“Hi, Tiff,” Hollie said, opening the door to her and Paul’s apartment. “Come on in.”
“For a bit,” Tiffany said, moving past her. “But only for a bit. We’ve got to hurry if we want to make it to...” She stopped as she turned back to her best friend, who was closing the door. “Uh, a little underdressed for lunch at Elaine’s, aren’t you?”
“A little,” Hollie agreed, looking down at herself. She was wearing a white silk bodysuit over dark hose. “No biggie. I just need to slip on my skirt and shoes and I’m ready to go.”
“I see,” Tiffany nodded. She waited for Hollie to go finish getting dressed, but the other woman just stood there smiling at her. “Um, and you’re not doing that because...?”
“Because my loving fiancé has a new toy and just can’t wait until I get back to try it out.”
“You know I can hear you, right?”
Tiffany turned toward Paul’s voice. It had come from his den where he did most of his brainstorming for their magic act. She turned back to share a smile with Hollie before heading in that direction. “Then hear this,” she announced, tossing her purse onto the sofa. “We haven’t seen Patty since she got married. We were too busy with your tour.”
“My tour?” he called back.
“I don’t remember seeing our name on the marquee,” she clarified.
“And let’s not forget that it was your family’s silly rule against married assistants that prevented her from coming with us on said tour,” Hollie added, following Tiffany to the den. “So, you are not going to make us late for this lunch.”
“No problem,” Paul said as they came into the room. He was in the middle of the open space putting the final touches on his latest prop. “There’s no way I’d ever get in the way of a meeting of the Eastwicks.”
The women shared a smile at Paul’s use of his nickname for them.
The three had been best friends in college, spending almost all their free time together. Even after Hollie had become Paul’s assistant, the three remained close. So, when Paul decided to add more assistants, it was no surprise that Hollie suggested Tiffany and Patty. They remained a team for about a year. Then, Patty got engaged to her high school sweetheart and had to leave the act.
Since then, one thing or another had kept them from getting together again. Patty hadn’t even been able to attend Hollie’s bachelorette party. Now that they had the chance, they didn’t want anything to get in the way of their reunion.
“So,” Tiffany asked crossing over for a closer look, “what’s this fabulous new trick of yours?”
“A division box,” Hollie answered for Paul.
Tiffany stopped in her tracks. “That’s it?”
“Nooo,” Paul cut in. “That’s not it.” He caught his fiancée’s raised eyebrow. “Okay, maybe that is it... a little. But it still should be cool.”
“Cool?” Tiffany repeated. “Right. Need I point out that the last time you thought a new illusion would be cool, I wound up flat on my face ... literally. Not to mention what happened to you and Hollie.
Paul’s cheeks turned red as he cut his eyes back to Hollie. “Hey,” she simply replied. “She’s my best friend. Of course I told her.”
“Anyway,” Paul said, obviously changing the subject, “if you don’t want to be late, we should get this over with. So, Hollie, if you would please...” He held out his hand to his fiancée, who took a second to wink at Tiffany before taking it.
As he walked his fiancée over, Tiffany took the time to look over the prop. Unlike the typical division box, this one wasn’t square in shape. Instead, it was in the form of a person standing with their arms and legs spread out. There was a smaller box at the top to accommodate the subject’s head. She stood back and watched as Paul helped Hollie back into the close quarters. With her arms and legs spread into the appropriate sections, Hollie had very little wiggle room.
“Snug,” Tiffany noted.
“Very,” Hollie agreed.
“That’s the point,” Paul explained. “In the classic division, the audience assumes that the assistant is just balled up in one section of the box. Not with this one.” As he talked, he retrieved the face of the box from where it was leaning against his desk. Bringing it over, he smiled at Hollie. “Ready?”
“Does it matter?” she asked.
“Not really,” he admitted, even as he fitted it in place, closing her inside.
As he moved back to the desk, Tiffany checked out the face of the box. Painted on the front was the image of a woman just like the one inside. Just like, Tiffany smiled to herself, noting that the painting was dressed in the exact same white bodysuit and dark pantyhose that Hollie was wearing.
