Copyright © 2015 W.H. Mitchell
In the glow of gas lamps, a steady October rain drowned the cobblestones of a street on Piccadilly Circus. On the sidewalk, dry beneath the awning of the Phoenix Theater, an A-framed advertisement read “The Amazing Jonathan Warlock, Magician Extraordinaire!” and showed a painting of a man spreading his arms, a wooden cabinet behind him on a stage. Inside the box, a young woman with dark skin peered out with yellow eyes.
From the street, the sounds of applause were just audible from within the theater.
Inside the theater, the stage overlooked the main floor where the crowd stood clapping. Along the walls on either side, balconies stacked three stories high were overflowing with those who could afford more expensive tickets. On the stage itself, an Englishman dressed in a dark topcoat and a cape soaked in the ovation like sunlight.
Jonathan Warlock waited for the applause to subside and said “Ladies and gentlemen, before your very eyes is a seemingly ordinary cabinet.”
He presented, with a wave of his hand, a wooden box a little over six feet tall with double doors on the front. Warlock opened the doors, revealing that the box was empty. With a flick, he turned the cabinet, apparently on casters, until the back faced the crowd. A second pair of doors was visible, which he opened as well. The cabinet was now a hollow shell open on both ends.
“As you can see,” Warlock went on, “the cabinet is empty, but not for long!”
A woman who looked of African descent entered from stage right. She wore a red satin dress with ruffled sleeves. She waved and approached Warlock and the cabinet.
“My lovely assistant Miss Molly will enter the box on one end and exit on the other.”
Warlock turned the cabinet 90 degrees so the crowd could not see within. Molly walked through the box to the other side. When she reappeared, her dress was now blue, although identical in all other ways as before.
A loud gasp rose from the audience and then spontaneous applause.
Molly bowed while Warlock threw his hands in the air. “Thank you! Thank you!” he said.
Molly closed the double doors at the back of the cabinet and came around to stand at the front.
“For our next trick, ladies and gentlemen,” Warlock announced, “I will transform my assistant into a rabbit!”
Molly stepped inside the cabinet and Warlock closed the doors behind her. With a twirl, he rotated the box 180 degrees and opened the back doors that now faced the front. Within the box, sitting calmly, a black cat licked its paw.
“My word,” he said. “Not what I had in mind, but beggars can’t be choosers!”
The audience laughed. One woman covered her mouth with a gloved hand.
Again, Warlock closed the cabinet and spun it around. When he opened the doors, Molly appeared, this time in her original red dress.
“For our last trick this evening, I shall make my assistant completely disappear!”
From his topcoat, Warlock produced a walking stick, three feet long, much longer than what could be easily concealed within the coat. The top of the cane was the upper torso, in silver, of Atlas resting a globe of clear crystal on his shoulders.
Closing the doors with Molly inside, Warlock tapped the orb at the end of the stick three times on the cabinet frame. Simultaneously, he whispered something inaudible under his breath. While he did so, the crystal globe grew cloudy with a strange, purple smoke.
One last time, Warlock spun the cabinet and, with theatrical flair, pulled the doors open to reveal that the inside was empty.
The crowd erupted in applause, cheering loudly.
“Thank you!” Warlock shouted and pointed to stage right where Miss Molly appeared from behind the side curtain.
After the show, safely within their cramped dressing room, Warlock pulled the cape off his shoulders and draped it across the back of a chair where Molly had cozied into.
“Well, I hope you’re happy with yourself,” he said, drawing a quick laugh from the girl. “If I tell the audience I’m going to present a rabbit and then a cat appears, well, what’s the audience to think? They expect a certain professionalism when they come to the theater.”
“You know I don’t like rabbits,” Molly said in a Kenyan accent. “They don’t suit my personality at all.”
“It doesn’t have to be a rabbit, I suppose…”
“And I don’t understand why we need these theatrics to begin with.”
“Show business, of course! The appreciation of the crowd, the lights shining on stage, doesn’t it thrill you?”
“Really?” Warlock replied, genuinely surprised. “I think it’s marvelous!”
“Can we go home now?” Molly asked, rolling her eyes.
Warlock took his cane that was propped against the dressing table, and tapped it three times against the heavy wardrobe in the corner of the room. He murmured something, identical to what he had said earlier that night, and opened the double doors of the tall armoire. Directly, he stepped in and found himself in a Paris apartment.
The flat was decorated in the usual Victorian fashion with Chesterfield sofas covered in buttoned upholstery, and oil paintings crowding the walls only occasionally exposing bare wallpaper. Through a gap in the heavy curtains, the lights of Parisian streets were visible.
