They checked into their rooms quietly. Henley spoke adequate French and they'd made their reservation, under different names, months ago.
Merritt took one look at the triple room he was sharing with Jack and Daniel, flung his arms wide, and said, "Paris, the city of love," before deliberately putting his bag in the private alcove where one of the beds was afforded some privacy.
"Yes, well, I suppose Jack and I should make some concessions to your advancing age…"
"Like getting me a separate room." He raised an eyebrow and smirked, "Or we could have gotten two doubles. I'm sure Henley and I would have gotten along just fine."
Daniel's face went stony for just a second. "Tell you what. We'll draw cards for the bed with more privacy."
Jack said, "Which of us controls the deck?"
"Three draws," Merritt said. "Each of us controls the deck once. Jack, if you can't plant our cards on us, you lose. If I can't convince you the card I draw is your card, then I lose this sweet little alcove. Daniel, you're third."
"I'll do a card cut, rather than a single force. It's fairer."
Jack said, "Why?"
Merritt answered, "It's harder to manipulate." He rolled his eyes. "Don't look so surprised. Just because I wasn't so geeky I spent my teenaged years learning prestidigitation rather than getting laid…"
"Some of us managed both," Daniel said.
Merritt grinned, "Sure, you did. Actually, I could believe it of Jack. His shtick has as much of my specialty as yours."
Daniel said, "The only 'merit' I see in your kind of act is that you admit it's an act."
All three of them nodded. "Yeah, the ones who try to claim it's spiritualism, really get on my nerves," Merritt said. "On the plus side, I've made at least three regional charlatans retire and helped the police convict one for fraud."
Daniel tossed a pack of cards to Jack as he said, "Glad to hear it. The next time I hear about a fraudster, I'll call you." Merritt started to hum "The Ghostbusters" theme and Jack laughed out loud.
"Daniel, cold deck. I know better than to work with one you've handled." Jack flung it back to him and Daniel pulled out a sealed deck.
Jack riffled the cards a few times before doing a basic shuffle. He planted the eight of diamonds successfully on Merritt, but the two of hearts was in his own pocket rather than Daniel's and Daniel pulled the ten of hearts from his breast pocket which flummoxed Jack completely. He raised an eyebrow at Daniel and said, "Okay, I won against Merritt and lost against you. How did you do it?" He turned to Merritt, "He did show you the two?"
"Yes, yes, he did." Merritt peered at him from under the brim of his hat.
Jack blinked and turned away.
Daniel said, "You did it well. I took two cards, showed one to you and Merritt and tucked the other in my breast pocket. When you were planting on Merritt, I planted mine back on you."
"Will you show me?"
Daniel cocked his head and thought for a moment. "By the time we leave Paris, you'll know how to do it."
Jack's face lit up.
"All right, my turn." Merritt took the deck from Jack and began his spiel as he did the most half-assed shuffle Daniel had ever seen. Merritt could tell his palms were practically itching to take the cards away from him and do it right, so he turned to Jack first. Jack drew the two of spades and it took less than a minute to convince him it was the two of diamonds.
He then turned to Daniel who drew another ten, this time in clubs. "Was that deliberate?" Daniel asked.
"The twos and tens? Nah. With this version I don't bother with a force. I can do it with any card you select."
Daniel grinned and closed his eyes.
Merritt laughed. "I could still do it, you know, just not as quickly, and I doubt you'd take that as a win. So, the private bed is yours."
"It's yours," Daniel said. "I already told you I didn't mind your taking it." He looked at Jack. "Is it okay if I take the one by the window?"
Henley walked in. "These locks are simple to pick. What kind of macho posturing are you up to?"
"I embrace my inner woman," Merritt said.
"It's the only action you're likely to get," Daniel said.
Henley sighed, "You're not going to do any better."
Daniel raised an eyebrow and gave a half smile. "Not here. But all of us have seen the inside of a couple of dorm rooms lately."
Jack shook his head. "I mean, I have -- but why colleges?"
