FICTION

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T TELL

THOMAS DUNCAN August 15 1949
FICTION

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T TELL

THOMAS DUNCAN August 15 1949

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T TELL

THOMAS DUNCAN

ALTHOUGH fifteen years have gone since Julian Kyd disappeared from this earth there are those who have not forgotten. At dinner tables in Beverly Hills, in obscure little lunch joints off Times Square, in the smoky restaurants of Soho and the cafés of Montmartre his name is sometimes mentioned, and many odd theories are advanced as to his whereabouts and as to why he vanished. In the slightly raffish world of show business his disappearance gave rise to speculation for he was a superlative craftsman. Julian Kyd was a magician’s magician. If there were two ways, one easy and one difficult, to pluck a coin from the thin air, Kyd chose the difficult. In either case the effect was the same and the public didn’t know which method he used. But Kyd’s fellow magicians knew, and their admiration was boundless.

Back in the early 1930’s Kyd could usually be found at Paget’s, a magic shop out on Western

Avenue in Los Angeles. It was a dusky little place, its shelves mysterious with gleaming bronze vases and Chinese red boxes; and Kyd seemed as outré as any of that bizarre merchandise. He was thirtyfive, a lean dark man with the intensity of an electric spark. His face was thin and almost ugly; the cheekbones high, the eyes black and guarded; and from his skull his coarse black hair sprang with great energy. You felt that if you were to graze it with your fingers it would crackle like a cat’s fur.

Paget’s served as an informal club for all the amateur magicians in the Los Angeles area. On Saturday afternoons they congregated there to buy equipment and hold jam sessions, and among these votaries Julian Kyd moved like a prince. He was already famous, even fabulous. They knew that as a young man he had traveled with several conjurers of the vaudeville era, working backstage; he was supposed to have invented one of Houdini’s

escapes, and several effects Thurston used; and only recently he had returned from what he called — grandiosely—his World Tour. In New York and London and Paris, in Vienna and Bombay and Shanghai, he had hobnobbed with the great names of world magic. He had also, alas, often starved.

For Julian Kyd was not unlike those modern poets whose esoteric verses are for the few; he refused to give an audience what it wanted. Only the elect could appreciate his superb talent. Such broad comedy as pulling a string of wieners from a small boy’s coat he considered beneath himself. Although a superlative magician he was a poor showman; hence he earned little money; and on his World Tour he had actually been little better than a glorified hobo, making his way jjy street conjuring.

Now, back in America, his financial condition was wretched. He dwelt in a shabby lodging house and drove a disintegrating jalopy; and with times hard his professional engagements were few. These were mainly one-shot dates at clubs and lodges, for niggardly fees, and he secured them through thé kindness of Wally Paget, who owned the magic shop.

Wally Paget was everything that Kyd was not: a huge man of fifty, beefy-faced, sleepy-eyed, always wreathed in good nature. In his younger days he had been a professional conjurer, but he loved rich food, and when he could no longer glimpse his toes he waddled oiT the platform for the last time and started his magic shop. The business flourished. Mail orders came in from all over the world, and behind his shop he maintained a small factory where workmen constructed the precision equipment for which he was famous. Program chairmen used to call him when they wanted an entertainer for a smoker, and Paget threw what business he could to Julian Kyd.

Julian Kyd had one love — magic. For him she was a woman whose soul was secrecy. And how could he sell the soul of the woman he loved?

With both men magic was a mania and a madness, and they used to spend hours back in Paget’s cluttered office yarning about the great performers of the past, speculating as to fresh ways of presenting fine old tricks. Paget, who liked everybody, was fond of Kyd; but whether Kyd liked him he couldn’t tell: the fellow was secretive, imper-

sonal, living behind an invisible wall. Certainly he had only scorn for Paget’s business.

“You know what I think of all this, don’t you?” Kyd had said, on his first visit to the shop. His eyes were contemptuous, and with a supple hand he gestured at the conjuring merchandise.

A less good-natured man would have been affronted, but Paget chuckled.

“It’s pretty small,” he admitted, “but we do a big mail business.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean selling magic to anybody who has the price. You’re exposing secrets. You’re ruining magic.”