Warlock stepped quietly onto a Persian rug and waited for Molly to join him. Once she was in the apartment too, the magician closed the door he had come through and then reopened it again, revealing not the London dressing room, but a bedroom instead. He walked in and began to change.
When he returned, Warlock wore a simple white shirt and cotton trousers. He found Molly in the parlor, reclining on a cream-colored chaise lounge. She had changed into a more casual white blouse and a dark twill skirt.
Warlock was about to speak when a soft, hesitant knock on the door stopped him.
“What is it, François?” he said as he opened the door.
A frail man in his late sixties stood in the hallway. He was short, with greasy hair and a waxed mustache.
“Pardon, Monsieur Warlock,” he said, “but I’m afraid Madame Bouvier in the flat below has once again complained about the noise.”
“Really? What is it this time?” Warlock asked skeptically.
“She insists she hears the stomping of a large beast.”
“My word! A large beast you say? That seems a bit absurd considering your strict no-pets policy.”
“Yes, monsieur,” the building supervisor smiled, noticing Molly inside the room looking as innocent as possible.
“What kind of animal did Madame suppose we were keeping here?” Warlock wondered.
“An elephant perhaps?”
Molly snickered in the background.
“I can only assure you, François, we do not have a pachyderm in our flat.”
“Yes, now that I say it out loud, Monsieur Warlock, it does seem preposterous.”
“I dare say.”
The magician closed the door and turned to his assistant.
“Well, that was fun,” he said, “although you might try being a little quieter next time you go tromping around.”
Molly turned her eyes to the side and shrugged, which meant she wasn’t making any promises.
Later, Warlock sat in a leather chair in the study, reading an autobiography called Les farfadets ou Tous les démons ne sont pas de l’autre monde. At his side, the orb of his walking stick began to glow. Noticing the light, Warlock set the book on an end table beside him and, ignoring the cane, went to the center of the room and to a round table surrounded by four stiff-backed chairs. A silk handkerchief covered something in the middle of the table. Warlock pulled off the cloth, unveiling a crystal ball resting on a silver base.
“I’m here,” the magician said.
The clear ball turned murky except for a pinkish light from within.
“I trust you’re well, Jonathan,” a voice said in a deep, ancient tone.
“Mustn’t grumble, Elder.”
“And your familiar?”
“Mischievous as always.”
“Shape shifters usually are…”
“I assume this is not merely a social call?” Warlock inquired.
“No, as always, the ways of the world keep the Council busy,” the Elder said.
“What new hell is afoot?”
“We detected a demonic rift in the state of Illinois in North America.”
Warlock groaned. “Ugh, the colonies again? What do those Americans think they’re playing at?”
“Someone has performed an invocation several times in the last few days. If this persists, the rift will tear open and all hells, so to speak, will be unleashed.”
The magician scratched the back of his head. “I supposed you want me to investigate?”
“The Council of Light appreciates your assistance,” the Elder said.
“Well, we can’t have demons running amok now, can we?”
Along a dusty, unpaved street, the door to a rickety outhouse opened and a man dressed in a black, cotton sack coat and felt derby hat stepped out. He straightened his western bow tie and surveyed his surroundings. He was not impressed.
“I dare say, not the most auspicious of entrances.”
Molly slinked up beside him, closing the outhouse door behind her.
“What’s that smell?” she asked.
“Besides the outdoor toilet?” Warlock replied wryly. “The stockyards I would imagine.”
The magician tested the ground with his walking stick. “At least it’s dry. These streets would be a muddy mess if this were England.”
He began walking along the road since there was no sidewalk. Crude, wooden-framed houses with pale, white-washed clapboard walls lined the street on either side. In the distance, larger brick and limestone buildings were visible.
“Before we encounter any of the local inhabitants,” Warlock began, “I must insist you try not to embarrass me.”
Molly grinned devilishly. “Now why would I do that?”
“Besides your impish persona, these Americans are nothing to be trifled with.”
“They’re highly emotional with a tendency toward violence.”
“Sounds like every other human to me,” Molly remarked.
“Yes, but Americans are also heavily armed.”
“Would they shoot a woman?”
“Oh, I’d say just about anything,” Warlock replied.
“What do you suggest then?”
“Just avoid the usual taboos like religion and politics.” He looked at her sideways. “Also, I’d avoid speaking about emancipation or women’s suffrage.”
After turning the corner at the next block, a girl not more than ten years old materialized from behind a fence.
“I like your puss, mister,” she said in a tiny voice.
