One More Race Before We Die
Mike Gagliano, AKA The Necromancer, a mildly successful magician on the Las Vegas-Miami-New Orleans circuit, woke up with a jolt. As he sat straight up in bed, his first impulse was to check the front door to see who was there shouting at him. Then he realized, or thought he realized, it must have been a dream. But just to be sure, he got up, staggered to the living room and looked out the front door’s little peephole. Nothing and nobody.
Gagliano’s “magical” specialty was raising the dearly departed, or at least their voices and apparitions, on stage in front of well-paying, intoxicated and perhaps gullible patrons. Sometimes, he almost fooled himself, if he fooled anyone else. Like the time in Vegas when he conjured up the recently departed uncle of a tearful young man who seemed very sure, or at least hopeful, that Gagliano could bring back at least his uncle’s reassuring voice, if not an image.
Gagliano often asked himself how it was that occasionally one of his conjurations would seem real even to himself. That incident in Vegas shook him up pretty badly; the apparition seemed much more “present” than the usual hazy and ill-defined images his assistant would project onstage using a highly sophisticated secret hologram machine.
But the weirdest thing about the dream voices he heard just now was that there was a sense of urgency in them as they spoke. “Listen up, Mikey,” one voice kept saying. The other voice, a little deeper and with a stronger Jersey accent, kept saying, “Tomorrow night, tomorrow night we’ll talk.” And just as weird was the fact that Gagliano recognized the voices. How many times in the past year had he heard them? They—at least the ones he heard on TV and radio—were the voices of Mario and Riccardo Mescola, a couple of Hoboken brothers who were the reigning champs of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the gold standard of the stock car racing circuit.
The last time Gagliano heard of the “Fratelli Mescola,” as they liked to call themselves lately, was when he was in the grandstands watching the tenth and what was to be the final race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup last Saturday. The race, which took place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on North Las Vegas Boulevard, was as exciting as any stock car race Gagliano had ever seen. The only blemish to the experience—and a very big blemish it was—was the horrific crash halfway through the race. The Mescola brothers were right behind the lead car, driven by “Firooz the Ferocious,” when that driver lost control of his car as the three of them were approaching 200 miles per hour on the straightaway. Both brothers’ cars were hit by the out-of-control lead car, and crashed into the safety wall. Both cars suffered moderate damage, but the drivers—the Mescolas and the lead driver—suffered fatal injuries.
Gagliano, an avid racing fan, was devastated, of course, as was the entire stock-car racing audience. The brothers and Firooz Esfahan, their top competitor were one race away from cinching the Sprint Cup title when this crash ended the race and ended their lives. The crash was so dramatic and tragic that the organizers postponed the repeat of the race for a month.
The rest of his day, a rare overcast day in Las Vegas, was difficult for Gagliano. Dreams like that were a curse, a plague on Gagliano’s condition as a light sleeper. And the fact that his dream featured the Mescolas made it even harder to stay asleep. Only it definitely didn’t feel like a dream at all. It almost felt like he could have spoken to them after they spoke to him—that is if he hadn’t been startled into waking up.
After a listless performance at his evening show at the Venetian Hotel and Casino, Gagliano felt too tired to attend the after-show party or do anything else except head up to his room. It was a little after 11 p.m., normally too early for him to even consider falling asleep. But tonight was different; he had no doubt he would fall asleep practically as soon as he hit the sheets.
He did just that, but woke up almost immediately when he remembered what the Mescola brothers said in his dream the night before.
Then he noticed that he wasn’t really “awake”; he was still asleep, but had entered into some kind of alert dream state. He was no longer in bed, but was sitting in an overstuffed chair in a garishly appointed lobby or reception room. Opposite him sat Mario, Riccardo and Firooz. They were quietly laughing among themselves and having a drink. When they saw that Gagliano had “awakened,” they set down their drinks and got serious.
“Okay, guys, here’s our boy, Mike. Say, Mike, howzabout doin’ us a favor?” Riccardo was staring intently at Gagliano.
Firooz said, “The brothers and I have a favor to ask of you. We learned you were in the audience just as we crashed and were killed. I guess you could say we have some unfinished business.”
Mario added, “We didn’t actually see you in the stands, Mike. We found out you were there a few hours later, when you were doing your show at the Venetian. Spooks like us, we get a kick out of shows like yours. You’re famous up where we are now! Hey, Rickey, remember when we heard about the show where the dude wanted Mikey to call up his uncle on stage? The uncle told us about it right after our crash. Said we should ‘contact’ you and see if you could help us.” Riccardo nodded his head vigorously and smiled.
Gagliano looked from one man to the next, then looked around the room, at his hands, felt his legs and face, and finally accepted the fact that he was really there. “There,” that is, but still in bed at the Venetian dreaming about dead race-car drivers. “Okay, gentlemen, what exactly do you think I can do for you? I’ve never been to medical school, and anyways I doubt the best doctors in the world could bring you three back to life. Did you see that crash? Oh, sorry, of course you did!”
Riccardo said, “You see, Mike, it’s like this. We want to finish what we started, the race, that is, and we hear you’re the guy who can help us.”
“Help you do what? I’ve never even sat in a race car.”