“Oh, come now, Julian. What per cent of the public buys from me, or from any dealer? Not a tenth of one per cent. And those who do are no longer laymen. They’re enthusiasts. They help magic. They buy the best seats at every magic show.”

Kyd lost his temper then, arguing violently that the secrets of legerdemain should be sworn secrets, whispered in dark places from one generation of performers to the next. His position, Paget, thought, was absurd; medieval; he wanted to turn back the clock to times when unlettered folk supposed that conjurers learned their trade from the devil on a windy moor.

Paget remained serene, and at last he grinned and patted his generous stomach.

“A man has to eat, Julian, and the shop makes me a living.”

“Why do you have to eat?” Kyd snapped. “I’d starve before I’d expose my secrets.”

Paget laughed.

FOR some weeks thereafter they avoided the subject, although Paget could always detect in Kyd’s eyes a faint scorn for the customers. And on one of those Saturday afternoons when the shop was crowded an unpleasant incident occurred. Kyd had performed a minor miracle with billiard balls, so astonishing that the customers were left silent. And then the hush was broken by a neophyte who exclaimed:

“I’ll give you ten dollars to teach me that move.” Kyd whirled, with a kind of Doberman pinscher savagery, and gave the fellow a tongue-lashing that was discussed for years. Then he stalked from the shop.

Paget sighed; he knew how desperately Kyd needed that ten dollars; and he resolved to try talking some sense into his stubborn head.

“Julian,” he said, the following Monday in his office, “I want to ask you a question and 1 hope

you won’t get mad. How are you fixed for money?”

“Money?” Kyd showed one of his rare, faint smiles. “What’s that?”

Paget chuckled, and approached the subject obliquely. Several weeks before Kyd had brought in his notebooks and permitted Paget to leaf through them. They were beyond belief. For twenty years Kyd had eaten, slept and dreamed magic; he had associated with the great conjurers of the Orient and the Occident; and into his notebooks had gone all t he closely guarded secrets that had been confided to him, all the effects that his fertile brain had invented.

So now Paget congratulated him upon possessing such a treasure house, and then, delicately, he suggested that Kyd select one of those startling inventions.

“I’ll manufacture it, Julian, and market it. We’ll charge a stiff price so every schoolboy can’t buy it, and I’ll give you a royalty of twenty per cent.”

Kyd was sitting in a tipped-back chair, eyes moody, his well-shaped hands training themselves with a deck of cards.

“Don’t tempt me,” he said.

“I’ll pay you a hundred dollars advance on royalties, and that will be only the beginning. You must have twenty or thirty brand-new effects t hat I could manufacture.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Rut Julian. You’re broke

Kyd stood up.

“I said I’m not interested. You’d sell those tricks to every amateur who ever bungled t hrough a parlor performance. Continued on page 30 Magic is a woman, and her soul is secrecy. And you’d sell her soul.”

“That’s highfalutin talk, Julian. Come down to earth.”

Kyd shook his head, the faintest of smiles on his saturnine countenance.

“Look, Julian,” Paget said soberly, “I can’t let you go starving along. If you’ll listen to reason I’ll pay you tlmt hundred right now.”

It was then Kyd’s temper stirred, sending a dull flush into his cheeks.

“.Stop it,” he snapped. “I’ll never expose.”

And he paced from the office and from the shop. Paget followed, watching him cross the street t o his rattletrap car. His shoulders were rigid, and for a moment he seemed like some haughty sorcerer from an earlier century; you could imagine him wearing an Inverness cape.

A WEEK passed without his returning and Paget became worried, for by one of those obscure psychological processes always at work in human relationships he had grown to feel responsible for the man. Then one morning he received a letter from Billy Morgan, a show-business acquaintance who owned a carnival wintering on the Nevada desert. This was March; in two weeks the carnival would take to the road; and Morgan was looking for a magician. He would pay twenty-five a week, board and lodging. Paget wired he was sending a man, and set out to find Kyd.

