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Duncan Rose, magician and card cheat, accidentally slips back in time to 1934. Swindling his way through this bizarre new world, he searches for a doorway home, until a ruthless mobster takes notice – a man who wants to use time travel for his own purposes.
To get home, Duncan will need all his card skills, but more importantly, he’ll need to trust those around him or risk losing everything.
REAL MAGIC is an exciting time travel fantasy packed with real card tricks designed specifically for this story by renowned card magician,
by Stuart Jaffe and Cameron Franics
When it came to the risky endeavor of cheating at cards, Duncan Rose had been taught well. Choose your marks with care — people with money to spare and little brains to keep it in their wallets. Choose your location well — a place with a lot of distractions and an easy escape route should the situation turn ugly. Choose your time wisely — play an honest game for the most part, setting up patterns of behavior that will look innocent later, and actually cheat for the big pot. Duncan Rose knew all of this, but he still screwed up.
He had ignored the fourth crucial choice — choose your partner like your life depended on it. Duncan’s partner, Pancake, was a friend with an apartment. Agreeing to help Pancake with a cheat in exchange for a month on the couch had seemed smart at the time. Cheat a few of Pancake’s friends, get a free month with a roof over his head, and probably mooch some food into the deal too. Besides, he had known Pancake for years, and though the bone-thin guy brought along trouble like flies to a carcass, Duncan tried to help him out whenever he could. That’s how they met.
Near the end of his senior year at Reedsburg High, Duncan happened upon three guys beating up a scrawny kid. Though Reedsburg, Pennsylvania had barely enough population to show up on a map, he didn’t know the kid or the guys. He had no stake in it whatsoever. But he heard the whimpers and the laughter, the cries and the taunting, and he knew that if he walked away, he’d continue to hear that awful combination of sounds every night for the rest of his life.
“Hey, fellas, I wonder if you could help me out,” Duncan said, standing behind the guy he thought to be the ringleader — the biggest of the three.
The big guy turned around with a confused look that, under other circumstances, would have sent Duncan rolling in a fit of laughter. “Get out of here.”
“I want to show you something.” Duncan pulled out a deck of cards.
“You want to do a card trick?”
“I want to make a bet. You ain’t afraid of a bet, are you?”
The big guy glanced at his buddies. “I ain’t afraid of nothing.”
“Okay, then. I’ll do a trick, simple one, and if you can’t figure it out, you let that kid go free. If you do figure it out, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
That got the guy’s full attention. “You got a deal.”
“Cool.” Duncan pulled out a second deck of cards. “Here. Shuffle these while I shuffle mine.” One deck had blue backs and the other red. “All shuffled? Now, we trade decks, and I want you to do everything I do with your deck.”
Duncan placed the red deck on the ground, and the big guy placed the blue deck on the ground. “Now cut the deck wherever you want, take the next card and remember that card.” Duncan cut the deck and placed the top portion to his right. The big guy did the same with his deck. Then Duncan picked up the top card of the left hand portion and looked at the card. “Memorize that card now, and then place it on top of the half of the deck you cut off, then place the rest on top.” Duncan picked up the left packet and placed it on top of the rest. The big guy did so, too.
“Go ahead and cut the deck as much as you want. Good. Now, we switch decks again, and I want you to go through the red deck and pick out the card you saw in the blue deck. I’ll do the same with the blue deck. Place the card face down.” Duncan and the big guy found their cards. “Okay. Just so we’re clear: we shuffled, switched decks, found a random card from a random cut of the deck, cut the decks more, switched decks again, and have picked out our cards. Right? Now, turn yours over.”
The big guy turned over the Queen of Spades.
Duncan smiled. “What do you know?” He turned over his card — also the Queen of Spades.
The big guy’s friends laughed in amazement while the big guy stared at the cards with a stunned look.
“Any idea?” Duncan asked, but the big guy didn’t answer. “No?” He walked over to the kid they were pummeling and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
As they walked away, he could still hear the bullies talking out the trick. Duncan knew they’d never figure it out even though it was extremely simple. All he had done was look at the bottom card of his original deck before the first switch. This time it turned out to be the Six of Diamonds. When the big guy cut the deck and placed the Queen on top of the cut, he then placed the other half on top of the deck, positioning the Six just behind the Queen. The rest of the trick was nothing more than putting on a show because when they switched decks again, Duncan simply looked for the Six of Diamonds and selected whatever card was in front of it — this time, the Queen of Spades. Simple, easy, and it saved Pancake from a brutal beating.
