Master of Ceremonies (excerpt)
by Jim Gerrish

It was a strange place to find a serial killer, thought Ramona Styles, as she entered the nightclub and was met at the door by a meticulously dressed headwaiter. “I have a reservation,” she said, pointing to her name on his list.

“Table for one?” asked the headwaiter, looking her up and down as if unable to believe such a stylish young woman would be here on her own.

“For now,” she said. “I’ll be meeting someone later.”

“Ah,” said the headwaiter, knowingly, his curiosity satisfied. He led her to a small table in a dark corner where there were two chairs waiting, and pulled one out for her.

Before he could ask her for her drink order she said, “A Virgin Mary, please.” The waiter jotted it down on his pad and went away shaking his head. She couldn’t very well tell him she was on the job and not here for a social night out, so she left him to speculate why such a high class young lady would come alone to a night club and order an expensive non-alcoholic drink.

Fortunately, the task of delivering the drink to her table was passed on to a waitress who couldn’t care less what her customers drank, as long as they left decent tips. Ramona smiled at the waitress and then deposited her heavy purse on the empty chair opposite her. Just then, the lights in the club dimmed and a tiny spotlight focused on a man dressed in a well-used tuxedo who entered from behind some worn curtains to a scattering of applause.

Ramona sat up and paid attention. She was here primarily to see the show. Not the MC, though. She had no interest in him. Then she saw the object of her official business peeking through the curtains from behind the MC, counting the audience, Ramona guessed. It was a small audience, but because the club was so small, it seemed very nearly filled. The audience laughed at one of the MC’s jokes, which Ramona didn’t hear. She was busy sizing up the act that was about to be introduced.

“So without further delay, here he is… he knows what’s on your mind… Shaman Augur!” said the MC, holding back the curtain so Augur could make his entrance. Then the MC handed Augur the microphone and exited through the back curtains.

From the moment he made his entrance, Shaman Augur took charge with a professional manner that told Ramona he had a good deal of experience working with audiences. He wore a modern two-piece suit that looked brand new and freshly pressed, in contrast to the almost tattered appearance of the MC. He also wore modest but nonetheless impressive gold jewelry that indicated he probably had a better paying job than this. Ramona took special notice that he was a good looking young Black man in his early thirties, very well built under that neat suit from what she could see. His bald head was clean-shaven, but he wore a goatee that accented his face and gave him the appearance of a genii right out of Arabian Nights.

“Some call me a magician,” said Augur, making a flash of fire appear from his fingertips. “Others say I’m a mind reader. I just say I do what I do and I’m damn good at it.” Suddenly, he swung around and pointed at a middle-aged woman sitting at a table with several female friends. “I have a message for you Lillian.” The woman he pointed at was obviously flustered that this stranger knew her by name. “You left your car engine running and the car rolled into a ditch.”

Lillian stood up and started to put on her coat, thinking there was something wrong with her car where she had parked it earlier. Her friends were concerned for her.

“No, don’t get up. That message is five years old,” said Augur. “Is that true? Five years ago you left your engine running and the car ended up in a ditch?”

Lillian looked even more surprised and smiled as she sat back down in her seat talking excitedly to the female friends at her table. A reaction of surprise made its way through the small audience.

“How did I know that?” asked Augur, taking a piece of paper and an envelope from his pocket. “Who cares? I know all sorts of things. That was out of Lillian’s past. This is from Ramona’s future.” As he said that, he turned and pointed directly at Ramona.

Ramona was startled. She had come here to observe the man who called himself Shaman Augur, not to become part of his nightclub act. But if she acted too concerned or annoyed, she would give herself away, so she gave an embarrassed smile as the spotlight turned on her and decided to play along with whatever game this man was playing.

Right now, Shaman Augur was writing something down on the piece of paper. Then he folded the paper, put it in the envelope and licked it… all the time keeping his sharp gaze trained on Ramona. His dark eyes reminded her of her father, the way he watched over her and protected her when she was just a child. There was something disconcerting, yet comforting in that thought. Augur sealed the envelope and said, “Ramona doesn’t know what is going to happen yet, but I do. We’ll just put it in a safe place.” Augur grabbed an empty chair, stood on it, and that was when Ramona noticed a ribbon dangling from the ceiling with a clothespin attached to it. Augur slipped the envelope under the clothespin and jumped down from the chair. A tiny spotlight was trained on the swinging envelope to keep it lit up, while the larger spotlight stayed with Augur as he moved around the audience.

