The topic was Disillusionment. I decided to take the word literally. If you are disillusioned, you have no illusions left. This suggested that my story should be about a person whose business was based around the production of illusions. Without illusions, he would be ruined. Naturally he would find this annoying. Who had removed his ability to produce illusions and why (and how) had they done it? I wrote the first 500 words and got completely stuck. I had no idea how to proceed.
So I tried again. I threw my 500 words away and re-wrote the beginning, only to come to a standstill at the same place. But this time there was the glimmer of an idea lurking in the fragment. I noodled around with it and eventually got to the end of the story. Rather to my surprise, I found that I had a coherent plot and a motive that drove it. All I needed now was the means and the opportunity. That required me to re-write the first 500 words one more time so that I could foreshadow the ending and make it look a bit less like a deus ex machina. By now, I was getting tired of writing the first 500 words again and again. I hoped I wouldn't have to do it any more. Fortunately this time the words stuck and I decided the story was finished.
I don't know why my viewpoint character is called Mandrell except that he insisted that I had to call him that. So I went along with what he wanted. Maybe if I did that I wouldn't have to re-write the first 500 words any more. The other two characters are named after suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The identity of the detective is a little hommage to Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op. The rather mannered style that I used to tell the story owes a lot to the late, great Jack Vance, a writer I admire above all others.
Actually, thinking about it, it's really rather a busy story, full of references to this, that and the other. I particularly like the first 500 words...
For many years Mandrell had made a comfortable living as a master of illusion. But now someone had disillusioned him and he was furious. For the last month, no matter how much he concentrated, his illusions had become feeble things that spluttered and went out within seconds of manifesting themselves. As a result of this, not only was his pride hurt but his business was suffering as well. His customers laughed at his invoices and refused to pay them. In his heart of hearts, Mandrell could not bring himself to blame them.
Gloomily he re-read the letter that had marked the start of his disillusionment. It had come from a client called Joondalup:
The illusion of grace that I purchased from you has failed me in embarrassing ways. At last weeks grand ball the illusion ceased to work and as a result I spent every dance treading on my partners toes. I am humiliated and must spend my money on sackcloth and ashes. I cannot pay your bill for that broken illusion.
Mandrell sighed. He had no choice now. He would have to take his case to a detective. He really needed to hunt down whoever was responsible for his plight. Remonstrations were in order. He cast an illusion and demanded that it tell him the name of the best detective in the city but, as always seemed to happen these days, the illusion faded away leaving inconclusive results in its wake. Only one course of action remained. Mandrell swallowed his pride and sought information from Wanneroo, a business rival who he suspected might well be the actual cause of his sorrows. He certainly had the necessary skills, and all is fair in love and business. Mandrell did not enjoy the irony involved in his consultation..
"I am in need of a detective," he said.
Wanneroo nodded sagely. "I suggest you consult a fourth order illusion," he said. "Such chimera are well known to have access to that level of knowledge." He gave no hint of having heard about the difficulties that Mandrell was currently experiencing. Yet how could he not know? In Mandrells experience, Wanneroo had always been well connected to the gossip of the district. Again, he wondered if Wanneroo could be responsible for his plight. Perhaps his silence on the subject was a diplomatic one.
"I considered it," said Mandrell, sidestepping the nature of his problem, "but it seemed to me that bias might be evinced if I took such an action on my own behalf."
"The possibility exists," admitted Wanneroo, raising a quizzical eyebrow. "Perhaps you will allow me to undertake the task for you? My fees are modest. My results are unequivocal."
Mandrell hated being beholden to Wanneroo but he could see no other path of action. "Please do," he said, "but be aware that I do not have a bottomless purse."
"That will not be an issue," said Wanneroo smoothly and he quickly moulded the essences necessary to manifest a fourth order illusion. Sourly, Mandrell noticed its sharp edges and bright colours. The illusion looked quizzically at Wanneroo who said, "We need a detective."
"Of course," said the illusion. "The Intercontinental Op is well known for his skill and discretion."
"Thank you," said Wanneroo, and the illusion faded smoothly away. Mandrell felt a pang of jealousy. "I will invoice you in due course," said Wanneroo. Mandrell nodded glumly and took his leave.