Pancake never forgot what had been done for him that day. Even when he screwed up the most, he always knew he could count on Duncan. At least, that’s how Duncan saw it. Pancake always looking up to him, always wanting to show off.
So he should have seen this coming, should have known that any cheat set up by Pancake would end in disaster. But Duncan had been blinded by the free room. More than that, though, he had to admit that sometimes he wanted to show off for Pancake, be the hero Pancake saw in him. The moment he stepped into the tiny, smoke-filled room, however, he knew they were in trouble.
Three men crowded a round table, smoking cigars and drinking beer. Each one had a shoulder-holster and each holster had a handgun. One of these guys had more muscles than Duncan knew existed on the human body, his blue t-shirt stretched taut to reveal every one of them. The other two were thin and harsh, looked like they killed people every day and boy, was work a grind.
Behind them, shoved into the corner, a hairy man hunched over two laptops. One showed surveillance footage from the outside alley. The other displayed a game of mahjong. Two women were in the room as well. Both were nude, pretty once, but acted like drugged-out slaves — giving Muscles a back rub, serving beer, or sitting on a bed and smoking pot. All these people and tobacco and pot and alcohol blended into a nose-turning stench.
“Hey fellas,” Pancake said, his voice always high and congested. “Ready to play?”
The three glanced at him, and Duncan wanted to bolt. These were not the kind of guys he could afford to be caught cheating, and this was not the place to do it either. Cramped, only one exit, guns and muscle. Bad, bad, bad.
But Pancake had their bankroll and plunked it on the table before Duncan could fumble a lame excuse to leave. “I’m feeling lucky tonight,” Pancake said, sitting down and winking at one of the girls. Duncan stayed at the door. He could still turn away, maybe even get Pancake to follow him. But he knew better. Pancake would forge ahead without him, if for no other reason than to show Duncan that he could do it all on his own. In the end, Duncan would be identifying Pancake’s body, pulled from the stinking river, and he’d never sleep well again.
“You coming in or what?” Muscles asked in a thick Slavic accent.
Forcing a smile, Duncan scooted into the room. He sat at the table, took his chips, and tried to hide his shaking. Muscles snapped his fingers at one of the girls. With dead eyes, she pulled bottles from a cooler and passed them around. Duncan drank a little of the nasty, cheap beer — enough to appear sociable but not enough to get drunk.
One of the killers dealt a hand of poker. “I’m Peyter. I don’t like stupid games. Just five- and seven- card stud or draw. That’s it. No pussy crap with wild cards or anything like that. This is a real man’s game. You understand?”
“Of course.” Pancake slapped Duncan on the shoulder. “That’s why we’re here, right? A real man’s poker game.”
Since Peyter dealt the first hand, Duncan could relax a tiny bit. It would be a fair hand, and he could play it out as anybody would. Dmitri, the other killer, won with two pair — aces and threes. The deal rotated to Muscles and another fair hand hit the table.
When it reached Duncan, he made sure to reach for all the cards rather than let anybody pass them in. This was the first step to establishing a pattern. He dealt a regular hand, which Dmitri won again, and the deal moved on to Pancake.
Pancake didn’t have much skill as a card cheat but he could perform a few blind overhand shuffles well enough to fool anybody not paying attention. For this false shuffle, he held the deck in his left hand, grabbed a chunk of cards, lifted them up and over to the back, then brought another chunk to the front. This gave the impression of the cards being shuffled overhand when, in fact, Pancake maintained an ace or two on the bottom for use whenever he needed them. Duncan cringed as Pancake launched into cheating on his first deal. Not surprisingly, Pancake won his hand with three aces. These thugs might not be paying attention yet, but a few more deals like that and they’d notice.