“Excuse me,” Paul said, edging past her. He was carrying a frame with metal blades attached at various locations. As he lined them up, Tiffany noted that blades would dissect Hollie at the neck, at each shoulder, the waist and the top of each leg, cutting her friend into seven pieces.
“Incoming,” he announced, as he shoved the blades into place. A push of a button on the frame’s handle released the blades and he backed away, leaving them in place. He sat the frame aside and turned back to the box. “Okay, here we go.”
With one of those mysterious hand gestures that magicians all seemed to use, the seven separate sections of the box began to move apart on a framework that wasn’t visible before. When they were far enough apart to make it clear that nothing connected them, they stopped.
“Not bad,” Tiffany was forced to admit.
“I know,” Paul grinned, “but the audience will want more. Therefore…” He reached forward and opened the front of the torso section, revealing Hollie’s separated chest. “I could open any section, of course,” he went on, “but I think this one will get the most attention.”
“Ha ha,” came from the head section.
Smiling, Paul opened the box to reveal Hollie’s disapproving expression. “Come on, Honey,” he teased. “You know how it works. The audience wants proof.”
“Then,” she countered, “how about this? You can let a guy come on stage and check to make sure they’re real.” To emphasize what she meant, she gave her chest a little shake.
Paul’s grin immediately disappeared. “Uuuhhh,” he stammered. “No.”
“Didn’t think so,” she nodded, noting that Tiffany had turned away to hide her grin. “Now,” Hollie went on, “get me back together before you make me late for lunch.”
He fired off a quick salute in reply, before quickly closing the two open boxes. Another mystic gesture brought the separated section of the prop back together. He retrieved the frame and, lining it up with the blades in the box, reconnected it. Slowly, he pulled the blades out.
As he turned to set the frame aside again, he noticed that Tiffany had an odd expression on her face. She seemed confused about something. “Tiff?” he asked. His voice actually seemed to startle her as she brought her attention back to him. “Everything alright?”
“I’m…” she started. “I’m not sure.”
Paul waited for her to explain, but she didn’t elaborate. After a few moments, he shrugged and turned back to the box, pulling it open. With the blades removed, the front came away as one whole section. He reached forward to help Hollie out of the box, only to find that she wasn’t there. The box was empty.
“Ooh,” Tiffany cooed from behind him. “Nice touch with the disappearance at the end.”
“Yeah, it was,” he agreed, before turning to face her. “Wish I’d thought of it.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “You didn’t do it?” He just shook his head in response. “Well, maybe the note will explain it.” She pointed over his shoulder at the box.
“Note?” he repeated, turning to follow her finger. Sure enough, taped to the inside of the box lid was a piece of paper. He pulled it loose and read it to himself.
Tiffany waited for him to finish. “Let me guess,” she said. “Corrie and Kristi finally made it home.” He looked up at her with a questioning expression. “Best friends, remember? I knew about what you did to them before they left the post office.”
Paul sighed and nodded. “Yeah, they were delivered yesterday. I restored them last night.”
“I see. And this…” She indicated the empty box. “…was already here at the time.”
“It was delivered at the same time they were.”
“Close enough,” she said. “So, where’s Hollie?”
“According to Corrie,” he answered, handing her the note, “all over the place. She put a spell on the box. Before I got Hollie back together, that spell transformed all of her pieces into different items and hid them around the apartment. To restore her, I’ve got to find each item and place it in the proper section.”
“Figures,” she said, reading over the notes. “Hmm. It says here that each part was turned into something related to what it really is. That would explain…” She let the sentence trail off.
She looked up at him. “Where…” She stopped suddenly, a red flush coming to her cheeks. “Um, never mind. Just start looking around for stuff that doesn’t belong. I’ll be right back. Okay?” Without waiting for him to agree, she headed out of the room.
Paul watched after her for a few seconds before turning back to the box. He had to put Hollie’s pieces in their proper boxes. To do that, he realized, he’d have to get the blades back in place. Closing the front of the box, he reinserted the blades and removed the frame. He didn’t bother to move the boxes back apart. If it’s necessary, he thought to himself, I can always do it later.
