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I fell in love, briefly, with close up magic a few years ago after accidentally stumbling onto a few videos of Penn & Teller on YouTube. They were great. I loved how their show had a mixture of classic style and irreverence, a blending of the humorous and the horrific. I watched everything of theirs I could find on YouTube. I even started to learn a few coin and card tricks, mostly just to impress my kids. You know, just easy stuff like vanishing a quarter or finding a card that had been lost in the deck. My wife would just roll her eyes any time I’d ask her to “Pick a card, any card,” but it was in good fun. She always did put up with me…
I don’t do magic anymore. There is no such thing as magic.
I remember that year when the time came for me to take some of my vacation time from work she suggested that we take a trip to Las Vegas, and surprised me with tickets to See Penn & Teller at the Rio. It’s hard to have fun in Vegas when you have kids. Fortunately, everyone was pretty exhausted after we arrived on Friday night, so my wife, Lana, and our two kids Nathan (14) and Abby (11) went to bed early. I got to do a little gambling before exhaustion caught up with me. I won’t bore you with the blow by blow of our three day vacation, but we had a pretty good time.
Saturday night was, at least for me the main event; Penn & Teller at the Rio. They did a bunch of their classic tricks. They were mostly things I had already seen, but even so, seeing them live blew me away. And the seats my wife had snagged us were so good. Fourth row center stage. Right in the middle of audience participation country.
I think they started with their version of the "Cups and Balls" which uses a set of clear plastic cups yet still manages to fool you. There was a version of the Miser’s Dream where Teller makes coins appear in a fish tank. They did “Blast Off” which has a reveal for the “Mismade Woman” effect. They did a few of the more gruesome effects like vanishing a rabbit into a woodchopper (Spraying the audience with fake blood and fur.) and a Memorization Effect involving a nail gun. It was all spectacular and my kids were laughing and clapping the whole time. Even my magic-annoyed wife seemed to be enjoying watching the professionals in action.
Then Penn announced that they were going to do a new trick they had been developing. If you’ve never seen Penn & Teller in action Penn is the tall one who does all the talking. Teller is the smaller one who does most of the actual magic. Penn stood in the center of the stage, illuminated by a spotlight. His tone got serious as he began to introduce the trick.
“Teller and I recently got to travel around the world, and study Magic from other cultures. We went to India and learned the “Indian Rope Trick” from actual Fakirs. While we were there we found a people with a rich and proud heritage being crushed by poverty. We found a society still thoroughly entrenched in a caste system in which street performers, Magicians that do the same things Teller and I do, can be jailed or beaten for absolutely nothing. Simply on the whim of a passing policeman.
We met the family of one Fakir who had been killed in just such a way. He was performing for a crowd of people and the local police came to break up the performance. The police got excessive and delivered three blows to the back of his skull with a nightstick. When we met them his family was selling his possessions, several rings they claimed possessed magical properties, and various other props from his act. They had come to the city especially that day in the hopes of seeing the “rich American magicians” and selling us some of the deceased’s props.”
At this point in the speech, you could see Teller come onto the stage. He was dragging a large and ornately carved wooden box on a dolly. The box was stained a dark brown except at the bottom, which seemed to be a deeper shade of crimson, as though the box had been filled with blood which had soaked into the wood. As Penn continued Teller seemed to struggle to lift the box off of the dolly by himself.
“The Fakir’s possessions were interesting from a magician's perspective, but weren’t anything special on the whole. There were several sets of fake knives, because, traditional Indian magic is often very bloody and violent in presentation. Limbs, usually those of a small child, are cut and restored. Tongues are cut out of heads and magically reattached. There was a set of beautifully carved cups for the cups and balls routine. Beautiful, but not especially useful to us. We use plastic disposable cups in our version as you saw earlier. But then they showed us this."
Teller finally succeeded in setting the box up. Penn stepped back and patted it. I remember it made a dreadful hollow pounding. I can still hear that sound when I close my eyes.
“It’s called the Truth Box.” Penn spun the box around to reveal a very large padlock dangling from its front. I could see several large chains lying loose in front of it.
“It’s called that because, according to the Fakir’s family. Anyone who goes inside it is revealed one absolute truth by the universe.”
Teller left the stage and headed out into the audience, while Penn kept narrating. As he spoke he began to unlatch the locks on the “Truth Box."
