Authors: Constance Phillips
© Copyright Constance Philips 2013. All rights reserved
Editor: Sheldon Reid
Cover Art: Lilliana Sanchez
Crescent Moon Press
1385 Highway 35
Middletown, NJ 07748
Ebooks/Books are not transferable. They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Crescent Moon Press electronic publication/print publication: February 2013
This book is dedicated to my grandmother, Chris Martin, who showed me that each day is a gift and should be lived to its fullest extent.
For Harry Houdini, failure wasn’t an option.
Being closed into the old steamer trunk didn’t faze him, not even when the familiar sound of a padlock clanking in place echoed in his ear. When water began to seep through the seams, most men would panic, but years of experience pushed down the instinct. He knew his faithful assistant and wife, Bess, had slipped into the spotlight to distract the crowd and raise the tension, just like they’d practiced for hours and performed dozens of times.
While the fans anticipated the worst, he took a slow and measured breath and prepared for several minutes without oxygen.
Harry focused on his center from behind veiled lids and used every last bit of strength to extend his legs. The side of the trunk he’d carefully loosened the night before popped off, and the water now rushed in. With cuffed hands, he felt along the lid, guiding himself out. His hooked pinky swiped the key from beneath his tongue, but the metallic taste remained.
Lifting his legs, he made short work of the shackles binding his ankles and then arched his back, reaching toward the surface. In seconds, the cuffs securing his wrists fell away too.
All that was left was to break the surface and claim his reward. The roar of the crowd and Bess’s loving arms were the only two things that thrilled him more than defying death. Her and his fans gave him the drive to succeed.
Light faded away, as if rain clouds covered the sun or as if he was sinking further away from his destination.
His world spun like a child’s top. A pulse thumped in his ear and molten-hot blood pumped through his veins. Pure adrenaline fueled the glimpses of his past, which flashed by like the slides his brother, Theo, showed after every vacation. But Harry wasn’t watching the events unfold; he relived the memories over and again.
The spinning stopped. He now hung upside down, wrapped tighter than a Christmas present. His Chinese Water Torture Chamber, a straight jacket and the stage of the Orpheum Theatre; Harry might as well be safe at home in bed. He’d free himself from the binds as soon as he pushed his shoulder out of joint.
With a pop, this faded to white too.
Always trapped. Never escaping. No reward.
The spinning continued, like a phonograph record.
Shivers raked his body. In the distance, he could hear a doctor offering comfort and explaining to a sobbing Bess that hope was lost.
Harry saw nothing, just shuddered and listened. Icy water enveloped him; his neck rested on the frosty cast-iron tub. No matter how many times he relived it, he still believed his infection would clear and the fever would break. He may have stood in the shadow cast by the angel of death, but he still denied the inevitable. A burst appendix destroy the great Harry Houdini, master escape artist and expert showman? Never. When the lights fell on his final performance, something grander than illness would extinguish his flame.
Swallowing hard, he fought the quiver in his lips and tried to call out for Bess. Her touch to his cheek would provide the needed strength. The only vision that ever played out completely: he whispered her name and watched his own chest rise and fall for the last time.
The cold vanished, his pain dissipated, but the mental torture never ended. Over and over he experienced his greatest challenges, but not the successes. Never completing an escape and returning to Bess’s embrace kept him lonely and devastated. What had he done to deserve such torment, and for how long would this agony continue?
Harry always believed in ashes to ashes. When his heart stopped, his mind would too. Anything else seemed impossible, but now he knew different. This was Hell.
But what of the fire and brimstone ol’ man Thomas used to preach about on the corner?
As a child, Harry’s sainted mother would rush him past Seventh and Main
where the elderly man testified to the world. She’d whisper passages from the Torah and remind him his main concern should be this life. Despite his mother’s dislike for the reverend, he taught Harry a valuable lesson that would stick with him his whole life: give people a show.
Would it disappoint the preacher to know that, despite what the scriptures said, Hell didn’t torture the body with never-ending fires, but focused on the mind? Harry knew this was worse.
His stomach heaved to and fro. Bile bubbled in his gut and pushed its way up, burning his throat, but the relief vomiting would bring never came.
