on a new flavor, and a new urgency.
      Not a month after our session with the video player Bill sent me an email with a link to a newspaper article.
      Torgo was appearing at an amusement park in Pennsylvania. On the second night of his week long run a local minister had started a flap about his tricks and accused him of Sorcery. It seems that it was still a crime under the local code. The park allowed him to perform that night, making a fortune with the publicity, then under pressure from some religious leaders, pulled the plug on his show.
      What struck me was that Ms. DeNoss had appeared at the court with a signed power of attorney to represent Torgo in the matter and documents demonstrating that she was a full partner in the legal aspects of the act. Later Ms. Hughes addressed the media on their behalf. Torgo hadn't been seen since the act the night before.
      The judge went for it, at least some of it, he allowed Katheryn to enter a plea of not guilty for the 'reclusive entertainer' as she put it. Then she secured another date on which she assured the judge that Torgo himself would appear.
      It went on to say that after some legal maneuvering, the charges were dropped, although Torgo would not be appearing at the park again until next season after having agreed to make a few minor changes to his act.
      Then there was a long wordy statement from the park that they did not endorse, nor did they mean to imply in any way that the entertainer mentioned was involved in anything not regarded by the park as wholesome quality family entertainment. It sounded like it had been written by lawyers trying to dance on both sides and on top of the fence at the same time and not offend anybody while doing it. I read it again trying to decide if it actually said anything meaningful, then concluded that it didn't, and did so with as many multi- syllable words as possible.
      The story prompted me to do a media search for other incidents.
      I found a story in a newsletter regarding his appearance many years ago on a cruise ship, then billed as Torgo and Katheryn, some members of a tour group said they found his act 'creepy' and refused to go back to see his escape routine the next night.
      Reno, Nevada was the site of another incident. A conference of fire investigators had filed a complaint with the hotel management saying that his show had 'Satanic overtones' and asked for a partial refund.
      I found one more story that didn't mention him by name, but listed a spokesperson for the act in question as Miss Kathy and had a small picture of her. Again it was about complaints by the audience. The 'illusionist' had 'upset' some of the audience by appearing on stage 'wreathed in fire as if he had come up from hell'. She assured the paper that it was simply a trick and there was never any danger to the theater or the audience.
      Blinking as the information sunk in I realized that Torgo had modified his act over the years only to tone down aspects that would result in such notoriety. Evidently the good Methodist in Pennsylvania had seen something that had raised his ire. But the paper didn't say what.
      Working a hunch I picked up the phone and started dialing the paper in the Keystone State looking for information. After some explaining and chatting I was dialing the number for the minister listed in the story.
      He was more than happy to tell me all about the parts of the act that had bothered him.
      "I thought it was just a normal magic act and some of our youth group wanted to go see it so we went. But then as Torgo did more and more tricks I began to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my eyes started watering. I was sure he was using forces of evil to do the things we were seeing."
      He went on to describe the ping pong balls and the rope trick as well as a couple of others.
      I agreed with him and said I had had similar concerns.
      Then he went on to describe Ms. DeNoss's demeanor at the hearing. "I think he has her completely under his spell."
      "I didn't get that impression from her."
      "You know her?"
      "I've met her on a couple of occasions. I even worked backstage at a show they did."
      "Oh. How about that? What's he like in person?"
      I had to admit I had never even seen the man offstage.
      "Doesn't that strike you as odd?"
      "Yes. And that's one reason I'm doing the research I'm doing."
      We talked a few more minutes and I thanked him for his information.
      I felt I had about half the picture. But I wondered what the other half looked like.
      Going back through my notes from the conversation, and old articles, and my own recollections of the shows I had seen and whatever else I could come up with, I realized there were several places in the show where you got 'the creeps'. He did several tricks that begged you to believe he had supernatural influence over the elements and forces around us. Even though it was never billed like that, he never said so from the stage, and his assistants never claimed he did anything other than perform a magic Trick... the conclusion was there to be made or not made by the audience if they wished to.
      Torgo, while never claiming to be anything other than a stage magician was asking you to claim he was... Something more.

      On the paper from the lodge was an address. I looked it up and found it to be an apartment complex near the Quad Cities. OK, another road trip was on the agenda.
      Before I left I did some legwork to see what I could find out.
      The address was part of the contact information for Katheryn. She was listed as the 'artists or entertainers representative of record' for the accountants.
      I called the number, intending to pose as somebody looking for prices for a show if I had to, just to see who answered and what I could learn from them.
      An answering machine came on and gave me two other phone numbers and a website. But then it gave me the option of leaving a message for his agent. I hung up. It was Katheryn's voice being very cool and professional.
      I played a hunch and tried to find Mae Hughes listed in that same area but came up dead. There were Hughes's of every description, but none that were worth following up on.
      So Katheryn was it. I checked the Torgo's schedule and picked a window of about three days when they weren't scheduled to be out of town early next month. I figured I'd get there Monday morning and simply watch. With any luck I could just happen to run into Katheryn in a grocery store and strike up a conversation.

