How to Catch a Bullet in a Plate and Other Tricks to Astound – Judith O’Reilly
He never performed the trick at a matinee show as he didn’t like to worry the children in the audience. At least there was that, Mrs Conway thought, as the red blood pooled around her best boots. And she would sponge her skirt with salted cold water when this whole to-do was done with, she decided, as she knelt beside the dying man. That way she might perhaps save it.
Underneath the pancake make-up, Dong Hongming’s face was bone white. Screwed up in agony, as he lay splayed on the oak planks of the stage.
Mrs Conway had seen death too many times nursing at the front in the Great War. The magician wasn’t dead yet. But he soon would be. Yes, the skirt she might save, but not the man.
And they both knew it.
There had been silence at first from the audience as, with a sharp cry, Hongming had fallen to the floor clutching his chest. A beat, while they craned forward in their seats waiting for him to rise and then bow. Instead, a stage hand dropped the curtain with a swoosh and a bang, and now, beyond the heavy velvet, the screaming of the audience wasn’t letting up.
Mrs Conway kept the chalky cloth pressed against the gaping wound in the performer’s chest, feeling the pulsing blood cool against her skin. He’d taken the bullet in his right lung, she guessed. And judging by the spreading crimson beneath them, it had gone straight through and out the other side.
Blood bubbled at the corner of his mouth as the magician himself fought for breath, and his terrified eyes locked onto hers as if begging her to breathe for him. And it was just him and her, even as the magician’s assistants wailed and the magician’s wife wept, calling the name, ‘George!’’ over and over.
For a second, she wondered if this could possibly be one of the magician’s tricks. He wasn’t Chinese. He merely pretended to be. His real name was George Bannister and his entire life was an illusion. Was this death the same? But experience told her otherwise. There was no artifice here. No cornflower and cochineal. No invisible threads. This dying was his final performance.
Bannister ’s long fingers clutched her wrist. The man who had been known as Dong Hongming wanted something from her. But then, in Mrs Lettice Conway’s experience, the dying always wanted something from the living. To see their mother. To be forgiven for their sins. Or simply more time on this earth.
The magician wanted an answer to the question Who killed Dong Hongming?
Mrs Conway gave him a brisk nod. She was curious about that herself.
The next morning, over her breakfast cup of tea and slice of bread and dripping, she gave the matter some thought.
The magic trick required a team of four on stage, including Bannister, his wife and his two assistants. As well as four volunteers from the audience.
The night she’d watched it from the wings, two young soldiers had been brought up on to the stage and handed a rifle each. Each man took a good hard look at his weapon and then gave a self-important nod that they passed muster. With a flourish, Bannister celebrated by igniting a spoonful of gunpowder at the front of the stage to appreciative oohs and aahs from the audience. Everyone liked a bang and a flash and a wallop, Mrs Conway had thought at the time, though one of the soldiers flinched as if he’d long since had his fill of such things.
That was the cue the magician’s wife, Ivy, had been waiting for. Out in the auditorium, she asked a woman in the stalls to select two round bullets from a box. These were handed to the woman’s husband to mark with a knife. Job done, Ivy had carried these bullets up to the stage in an ornate gilded cup which she’d handed to one of the soldiers.
Centre stage, Bannister had proceeded to charge the first rifle’s barrel with gunpowder and push in a cotton wad to compress it. He gestured over the soldier and took the cup from him before dropping one of the bullets into the barrel of the rifle and then ramming it home with the rod. He went through the exact same palaver with the second rifle.
Their responsibilities over, the soldiers returned to their seats and Bannister passed the loaded rifles to his two scowling assistants who had been waiting with arms folded and dressed as his executioners.
Bowing to the audience, the magician took up a willow pattern plate, walked with ceremony across the stage and stood at some distance from the ‘firing squad’, holding the plate away from him.
The crowd fell silent. How many of them thought about the sons and brothers and fathers that had fallen in the line of fire? Too many, she presumed.