Why won’t the spinning stop?
Maybe because he allowed it to continue. Change comes from within. That’s how he lived his life: for every action, a reaction. Why should death be different?
No more complacency.
He tightened his muscles and stretched his body as taut as possible. “STOP!”
As if he was embedded on a reel-to-reel film and someone had pushed rewind, but he was through being held at someone else’s mercy. Again, he ordered an end to the torture.
The loud clank of rusty gears grinding together sounded, and he felt whatever force kept him tied to this existence snap. His body plummeted and his arms thrashed; pleas turned to screams. Maybe there
something worse than the status quo. Falling faster now, he tensed his muscles and braced for the agonizing pain of hitting the ground.
Soft and comforting instead, like slipping into a feather bed and wrapping up in a patchwork quilt, he felt ground beneath him. And serenity. An end to his anguish? He opened his eyes and wondered if he’d see anything but his past. White padding adorned the walls and the floor, like he’d seen in those mental hospitals he toured while concocting his straightjacket escape.
But Harry wasn’t crazy. He was dead.
The air shifted; the temperature rose. Sweat replaced the goose bumps that covered his arms. A body? Harry touched the flesh to make sure it was real. The image of a floating soul now shattered by this reality. Hot, humid air burned his lungs as he leaned against the wall and looked up into the ice-blue eyes of a stranger, who loomed a good foot taller than Harry and was wrapped in tight, black leather like the blacksmiths he’d known in his youth or the cowboys he’d first met out west. Long, black hair veiled the stranger’s face. He lit a cigarette and threw his head back, inhaling deeply and giving Harry another look at those bizarre eyes. A shiver rode his spine. “My God.” A bubbling laugh erupted from the giant. “Not bloody likely.”
Harry struggled to keep the rattle out of his voice. Anxiety might tarnish his legacy and whoever this leather-clad giant was, he wouldn’t know the Great Houdini trembled inside. “Then who are you?”
“Jaden.” The look that brightened Jaden’s face as he inhaled on the dangling cigarette could only be described as pure rapture.
Harry braced, expecting to be choked by the smoke, but instead a sweet aroma filled his head, turning his stomach. “You’re the one who’s been torturing me for so long?”
“Time means nothing here. For those who love you, eleven months have passed. Your life choices controlled your experience here, but that’s over. Your future is up to me.” Opening his eyes, the man gave Harry a long, level look. “On your feet.”
Everyone expected more of Harry than they did the average man. Why should Jaden be different? Eleven months of anguish and he expected Harry to be none the worse for wear. Determined to keep the larger-than-life perception alive, he pressed his back against the padded wall and slid himself up, surprised to find his legs strong, even though his insides felt like sticky oatmeal. “What is this place?”
Jaden’s face remained stoic. “You do know you’re dead. Don’t you?”
Indeed, but hearing it from someone else's lips didn’t ease the blow to Harry’s stomach or the tightening in his throat. He bit his lip and nodded.
“Where do you think you are?” Jaden paused for a beat, but then continued. “Oh, yes, Erich. You don’t believe in anything after mortal death. Oops! How embarrassing for you? No wonder you’re confused.” Jaden’s deep laugh erupted again.
A hundred or more questions raced through Harry’s head, but for some reason he focused on that name. With something so simple, Jaden stripped away the celebrity and identified what was hidden beneath. “No one’s called me Erich in years.”
That wasn’t the exact truth. In the throes of passion, Bess would call him by his given name, but that was intimate and only between them. This beast couldn’t know about that.
the name your mother gave you?”
A simple truth, but one that Harry had guarded, the same way he protected anything that might detract from his image. “How do you know that?”
Jaden’s body sagged, but it took little away from his intimidating presence. “You’re beginning to sound like a broken record. I’ve told you all you need to know about me. We need to discuss you and process you to the next phase of your existence.”
With a snap of Jaden’s fingers, Harry’s world tipped sharply to the left. He began to fall. Just as sudden, his balance righted, and they stood in a smoke-filled pool hall. Jaden’s lanky frame bent over the table as he lined up a corner shot with his cigarette still hanging from his lips.