With that out of the way, he got down to the business of looking for his fiancée’s missing pieces. He started by looking around the room he was in. And right off, he spotted something. Leaning against the wall by the door was a walking stick. He walked over and picked it up. It was carved from oak and was polished to a bright finish.
“Find something?” Tiffany asked coming back into the room.
He held up the stick. “This isn’t mine, and I don’t think it belongs to Hollie either.”
“If it does, I’ve never seen it,” she told him.
“Now I know it’s not hers,” he smiled.
She returned the smile. “So, leg?”
“Leg,” he agreed. He went back over to the box and opened the left leg section.
“How do you know that’s the right one?” Tiffany asked as he place the walking stick inside.
“I don’t really,” he admitted, “but it’s got to go in one or the other. If it doesn’t work the first time, I’ll just swap them around and try again. I’ll have to do the same with the arms, too. Don’t worry. Sooner or later, we’ll get it right.”
“Okay,” she said. “Well, let me get us one step closer.” She pulled something out of her pocket and handed it to him. It was a pair of hot pink thong panties with Hollie’s name stitched into the front panel. “Unless I’m mistaken,” Tiffany told him, “that would be her hips.”
Paul looked doubtful. “Are you sure? I’m mean, these look like something Hollie would wear. Where did you find them?”
The red returned to her cheeks. “Look, Paul. Trust me on this one. They weren’t there before Hollie disappeared. Okay?”
“There?” he repeated. “There where?”
The red deepened and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Trust. Me.”
“But…” He stopped short as realized what she was trying not to say. “Oh, right. There. Got it.”
“Good,” she told him firmly. “Now put the danged thing in the hip box and let’s get to looking for the rest of her. We’re already going to be late meeting Patty.”
A quick search of the den found nothing else that might be part of Hollie, so they moved on to the living room.
“How about this?” Tiffany asked, picking something up off the entertainment center. She turned and held out the little plastic wand for Paul to see.
“Uh, no,” he answered, a slight quiver in his voice. “That’s mine. Put it back.”
“Mine,” he confirmed. “Now, please. Just put it back. And be careful. It’s… um… fragile.”
Tiffany cocked an eyebrow at him. She couldn’t help but notice that Paul was going out of his way not to get close to her. “Oh-kee,” she said, putting the wand back where she’d found it. “Happy now?”
“Very,” he told her, resuming his search of the living room.
Tiffany watched him for a second more before stealing another glance at the wand. I’m really going to have to ask Hollie about this one, she thought to herself, turning away from the entertainment center to continue her own search.
Her eyes fell on the display case where Paul kept souvenirs from his career. Something in it just seemed off. She went over for a closer look. After a second, she smiled. “Bingo,” she said.
Paul looked up. “Got something?”
He came over to stand beside her. Like her, he scanned the items in the case. In a minute, he looked back up to her with a questioning expression. “Well?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Seriously? You don’t see it?” She shook her head at his shrug. “We didn’t give away souvenir hand fans at the London gig,” she sighed, pointing to the item in question.
He followed her finger with his eyes. “Ah.”
Tiffany placed her hand on her hip. “You know, Paul. You really should get more involved in the other aspects of your shows. Not just the magic.”
He smiled back. “That’s what I have you for,” he said, giving her a quick pat on the back, before reaching to open the display case. “I’ll get this into one of the arm boxes. You keep looking.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “But first I’d better call Patty and tell her that we’re going to be late. This is looking like it might take a while.”
Over the next half hour, they went through the apartment room by room. In the hall closet, Paul found a long handled back scratcher, complete with a little plastic engagement ring on one plastic finger. Meanwhile, under the bed, Tiffany found a hip-high leather boot with a stiletto heel that Paul swore wasn’t left over from one of his and Hollie’s wilder nights. They both almost missed the jewelry box on Hollie’s make-up table. It wasn’t until Paul opened it to look inside that Tiffany pointed out that Hollie didn’t wear much jewelry. But it was the heart-shaped pendant inside the box that convinced Paul that he had found his fiancée’s chest.