The evening progressed like a well-timed machine. The three gun-toting men each dealt a fair hand of poker. On his deal, Duncan made sure to pull in the cards himself and then deal a fair hand. Pancake cheated, trying to give the winning aces to either himself or Duncan. Each time Pancake’s deal came along, Duncan flirted with one of the nude girls or asked Peyter a question or told a joke or bumped his hand on the table or anything else he could think to do to distract the men from watching the deal.
After three hours, Duncan had noticed Peyter paying closer attention to Pancake. Not good. Even Duncan’s attempts at misdirection lost their effectiveness. Whether he wanted it or not, he knew the time to finish this game had come.
When his turn to deal came around, he collected the cards as he had every time that night — reaching out and pulling them in on his own. This time, however, he pulled them in, sliding the cards he wanted on top of the rest, so that they stacked up in a specific order. He made sure that he had three queens in a row and a full house at the top. Then as he shuffled he shifted the full house to the bottom of the deck and let the queens stay on top. He went a step further, making it look as if he riffle shuffled the whole deck several times, creating that classic snapping shuffle sound as the two halves laced together into one deck, but in fact only used the top half. The result was that the queens were now spaced apart every four cards and the full house remained intact on the bottom.
When the deal came, Duncan would deal seconds — dealing out the second card from the top until he reached Muscles who would get the top card, the queen. The next card on top would be the next queen which would sit there until Duncan reached Muscles again. For himself, Duncan would deal from the bottom of the deck. In this way, Muscles would end up with three queens, a strong hand that he’d be willing to bet big on and Duncan would beat him with a full house.
Stacking the deck and going through the false shuffles went smoothly. Nobody, not even Peyter, appeared to notice. Just to be safe, as Duncan launched into the riffle shuffles, he asked one of the girls for a beer. Peyter and the others all wanted beers, too, and they all turned their attention to the nude girl for a second.
Duncan readied his hands to start the complex deal when the hairy guy playing mahjong in the corner chirped up. “Boss is here.”
All three thugs straightened in their chairs. The stifling room grew hotter and even the stoned women found the energy to show fear. Duncan’s throat tightened.
“Wait for the Boss,” Peyter said. “He’ll want to play a hand.”
Duncan nodded and shuffled legitimately several times, destroying the stacked deck he had carefully put together. No way would he try to cheat a guy who bossed around these men. Even if he didn’t fear for his life, he followed certain codes of conduct when it came to cheating. He didn’t cheat good people out of hard-earned money. He only cheated dumb thugs and criminals — people too stupid to notice and too brutish to deserve better. A thug’s boss, however, would be calculating and vicious. That’s how guys like that became bosses in the first place.
After shuffling the deck clean, Duncan let out a sigh and placed it on the table between him and Pancake. He had been thinking how they had dodged a bullet — had the Boss come in after the hand had been dealt, who knew what would have happened? Except from the corner of his eye, he spied Pancake pick up the cards and begin shuffling. He hoped Pancake understood what he had done — that he had scuttled the stacked deck, that he wanted to play a straight hand and get out of here, that the time for cheating had ended. But as the door opened, Duncan caught sight of Pancake re-stacking the deck.
The Boss filled up most of the doorway. More brute than brains, his thick, tattooed arms made Muscles look puny. He had a shaved head that only added to his monstrous appearance. But when he spoke, Duncan saw the smooth, intelligence come through. “Mind if I sit in for a hand?” he asked as he placed a chair next to Peyter.
One of the women handed him a beer while the other leaned against him so he could rest a hand on her rear. The Boss looked at the chip stacks and gestured to Pancake. “Looks like you’ve done well tonight.”
“I’ve had some luck.”
“You’re Pancake, right?”
Pancake nodded, looking as nervous as the rest of them. “That’s right.”
“Congratulations, Pancake. Not many people can beat these guys at cards. It takes some serious brains and huge balls to do that. You got huge balls, Pancake?”
Duncan looked to the door, not sure how they could possibly get there and then out of the building before bullets pierced their backs. Sweat trickled down his side. Even if they could manage all that, the Boss knew Pancake by name. What else did he know?
“Five card draw okay with you?” Pancake asked.
The Boss flashed his teeth in an expression that mixed a surprised grin with a snarl. “If that’s what you men are playing.”