* * * *
The Intercontinental Op was short and fat, though he was also vague and blurred. If Mandrell concentrated hard, he found that he could keep the Op in focus for brief periods but generally it was easier on his willpower not to make the effort. Consequently the Op stayed undefined throughout most of the interview. It seemed to Mandrell that the Ops talent for keeping himself so vague would be useful in his line of work. It would encourage indiscretions when the Op asked questions of a suspect. What possible harm could there be in talking to a vague blur? It was a genuinely clever illusion and Mandrell wondered who the Op had bought it from. Certainly Mandrell had not sold it to him. Perhaps this was another of Wanneroos ubiquitous illusions.
"I have been disillusioned," Mandrell explained to The Intercontinental Op, "and therefore I can no longer make a living at my profession. I suspect that Wanneroo may have engineered my difficulties, but I have no direct evidence that he is involved."
"I see," said the Op. Even his voice was nondescript and unmemorable. "I notice," he continued drily, "that the information that brought you to me bears the hallmarks of one of Wanneroo's fourth order illusions. This suggests his innocence in the matter. Why would he send you to me if he bore you ill will? He knows that I am the very best at what I do. I always follow the trail to its conclusion. If he is plotting against you I will surely discover it. If such were the case, it would be in his own interests to keep both of us far apart."
Mandrell made a gesture of negation. "Perhaps you and he are working together," he said. "Did you purchase your vague illusion from him?"
"On the contrary," said the Op. "The illusion is contrived from my own essences. Not all illusionists sell themselves in the marketplace. Some utilise their skills to achieve other ends. I myself prefer to match my illusionary skills against those who do not conform to societal norms."
"I consider myself admonished," said Mandrell. "Will you take my case?"
"I will," said the Intercontinental Op.
* * * *
Several days passed and Mandrells illusions ceased to manifest themselves at all. Reluctantly he hung a sign on his door: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. He considered it for a moment and then added a codicil: THIS IS NOT AN ILLUSION. The paradox pleased him. Small pleasures were all that remained to him now. A vague blur moved by the window and Mandrell opened the door to let the Intercontinental Op into his workroom.
"You have a client called Joondalup," said the Intercontinental Op without preamble. "He is responsible for your recent problems."
"How can this be?" asked Mandrell. "And how was it achieved?"
"Perhaps you overreached yourself when you sold him an illusion of grace," said the Op. "He felt greatly discomfited when his grace deserted him at the ball, and so he determined to blacken your reputation. To that end, he purchased an illusion of failure from Wanneroo. Then he wrote you a letter of complaint and enclosed the illusion with it. Ever since you received his letter you have been under the illusion that you have been disillusioned, though of course you have not. Because of this you are no longer able to perceive your own successes. Each triumph manifests as tragedy, and every tragedy reinforces the original illusion of failure thereby making the situation spiral out of control as the failures multiply."
"So this really is Wanneroos fault," said Mandrell.
"Not at all, said the Op. "Wanneroo is involved only from a distance. His transaction with Joondalup was purely commercial. He himself feels no animosity towards you. Indeed, I doubt that he even knew what Joondalup intended to do with the illusion."
"What can I do to rescue the situation?" asked Mandrell.
"I suggest that you visit Wanneroo and purchase an illusion of success from him," said the Op. "Such a negation of your illusion of failure will quickly restore your powers."
"And Wanneroo gets paid by both parties involved in the transaction," said Mandrell bitterly. "No wonder he grows so rich, so quickly."
"Thats how business works," said the Op.
"I am puzzled as to why my illusion of grace failed so badly," pondered Mandrell. "It has always sold well in the past and it has saved many a social situation from temperamental extremes."
"Joondalup is my cousin," said the Intercontinental Op. He cleared his throat and his blurred edges grew even more indistinct. "He and I are rivals in love," he continued hesitantly. "Because of this I took suitable remedial action against him, designed to prevent his seduction of my sweetheart at the ball."
"So," said Mandrell, "it seems that I must hold you responsible for my present difficulties. If you had not been blinded by love I would not have been disillusioned."
"I had no knowledge of the action my cousin would take when I disabled his illusion of grace," protested the Op. "I only discovered what he had done during the course of my investigations."
"That does not lessen your culpability," said Mandrell. "Tell me, are you happy with your sweetheart?"
"Yes I am," said the Op and the vague blur sharpened again and turned a soft shade of blue.
"I am pleased for you," Mandrell said musingly. "Are you aware that my best illusion is one of impotence?"
"I will gladly waive my fee for this case." said the Intercontinental Op hastily.