As he placed the box into the appropriate section of the illusion, he stopped to take stock of the situation. “Okay,” he said. “That’s everything but her head. Where haven’t we looked?”
He nodded. “Might as well start there, then.”
“So,” Tiffany asked, checking to see to if Hollie’s head was the surprise inside a cereal box, “how long is this going to go on?”
“Until we get her back together, obviously,” Paul answered, checking the trash compactor.
“Not this this,” Tiffany said. “The bigger this.”
Paul looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Between you and Corrie,” Tiffany explained. “This back and forth. She does something to you, so you do something to her, so she does something to you…”
“Oh, that,” he said, opening the refrigerator. “Well, that depends on Corrie,”
He turned to look back at her. He found her leaning against the counter with her arms crossed. “What? I’m supposed to just let her get away with this?”
“I see,” she nodded. “And how many times do you think Corrie said something very similar to that while she spent the better part of two months with her lover stuffed inside her?”
“Well, then she shouldn’t have…”
“Here’s the thing, though, Paul,” Tiffany interrupted. “It’s not just you and Corrie that’s caught up in this little tit for tat of yours anymore. How long before someone ends up in a situation you can’t get us out of?”
He snorted. “I can handle anything she does.”
“Says the man that’s looking for his fiancée’s head in a lettuce crisper.”
Paul looked down at the plastic container in his hands. “Uh…” he stammered.
“Look, just promise me you’ll think about it.” She glanced at her watch. “Right now, I’m going to have to leave you to this. If one of us doesn’t meet up with Patty soon, she’s going to come storming over here. Then, you’re really going to be in trouble.”
He nodded. “Go ahead. I’ve got this.”
“Sure,” she said simply, going to get her purse.
“Really,” he insisted, following her to the kitchen door. “I’ll find her head, get her back together, then text her to you.”
She stopped and turned back. “Text her?”
“Yeah. Just find somewhere private before you open the message.”
She shook her head. “Whatever. Just find her.” And with that, she left.
Paul stared at the closed door for a minute, before looking back down at the crisper he was still holding. “Well, I thought it made sense,” he said to himself, heading back into the kitchen to continue searching.
Twenty minutes later, he was still searching. He left the kitchen and returned to the living room, looking around for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing leapt out at him. “Head,” he voiced, hoping it would help him spot something, but it didn’t help.
As he wandered from room to room, he mentally tried to contact Hollie, but wasn’t surprised that he got no response. Corrie was too smart not to cut off that line of communication. He was just going to have to find out what Hollie’s head had been turned into on his own.
And even as he realized that truth, he realized just how hard it was going to be. It could literally be anything in the apartment. It could be something out in the open, like a coaster on the coffee table, or something out of sight, like an illustration in a book. He could be looking for it for days. “Or even weeks,” he added out loud, remembering just how long Corrie and Kristi had been stuck as mail.
Maybe Tiffany was right. Maybe it was time to put an end to this feud. It would mean Corrie got bragging rights, but it would be better than Hollie spending a couple of months as bric-a-brac. Admitting defeat, he made up his mind to give his sister a call.
First, though, he was going to have to answer the call of nature. He’d been putting it off during the whole time he was searching the apartment, but his bladder wouldn’t be put off any longer. So, he headed straight to the hall bathroom. He lifted the lid on the toilet, before unzipping his pants.
And immediately, Hollie’s voice came through the open zipper. “It’s about time.”
“Well, no one else better be down here.”
Paul took a deep breath, trying to control his anger at what Corrie had done to his fiancée.
“Yeah, it’s me,” she went on. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for at least an hour now.”
“By making me think I had to pee?” he asked, noting that the pressure in his bladder was gone.
“Eeewww,” she came back. “That’s an image I didn’t need. Thanks.”
“What I’ve been trying to do is shout, but I couldn’t get enough air to do it. Geez, I never thought I’d be unhappy about you wearing your jeans so tight.” She waited for him to reply to her attempt at humor. But he didn’t say anything. “Hello? Paul? Are you out there?”
Paul still didn’t answer. He was too busy thinking of ways to kill his sister.