About the Author

Paul Quarrington


Paul Quarrington won numerous awards for his work, including the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and Canada Reads 2008 for his novel King Leary. His Governor General's Award-winning Whale Music was made into a critically acclaimed feature film. He also won awards for his writing for the television series Due South and for his screen play for Perfectly Normal. On January 21, 2010, he succumbed to lung cancer and died at his home surrounded by friends and family. He is missed.


Books by this Author
Boy on the Back of the Turtle

Boy on the Back of the Turtle

Seeking God, Quince Marmalade and the Fabled Albatross on Darwin's Islands
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Cigar Box Banjo

Cigar Box Banjo

Notes on Music and Life
also available: eBook Paperback
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And Its Part in My Downfall
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From the Far Side of the River

From the Far Side of the River

Chest-Deep in Little Fishes and Big Ideas
also available: eBook
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After Four a-clock the Thunder and Rain abated, and then we saw a Corpus Sant at the Main-top-mast Head, on the very Top of the Truck of the Spindle. This sight rejoiced our Men exceedingly; for the height of the Storm is commonly over when the Corpus Sant is seen aloft; but when they are seen lying on the Deck, it is generally accounted a bad Sign.

A Corpus Sant is a certain small glittering Light; when it appears as this did, on the very Top of the Main-mast or at a Yard-arm, it is like a Star; but when it appears on the Deck, it resembles a great Glow-worm. The Spaniards have another Name for it (though I take even this to be a Spanish or Portuguese Name, and a Corruption only of Corpus Sanctum) and I have been told that when they see them, they presently go to Prayers, and bless themselves for the happy Sight. I have heard some ignorant Seamen discoursing how they have seen them creep, or, as they say, travel about in the Scuppers, telling many dismal Stories that hapned at such times . . .

–William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World

There once was an island named Dampier Cay. It lay to the southwest of Jamaica, making a triangle with that country and the Caymans. Dampier Cay was, technically, under English governance; it retained the pound as its official currency, for example, even though no one on the island accepted, or carried, the local money. All transactions were made using the American dollar.

Dampier Cay was a narrow strip of land, a few miles long, that nature had pushed forth from the water for no good reason. Still, it was land, and people built there. Because there was not much of it, property was relatively expensive. Some wealthy white people owned estates. The black people who worked for the white people lived in a tiny hamlet, Williamsville, which was near the centre of the island. Dampier Cay ran north and south, but it was bent in the middle. There was a harbour there; aside from a couple of local fishing trawlers, it was rarely used.

On either end of Dampier Cay were resorts. At the south end was a big hotel. It claimed the best beaches and was popular, by island standards, with tourists. At the north end was a place called the Water’s Edge, a collection of buildings that sat near the bottom of the island’s only significant hill.

That hill was called Lester’s Hump. Reporters were confused by that, for a while, because after the storm a man named Lester was found at the top, along with two white women. But Lester’s Hump had been so called for over two hundred years, ever since William Dampier had directed Lester Cooper to cart liquor and victuals up to the top. Dampier had seen weather coming.

But the Day ensuing, which was the 4th Day of July, about Four a-Clock in the Afternoon, the Wind came to the N.E. and freshned upon us, and the Sky looked very black in that quarter, and the black Clouds began to rise apace and moved towards us; having hung all the Morning in the Horizon.
The island’s east coast, much of it anyway, is a rock cliff that rises a mean height of twenty-five feet. It seemed reasonable protection should the weather and the water get into cahoots, but William Dampier had seen many odd things in his journeys, and heard much odder. He’d heard about waves that stood thirty yards tall. So he directed Lester Cooper to take the flour, sugar, suet, etc., to the summit, and the other men laughed and called it Lester’s Hump.

There is, today, a small cross at the summit of Lester’s Hump. It is made out of wood and whitewashed, and someone attends to it, keeping the cross pristine and cultivating a small bed of flowers around its base. At the foot of Lester’s Hump there are ghostly suggestions of civilization and order – scattered timbers and pieces of metal and machinery. Further south, trees have been thrown over and lie criss-crossed, like wooden matches that have been rattled in the box and then tossed onto the ground. Beyond this is where Williamsville once stood. A handful of black people still live there, in hastily built, ramshackle constructions. Oddly, there are a few estates that stand in good condition, but the owners have boarded the windows and put up optimistic For Sale signs. The big hotel remains, although no tourists ever go there, because Dampier Cay no longer exists.

It was a fairly easy matter for Dampier Cay to disappear, because it had never proclaimed its existence with any authority. It was not even on all maps. Many derive from the originals made by William Dampier, who was the Royal Cartographer, although he spent much of his time buccaneering with his Merry Boys. Ironically, having named the island after himself, Dampier left it off his depiction of the area. Where it should have been dotted, Dampier fashioned a large and ornate C to begin the word Caribbee.


