The man with the remarkable mustache had been waiting in the dark for a long time. But not as long as the others. When viewed in a properly-lit room, the mustache was indeed impressive: silver and lustrous as an arctic fox tail, curling in perfect symmetry at the edges. It was one of a collection.
There, in the dark, he felt a rough electricity. It was a nervous anticipation he hadn’t felt since childhood, when he’d first performed the Torn and Restored trick and was quite unsure whether the pieces of the playing card would come back together.
His story was Dickensian. At age eleven, having only ever been called “Boy,” he’d chosen the name King Fields for himself. The moniker was inspired by advertisement painted on the east side of the barn: a winsome brunette holding a king-size pack of Chesterfield cigarettes. In the shade of that barn, King practiced with a Svengali deck he’d palmed from the five-and-dime. He worked the tricks over and again until they were clean. And, when he was ready, the boy packed his practical magic and hopped a freight train. Unlike some other young buskers in the city, King wasn’t a con. He had a good act and he got good tips in his hat. King was much like his Ambitious Card trick, wherein the selected card continually rises to the top after being placed in the middle of the deck. And so, through luck and circumstance, he rose to become King Fields - Master of Deception. His shows were advertised everywhere from bright marquees to barn sides. And his matchless talent as a magician was what gained the attention of the Company.
The project was Flash Classified. His handlers briefed him on the Air America flight to the Farm. They’d played to his vanity and they’d played to his patriotism, but they needn't have. King wanted the job. He appreciated the opportunity to apply to magic to the great machinations of the real world.
The Company first contracted him to create an instruction manual. “The purpose of this book,” the handler had said, “is to instruct the reader so he may learn to perform a variety of acts secretly and undetectably.”
And so King drafted a manuscript concerning the application of the magician's technique to covert delivery of materials, misleading movements to cover normally prohibited activities, influence of the perceptions of other persons, various forms of disguise, and secret signaling systems. The book was published for exclusive distribution under the title Some Practical Applications of the Art of Prestidigitation. If found in an agent's possession, it would resemble nothing more than a hobbyist's how-to guide. But under the top-hatted cover hid countless secrets of value a professional in clandestine operations.
After completion of the tactical manual, he was tapped to both teach operatives at the Farm and to research new deceptive techniques and materials. King's savoir-faire aided agents in the field to perform dangerous, provocative, and even lethal acts.
As King was teaching CIA operatives to surreptitiously dispatch pills and poisons, mind-altering chemicals, and biological weapons, he realized that the strategies did not often fit the needs of female agents. The gentler sex required their own rulebook when it came to disorienting, discrediting, injuring, and terminating targets. He proposed sleights of hand fitting smaller gloves.
Ardita, a lovely operative he privately regarded as prettier than the Chesterfields' girl, explained the difference. A male colleague, she noted, could hide arsenic in the hollowed end of a pencil and deliver the poison as easily as making a sketch. But, a woman would need two identical pencils, one poison and one plain, as a man would be sure to take one from her to amend anything she might sketch herself.
But I wouldn't change a thing about you, King had thought. Ar-di-ta, fresh and bright and tart as a lemon.
That was a long time ago. And now Ardita was gone, other good agents, too. The mission to Moscow had failed miserably. And whether or not he believed it, the Company blamed the compromise on his defective magic.
He wasn't a spook, but he wasn't a civilian either. Thanks to his replete selection of mustaches, spectacles, prostheses, and tints, was no longer recognized as a famed prestidigitator. His 201 file had been destroyed. He was less than expendable — he was disavowed. King was nothing more than a ghost.
There, in the black hallway, the newly-mustachioed magician prepared to complete his self-appointed mission. He heard the elevator doors open and his target emerge, cursing the super for what he believed to be a blown bulb. The mark struggled with his keys. The magician closed in. As the door swung open to the dark apartment, the magician's hand rose with intention. Before he could act, the room was filled with light and laughter.
“Surprise!” shouted thirty or so well-dressed strangers. “Happy Birthday, Ivan!”
King dropped his arm to his side, silently released the weapon and concealed it under his left shoe. After a moment of disconcert, he realized that Ivan's enthusiastic friends had been waiting in the dark on the inside of the door, at least a few minutes longer than he'd been waiting outside, and certainly with more cheerful intentions.
A good performer is always adaptable. Instead of slinking away from the party, King plastered on a showman's smile and pretended to be the evening's hired entertainment. He had nothing left to lose.
He started with some of his close-up specialties — coin and card and chop cup effects — his patter directing the guests' attentions where he could have the best angles. He then made a few acts of transposition wherein cocktails changed places to the astonishment of their drinkers. After which, in a bit he called “Haunted Hank,” he levitated his foulard and made it dance around as if it was possessed by a spirit. To prove that there was no gimmick, he took Ivan's handkerchief and did the trick again. The tiny spirit floated over the punchbowl with unseen manipulation.
Ivan was impressed. He inquired of his friends, but none admitted to hiring the entertainer or even knowing his name. Ivan approached the magician and asked for his card. With a flourish, a pencil was produced, and the magician drew a looping, illegible signature on a paper cocktail napkin. The guest of honor took his next drink, swayed, and fell.
The magician exited the party. As he crossed the still-dark hall, he considered the illusions necessary in his disappearance to come. Disappearing is the easy part, King told himself. And, with a final thought to his unspoken affection for Ardita, he conceded, The hardest trick is to really be seen.