As the guillotine was wheeled out by two black-clad stage hands, the audience drew a collective breath. This was it – the moment they had been waiting for. Though they had oohed and aahed through nearly two hours of illusion, been dazzled by disappearing doves and amazed by the Ace of Spades, it had all been leading up to this one final act: the Great Fantazmo’s best and most rarely performed trick, She’s Losing Her Head.
As though the audience’s anticipation had conjured him up, the magician himself appeared back on stage to a thunder of applause. The Great Fantazmo was a neat, slender man of below average height, dressed in an unobtrusive dark suit. He would have looked like a valet or an undertaker, someone who stepped soft-footed around the edges of life, were it not for his eyes. They were bright and alive with command, and as he gazed into every corner of the auditorium they seemed to catch and hold those present in a breathless, waiting hush.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” His voice was soft, but pitched to carry. “On this one very special night, the last night before I depart London for foreign shores, I am privileged to be able to present to you the most difficult and dangerous of all my feats of illusion … She’s Losing Her Head.”
Applause rippled out again as the magician’s assistant danced onto the stage, making a graceful curtsey to the audience. She wore a spangled leotard, and above her bright, professional smile her eyes sparkled with excitement, as if she too felt the wonder of being here on this eagerly awaited night.
“Ah, poor girl.” The Great Fantazmo winked at the audience. “She has no idea what’s about to happen to her.”
Sudden laughter broke the silence of the auditorium, but was as abruptly stilled. Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched as the girl knelt behind the guillotine and placed her neck into the hollow that waited to receive it. Above her, the blade seemed to shimmer in the subdued theatre lighting.
“Illusion, my friends, is a powerful force.” The Great Fantazmo began a slow walk across the stage towards the gleaming contraption with its promise of death. His soft voice fell on the audience’s ears like insinuating music, but their eyes were fixed on the slender neck of the girl beneath that threatening blade. “It can make you believe things that aren’t true. It can make you see what isn’t really there. It can show you wonder … and it can show you danger.”
His voice dropped on the last word. He had reached the guillotine, and was now standing with one hand on the wooden frame. Those in the very front row of the stalls caught the flicker of a reassuring wink as he looked down at his assistant.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, reaching up to the block that held the blade suspended in air, “I give you … She’s Losing Her Head.”
And he let the blade fall.
In the utter stillness, everyone heard the snick and the thud. As the head fell into the basket, spattering an arc of bright scarlet across the stage, there was a gasp from the watchers.
Then, in one movement, the audience were on their feet, stamping and cheering, clapping hard enough to sting their palms. The Great Fantazmo spread his arms wide, bowing once, twice, three times before vanishing into the darkness at the back of the stage. The curtain fell to the roar of the audience’s continued approval.
Backstage, the magician strode off in the direction of his dressing room. His stage manager joined him before he had gone very far, offering him a grave smile.
“That went well.”
“It always does.” The Great Fantazmo turned on his heel, pinning the other man with a look. “You know what to do. Clear the stage as quickly as you can; we don’t want the press snooping around. Make sure everything is tidied away in preparation for our departure. Oh, and by the way –” as the other made to leave – “when we get to Paris, I will of course be needing a new female assistant. See to it, would you?”