To get to Dampier Cay, in the days when it still existed, either one had to know exactly what one was doing – only one tiny airline serviced the island, the airport a glorified bungalow near Miami, Florida – or else one came by chance.

Gail and Sorvig, whom you will meet, stumbled upon the island, or at least the knowledge of its existence, at a travel agency in New York City. One of them had idly picked up a small flyer from the Water’s Edge. The print was crooked, rendered out of Letraset, and announced prices much cheaper than any other resort. The flyer also featured a drawing of a bonefish, sleek and fierce-looking. The drawing was made by a man named Maywell Hope, although, when you meet him, you may find that hard to credit. Hope made the flyer and took it to the post office in Williamsville, where he and the postmistress mimeographed two hundred copies. Hope and the postmistress then used her computer to select random vacation bureaus around the world, and mailed them out.

Maywell Hope made the flyer over the protestations of Polly Greenwich, his common-law wife and the owner of the Water’s Edge. Polly possessed a kind of grim optimism, and was convinced that business was as good as could be expected. Polly herself had come to Dampier Cay by chance, from New Zealand. Her first husband had died from cancer, he had withered away; and when he was gone, Polly boarded an airplane, not caring where it was headed, then she bought a berth on a cruising yacht, and one day the ship anchored at Dampier Cay. While the rest of the passengers went snorkelling, Polly wandered the small island until she came upon the collection of buildings at the bottom of Lester’s Hump. She had lunch in the little restaurant and, sipping her coffee afterwards, decided to purchase the place. It wasn’t a life she would have designed, but at least it was a life, it had purpose and parameters. There was even a bonus, a lover who came with the deal, the tall sunburnt fishing guide and transport captain, Maywell Hope.

Maywell had come to Dampier Cay by the purest of chance – he was born there. So was Lester Vaughan, retained at the Water’s Edge as gardener and general handyman. The two had actually been fast friends as boys, and as young men they had shared many evenings at the Royal Tavern, consuming vast quantities of rum in honour of their ancestors. Then, you know, events had taken place. Maywell Hope no longer drank; Lester claimed he’d given it up but too often would return to the bottle. Lester would disappear, sometimes for days on end, and, when he turned up again, most often could be found sleeping it off in the tiny cemetery beside the pale blue church.

There are three more people to meet. These people came neither by chance nor by design – or perhaps more accurately, by a combination of the two. What I’m getting at is that these three came because Dampier Cay was where it was, and they had reason to believe they might encounter something there, something most people take great measures to avoid.

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The Boy on the Back of the Turtle

The Boy on the Back of the Turtle

Seeking God, Quince Marmalade, and the Fabled Albatross on Darwin's Islands
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The Ravine

The Ravine

also available: Paperback
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“Distress Hotline. Carlos speaking.”
“Carlos? Phil here.”
“Phil! How’s it hanging?”
How’s it hanging? Is that really an appropriate way to greet callers to a distress centre?”
“Phil, we’ve talked about this. You are not really in distress.”
“Says who?”
“Says all of us. You’re depressed, you’ve got this ­self-­destructive drinking thing going on, but you don’t pose any true threat to yourself or others.”
“I beg to differ. I pose a huge threat to others. Why, look at what I’ve already done to them! And I wasn’t even trying.”
“Phil, some of what you’re going through is just life, you know. I mean, I’ve gone through some of this stuff. My marriage fell apart . . .”
“Big time. Mirella just decided she was in love with somebody else. She decided at, I don’t know, eleven o’clock in the morning, she was out, she was fucking gone, before dinner.”
“Do you have kids?”
“A boy and a girl. Six and three. And now there is this really bitter custody battle, she keeps dragging up all this heroin stuff that is like years old.”
“Hmm. Heroin, you say?”
“I’ve been clean for twelve fucking years. She’s a ruthless bitch to even mention it. And it’s not like she was a fucking Girl Guide. I mean, there’s been some shit in her body, you can bet your ass on that.”
“And like this sexuality stuff. I mean, whose goddam business is that?”
“Whose sexuality are we discussing?”
“Mine. There has been a little confusion. A little ambivalence. But who among us is absolutely one hundred per cent hetero?”
“I see. So I take it she’s making a strong case for sole custody.”
“It breaks my fucking heart, Phil. Some days I don’t know how I’m going to go on.”
“Well, you know. Baby steps. Right? One little step after another little step, before you know it, you’ve covered vast distances.”
“Didn’t I say that to you?”
“And you were right.”
“I guess so. Look, Phil, sorry, sorry, I mean, you called me, we should talk about . . . so? What happened tonight that made you pick up the phone?”
“Well . . .”
“Aside from drinking four bottles of wine or whatever it was.”
“I just called to say, um, I won’t be calling any more. I mean, it’s been pleasant getting to know you all, but maybe it’s taken up a little bit too much of my time. And I need time, now, I need lots of it.”
“How come?”
“Because I’m working on a book.”
“Really? A book about what? Your career in television?”
“Well, I might mention that.”
“People find television very interesting.”
“I have noticed. But I think my book is going to be a bit more general.”
“Like about how you screwed around and did all these things which you think are so bad but really aren’t? Things that when you get right down to it are a little bit boring?”
“Yeah. And of course there’ll be quite a bit about my career in television.”
“What are you going to call this book?”
“Umm . . . The Ravine.”
The Ravine? How come?”
“Because it seems to me, Carlos, that I went down into a ravine, and never really came back out.”