Pancake dealt out the cards but nobody made a move to pick them up. They all watched the Boss as he took a long pull on his beer. With a satisfied belch, he said, “You gotta love this country. A bunch of guys sitting around a poker table, a couple beautiful women on their arms, and a cold beer. Where we grew up, this was just a fantasy. Right, Peyter?”
“But in America, you have so much at your fingertips that a night like this could be any night of the year. Nothing special to it at all. That’s amazing. I mean what other country but America could a couple of guys like you two join a bunch of immigrants like us and all happily play a friendly game of cards? And you, Pancake, you’re even winning. Any other place and there’d be bodies thrown out the windows by this time in the night.” The Boss chuckled and his men laughed along with him. They laughed too hard. “Let’s play,” he said and picked up his cards.
Duncan picked up his hand and knew right away that Pancake had lost his mind. He had dealt Duncan a ten, a five, and three aces. Undoubtedly, Pancake held two pairs and the Boss would be given three jacks. The three of them would get in a bidding war that resulted in a heavy pot which only Duncan could win.
The initial round of betting started and when it came to Duncan, he hesitated. He wanted to throw his cards in but that wouldn’t solve anything. Another hand would be dealt. And another. And Pancake would keep trying to cheat. With Peyter already suspicious and the Boss watching, too, Pancake would eventually get caught. And that would be the start of a long, painful night which might be their last.
But if Duncan bet, if he played along, Pancake would bet as well. Pancake would bet big to force the Boss to bet big. And if Pancake lost everything to the Boss, then there wouldn’t be another hand to play. No cheating would be suspected. No pain would be inflicted. While losing all their money didn’t sit well with Duncan, losing his life sat worse.
The Boss leaned forward. “Having trouble? Relax. We’re all friends here. I mean, my boys wouldn’t have invited you in to play unless they knew it was all good. It’s not as if Dmitri took a look at that walking stick called Pancake and thought he’d be an easy target. Right, Dmitri?” Dmitri suddenly found something interesting to look at out the window. “So, there’s no pressure. Just a friendly game. Bet, don’t bet. It doesn’t matter. It’s all for fun.”
Duncan bet. More than he should have, but he knew he could back off later. A sliver inside him considered taking the Boss for all the money just to show up the bully, but as Pancake raised the bet, Duncan’s sensibilities returned. Getting one up on a guy in organized crime was a fast way to die. If he played this right, he’d save Pancake’s butt once again. Then when they got back to the apartment, he’d kick it all over the place.
Muscles and Dmitri folded but Peyter called. The Boss raised again and so did Pancake, but it finally worked around with everyone calling. They drew one round of cards, and when Duncan’s turn came, he asked for three cards.
Though Pancake had missed or ignored Duncan’s other signals, he couldn’t mistake this one. Duncan had broken up his three-of-a-kind and Pancake should know that he had canceled the cheat. But when Duncan turned up his new cards, he found the fourth ace to be among them.
The betting started with Peyter. He folded fast. The Boss tossed in a hundred dollars and Duncan had to call it. If he folded too early, Pancake would also fold since he knew he couldn’t beat the Boss’s three jacks. Duncan had to keep Pancake in for the whole bankroll. At least he had greed on his side. It had blinded Pancake into this situation, and if Duncan’s plan worked, it would blind Pancake right out of it.
The Boss raised, Duncan called, Pancake raised. They locked into this pattern and the pot grew richer with every pass.
The Boss chuckled. “I like this guy,” he said, pointing to Pancake. “He’s crazy. Keeps raising and raising. I mean, look there, he’s barely got anything left. That’s America right there. All out. No holding back. Things look tough, what do you do? You double down. Am I right?” Dmitri and Muscles nodded. “I like you, Pancake. But I ain’t going to go soft on you either. That would be an insult to you and to this incredible country.” The Boss put in a final raise of one hundred dollars — large enough to commit the rest of Pancake’s money.
Duncan had about twenty dollars left. Though he put on a show of looking disappointed, he happily folded. He slid his cards in amongst the other folded cards, hopefully mixing them enough to hide his three aces.
“What are you doing? You’re folding?” Pancake asked. “After all this?”