“So... In the tradition of the Indian Fakir, we, Penn & Teller, are going to violently dismember a child and put them back together at the same time imparting them with one piece of universal truth they can take home with them! Teller who have we got?”
Teller had been wondering around the audience and had stopped fairly near our row. He looked around for a bit and then his eyes settled on Abby. I didn’t like the look in his eyes. Since teller doesn’t talk, he has to convey everything by expression, and so far as I had seen, his eyes seemed to always convey a sense of Fun and… I don’t know… Child-like wonderment? When he looked at my daughter all that was gone. His gaze was dull and blank, like a dirty pain of glass with a dark figure standing behind it. He raised his arm, like a mindless automaton and pointed at my daughter. She squealed with delight and bounded out of her seat, running for the stage.
“What’s your name?” said Penn holding out his microphone.
“Abby!” My daughter replied.
“Ok, Abby.” Penn said as he placed a hand on my daughter’s shoulder. "What I need you to-"
Penn cut off as a loud crash issued from the stage behind him. Abby jumped. Teller had dropped the trunk lid unceremoniously onto the stage floor. I felt the resultant crash echo in my stomach. I was feeling very uneasy for my daughter. I wish I’d stood up and stopped the performance right there, but I didn’t. God help me, but I didn’t.
Penn stared angrily over his shoulder at teller, who looked blankly back at him. Penn seemed visibly shaken, but fell back into his magicians' banter pretty easily.
“Ok Abby. What I need you to do is step into the Truth Box and kneel down. Inside, very carefully, just like that.
He took her hand and helped her step over the lid of the box and she knelt down inside.
“Now Abby, I’m going to shut the lid and it’s going to be a little dark in there, but don’t be scared because once I open the lid you’re going to understand universal truth. Doesn’t that sound fun?"
“Uh huh!” Abby nodded.
The crowd laughed. I felt like screaming. Something was wrong. Couldn’t the feel it I could see my wife and son laughing out of the corner of my eye. My daughter looked so small as the six foot eight man closed the lid down on the box. He and Teller, who was very jerkily, began to string chains over the box, securing it with padlocks. They covered nearly the entire front with heavy chains, pulling on each lock to make sure it was fastened. When they were done, they both stood up. Teller went off stage Penn stood at the front.
“For the next part of the trick Teller has to go get some stuff, so in the meantime I’m going to show you a card trick.”
He held up a deck in his left hand. He stepped off the stage and fanned out the cards in front of a random man in a blue shirt.
“Pick a card, any card. Once you have it, memorize it and put it in your pocket.” The man pulled out a card and did as instructed. Penn then had another person, a mousy girl with thick glasses, to pull out a card and pocket it. As he did this teller returned to the stage carrying five very large curved scimitar swords. He approached the unobtrusively and without flourish drove one of the scimitars through the top of the truth box.
I shot out of my seat and moved toward the aisle. Penn held up his free hand, the one not holding the cards stopping me. I could see clearly he had one fingernail painted red.
“Stop right there, sir,” he said in his stage voice. “It’s all part of the show.” The crowd laughed again. I turned and saw my son and wife laughing so hard they were crying. I guess they thought it was funny that I thought I was so good at magic, yet the big shots had rattled me. I looked at the stage again and then, hesitantly, sat back down.
Penn continued to have people draw random cards and pocket them until there were five people in the audience holding random cards. The whole time teller continued to stab the big curved blades into the “Truth Box.” In my heart I knew it would be my daughter’s coffin. Teller kept doing this very mechanically and by the third sword, I could see blood leaking out of the bottom of the carved wooden trunk. Teller plunged the fifth sword into the box, straight into the middle. I heard a wooden sounding thunk, but in my audible imagination I could hear a sickly wet suction as he drove the last sword home. Teller stepped back. He stood there mechanically, his head lowered, arms at his side. I think I saw a little drool escape his mouth.
Penn stepped back on stage, still holding the deck of cards. He looked at Teller expectantly, but Teller just stood there. Finally after a few moments, that to me seemed interminably long, Penn reached for the swords himself. Penn is not as good of a magician as Teller, but he did his best to flourish the swords, and then threw them to the floor behind him. He looked at Teller again. Teller remained still, staring at his feet. Penn reached into Teller’s right pocket and removed a key ring, and with it, began unlocking the padlocks on the trunk. There were at least ten, but every time he dropped one and it clunked loudly to the floor, a stone was lifted from my heart. Abby would be fine. She’s be out soon. Penn unclasped the final lock and with a flourish, threw the lid of the trunk back. It hit the floor with the same hollow sound it had made earlier. Penn gestured to “Truth Box.” It was empty.
