Locked in his private hell at the end of the hall, in an ordinary room, was a man held hostage by himself. He had a gun aimed at his head. His demands could not be met and he wanted to die. He had no illusions about God or what to expect. Nothingness. An infinite non-existence. The so-called Supreme Being was nothing more than a fabrication inside the mind, implanted there by deluded ancestors. Propaganda passed on through the ages. This notion of an omniscient god was no more than what a night-light served for children, a lie that reassured – like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny – providing false hope. The lapse in his will to pull the trigger was only the body’s innate mechanism for self-preservation, not the result of any superstitious fear. And the paranoia? This strange sensation urging him to think he was not alone. It was a biochemical trick! An elaborate illusion. Something he knew quite well – knowing how to recognize the signs. Magic being his forté. The way he dazzled audiences night after night by walking on water, being murdered and coming back to life, among other tricks. As a magician he admired all the great ones from Houdini to Christ. He had won contests and awards as a child from his sleight-of-hand manipulations – making coins disappear and doves emerge as if out of nowhere. Achievements that meant little until he mastered the ability to escape imminent death – locked in cages sunk underwater or trapped in boxes pierced by swords. Only then did he begin to believe in his own powers. Elevating his game to a new level. He invented a guillotine that lopped him off at the neck. Guided by a voice from this severed head, his body groped blindly until reattaching itself. He performed inside stadiums filled to capacity, deceiving the masses into believing they witnessed an airplane full of passengers explode, vanish – reappear. Critics could find no flaws. Nor could the naysayers who plotted to expose his illusions and discredit him. Proclaimed a genius, he wandered the hotel lobbies and streets late into the night, unable to rest or find peace and concluding that life was no longer preferable to death. Beneath the intricate layers of deception he had devised – polished to a spectacular sheen – he knew he was nothing more than an exceptionally gifted fraud. The need to beguile others into believing he possessed extraordinary powers had once been gratifying and provided some solace. But the public’s expectations and demand for grander thrills grew to be excruciating – a burden as palpable as a lead weight. What began as a boy’s fanciful hobby, an amusing diversion turned career, changed into a dangerous obsession and relentless pursuit to invent near-impossible stunts. A chronic manic challenging of the mind to discover another miraculous creation, like finding a rare diamond only he could bring to light. The reward was euphoria. The dullest environments became bright, the people interesting and the air worth breathing. In the aftermath, a collapse, a requirement of rest in which he suffered the miasma of doubt and self-loathing. He sank into a listless bog of drowning depression. Voices mocked and jeered. Artfully disguised to sound like his ex-wife or one of his many fired assistants, or a member of his estranged family. All of whom he had made disappear from his life. But being a devout pragmatist he refused to heed the call of these avenging furies and seductive sirens who sought to lure him to madness with songs crashing upon rocks that shored disastrous truth. Still these phantoms proved difficult to remove, more than straight-jackets, locks and chains, or the nailed confines of an interred coffin. He held firm, his finger crooked on the trigger, refusing to heed or concede to delusions, yet he confessed: No, he was not a pleasant man! Neither had his father nor had his mother been. Whatever he did was never quite right or enough to please them. Not once had he received their praise without a disclaimer attached. Cheap with kindness, the way they were with money – hoarding and withholding. His revenge? Forcing them to admit (if only by proxy) that he was more gifted than they would ever be. Love, like God, had a place in his heart. Both displayed as plastic trinkets. The four-letter word hanging from a rearview mirror. And the crux of a plastic Jesus was stuck to his limousine dashboard. Rarely did his passengers appreciate the sardonic humor. Not even the woman he married, after vowing to love him, whose sincerity he doubted – and, true to form, divorcing him, not even wanting his money, proving in a perverse way maybe she had loved him. Which left only his employees, whom he demanded nothing less than perfection – an imperative or the illusions would fail. Therefore he was monetarily generous to vouchsafe his career. His infamous temper was to be accepted as part of the job description (although unwritten) if his assistants wished to collect their inflated paychecks and fat bonuses. But still, the want was endless. Everyone demanded something he was unwilling to give. Unlike his cat, with fur the color of mercury, tolerating him, and he tolerant of her. Not so with his sister and brother who joked at the last family gathering by comparing him to Doctor Frankenstein – with lightning bolts and his monster – a mad scientist! Dismissing his career as a freak show. Their laughter was like a cascade of bees buzzing and swarming inside his brain, to sting havoc, to taunt him to pull down on the god-damned trigger. Tears were squeezed from his eyes, squinting as he unlocked the void by pressing the latch. His only prayer – for this agony to end. The gun exploding. His head shattering to pieces. Shards of a mirror collapsing and scattering across the floor. Stunned, he stared. At a bullet hole in the wall. All the crazed voices sucked inside. The pain of locks and chains vanishing too. He pushed at the chunks of glass with his shoe, examining the pieces, as if clues to a puzzle. Once convinced he was alive and not dead, he laughed, acknowledging the fact. In appreciation of the magic. Even smiling, not even wanting to know how the illusion worked. To know would nullify the trick. But he knew, beyond a skeptic’s doubt, he had escaped death not on his own. He had received help from an anonymous assistant.