by Henry Slesar
On that Tuesday afternoon, in the hammock of his Wisconson back yard, Erich Weiss slipped off the heavy mantle of being the great Houdini and relaxed into himself. Then, as he recalled Irene Kolman’s letter, and realized that his visitor would be there within the hour, he sighed wearily.
When Miss Kolman arrived, he saw a petite young women with burning eyes, who was obviously carrying a burden of her own. He knew the subject of her concern from her letter: the death of her brother Andrew, an illusionist like himself.
“I begged Andy not to do the water trick,” she said, her eyes boring into his. “But you were his idol, Mr. Houdini, he was determined to do every one of your escapes. No,” she added miserably, “it was more than that. He wanted to do them better than you, so that people would say he was greater than the great Houdini.”
Houdini smiled. It was not the first time in his career that he had encountered the same aspiration. Admirers who hated him. Enemies who admired him. The greatest illusion of them all: human nature.
“I’m sorry your brother died,” he said. “But if you’re asking me to explain how it happened …”
“I know, I know! You weren’t there. You never even met my brother! But you know this water escape, Mr. Houdini, and Andy was convinced he knew it, too. But something went wrong, and you’re the only person in the world who might explain what it was!”
“Tell me what you do know,” Houdini said.
Irene Kolman leaned back in the wicker chair, only her lips and intertwining fingers moving.
“Our town is called Rally. It’s built alongside a small lake, and that’s where Andy decided to stage the water trick. He convinced the Mayor and the local police chief and every newspaper within fifty miles to attend. I’ve never seen him so excited. He was sure that the publicity would be the real begining of his career, that it would make him almost as famous as you.”
But you were against it. Why?”
“It sounded so dangerous! Being handcuffed. Being tied into a sack, and then placed in a locked chest with chains around it. And then, the chest dumped into the middle of the lake … Oh, I know you’ve done it, but you were Houdini, and Andy is onlyÑmy brother Andy!”
“Who were his assistants?” Houdini asked.
Her small face darkened.
“His assistant Carl Munster was the one who tied him in the sack, and the Police Chief, Sal Johnson, put the cuffs on him. ”
“Whose cuffs were they?”
“My brother’s. But the Chief swore they were genuine, and he also told the press that he had Andy thoroughly strip-searched to make sure he wasn’t concealing a key. And of course his wife Charlene was there, pretending to be worried.”
“It was part of the act,” Irene Kolman said bitterly. “Andy asked her to do it. So she cried these crocodile tears and pleaded with him not to risk his life. She was very good.”
“Something tells me you don’t like your sister-in-law very much.”
“Charlene is twenty years younger than Andy. And pretty. Very pretty. Men are always looking at her. Especially Sal Johnson …”
“The police chief?”
“He’s only forty years old, divorced. Always hanging around their house, especially when Andy went on tour …”
“And what about Carl Munster?”
“Carl was a hypocrite! Always flattering Andy, telling him how great he was! The truth it, Carl thought he was going to be the next Houdini! Always reading books on magic, practicing his rope tricks, stealing Andy’s secrets …
“Anyway, Charlene did what Andy told her to do. Before they tied him into the sack she kissed him goodbye as if she would never see him alive again. And she didn’t. When fifteen, twenty minutes passed, and the chest remained at the bottom of the lake, two divers went down to retrieve it, and they brought the chest back unopened, with my poor brother’s dead body still inside …”
Now there were tears on her own face, and Houdini squirmed uncomfortably on his chair.
“Everyone was horrified, of course. Carl Munster had to break the chains with a hacksaw, and cut the sack open … When they saw my poor brother’s body, Charlene screamed hysterically and threw herself into the chestÑit took them five minutes to get her away … ”
“And the handcuffs were still locked?”
“Yes! Chief Johnson couldn’t remove them, because there wasn’t any key! Oh, Mr. HoudiniÑI realize you’re not supposed to ask a magician to reveal his secrets, butÑI have to know what went wrong! I have to know why my poor brother died!”
Houdini leaned back. For almost a full minute, he said nothing. Then he folded his hands in his lap and said:
“The truth is, I intend to reveal the “secret” myself. I’m writing my autobiography.” He smiled. “Actually, there isn’t much of a mystery to the water escape,” he said. “The method is the magic. You need three things to accomplish it. Calmness, confidence, and most of allÑa key.”
“That’s what Andy said, before he started the trick. That he would permit himself to be searched so that there would be no question that he wasn ‘t concealing the handcuff key anywhere on his person.”
“Yes,” Houdini said. “I made the same offer myself.”
“But yet, you always had a key. Didn’t you?”
“I was free of the handcuffs long before they threw the chest into the water. Once the handcuffs were removed, the rest were details. There was a tiny razor sewn into the sack. And the chest itself … well, I’m sure you can guess that it was specially constructed. The truth is, I was usually ready to emerge from the water within the first minute. But that wouldn’t be showmanship, would it? So I used up all the available oxygen and held my breath and then appeared, splashing and gulping and lifting my arm in triumph.”
“But my brother never appeared, Mr. Houdini! My brother is dead!”
“Yes,” he said somberly. “And from what you’ve told me, Miss Kolman, I think I can tell you that your brother was murdered. And I know who was responsible.”