Julie sat down at a table close to the stage. Her interview was for that night right after the show. She had already seen Dire perform before - several times before, in fact - but tonight would be different. She would now be watching his show knowing she might be up there on stage with him soon. Maybe even as early as tomorrow night.
It was a gimmick older than vaudeville, she knew.
A man walks into the average magic show. What's the first thing he sees? What probably most catches his eye?
The girls, obviously.
There's the stage, of course, and the props, not to mention the magician himself, sure, but in all likelihood the first thing noticed will almost always be the magician's female assistants, clad as they usually are in the most revealing and exotic outfits imaginable. That was the point. The girls in costume drew attention away from the magicians performing their acts. The less attention paid to them, the more they can get away with. It's a standard, even traditional part of the show.
Of course, aside from the girls, there was very little else traditional about this particular magician Julie was observing. She had arrived early to see him live and in action, and, like those other times she had seen his act, he was, in a word, unique.
Dire the Decadent, he was billed. Illusionist Malevolent.
Dire the Dangerous.
He was setting himself on fire tonight.
Julie watched, as completely absorbed in the act as every other member of the audience, her eyes wandering back and forth between the magician standing center stage and his collection of silvery assistants pouring gasoline all over him. They were his trademark girls - a bevy of beautiful young women dressed in red pantaloons and other assorted harem fashion, their exposed skin body painted a bright shining silver. Dire's Demons they were called, and they were as famous, or as infamous rather, as he was.
Julie was looking forward to her interview.
She hoped Dire would be around to make it.
A narrow cage had first been lowered to the stage, its bars blackened and smoke-stained from repeated performances. Dire had explained earlier to the audience what was going to happen to him . . . not that he really needed to anymore. This particular trick of his was a favorite, and it had helped establish his reputation. No one knew how he did it, not even other magicians in the trade, and no one else quite dared to repeat it.
Dire had made his first public appearances in small West Coast clubs less than two years before, most of which catered to young people. The goth crowd, the rave parties, they really didn't care for the traditional illusionist's bag of tricks. You had to be different in order to get their attention, and Dire was different. Between self immolation, the Iron Maiden trick, and other sinister and often painful looking illusions, and the Demons, of course, Dire was being compared to another David Copperfield in overall potential . He was young, handsome, and single, and he performed magic like no one else did anywhere.
He was a rising star. Julie hoped to attach herself to it.
Dire climbed into the lowered cage. One of the Demons closed and locked it, and then a couple of audience members were invited up to inspect. There were no false bottoms or mirrors or other stage props involved. The cage was exactly that, a cage, and once locked it was locked. Julie had worked with other magicians in the past, and she thought she had developed a pretty fair grasp of the fundamentals of stage illusory, but this . . . she didn't see how the trick could be done.
While the others guided the audience members down off of the stage, another one of the Demons walked over to the metal and fireproof platform Dire's cage was hung over. She carried a lit torch. Everything was done in dead silence. Dire had his mouth closed and hadn't spoken once since climbing in. Dire's Demons never spoke. That was part of their mystique. They didn't seem quite human in a way. The lights reflected off of their metallic shading and made them look like giant hood ornaments brought to life. They were glossy. They shined. It was uncanny the way they moved, too, all of their actions so perfectly coordinated, as if they were actually machines and were all being controlled by one exterior force.
The torch was gently touched to a long fuse attached to the platform. A spark flew up the cotton strand, and a moment later the cage was engulfed in flames. The audience gasped, many people instinctively rising to their feet, some to help the burning man, others getting ready to flee. Julie remained where she was sitting. A column of fire rose up from the platform and through the locked cage hanging over it. Dire's body was clearly seen burning inside for about five or six seconds before the smoke and flame obscured everything. The Demons stood in a semicircle around the sudden inferno, their silver skin tones turned a shimmering red in the blazing radiance. They were as still as statues, their faces emotionless. The scene was surreal.
And then the fire just died. Snuffed out. Doused as completely as if drowned in water.