Startled, Warlock held out his cane as a barrier between him and the girl.
“I beg your pardon?” he said, but immediately felt the silky fur of a cat rubbing against his striped trousers. “Oh, yes, my cat.”
“Is she yours?” the girl said.
Looking up at him, the black cat, long and lanky, stared at Warlock with yellow eyes.
“After a fashion,” he said.
“You talk mighty peculiar, mister,” the girl said.
“Not at all,” Warlock retorted. “I speak the Queen’s English, my dear child.”
“My pa says the English sided with the Rebs during the war.”
“True, but I was never a party to that point of view.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I didn’t agree.”
“Why didn’t you just say that then?” the girl shook her head at the odd man.
“Run along then,” Warlock suggested. “I’m sure you have little boys to torture.”
Molly stuck a claw into his leg.
“Wait,” the magician said to the girl. “Have there been any unusual occurrences lately?”
The girl cocked her head to one side. “We haven’t had rain in a spell.”
“No, I mean any strangers.”
“There’s a circus,” she replied. “They have all kinds of tents and animals.”
“How long have they been in town?”
“Just a week. You can see posters all over!”
“Yes, that sounds promising,” Warlock said. He leaned over and pulled a hard candy wrapped in paper from his coat. “Thank you for your assistance, young lady.”
The girl took the candy and ran behind the fence, staring at the magician through the slats.
The little girl was right. A few blocks farther down, Warlock and his companion, the latter back in human form, came to a poster plastered to a wall. In garish colors, the bill proclaimed the arrival of Maximilian’s Big Top Extravaganza featuring clowns, animals, and “grotesques”. Warlock assumed the latter were circus freaks, but couldn’t be sure.
“Look in the corner there,” Molly said, pointing.
Warlock leaned in and examined the artwork. Among the caricatures of lion tamers and men in white face paint, a woman with brilliant red hair spat fire from her mouth.
“Hmmm,” he murmured. “Fire breathers are common among these shows, surely.”
“Call it a hunch,” Molly said.
“I do enjoy the circus, actually.”
“Of course you do,” she replied. “The showmanship!”
Molly laughed and put her arm into Warlock’s.
“Off we go then,” she said.
Maximilian’s Big Top Extravaganza, for all its promised grandeur, was little more than a large tent in the center of an empty city lot. Although the tent was certainly large, with red and white stripes running vertically along its sides, recently patched holes and stains marred much of its canvas. As they approached, however, Warlock and Molly could make out the sounds of crowds cheering inside.
At the ticket booth, Warlock bought two passes from a woman with a full beard and several tribal tattoos along her forehead. With a judgmental expression, she looked over Molly with disapproval, but remained silent as she handed Warlock the tickets. Molly stuck out her tongue and glared.
“Come along,” Warlock said and passed through the entrance.
Inside the tent, wooden bleachers surrounded a single ring were performers were currently juggling pins to each other in the center. Local citizenry, dressed in plain white shirts and faded trousers, populated the stands. Warlock noted, as he and Molly climbed the bleacher steps, that the audience was enthralled by the actions in the ring. If they liked this dribble, he thought, they’d love one of my shows. It pained him that he wouldn’t get the opportunity.
The magician and Molly waited through another few acts: clowns jumping through hoops, a sickly lion led around the ring by a rope, and a dog riding a pony. Warlock watched with tepid enthusiasm until the ringmaster, wearing a long-tailed tuxedo and top hat, strolled into the ring and announced the act Warlock had come for.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” the ringmaster shouted. “Behold the rare beauty, Samantha Brimstone, and her curtain of fire!”
On the wings, a shower of sparks erupted. Through the waterfall of embers, a woman passed into view. She was tall and young, no more than thirty, with reddish hair pulled tight on the sides with ringlets in the back. She wore a long dress with a bustle, both in vibrant yellow. Neither her hair nor her clothes seemed affected by the sparks. Warlock wondered if they had been watered down before the grand entrance.
Once she had reached the center of the ring, Brimstone’s two male assistants joined her with various objects. One of the men handed her a metal rod with a flaming knob on the end. Brimstone took the rod, drew it close to her mouth and produced a plume of flame like the breath of a dragon. The audience buzzed in amazement, which brought a smile to Warlock’s face.
Now that’s showmanship, he thought.
Brimstone took a baton from her other assistant who had lit both ends. She twirled the torch, creating the illusion of a burning pinwheel. She received a second baton and did the same with her other hand as if she were riding a chariot with the wheels on fire.
“She must be who we’re looking for,” Molly said in Warlock’s ear.
