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THE BULLET CATCH
An Eli Marks Mystery
By JOHN GASPARD
Newly-single magician Eli Marks reluctantly attends his high school reunion against his better judgment, only to become entangled in two deadly encounters with his former classmates. The first is the fatal mugging of an old crush’s husband, followed by the suspicious deaths of the victim’s business associates.
At the same time, Eli also comes to the aid of a classmate-turned-movie-star who fears that attempting The Bullet Catch in an upcoming movie may be his last performance. As the bodies begin to pile up, Eli comes to the realization that juggling these murderous situations — while saving his own neck — may be the greatest trick he’s ever performed.
THE BULLET CATCH
An Eli Marks Mystery
By JOHN GASPARD
Until the sound of the bell alerted me to the arrival of a customer, I had spent the better part of the next morning fumbling with a deck of cards in my hands, trying not for the first time to unlock the secret of the Center Deal. The Center Deal is a fabled card move in which the magician deals a selected card not from the top or bottom of the deck, but from the center. It’s a sleight that had always stymied me and I take only a small amount of solace in the knowledge that I am far from alone in my inability to master the move.
I set the cards down and looked up to see who had come in, expecting to recognize one of the two dozen or so customers who still frequented our brick and mortar shop as opposed to doing all their magic shopping online. Instead I was greeted with the image of a complete stranger who also, oddly enough, looked vaguely familiar.
He was somewhere in his thirties and he wore a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, which were covered with dark, expensive-looking sunglasses. A mop of dirty blond hair jutted out from under the hat in a random and reckless fashion. He wore a faded Minnesota Twins jersey and even more faded jeans, but the footwear peeking out from beneath his pants cuffs appeared pointed, textured and rich – alligator perhaps, or maybe from a species higher up on the endangered list. If someone had made a pair of boots out of a Komodo dragon, I thought, this is what the result might look like.
“Is anyone else here?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Depends,” I said, calculating how much cash was in the register and which nearby magic prop might best be employed as an impromptu weapon.
“Eli, it’s me. Jake. Jake North.” He pulled off his cap and the dirty blond mop came with it. The glasses came off next, and it was then I was able to put the name with the face.
“Jake? What are you doing here? In disguise? I’d heard you were in town…”
He cut me off, looking around again to double check for others in the vicinity. It’s a small shop and that didn’t take long. “Have you got a few minutes? To talk?”
“Sure. Absolutely. What’s going on?”
Even though we were clearly alone, he still leaned in close and spoke just above a whisper.
“I need your help,” he said “Someone is trying to kill me.”
“Okay, start at the beginning.”
We had taken a corner table at the coffee shop down the street and settled in with our respective purchases – black coffee for me and a double-soy mocha latte grande for Jake. His precise and arcane instructions to the barista had slowed the process considerably, but with his order in hand he seemed less on edge. He was still in his disguise, which I was convinced was calling more attention to him than if he had just gone with his normal look. But you know actors and their innate ability to add drama to any situation.
“All right,” he said, his voice a soft whisper, “So, I’m back in town making a flick.”
I nodded. “Sure, I heard something about that. Some low-budget thing, right?”
“Low by Hollywood standards, sure, but it’s a real movie and my agent thinks it could be my ticket out of TV and onto the big screen.”
Being in films full-time had always been Jake’s dream. He and I had met in high school, and although we hadn’t traveled in the same circles, our circles did have points of intersection. We’re both performers. His path had put him in all the plays at school, while my path put me in all the talent shows. His real break came when he was cast as the lead in a TV series called “Blindman’s Bluff,” a comedy about a lout who pretends to be blind to impress a girl and then must continue the ruse indefinitely. It hit new lows on the bad-taste index, even by cable standards, and was known for its equal servings of disabled jokes, ethnic slurs and crude sexual puns and peccadilloes. So of course it was a huge hit.
“Anyway,” he continued, sucking some of the foam off the top of his coffee, “the movie is a biography of a guy with whom I’m guessing you’re at least slightly familiar: Terry Alexander.”
I nodded slowly, surprised to hear that name after all these years. I certainly knew the name of Terry Alexander. Any magician with a heartbeat was familiar with the life – and death – of Terry Alexander. “Sure,” I said. “Infamously known as The Cloaked Conjurer.”
“Yes. And also infamously known as one of the dozen or so magicians who have died while attempting to perform The Bullet Catch.”
“In South America somewhere, wasn’t it? Peru, I think?”
Jake shook his head. “Ecuador. Toward the end, he was basically doing his act in a traveling circus.”
“Wow. His career certainly took a nose-dive.”
“Apparently that’s what happens when you go on national TV and start exposing magic’s greatest secrets.” He added a dramatic flourish to those last three words.
‘Magic’s Greatest Secrets’ had been a series of television specials in which The Cloaked Conjurer revealed the inner workings of some of the best magic illusions of all time. Magicians, of course, were outraged at his flagrant disregard for the code of ethics that binds all magicians: the promise to never tell lay people how the trick works. Terry had broken that sacred pledge and had pretty much been blackballed out of the business from that point on. In desperation he had returned to his traditional magic act and took gigs wherever he could, finally ending up doing a second-rate act in third world counties.