1 | The Ravine

When i was eleven, and jay was ten, we joined the wolf cubs.

I was actually too old to be a ­Cub–­at eleven a lad should be a proper Boy ­Scout–­but there is apparently a kind of apprenticeship that Lord ­Baden-­Powell insisted be undertaken, symbolically represented by placing two little stars in your Cub beanie, which means you then have both eyes open. This has to do with the wolf imagery, you see, the baby cub growing until the ­birth-­gook clears from his eyelids and they pop open with ­self-­realization. I adored all that wolf stuff, I loved sitting around in a circle with the other boys and ­chanting–­praying–­to the plastic wolf’s head that our scoutmaster held mounted on a ­staff.

“Akeyyyy-­la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”

Jay and I still do this, after several too many at Birds of a Feather, the hateful bar at which my brother has been resident pianist for lo these many years. At least, we used to do this, but haven’t for months now, because Jay and I aren’t talking. He’s mad at me for screwing up my life. He should talk. But before this estrangement (and often) we used to stumble out onto the street and find a suitable object for our ­veneration–­the moon, a comely hooker, a ­two-­fingered man playing the ­ukulele–­and we’d snap to attention and begin the Grand ­Howl.

“Akeyyyy-­la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”

Despite my enthusiasm for the Wolf Cubs, I never did get both eyes opened. I managed a solitary gold star and then quit the organization, or was forced out, I have forgotten exactly what happened. Anyway, one gets one’s eyes opened by achieving badges in various ­disciplines–­arts and crafts, outdoorsmanship, ­map-­reading–­but I was a failure at all these things. The only thing I was ever any good at was ­knot-­tying. For some reason, I was a whiz at tying knots, despite chubby little fingers and spectacularly bad eyesight. (I’m legally blind in my left eye, and my right is only marginally better.) But when the scoutmaster handed me lengths of rope, these handicaps faded away; indeed, they may have been a benefit, my sense receptors overcompensating for the little cocktail sausages that housed them, some inner sense making crystal clear what my eyes rendered indistinct. The scoutmaster always called upon me to demonstrate new knots. I would hold two lengths in front of me, one white, the other darkened (still far away from the ­pitch-­black second strand featured in the manual), and announce the knot–“Garrick’s Bend”–before grabbing a standing end and setting things into ­motion.

Setting out on this novelizing journey, I have some doubts about my visual memory. I read an interview with Alice Munro once (despite my low standing as a television writer, I maintain an interest in such things), who said that when she was shown a ­black-­and-­white photograph of her grade two (or something) class, she could recall the colour of everyone’s blouse, sweater, skirt. Shown a picture of my grade two class, I would be challenged to pick out myself, were it not for the huge clue of my spectacles. However, I can conjure in my mind the sight of Jay in his Wolf Cub uniform. Clothes have always been ­ill-­fitting on Jay, none more so than those huge shorts and green shirt. His legs and arms stuck out like pins in a voodoo doll. Jay was always a small fellow, ­undernourished–­if you saw the two of us together, as children, you might conclude that I had been stealing the food from his plate. (Which may have been true, now that I think of it. He never cared all that much for food.) He was and is a small fellow, except for his hands (which aided in his career as concert, and subsequently cheesy, pianist) and his head (which has since birth seemed too great a weight for him to bear).

There was another Cub, named Norman Kitchen, who desperately wanted to befriend me. I don’t know why, exactly. He attended another school in the district, but even so, I can’t believe he was unaware of my ranker status. After all, he’d seen me several times at the Galaxy Odeon in the company of my brother and Rainie van der Glick. Kitchen was a plump lad, with blond hair that was obviously his mother’s pride and joy, as I can’t believe either nature or a ­ten-­year-­old boy could come up with such an elaborate display of curls. Norman Kitchen had dark, hooded eyes and a nose that seemed to have been carved for a marionette. His lips were thick, and pursed much of the time, as though he lived in constant expectation of having to buss a dowager aunt on the cheek. Norman was quiet, although when he did speak, he spoke very loudly. He tended to draw too near to people, as if wishing to speak conspiratorially, and then open his mouth and blast away. This is an irritating habit, so I rejected his friendship, although I think in retrospect that I spurned Norman Kitchen only to exact a tiny amount of revenge for the way I was treated by most ­people.

