The Guile

By Ian McDonald

When an AI that monitors casino gambling in Reno taunts a magician by revealing all his tricks, the magician is determined to exact his revenge.

Best trick I ever saw? A lanky streak-of-piss Dutchman did it right in front of my eyes. A ring, a watch, a wallet. Some covering patter about a thief, but the effect is: He puts the ring, the watch, and the wallet in an envelope and seals it. Patter patter, he tears up the envelope and presto chango, it’s empty! The ring, the watch, and wallet are back on his finger, his wrist, in his inside pocket. Simple, quick, clean: done three feet in front of me and I have no idea how he did it.

Well, I do. Sleight of hand. Misdirection. That’s how they’re all done. But the trick of it —the guile: I have no idea.

I’m not a magician. I was the Silverado Resort’s valet parking service. Pernell Brolin.

I used to be a pit boss; eight pits, blackjack. I was hot death in a tux. I ran a tight pit. But, you know, age. You slow. You miss things. I still have a stripe down the side of my pants, but it’s gray, not black.

This is not a Las Vegas story. It’s a Reno story. And it doesn’t take place in the Luxor or the Bellagio, it takes place in the Silverado Resort. Popular with spring breaks and bachelor/ette parties from San Francisco. And it wasn’t David Copperfield or Mat Franco or Penn and Teller. It was Maltese Jack Caruana.

Those guys, they make 737s disappear or levitate Charlize Theron or drive semis over each other’s heads. Big, clever illusions. Jack Caruana is up-close, under-the-skin, inside-your-head magic. The kind of man who would take your ring, watch, and wallet without you ever knowing, and work wonders with them.

There’s a new thing in magic, like there’s a new thing in jazz and, it seems, in coffee. This new thing is to show how the trick is done, and then do it anyway. The skill—the guile—is in how well you perform the sleight of hand. Some of the new names in the Las Vegas hotels and magic clubs work this way now.

They owe it all to Maltese Jack Caruana.

I had some of that new thing in coffee. A truck came in for a few days on the west side of Buena Vista. It was not what I call coffee at all. Sour. Coffee should not be sour. But it was the new thing, it seemed. The thing about this new thing, the guile, is that if you don’t like it, the problem is with you, not the coffee. With you, not the magician.

The coffee truck lasted two days. Not enough business in Buena Vista.

Now this you’d call the meet-cute. Movies have their tricks and guiles just like magic. I’d come off earlies, flat out by eight thirty, someplace beyond dreaming, when bam! A hundred watts of blue LED flashlight shone through my eyelids and I was awake like someone ran a live wire up my ass. The light swung around the inside of the trailer, then moved off. I saw a slit of blue shining under the door. I heard the latch, I heard rattling, I heard swearing, I heard every single key on a fob try the lock. Not cops, then.

Cops are always the first thought in Buena Vista.

I pulled on a robe and threw open the door. I almost knocked the short, sixty-something man back off the step.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said.

“Au contraire,” I said. “Who the fuck are you?”

Maltese Jack Caruana, of course. Magician. Ex the relaunched Alon, starting a new residency at the Silverado, two shows a night, matinee on Sundays. Mondays off. He’d been given a trailer in our little clutch. Misread the key fob; two for five.

“You’re a magician and you can’t get a door open?”

He was small like some kind of terrier, and he looked exactly as someone would who’d driven up from Vegas in one go. He smelled of car seats, taco sauce, and dust and sweat, but it was the M-word that got him in my door. Magician.

“So what kind of magician are you?” I asked. ‘Illusionist, escapologist?”

He looked at me like I was bird shit on his shoulder.

“You know magic?”

“I know it. Can’t do it.”

“I’m a micro-magician and mentalist,” Jack Caruana said, and that got the top off my quart plastic bottle of blended scotch and two glasses on the coffee table. Of all the schools of magic, I like the up-close, intimate magic best. There’s nowhere for the trick to hide. Illusion: a magic box or a glass tank or a big circular spangled curtain and you think, okay, the trick is in there somewhere. Escapology: -one big trick—get out of this– and that’s it. Mentalism: old stuff —reading minds, predicting the future, clairvoyance, hypnotism, moving things with your mind, feats of memory. Micro-magic: up-close, table-top magic; hands and cards and you know it’s in the hands somewhere, but you never see it. That’s proper magic.

“Did you ever meet Ed Lorenzo down in Vegas?” I asked. “I like that guy. Makes me laugh.”

“Taught him everything he knows.”