      The magic show was going as it usually did.
      Torgo had changed his routine with the ping pong balls slightly, now he caught them in a small glass bottle. Except no matter how many he caught as he juggled, the bottle, no larger than a small mayonnaise jar, never filled up.
      But then something different happened. He looked at Katheryn and she nodded.
      Then he was throwing the ping pong balls at me. I tried to get up and run but my legs refused to move. The balls were now bursting into flame just before they hit me.
      I screamed.
      And woke up.

      I never got back to sleep that night. Instead I sat in my den and drank hot tea and read several websites about Houdini.
      Unlike Torgo, Houdini had been a publicity hog. He wrote and produced, and starred in to boot, several of his own movies. He seemed to have sought out attention and loved the limelight.
      Curious I tried to find a publicity photo of Torgo. And found several.
      But then as I looked through them I realized that they were mostly the same picture or two (a long shot of him and both women as he did the Chinese Rings or the very beginning of the Rope Trick and a general shot of them on stage), a drawing of him making a magic gesture I'd never seen him use, or a side photo that partially obscured his face with flying balls but showed the audience staring in amazement. There were no close- ups other than the ones I had.
      I tried to find him listed through magician's organizations, but only turned up Mae Hughes.
      Following that lead I discovered that Ms. Hughes was listed as a stage assistant and purchasing agent for the act. With Katheryn listed as managing partner.
      Torgo wasn't even listed beyond being the name of the primary performer. And he wasn't registered at all with any of the organizations beyond notice that the name was in use.

      About eight in the morning I fell asleep and didn't dream of flaming ping pong balls.

      He was appearing at a university not far from my hometown before I had planned on going on my trip to try to catch Katheryn offstage and make small talk with her so I drove up to catch it.
      The women's costumes were the same ones from the lodge show, showing twice as much skin as their usual 'family night' costumes. And the packed large theater of college types seemed to approve of them and their costumes. Everything he used was spread out across the huge stage so his assistants didn't have to move anything, they got to stand back and pose and smile and let him do his thing.
      His entrance was one from the history files. The women came out with what appeared to be a large black cloth bag and demonstrated that it was empty. Then they both stepped up on step stools holding the bag up so its bottom was about a foot from the floor. Then with magical gestures and some fancy words they released it. There was a blast of flame and Torgo appeared for a split second in mid air. Then he stepped forward out of the flame and onto the floor and bowed to the applause as his assistants posed giving the crowd the full view of their shapely legs.
      Other than that, it was basically his same routine, with a few of the tricks taking on a more risqué theme for the hormone laden crowd. Such as he pulled several of the scarves he used from their bodices. And when he was getting onto his knees to demonstrate there was nothing under his stand he was at eye level with Katheryn's waist and took a long look at it then looked at the crowd for a minute, then he continued the trick. Which they loved. And when he seemed to make Mae's costume fly across the stage when she stepped behind a screen he used for another trick they applauded and screamed. But when she stepped out again she was still clothed, albeit in a slightly skimpier outfit. Which brought a few boos.
      I watched his assistants while he did the levitation of a pitcher of beer and noticed that while Mae posed and smiled for the people, Katheryn was watching the trick. Then while Mae led the applause for it Katheryn simply nodded and helped set up for the next trick. Maybe it was part of the scripting of the routine, maybe not. I simply hadn't noticed it before but now I remembered that was how a lot of their shows had been.
      His exit was through the box and the women tore down the apparatus while waving off various admirers and whoever else hung around.
      Later I drove home and wondered why he had never even winked at either the women or the crowd. He had done nothing to even indicate that he recognized that he was on stage with two gorgeous women. The gags had almost been scripted. Then it occurred to me that Torgo had been playing a role. He wasn't a magician, but he played one on stage.

      That night while I laid in bed I wondered if maybe I had been looking for the Sorcerer in the wrong place.
      That chill was back.
      I got up and went back through the pictures and tapes I had looking for something.
      Now instead of looking at Torgo and what he was doing I looked at Katheryn.
      I immediately noticed the look in her eyes as he was doing his tricks.
      She had those same eyes.
      Houdini's eyes.

      Now I knew I wanted to talk to her when I went on my trip in a couple of weeks.

End Part 2

Continued in Magician 3

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