He found him in a back-street lodging house, in a dark hole of a room. His body looked thinner, his face gaunt. Paget outlined the carnival offer, and then, lying in a good cause, he produced fifty dollars, announcing that it was a salary advance from Morgan.

“Thanks,” Kyd said, “I was getting hungry.”

Next morning Paget returned and helped Kyd load his belongings into the jalopy. He seemed in fine spirits. And the last thing, before they shook hands good-by, Kyd presented his notebooks to Paget.

“They might get lost, knocking around with that carnival. Keep them in your safe. I know I can trust you.” Kyd drove away. And that was the last Wally Paget ever saw of him. He didn’t arrive at the carnival in Nevada. He simply vanished. At the end of a week Paget reported his disappearance to the authorities, and a leisurely search was conducted by the police of two states. They discovered no trace of the man or of his car.

Paget waited, while the 1930’s creaked along, always hopeful that some day he would hear a step at his office threshold and turn to see Julian Kyd standing there, that man of night and mystery. But he never came again. A decade passed and finally Paget prepared those amazing notebooks for the printer, publishing them as “The Secrets of Julian Kyd.” They rocked the world of magic. Already Kyd had been legendary, but now he joined the immortals of legerdemain, such giants as Robert Houdin and Bautier De Kolta and Professor Hoffmann.

KYD liad been happy that morning, driving through the citrus groves toward San Bernardino. His money worries were over; the carnival job would he easy; he could spend the summer lost from reality among his dreams of future miracles that were now only half shaped in his brain. It

was more than four hundred miles to Coyote Wells, the Nevada town where the carnival wintered, but he was in no hurry; he chugged along slowly through the soft March morning.

He had held out against Paget; he had not abandoned his lofty standards and exposed his secrets; and that made him feel fine, too. And he felt even finer as he labored over Cajon Pass and reached the bright plateau of the Mojave Desert, for the clear air was exhilarating.

Heretofore his experience with the desert had been confined to glances from a transcontinental train; he had thought it a dreary waste; but now in the spring color was everywhere. From a bright blue sky the sun shone pleasantly warm; the distant mountains were delicate with pastel blues and greys; and the road raced ahead for miles through a landscape of golden brown and golden tan. But it was the air which charmed him most; that air as dry and sparkling and stimulating as the finest of wines in the thinnest of crystal glasses.

Late in the afternoon, well beyond Barstow, he crested a rise and saw spread before him a valley as extensive as a New England county. There were mountains far to the east, and in the rays from the low sun they smoldered with all the hot colors of the spectrum. Even as he watched they changed to more subtle hues of dying rose and cool elfin blue; they looked unearthly and mystical; and for a second it seemed to Kyd that off in those deep distances you might find a never-never land of lost, enchanted cities where white-robed men had unveiled the final mystery.

Swift velvet darkness had come by the time Kyd reached a village; and at a lunch counter he studied his road map. He caught an inkling then of the desert’s vastness. After traveling all day he had crawled on the map only a few inches from Los Angeles; and still on the map he noted great areas of blank space—unmarked and unexplored space. His forefinger traced the highway to a Nevada town called Cartright, at the apex of an inverted V, and hack to his destination, Coyote Wells; and then he discerned that the inverted V was actually an A, with a secondary road as a crossbar. If driveable that short cut would save him a hundred miles.

He curled up in his car that night to save money, and he wakened at dawn as if from a king’s couch, after a sleep deep and dreamless. The dry purity of the desert had shot tonic into his arteries; he was gloriously hungry; and after a huge breakfast he enquired at a filling station about the crossroad. The attendant assured him that it was passable, although unpaved and seldom used. Kyd bought gas, receiving three silver dollars in change.

“You’re close to Nevada now,” the attendant said. “So you’ll get silver instead of bills.”

One of the dollars snagged Kyd’s attention. It was mirror-bright, the milling sharp, as if stamped fresh from a mint; hut the date was 1901. Near the rim a tiny hole had been drilled; perhaps the dollar had been threaded with ribbon and worn like a locket. On this morning getting such a coin seemed a lucky omen, and he slipped it into his vest pocket.

