Night of the Magician
By: Walter Giersbach

Jonas again challenged Allen Ledbetter in his teasing way, the same way he had bantered when they were both at Columbia Law. "You're no magician, and you're going to be found out one day," he said.

Over drinks at the 21 Club, his pal continued, suggesting Allen's reputation was ill-deserved. "There's a bit of nonsense about your abilities, Allen, sad to say. I've seen you lose a poker hand when three of a kind was showing on the table."

Allen luxuriated in his reputation that he was shrewd and had the mind of a bear trap. He was always at his best when the prosecution came up with specious accusations. But, another problem beat on his mind and attacked this presumption. Jonas chiding him now was just irritating.

"That was after a disastrous number of drinks years ago, Jonas."

"And, there was the time you invested – what? – five thousand dollars in a company that was going to make pet treadmills for lazy dog walkers."

Jonas whispered the truth, but Allen rose to the challenge. "Jonas, my reputation is a thing of rare worth. How many fewer people would eat a Big Mac if McDonald's didn't have a ‘secret sauce'? My artfulness is my secret sauce. Let me advise you, counselor, you can fool rational, educated, sensible people, but you can never fool another magician. Just like those people in Washington negotiating with the Russians. Those foreign diplomats who fool us every time. They're magicians. I'm a magician when the defendant is my client."

* * *

After leaving Jonas he went home and unlocked the door to his apartment. With Maureen and their son gone and the apartment empty, even the light switch sounded loud. It was almost eight p.m. and his heart began beating faster. As his watch ticked over to the hour, his cell rang. The problem had returned.

The same voice said hollowly, "I know what you did." Then the line went dead. The caller's number was blocked on his phone's screen. The voice was unfamiliar.

Allen sat down heavily. Sweat beaded his forehead. This had been going on for a week. The same call, the same wheezing voice every night at eight p.m.

"What have I done?" Allen shouted at the empty apartment. "For God's sake, what was it?" He remembered a month ago he was in Zabar's buying coffee when a familiar-looking young woman came up behind him in the checkout line. He told her that he thought he knew her. She replied, "Well you should remember me. You`re the father of one of my kids."

He thought deeply and then a holy Moses moment hit him. New Year's Eve 2010! That rooftop party in San Diego! "Wow!" he told her, "we got so drunk. That was some night, huh? I guess I should have stayed in touch." She had looked puzzled and said, "What are you talking about? I'm your son`s pre-school teacher."

Now he and Maureen were separated and she and their son were in Connecticut. Maybe he was losing his mind. Was it possible to get Alzheimer's when you're only 42? Did he have a little tumor chewing away at his brain, erasing memory? Eating him while he tried to gobble up the world?

"I know what you did." Repeating the words each time brought to mind another mistake, miscalculation, error in judgment. It had to have something to do with Maureen. The fact that he'd been seeing a charming young paralegal. Totally platonic, but Maureen had a hard time believing his defense. Or the argument over selling her grandmother's silly brooch to invest in the treadmill scheme.

Sick of the words rattling in his brain, he left the apartment and headed to Madison Avenue where the nighttime chaos, car horns and cacophony would drown out the accusation. Lincoln Center was lit like a midtown Taj Mahal as clusters of people streamed toward the entrance. He was ready to cross West 65th Street as soon as the light changed when a kid bumped him, dashing past and into traffic. A cab shrieked to a stop the same second Allen grabbed the kid's arm and yanked him backward.

"Fucking idiot!" the cabbie shouted, and gunned the engine.

"Guy has a point," Allen admonished the kid. "It's like pinball. Soon's you step off the curb you're in play."

"Sorry," the kid mumbled, his head bobbing in apology.

Then someone on the sidewalk said, "I know what you did."

Allen whirled and saw an elderly man using a cane to hold himself erect. Small plastic tubes fed oxygen from a tank into his nose.

"You!"

"Sorry. Can't talk much. Trouble breathing. But wanted…wanted to let you know." He paused to suck in air. "My son was the boy the cops…cops called the Bethesda Fountain Mugger. Over in Central Park."

"Two years ago," Allen said. "Case of attempted assault."

"You convinced the jury," the man wheezed. "My son was innocent."

"There was mitigating evidence."

"Suppressed by the prosecutor."

Allen smiled in recollection. "Assistant prosecutor. Young guy. I said in court that I knew what they were withholding from the defense. Whatever it was must've been dynamite, because charges were reduced and the jury threw out a not guilty." He was warmed now, remembering the calculated bluff that worked.

"I know what you did. My son finished college. Now he's a teacher. A good man. A family man. Mister, you're a magician."

Allen smiled in the twilight. "A magician."

"Sorry I been calling you. I didn't know what to say until I saw you here. My wife and I were so scared. But I had to say I know what you did. Thank you. And sorry for bothering you."

"You've been a pleasure. Thank you."

New York was a magical city. He'd have to tell Jonas next time. He wondered too – just a thought that came to mind – if he called Maureen, perhaps they could talk things out and see if any mistakes he'd made could be patched up. A good magician should make it possible to achieve reconciliation.

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