Harry started counting in his head how much time and air he had the moment water rose over his head and the steel lid of the milk can clunked into place above him. He was bent in half with his knees against his chest and his arms around his legs, his hands cuffed together near his feet. He worked the lock for the handcuffs solely by touch and by the forty-five second count in his head, had them off. Next he worked his right arm up and over his head and pushed at the lid of the milk can and grinned to himself; escaping in under a minute would set a new personal best time.
The steel cover didn't move.
He re-adjusted his body slightly and pushed again, but it still refused to come off. He realised Dunbury had closed the lid wrong and what should have been a simple matter to pop off with one hand, was now a challenge. The count in his head was now at two minutes as he continued to push at the metal cover.
There was no time, or reason, for panic. He re-adjusted again to give his legs more leverage and pushed first at one side of the lid then the other multiple times with his right hand, all the while still counting seconds as his mental clock told him he was past the three minute mark and the drape around the milk can would be removed soon. Finally, the lid popped loose and he climbed out, dripping and slightly breathless. He snapped the cover back in place mere seconds before the curtain lifted and the audience roared its approval.
Harry stood on stage as thunderous applause echoed around the theater. He smiled and waved, acknowledging the accolades from the crowd, but inside he was seething. He gave one last wave and left the stage. Bess, his latest assistant, took one look at his face and faded back against the wall as Harry stormed past.
"Where is he?" he growled to no one in particular.
"Who?" Bess asked since no one else backstage said a word.
"Dunbury, who did you think," Harry replied as he looked at her. "Three separate mistakes in this show alone, and the last one," Harry rubbed at his neck and took the towel one of the stagehands held out for him. "The last one was the last straw. He's done."
"I haven't seen him," Bess replied. She was small, a few inches shorter than Harry, with dark, curly hair and a dancer's innate sense of grace. For all her small stature, however, she didn't let anyone, including Houdini, bully her. Which was one of the many reasons Harry liked her.
Bess looked around and one of the other stagehands pointed to the backstage exit door. She nodded gratefully to the man as she followed Houdini to his dressing room.
The room was large with a mirrored dressing stand to the right of the door, a changing screen and clothes rack next to it. A long, leather sofa with a matching chair and coffee table sat opposite the stand, while props for several effects cluttered the far corner. The walls were bare except for a few old promo posters from America tacked up around the dressing stand.
Harry toweled his hair dry as Bess entered the room and stood by the door. He dropped the towel on the dressing table and turned to face her. "I'm lucky I'm not dead," Harry said bluntly as he walked by her and behind the screen to change.
"Frank thinks Pete went out for a smoke," Bess said. "He's gone out to get him."
Harry grunted but said nothing.
"He's had a run of hard luck, lately. You know his sister just lost her husband in Africa," Bess started to explain. "He can't seem to get a break."
Harry came out from behind the screen wearing a pair of brown pinstriped trousers and a clean white shirt with light grey stripes. He tossed a red and gold waistcoat and a tie on the sofa. "I'm sorry about that. But distractions get people hurt." He opened a drawer in the dressing table and found an envelope. From his trouser pocket he took a wad of cash, peeled off a few bills, and stuffed them in the envelope. Harry looked up at the soft tapping at the door as he put the envelope and the roll of cash back in separate pockets.
Bess opened the door and stepped back as two men entered. Frank, the taller one, was almost completely bald with a broad chest and thick, muscular arms. He let go of the arm of the shorter man he'd dragged into the room behind him. Harry nodded his thanks to Frank and he and Bess left. Harry rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and pointed the shorter man at the leather chair near the sofa. He studied the other man in the mirror as he attached his collar.
Peter Dunbury was about Harry's height with straight brown hair and brown eyes. He was in his mid-thirties, but the hard lines around his mouth and eyes made him look older. He wore tan work trousers and a blue work shirt over a dirty, white collarless cotton shirt. He dropped a brown corduroy coat over the arm of the chair and toyed with the flat cap in his hands as he sat in the chair Harry indicated.
Harry finished with the collar and turned to face the man in the chair. "I think we both know what's going to happen here," Harry started to say and tried to keep his voice calm as he stood next to the sofa.
"I can explain, Mr Houdini," Dunbury said without looking up but stopped as Harry interrupted.
"I'm sure you can, but that's not the point. You're making too many mistakes and someone is going to get hurt. Or worse." Harry paced behind the back of the sofa. "I hired you based on Dundas Slater's recommendation, and that he said you needed the job. But this isn't going to work for either of us." Harry stopped pacing and looked at Dunbury as he held up the envelope from his pocket. "You're fired," he said and dropped the envelope in Dunbury's lap. "There's your pay inside."
