Robbie was down on his luck. As he sat on the front porch surrounded by streamers and balloons, he reflected on his choices that had brought him to this very spot. He had always loved magic and performance as a child, and had been a member of his local magic circle as a teenager. He had dreamed of one day being a great magician with a stage show of his own in Vegas, but he had sadly never progressed past the children's party stage. He was getting on a bit now, and his act was getting old. He had performed at the birthday parties of most of the neighbourhood kids for almost a decade, and they were tired of the same, stale material. What he needed was a shot in the arm, a new routine - something special, something magic. What Robbie needed was a gimmick.
Today, he was considering packing it all in. The kids at the party hadn't enjoyed his performance, and neither had he. The birthday boy had actually burst into tears at one stage, and the parents had suggested he call it a day. Now, as he waited for his ride, a little earlier than planned, he questioned where his life was going, and whether there was any magic left in it at all. It didn't seem so right now - the time and effort he put into his magic acts outweighed the money - or lack of - that he made from his performances.
He was silent all the ride home, and by the time he got in he had decided - he was finally done with magic. He felt relieved, having made the decision at last. It had been coming on for a while, and the ruined birthday party had sealed the deal. There was no pleasure in making other people miserable. In his head he heard his parents' voices telling him it was time grow up and move on from magic. He'd given it a good go, no-one could deny that, but in this age of cell phones and social media, his kind of magic was a redundant, childish pursuit. Robbie went to bed early, lulled into an uneasy sleep by a few beers, flitting from bad dream to bad dream until his alarm clock went off at an ungodly hour.
He was putting bread in the toaster when there was a thump at the door. The newspaper boy was obviously early on his round this morning. Robbie figured the least he could do was to look to see what job ads were in the paper - make an early start to his new life. When he opened the front door and looked down, there wasn't a newspaper in sight. Instead, a felt top hat and a white-tipped magician's wand were in the centre of the doorstep.
Robbie looked at them, bemused. Someone was having a laugh, and a cruel one at that. He looked up and down the street, but no-one seemed to be about. He was tempted to slam the door and leave them there to show that he didn't appreciate the joke. There was something about the hat, however, that made him want to pick it up and put it on. He gathered up both the hat and wand and retreated back into the house.
Back in the kitchen, he placed the hat upside-down on the table and returned his attention to the toaster. The wand seemed to roll off the table of its own accord, and hit the floor just as Robbie was turning around. He bent down, frowning, picked it up and returned it to where he had left it, on top of the hat. There was a soft thudding noise from under the hat.
Robbie picked the hat up and found a small white rabbit sitting underneath it. He gasped and dropped the hat back down over the rabbit. He stared at the hat and the wand, and then tapped the hat with the wand. There was a scrabbling sound and then another thud. Robbie picked up the hat again, and found that the rabbit had been replaced with a white dove.
The dove flapped its wings and flew up to perch on top of the kitchen cabinet. Robbie looked from the hat to the dove and back again. He upturned the hat on the table and tapped the brim with the wand. Unbelievably, the dove flew down and landed in the hat, where it promptly disappeared. Robbie looked inside the hat, but there was no dove, and no rabbit.
What he did see was a gold label sewn in to the felt of the hat. It had swirling letters written in black, which he read aloud.
'The Great Robbino.' Robbie laughed. That was what he had called himself as a boy when he put on magic shows for his family. He had learned card tricks and simple slight of hand, but they were just that - tricks. This was magic - real magic.
For the next few weeks, Robbie played around with the hat, practising old tricks, and inventing new ones. The hat worked like a charm, doing whatever he wanted it to, and then some. He tested his new routine on a few children's parties, and found that he was all of a sudden getting more bookings. People wanted to see the rabbit turn into a dove, to see cards burst into flames of their own accord, only to drop into the hat and come out whole again.
The trade-off was that he didn't see his friends and family much. When he wasn't performing, The Great Robbino was at home, squirreled away with the hat and wand, testing its limits, seeing how it could stretch him as a magician. He didn't care much for the world outside. He let the mail build up, and let the newspapers pile up by the front door.
Once he was confident that he knew how to work the hat and wand, he decided to film short clips of his new magic routines with his smartphone and upload them to the internet. He immediately expanded his audience, and his magic act bookings went through the roof. People enjoyed his seemingly impossible magic, and he enjoyed the adoration. His career was going from strength to strength, until the day he received the message.
He was going through his new morning routine - answering fan mail and email queries, checking his online videos for any comments - when he noticed a new unread message in his inbox. He opened it up, and read a single line of text gave him chills:
I SEE YOU FOUND MY HAT.
It was only six words, but they turned his world upside down. Someone out there knew about the hat, and by extension, what it could do. If they new that the hat was his source of magic, they also knew that he was a fraud. It was someone else's magic, not his. He thought back to the day before he had found the hat on his doorstep - back to that awful birthday party that had made him want to call it quits.
The Great Robbino was only "Great" because of the hat. Without out it, he was Robbie the failure. Someone, somewhere knew this. He checked the sender's name, but it was a series of numbers without an image associated with it. He decided to pause his video uploads for now, and to keep his magic to local functions and parties. Even so, a week later he woke up to see another six-word message:
I WOULD LIKE MY HAT BACK.