Wolf Cub meetings were held twice a week, Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. They were held at the Valleyway United Church, which lay across the field from the back of our house, a couple of hundred yards away from the school. The church, I mean the building itself, exerted a strange influence upon me. I never went there to take part in services, because my mother was not a religious soul. I had never been inside the church until I went for Wolf Cubs, but as soon as I entered I felt a strange familiarity creep over me, as though I’d returned to a place that I’d missed very much. At the end of the lobby was a huge ­stained-­glass window, Jesus standing with his hands spread before him, as though he were saying, “The fish was yay big, swear to Dad.” I liked to arrive at the church early, and mill around the lobby, absorbing salvation. But my brother would grow impatient; he’d tug my sleeve and we’d descend into the basement. We’d join a circle of boys and chant, ­“Akeyyyy-­la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”

One Sunday afternoon Jay and I cycled over to the church, even though in order to do so it was necessary to follow the streets (Langstaff to Juniper Way up to Dunedin and across) and it would have been much quicker to just walk across the field. But it was a glorious late spring/early summer day, so Jay and I jumped on our bikes and pedalled over. By coincidence, Norman Kitchen had done the same thing, so after the Cub meeting the three of us met up by the bike stand. Kitchen hollered at me, “Hey, Phil! Let’s do something!”

“Jay and I are going for an adventure,” I said. I was fascinated by the concept of having an adventure, which was what all the boys on television had. They had adventures effortlessly, all they had to do was walk outside, but I understood that this was ­make-­believe, and that if I wanted to have an adventure I was probably going to have to bike somewhere. “You can’t come.”

“Why not?” demanded Norman at a pitch. “I could be your sidekick!”

“Jay is my sidekick.”

“I’m not your sidekick,” muttered Jay, who had busied himself with some bicycle maintenance, namely, readjusting the clothes pegs that held the trading cards that were purred by the spokes. “I’m your brother.”

One of the reasons Jay had busied himself was to get distance from me and my nastiness to Norman, so I drew a breath and reconsidered. “Tell you what, Kitchen. You can’t be the sidekick. But you could be the fat guy who drinks too much and does the cooking and gets killed.”

“Okay!” he ­agreed.

I pulled my bike out of the rack and leapt into the saddle. “Let’s ride!”

The area where I grew up is now simply part of Toronto, but when I was a boy it was a separate entity. It lay a few miles to the north of the downtown core and was separated by wide tracts of undeveloped land. Don Mills (Canada’s First Planned Community!) and the city were connected by the Don River, which once teemed with salmon, although nowadays a fish would have a better chance of survival in a cheap motel. Anyway, as you all remember from your Earth sciences, rivers form valleys over vast stretches of time, even a sluggish thing like the Don. The Don Valley was, in sections, parkland, where the woods were tamed and beautified, and walkways ran between beds of cultivated flowers. But there were other areas that were just left alone. The pathway would stop abruptly, and the forest would loom dark and ­dense.

This was my best shot at adventure, I figured, so I led Jay and Kitchen down into the valley, and we cycled with gleeful fury through the manicured woodlands. And then the path stopped, abruptly, and we leapt off our bicycles and stared ahead to where a forested slope descended to the river. I could spot another body of water, too, small and round. Part of the river had been diverted and formed a stagnant pond. And although no boy on television had ever encountered adventure at a stagnant pond, I said, “We’re going down there.”

“I don’t want to,” said ­Jay.

“I know you don’t want to. But you have to. Besides,” I said, “it’ll be fun!”

The pond had been created by chance, the edge of the river running into a berm, water sloughing off into a depression, a small regular bowl. I’m guessing out in the middle it would have been perhaps three or four feet deep. Around the edges it was only a few inches, and it was easy enough for us to remove our shoes and socks and (seeing as we were already wearing our Cub shorts) go wading into the ­muck.

“Why are we doing this?” demanded Kitchen, who soon had a leech on his shin. I judged that the kind of thing he’d rather not ­know.

“We’re looking for stuff,” I told ­him.

“Like what?”

“The tadpoles are turning into frogs. They look really weird. They got tails but they’re growing legs. They’re like little monsters.”


“So, Kitchen . . . whoever finds the weirdest one wins.”

“Wins what?”

“I don’t know. They get to keep the little monster tadpole, I guess.”

“I win,” announced Jay quietly. The sleeve of his Cub shirt was wet with muck up past the elbow and he had his huge hand wrapped around something; he held it up to his eye and peered into the hole made by his thumb and ­fingers.

Kitchen and I slopped over. “Let’s see.” Jay brought up his other hand, cupped the two together and then fanned them apart slightly so that we could see the creature caught in the fold. It was not quite frog, and therefore horrible looking, saddled with a long tail that was spotted and decaying. This thing also had a huge bump on its head, a cancerous growth or ­something.

We stared at this rara avis for a long moment, and then we heard a voice. “Hey, kid. What’ve you got there?”