Dunbury glared sullenly back and picked up the envelope. "You can't do this to me," he said. "You said you'd give me a chance."
Harry stood with his hands on his hips as his calm faςade cracked and his voice rose despite his best effort. "You've had two weeks of chances, Dunbury. You're outta goodwill from me."
Dunbury stood from the chair and growled, "I know some of your secrets now, Mr Houdini. I'm sure someone would pay me a tidy sum to find them out, the London Daily maybe?"
Harry dropped all pretense of cordiality and stood toe-to-toe with the other man. "You say one word about what you've learned here and I will end you," Harry threatened. "You think you've got it tough now, just try and push me on this." He shoved past Dunbury and yanked the dressing room door open. Several people, including Frank and Bess, loitered in the hall between the room and the stage, and Harry was sure they'd heard at least some of the exchange.
"Frank," Harry said to the man waiting against the wall opposite the door. "Make sure Mr Dunbury here gets out of the theater and on his way."
"Sure thing, Mr Houdini," Frank said and stepped forward. "Come on, you." He grabbed Dunbury by the arm again and marched him to the theater exit.
"You call this giving a man a chance?" Dunbury yelled from the stage door.
Harry ignored him as he walked back into his dressing room and closed the door. He sat on the sofa and leant back with his eyes closed. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door and Frank walked in and stood near the chair.
"He's gone, Mr Houdini. Saw him walking up the road toward the pub. I'll just get the rest of the stage cleared and head out."
Harry opened his eyes. "Thanks, Frank," he said and stood up. "I'll give you a hand moving things since I just fired your assistant."
Frank ducked his head. "No need for that. I can manage."
Harry smiled and clapped the stagehand on the arm. "Come on. It'll be faster with two."
Pete Dunbury sat in the Red Lion and nursed his third beer. He'd stomped into the pub two hours ago, the envelope of money still clenched in his hand. He'd dropped the envelope on the bar and sat on the nearest stool, requested beer, and glared at anyone near him.
After his first pint, two men came into the pub and took a booth off to one side. Physically, they looked like any of the other men in the bar, well-worn clothes, utilitarian work boots, and scruffy beards. One had dirty blond hair past his coat collar, the other, greasy black, cut short. When the black-haired man spoke to the bartender on the way to the booth, Pete saw he had a tooth missing. For all they blended in with the rest of the pub's crowd, these two had an air about them, something that stopped anyone else from sitting near them or even looking in their direction for long.
Pete watched the two men out of the corner of his eye and halfway through his second beer he was convinced the two men in the corner booth were watching him. He didn't know either of the men and he hastily stuffed the envelope of money in his coat pocket before anyone got any ideas on a quick payday. He finished the pint, signaled for a third and went back to feeling sorry for himself.
He wasn't sure what he'd do next. He'd called in what favors he had to get the job at the theater with Houdini. He thought about the banknotes in the envelope and admitted to himself the magician had done right by him. Not only had Houdini paid his wages but he'd included a bit extra as well, despite his screw-ups with the show. The threat to sell the few secrets he knew was an empty one, he'd never been able to hold his temper and he didn't really know anything important anyway. Maybe if he talked to Houdini and explained things he could get his job back.
He finished the last of his beer and staggered out of the pub and into the chill night air. It started to drizzle as he walked and he wrapped his coat tighter around himself as he wandered down the nearest alley toward his rooming house. He was halfway down the alley when he heard footsteps behind him and realized he was being followed. He turned around and saw the two men from the pub a few steps behind him.
"Bugger off," he hollered and flapped an arm angrily behind him.
Dunbury walked faster toward the other end of the alley; as the footsteps behind him increased as well, he started to run. He was nearly to the other end, he could see carriages and a few automobiles on the road in front of him when he was tackled from behind.
He landed on his knees in a puddle, and immediately lashed out at the nearest body. He smiled grimly as he heard a grunt of pain come from the blond man on his right but his confidence was short lived as the dark-haired man who tackled him landed several punches to his side. As he tried to protect his ribs, the blond man recovered and kicked him in the stomach and again in the face as he fell forward.
Now he was lying on his side and could do little to defend himself as the two men hit him repeatedly. As he lost consciousness, a tiny part of his mind wondered what he'd done to deserve to die and what would happen to his sister once he was gone.