y god,” Hunter moaned. ”They’re going to come after me again. Now that they know for certain that she’s dead, they’ll think I did it. They always suspect the boyfriend. I’m going to end up in prison. I just know it.” He paced nervously, fumbling with the zipper on his jacket. His bedroom suddenly seemed very small.
”Nobody’s going to jail,” Brett insisted. ”You and I are the only ones who know what really happened to her. As far as they know, Kate’s body simply fell from the sky. The farmer thinks it was thrown from a plane… Look, why don’t you have a cigarette and relax?”
”I’ve been trying to quit,” Hunter said. ”But it doesn’t matter. Not anymore. I can’t die of lung cancer if I get the electric chair. They’re going to come for me! The police will be here any minute!”
Brett stepped across the room and grabbed Hunter by the shirt collar. ”Listen to me, Hunter. You aren’t going to prison. Nothing can happen to you. Even if you confessed, who would believe it?”
Hunter pushed him away roughly. ”I just wish I had never gone to that house,” he sighed, rubbing his face. ”I should have burned that book on sight.” Hunter stumbled across his attic bedroom to the bed, collapsing in exhaustion.
It had all begun eight days ago with a simple phone call.
”I found a place where I can get some cheap furniture for my dorm room,” Kate said. ”I need you to come with me and help me move it.”
”You always have something heavy for me to lug,” Hunter said. ”What am I, your boyfriend or a pack mule?”
”Can’t you be both?”
Ignoring her, Hunter continued. ”Besides that, Kate, you shouldn’t be worrying about moving out yet. You should concentrate on enjoying your last year of high school.”
”I’ll tell you what,” she said, ”do this little favor for me and, next time we’re alone, I’ll do a little favor for you…”
Of course, that was enough. Hunter picked up Kate in his truck and, a short drive later, they arrived at Harrison Hills. Harrison Hills had once been the wealthiest neighborhood in town. Unfortunately, the years had not been kind. The once-beautiful homes were now slowly crumbling into dust.
”I thought we were shopping,” Hunter said, confused. ”There aren’t any furniture stores out here.”
”Well,” Kate said reluctantly, ”this furniture’s kind of… used. The owner just died.”
”You’re buying furniture from dead people?” Hunter asked. ”Are we raiding a funeral home or something?”
”Relax,” Kate laughed. ”We’re not going to see a body. It’s an estate sale.”
The streets were crowded with cars, forcing Hunter and Kate to park several blocks from the house. Hunter shivered, pulling his collar up against the cold. His blue letterman’s jacket was designed more for fashion than protection against the elements. A cold wind carried newly-fallen leaves down the street, a swirling dance of orange and gold. Kate’s skirt flapped in the wind like flag. She jammed her hands in the pockets of her faux fur coat and tried to stop her teeth from chattering.
The estate sale was located at an ancient, Victorian mansion squatting at the top of a steep hill. It was like something out of a B-movie. As Kate knocked on the door, Hunter half expected it to be answered by a mad scientist in a lab coat or a voluptuous, raven-haired vampire. Instead, the door was answered by a frizzy-haired woman in a tan track suit.
”Well, that’s disappointing,” Hunter muttered.
”What?” she asked.
The rooms of the house were lined with antique furniture, tattered cardboard boxes, and racks of old, musty-smelling clothes. A brass umbrella stand held a collection of hand-carved walking sticks. There was a man standing by a colossal fish tank selling what were undoubtedly very expensive tropical fish for twenty-five cents a piece. An orange cat was trying to get the man’s attention, whining and rubbing up against his leg, but the man kept nudging it away.
While Kate was examining an oak bedroom set, Hunter wandered down the hall and into the library. The library’s wooden floors were warped and uneven and the stained plaster told of recent water damage. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were lined with dusty, leather-bound volumes and worn-looking paperbacks. The books were separated by topic. Large, cardboard signs identified historical fiction, poetry anthologies, biographies, and other subjects. Strangely, one sign read simply ”unclassifiable.”