Two boys stood by the side of the stagnant pond. Both were tall, sprouted violently by adolescence. Although they shared certain clothing and ­characteristics–­jean jackets, jeans, black running shoes, height and ­build–­they were very dissimilar. One was ­fair–­actually, fair is putting it mildly, he approached albinism. The kid didn’t have pink eyes or anything, but the blue of his irises was so light that it was virtually invisible. These eyes, these white eyes, the boy kept popped open in apparent surprise, although one would think that the sunlight would rush right through and sear his brain. So he gave the impression of blindness, although it was this boy who had demanded, “Hey, kid. What’ve you got there?” His hair retained a dazzling whiteness even after maybe half a tube of Brylcreem, and about half a tube is what it would require to create the particular creation he wore. The sides were combed up and the hair met in the middle, actually high above the middle, of the boy’s head. Some of this wave rushed back to form an intricate design, what was commonly called a duck’s ass, while the rest of the wave pushed forward with increasing volume until it exploded in front of his forehead, by which point it had achieved the firm roundness of a breast or ­buttock.

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The Spirit Cabinet

Chapter One
Preston the Magnificent, Jr., (or, as he preferred to call himself privately, Preston the Adequate) stood outside the George Theater dressed in an old morning suit that had belonged to his father. Being a much larger man than Preston the Magnificent, Sr., he had only managed to do up one button on the slate-grey jacket. The lapels wowed over his girlish breasts; the jacket fell away on either side of his belly and the tails splayed. Despite the fact that he complemented it with sandals, exhibiting his oddly shaped and quite hairy toes, Preston felt that the suit lent an air of mournful dignity to the proceedings. He undermined this formality by glowering at people as they approached the George, his face warped by fury. Preston conveyed the impression that he could turn people away should he choose to, and might choose to do so violently. So people darted by him, ignoring the grunt that he meant as a greeting.
Once inside, the people would approach the glass box containing the ashen and improbably beehived Mrs. Antoinette Kingsley. Mrs. Kingsley shoved a crude little booklet at them, sets of photocopied sheets stapled together. Then, still alarmed by Preston's bristling, sorrowful presence outside, the people would seek refuge in the old theatre hall, which smelled like time kept too long in an icebox. They would look at the little booklet, a catalogue of the McGehee Collection, as compiled by Preston. The script was produced by an old and infirm typewriter. The letters refused to sit upon the straight line, each jumping or dipping according to whim. Some letters were truncated, ghostly patches of grey left behind where serifs had broken off the keys.
Seeing as there were still quite a few minutes before the auction's commencement, the people would allow the booklet to fall open. It always did so to pages eight and nine, where the most prominent listing was for item number 112: "The Davenport Spirit Cabinet."
Preston didn't frighten everyone, of course. For example, he didn't frighten a very tall man wearing a white shirt with foppish collars and what appeared to be black tights. This man, the world-famous Kaz, had known Preston for many years. Of all the magicians in Las Vegas, Nevada (and there are many), Preston and Kaz were the longest resident. Kaz had moved to the desert when he was thirteen years old, there to perform illusions with towering topless showgirls. This accounted, Preston thought, for Kaz's acne-ravaged skin and the spectacles with the thick, yellowed lenses.
Kaz approached Preston and announced, "I'm buying it. Just try and stop me."
"Why would I want to stop you?" responded Preston. "Go ahead and buy it."
"I'm buying it because I know." Kaz exhaled heavily on the last word, and Preston noted the sourness of his breath. Kaz's breath was spectacularly awful. Preston had heard that Kaz had had two or three operations trying to fix it, though he couldn't imagine what sort of operations they might have been. He began reflecting on this question, but only as an evasive tactic, and could not escape the profound sickness that came to twist his belly. Kaz would buy it. Kaz had nothing but money; he made an obscene amount, half a million a week or something. Preston remembered hearing that Kaz was the highest paid act in Las Vegas—
No, wait. He took a breath and silently corrected himself. Kaz was the highest paid individual performer.
"Preston! Kaz! How are you hanging?"
The highest paid act, Preston realized, was coming down the sidewalk.
They were led by the albino leopard, Samson, who had lowered himself into stalking position but allowed the pads of his paws to slap the pavement heavily. The big cat knew this was a foolish way to get about; in a jungle he'd have cleared every living creature out of his path hours before he himself arrived. But he didn't live in a jungle any more and retained only the vaguest memories of those first few weeks of life so long ago. The jungles he'd seen on TV didn't look all that appealing, despite the presence of sleek young females. Not that Samson was interested in that so much, not since he'd awoken one day to discover that his testicles were missing. But, despite that grim morning, Samson was a contented and obedient animal, so he lowered his old bones and gamely continued the loud, menacing strut. When he felt a slight tugging on his jewel-encrusted collar, Samson licked his lips and produced a roar guaranteed to turn bowels watery.
