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Interludes

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i.

Atlas and Rhodes might come closest to Jack's own style: reaching into a pocket or an expectation and then letting your audience move around you. Treading lightly. Waving with one hand and pulling strings with the other. Except Atlas needs to look you in the eye when you realize how clever he is. He’s got to have flash for the finale. Rhodes is worse, if that's possible. Rhodes is Atlas in 15 years, if Atlas acquires a vendetta and cultivates an alter ego.

“Unless he’s already got one of those,” Henley says.

Jack frowns. “An alter ego? Like what?”

She shrugs. “Like J Daniel Atlas.”

Jury can’t decide. The question becomes something of a staple, revisited every once in a while by Jack and Henley and Merritt when they’re drinking too much. The nearest conclusion they come to is slurring “aaaaaasshooooole" in three-part harmony and clinking their glasses together. 

Atlas doesn’t stick around long enough to participate in these discussions about his broken off switch. He only ever drinks a half glass of what he's offered when he's with them, and the same passed off as a lot more when he's not.

Merritt takes this as evidence. He toasts Atlas' retreating form, says, "So there's our answer, sir and madam." Tips his hat to Jack and Henley, each in turn.

 

ii.

Jack's favourite horseman is Merritt. This according to Merritt, himself, who tells Jack so one morning in Paris, over scrambled eggs and orange juice.

"I'm so touched," he says. "I'd have thought Danny, for sure. You have a lot in common."

"I like Atlas."

"That's what I mean, kid." Merritt takes a triumphant bite of croissant. A dusting of crumbs flutter onto the table.

Merritt's full of shit, sometimes. The rest of the time he's practically clairvoyant. After a particularly impressive display of guesswork, he'll occasionally joke that he missed his calling as Sherlock Holmes. Henley grins and Atlas applauds, but Jack wonders if he means it. They've done impossible things together, the world is theirs, Rhodes' secrets are theirs- but they're runners now. And running circles around what's chasing you doesn't mean you get to stop.

Merritt winks about his illustrious consulting detective career-that-wasn't, but he's here anyway, on the other side of a prison stint and a betrayal and a fall from grace. He's sitting across the table, gleefully rearranging his eggs. Jack didn’t have other options, not really, not good ones; it was magic or thievery (or both). But even if he had, and even if what he’s so naturally good at got hard, he likes to think he’d still be sitting here too.

"So it's you, huh," Jack says.

"And I am flattered.”

"What makes you think it's you?"

"You tell me."

Apparently Jack already has, though. He produces Merritt's watch instead, slipped right off his wrist somewhere between coffee and shameless self-flattery.

"How about a trade?"

Merritt's hand instinctively goes to his bare wrist. He laughs.

"Well sure, kid," he says.

 

iii.

Henley gets out of handcuffs, straitjackets, and speeding tickets. Locked boxes. Nets. Errands. Pools of carnivorous fish and bad dates. Jack's seen her open a door with a smile and make her own with a pickaxe.

Henley's got a mind made for puzzles, and what she does works because she's already got the pieces in place before the audience shows up. Jack and Merritt work with what they find; Henley builds something for you, and then drops you in it.

It's an approach she shares with Atlas. They never run out of digs for each other, but during their year of planning they slot into an easy back-and-forth, ruthlessly dismantling ideas and then building them up better. Jack comes home sometimes to find them hunched over their model set pieces, Lego and cardboard, heads tipped together.

Atlas would say - and has - that she learned it from him. But Atlas wants everyone to think he sprung from the ground, fully formed.

Jack asks Henley about the similarity, just once, when they're alone. She looks at him a long moment, and then starts in on the names: greats, and masters, and legends. The books she's read, and the shows she's watched. Shrike and Houdini, Maskelyne and Black and Herrmann. Her influences are multitude, assembled with all the care and focus of one of her spectacular shows.

Jack's own list would be smaller, he thinks. Guys from the street. Atlas.

It’s not a bad start.

 

iv.

One of his cards hits home, and it’s a surprise.

“Huh,” says Jack, from the floor. The man in the entryway staggers back into the hall, howling and clutching at his eye. Jack wriggles behind an overturned armchair, groping around for something else to throw, but heavy footfalls and cursing are already receding down the hall and into the elevator.

“I’d have thought the knife would be more of a deterrent,” Atlas says. He’s still in the kitchen, slumped against the cupboards.

“Are you kidding,” pants Jack. “Knife verses...”

“Eight of spades.”

“- verses eight of spades? No contest.”

A two-man chorus of wheezy chuckling. “I wish you had told me that before. Could have spared me the effort.” Atlas wielding a sharp object: just as unnerving as it sounds. Not that Jack isn’t happy with the result, namely, that he is still around to pass judgement on quality of results.

Magic tricks are cons where everyone goes home happy, with a little sense of wonder to hold in their hearts and tell their friends about. Cons are magic tricks where everyone goes home happy except the rich bastard they’ve just ripped off. The wonder turns to outrage and they still tell their friends. Most of the time that means going to the police. Today it means Atlas and Jack get jumped by some big guy with a baseball bat.

Atlas is still talking. “You know, saved everybody some time,” he’s saying.

Time. Now there’s something to keep an eye on; how long until their unhappy guest returns, maybe with some new friends?

Atlas is on the same page. His head pops into view, peering down at Jack over the back of the armchair, wiping his hands on the upholstery. “Up,” he says, unsympathetic. “Let’s go, get up. We’re leaving. Watch the door while I grab some stuff. Call Henley and Merritt from the car.”

He staggers around the apartment, snatching up papers and one completely unnecessary scarf. They meet at the door, and give each other a quick once-over.

“You okay?” Jack says.

Atlas gives him a blank look. “Sure.”

“You?” he adds, belatedly, when they’re halfway to the stairwell.

Jack claps him on the shoulder. They both wince. Jack throws up on the street while they’re hailing a cab; Atlas pretends not to notice. In the car Jack watches, incredulously, as Atlas calmly explains the situation to Henley over the phone. He opens with a wry joke and weaves thinly veiled insults into every other sentence. His tone remains exactly the same the whole time but the abuse becomes more and more cutting, until Henley’s shouting on the other end and Jack snatches the phone away.

Atlas doesn’t protest, and Jack finishes the call, making arrangements to call Merritt and meet up later tonight. When he's done, he reaches across the space between them to put a hand on Atlas’ shoulder again, gentler this time.

 

v.

Jack can slide wallets out of pockets, and coax rings from fingers. He doesn’t do it fast; that’s not his secret. Fast fingers only get you so far. (And require fast feet to match, sooner or later. That’s not his secret, but Jack’s learned both anyway.) The better trick is to slip in, to grasp the thing you’re after. To wait a moment. When a mark shifts her weight or twists his back, they’ll slide things right out of their own pockets, and Jack’s left holding what he wants in the space they used to be.

His most impressive lifts are accomplished this way, the ones he does when he’s got a knowing audience. The horsemen are about as wise an audience as he can get, so – after those first few weeks of showing off, trying to prove he could play with the heavyweights - he takes to practicing on them.

He used to think of explaining the magic as a loss, something you gave away and never got back again. But in the year leading up to their Three Acts, and then after those are done, Jack finds himself pointing out the conversation he used to steal Merritt’s passport or Atlas’ pen, or the spare shirt pockets he’s installed to better stash away Henley’s rings. When they grin or clap and tell him to try it again, it doesn’t feel so much like losing.

“Now pay attention this time,” Jack says. He holds up his empty hands. “Here we go.”