The audience broke into applause, thinking this was the end of the performance. Penn looked into the empty box and did a double take. He was miked, so everyone heard him mutter, “That’s not right…” under his breath. He then turned for the trunk and reached inside it. He reached in and pulled out what was very obviously a false bottom. It came away leaving his hands covered in what I hoped was fake blood. My heart was sinking, but I’d seen enough of their tricks, like the underwater card trick, to know they sometimes liked to make the ending of a trick look like it went tragically wrong. I waited while he picked up the trunk.
I waited while Penn called off stage to a producer or effects manager or somebody who came on stage and looked perplexed too. Penn disconnected his mic so he could converse with the manager, occasionally shooting glances at Teller who had not moved for several minutes. Having had enough I went up on stage. At first, no one seemed to notice me as I grabbed the Truth Box and picked it up. I shook it. It was as empty as it had looked. The inside was covered in blood. Real blood. I could smell it, like bad pennies in the air. The crowd was still laughing, thinking it was all part of the trick. I could see my wife, though, and she wasn’t laughing.
Penn plugged his mic back in and said, “If you’ll just bear with us, folks, we… um… we seem to be experiencing some technical–" He was cut off by a scream. My wife from the audience pointing at the stage. Behind us. We turned and there was my daughter covered head to toe in thick red blood. The audience cheered.
I ran to her and picked her up. A stage medic ran out and checked her over and she seemed to be unhurt. The blood covering her was carrot syrup and food coloring. So was the blood on my hands from the box. I could smell it now, but before I would have sworn it was real. Something was wrong with Abby, though. Her head hung low, her movements were mechanical, like Tellers had been.
I could hear Penn in the background vamping to cover for… whatever the hell had just happened. He was telling everyone how the trick was supposed to go, and that the finale of the trick would be that the girl could name all five of the cards that had been drawn during the trick. This was supposed to be the fabled “Ultimate Truth."
“I KNOW TRUTH!” Abby shouted in a voice that seemed harmonic. She stood up and ran to the edge of the stage. She pointed at the man in the blue shirt.
“Three of Clubs.” The man nodded his head and held up the card. The audience clapped. Abby continued pointing at each individual in turn.
“King of Hearts, Jack of Clubs, 10 of Diamonds, Seven of spades.” Each individual held up their card and was applauded. Abby turned to Penn who had picked up the deck of cards again. She pointed directly at his heart.
“6 of Spades. Ace of Hearts. Jack of Diamonds.” Penn looked at the girl and hesitated for a moment before turning over the first three cards. Abby had named all of them correctly. I picked her up and carried her off the stage, I took her out of the auditorium and my wife and son met me in the hallway. The entire way back to the hotel room Abby named playing cards, and I am entirely sure, they were in the correct order.
The entire night Abby spoke what I am sure are prophecies and revelations. She spoke petty honesty’s and horrible life altering truths. How my son was flunking algebra or how the taxi driver on the way to the hotel had been a wife beater. She screamed at the top of her lungs about how my wife’s father had sexually abused my wife when she was a small girl. My wife hadn’t even confided that in me. My wife just sat down and wept. Abby named off lists of people and the dates that they would die on. She screamed that God was dead and that we had killed him. Names, places, disasters, bits of philosophy, she said so much her little throat began to bleed. All the names and things she shouted became a blur. We finally got her to a hospital and when she was sedated she stopped talking.
I wish I had listened better that night. Not because some of the names I do remember came true. Not because there were prophecies about me and my wife. But because I haven’t heard my little girl say a word since. She was gone from her hospital bed when I woke up in the morning, leaving only ruffled sheets and a Three of Clubs Bicycle Playing Card with a bloody smear on it under her pillow. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. The police have tracked down several leads, to no avail. I can’t get any one from the Rio or Penn & Teller’s show to return my calls. I waited for them one night after a show. They had security drag me away, screaming. Screaming to let me see the box. The box that I know is somewhere in storage in the Rio’s props department or, more likely, in that sociopath Teller’s basement. The box that will tell me what happened to my little girl.
The absolute truth.