The night she’d watched the illusion, the firing squad fired the rifles, and the magician staggering back a step had seemed to catch the bullets on the plate, with a distinct ‘ping.. ping’ as they hit it. The bullets when inspected were indeed declared to be the same bullets as the fellow in the audience had marked with a knife. ‘The scoundrel’s a genius,’ Mr Dixon said standing next to her. Old Laurie, the stagemanager, had snorted his contempt, but she’d agreed with Dixon’s verdict.
Now she considered the trick all over again. Both how it was meant to work. And how it had been altered in order to kill the magician.
Of course, she thought as she slipped a bottle of cough elixir into her capacious handbag and settled her best hat in the mirror, the one she’d sewn a sprig of violets to, it could have been an accident. She turned her head this way and that, allowing herself to admire the violets. Accidents do happen.
She closed her front door and turned the key in the lock. Her first step then was to rule out accidental death. For it to have been an accident, something would have gone wrong with the trick.
Bannister’s wife’s, Ivy, was boarding with a theatrical landlady a few streets from the theatre. Mrs Conway picked up a corned beef pie from the corner shop and a packet of tea. You didn’t visit the grieving with hands hanging.
‘How are you holding up, dear?’ she said as Ivy opened the door to her.
Mrs Conway barely recognised Ivy out of her costume. A mousy little thing, she thought then checked herself. There were rumours about the magician and the theatre manager’s daughter – a luscious girl with an hourglass figure. But the magician probably needed a wife small enough to fold away into his illusions.
‘That trick was cursed, Lettie,’ Ivy said, moving away from the door and back into the room. Wringing her hands, she began to pace. ‘He’s not the first magician to die doing it and he won’t be the last.’
Mrs Conway settled herself into the good chair and hoped Ivy would stop pacing long enough to make a pot of tea.
‘George got it from the chap he used to work with – the Great Lorenzo. I never met him. It was before my time. And you never hear about him these days, but years ago, he was a headline act.’
Bannister was notorious for stealing his tricks, Mrs Conway knew. He’d steal them, re-work them, and claim them as his own.
‘Lorenzo warned him that it was cursed. He said the trick tempted Death to come knocking. But George said the others who died must have been careless, and my George was never careless.’
‘How did the trick work then, Ivy? It’ll all come out at the inquest.’
Ivy came to a halt at the table. Finally she sat, and her skinny fingers crawled over to the greasy paper that held the meat pie, sidling under it, to pick at a pastry crust. Tentative, she broke off a wave of pastry from the crown and carried it up to her lips. She nibbled at it till it was gone, then used the same greasy fingers to check the corner of her mouth for crumbs. Or evidence of her appetite.
‘The fact is that cup with the two marked bullets has a false bottom.’ Ivy reached for a knife and plunged it into the pie. The woman was all but starving, Mrs Conway thought. ‘When the soldier passes him the cup. My George palms the marked bullets for later, then he loads the rifles with two of our own bullets which were in the bottom of the cup. He only drops the marked bullets on the plate once he’s been ‘shot’.’
That made sense, Mrs Conway thought.
‘So, the guns are loaded with real bullets?’
Fat tears began to slide down Ivy’s thin face.
‘Oh, yes. They’re real, alright. But George cleaned those guns every night before we went home. And he checked the mechanisms over again before every show. They weren’t rusty or dirty. That’s how I know.’
She hesitated then raised her chin. ‘He wasn’t an easy man, Lettie. All of this China rigmarole was a strain on him. Pretending to be something he wasn’t. And we weren’t happy. I believe he killed himself.’ She started to sob. ‘He did so love a full-house.’
It was raining by the time Mrs Conway said her goodbyes. A good job she’d brought her umbrella. According to Ivy, then, she could rule out accidental death. But what about suicide?
The porter had the night off so the stage manager let her in. He shuffled through to his backstage office and she followed. Old Laurie had a silver beard that went up to his cheekbones and a cough that said he’d be lucky to make it through the winter. She fished the bottle of cough elixir out of her bag. She made it herself for him, broiling herbs and mixing it with the best honey she could find and the best cognac she could afford.
‘You’re too good to me, Mrs Conway,’ he said and she pecked him on his withered cheek.