This time, he replied. He sent a message asking who the person was, and what he meant. He tried to play dumb, pretending that he didn't know anything about any hat. The response chilled him even more than the original message had:
YOU, SIR, ARE IN POSSESSION OF A MAGICIAN'S HAT AND WAND THAT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU. YOU MAKE THINK IT DOES, BECAUSE YOU FOUND YOUR NAME INSIDE, BUT THAT LABEL HAS READ MY NAME AND MANY OTHERS DURING ITS TIME, AND WILL IN FACT READ THE NAMES OF OTHERS WHEN THE HAT DECIDES TO LEAVE YOU. AND IT WILL LEAVE YOU, WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE IT HAPPENED TO ME. I HAD SPENT YEARS LOOKING FOR MY HAT, WITHOUT A CLUE WHERE IT HAD GONE, UNTIL I CAME ACROSS YOUR VIDEOS. NOW I KNOW YOU HAVE IT, I WOULD LIKE MY HAT BACK.
The Great Robbino turned the hat around in his hands, trying to see if there were any marks on the gold label that might show where other names had been written. There was, of course, nothing - it was for all intents and purposes his hat, because it had his name on it. He put the hat down on the table and tapped it with the wand.
'What on earth can I do?'
There was a muted clang from inside the hat, and when he gingerly picked the hat up there was a small dagger on the table. He stared at it in disbelief, then put it back in the upturned hat for it to disappear. When he turned the hat and tapped it again with the wand, he heard the same soft clang of metal. Sure enough, the dagger was back.
'That settles it,' he said to himself, picking up the dagger and admiring it.
He replied to his mysterious messenger, arranging to meet in the parking lot of a forestry at the edge of town. His plan was to meet and despatch the messenger, burying the body in a shallow grave in the forestry. He would dispose of the dagger inside the hat, and then carry on with his life. He had great plans for the hat and wand, and another look at his name on the label made him think that they had great plans for him.
After a day spent pacing through the house, waiting for the sun to go down, The Great Robbino packed a tarpaulin, rope and shovel into the trunk of his car, and, taking the hat, wand and dagger with him, departed for the forestry. When he arrived at the parking lot, there was already a car there with its engine running. It flashed his lights at him, so he pulled up next to it.
An old, white haired man got out of the car and stood, with his arms folded waiting for him to get out. He looked into the hat one more time, and put his hand in ready to pull the dagger out. The overhead light caught the gold label inside the hat, and to Robbie's horror, his name was no longer there. He swallowed, and dipped his hand into the hat, tapping the brim with the wand - the dagger was still there.
He got out of the car, and the old man looked him up and down.
'You're a scrawny one, aren't you?' The old man said, 'You look bigger on the internet.'
'Talk,' Robbie said, cradling the hat protectively in front of him.
'Fine,' the old man sighed, 'my name is Curtis, and the hat and wand came to me when I was a young man, at a juncture in my life when I had stopped believing myself, and more importantly, stopped believing magic. I didn't have the hat for long, but if you search online hard enough, you might find record of Curtis the Magnificent and his marvellous magic hat.'
'This old thing?'
'Where did you get it?'
'I didn't. It got me. It just turned up one day in my life when I least expected it, but when I needed it the most. And, when I became complacent with its power, it simply vanished. And I have searched in vain for years. Until now.'
'I'm not complacent,' Robbie said, 'and if you lost the hat I'm afraid it's finder's keeper's.
Curtis shook his head. 'You should know that magic doesn't deal in absolutes. It isn't just "black magic" or "white magic" - there are spaces in between the evil and the good. It's how you use your magic that counts. What the magic brings out in yourself.'
Robbie gripped dagger inside the hat and stepped forward.
'How badly do you want it back?'
'Badly,' Curtis replied, and pulled a gun from his coat.
Robbie grabbed the hilt of the dagger, and dropping the hat, thrust it forward at Curtis. Curtis looked down and laughed. Robbie followed his gaze and with shock, saw that he was holding a small bunch of flowers.
'Like I said - complacent.'
Curtis raised the gun and fired at Robbie's forehead. Both men watched in disbelief as the gun spat out a stream of coloured handkerchiefs.
'Is that supposed to be a joke?' Robbie demanded.
Curtis, wide-eyed with rage, threw the gun at Robbie in frustration, and in the headlights from both cars, started looking for the hat. Robbie slowly came around from the shock of cheating death and realised that the hat, wand, flowers and handkerchiefs had disappeared.
'Gone!' Curtis cried, and began wailing uncontrollably, 'I can't believe I've lost it again!'
'Listen, Curtis,' Robbie said in what he hoped was a soothing tone, 'magic has obviously made clowns of us both. We were both prepared to commit a serious crime in the name of magic. I think we've come away from this lightly.'
Curtis ignored him and continued to rage around the parking lot, checking under and around both cars. Robbie decided there was no getting through to him, and returned to his car and drove away, leaving Curtis to despair in the forestry. When he arrived home, he gave the place a through search, but the hat and wand were nowhere to be found.
Robbie sat in silence, and realised for the first time ages that he hadn't spoken to any friends or family. The light on his answer machine was flashing red, showing that it was full of messages. The first few were from people wanting to book The Great Robbino. He deleted them all - reflecting that, without the magic hat, The Great Robbino wasn't much magic at all.
He picked up a deck of cards and began shuffling, thinking back to his earliest performances. Start with cards, practice slight of hand, repeat as desired. All a magician needs is one, good signature trick to entertain. No gimmicks, just simple illusion. Robbie fell asleep on the couch and woke up late the next morning.
As he began putting breakfast together, the news bulletin on the radio covered the apparent suicide of a man from out of the county, who had been found dead in his car in the local forestry car park. Robbie felt a cold tingling in his hands. The were few details at the moment, but he didn't need any. He knew he had had a lucky escape the previous night.