Applause filled the room. Not an cheering, whooping applause but a polite and mildly entertained applause that would have been completely unimpressive had the performance be in anything other than a cramped back-room venue hidden on the side streets of Vegas.
Magician and Illusionist Vaughn Donovan gave a polite smile from his craggy face before moving across the stage to do his next trick. He reached the steps, speaking to his audience as he did so, building up the suspense with sentences that had become perfected over almost five decades of entertainment. But Vaughn had spent too many years perfecting his acts, and the material that had once entertained the masses now provided little more than a distraction for patrons between the drinking, gambling and the other activities that made the city famous.
It had been thirty-five years since Vaughn last played at this particular venue, and he was sure that little had been done to the décor in all that time. The only difference was that no longer filled with the clouds of cigarette smoke that had hidden all it's flaws, something which had removed the little sense of character it may have once had. Of course, back then, Vaughn had merely been starting, and a gig like this was something exciting, something which got the adrenalin pumping. Since then he had gone on to much bigger things, had performed for thousands at a time at some of the cities biggest venues. Now, however, no-one wanted to know. Stage magic was a dying art, and instead all the money went to youngsters who could barely pull a rabbit out of a hat, but as long as they were youthful and good looking enough to appear on television they got the job. Now, after three and a half decades, Vaughn was back where he started, performing in a small room to an even smaller audience.
By this point Vaughn had persuaded a middle aged lady in the audience to part with her ring, with the promise to return it at the end of his next trick. He slid it onto a finger on his right hand and made a show of it to the audience. Vaughn's assistant, Malorie, walked past, setting up a long box the stage. As she did so, Vaughn used a quick slight on hand to pass the ring to her, in the same moment replacing it with a rough approximation. He quickly flashed this ring at the audience as he placed his arm into the box through a hole in the side. Malorie then picked up a saw and started to cut the box in half.
The pretend ring now on Vaughn's finger was not actually a prop, but his wife's old ring. An item that had been returned seven years ago when she had decided to leave him, unimpressed with his gambling habits and fondness of the Vegas lifestyle. They had two boys, who had been 3 and 2 at the time, and they were now fast approaching the start of their High School years. It was a childhood that Vaughhn had mostly missed, and something he deeply regretted.
Vaughn had now curled up his hand to avoid the saw, which had split the box in two. Malorie had picked up the box and walked it to a table several feet away. She had then turned it to reveal a moving hand, which was in fact a mechanical approximation of Vaughn's that moved slightly thanks to what Vaughn thought must be real magic, although everyone else seemed to call them batteries. On this hand was the ring belonging to the lady in the audience, carefully placed by Malorie after the slight of hand earlier in the trick. She then took the ring and returned it to the lady. Malorie returned the box containing the hand to Vaughn, who then revealed his true hand, magically reattached. It was, of course, without his wife's ring, which had been carefully slid back into his pocket.
It was a simple trick, and still the audience were only mildly impressed. One more trick and then Vaughn would shock them all. He had been working on a masterful illusion, one that he had even allowed himself to get carried away with in his daydreams, where he would end up again in the spotlight, performing to huge crowds and earning a huge amount of money. This small audience would soon be telling stories to all their friends of how they had witnessed the illusion first, and Vaughn Donovan would again be a household name.
Of course, this wasn't idle fantasy, Vaughn needed it to work. The money he was making tonight would barely pay for a weekend's bar tab, and he always seemed to lose money as quickly as he earned it, even when he had been making more of it. Vaughn liked to gamble, not just at the casino's but he had even invested his wealth in stocks and shares, all of which had never gone anywhere. He had invested in all sorts, from engineering firms that went bust due to competition with the Far East to experimental research firms that dealt with things with fancy names such as Cryogenics, whatever that meant. All Vaughn did know was that his investments had netted him nothing, and his gambling even less so.
And so, one more trick before the master illusion, one of the classics. Malorie wheeled out a replica French guillotine mounted on a box. Once it was in position, Vaughn, who had been engaging the audience with suspense filled drivel, took a carrot and placed it on the guillotine. The vegetable didn't last long as the sharpened edge of the blade sliced through the middle.
As Vaughn laid down on the table, placing his head under the guillotine he caught sight of Malorie as she walked past. She was well past he best, in her early-forties and plastered in make-up to hide her age, patterned stockings hiding cellulite and a tight corset keeping her figure as close to what would be expected of a magician's assistant as possible. The fact that, in this dimly lit room, she probably looked quite attractive from where the audience was sitting was perhaps a bigger illusion than anything Vaughn could come up with. Despite all this though, Vaughn had often caught himself wishing he had been younger, for even girl's like Malorie seemed to have little interest these days.
Vaughn settled into his final position, the guillotine suspended above his head and ready to drop. Of course, the blade wouldn't actually reach Vaughn, for two steel blocks that stopped the blade and a plastic replica now suspended on the back of Vaughn's neck that would do the rest. When it was released, there was a box in a front where Vaughn's head would appear to drop. As he looked down he could see into this box, where a fake head, ready to be removed by Malorie, was waiting. It was made of wax, but was sculpted to look very realistic. The face was covered in lines, the top sparsely covered in a grey horse hair.
Still, even with a face like that, Vaughn was going to be back in the big time. His next illusion, after the guillotine trick, was going to amaze the audience, going to create a buzz and soon it would be the big venues again.
Vaughn snapped out of his daydream, first he had to finish this illusion. He took one last look as his head while listening for the imminent sound of the guillotine blade dropping. As he did so, he noticed a couple of shiny bits of metal also in the box beside his head. Strange, they looked familiar. In fact, they looked quite like the blocks that stopped the blade from actually reaching his neck...