She hadn’t known what to do with herself on her return from France. There was no husband, and without a husband, there was no prospect of a child to comfort her. Her parents were long since dead. The only joy she had from life was her weekly trip to the theatre. The bright lights of the stage, and the laughter and applause of strangers had taken her out of herself. Made her feel less screamingly alone.
Of course, she could have gone back to nursing but she couldn’t face any more suffering and pain. She had 13s and 9d a week as a war widow and her savings were gone when one day she’d plucked up the courage to walk through the stage door. Despite herself, her eyes had filled with tears as she’d explained to the old man that she needed a job somewhere less real than the world she had come back to.
And he had introduced her to the theatre manager and vouched for her.
Cough linctus was little enough thanks.
She found the firing squad in their dressing room.
Joe was 17 with a broken nose and as ugly as 19-year-old Jim was handsome. Jim, she knew from the dancing girls who had tried in vain to catch his eye, had tried to join up but had failed his medical because of a tricky heart.
Now he sprawled, pale-faced and golden-haired on the day bed, the younger boy upright in the hard seat across from him, as if keeping watch. Both looked miserable. And judging by their dishrevilled state, they had spent the night in the dressing room.
‘The inspector said not to talk about it, Mrs C,’ Joe said as he noticed her in the doorway. A note of wariness in his voice.
‘He means don’t talk about it outside the theatre to strangers,’ she said, closing the door behind her. She gestured Joe over to the day bed and took his seat. ‘We’re family.’
The boys shot each other a look and Jim shrugged as if to say how much worse could it get. He swung his long shapely legs around and sat upright.
‘Being a performer is the only thing I ever wanted to do, Mrs Conway. ‘ Jim’s beautiful face took on a doleful expression. ‘But Bannister taught us nowt and he paid us nowt.’
‘He called us apprentices, but he only ever used us as skivvies,’ Joe said, his fists clenched. ‘When anyone can see Jim should be a star.’
Jim shrugged. ‘The fact is the bastard didn’t even want us skivvying for him anymore. The night before he died, he said he’d had enough and he was bringing in new boys.’
He thought his assistants would pay him out by betraying him the same way he paid out the Great Lorenzo, she thought.
‘Joe’s clever though,’ Jim said with pride. ‘He figured out most of the tricks – even the plate and bullet one. Didn’t you, Joe?’
Joe nodded. ‘The guns are rigged, Mrs Conway. Mr Bannister loaded them alright, but the bullets drop into a second chamber where the ramrod is supposed to go. It’s blocked off though, so when the gun fires, the bullet stays in the chamber. Except this time, it didn’t. This time, one of the guns fired like a regular gun.’
‘Joe and I were going to try our luck in Hollywood,’ Jim said. ‘But are we for the noose, Mrs Conway?’
‘They don’t hang innocent men.’ Not often, anyway, she thought to herself. ‘Perhaps Mr Bannister fiddled with the gun himself?’
Joe looked hopeful, as if she’d offered them a way out, which he was keen to take. But then he shook his head. ‘He’d put a guinea down on an accumulator at Aintree. You wouldn’t do that if you were going to top yourself.’
‘So it was an accident?’
‘I don’t see how. He was always most particular about those guns and everyone knew it.’
She opened her eyes wide. Her mother always said they were her best feature. Clear and grey.
‘But if it wasn’t suicide and it wasn’t an accident. What was it?’
Without even knowing what they were doing, they reached out to grip each other’s hands.
‘Murder.’ They said it in unison.
The stage was still set for the magician’s act. Old Laurie had done his best to scrub the worst of the blood from the planks but the stain remained. Over there, had stood the firing squad of Jim and Joe, boys who hated Bannister. Two chalk Xs to mark the spot where they should stand. And behind them, had stood his wife Ivy, whom he betrayed.
Resentful of her husband’s infidelity, had poor, starving Ivy snapped and decided to murder him?
Could one, or both, of the boys really have fixed up one of the rifles and then had the nerve to fire it in front of a full house?
And what of Mr Dixon the theatre manager? Had he perhaps heard Bannister had seduced his daughter?
