A handsome man with graying hair walked through the streets of a colorful neighborhood, moving with the elegant manner of one accustomed to being on the stage. Even as he made his way through the city, he maintained something of a theatrical manner in his walk and in the way he held his head. He had the unconscious habit of stroking his bare upper lip as though he had once been used to caressing a mustache in that spot.
He frowned as a boy with a shaved head and heavy dangling earrings passed by with a large portable cassette player on one arm. The so-called music that blared out of the machine disturbed the older man, who stopped in his tracks and glared at the oblivious youth who shoved past him.
Disrespectful young punk should have a keeper! Then again, he may not be any different from my own grandson! he thought. They share a love for the same kind of noise. He started to raise his hand, then lowered it again. “I could have that infernal tape player out of his grasp and in pieces on the sidewalk before he could blink an eye, but that’s not the right way to deal with him,” he muttered to himself. “He and his kind own the world now. I’m just a relic of a forgotten age. I should be gathering dust like the clippings from my scrapbooks back home. I’m a useless man who is closer to the grave than the cradle. No one cares about me, and I don’t know that I can blame them for their apathy!”
Leaning against the wall, the shade of an awning sheltering him from the warmth of the sun, he recalled the scene that had preceded his abrupt departure from his apartment. He had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his daughter Leslie and her son Mike when their car had pulled up outside his apartment unit, and he had heard Mike’s still-strident young voice above the heavy metal that blared from the radio.
“Mom, I hope Gramps doesn’t pull out those ratty old books of his,” he had said. “It’s bad enough to have to waste an afternoon in that smelly dump without being bored to death!”
Leslie had urged the boy to lower his voice, and added, “Your grandfather was a famous and respected magician, and a hero as well!”
Mike had rolled his eyes and replied, “Mysto? That was a lame name. Real heroes are guys like Cyborg or Batman!”
Rick Carter had stepped outside and greeted the pair with sincere warmth and affection, brushing aside Mike’s remarks as merely being the callow comments of an immature and undeveloped mind. However, he hadn’t been able to forget the words or entirely overcome his own hurt feelings.
He had tried to enjoy their visit, and he could see clearly that both his daughter and her son had a real affection for him, but affection didn’t necessarily equate with respect or admiration. After they drove off hours later, Rick had puttered around the apartment before turning on the TV.
He remembered seeing a pair of magicians performing their act on a talk show, and the sight and sounds of their act had repelled him. “Profanity and violence cloaked in the trappings of illusions. This is nothing more than trash!” He had switched off the set and stormed out of his apartment, just feeling like he had to get away.
None of the small events had been enough to upset a man who had, in truth, been a real hero, but the combination of things added to a growing sense of discontent. It had been too much for him, producing an uncharacteristic depression in him.
Now he leaned against the wall and glanced over to peer inside the windows of the strangely quaint little shop. He saw rows of glass containers, exotic relics, and a décor that combined a trace of the Orient with something he couldn’t quite identify, even considering all of his own travels.
On an impulse, Rick Carter entered and took a closer look around the odd little shop, where he saw shelves lined with jars and containers. Odd scrolls, pictures, mirrors, and things he couldn’t identify if his life depended upon it filled the space, which seemed oddly larger on the inside than it had from without. The most striking and precious object in the shop wasn’t inanimate. Nothing of metal, glass, or wood could equal the dazzling glamor of the woman called Madame Xanadu.
The clairvoyant swept into the room without a sound, except perhaps the silken rustling of her alluring purple gown. Her spike heels made no sound as she seemed to float across the shop in a sea of exotic perfume that intoxicated the observer almost as much as did the lovely woman’s dark and compelling beauty. “I welcome you, Rick ‘Mysto’ Carter,” she said. “I am Madame Xanadu, and I sense you need succor of a kind I may offer freely this day.”
“Well, I am flattered that you recognize me,” said Mysto, “but I’m not really looking to buy anything. I even left my wallet back at my apartment.”
Madame Xanadu touched his sleeve and led him to a table where she sat down, crossed one bare leg, and gazed directly into his soul. Haunting eyes with heavy eye shadow and luminous appeal bore into his own eyes as she stared into his soul and held his glance.
“You have the eyes of the ancients!” he muttered. “You are a remarkable young woman! I can see that all too clearly! Perhaps you are a bit too exotic to be real!”
She laughed and leaned closer. Placing one elegant hand on his palm, she said, “I am not a mirage nor one of the illusions for which you have a justly earned renown! You are troubled. That much is apparent. Tell me, what is it that haunts you?”
“Nothing, really… I’m just feeling a bit old and useless,” said Mysto. “My grandson came by, and he is a bright boy with absolutely no interest in my old work. I guess I am still hungry for the roar of the crowd from my performing days. My magic act used to fill some mighty impressive houses. Now, I’m just a forgotten name from the past. I just wish I had made more of a difference.”
Madame Xanadu leaned a bit closer, and her perfume seemed to overwhelm her guest. He felt a bit dazed, and the shop became a bit dim to even his keen eyes. “Now, Mr. Carter, you above all men should know that there is power to be found in an understanding of the appearance of things,” she said. “You have had a career of danger, drama, and heroism. What appears to be mundane, old-fashioned, or of little value to those who lack your own perceptive manner may truly be of immense value and significance when viewed through eyes that truly see! I would have you gaze at the cards before us and let them show you a truer story!”
At that she spread a row of cards across the table with a movement that was so graceful and sudden, taking even Rick Carter by surprise. “Lady, I knew a gal with legs like yours would be a real draw on stage, but you have a real talent for sleight of hand, too!” he said.
Madame Xanadu said nothing, but lowered her eyes and waited as he, too, glanced downward. “The cards reveal much that I anticipated. They show that you and other men of courage and humanity accomplished far more than any of you ever knew! Listen, and we will see it all more clearly!”