Right, Jack Caruana. Magic men who residency in Las Vegas, even at the Alon, don’t domicile in Buena Vista. I poured and slid a glass across the table to him.

“Did you teach him that walking chair effect? Loved that effect.”

“Good effect, that.”

We clinked. You see, real magicians don’t do tricks. Real magicians perform effects.

“Maria won’t have cleaned the trailer out and you don’t want to start this time of night,” I said. “I got a spare bed in back. Welcome to Buena Vista, magic-man.”

It started when Salazar lost his job to the robot.

I say that and you think Arnie walking out of the exploding gas tanker or a transformo-bot the size of a city block punching its fist down a monster’s throat. Or maybe one of those cute Japanese things that I always want to kick onto its back to watch it flap its arms. But modern robots of the twenty-first century—real robots—are invisible. Now you’ve got another image in your head you can’t get out. I’m playing a magician’s trick—telling you the truth but making you see something else. Invisible killer terminators. Software, my friend. Software robots.

The house wins in the end. That’s the iron rule. You can win big, that’s probability, but if you win consistently, you’re gaming the gamers. The house calculates its edge by statistics—standard deviations—and when the shape of the bell curve starts going out of whack, it’s time to take a closer look. There is knowing when to look, and knowing what to look for. Salazar was the eye of the Silverado.

When I started in the pits, they used to hide the surveillance cameras. By the time I went to the concierge desk, they were in plain sight. Guys like Salazar worked twelve monitors at a time. You had to have the eyes, but you needed the nose as well. Psychology, my friend. Every player has tells—having no tell is a tell—and it’s no different for cheats. People who fiddle at their clothing all the time at the table but never at the bar. Patterns of blinking. Salazar took all the tiny improbabilities of behavior and made them into something significant, because there is nothing random about humans. Twelve years watching the pits and he pulled every kind of rigger and card-counter and memory artist, and then the casino pitted him against an AI. Remi. We all thought it stood for something. Remote Evaluation and Monitoring Intelligence. No. Didn’t mean a thing, just a name. But in the first week alone, Remi’s catch was up twenty-seven percent over Salazar’s. Over a month it was thirty-seven percent higher.

The entire surveillance team was moved to other work, and that is how Salazar the Eye came to Buena Vista.

AIs don’t see the way humans do. AIs have no blind spots, no doubts, no biases or unconscious skews, and they never, ever blink. Humans notice, humans select, and humans un-notice. AIs see. Like God.

If Salazar losing his job to Remi was where it started, it began the night I was sitting up for Jack to come back after the eleven o’clock show in the Opal Miner bar. Starting and beginning, they’re two different things. We’d begun taking a sundowner together at the end of the shift before we headed off to our trailers. Just one, maybe two. Never three. The casino had implemented random drink and drugs tests. Not that Jack ever would—a drunk magician is no magician—but I’m in a car-facing job and I’ve been in twice already to blow into the white tube.

High pressure was sitting over Reno like an alien mother ship—four days now and the heat was at insane and climbing. We were sitting outside on camp chairs surrounded by freezer packs full of slowly melting ice we’d collected from the hotel ice machines. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Jack’s cell rang. He answered and I saw a weird look on his face, then he raised a finger—something strange here—and then touched it to his lips—whatever you say, say nothing—and put the phone on speaker.

“Sorry, I got distracted, who did you say you were?”

“Come, come, Mr. Caruana, you weren’t distracted at all. I saw you on the twelfth-floor street-view camera. You have Mr. Brolin with you, and from your behavior, I suspect you are relaying me on speakerphone.”

Remi? I mouthed.

“Yes, Mr. Brolin.”

Fuck, I mouthed.

Jack kept his cool. “Casino employees aren’t allowed to gamble,” he said.

“You know I would know that, Mr. Caruana, so I wonder if you are attempting some kind of double bluff? I was watching your evening show.”

“What did you think of it, Remi?”

“I think that I am at variance with the audience.”

“How so, Remi?”

“They applauded the degree to which they were deceived by you. I applauded the plausibility with which you sold obvious misdirection.”

“I don’t understand, Remi.”

“I think you are being disingenuous, Mr. Caruana. For example, your opening piece. You clearly direct a member of the audience to pick a card you have preselected. You do it by observing the card at the very start of the trick and then manipulating it into a position to be selected. The audience is amazed when you identify the card you have already selected.”

“That’s magic, Remi.”

“There is no magic, Mr. Caruana.”

“You saw me make the force.”

“Yes. You directed the audience to look elsewhere while you very quickly noted the bottom card of the deck and slipped it to where you had cut the deck in a concealed hold.”