”What do we have here?” Hunter thought, examining the shelf. ”The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, The Key of Solomon, The Necronomicon… No, nothing. Wait, what’s this?” Hunter pulled open a volume near the center of the shelf. ”Miracle Mongers and Their Methods by… Harry Houdini? Amazing. And it’s a first edition!” Lightly penciled on the spine was the price: six hundred dollars. ”Damn. I paid less than that for my truck. I would just stick it under my shirt but it’s so thick that there’s no way they wouldn’t notice the bulge. Well, maybe there are other ways to get this out of here.”
Hunter tucked the book under his arm and returned to the front room. Kate was haggling over the price of a cedar chest with the frizzy-haired woman. The woman wanted forty dollars more than Kate was willing to pay. ”That’s alright,” Hunter said. ”I’ll pay the difference.”
”Oh, thank you, Hunter!” Kate said, giving him a little hug. ”You’re so sweet.” While the two women were busy counting the money, Hunter opened the chest and slipped the book inside. It took Kate half an hour to select the rest of her furniture and almost an hour for the couple to carry everything to the truck.
Kate’s father helped Hunter unload the furniture, the two men struggling to fit everything into the already crowded house. Once the last piece was in place, Kate’s father wandered into the kitchen to grab a beer. Hunter quietly opened the trunk, removed the book, and headed for the door. ”I’ll see you tomorrow at school, Kate,” he called over his shoulder.
Hunter rushed home, carried the book up to his room, and locked the door. Carefully turning the brittle pages, he flipped past the introduction to the first chapter.
Chapter One – I, the Great Houdini, am famous the world over for magical performances which border on the miraculous. I have met mysterious entertainers from every corner of the globe, from nameless Hindu fakirs to the greatest entertainers of our age. In former times, the secrets of these mysterious men were passed down from father to son and from master to apprentice. Sadly, in our modern age, the son of a fire breather is far more likely to move to the city than to follow in his father’s footsteps. Thus, one can no longer rely upon such a system to preserve the arcane knowledge of mysterious entertainers. And so, I have written this book to prevent these secrets from vanishing forever. The reader is cautioned to explore the text fully before experimenting with his newfound powers. The following effects will be explored in depth…
”This is bizarre,” Hunter thought. ”I figured this book would be about card tricks, pulling rabbits from hats, things like that… But look at this list! `To drink molten lead, page 14. To bathe one’s body in broken glass, page 54. To break open a hornet’s nest and dine on the insects therein, page 76.’ These stunts all sound ridiculously dangerous. I wish there was something a little safer. Wait a minute, what’s this?” Flipping to a new page, Hunter was faced with a series of bizarre diagrams that, supposedly, depicted how to perform a miracle. ”That can’t possibly work,” he thought. ”…I have to try it.”
That night, Hunter stood in his back yard, waiting for his friend Brett to arrive. Kate was huddled close to him, trying to use her boyfriend’s body to block the wind. The distant sound of thunder rumbled threateningly. As the streetlights switched on, Hunter heard Brett’s car pull into the driveway.
”I brought some wood like you asked,” Brett said. ”Why are you so desperate to build a fire? Let me guess… You won a year’s supply of marshmallows?”
”If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Just wait and see.” The two men hauled the wood from Brett’s car into the backyard, stacking it into a loose pile. Some newspaper, gasoline, and a few matches transformed the wood into a blazing fire. Hunter produced some green powder from his jacket pocket. As he sprinkled it into the flames, a thick cloud of green smoke gathered in the air above them. The cloud looked almost solid enough to stand on.
”What are you doing, Hunter?” Kate demanded, annoyed at being outside in the cold for so long. ”I need to go study! I have to get better than a B on this history test or I’ll fail the class.”
”It’ll just be a minute,” Hunter said. He dragged a large, wicker basket underneath the cloud of smoke, tossing the lid to the side. He stepped over to the back porch, where the book was resting atop his father’s gas grill. Turning to a marked page, he studied the diagrams and imitated the complex gestures they described. Slowly, something began to rise from the basket.
”Is that a snake?” Brett blurted. ”No, wait… It’s rope. What is this, Hunter? What’s going on?”