Early that afternoon, in another gigantic valley, he reached the crossroad. A pointing sign, weathered, said “Coyote Wells.” He hesitated, suddenly reluctant to leave the main turnpike, but at last he turned off and followed the sandy road for mile after twisting mile.

It led him into strange country; a stripped, bony country, ravaged by too much light. Once lu; skirted an alkali flat the chalky corpse of some pre historic lake and it gave him an uncanny feeling to think how this monstrous valley floor had once l>een buried under water. There were mountains on either side, towering masses of erosion, and as he drove they pressed closer. The road floundered wearily upward, finally snaking through a gap, bringing into view a valley so immens«*, so unpeopled, so locked in

solitude, that his first, instinct was to turn back; and he halted the car.

NOTHIN« moved out there; nothing that lived; only a light wind that stirred three separate alkali flats. Hooded with dust, they weirdly looked as if they wer«.* exhaling whit«; vapors. But those* arid lakes, although miles broad, were inconsequential in the magnitude of this plâtre. Mountains bounded the far side, a lifeless, interminable range, as jagged and firescarred as cinders dumped from a

colossal ash bucket by some Vulcan ten miles tall.

Kyd considered his position. The jalopy’s sp«;edomeier was broken, but he estimated he had already come twenty miles from the turnpike. It scorned senseless to turn back, yielding to the uneasiness incited by desolation anrl solitude. He drove on.

The road, already rough, became abominable as it curl«;«! down into the valloy; the jalopy hobbled along in lt>w g«;ar; and after two hours Kyd had advanced scarcely a third of the

way toward the far mountain wall. He was beginning to worry, but he kept grinding along, feeling tiny as an ant on a gymnasium floor. Except for the dwarfed, barbed vegetation he encountered no living thing; not a man, not a jack rabbit, not even a buzzard in the glaring immensity of sky. The sun was lower, the jalopy’s shadow elongated; and the far mountains, daubed with red light, might have been burned-out volcanoes in some forgotten wastes of hell. And then, out there in the middle of sterility, the road forked.

The fork had three prongs: left, right and straight ahead. Kyd cut the motor and stepped from the car, into a silence so absolute that he could hear his own heartbeats. He puzzled over the three roads; so far as he could ascertain they were equally wretched; and then he discovered a road sign.

Nailed to a crooked stick, it had been blown to the ground; dim letters with a pointing arrow said “Coyote Wells.” Evidently it had stood just at the fork, on the left of the road, and when upright its message had doubtless been plain enough. But now it vv.s impossible to deduce which of tl.os three rutted trails the arrow ha .i indicated.

Already the mountains had turned cold purple; shadows were slinking everywhere; and Kyd decided to wait here till morning. Perhaps a car would come along. He went to sleep thirsty and hungry; after three hours he wakened, shivering cold; and somewhere nearby in the dead blacks of night coyotes were howling their old, mournful plaints.

DAYBREAK cheered him. He studied the map and the sun, computing where Coyote Wells must be, and then he drove on, taking the road that led right. Through the mesquite and prickly pear it crawled, roughly paralleling the mountains, slowly winding up a long swell. He was certain Coyote Wells lay over that ridge.

But Coyote Wells didn’t. Nothing lay beyond; nothing.

He stopped, then, and measured his gas; and he realized at once that he would exhaust his supply if he turned back and tried for the main highway he had left yesterday. So he jogged on, gambling that Coyote Wells lay somewhere ahead; and presently the wind stirred. A light breeze at first. Then a stronger breeze. Descending from the ridge he could see several distant whirlwinds playing games with the sand. The road curved toward low bluffs, but before he reached them the wind strengthened and within minutes it was blowing a gale.

The wind would have been all right, alone. Nothing wrong with the wind. But the trouble was the skin of the earth was loose skin, sandy; and the wind as it raced along whipped and scooped the sand, flinging it by the handful and the shovelful against the jalopy. And this produced an odd phenomenon on the windshield; the glass blistered; the glass was sandblasted, so he could not see through.