Merritt said, "We're all intrigued enough to follow the Eye's instructions and they said to build our act and word of mouth by touring."
"I'm not a dumb kid," Jack said. "Why colleges?"
Henley said, "Mostly for me. My kind of act can't be done on the street. Colleges have theaters with dimensions we can find out in advance so we know whether the apparatus will fit."
"Plus thousands of bored students looking for diversions means we'll always get an audience," Daniel added.
"I just wanted to know if any of you were hungry. Are we going to eat together or take this rare opportunity for some 'alone time'?"
Merritt made a kissy-face and said, "If you want alone time with me, you should send them out to eat." He turned to Jack and Daniel and said, "Seriously, I hear there's a romantic little bistro just across the bridge on the left bank. I'll keep our girl happy."
Henley giggled. "Not without food involved. And if you're serious about that bistro, then why don't we all go?"
Daniel opened his mouth to say something, and then nodded. "Dinner. Sounds good. Jack?"
Jack lit up and said, "I could eat."
On the way back from the surprisingly un-touristy restaurant, Merritt motioned for Jack and Henley to walk ahead.
"Let him suck your cock. It will save both our sanities."
Daniel stopped and gaped at Merritt. "First of all, I'm pretty sure Jack's straight. I'm even more certain that I'm straight, and what are we talking about?"
"He's got a crush on you. He might be bi or just 'J. Daniel Atlas' sexual, but he wants something more from you than vague promises to teach him a trick or two. Well, magic tricks. If you've got a thing you do with your tongue, I'm sure he'd settle for that."
Daniel started to walk ahead, but Merritt grabbed his shoulder. "I'm serious that he wants more from you. I'm not the one he idolizes. Hell, I'm not the one running this show."
"And I am?"
"Yes. Oh, I don't think you're responsible for the apartment plans or anything. If your backstage reputation is anything to go by, you're too busy screwing groupies to have time for that kind of planning, but yeah, you're the one we look to. You take center stage, and as a pretty good stage presence myself, I respect that, but the thing about taking the lead is that you need to be a leader."
Daniel looked at Jack and Henley walking together and laughing openly. Jack reached for her hand and Daniel shook his head. "He'll never get anywhere with her if he keeps trying to hold hands."
"She's not a germaphobe." He gave Daniel a small smile and said, "Her gloves wouldn't be fingerless."
"Fire. I think the pain is psychosomatic. She wouldn't be able to perform most of her stunts if her grip was weak."
"You do it?"
Daniel glared at him. "Do you really think I'd…"
"I meant was it a trick she was practicing when you two were together."
"No. While I can do basic fire eating, I found it made me too nervous for real magic afterward."
Merritt said, "Are you going to get between them?"
"A few minutes ago you were telling me to sleep with him."
"And if you're not going to, then let them work off their tension without looking like a love-sick puppy at her. And don't even try to tell me you're not still pining for her. I read people for a living. What happened, she walk in on you with another chick?"
"Chick? Is this the male bonding portion of our evening?"
Merritt slapped him hard. "What happened to break you up?"
"Why do you think I was the one who cheated?"
Merritt spread his hands, and Daniel said, "There were fans after the show. I flirted. A few of them kissed me before I could stop them, and I did stop them because I was with Henley. But that remark I made about her weight, well, there were other things around it. We'd hit a professional plateau, and I hadn't figured out the next step to get us up another level."
"Yada. You decided to go off with one of your adoring fans and…"
Daniel stopped him. "I was serious. I'm not the one who cheated. I went off with a couple of fanboys for a drink after a show. I came back to find her riding someone like she was in the home stretch of the Kentucky Derby."
Merritt actually seemed surprised.
Daniel continued. "I know it was still my fault. I'm the one who was callous. I'm the one who couldn't give her enough emotional support, so, yeah, it's my ego that broke us up. You're a mind reader."
"No, I just read people really well. What you told me explains to me why I keep getting an apology vibe off of her."
"Vibe? Very scientific. And why did you hit me?"
Merritt grinned. "It got you to react emotionally and that made you talk."
