“You wanted to see me, boss?”
“Yeah, Kristi,” Paul said, making a few final adjustments on the prop in front of him. “I got this idea for a new illusion and wanted to ... Whoa!” His eyes went wide as he looked up at his newest assistant walking across the stage. The young lady was dressed to the nines in a black and white lace top that left one shoulder bare, tight black jeans that hugged her hips and accentuated her long legs, and a pair of black high heels. “You know,” he told her as she came up to him, “I think I might be paying you too much money.”
Kristi smiled at the comment. “Maybe.”
“I take it this means you got that call you were expecting?”
Her smile grew wider. “It does.”
“So, you changed your mind about going out with the rest of the girls?” he asked. Tours could be very stressful on his assistants as, almost nightly, they were subjected to the rigors that Paul’s magic put them through. Especially when it was a long one like the around the world trip they were just finishing up. So, they typically liked to celebrate the end of one by going out together for a night of blessed normalcy.
Kristi’s smile faded. “Uh, actually,” she confessed, “I was going to meet a friend.”
“A friend?” Paul asked. “Here in London?”
“Uh, yeah,” she answered, her cheeks reddening.
“Wow,” Paul said, obviously lost in thought, “you sure must get around.”
“I beg your pardon?” Kristi asked icily, resisting the urge to slap his face. After all, you had to be careful about slapping the boss, especially when he has the ability to turn you into an ashtray.
Paul looked honestly surprised by her anger. “Oh, no, no, no,” he quickly stammered, realizing what he had said. “I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant that you’ve run into a lot of friends on this tour. That troupe you used to tour with obviously traveled around a lot more than I realized.”
Kristi gave it some thought and decided to let it go. She had to admit how it must have looked with her going out so much while they were traveling. Besides, her only defense was that she was seeing the same person every time. And since she and Corrie were still keeping their relationship a secret, she felt that it would probably be best to just change the subject. “Um, Paul? Was there a reason you called me down here?”
Instantly, his manner changed. “Oh, yeah. The new illusion.” He stepped aside so that she could get a better look at the prop he was working on. It looked like one of the typical hinged boxes that they used in the act. The top and one side were opened. “I need to see if you can fit into this box.”
She looked it over carefully. It couldn’t have been more than two and a half feet on any side. “It’s a bit small, isn’t it?”
“That’s why I’m asking,” he smiled.
She bit her lip doubtfully. “Maybe Michelle would be the better choice here.”
“No,” he flatly stated. “You’re the tallest. You fitting into the box is a big part of the illusion.”
She continued to look unsure.
“Look,” he explained. “I could always use my magic to make you more flexible, but I would really rather not. I’d prefer that it look more natural. And I figured that since you listed contortionist as one of your talents on your resume...”
“Well,” she replied after a little more thought, “it’s been a while, but I guess I might be able to do it.”
“No problem,” he said, stepping out of the way. “Let’s find out.”
“Sure,” he told her, somewhat taken aback. “Why not?”
“Why not?” she repeated. She held her arms out so that he could get a good look at her. “Paul, I’m dressed to go out. If I climb into that box, this outfit will be ruined.”
“Is that all?” Paul snorted. “Kristi, I promise that you’ll leave here tonight wrinkle-free.”
She eyed him carefully. “Promise?”
“Cross my heart,” he said, making the gesture.
She sighed in surrender. “Okay. I guess it can’t hurt to find out.”
She reached down and took off her heels, setting them and her purse aside. With help from Paul, she climbed up into the tiny box. She took a moment to consider the space she had to get into, then went to work. She started by simply squatting down. After that, it was a series of experiments. Bend her arm this way. Twist her ankle around that way. But after a few minutes, she had managed to get herself down into a very compacted shape.
“Well,” she called out, her head between her bended knees, “how’s that?”
“Hold on,” he told her, “and we’ll find out.” He lifted the lowered side of the box. Next, he pulled the top over and latched it.
“Well?” Kristi’s voice came from inside. “Did it close?”
“So, is that it?”
Paul grinned, looking at the printed image on the side of the box he had let up. It showed a series of rollers and pulleys. Across the top, in black letters, it read Automatic Paper Folder. “Not quite,” he said, reaching forward and pushing a big red button on the side of the box.
“Hey!” Kristi shouted from inside the box as it began to shake a bit.
On the outside of the box, a series of lights began to light up in sequence, moving along the trail of rollers. The line moved up and down and left and right until it finally headed toward the front edge of the box. When it reached it, a bell went off and something popped out of a thin slot in the side. As Paul pulled the item free from the slot, another bell chimed. With a smile, he examined what his magic had produced.
It was flat and rectangular, roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper, except that it was about a quarter of an inch thick. Printed on the side facing up, he could clearly make out the pattern of Kristi’s top, as well as the part of her back left bare by its one-shouldered design. Across the image was the arm that the girl had been forced to put behind her in order to fit into the box. The bottom half of the image was the jet black of her jeans.