Kyd halted. Eyes slitted, he peered into the storm; and he saw what he couldn’t believe. Flowing snugly against that low' bluff he saw a rill of water, with dwarf cottonwoods. A mirage? But who ever heard of a mirage in a sandstorm? He opened the car door; the wand grabbed at him and would have blinded him, choked him, hurled him a thousand miles, if he hadn’t ducked back inside.

It looked calmer over in the lee of the bluff, and his tongue was hot with thirst. The ground appeared solid. He shifted into low, turned off the road and rocked toward the stream. At the edge he halted, and shielding his eyes slipped from the car. The water was no mirage. The water was water. He lav on his stomach, drinking his fill.

But when he arose and swayed back to the car he let out a yell of outrage and astonishment. For the car was visibly sinking into the earth. Already the sands by the stream had engulfed it to the hub caps. Kyd plunged behind the wheel, started the motor and w'ith the gears in reverse jabbed down on the gas. The car rocked; the wheels spun and churned; but this only increased the downsuck into the quicksand.

Forty minutes later, when the wind abated, only the roof of the jalopy remained in sight. And Kyd stood hating the desert with a fathomless hate; and at last, lugging the one suitcase he had salvaged, he stumbled toward the road. When he reached it he hesitated, undecided. He knew what was back there, the way he had come; enormous sweeps of emptiness. So he pressed ahead, hopeless, convinced he would stumble by and by, and fall, and creep, and lie. But that didn’t happen. Within five minutes he rounded a curve and beheld two burros tethered outside a shack. Kyd shouted, broke into a run.

From the shack a man emerged. He was long, lean, sixtyish, with frosty stubble and bright blue eyes.

“Hello, neighbor,” he called. “Looks like you’re a long way from home.”

Kyd didn’t drop and kiss his boots, but he felt like doing it.

THE man’s name was Lew Varley, and he termed his occupation as scratching around. Although as loquacious as he was hospitable he kept everything vague; and it took Kyd some minutes to deduce that by scratching around he meant prospecting for gold.

“Lucky you found me,” Varley said. “Tomorrow I’m packing out of here.” “Where are you going?”

“Over yonder.”

Varley’s gnarled hand swept half the horizon.

“Is Coyote Wells over there?”

“Nope. Nothing over there, a thousand miles of nothing. But I figure to find me something over there.”

“How far is it back to Coyote Wells?”

“I ain’t measured it. But it’s a good piece. I got me supplies there, last month. Took me ten days each way. And not a neighbor between here and there. And no neighbors the other way, neither. Yep—lucky you found me.” Kyd had eaten heartily, and now they were sitting outside the shack. He asked:

“Which road should I have taken at the forks to get to Coyote Wells?” Varley scratched his stubbled chin and smiled.

“Can’t say. Me, I never take roads. Just strike off across country. Like it better, somehow.”

Kyd wondered how much Varley was going to charge to conduct him back to civilization, and he pondered the best way to broach the subject. The man’s price might be high, since he had planned to leave tomorrow on a prospecting trek. He decided to postpone mentioning the matter till they were better acquainted; meanwhile he would try to get into Varley’s good graces; and with that in mind he brought a deck of cards from his pocket and said, “Take a card.”

It was a simple trick, but its effect on Varley was overwhelming. This old hermit, it transpired, had never witnessed a magic performance, and he was amazed and delighted. “Well I’m dogged!” he kept exclaiming, and he urged, “do another.”

Kyd performed for an hour, with cards and coins.

“That’s wonderful—it’s just real wonderful,” the old fellow declared; and then, eyes bright, he said, “Say! I’ll bet you could bring me back my lucky coin!”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“Of course you could! It was a 1901 dollar, with a hole in it. Belonged to my wife. Used to wear it as a locket, 1901 being the year we got hitched. After she died I carried it for luck, but last month in Coyote Wells dogged if I didn’t get drunk and spend it.”

Kyd’s heart leaped. A 1901 dollar with a hole; he had received just such a coin yesterday at that filling station. He was staggered. Varley had spent it a month ago; it had passed from hand to hand and from desert town to desert town; and chance, pure lucky chance, had given it to him. He had it now, in his vest pocket. Here was the opportunity of which every magician dreamed: the opportunity to peform a miracle that could not possibly be accounted for by natural means.