"Oh, Samson," tsked Rudolfo, even though it was he who had pulled upon the leash, "put a lid on top of it."
Rudolfo's partner, Jurgen Schubert, came to an abrupt halt. "Preston and Kaz," he announced. "Two people."
"Two people," said Rudolfo, hurrying to help out, because offstage his companion lacked confidence and tended to strip down his English to the barest of bones, "that are your favourite people."
"Ja," said Jurgen.
Kaz leaned down and whispered, his fetid breath stirring the hairs in Preston's ear, "What a couple of assholes."
Preston the Adequate merely grunted. He didn't approve of mean-mouthing fellow professionals, although it was hard to deny that Jurgen and Rudolfo were assholes. Leaving aside the fact that they'd brought a huge albino leopard to the auction, they themselves were done up in outlandish fashion. Jurgen, known as the more conservative of the pair, was clad in red leather, the jacket, pants and boots all the exact same bloody shade. Only his belt was otherwise, a foot wide, black and intricately tooled with a pattern of gnarled ivy.
Rudolfo was dressed in some sort of futuristic cowboy getup. His chaps were golden and the jeans beneath were made of a denim that was bleached until almost incandescent. His vest, which was all he wore on his upper body, was rendered out of metal and jewels and pieces of mirror, held together by thin silver wire. Beneath this peculiar garment, Rudolfo was all muscle, beautifully shaped and coloured. Due to an odd, utter hairlessness, his body looked as though it were made of porcelain.
"Hey, Kaz. Hey, Preston." Miranda appeared magically. Both Kaz and Preston, who between them knew the workings to every gimmick, rig and apparatus ever invented, thought of Miranda's appearance as "magical." She seemed to step out of a cloud of light, in a blink of Preston's eyes, in a sharp, sudden squinting of Kaz's. There she stood, towering above her employers, Jurgen and Rudolfo, dressed in some sort of plastic bodysuit that sucked itself to her flesh. "So," she asked bashfully, "how's everybody?"
Miranda seemed to be having a profound effect on Kaz, who was panting audibly, although this might have had something to do with Samson, who was sniffing at Kaz's genitals, shoving bits and pieces around with his snout.
Jurgen grinned, the owner of a vast number of blindingly white teeth. As the corners of his mouth turned upwards, his eyelids began to flutter girlishly. "Don't worry, Kaz. Rudolfo has given Samson his lunchtime."
"Ja, but Jurgen," said Rudolfo, "maybe now is time for a little schnawk."
Everyone laughed, no one with much enthusiasm. Samson backed away and sneezed, fluffing the folds of skin that hung over his colourless lips. It was his attempt to laugh along, although only Rudolfo recognized it as such. After that, a silence descended as each man looked into the others' faces, trying to decipher purpose and plan.
The group paid no attention to the people who walked around them, through the open doorway into the George Theater. It was understood that these others were not players. They were lesser lights, mostly, magicians from the smaller hotels. There were a couple of illusionists of international stature, but they seemed to be down on their luck, sporting shiny tuxedos and cheap toupées. Preston recognized Theodore Collinger, a friend of his father, once famous for his work with the Chinese rings. Collinger was now badly wrinkled, and his hands, shrivelled and clawlike, trembled awkwardly at his side. Preston shook his head. If any of these people had thoughts of competing in the auction, they would soon be dissuaded. While there might be any number of people in the world who wanted to own the Collection, only three (two if you counted Jurgen and Rudolfo as a single unit) could afford to.
A photographer from Personality magazine rushed up with the desperate singlemindedness of an assassin, the camera already stuck to his eyeball. Rudolfo, Jurgen and Kaz smiled with practised naturalness, upper lips trembling as they each tried to display just the fight amount of enamel. Miranda bent her knees so as not to loom over her bosses, and Samson shifted his weight onto his forelegs, assuming a heroic pose. Preston the Adequate scowled so profoundly that he would eventually be airbrushed out of the picture. The flashbulb exploded six or seven times, all within the same short moment, and then the photographer abruptly turned and darted away.
Preston stared at the other men, his dark eyes registering both wonder and judgement. He looked at Kaz, whose smallish eyes darted back and forth behind the lenses of his spectacles like small children trying to avoid the wrath of a bully. Then he looked at Jurgen and Rudolfo. The two men grinned still, somehow merrily frozen in time. Their faces were tanned, the whites of their eyes preternaturally white.
"Piss!" blasted Preston. He produced a cigarette and lit it clumsily. He looked at the others on the sidewalk and fashioned what he meant as a smile, although, judging from their reactions, his efforts again fell well short. He drew deeply on his butt and tried not to weep. It had been two months since Eddie McGehee had told him the Collection was to be auctioned off, but Preston's feelings upon hearing the news—disgust, panic and the deepest of sorrows—had not diminished in any way.
