“A gig’s a gig.” It’s become her mantra lately. A reminder that, even if the circumstances aren’t quite what she’d hoped for, at least she’s working. She’s making a living doing what she loves. Okay, so she’s actually making a living doing data entry, but she’s still earning a little mad money doing what she loves. That’s what’s important. She paces nervously as she waits for the previous performer to get offstage. “A gig’s a gig.”

“Alright, boys! Let’s hear it for Savannah!” The last strains of Warrant’s Cherry Pie fade out as the woman in the whipped cream and g-string grabs the last of her crumpled dollar bills and struts back behind the curtain. “I don’t know about you guys, but I could definitely go for a second slice of that pie! Up next on the Glasscutters main stage we’ve got…wait, seriously? Hang on.” The DJ covers the microphone and calls the manager over to the booth. After a brief, inaudible but confused-looking conversation, he returns to the mic. “Okay, it looks like the boss owed somebody a favor, ‘cause we’ve got something a little different for you fellas tonight. Hold onto your hats, boys, or this little lady might just pull a rabbit out of ‘em! Let’s give it up for the Amaaaazing Velmaaaa!”

Velma wheels her equipment onstage to scattered, disinterested applause and more than a few catcalls. Hello, gentlemen!” she says, taking a bow. “Ah, and lady, too!” she adds, noticing the lone, smartly-dressed woman near the back of the club—brunette, mid-thirties, and completely out of place in this crowd. “Good evening to you, madam!” The woman smiles and jots something down in a notebook. Weird. Who takes notes at a strip cl—

Holy crap, is this a talent scout? This could be her moment! Her chance to step it up to the big leagues. Actual nightclubs. Indian Casinos. Maybe even an invitation to the Magic freakin’ Castle! Whoa, slow down, girl! Don’t get ahead of yourself. But best bring out the A-game, just in case.

Shaking herself out of her daydream of fame and fortune, Velma dives back into her patter. “We now take a brief pause from your prior perversions for a powerful performance of prestidigitation that promises to both please and perplex! Freshen up your drinks, focus on the hocus-pocus, and steel yourselves for astonishment!” Velma runs through her set with an infectious zeal. The Dove Pan, the Dancing Coins, the Pied Piper—she’s nailing ‘em. If this audience gave half a crap about magic, they’d have been on the edge of their seats. Only the woman at the back seems to care, and after each trick she scratches something else down in her book.

Velma vanishes the mice back into the hidden pockets sewn into her sleeves and takes a small bow. “Thank you! For my next trick, I—”

“Hey!” a guy bellows from the tip rail. He looks like he’s about ten past the two-drink minimum. “Hey, beautiful! Whatchoo got under that jacket, baby?”

No, no no! No hecklers! Not tonight! “Nothing special, buddy” she says. “Just a deck of cards and a spring-loaded tiger for the finale.” She throws a half-hearted kick at his grabby hands and takes a step back. “Now can it, Chatty Cathy—I’m trying to amaze and delight up here. If you can’t go ten minutes without seeing boobs, there’s a Cobbler’s Cafe next door with free WiFi.” Christ, Copperfield never has to put up with this sorta crap.

“Hey!” the drunk shouts. “Hey, put me in a trick!” The guy clearly doesn’t know to quit when he’s ahead. What the hell, maybe it’ll shut him up.

“Well, since you asked so politely,” Velma says, producing the aforementioned deck of cards with a well-practiced feint and fanning them out. “As you can see, a perfectly normal deck of playing cards. Would you examine the cards please sir, and tell me if they’re notched, dog-eared, folded, spindled, or marked in any way. No?” She turns them around with an exaggerated flourish. “Crap, wrong deck. Well, I’ll give this a shot anyway. Pick a card, sir, and show it to the rest of the audience, then hide it back in the deck.” She smiles at the crowd, ignoring the drunk as he peers down her shirt. She looks away as he shows the card to the rest of the bar then slides it back into the middle of the deck. “Okay, sir, I’m gonna need you to think really hard about the card you drew. Picture it in your mind.”

“I’m picturing something, sweetheart, but it ain’t a card. Hey, if you’re so magic, what am I thinking right now?” He raises one eyebrow in a lopsided leer that he probably thinks looks alluring.

Ugh. Why did she think this would calm him down? She glances at the woman in the back, who may be the only one in the place still paying attention. The woman smiles and gives her a wink…and Velma has a revelation. She knows what to say. She knows exactly how to shut this guy down and get rid of him for good.

“You’re thinking that you can’t stand to go home,” she says. “Because she’s not there anymore. And she’ll never be there again. You’re thinking about the quiet apartment. The half-empty closet. The single, lonely plate sitting in the sink. You’re thinking you need to wash the sheets, but you can’t, because they won’t smell like her anymore. But the dirtier they get, the less they smell like her anyway. You’re thinking you ruined your one chance at happiness. Your one chance to be a decent person. Because that’s what she made you. But she’s gone now, and so you come here every night, trying to fill that hole in your soul, but knowing you never can. Because she was the one. The only one. And you chased her away.”