She turned to regard the sandbags erected to protect waiting performers or stagehands from stray bullets. Then again, she reminded herself, it was a set and there could be no stray bullets. Because the bullets stayed in the rifles. She glanced down at the floor. A cross was chalked on the boards. The spot where the magician stood just last night. Bannister had been around 5ft 10 inches, she estimated. And he’d been shot through the lung, the bullet passing straight through him. Which meant the bullet should be right there. She placed her index finger over a ragged hole in the hessian of the sandbag. She weedled the tip of her finger into it, expecting the tip of her nail to find the bullet. But there was only sand.
Even as she pushed a little deeper, there was a polite cough. She pulled her finger out of the hole and turned to find the police inspector who had been called in last night, watching her from the wings.
‘The bullet should be there, you’re quite right,’ he said.
The inspector tip tapped his way out on to the stage, and she realised one ‘tip’ was the iron ferrule of his stick, and the other his right leg. Walking wounded, she thought. The war had marked them all one way or another.
‘You’re quite the amateur sleuth.’
Mrs Conway rose up to her full height of 5ft 1 inches. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Inspector,’ she said, and felt a flush start up in her cheeks.
‘I’m sure you don’t,’ the inspector said with what might have been a smile although it was difficult to make out under the moustache. ‘Well, when you discover who we’re to hang, you can find me in the tea-house round the corner. My treat.’ And he disappeared – tip-tapping his way into the shadows.
Mrs Conway was not entirely sure how to feel about the encounter with the inspector. He hadn’t exactly called her a nosy baggage. But he had implied it. Even so, she was not averse to the idea of a cup of tea and a sticky bun in the teashop he had mentioned. As it happened, it was one of her favourites. And the inspector’s collar she had noticed had been rather grubby. Not how a wife would have sent him out in the world. Not how she would have sent him out in the world.
As she left the theatre, Laurie called out ‘Goodnight’ to her and she waved back. Lovely Old Laurie. He’d been the one to thrust a cloth in her hands as she knelt by the dying magician. A cloth covered in chalk, as she recalled. A cloth soon saturated in blood.
Old folk always looked so harmless. As if they had been old forever. Unrecognisable from who they had been decades before. But he had told her once when they had been sitting together in his office that he had been on the stage himself years before. A headline act. He’d pointed across to a framed theatrical bill on the wall. But when she’d left him the cough elixir, she couldn’t help but notice that he had taken it down. Doubtless, he had tucked it away in the bowels of the theatre. Some place safe and nowhere it could be found. A disappearing act.
As for Jim and Joe, she figured they were safe enough. Especially when the police finished examining the pair of rifles, and found no evidence of tampering. That the guns were as sound and well-maintained as they’d ever been.
Because that would explain the missing bullet. The bullet that had passed through Bannister and been dug out from the sandbag.
Why dig out the bullet otherwise? Perhaps because the murderer had stood in the wings and used a pistol to shoot Bannister.
Which would only have been possible had the magician been standing in a particular spot.
Six inches further to the right of his normal spot. Both feet planted on an X chalked on to the stage by someone who knew every inch of the theatre.
Someone who had wiped away the original X from the stage with a cloth and then chalked up a new mark. Someone who had made sure the chalk was washed out of the cloth with fresh blood. And dug out the rifle bullet from the sandbag in the moments immediately after the shooting when all eyes were fixed on the dying Bannister. That way no one would realise the bullet was not the round bullet that had come from a muzzle loaded rifle. But the bullet from a handgun.
A handgun held by someone in the wings. Standing where no one could see him. Not the audience. Not anyone on the stage. Not anyone else in the wings.
As for why? The Great Lorenzo had always said the trick was cursed, but Bannister had never listened. Nor had he ever looked hard enough at the old stage manager everyone called Old Laurie. After all, it had been a long time since Bannister had stolen his best trick.
On the threshold of the stage door, Mrs Conway considered the waiting inspector with his broad shoulders and the glint in his eye. The offer of a sticky bun and how it was obvious to all that he was in need of a capable wife. But it was raining again and the darkness was drawing in. If she fancied a sticky bun, she could buy her own. She opened her umbrella and stepped into the night.
Join the CWA
Become part of a thriving community of successful crime writers with invaluable support, expertise and marketing opportunities for all our members.
Advertise with us