The McGehee Collection was originally assembled by Ehrich Weiss, the man we know better as Harry Houdini. Despite remaining itinerate throughout his life, never owning more than a series of pieds-à-terre in New York City, Houdini was obsessed with collecting. His chief obsession was with books, ancient and historical, the learned weight of which would lend his profession of Vaudevillian an austerity that even his father, the Rabbi, might respect. Houdini also liked to own the actual mechanical appurtenances of his forebears. He enjoyed demonstrating to people just exactly how these devices worked, pulling apart the boxes to expose trapdoors and helpfully pointing out the hiding places created by angled mirrors in dark interiors, the implication being (although even Houdini lacked the chutzpah to say it aloud) that his own stage boxes lacked similar subterfuges.
By the year 1920, Weiss laid claim to the largest collection in the world of material regarding magic, magicians, books, scripts, spiritualistic effects, documents, steel engravings and automata. Unfortunately, around that time Weiss also became involved with movies, creating the Houdini Picture Corporation, responsible for flickers like The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. These were not the successes he'd imagined. Houdini was one of the most famous men on earth, but what people wanted was to see him, actually view him in the flesh, as he did battle with chains and ropes, dangled from skyscrapers or was tossed into icy rivers. They liked to watch him go one-on-one with the Grim Reaper, but distrusted his smug, silvery screen image; they suspected that the stunts were done with photographic trickery (even when they were not). Weiss had invested much of his own money in the Houdini Picture Corporation, so with great reluctance he let it be known that he might be willing to part with a portion of his wonderful collection.
Edgar Biggs McGehee, the grandfather of the current owner, appeared almost immediately. He had made an incredible fortune in the oil fields, but the only thing that engaged his interest was conjuring and prestidigitation. He considered himself one of the great amateurs, although his grandson Eddie clearly recalled detecting, even at the age of five, every sleight of hand the old man attempted. Eddie quickly learned to exclaim with great glee, no matter which card was presented as the one he'd chosen. And it was a matter of McGehee family legend that Edgar Biggs only stopped trying to saw his wife in half when someone noticed blood dripping from the cabinet (made in 1878 by the great Harry Kellar and sold to Edgar Biggs by Houdini) onto the floor.
The actual nuts and bolts of the McGehee/Weiss agreement have never been known but they were hammered out during one of Houdini's performances. Prior to the meeting, Houdini had been handcuffed and manacled. Chains were draped over his shoulders; they somehow had the appearance of a ceremonial mantle. Houdini was placed in a large wooden box, which was hammered shut and it too wreathed in chains. Then the audience stared at the box for about an hour, an hour during which there was no apparent activity on stage. Finally, Houdini reappeared, dripping with sweat and dangling the chains from his hands like the severed heads of dragons. The chains about the wooden box remained unmolested, mysteriously mute.
During that hour Edgar Biggs had been ushered backstage, where he found Houdini sitting calmly in a rocking chair, sipping a cup of tea with lemon. Houdini dismissed his many assistants with a regal gesturing of his thick fingers and indicated a small stool where McGehee might sit. The men began to talk in whispers. They could hear the audience beyond, stirring nervously in their seats.
Houdini ended up selling perhaps a third of his collection. What remained was given to the Library of Congress after his death. The severance, the McGehee Collection, was taken to Nevada, where Edgar Biggs maintained a residence about fifty miles south of Las Vegas—which didn't exist in any substantial way back then—on the fringes of the Mojave Desert. It was a very modest residence for a multi-billionaire, a mud-covered hovel surrounded by three tilted outbuildings. For the first few years, Edgar Biggs would visit the Collection only occasionally, but the frequency and duration of his visits increased as he grew older. In his last days, Edgar Biggs dwelt in the desert continually. The few times he was seen, he was wearing only what appeared to be an enormous diaper. He had shaved all the hair from his head, except for a topknot, a spray of gossamer filament that stood bolt upright. He was so gaunt that his bones threatened to rip through his paper-thin skin with every movement.
After Edgar Bigg's death, his son, Edgar Biggs McGehee, Jr. ("Ed," he called himself, being a no-nonsense-type fellow), moved the Collection to Las Vegas proper, soon after the city had exploded upon the sands. He stored the books and pieces in a warehouse, where they were protected from the elements; other than that Ed proved to be an indifferent administrator, only mentioning the Collection around tax time, when it served to open a sizable loophole. (His indifference might have had something to do with the fact that it was Ed, a doting teenage son, who first noticed the blood dripping from Kellar's old cabinet and realized his mother's anguished screams were not as stagey as they sounded.) When Ed died, his son, Eddie, assumed control. He located—in the George, a run-down theatre where the ghosts of failed tragedians made the building groan and whimper—both a home and a curator. Preston the Magnificent, Jr., spent four years rummaging, cataloguing—the happiest years of his life—and when he was finished, Eddie had announced his intention of placing the McGehee Collection up for auction.
