Excerpt from Gentle Author

               Sleight of Hands

    The fellow appeared to be unsure what to say. He stood there glowering from the depth of his being with a snare on his lips, yet fear in his eyes. Undoubtedly, the youngster possessed a resemblance with someone he could not place. His bearing bespoke disquieting news. It implied malfunction of his upper storey to begin with, but worst of all, he appeared to be enjoined to do something which he deplored. Odd to say, his mien, aggrieved and mischievous, was brightened by eyes that wanted to smile; but not presently, far from it.

    “My father sent me,” he hissed.

    “Your father, who is he?”

    “You should know, Randolph Gruber.”

    There, no wonder the youngster looked familiar.

    “Have you got a message?”

    “Yes.”

    “Well, what is it?”

    “This.”

    Saying so he produced a sturdy rope with a noose at one end. Pfister’s head bound up, he had the answer in a flash. The fellow is either a lunatic or an amateurish prankster. He knew Randolph Gruber like a brother, they spent many years together on the road, criss-crosssing Canada from Halifax to Victoria. They were known as the ‘Dreadnaughts’, magicians and jugglers whom no one could excel in speed and accuracy. Their extraordinary skills were gained in the school of hard knocks. Indeed, he and Gruber were a team that outperformed anyone in the trade. They abruptly parted over twenty years ago, under a cloud of hostility and nagging fear of each other. Their acts required utmost concentration, but most of all a sure hand guided by a sympathetic heart and peace of mind.

    The apple of discord was Sylvia Steiner, a woman no longer young, but still girded with the girdle of Aphrodite. The short of it was this: Although courted avidly by both friends, Pfister won her hand. They married, and divorced before the end of the year. That happened about twenty years ago. The friends, who became bitter rivals and enemies, lost track of each other. After the divorce Pfister wandered eastward and finally put up stakes at Lac Archambeau, near St. Donat, Quebec.

    The youngster’s behaviour baffled him thoroughly, even more so when he spoke again:

    “I have come to settle a score.”

    With one eye scanning the lake, the other trying to take the young fellow’s measure, Pfister burst out:

    “You what?”

    “You heard me,” he was told with a pained grimace that elicited the older man’s pity rather than dread.

    Yet these sentiments dissipated quickly upon sensing an undertone of villainy in his unwelcome visitor. Another disconcerting realisation gripped him: The fellow was but an automaton, programmed to do mischief. Humour him, an inner voice cautioned, stall this overgrown oddity till Toby arrives. Appeasement appeared to be the only option, placation and delay, since this errant son obviously laboured under serious delusions. He seemed set to do harm, thus prudence must be exercised. For he, Pfister, could never pit his weak physique against this almost elephantine hulk, in the blush of youth to boot.

    “What is your name?”

    “Viktor.”

    “Viktor Gruber?”

    “Yes.”

    “You want to get even, I don’t understand,” Pfister chortled uneasily.

    He soon did. He felt compelled to clutch his throat and neck when he observed Viktor’s eyes wander from tree to tree outside. As he fingered the running knot of the noose, an eerie glint lit up his face. Pfister’s consternation grew by the second, questions arose for which answers were wanting. Was this queer stranger really Randolph’s son? Did he indeed commission him to take revenge for a trifling matter that took place twenty years ago? Or was the youngster mentally challenged, no doubt prone to buffoonery? But how did he find him who lived the life of a recluse?”

    “Viktor, what do you actually want?”

    Instead of a reply the youngster called out:

    “Aha, that’s the one.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “The branch from where you shall hang.”

    Pfister was about to make a snap remark and order him to be gone, or else, but something held him back. As he sized up the interloper icy shivers ran up his spine; he realised that Viktor was dead serious. No doubt he intended to string him up. Where the deuce was Toby? Thoughts raced through his mind that created a jumble in his head.

    Two things became crystal clear: This wayward ruffian, whoever he was, had nibbled from the insane root. Besides, he was enjoined by someone, quite likely his father, to do him in. Resistance appeared to be a pipe dream, not worth a fig. This young giant could pick him up with one hand while laying the noose around his neck with the other. Carrying him outside, slinging the rope over a sturdy limb and hoisting him up, would be child’s play for these muscular arms and sinewy hands. Calling for help? What good would that do in this remote spot. In any case his enfeebled body, plagued by asthmatic lungs, could hardly raise much of an alarm.

    Just as despondence stretched its tentacles towards him, surging hope lifted his spirit. He suddenly knew what had to be done. Like Hobson’s juice it was this or nothing; act promptly or become a swinging corpse.

    “Alright, Viktor, I am ready to bite the bullet, but first tell me why your father, whom I once knew and loved like my own kin, wants my demise. What made him sore enough to have me lynched?”

    “You betrayed him.”

    “I did? In what way?”

    “You left him to die, up in the Monashee Mountains.”

    “I did no such thing; in fact, I have no clue where this place is.”

    “Ha, ha, ha, father told me all about you. He warned me to be on guard, he drummed certain facts into my head.”

    “Like what?”

    “That you are an artful quibbler and the prince of liars.
    “I see, I see, what else did your father tell you?”

    “I haven’t the time to reel off the entire litany of your transgressions, but what really sticks in my father’s craw is your attempt to seduce my mother.”

    “Your mother? But – but I have never met her,” Pfister protested loudly against his better judgement.

    His conviction grew that Randolph either had an axe to grind or, like the son, had gone completely off the rails.

    “Who is your mother?”

    “She died recently.”

    “I regret to hear it, but anyway, what is her name?”

    “Name? Sylvia Gruber.”

    “Hm, and her maiden name?”

    Viktor stared at him nonplussed, the question seemingly taxed his mental acumen.

    Well, the time had arrived to bring matters to a head. A last glance up the shore convinced Pfister that his distant neighbour is not coming, thus he was completely on his own. Straining every muscle in his body, training a steady eye on his would-be executioner, he spoke deliberately:

    “Your father told you all that?”

    “Plus much more, but as I said I feel no inclination to rattle on.”

    With these words Viktor, holding up the noose, was about to approach. He should have opened his eyes wider prior to making the first step. What would he have seen? An astounding transformation, surely not experienced every day. Pfister, meek and irresolute a moment ago, took on an aspect of a veritable fire-eater. He saw himself on the streets of Victoria, surrounded by awed spectators, who were stunned by the lightning speed and deadly accuracy shown them. The steely eyes that neither blinked nor changed their line of vision one iota, should have rung the alarm in the youngster’s mind.

      “This.”