Excerpt from the Prologue
Princess Theatre, Montreal, Canada, 1926
The mysterious man in the black wool cloak sat in the front row of the Princess Theatre, precisely in the center seat. He set his top hat on his knees, and his rough beard straggled down, like a bird's nest after a storm. The man waited for the finale of the show, speaking to no one, not even his companion. Instead, he stared intently with pale, magnetic eyes as the most famous magician in the world, Harry Houdini, announced his next trick from the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, introducing my original invention, the Water Torture Cell."
As the audience hushed, Houdini, short and muscular with a head of dark hair and wearing a simple black bathing suit, was draped in chains by his wife, Bess. A policeman from the audience was brought onstage wearing a dapper uniform, badge gleaming under the spotlights. Holding up his own handcuffs, the policeman pulled Houdini's arms behind his back and clapped the cuffs on tightly, checking them several times before nodding. The chains wrapped around Houdini's body were heavy and clinked and rattled with every move he made. Finally, two huge padlocks were attached to the chains and locked dramatically with shining brass keys.
Slowly, the magician was lifted?upside down?and suspended over the glass torture chamber filled to the top with ice-cold water. Bess signaled, and Houdini was lowered until his head almost touched the beckoning water.
Bess told the crowd, "Take one last breath with the master, Houdini, and see how long you can hold it."
The crowd inhaled as one. Houdini filled his lungs with air?one last breath?and was lowered into the water, first his head, neck, then body, and finally his feet, before Bess fastened the top. The chamber was not big enough for Houdini to turn around in. A thick curtain was drawn. An hourglass was overturned.
"He must emerge before this sand runs out," Bess announced to the crowd. "Or he will drown."
Not one whisper could be heard in the theater. Patrons in fur coats and fancy theater dress leaned forward, women in plumage and jewels knotted their hands together anxiously. The man in the cloak heard people exhaling around him as they gasped for breath. He watched the sands trickling, as if he were somehow counting each grain. Now, as the sands ran down inside the hourglass, members of the audience murmured. Someone near the man in the cloak whispered, "It's impossible to hold your breath that long. They must free him."
"It's been two minutes!" Bess exclaimed from the stage, panic in her voice. "He cannot survive."
Bess parted the curtain, revealing Houdini struggling wildly with his shackles. Frantically, she closed the curtain and ran for the safety ax, ready to smash the glass and free her beloved husband from the throes of death. She raised the ax as the audience gasped in horror.
The man in the cloak saw those around him frozen at the edge of their seats as if statues. Seconds passed. The curtain rose.
The Water Torture Cell was empty.
At that moment, a dripping wet and smiling Houdini was revealed, standing atop the torture cell, arms raised above his head in triumph.
The crowd in the Princess Theatre rose to their feet as if they were one, stamping and clapping their approval, whistles and shouts of "Bravo!" ringing through the theater. But not the man in the cloak with the icy eyes. He stared, not at Houdini, but at the hourglass that had sifted the sparkling sand. He could see the lettering etched along its gold-rimmed top.
His companion leaned close to him and whispered in his ear, "Is that it, Master?"
The man in the cloak nodded, his eyes narrow with fury. "Yes."
"We must do whatever it takes."
Eight days later, Harry Houdini, revered showman, the most famous magician ever to have lived, was dead.