"I'm surprised you guys came," Preston said to the four people gathered around him outside the George, seeing how far he could push a bluff. "This is real boring stuff. Collectors' stuff. Some of the books are pretty damn dry. Very academic." He pronounced the last word with pompous precision. He still clung to the hope that a university would purchase the Collection, stick it in some cobwebbed storage room where it would be forgotten over time. Preston knew it was folly to imagine that universities had anywhere near the financial resources of these guys. Still, he'd fired off letters, listing the books and the pieces, making grand statements about the historical significance, though he doubted any university representative would show up. He had more faith in the arrival of an eccentric billionaire. Such creatures inhabited the deserts surrounding Las Vegas, after all. Some senile fart pumped full of monkey-gland juice could cart the Collection home—Preston wouldn't mind that so much. The only other satisfactory outcome to this whole thing—and in many ways the likeliest—would be for the earth to open up and swallow the auction hall and everyone in it.
"Oh, Preston," said Jurgen Schubert, "it is not a surprise that I am interest in this." Jurgen's skull was square and all of his features oddly rectangular, as though he'd been designed by an architect, planned out on blue drafting paper. His hair was made up of tight golden fiddleheads, a dense mat of curls that he brushed forward so that it draped evenly over his brow like a bedspread. He was deeply tanned, but, even so, his eyelids seemed much darker than the rest of his face, in a bruised, unhealthy way. "I am telling you a story."
"Hoo boy!" called out Rudolfo eagerly, clapping his hands together. "Tell us this story." This was how they behaved on television shows, Jurgen doing most of the talking, Rudolfo reduced to over-enthusiastic responses and exhortations, even though Rudolfo's English was much better than Jurgen's.
"I am hearing about a book in bookshop," said Jurgen. "It is cost twenty Deutschmark."
"Which," put in Rudolfo, "is a lot."
"Ja, ja. Es war sehr teuer."
"So vot did you do, Jurgen?"
"I work at docks. I am eleven years old. But I am getting up every Saturday and Sunday at three in the morning and go to the docks in Bremerhaven, and I am lift with the men huge craters."
"Hold on," said Rudolfo loudly, laying a hand on his partner's shoulder. "You are making a mistake, my friend."
"Not craters. Crates."
Jurgen didn't bother to correct himself, but turned back to Preston and said, "Four hours on my old bicycle to Bremerhaven. Two hours to go, two hours to come home. Every weekend. So after many weeks, I have money. I buy the book. You know what book was?"
Preston shrugged.
"The Secrets of Magic Revealed," said Jurgen. "By your father. Preston the Magnificent."
"Hoo boy!" shouted Rudolfo.
"So, it is not so a very big deal for Rudolfo and I to get into our very long limousine and tell Jimmy the driver to come here. So I don't know why you are surprise."
"Yeah," agreed Preston, "I don't know why I'm surprised either."
"That was my first book, too," said Kaz.
At first Preston thought this was just more evidence of Kaz's absurdly competitive nature, but he quickly decided otherwise. The Secrets of Magic Revealed was everybody's first book. Judging from the magicians who worked many of the smaller rooms, it was some guys' only book. A couple of times Preston had heard patter, taken word for word, from those pages, silly stuff that had been laughable when his father had said it. At least, Preston always found it laughable. His father, ornately moustached, his hair greased and moulded into an unlikely peaked coiffure, seemed to get away with it. "For just as our telluric orb is a moonlet of mighty Sol," Preston the Magnificent would say, aiming a finger at the little rubber globe that circled his head, "so we espy here testament to consonance and concinnity!" Magicians still performed the illusion and they still said essentially the same crap, the only difference being the statuesque near-naked women standing behind them, guilelessly gesturing at the revolving sphere.
"I would have been five, six," Kaz continued. He pulled off his thick spectacles and chewed on one arm, both to affect a more thoughtful air and to keep Miranda at a fuzzy distance, to break her spell. "I was performing the big illusions by the time I was seven. The close-up stuff took longer. I didn't master coins until I was nine." This, too, thought Preston, was talk-show behaviour, Kaz reciting his personal history, at least the one-pager used by his army of publicists. It was all Kaz was ever asked about and it was the only information he ever gave, the meagre outline of a strange life. Kaz was the youngest person ever admitted to the Inner Circle of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and given the status of Grand Wizard. It was true, Preston would admit, that the kid was sensational. His show-stopper was "The Mannequin," a classy little bit of animation involving a dressmaker's form that comes to life and follows the young Kaz around the stage. The kid would appear unmindful of his admirer, going about his business, turning away by chance whenever the ardent dummy tried to present herself.
"That was good," said Preston suddenly, alarming even himself. "The Mannequin. You still do that?"
"Are you crazy?" Kaz said loudly, driving everyone backwards with a gust of rancid breath, including the huge albino leopard. "I haven't done that shit since I was sixteen."
Preston the Adequate sighed, and a single teardrop rolled out, getting lost in the grey folds piled up beneath his left eye. Preston was a somewhat leaky man, often burdened by a runny nose, watery eyes and even oozing beads of white stuff from the pores of his face. "Okay, okay," he muttered. "Let's get this show on the road."

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