Prologue, by way of Sidney Pustdan

He stares down into the top hat with something like longing and forgets his audience, the moose or the elk or some other lodge. He is part of their New Year’s Eve celebration, helping them welcome in 1937. It is early yet and the audience is still mostly sober. Someone coughs and he looks up. The faces are not full of anticipation as he hopes them to be. The eyes are not expecting. His audience appears to be lingering on the edge of simple amusement.

Several people have inspected the top hat and agreed that it is empty, but they agree in the same way people say “who’s there?” for a knock knock joke. They’re thinking something is going to happen and it is something they have seen before.

He looks back into the hat, his eyes reach into the dark fabric. He is listening for the sound of running, the echo of something frantic. It sounds, at first, like the rustle of dead leaves and then he hears dogs barking in the distance.

The rabbit is not pulled from the hat. The rabbit flies out of the hat and escapes into his arms. The audience gasps in surprise, though not in astonishment. There is polite applause and several men head to the bar at the back of the room to replenish their glasses. These men will not return to their seats, he knows, and the number of them at the back of the room leaning against the bar and explaining to each other how the tricks are done will grow steadily larger.

As always, he is tempted to tell them that they are witnessing real magic, that their reality is actually being broken and restored before their eyes. They wouldn’t believe him, and not only because many of them are unwilling to believe magic can enter the world, but because they would not believe it could enter the world through him and he would use it to replicate the most mundane and hackneyed tricks in the history of professional prestidigitation.

He pulls a rabbit from a hat. He takes steel rings that serve no earthly purpose outside a magician’s act and causes them to link together and unlink at will. Three simple tin cups swallow up fuzzy red balls and no sense can be made of how or when or why the balls reappear or don’t.

His execution is flawless and forgettable. He has the unique distinction of being both unmatched and unremarkable as a magician.

“My name is Sidney Pustdan,” he says, for the third time. “In honor of the New Year, I would like to do something I am confident you have never seen. Though you will certainly be startled, please do not be afraid and do remain in your seats. You will not be in any danger, I assure you.”