“An afterlife? Isn’t this Hell?” It had to be. Even if Heaven existed, it wouldn’t include leather-clad angels shooting pool. But then, that image didn’t fit any traditional description of an underworld either.
Through a hearty laugh, Jaden said, “Wrong again. What? You’re not having fun? Think of this as Ellis Island: your mortal life being the country you were born in, and your eternal ever-after being the land of opportunity. I’m the one who decides if you can pass through or not. Your actions determine my decisions, not only for you, but for Bess as well.”
“Leave Bess out of this!” If the way he lived his life dictated his present, so be it, but why should Bess pay for his mistakes? He’d endure any imaginable pain to save her from experiencing one moment’s worth.
Despite his plea, Jaden’s focus remained on the stupid pool balls. A goofy grin turned his lips and lit his eyes. With a smooth stroke, the end of his stick hit the cue ball and propelled it into the yellow one, driving it into the pocket. “As in life, the choices you make now affect the ones you love as much, if not more, than they do you.”
The rhythmic pounding in Harry’s chest raced; his hands clenched. Diving across the pool table, he reached for Jaden’s shirt, but another shift in reality landed him like a rock on the slate. Each ball assaulted a different part of his rib cage, causing him to gasp for air. “Don’t threaten Bess!”
Jaden spoke with no emotion, as if they were talking about the weather. “I’m not the one who’s put her in danger.”
Reaching for Jaden again, Harry only grabbed air. A tremble crawled over his skin as he realized the pool table had vanished and he stood on his feet again. Jaden’s backlit frame filled the opposite end of a long, white corridor. Whether utilizing sleight of hand or manipulating lights and shadows, Harry was used to being the one who delivered a false sense of reality to his audience. He needed to keep his focus or he’d fall prey to this master magician.
Don’t torture me with my own life anymore.
Anything but that
Not even a moment after claiming Bess was the only thing he valued, Harry put his own fate first, making his previous defense ring false. At least he hadn’t said it out loud. “Do what you want. Throw me into a pit of fire, but keep your filthy hands off Bess. Hurt one hair and I’ll—”
In another snap, the distance closed. Harry stood mere inches from Jaden.
“What will you do, Erich?”
Every muscle of Harry’s brand-new body tensed. It’s not like he was in a position to help her. He was, after all, quite dead. Anger, regret, fear and pain swirled in his head, making him dizzy. An unexplainable force squeezed in from all sides, extracting the air from his lungs.
“Don’t make me repeat myself. It makes me angry,” Jaden said. “Your unexpected death forever altered Bess’s life. Your time with her so changed her outlook on the world, she’s lost without you.”
Bess was the shining light in Harry’s life. He’d loved and cared for her, protected her. He wanted to lash out at Jaden for even hinting that Harry had hurt her, even though he knew the giant could obliterate him based on their size difference alone, but the mystical force immobilized him.
“Conflicting messages. You taught her mediums and spiritualists who claimed to speak with the departed were con artists, but you also told her your love would find a way to break the barriers of death. You set her up to spend the remainder of her life pursuing a message that, according to you, she can never receive. Is it fair for you to rest in peace while she spends her final days chasing your non-existent ghost?”
The power that gripped Harry released. He fell back a couple steps and put a virtual wall between them. Jaden denied it, but Harry knew the Devil himself stood in front of him. Who else would torment him with such a preposterous idea? He’d taught Bess death was final. She understood the reasoning behind the contradictions and knew better than to hope for him to speak to her from beyond the grave. Jaden lied. He manipulated and tortured. That’s what this was, just a new form of suffering Harry would have to endure for a life of pandering and profiteering.
“What, my friend, would you sacrifice to save Bess from your Hell?”
“My life.” The answer spilled from his lips. The truth, but preposterous. How could he give what was no longer his?
“I’m more interested in your everlasting soul.” A twinkle sparked in Jaden’s otherwise cold eyes.
Harry stepped into his stage persona like most people would slip into a jacket. It didn’t matter that his stomach quivered. He tipped his jaw slightly up and to the right. “I don’t believe in such things. Remember?”