”Don’t you recognize it?” Hunter laughed. ”This is the Indian rope trick! Marco Polo first saw it performed back in 1315. Six hundred years later, Houdini traveled to India and paid a fakir a small fortune for the secret. And here it is, performed for the first time in over a century!”
Kate stared openmouthed at the rope, which was simply hanging in the air. ”What’s it attached to?” she asked suddenly.
”The smoke. The rope is actually connected to a cloud of smoke fifty feet in the air! Now that the rope has risen, the book says that someone is supposed to climb it.”
”Well, go ahead,” said Brett.
”How am I supposed to do that?” Hunter asked. ”You’ve seen me in gym class. And that rope is only twelve feet long. You do it. You went on that rock climbing trip last summer.”
”No way!” Brett said. ”When I go rock climbing, the ropes are attached to the side of a mountain. Granite can hold anyone’s weight. But this… This is a cloud of smoke!”
”You guys are such wimps,” Kate laughed. ”I’ll do it.” She slipped on her gloves and grabbed the rope, pulling herself into the air. Higher and higher she climbed until, finally, she was lost in the cloud of green smoke.
Brett and Hunter stared up at her in amazement. ”The cloud is solid enough to stand on,” Hunter called up to her. ”At least, that’s what the book says.”
”Well, it’s been right so far,” she yelled. ”I’ll give it a try.” The wind began to rise but the cloud was unmoved. It was almost as if the rope was anchoring it to the ground. ”It’s working!” Kate said ecstatically. ”I can’t believe this… I’m walking on a cloud!”
Brett turned to his friend, looking worried. ”How long is that rope supposed to stand up like that?” he asked.
”I’m not sure.”
”You don’t know? How could you let her climb up there if you don’t really know how this works?”
”Don’t worry about it!” Hunter said. ”Everything’s going to be…” Suddenly, it began to rain. ”…fine.” Raindrops fell in the fire, flashing into boiling steam. As the wind rose, the fire began to sputter and fade. ”Kate,” Hunter called, ”you’d better climb down now.”
”It’s just a little storm,” she laughed. ”So I’ll get a little wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal here, boys. I’m not coming down! Tell you what… Why don’t you come up to me, Hunter? We can join the fifty-foot-high club!”
A sudden gust of wind tipped over the wicker basket. The rope dropped from the air like a wounded bird. Slowly, the cloud began to drift.
”It’s moving! Do something, Hunter!” Kate screamed.
”Oh, god,” Hunter gasped. ”I need to check… the book!” He rushed back to the porch, where the book was still lying open. The pages were soaked with rain and nearly illegible.
”Hunter?” Brett whimpered. ”She’s floating away, Hunter. Make the rope levitate again, Hunter.”
”I can’t!” he wailed. ”The pages… Oh, god!”
The wind pounded against the sides of the house and stripped the leaves from the trees. Hunter and Brett watched helplessly as the cloud of green smoke drifted away, carrying Kate into the distance.
When Kate didn’t come home, her father called the police. Naturally, the police suspected her boyfriend. Hunter and Brett both insisted that Kate had left Hunter’s house before the storm began. Someone, they said, must have grabbed her before she got home. With no evidence of foul play, the police were forced to let Hunter go. Kate was labeled as just another teenage runaway. And then, eight days later, her body was found in a corn field almost five hundred miles away. The farmer told authorities that he saw it just fall from the sky. Of course, no one believed him. No one but Brett and Hunter. That evening, after school, Brett came to his friend with the news.
”I’m sorry,” Hunter said, close to tears. ”I just need to relax. I’ll be fine in the morning, I promise.”
”Are you sure?” Brett asked. ”I could stay here, keep you company.”
”No, no. I just need to be alone for awhile.” Hunter saw his friend to the door and then returned to his room, locking the door behind him. Hunter pulled the book from his shelf and dropped it in the trashcan. He doused the book with lighter fluid and tossed in a match. Bending down, Hunter reached under his bed and pulled out the whicker basket. The rope was still coiled inside. He climbed on top of his bed and tied one end of the rope to the beams above his head. A few moments work turned the other end of the rope into a crude noose. Closing his eyes, he stepped off the bed and into the air.