“Guess again,” he replied as they both observed Brimstone taking a quick nip from a small flask before breathing another tongue of flame. “She’s using some kind of fuel, kerosene I wager.”
Molly’s face fell in disappointment.
“Oh bother, don’t look so sullen,” Warlock said. “It was just a hunch after all.”
“But I was certain.”
“It’s not a total loss. She’s magnificent!”
“Just tricks to amaze the masses,” Molly sulked.
“Nevertheless, I’d like to speak with her after the show,” Warlock said. “I always enjoy meeting a fellow entertainer…”
The performance over, Warlock and Molly followed Brimstone and her assistants to an adjoining tent. Slipping through the canvas flap, the magician recognized a typical dressing room. The fire breather sat at a small makeup table, removing the blush from her face. A red wig hung on a wooden pedestal atop the desk. Brimstone’s real hair was jet black, hanging long across her back.
“Yes?” she said, noticing Warlock in the mirror’s reflection.
“Pardon the interruption,” Warlock said. “I, too, am a performer, and I couldn’t leave without voicing my humble appreciation.”
Brimstone turned and smiled.
“Why, thank you,” she said. “It’s always nice to hear from a fan.”
“Across the pond I’m known as the Amazing Jonathan Warlock! And this is my assistant Molly.”
“Enchanté,” Brimstone stood and approached them.
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you,” Warlock said, kissing the back of the woman’s hand.
Molly and the two other associates shared a roll of their eyes.
“What does your act consist of?” Brimstone asked.
“Magic tricks mostly,” he replied. “A vanishing cabinet, that sort of thing.”
Molly cleared her throat. “I’m stepping outside for some fresh air.”
“Certainly,” Warlock said, not bothering to look at his companion as she left. Addressing the fire eater, “How long have you performed?”
Brimstone laughed. “All my life, it seems.”
One of the two brawny assistants carried the dress Brimstone wore during the act to an open armoire. After carefully hanging the outfit inside, he closed the doors, revealing a long staff propped up against the outside. The staff was crooked, with the wood carved at the tip into a twisted shape marred with scorch marks.
Warlock stammered for a moment, but quickly regained his composure.
“You use kerosene to make the fire?” he asked.
“Yes,” Brimstone said, her eyes following his in the direction of the staff.
“I suspect you must swallow some from time to time,” Warlock went on.
“Well, we must make sacrifices to make a living.”
“It was a delight meeting you, Mr. Warlock,” she said.
Ignoring the hint, the magician remained where he stood.
“Fire can be a dangerous element,” he said. “One can’t be too careful.”
Brimstone strode back to the makeup desk, adjacent to the armoire.
“For amateurs, perhaps,” she said, “but I know what I’m doing.”
Warlock watched as she reached for her staff.
“Even a fire mage can get burned!” he said, but before he could raise his own stick, he felt a sharp pain in the back of his head as the other of Brimstone’s assistants struck him with a heavy juggler’s club.
Everything went black.
When the lights came back up, Warlock was sitting in a chair, staring at his lap. His head ached and he could feel the fibers of a rope tied tightly around his wrists behind his back. He straightened and took a look around. The glare of lamp light hurt his eyes, but he became dimly aware of the large room he was in. Heavy rafters held up a high ceiling above a dirt floor covered, in places, by loose straw. It dawned on him that this must be a barn of some sort. The smell of animal dung confirmed his suspicion.
“Where am I?” Warlock asked, not sure anyone was present to answer.
“It hardly matters,” Brimstone said.
Through the haze of his vision, Warlock noticed the fire mage standing off to the left.
“Release me at once!” he said.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” she replied. “I have too many things planned for this evening and you’d only get in the way.”
“I don’t know actually,” Brimstone said. “We couldn’t find her and, I must admit, we had better things to do than look for her.”
“Listen to me, Miss Brimstone. I know you’ve been trying to open a portal to the demon dimension. You can’t imagine how dangerous that is.”
She laughed. “Brimstone is just my stage name, but the way. My real name is Pulaski.”
“Yes,” Pulaski said. “What’s your real name?
She looked at him skeptically. “Really?”
She shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Whatever you call yourself,” Warlock said, “you can’t open that portal!”
“Oh, I assure you I can and I will,” she said.
The fire mage took her staff and held it stiffly in front of her. She spoke a few cryptic words and the end burst into flame.
“Of course I really didn’t need the kerosene,” she said, the fire flickering in her eyes, “but one must keep up appearances.”
One of the assistants brought Warlock’s cane, handing it to her. The other man stood at the edge of the shadows.