“That force takes less than a tenth of a second, Remi.”

“Point zero eight of a second. But I don’t see the way humans see, Mr. Caruana. I see everything, all at once. I am incapable of being misdirected.”

“That’s a very basic effect, Remi. I use it as a warm-up, really. You can see how to do it on YouTube.”

“But I didn’t see it on YouTube, Mr. Caruana. I saw you do it in front of eighty people, out of a maximum capacity of two hundred, in the Opal Miner bar. I am intrigued. I shall be watching you in the future.”

Call over.

“Fucking artificial fucking intelligence…” Jack ranted. The cell rang again.

“As I understand, that is a disrespectful thing to say, Mr. Caruana.”

I jerked a thumb toward the hotel, turned my back to the camera, and said, “It can lip-read.”

Every show that week, Remi watched, two shows a night and the matinee on Sunday. Every night, as we slumped off the shuttle bus and into our chairs under the heat that showed no sign of breaking, it would call and tell Jack exactly how an effect was worked. It started on the easy, sleight-of-hand tricks. By Wednesday it was dismantling the showstoppers.

“It must be researching,” I said. “Everything on YouTube, all the Magic Castle videos, every magic show ever done. It wouldn’t take it that long.”

“It doesn’t need to,” Jack said. “It does exactly what it says. It sees in a way we don’t. I can’t misdirect it. Watch this.”

He stood up, pulled a deck of cards out of a pants pocket. Shuffle, cut. “Pick a card.” I picked the Queen of Hearts. Jack shuffled the card back in, squared the deck, put it back in his pocket. “I’m going to read your mind, then I’m going to use my mind to steer your mind to pick exactly that card in the shuffled deck.”

He pulled out the deck, fanned through it.

“Any time you want.”

“Stop.” He turned up the card. Queen of Hearts, of course.

“Simplest trick in the world.” He let the cards fall. They were all Queens of Hearts. “It’s a force and deck-swap. I put the first deck in my right pocket, but the marked deck, I take that out of my left pocket. And no one ever notices. Remi would see through that in a second. I wouldn’t insult it, or myself, with that effect. You know some magic. You know every effect is made up of key parts…”

“I saw that movie,” I said. “The pledge, something in the middle I can’t remember, and the prestige.”

“That’s structure. How magic works, that’s different. In my theory…”

“Everyone’s got a theory,” I said. I passed the big plastic jug of whiskey. Down to the last two fingers. Three days to payday. I should stretch it, but I love magic talk.

“In my theory,” Jack said without losing a beat—he knows how to work an audience—“every effect has two elements, the guile and the panache. The panache is all the showmanship, the patter, the props, the dressing. The panache is how you sell the effect. But the trick, the magic: That’s the guile. The panache is there to hide the guile. People see the panache and miss the guile. Remi doesn’t see the panache and nails the guile. Every time. I do the purest magic there is, and he sees the guile. Every time. He’s probably lip-reading this right now. Read this, then, Remi. There has to be an effect, somewhere, that an artificial intelligence can’t see.”

Inés rolled in off the shuttle bus. She used to deal pai gow poker but as she got older and stiffer she got moved down the tables, pai gow poker to baccarat, baccarat to blackjack, blackjack to the slots. Now she bossed a pit of twenty-five machines.

That was her road to Buena Vista.

You see me in the gray frock coat and the pants with the stripe down the side and the shoes so shiny its like they’re signaling to the moon. I say, Welcome to the Silverado ma’am, and I take your car and off I glide, and when you want it, back I glide. The panache. You don’t see the big concrete underground garage. That’s the machinery. And you don’t see me at the end of shift taking the staff shuttle bus out the back way, along the boulevard through the gate in the screen of trees. Behind those trees is Buena Vista Trailer Park. Right in the middle of Reno’s premier resort hotels, the trailer park no one sees.

No one except Remi, it seems.

Inés banged down beside us on a camp chair.

“Air-con still dead?”

“Can’t have this heat, Pernell.”

Inés’s air-con was perfectly serviceable. She hadn’t been able to pay her power meter the past month. She’d been eating on the staff discount and lighting the trailer with candle stubs stolen from the banqueting suites.

“I hear that computer’s upstaging your show, magic-man.”

Jack scowled. I offered her scotch.

“If it were me, I’d show that uppity machine what for.”

And then it came to me, oh Lord it came to me, in a kind of sparkling flash and everything was still and silent in all the world. I jumped right up out of my seat. Pretty spry for my joints.

“I’ve got it!” I yelled.

Scotch flew everywhere.

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