Holding it in one hand, Paul ran the fingers of the other over the smooth surface. “Okay,” Kristi’s voice said, “let’s watch the hands, shall we?”
Paul grinned as he flipped the image over. On the bottom side, Kristi’s flattened face stared out at him from between her compressed knees. Her expression was one of barely contained anger. “Take it easy,” he explained. “I was just checking for wrinkles.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever.” Kristi’s eyes showed just how unconvinced she was with his explanation. “So, it looks like your new toy works just fine. Happy now?”
“It does indeed,” Paul nodded, resisting the urge to give her a spin. “And yes. I am very happy.”
“Good for you. Now, how about we get me back to being three-dimensional again?”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said.
“You don’t...” she sputtered.
“I think I’ll leave you this way for a bit,” he went on, ignoring her.
For a few seconds, Kristi just stared at him, not sure what to say. “But why?” she finally asked, trying to remain calm.
“Why not?” was his only response.
“Why not?” she repeated, the calm going out of her voice in an instant. “Paul, I’ve already told you. I’m meeting someone! You can’t just use your magic on me and leave me this way!”
“Why not?” he said again. This time, before she could say anything, he added, “After all, you did it to me, didn’t you?”
That brought her up short. “What?” she stammered. “When... I mean... I can’t...” Finally, her face fell. “How did you figure it out?” she asked with a sigh.
“The computer logs,” he answered.
“The logs?” she said. “But it was still under your log-in. It should have showed you doing those things to you guys.”
“It should have,” he agreed. “And it did. But as one of the victims, I was pretty sure I was innocent.”
“Okay. But why me? I was...”
“It wasn’t what was in the logs that tripped you up, Kristi,” he told her. “It’s what wasn’t. You.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Every time the program morphs someone, it’s recorded in the logs,” he explained. “Who was morphed and how. Everyone was in there. Hollie and me. The other girls. Everyone but you. There was no record of your being turned into... What was it you told us you were turned into again?”
“An inflatable doll,” she said in a resigned tone.
“That’s right,” he nodded. “Well, nowhere in the logs is there any record of the program morphing you into a doll. Nowhere.” He smiled. “I was more than a little surprised to find out it had turned Corrie into one, though. I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered doing something like that to my sister.”
“Yeah,” she said, her eyes cutting away. “Look, about that...”
“Please, Kristi,” he cut her off, “give me some credit. I may not know a lot about computers, but I know my sister. She’s had her eye on you since that night last Halloween. So, when her name showed up in the logs the next morning, I really wasn’t...”
It was her turn to cut him off. “Wait a minute! The next... You’ve known about this since the morning after I did it?”
“Uh,” he hesitated, “yeah.”
“But that was ... what? ... almost four months ago.”
“Pretty close, yeah,” he agreed.
“Well, why did you wait so long to confront me about it?”
“Simple,” he said. “We were in the middle of a tour,” he went on, bending to get her shoes and purse from the floor. “I needed you for the show. The schedule was too tight to give us time to plan around you.” He set her things on top of the box.
“Plan around me?” Kristi said, as Paul leaned her against her shoes so that she was facing him. “Just how long are you planning to keep me this way?”
“Well,” he smiled, “that really depends on the postal service.”
“The... You’re going to mail me?”
“Back home. Once you’re delivered, I’ll restore you.”
She let out another sigh. “And how long will that take?”
“Two to twelve weeks,” he answered.
“Twelve?” she shouted. He nodded. “Weeks?”
“Yep,” he grinned. “Hollie looked it up for me.”
“Hollie?” she said. “Hollie knows?”
Suddenly, her punishment was starting to make a lot more sense. “And the others?”
“No,” he admitted. “Hollie and I decided it was better if they believed their predicaments were my fault.”
“Thanks for that, at least,” she said.
“Don’t thank me so quickly, Kristi,” he said, suddenly turning serious. “You screwed up here. Not only could you have hurt someone playing around like that, you’ve seriously damaged the trust I have to have for you to be a part of this. Think about that while you’re going through the mail.”
She had a hard time meeting his eyes, but she forced herself to do so. “I will,” she said, and she meant it. “I’m sorry.”
“Accepted, for now.”
She gave him a crooked smile. “You’re still going to mail me though, right?”
“Thought so,” she said. “In that case, I need you to do me a favor.”
“It was Corrie that I was meeting tonight,” she told him. “It’s been Corrie all along. We were going to meet up at the bar across the street. Could you let her know I won’t be able to make it?”
“Oh, she already knows,” he said, giving her a dismissive wave. It looked an awful lot like the ones she’d seen Corrie give, in fact.
“Yeah,” he said. “She came by to say hello after the show.” He pulled a brightly colored manila envelope out of a pocket in the side of the box. “Isn’t that right, Sis?”
Corrie’s voice came from inside the envelope. “Bite me, little brother.”
“Corrie?” Kristi called.
“Hey there, Sugar Lips,” her lover replied. “How’s it going?”