Completely ignoring Ramona for the moment, Augur focused his attention on a middle-aged man who was sitting next to his wife. “Sir you have some dollar bills in your wallet. Take out one of them- any one will do.” The man fished his wallet from his jacket pocket and started to hand a dollar bill to Augur.

“No, don’t give it to me,” said Augur. “I’m worth more than that.” That got a chuckle. The man sat back down with the dollar bill still in his hand. Augur turned his back on the man and held one hand to his forehead.

“Look at the serial number on the bill,” Augur said to the man. “Concentrate!”

The man did as he was told, holding up the dollar bill to see the number, but hiding it from Augur with his hand, just in case Augur had eyes in the back of his head.

Augur began revealing the serial number of the bill, digit by digit. “ A 71124867 L. Is that correct?”

You could tell by the man’s face and by the way he showed the bill excitedly to his wife and to the people at nearby tables that Augur had gotten every digit correct.

“So what do you think?” asked Augur of the audience. “A magician? A mind reader? Haven’t made up your mind yet? What do you think, Ramona?” Augur suddenly turned back to Ramona and the spotlight lit her up. “That envelope represents something that happened in the past. You saw me write something down and seal it up. Speak to me in the past. Tell me what to write. Say aloud any name, any number or any phrase that comes into your head.”

Ramona was so embarrassed. “This can’t be happening!” she said aloud, wishing Augur would pick on someone else.

“This… can’t… be… happening.” Augur emphasized each of Ramona’s last words. “That’s what she said now. Let’s see what I wrote then. MC, would you get that for Ramona? I don’t want to touch it- she might think I’m using sleight of hand.”

The MC reappeared from behind the curtain, got up on the chair rather awkwardly and stood on his tiptoes to remove the envelope. He was obviously shorter than Augur, who was a good six feet tall. The MC almost fell climbing back off the chair with the envelope clutched in his hand, but he grabbed the back of the chair and managed to keep from tumbling into the audience. The lighting technician did his best to keep the tiny spot trained on the envelope as the MC left the chair and held the envelope high over his head while walking to Ramona’s table. Then he handed her the envelope with a great flourish and exited again, his part finished.

The spotlight was still on the envelope that Ramona was holding and she guessed from the way Augur stood patiently waiting for her that she was supposed to open it. She did, removing the folded paper. Then she unfolded the paper and read aloud the four words printed on it: “This can’t be happening.” She had to read it again as Augur held the microphone close to her mouth, and she waved the paper about so everyone could see those words written on the paper.

There was a great deal of applause from the other members of the audience as Augur smiled and bowed, retrieving the envelope and paper from Ramona and kissing her on the back of her hand.

The MC came back out from behind the curtains and took the microphone from Augur. “Isn’t he something? How does he do it? Shaman Augur will now sit down at your table if you like, and give private readings. If you want to know what life has in store for you, call him over to your table. Meanwhile, our next act is ready to kill you softly with his song…our Latino lover, Domingo.”

Domingo came out already strumming his acoustical guitar and began crooning his love songs as the crowd went back to talking about Augur’s act. Augur was called from table to table where he never failed to cause a flurry of excitement over the things he was telling them.

Ramona watched him and admired his technique. Augur was so smooth and at ease in this environment. He would approach a table, Ramona noticed, point at someone and then obviously reveal some personal secret information that would fluster the person singled out but delight the others sitting at the table. Once Ramona saw him pick up a woman’s purse and hand it to her boyfriend. Then the people around them regaled with laughter as Augur told the boyfriend the contents of the purse and had him place each object on the table to the obvious amusing embarrassment of the purse’s owner.

As he left each table, Augur pocketed the tips people handed him for the pleasure of embarrassing them by revealing secret information about them that would have resulted in a lawsuit anywhere else. But Augur was so charming and so seemingly psychic that no one took offense, but just looked at him in awe and amazement and paid him for his trouble.

Before she knew what was happening, Shaman Augur had grabbed an empty chair from a deserted table and was suddenly sitting at Ramona’s table and looking her right in the eyes with that hypnotic stare he affected so easily.

“I didn’t call you over for a private reading,” said Ramona, although she had thought that might be a good way for her to interrogate him without arousing suspicion. But she preferred to be in charge of interrogations and now he had spoiled her move.

“No, Ramona, you have something else for me to do,” said Augur, never breaking eye contact.

More of his tricks, she decided. “So what is it I have for you to do?” she asked.

“What do you think I am, a mind reader?” asked Shaman. Then he laughed and she had to join him. “You’ll tell me in your own good time,” he added.