The cage revealed was black and smoldering . . . and empty.
"And Death shall hold no Dominion . . . ," an amplified voice carried out across the clubroom, and suddenly there was Dire in the back row, unsigned, unmarked, alive. He bowed, and the audience erupted in spontaneous clapping and yelling.
Julie watched, fascinated, clapping as loudly as anybody else. She had just witnessed a miracle, she knew. Dire walked back to the stage, audience members furtively touching him as he made his way through them, possibly to confirm for themselves that the man was unharmed, and rejoined his Demons waiting there for him.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "And remember . . . there is no such thing as magic. There is only Life, and there is only Death, and all there is in-between is Illusion. Thank you." The audience continued clapping, and Dire and his Demons bowed again and left. The ovation went on for minutes.
It was amazing. Simply amazing.
Julie knew she had to be a part of it.
She would do anything to be a part of it.
It was an hour after the show, and the two of them were backstage. Julie paused in her appraisal of the Inferno Cage, standing beside it now and still wondering how it worked. She smiled at Dire. "A couple of years. I did a little work with Materblanc the Magnificent at the Magic Club, and then I was with Lance Burton in Vegas for a while."
Dire nodded, then reached in a trunk beside him and took out a fold of cloth. "Show me collapsible flowers," he said and tossed the bundle to her.
Oh, that's too easy, thought Julie. Give me something that takes a little effort. Still, she went through the act and began pulling flower after flower from the special handkerchief. While she did so, Dire took a moment to consider his new applicant. Early twenties, he judged. Slim figure, brunette, good hand-eye coordination . . . and very attractive.
She just might do, he thought.
"How's that?" she asked a moment later, and he nodded.
"Good. Of course, it's not really a part of my act, but I like to make sure all my "Demons" know the basics. What else can you do?"
"Oh, lots of different things," Julie said. She was prepared to go all out on this interview. "I'm skilled in any number of . . . tricks. And please, call me Julie."
She moved closer to the young magician.
He seemed to take the hint. He leaned over, reached up to her face with his right hand, and suddenly there was a deck of cards in it.
"Show me," he said.
She sighed softly, and then she went through a routine of some of the classics. The Packet Prediction. The Royal Wedding. Color Counts. They talked while the cards flipped between her nimble fingers.
"I seem to remember you from my audience a couple of times. You always watched so . . . intently. I felt like I was being judged."
Julie laughed. "You were. You're the best illusionist to come around in the last ten years, I think. I want to be one of your Demons, Dire. You're going places."
He watched her fingers work. "You want to be a Demon, huh?" he asked. "It takes a lot of skill to join my group. A great deal of preparation too."
"I'm sure." A bridge of cards flew from one palm to the other. "Where'd you get the idea for the silver paint? It's really distinctive."
"From an old family friend. He used to run a magic show himself a long time ago. I patterned my act after his. That's pretty good card work."
"Thank you. I can do a lot with my hands." She looked up at him. "What was your friend's name? Maybe I've heard of him."
"I wouldn't think so," Dire said. "He and his partners have been out of the public eye for a long time. But the body paint is pretty interesting, isn't it? It's a unique formula."
Julie finished with the deck. "Anything else I can show you?"
He nodded. He had made his decision.
"There's a dressing room down to the right," he said, pointing. "I want to see you in costume . . . in full make-up, too. I'll have one of the girls bring you everything you need. She'll help you prepare."
"You want me in the body paint?" Julie was looking forward to that. Once he'd seen her as a Dire's Demon, that would go a long way toward getting her the job. Besides, she was curious. Dire's assistants were beautiful in their silver coating, and Julie wanted to know what it felt and looked like on her.
"Yes. Consider this an audition, albeit a strange one. We're in a strange business. I'm going to tell my assistant to stay in character. She won't speak. She'll act like she does on stage, and she'll report back to me about how you react. You understand?"
Julie shook her head. "No, but I'll do it anyway. Which way again?"
He pointed to the right. "Right along there."