As these thoughts raced through his mind he slipped out the coin; it lay snug in his palm; and now he reached behind Varley’s ear and produced it, bright and sparkling.

“You had it all the time, behind your ear,” he smiled.

Varley looked dumfounded; his fingers trembled as they took the dollar. He stared at it; and at last he stammered, “I’m—I’m dogged, that’s all. I’m just dogged ! How did you do it?” “That would be telling.”

“Well, it’s beyond me,” Varley sighed, slowly shaking his head. “It sure beats me.”

KYD went inside then, napping for an hour, and after that, on the porch, he broached the matter of Varley’s guiding him to Coyote Wells.

“Shucks,” Varley said, “you could make it alone.”

A shiver brushed Kyd’s spine. “I certainly couldn’t.”

“Sure you could! I’ll outfit you with grub and water.”

“I’d get lost. I’d die.”

“Not you! A fellow that can do the stuff you do—”

“Those are just tricks.”

“Tricks, are they? More like miracles, if you ask me. How did you do them?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

Varley gazed off into the infinite distances, scratching his chin, and finally he said:

“Here’s what I’ll do. I shouldn’t take the time, but I will. You’ve got me so all-fired curious that I’ll guide you to Coyote Wells if you’ll tell me how you did them tricks.”

“No!” Kyd exclaimed.

“Why not? I do something for you, you do something for me. Ain’t that fair enough?”

“I’ve never exposed magic and I never intend to.”

Varley shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Kyd realized ther that he had a dreadful decision to make. He said: “Look here. I’d get lost trying to find my way to Coyote Wells. You’ve got to take me.”

“You wouldn’t get lost. But if you’re worried about that, why not come with me? I could use a partner, and that vein I’m after is rich enough for us both.”

Kyd stared out at the interminable expanses of rock and sand and bare mountains and bare sky.

“No,” he said quietly, “not for me. I hate the desert.”

“And I love her,” Varley chuckled. “Funny, ain’t it, how men are different?”

Kyd spent a bad afternoon; very bad; and that evening, after the lamp was lighted, and supper eaten, he made his decision.

“Okay,” he said, “you win. I never thought I’d give in, but I will. I’ll explain my tricks, and you’ll take me to Coyote Wells.”

“Fair enough,” Varley said, “though I shouldn’t take the time. But I agreed to, and I ain’t never broken my word yet. Now fire away with them tricks.”

So Kyd exposed. There in the lamplight Julian Kyd, the implacable enemy of magic exposers, told all. And it was as he knew it would be: a mystery explained was a dusty commonplace; Varley felt let down and disappointed.

“Why,” he said, “there ain’t nothing to it.”

“The best tricks are simple.”

“How about the way you brought back my lucky coin? How did you do

that?”

Kyd explained. But this time Varley looked still puzzled.

“But that ain’t reasonable,” he protested. “You don’t expect me to believe you just happened to get that dollar in change?”

“That’s the way it was.”

“Oh, no! Nope. I’ll never believe that. There’s more to it than that.

That was your best trick, and you’re holding out on me.”

“But I’m not!”

Varley grinned and winked.

“Now look here, Mister. We made an agreement, and you can’t hold out on me. A deal’s a deal, and you promised you’d explain. If you won’t live up to your agreement, I won’t to mine. I won’t take you to no Coyote Wells. You can be my partner and come with me.”

“But man alive! Listen to reason!

I—”

Half the night Kyd argued; he offered Varley every cent he possessed, if only he would take him to Coyote Wells; and in the morning—the bright, deceptively enchanted desert morning, with its tonic air and rosy mountains— he still argued. Varley remained adamant; pleasantly so, but adamant. They would start for Coyote Wells at once, he said, if only Kyd would cease his stubbornness and explain the wonderful dollar trick. Otherwise— well—a deal was a deal.

And so it was that after an early breakfast two men and two burros set out in the direction opposite from Coyote Wells.

The summer that followed was exceptionally hot. Many reliable water holes failed. ★