“That’s what I thought. You're more worried about saving your own skin than preserving Bess’s happiness.”
That snapped Harry’s attention to Jaden.
A lie. Wasn’t it?
“If I don’t believe in life everlasting, will sacrificing it mean anything?”
Jaden turned away from Harry, and the pool table reformed. Jaden leaned against it, giving the game more of his attention and concern than their conversation. “What do you think the last eleven months have been about, if not your soul?”
Have I really spiraled that long?
Not possible. And why? The obvious reason would be punishment. But for what? “I’m guessing you’re the man with all the answers.”
“No. Just one of his ever-faithful servants.” Jaden stepped up to line up another shot.
Harry’s closed fist bounced against his thigh. He would spend an eternity tormented by this beast if that was the fate he’d created, but his angel deserved mercy. Reaching out, he pulled the ball from the table. With Jaden’s follow-through, he fell against the mahogany rails. His head snapped and their eyes met, the frosty blue replaced with a glowing fire-red. “This is a bind you cannot escape with a pick or sleight of hand, and it’s not a predicament your golden tongue will chatter your way out of.”
A pain radiated in Harry’s jaw from clenching it so tight. “What do you want from me?”
The table evaporated. Jaden closed the distance with one step. “I want nothing. The question is, Erich, what do you want? Will you do everything you can to keep Bess from chasing your ghost into an early grave? Can you risk your eternity to shorten her stay in purgatory?”
Not my angel.
The thought of Bess having to live through the same torture he’d experienced sucked the breath from his lungs. But... “Bess wouldn’t do the things you describe.”
Jaden’s large hand came toward Harry. He tried to move away, but his feet remained still, as if they were bound with shackles. An ice cold tremor coursed his body with Jaden’s touch. Harry tried to push the giant away, but Jaden’s hand remained glued to Harry’s forehead. As if Jaden tried to retaliate, the ice turned to fire and a ripping, tearing pain centered itself in Harry’s chest and branched out through his body. He dropped to his knees in surrender. A gut wrenching scream escaped from deep inside.
Even though Jaden’s palm no longer touched Harry, the overwhelming grief still pulsed through his veins, as if it mingled with his blood.
His body fell forward, and he braced himself on his forearms as he dropped to the sawdust covered, wood floor. White hot tears scalded his cheeks.
“That’s the problem with love. When it runs so deep, its demise can cripple and destroy,” Jaden said.
“Make…it…stop.” Harry gasped between waves of pain.
“Only you can do that.”
“I’m dead!” The pain was rooted so deep, he wasn’t sure if it belonged to him, Bess, or worse, a combination. She was the only thing dying cost him. Nothing else mattered in the same way. His soul didn’t miss the house, the money he’d accumulated, not even the admiration of his fans or the prickly praise of the press. Only her. The mere thought of Jaden toying with her locked his jaw and tightened his stomach.
“I can give you a brand new life if you use it to save her.”
If Harry knew one thing for sure, anything too good to be true was just that. He welcomed a challenge, but not if Bess suffered the consequences. “And if I fail?”
“You pay with your life.”
Curiosity pushed down the throbbing heat and cutting pain. “Explain.”
The grit between his legs and the floor melted into something soft and cushioned. The honky-tonk faded, and the padded room they first met in came back into focus.
Jaden’s leer loomed from above. “You, Erich, with no outward traces of Harry, can be given a life in Bess’s proximity. Your sole goal: convince her to stop chasing your ghost. If you succeed, you can grow old in that body, even with her if the fates allow. But, if Bess holds her séance on the anniversary of your death, she’ll draw your spirit from its new home, and you’ll be condemned to the afterlife you don’t believe in.”
“The same torture I’ve endured at your hands?”
“No. Nothingness. A dark void so vast that the sinking never ends. An eternity of deprivation.”
Jaden’s description should have deterred Harry, but he’d gladly risk that fate for another chance at a long life with Bess. Harry doubted Jaden could devise a penalty harsh enough to keep him from trying. After all, it had been love at first sight the first time around. How would his soul being encased in a different body change that? It would be simple again.