As Mysto stared at the cards and then lifted his eyes again until they met the almost luminous eyes of Madame Xanadu, he saw the surroundings change. Above him was a wide blue sky over a flat prairie, and in place of the sultry woman’s perfume, he smelled motor oil. He moved forward with a slight start as he heard the roar of an engine.
Looking around, he realized that he was no longer in the strange shop. He stood within the open air confines of a stock car race track. He saw mechanics, owners, drivers, and fans all around him, and he also knew one other thing. He was a young man again, and he had lived through this whole situation before.
Some part of him released his hold on the present, and for a time Rick Carter was young, vital, and living in the moment in the early 1950s again. He forgot everything that had happened to him after this one moment. It was as if he was living the event for the very first time.
“Mr. Carter? I can’t tell you what it means to me that you agreed to come here,” said a fat man who wiped sweat off of his bald head and reached out a moist hand before hastily withdrawing it and wiping it on his shirt.
“Mr. Davis, I presume,” he said. “This is your stock car track. Forgive me for being startled; I did not expect to find a man of your position actually working on a car!”
Pete Davis smiled and said, “Shucks, Mr. Carter, I may have a bit of money these days, but I still have oil and grease in my veins! The fellas let me tinker a bit with their cars. They like to butter up the owner, don’tcha know?”
“I understand,” said Mysto. “Now, as to why I’m here, I am a bit of a motor car enthusiast myself, and that is why I gladly offered to perform my act before the race on Sunday, in exchange for the chance to soak up the sights and sounds of this fine sport!”
Davis grinned and said, “Maybe you can take one of the cars out for a spin when the track is clear. Between you and me, I got pull with the owner! Get it? I am the owner!”
Mysto nodded and stroked his mustache as he did so often when lost in thought. “I admit to being more comfortable in the skies in my plane, but I certainly won’t turn down your kind offer!” he said.
As he followed Pete Davis across the pavement, he recalled the real reason he had abruptly altered his Midwest tour schedule and offered to do his act at the track. He had been practicing a small piece of business involving a series of linked rings in his dressing room, following a very successful performance in Topeka, when a stranger had stepped out of the shadows and began an earnest conversation.
“Richard Carter, you do not know me, but I have heard of you, and it is imperative that you heed my words though I am but a stranger,” he had said. “A man’s life is in peril, and only you can prevent a murder that will be even more of a tragedy than any involved can imagine!”
Mysto had listened, and something in the man’s manner or voice had convinced him to trust the dark-clad man and follow his suggestions. Thus he listened and learned that a killer was stalking the Davis stock car track, and Sunday’s race would be the scene of an attempted murder.
Before he could do more but make certain he had the facts straight, the man was gone.
Mysto had smiled rather sardonically and muttered a comment about smoke and mirrors, but in the solitude of his own hotel room that night, he had made the necessary changes to his schedule, and he had planned to visit the Davis track as instructed.
Now he followed Pete Davis around and listened as the proud little man bragged about his track.
“We don’t get the big names, but some of our local boys are as good as any drivers you’ll find. Yessir, take Matt Weston’s crew. Ol’ Matt is as road-savvy as they come. He’s had a rough season, and this race means a whole lot to him. Some types, all the skill in the world can’t change fate, and Weston is in debt. If he doesn’t win this one, then he may just have to quit the circuit.”
Mysto nodded as he watched a brown-haired man talking to a crew near an impressive race car. “Weston seems a bit upset,” he added as he noticed the man raise one fist as another uniformed driver stepped closer.
They hurried closer, and Mysto heard Weston bellow, “I’ll kill you, Cronin! I’ll see you go up in flames!”
The two angry men started to exchange blows until the more skilled Mysto stepped between them and separated them. “Gentlemen, save your aggression for the race!” he said.
“Listen, Mister, this is private business!” said Weston. “So take a hike!”
“Matt, you can’t talk like that to a fan,” said Davis. “This is Mysto the Magician. He likes the sport!”
“Sorry!” said Weston. “I guess I lost my head. But I’m warning you, Cronin, don’t make eyes at my girl again!”
Cronin, a handsome man with broad shoulders and a cocky manner, grinned insolently. “Weston, I’m saving Kim from marrying a pauper! When I win this race, you’ll be through. I know your creditors won’t give you a second chance to repay all those loans!” He walked off, and Mysto frowned as he saw Weston clench his fists again.
“Mr. Weston, as a stage performer I’ve learned to watch the audience, and I fancy myself to be something of a connoisseur of people. Well, you are made of sterner stuff than this. Do not despair. I believe you will win this race, and win the girl as well. Remember what they say about the course of true love never running smoothly.”
Matt Weston shrugged and said, “Cronin knows how to get me mad. He and I go back a long way. We even used to be pool hall buddies. Those days are gone. He hates me for taking Kim away from him, and he’d love to steal her away from me as revenge!”
He smiled as a pretty, red-haired woman approached them, along with a slightly reserved-looking man with a pleasant if ordinary face. “We heard the yelling clear across the track,” said Kim Johnson. “Don’t tell me you let Steve provoke you again!”
“Well, actually, I did!” said Matt. “Kim, Jon, this is Mysto the famous magician. He’s going to perform at the race.”
Jon extended one weathered hand and said, “Nice to meet you. I came back to help out my old partner Matt, because this race isn’t far from my place, but I didn’t expect to meet a real celebrity!”
Mysto smiled and greeted the newcomers as he watched their expressions and tried to figure out if the passionate exchange he had interrupted carried the answer to the attempted murder he was planning to stop.
Weston seems like a good man, but he has a bad temper, he thought. His money concerns and his passion for Kim could be the triggers that transform a nice man into a killer. Still, something about Cronin makes me wary, too!