Kristi turned her eyes to Paul. “She’s in the envelope?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Paul stated plainly. “She’s not.”
“You’re putting me inside her.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Oh, come on, Sweetie,” Corrie put in. “It’s not like it’ll be the first time.”
“Corrie!” Kristi scolded. “You’re not helping.”
“True,” Paul agreed. “But she did help you that night. So, it’s only right that she share in the punishment. Don’t you agree, Sis?”
It was the first time Kristi ever heard an envelope blow a raspberry before. “Just remember, Paul,” Corrie went on. “What goes around, co ... Eep!”
Her voice was cut off as he placed a single finger to the envelope. “Yada, yada, yada,” he said, unconcerned.
“What did you do?” Kristi asked.
“Made her inanimate,” he replied. “As far as anyone can tell now, she’s just a regular envelope. Trust me. It’s better this way. Postal workers are disturbed enough. They don’t need the mail to start actually talking to them.”
She had to admit that he had a point. “I guess it’s my turn now.”
“Yep,” he said, reaching a finger toward her.
“Wait!” she shouted out, causing him to stop. “What are you going to tell the others about my sudden disappearance?”
“What’s to tell?” he asked. “You told them you were waiting for a phone call. I’ll just tell them it was from home. There was some family emergency and you had to leave right away. That’s why you left all your stuff behind, too.”
She thought about it. “That could work.”
“It would also explain why you’re not around for the next few weeks,” he added.
“You’ve been planning this for a while, haven’t you?”
“Well, I’ve had help,” he told her.
“Who else? Now...” Again, he poked his finger at her.
“Wait,” she shouted again.
“Now what?” he huffed, obviously getting frustrated.
“Well, it’s just that...” She let out a slow breath. “Well, stuff gets lost in the mail all the time.”
“Then, it’s a good thing you’re traveling inside Corrie, huh?”
“I didn’t get that,” she admitted.
“We’re related and we’re magicians,” he explained. “There’s a natural connection. Trust me, if the two of you haven’t shown up in three months, I’ll find you.”
“But what if we end up at the wrong address?”
“Then,” he answered with another huff, “whoever gets you will either stick you back in the mail, or open you.”
“And that’s not a bad thing?”
“Not for you, no,” he replied. “Might be for whoever does the opening,”
“Because my spell on Corrie will only last until she’s opened. After that, she’ll be able to restore herself. Depending on how pissed she is at the time...” He let Kristi use her imagination. “Still, that’s what you get for opening someone else’s mail, right?”
“I guess,” she said.
“By the way,” Paul said, “before you start getting your hopes up that Corrie might be able to help you, forget about it. Corrie will be able to restore herself, but the only way to get you back to normal is with another trip through this box here. So, even if she gets an early reprieve...”
“I’m stuck,” she finished for him.
“You’re stuck,” he confirmed.
Then, before she could say anything else, he placed a finger on her nose. Kristi’s eyes crossed looking at the finger and locked that way. Her lips were parted, as if she had another comment to make, but nothing came out.
“Finally,” Paul said, picking up his flattened assistant. He slipped her into his sister, licked the flap and sealed it. Then, he headed for the hotel lobby to arrange shipment.
Inside her transformed lover, Kristi fumed. Well, this sucks, she thought to herself.
Tell me about it, Corrie’s voice came to her. My brother just licked my ass... literally. I mean, can you get any more “ewww”?
She could actually see the dismissive wave. How else? Magic.
You can read minds?
Not exactly, Corrie corrected. It’s more like mental communication than mind reading. Though, some magicians have billed it that way in their acts. They can’t do it with just anyone, though. It has to be someone we’re close to. Family. Lovers.
Kristi wondered if her cheeks could still turn red. So, you and I...
Can talk all we want.
Inwardly, Kristi was relieved. Her main fear about this whole ordeal was the boredom. At least, even if she couldn’t do much else, she could talk to someone.
Speaking of talking, Corrie said, interrupting her thoughts, there’s something I wanted to discuss with you anyway. You see, I didn’t just come to by to say hello to Paul. I wanted to talk to him about something.
Okay? There was something in Corrie’s tone that put her on guard.
You have to admit, the woman began, that you and I get along pretty good. Actually, we get along better than just pretty good. WAY better. We get along REALLY good. REALLY, REALLY...
Corrie? Kristi interrupted.
Was this going somewhere?
Were we going to get to it before we got to the States?
Corrie took a few minutes before replying. Kristi smiled to herself, picturing the lady magician getting herself together. It was a side of her that very few people got to see. Kristi was very happy to be one of those few.
It’s just that, Corrie started again, we really do work well together.
I agree, Kristi said, hoping to keep her on track this time.
Well, I was thinking maybe it was time we made our partnership official.
Okay, that was unexpected. Corrie, Kristi stammered, are you asking me to... I mean, do you want me to...
I am. She could actually hear Corrie’s smile. Kristina, I want you to become my lead assistant.
Continued in To the Winner...