“Quite impressive,” Pulaski said. “I should have realized only a sorcerer could have a staff such as this.”
“Yes,” Warlock said. “When I saw yours I knew immediately who I was dealing with.”
“I should have kept it better hidden,” she admitted, feigning embarrassment. “Then we could have avoided all this unpleasantness.”
“It’s not too late,” the magician said.
She laughed. “Don’t be silly. Once I open the doorway to the other dimension, I shall control unlimited power. All the fires of Hell will be at my fingertips!”
Pulaski unceremoniously dropped Warlock’s cane to the ground and walked to the middle of the dirt floor. The fire mage, her staff tipped with flame, waved the rod back and forth through the air. In time, a dim light began to glow in front of her. Slowly, the hazy pink ball bloomed into a radiant circle of orange like a mirror facing the sun. Deep shadows stretched outward from the figures in the room, including Warlock still tied to his chair. The magician found the glare increasingly difficult to watch. He looked away.
Pulaski started chanting something Warlock realized was Enochian, language of the angels.
“Oh, dear,” he said under his breath.
Hearing a sound like a gas lamp when it’s first lit, Warlock looked back through his squinting eyes at a ring of fire floating in the center of the room. He felt a slight breeze blow past him as the air in the barn was sucked into the portal, feeding the flames that were visible on the other side.
“Behold!” Pulaski shouted. “The gaping mouth of Hell!”
Warlock became aware of the two assistants as they took a few steps back. He could almost sense their awe mixed with terror.
“Close the portal!” Warlock pleaded.
“Never!” she shouted back.
From the portal, something stirred. Tiny, red eyes like embers glared out from of the heat and flames.
“Come forth,” Pulaski said. “I grant you passage to do my bidding!”
After a hesitation, a being jumped through the dimensional rift. It was humanoid, but was clearly not human. Small, no taller than a person’s knee, its skin was bright red. Warlock thought it looked like a devilish cherub with horns instead of wings.
“Hello, my child,” Pulaski said, almost motherly. “Welcome to Chicago!”
On the imp’s heels, more tiny demons passed through the gateway. Soon, half a dozen of them stood before the portal. They looked about the barn, their eyes glinting with hate and their mouths distorted into mischievous scowls.
Without warning, a demon leaped onto the chest of one of Pulaski’s assistants, tearing into his neck as the man screamed. His clothes burst into flames.
“Stop!” the fire mage ordered. “You are under my command!”
Ignoring her, the other imps scattered around the room, attacking the second assistant and setting various objects on fire.
Above the din of men burning alive and Pulaski’s futile directives, Warlock heard another sound. It was like the footfalls of a large beast.
“I suppose you’ve never been to the Serengeti?” he asked, more to himself. “Then this will be a treat.”
The far wall exploded into fragments of timber as a full-sized rhino burst into the barn.
The animal swung its head, knocking imps to the left and right. Its massive foot stomped on one of the creatures that seemed to wink out of existence in a puff of smoke.
The barn now burning all around him, Warlock watched as the beast came dangerously close to Pulaski, who was still trying to command the demons around her.
“Don’t harm her!” he yelled, but too late. The rhino’s nose struck the fire mage squarely in the back, sending her flailing into the air and through the portal. Warlock heard a scream and then nothing.
The rhino was gone and Molly was suddenly beside him, his cane in her hands. In moments, Warlock was free even as a rafter, engulfed in flames, fell from the ceiling a few feet away.
The magician took his cane and pointed it directly at the gateway. The ball on the top of the staff clouded with a purple tinge as Warlock spoke the words of a dispelling chant. The portal shimmered and then closed like an iris, and disappeared.
“What about the imps?” Molly asked.
“With their link to the demon dimension closed,” Warlock said, “they’ll weaken and dissolve.”
Warlock opened a new portal, this one back home, in the doorway leading outside the barn. They passed through the threshold and were safe, while the fires of hell burned in their wake.
A week later, Warlock sat in his study reading a Parisian newspaper.
“It appears Miss Pulaski inadvertently opened several portals,” he mentioned to Molly in an overstuffed chair across the room.
“Really?” she replied.
“It says here that fires broke out across the region, including a state called Wisconsin. A thousand people died.”
“Where is that?” Molly asked.
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t stay and help,” Molly said.
“The Council is adamant that we mustn’t raise suspicions about our powers. They burn witches, you know.”
Molly sighed. “I know. One must keep up appearances.”
Beside him, propped against his chair, Warlock’s walking stick began to glow. The magician’s eyes drifted to the table in the middle of the room where a silk handkerchief covered something round and crystal beneath.