“So you’re not a mind reader after all?” asked Ramona.

“No,” Shaman answered simply.

“How did you know what I was going to say before I said it?” asked Ramona, referring to the act with the envelope.

“Did you really come here just to learn my secrets?” said Shaman. “Maybe you read my mind and said what I wrote on the paper.”

“No. It was a trick,” said Ramona. “I don’t know how you did it, but it was a trick.”

Shaman Augur raised his eyebrows, and she knew at once she had discovered his secret. Suddenly, he stood up as if to go. “If that’s all that’s on your mind…” he said, hesitantly.

Ramona quickly made up her mind to continue her official business with him. “No. Don’t go just yet. I know a little bit about you. I know you teach a course on magic and rituals at the University.”

“And I know you’re a police detective working on an important case,” said Shaman casually.

Ramona was shocked. He had seen right through her! “How do you… look, I have to know. Is it all just a trick?”

“Let’s just say it’s all natural, not supernatural,” Shaman said, sitting back down in the chair. “I could explain it like Sherlock Holmes, but then the magic and mystery would go away.”

“Explain it like Sherlock Holmes,” Ramona said. “I need to know, professionally.”

Shaman used his head to call her attention to the purse she had put on the empty chair. “Your purse is sitting there, slightly open,” he said. “Even during my act I could see what appears to be a badge and a gun tucked down in there. Either you’re going to hold up the nightclub or you’re a cop. I vote for cop. If you’re armed, you’re on duty and under cover, so you’re a detective. If you feel the need to carry the gun with you, then you must be working on an important case. You came here to see me, so it must be something that I can help you with.”

It took Ramona a few seconds to recover from her surprise at his accurate insights. “Very good. I’m impressed, Sherlock. How did you know my name?”

“The head waiter gets me the names. You used your credit card to make a reservation. So do you want my help with the Sorcerer murders?”

“You’re too much… no wait! I told you myself, didn’t I?” said Ramona, suddenly understanding how he worked. “I mentioned that I knew you taught a course on magic and rituals at the University. So you deduced that I wanted some background information that would help me with the Sorcerer murders. Is that it?”

“Very good, Sherlock,” said Shaman. “Now I’m impressed.”

“How much do you already know about the Sorcerer murders?” Ramona asked.

Shaman leaned back in his chair. “Just what I’ve read in the papers,” he said. “Sorcerer is the name they’ve given a serial killer who seems to use his victims in rituals of magic or Sorcery.”

“That’s right,” said Ramona. “I was hoping that you might see a pattern to his killings that would help us find him or stop him.”

“I haven’t paid that much attention to it before now,” said Shaman, “but I’ll give it some thought and let you know what I find.” Thinking that he had better start earning more tips before the paying customers left, Shaman got up from his chair and prepared to go.

“That would be good,” Ramona said. “The sooner the better. For your sake.”

Shaman stopped in his tracks. There was something about her voice… the way she left something unsaid. “Why? What’s the hurry?” he asked. “What do you mean for my sake?”

It was Ramona’s turn to take charge and let him dangle a bit. “Figure it out, Sherlock,” she said. “You’re a prime suspect.”

Shaman sat down again, slowly and thoughtfully. “Because I’m into rituals and ceremonies of magic? Of course! Am I about to be arrested?”

“No,” said Ramona. “Not unless you do something to arouse my suspicions of you.”

Shaman suddenly turned on the charm. “It might be fun to arouse you. But not while you’re playing detective. Let’s go to my place. I have some information there that might help. Unless you’re afraid,” he added seductively.

“I’m not afraid,” said Ramona, matter-of-factly, “but the Chief of Detectives is. We’ll be followed by those two burly detectives standing over by the door.” She nodded with her head and he turned around to see the two men she was now waving at. From their clothing, they were obviously not customers out to have a good time at a nightclub.

“Great,” said Shaman, dryly. “Forget what I said about arousing you.”

Ramona stood up and Shaman hurried to grab her chair like the born gentleman he was. “I may remind you later,” she said with a teasing laugh, retrieving her pocketbook and slinging the strap over her shoulder. “That is, if you turn out not to be the Sorcerer.”

As they left the nightclub, her two bodyguards fell in step behind them and Shaman glanced nervously at them from time to time as he led the way to the parking lot.

This excerpt is from the beginning chapter of the e-book "Master of Ceremonies" by Jim Gerrish, 2001, Imagineering Magic, www.magicnook.com

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