“I don’t have enough to bet,” Duncan said.
“You should’ve asked me. I could’ve loaned you the money.”
The Boss sneered at Pancake. “Hey, stop worrying about your lover and get on with this. There’s a lot of money on this table.”
For a second, Duncan feared Pancake would fold. The way the Boss eyed him, such an action would have screamed out that he had been cheating and something went wrong. After all the betting and raising, Pancake had no choice but to play on. Tight-faced and tight-lipped, he tossed the rest of his money in, his eyes locked on Duncan.
As the hands were revealed, the Boss and his men laughed up the win. Duncan smiled and stood. “Well, it’s been fun. Wish I had more to show for it, though.”
Peyter said, “You had a good run for a while, but nobody can beat the Boss. He’s too good.”
“Maybe next time,” Duncan said, inching towards the door.
“Don’t leave. We got beer, we got girls, maybe a little pot, a little coke. How about it? Besides, the Boss won. Let’s have a party.”
Pancake perked up and leered at the girls. Duncan grabbed his arm and yanked him towards the door. “Thanks for the offer, but we’ve got an early day of work tomorrow.”
“See that, boys,” the Boss said while stacking his chips. “That’s what’s wrong with this country. No sense of perspective. Worrying about work when they should be enjoying our hospitality.”
“Yeah,” Pancake said, “we should stay. We don’t want to be rude.”
Duncan froze. He didn’t want to know what kind of hospitality the Boss had planned. “S-Sorry. We really do have to go. Maybe we can play again sometime.”
“Maybe we’ll get all our money back someday, too,” Pancake said.
The Boss turned an eye on him, his face cold like the guns each man wore. “Nobody beats my boys. They’re too damn good.” Then his mouth opened into a wide grin. “You guys crack me up. Get the fuck out of here. You come back when you got more money to lose.”
Duncan didn’t take the chance that things might change again. He pulled on Pancake’s arm and got out of there as fast as they could move without looking too anxious. The alley reeked of trash and urine, but anything was more pleasant than another hour of that stifling, stinking room. Once they hit the street and headed towards Pancake’s apartment, Duncan steadied himself for what he expected would come.
Despite his lanky size, Pancake found enough strength to send Duncan to the ground with one punch. “What the fuck was that? You blew all our money!”
Rubbing his chin, Duncan had to admit, he was impressed. Perhaps Pancake had outgrown his puppy dog admiration. Still, that didn’t excuse any of what had happened. “First off, it was my money. And second, you nearly got us killed.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, is that what got you all pussying out on me? You were afraid of those guys? They’re just small time scum and you know it. No different than any of the other jerks you cheat.”
“This was different.” Duncan got back on his feet. “Very different. Everything was wrong about this set up and you were so careless, we’re lucky we didn’t get made.”
“I was smooth. They didn’t see a thing.”
“Oh, now you’re an expert?”
“You’re the one who taught me that cheats take skill and risk. I took the risk. Where were you with the skill?”
“Look, sometimes you’ve got to trust your instincts. When the Boss came in, you should’ve known it was time to lose and leave. I mean, come on, that guy’s probably killed more people than I’ve ever known.”
Pancake shook his head. “You’re full of it, you know that? You act like you know it all but when your time came to prove it, you turned chickenshit.”
“Can we just forget it? I’ll get you some money and we can—”
“You got twenty bucks there, don’t you?”
Duncan pulled out the twenty in his pocket. “You want my last twenty?”
Pancake swiped the bill and walked away. “Don’t ever talk to me again, you lying sack of crap. And go find some other place to stay. You ain’t welcome anymore.”
Standing alone on the street of a crime-ridden neighborhood was never a smart thing to do, but Duncan had nowhere to go. A surge of pride filled him — he had saved his friend’s life, even if his friend didn’t know it. But he had no money and no place to stay.
That’s not true. There’s one door that’s always open.
He hated to call upon his great-grandfather, the man had been so good to him over the years, but he couldn’t think of another option. Pappy would let him crash on the sofa for the night, offer up some breakfast, and even give a small bankroll to get Duncan started again. After all, Pappy was the one who taught him how to cheat in the first place.