The drunk stares at her, his face pale; his eyes watering. A single tear manages to escape and runs down his cheek before he turns from the stage and makes a beeline out of the club. Velma, confused, watches him go. That was harsh, and where the hell did it even come from? It was like she was in a trance. She pushes the question aside for now, though. The show must go on. “Sorry about that, folks. I misspoke. What I meant to say was…the Seven of Diamonds!” with a puff of smoke, she whips away a silky handkerchief to reveal an over-sized playing card, to a smattering of semi-polite, uncomfortable applause. The woman just nods to herself and makes more notes.

“Okay, I get it guys. You didn’t come here to be whisked away to a wonderland of magic. One more trick and I’ll let you get back to your regularly scheduled ogling. I’m gonna need some help with this one though, so please welcome my lovely assistant, Amber!” The crowd perks up as one of the dancers comes out onstage. “Yeah, I thought that might get your attention. Take a good look, fellas. As you can see, Amber is currently in one, solid piece.” Amber takes a twirl around the pole to demonstrate her solidity. “Let’s see what we can do about that.” Taking her hand for balance, Velma guides Amber up a small set of steps and into a long, wooden box. She lays her down, and closes the lid. It’s an old trick, but she likes to think she puts a unique spin on it. The scream of a two-stroke engine being yanked to life jerks the drowsy patrons back to life as Velma hoists a running chainsaw into the air and revs it up. Sure, the chain’s a fake and she won’t come within six inches of Amber’s flesh, but they don’t need to know that. She swings the saw in a violent arc and slips it into the pre-cut slot.

A spray of crimson flies from the slot, drenching the patrons in front of the stage. Amber starts screaming and kicking her legs violently. That’s…new. One last kick forces the bottom half of the lid open, and Amber’s lower half jumps out of the box and starts running around the stage, leaving a snail trail of blood and viscera in its wake. Amber’s screams intensify, and the audience is starting to panic. “Don’t worry folks,” Velma calls out, “it’s all part of the act!” Throwing the chainsaw to one side, she tackles Amber’s legs and manages to wrestle them back into the box. She slams the lid and tries to push the box offstage, but she can’t get any traction on the blood-soaked floor. Distracted by trying to figure out what went wrong, and wondering what the typical prison sentence for magic-related manslaughter might be, Velma almost doesn’t notice when the lid flies back open and Amber steps out on shaky-but-not-severed legs.

The panicky, gore-drenched audience freezes, then bursts into a deafening round of applause. Velma figures, what the hell, and takes a bow. “Thank you, thank you. And let’s hear it for Amber! Wasn’t she great folks?” Amber, confused and traumatized for life, staggers offstage. Velma just smiles and turns back to the crowd. “You’ve been a great audience! Give yourselves a hand, guys—I’m sure you were planning on doing that later anyway! I have been the Amazing Velma! Thank you and goodnight!”

“You put on one heck of a show.”

Velma, busy hosing off all of her equipment in the alley behind the club, hadn’t heard her approach. “Oh, you! Hi there. Yeah, tonight was…different.”

The woman smiles. “I must say, you handled it quite well. The psychic impression didn’t slow you down at all, and you barely even blinked at that grisly display at the end. Such immediate adaptation to the bizarre and impossible is quite impressive, and the fact that you readily took credit for it indicates the sort of moral plasticity we look for in a candidate.”

Velma’s jaw drops. “It was you! I thought you were a talent scout! How did you—”

The woman laughs. “A simple trick, my dear. Nothing compared to the sort of power I’m here to offer you. And you’re not too far off. They call me the Headhunter,” she says, extending her hand. Velma wipes her own on her pants and returns the handshake. “I represent an organization of illusionists and sorcerers who have enlisted my services to recruit new talent. And you, Velma, are quite the talent.

“No, I’m just a stage magician!” Velma says, shaking her head. “That back there…that was Magic. Honest-to-god, capital-M Magic. And it was not me!”

“No. But it could be. That and so much more. This was just a taste of what we have to offer. The tip of the iceberg. You’ve got the sort of attitude we look for in new talent. A hunger for more, and a willingness to do do whatever it takes to get it.”

“I’ve gotta say, it sounds—well, besides impossible—too good to be true. You’re just gonna make me magic, for, like, no reason?”

“Of course not! Everything has some sort of price. In this case, it’s a trifling thing. All we’d ask in return is that you make yourself available to our organization from time to time for…special engagements.”

“Like…corporate retreats and stuff?”

“Sure. Corporate retreats, team-building exercises, unholy crusades, industry conferences—that sort of thing.”

Velma feels like she might have missed something, but she’s lost in the daydream. “And otherwise, I’m free to do whatever I want? Take my show on the road? Travel the country?”

The Headhunter smiles and pats her on the cheek. “Dear girl. You won’t need to go anywhere. With the power you’re about to have, they’ll come to see you.”

She can see it. Her name in lights. Headlining on the Vegas Strip. Tourists from all over the world, flocking to the desert to watch her, and the miracles she can perform. Piss off, Criss Angel! The Amazing Velma’s in town, and she’s taking over!

“Abraca-@#$%ing-dabra! When do I start?”