Daniel nodded. "So there is some science."
"And, honestly, I've been wanting to clock you since about three seconds after we met."
Daniel said, "It was mutual." He sighed. "You're wrong. I'm not the leader, not off stage, you are."
"Well, that explains why you keep remarking about my age." Merritt was thoughtful for a moment. "I can't be the leader. It's not natural to me. I'll tell you what you're doing wrong, publicly or privately or both, but … I went to jail because I'm not a leader. I'm in this for the ride, but I think the way to keep us all breathing fresh air, is to follow you."
"Why not Henley?"
Merritt said, "Because she looks to you. Were you really trolling her website?"
"I figured out which comments she thought were from me. Yes, I made comments in the forums sometimes, but with two exceptions, they weren't the ones she was talking about."
"Did you find out who it was?"
"Yes. And I set a few friends who are much better with computers than I am onto him. I think his computer probably has a great future as a paper weight by now." Daniel smiled. "Do you plan to have a 'come to Jesus' with the others, too?"
"I will if you want me to. I'm serious Daniel. I don't like you. I will pick apart every scheme and triple check every plan that our mysterious benefactor left for us, but I know you're the leader and I trust you to make sure we're all safe."
Daniel thought for a moment. "Unless it's really egregious, correct me privately. It's not ego, or maybe it is, but if I'm corrected publicly I get stubborn -- more stubborn -- and argumentative and that's not what we need right now."
"What do we need, Chief?"
Daniel said, "First of all, I need you not to call me 'chief.' Second of all, I'll try to let Henley know that I've forgiven her for our past private issues."
"And for creating her own act."
Daniel nodded. "She's good. Better than I am at the escape stuff. I'll work on a couple of spots and apparatus for her. She needs more to do in the show, and she's not my assistant any more."
"I'll work on building his ego up a bit. I have more than enough for two. He has to be an equal partner or we'll fail."
Merritt said, "Our benefactor thinks he's good."
"I think he's excellent. With any other card man, I wouldn't have needed to pull a trick; I could have just switched cards. He's sharp and he has the right kind of deck grip to keep the punters from messing him up."
"He's good at my kind of stuff, too. He has to be for his kind of profit making."
Daniel said, "He's got the physical dexterity and flat out courage to work with Henley's more dangerous toys. That may be one thing to do. Everyone's used to the male magician and the female assistant. Think it will threaten his masculinity if we ask him to work as Henley's?"
Merritt said, "I think he'll be thrilled."
"As for you. Never hit me again. That's non-negotiable. Can you work with Henley on her patter? She's never going to be a complete natural at that part of it -- she tends to shout rather than project -- but I think you can loosen her up."
"I'd love to loosen her up." Merritt smirked.
"As long as she wants it, I won't interfere."
"See, I knew you could be a real boy."
Henley found them at breakfast the next morning. "What's the plan for today?"
Daniel said, "After we're all adequately caffeinated, I'm going to go with Jack to watch the bank. Can you team up with Merritt to walk the area and find escape routes?"
Henley looked at him and said, "Or I could watch the bank with you and let Jack go with Merritt."
"Don't worry, we'll all work alone, and we'll work every pair and all four threesomes at some point."
Merritt said, "I just love a good threesome," he turned to Jack and added, "Don't you?" He grinned when Jack blushed all the way to the tips of his ears.
Daniel said, "I'm sure we'd all enjoy releasing a little tension."
"But Jack's used to …"
Daniel said, "I know. And Merritt's not. He doesn't have to worry about escape routes. So, I'm teaching Jack how to observe more broadly, you're teaching Merritt how to figure out routes and tomorrow we'll switch things up."
Henley said, "Wow, that actually sounds logical. Okay, so what are we going to do tomorrow?"
"Jack's going to start teaching all of us some of his physical techniques, and Merritt's going to give us the broad outlines of the mark we'll be looking for."
Henley smiled. "You've really thought this through."
"Yeah, it's what Merritt and I were talking about last night. Team building."