Julie picked up her purse and left the prop area. "The next time you see me," she said, leaving, "you'll want me in the act, you'll see."
Dire watched her go through the dressing room door.
"I already do," he said quietly. "I already do."
Not speaking, the assistant handed Julie a large jar. Inside was a silvery gel, not precisely the kind of paint Julie had imagined she would be putting on, but not unwelcome either. It caught the light like quicksilver but was not runny in the least. It was almost creamy in a way, and taking a scoopful in her fingers, Julie found it cool and oddly soothing.
Not a modest person at all, Julie dropped the towel she had worn out of the shower and stood before the Dire's Demon totally nude. The assistant's expression didn't change at all. After a moment, and, truth to tell, a little disappointed from the lack of reaction, Julie sat down at the make-up table. Using the contents of the jar, she began coating her hands and arms with the silvery material. It spread easily, and only a few drops went a long way. Within minutes the lengths of her whole arms were glistening silver, the coating making them seem slimmer than natural, highlighting them in much the way long opera gloves sometimes can.
Julie admired her arms and hands in the mirror. The paint did make them
seem more attractive. Moreover, the gel on her skin was giving her a queer
sensation. Cool, yet almost electrically charged. She folded her hands
together, and the feel of her painted fingers pressing down on one another
was quite . . . thrilling.
The thin coating enhanced her physical sensations somehow. Every touch was seductive. Julie couldn't completely express in words how it felt, but she liked it, and when the assistant behind her began slowly spreading the gel over her back and shoulders, she didn't complain or find it odd. Instead, she took another scoopful from the jar in front of her and began spreading it over her breasts. Immediately, the cool sensation concentrated there, sending small currents of pleasure through her nipples.
This is incredible, Julie thought. I'm getting all excited from a can of paint. And that woman behind me, she's touching me like, well, like I've never let a woman touch me before, only men. But she liked it, that touch, and she allowed it to linger.
The Dire's Demon helped Julie to her feet and then got to her knees. Julie spread the silvery gel over her top, the magician's assistant worked on her legs and behind. The feel of the paint over every inch of her body, from her neck down, with the assistant gently massaging the liquid into Julie's feet, was an incredible high. She had never felt so good before in her life, and if asked at that moment where she was or why she was doing this, she wouldn't have been able to answer. It just feels so good, she thought. She didn't acknowledge the hands pressing now onto her face, rubbing the deliciously cool silver into her cheeks and forehead. She just gave into the moment, the utter feeling of temporal ecstasy, and it lulled her into a deep, dark sleep.
She focused and found herself standing in the middle of a row of the Dire's Demons, three to either side, all standing at almost a military like stance of attention. She was in the same costume as they, red harem pants and open vest, her breasts pressed tight against the narrow textured fabric and exposed almost up to the nipple.
And silver. She was as silvery in appearance as they. As inhumanly beautiful.
"Lovely. Perfectly lovely. A complete collection of seven." Dire was standing off to the side. They were all backstage again, and he looked as if he were an officer inspecting his troops. "We'll run through the Iron Maiden first, ladies. Positions, please."
Shimmeringly, iridescent almost, the girls to either side of Julie silently spread out in a circle. They surrounded Dire and the upright metal casket he was beside. "Julie, you stand right over here, please," he said, indicating the center most space before the casket's engraved face. "You'll take the lead in this."
"What . . . oh, okay," Julie said, somewhat dreamily. Things were happening so quickly, and she wasn't sure how she had got there yet. She moved and obeyed by instinct alone. Her movements unnoticed by her matched those of the other assistants, arm swing for arm swing, gait perfectly in time. Altogether choreographed it appeared.
Dire opened up the Iron Maiden, revealing its ghastly interior of spikes. He turned around and got inside, his back pressed close against the razor-sharp tips. "We'll skip the theatrics, I think. Julie, just close her up, would you?"