“He got work, though, because he was one of the only performers willing to do The Bullet Catch,” Jake continued, “and that got him work in those far-flung performance venues.”
“Until someone killed him.”
“Yes. Until someone killed him. While he was doing The Bullet Catch.”
Jake had a distant look in his eyes. I tried to pull him back. “And you play Terry?”
“Yes,” he said, snapping back into the conversation. “It’s a challenging role. The script is lousy, so we’re diverging from it at every point possible. But I think, in the end, I will have created a fully-rounded character with layers and depth.” He took a big gulp of what I was sure was still pretty hot coffee, but he showed no reaction to it. “But what’s got me more concerned – much more concerned — is that I’ll have to do The Bullet Catch.”
“But it’s a movie,” I said. “I mean, you don’t have to do it for real. Right? They have stunt guys and CGI and editing tricks.”
“I know, I know,” he said with no real conviction. “But I just have this gut feeling…” His voice trailed off. I wasn’t sure what to say to help him out.
“Certainly they’ve got experts working with you on this?” I finally offered.
“Oh, yeah,” he said quietly. “I trained with some of the top magicians in LA for six months. I can do Terry Alexander’s whole act, start to finish.”
“So why are you so concerned about this one part of the act?”
“Right now, this flick is just a blip on Hollywood’s radar. A little Indie about a famous, unsolved crime. But,” he said with a mix of anticipation and dread, “If I actually died while doing The Bullet Catch?”
“Yeah?” I didn’t like where this was heading.
“Then it will be a hit. A monster hit.”
“You’ve developed some real chops,” I said, genuinely impressed.
Our coffee was cold and I had steered the discussion away from Jake’s fear of dying and asked him how he was doing the rest of the magic in the movie.
“The producers found some guys at The Magic Castle in LA,” he said, casually dropping the names of three well-regarded magicians. Training from any one of them would have produced outstanding results and I was curious to see what he had learned from this trio of masters. I handed him the deck of cards I always carry and asked for a demonstration.
Jake took the deck tentatively at first, then executed some nearly flawless moves – a slick top change, a false shuffle I hadn’t seen before, and some flashy card flourishes that skirted the sometimes thin line between magic and juggling. His work was impressive and he was clearly well-trained, but it was all done by rote. He lacked the craft to be able to deviate and improvise. However, he handled the cards well and comfortably, and for those moments I believed he might actually bring Terry Alexander to life on screen. If he didn’t die trying.
“So what makes you think your life is in danger?”
“Well, it was small things at first,” he said quietly. “Like when I found out they weren’t working with my LA trainers on The Bullet Catch. Those guys know their stuff, but the director said he had another resource in Las Vegas. Turns out the guy the director got is just a buddy of his from college. He runs a shooting range, but has no real training in this. But the thing that really unnerved me was when I saw the shooting schedule. They had scheduled the filming of The Bullet Catch scene last. Dead last.”
“Is it the last scene in the movie?”
“Yes and no – it’s all told as a flashback from the moment the bullet is fired from the gun. That might change in the editing, who knows. But these things are hardly ever shot in order. And that’s the very last scene I’m going to shoot. Last day, last scene, last shot.”
“Maybe. But then I was at the director’s house in California, doing a read-through of the script with some of the cast, and I noticed a DVD box on the TV. He had been watching ‘The Crow.’”
I shrugged. “I’m missing the connection.”
“The actor Brandon Lee died while making ‘The Crow.’ He was shot when a prop gun misfired. It was tragic, but it didn’t hurt the film one bit. Some people say it helped to make it a hit.”
“And you think the same thing could happen here?”
“Hey, if your job was to sell a movie about Terry Alexander, you’d probably have a pretty tough time of it. Sure, it’s an unsolved mystery: Who killed Terry Alexander? But the downside is there’s no stars, no pre-sale name value to the property, it’s low-budget and under the radar. But if the lead actor gets shot and killed while in the process of recreating the scene where the main character got shot and killed…”
His voice trailed off and then he added, “That’s a film people are going to want to see. Hell, if I weren’t dead, I’d want to see it.”
In real life, John’s not a magician, but he has directed six low-budget features that cost very little and made even less – that’s no small trick. He’s also written multiple books on the subject of low-budget filmmaking. Ironically, they’ve made more than the films. His blog, “Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts” has been named “One of the 50 Best Blogs for Moviemakers” and “One of The 100 Best Blogs For Film and Theater Students.” He’s also written for TV and the stage. John lives in Minnesota and shares his home with his lovely wife, several dogs, a few cats and a handful of pet allergies.
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**SPECIAL GIVEAWAY**: John is giving away a paperback copy (US only) of THE BULLET CATCH to one lucky winner who comments on his **Author Peek** Interview or Killer Book Bench blogs. Don’t miss this chance to read John’s new story. Thanks, John, for sharing your newest release with us!