Still feeling like she was hallucinating, Julie stepped forward, took each hinged half of the casket in a glimmering hand, and started closing them. She hesitated, though. There was no false top or bottom, and the spikes looked very real. "Are . . . are you sure? I'm not sure . . . what . . what's going on?" She didn't want to kill the magician. The situation felt all wrong. She couldn't remember anything past the dressing room.
There was something weird about her voice, too.
It sounded . . . metallic. Hollow, and very faint.
Dire grabbed the inside of the doors and slammed them shut. Blood squirted out, almost spraying Julie standing so close by. There was a painful grunt from inside, and Julie went cold, even colder than she already felt.
Ohmigod, he's dead, she thought. I've killed him. She put her hands out (again, they seemed so silvery strange and uncommonly lovely) and tried pulling the casket doors back open. They were locked, though, and impossible to budge.
Julie turned to the other assistants, but they continued just standing there, passive and impartial. "Help me," she called to them, her voice tinny and now almost inaudible. She tried running to one of them, and she actually turned in that direction, but then she finally felt the control leave her limbs. It had been happening all the while, she realized, but in her confusion she had never noticed how more and more she had felt like a marionette, her arms and legs guided by an exterior force.
And then she felt a hand on her shoulder, near to the vest opening where her arm stretched through and the other side of her shimmering breast peaked out.
It was Dire, unruffled. Unpunctured, too.
"You were right, Julie," he said, "and I guess so was I. You'll make a wonderful assistant." He had put his hand to the swell of her breast.
"What . . what's going on? What have you done to me?" Julie felt her arms, her silvery body. The sensation of ecstasy had worn off and was being replaced by a deep, deep sense of coldness . . . like she was being pressed in against cool metal. Her fingers brushed against the sides of her thighs, her legs, and she was surprised to hear a slight tinkling sound, a soft ring of metal against metal.
"Why, only what you asked for, Julie," the illusionist said. "I've made you a Dire's Demon, just what you wanted. Congratulations."
There was no control left, Julie realized. And she could no longer speak. Her body felt "metallicized," transformed to metal, though not metal. Her skin was still soft, but it was firmer too, and it reflected the lights above her as much as liquid mercury would.
Dire made a gesture in the air, and Julie felt her body responding. She moved forward against her will and bowed before her new master. When he walked down the corridor to the dressing rooms, all she could do was follow silently.
"Tonight we go on stage, and I introduce to the world the newest member of my collection." Julie couldn't believe what was happening. It was a nightmare. A creeping darkness was clouding her mind, choking off her thoughts.
"It's a good thing you showed up when you did," he said, going into a storage area. "Leslie has been getting stiffer for a while now, and frankly Maria is just no longer able to perform. See?" He gestured to the far wall.
A Dire's Demon stood - leaned, really - against the plaster surface. Like the others, and like Julie herself, the beautiful silvery assistant appeared emotionless and coldly beautiful, a figure of icy flowing metal. But there was a difference too in this one. Even the illusion of independent motion had ceased in her. Where the other Dire's Demons appeared like living simulacra, robotic almost, this one was more like a silver cast statue.
"They stiffen up, you see," Dire confided to Julie. "I get control almost immediately, but after a few years my willpower is just unable to keep up with the transformation. You just get increasingly more silvery, and then, eventually, you stop moving altogether."
Julie barely heard him. The world was narrowing into a dark corridor. Obey, she knew. All she had to do from now on was obey. How less simple could life get?
"Fortunately," her master continued, "I can trade off my old assistants. It's how I get my tricks, Julie, really. A very mutual arrangement. My old friends get statues, and I get their magic. Neat, huh?" He had crossed the room over to Maria. He tapped that tight space between her breasts, and Julie heard them ring hollowly.
"Anyway," she then heard, "at least now I've got a replacement. I was worried about getting a new assistant." She felt him exert his influence over her body, and she responded, approaching silently. She no longer thought about anything at all.
"You are immortal now, Julie, a silvery receptacle for my thoughts. You are illusion, as I am your master illusionist." She went down to her knees before him.
They had a show to get ready for.