Mario made a motion to a shadowy person in the background, who approached the group. “Another gin and tonic, if you don’t mind.” The waiter literally disappeared and reappeared seconds later and handed a drink to Mario. “Here’s what we’d like you to do for us. Stage one of your shows. The biggest ever. One that will outclass every magic show ever done or ever will be done. Except this time, your show will feature the real deal.”
“What do you mean ‘the real deal’?”
Firooz spoke up. “Mario means that you pull a few strings to convince the NASCAR folks to hire you to set up a kind of pre-race memorial to the three race-car drivers who were killed in the 10th race of the season, that is to say, us, the very guys sitting here talking to you in this lobby of our ‘hotel.’”
“Yeah? What kind of memorial? Do you have something in mind? Are you asking me to put on one of my magic shows or what?”
Riccardo said, “Yeah, set up all your special effects stuff around the starting line of the racetrack, you know, the lights, fog machines, hologram projectors, the whole nine yards. Even set out our damaged cars at the starting line. We’ll do the rest.”
“And what exactly is ‘the rest’?”
“Why, a race, of course, a kind of last lap, so to speak.”
“Are you saying you want me to create this massive illusion of you three in your wrecked cars doing a lap around the track?”
“Not exactly an illusion,” replied Mario. “Well, I guess it would be an illusion of sorts. An illusion of an illusion, if you will. We hear you’re the guy who can pull it off. Or pull us through, to be more precise.”
Firooz said, “Look, we’ll take care of the illusion part. Just like the dude’s uncle did in that show of yours. You’re famous, and for good reason. We have faith in you. We’ll even pull a few strings with our acquaintances at NASCAR.”
Gagliano was trying to digest everything he had just heard, when he noticed the three of them, along with the hotel lobby, were starting to fade away. The next thing he was aware of was his alarm clock going off in his hotel room. He sat up, looked out the lightening sky, and buzzed for room service.
The next three weeks passed as if Mike was in a dream. Maybe I am, he thought. Because of his stellar reputation as the famous illusionist, The Necromancer encountered absolutely no opposition to his idea of putting a jumbo magic act at the starting line of the repeat of the 10th race, a fitting memorial to three of the racing world’s most famous icons: Firooz Esfahani, Mario Mescola and Riccardo Mescola. NASCAR would even pay Gagliano for the show.
But Mike was a little worried; more than a little worried, in fact. He had always believed in the possibility of the dead “coming back” to make an appearance in his shows; the incident with the dead uncle was just one example, even if it was a rare example. This time, however, what the Mescolas and Esfahani were asking seemed over the top. Mike resigned himself to thinking that—worse case scenario—the spectacle would pass muster even if all that happened was lots of fog and noise along with a hologram projection of race cars going around the track. How he would pull off that illusion was something he hadn’t quite figured out yet, and he only had a week to think of a way to do it.
The night before race day, Gagliano slipped into one of his “lucid” dreams again, and found himself being congratulated by the three race-car icons. “Dude, you’re gonna be fine” (Mario). “Famous” (Firooz). “This show will be unforgettable—don’t worry!” (Riccardo). He felt encouraged. Curious, but encouraged.
Show time! After working all night setting up the various machines around the track, and making sure the three racers’ wrecked cars were correctly placed at the starting line, Gagliano informed the track management that the show could begin whenever they were ready.
With a start time of 10 a.m., the show had the track stands packed with thousands of spectators by 9. The “real” race-car drivers were carefully tending to their cars off the track, fine tuning them as they waited for the opening show to start and be over. There was money to be made here; the first-place winner stood to earn over $50,000. All this foolishness involved in the memorial was just making for a delay to their payday.
Mike Gagliano sat in his auxiliary control booth inside the track near the starting line, and ran his hands over the controls of the very complex machines that would create this spectacle. When the time had come to begin, Gagliano signaled to the fog generation team to start creating the fog that would partially mask what would happen next. After the fog had just about covered the track, except for the three damaged race cars sitting on the starting line, Gagliano gave the signal for the hologram operator to start the projectors that would create the illusion of race cars taking a leisurely lap around the track.
Except that the hologram generation computer wouldn’t cooperate. Mike started frantically punching buttons, but nothing happened. Just as he was getting up to run over to the operator’s booth, something happened that he never thought he’d see—the insides of the three cars lit up and it sounded like their engines started up; something that was plainly impossible. As the engines raced to an ever-higher pitch, as if the cars were about to lurch forward, Mike, and presumably the entire audience, suddenly saw the figure of a driver appear inside each car.
After a few seconds, the audience was treated to a sight they could never explain afterwards. Although the actual cars stayed put and didn’t move, the image of the cars did move. The cars—or at least their apparitions—appeared to lurch forward, engines gunned, with loud fire spurting from their tailpipes.
The audience roared as the cars themselves remained at the starting line, but the images of the cars tore around the track. The driver of each car was plainly visible as he maneuvered his car around the track. The three cars remained neck and neck through the lap around the track, and when they returned to their stationary, physical counterparts at the start/finish line, the images flared in a burst of flame and went out just as quickly.
The audience went ballistic. Applause, whistles, hoots, and screams of joy filled the air. Mike Gagliano was stunned and couldn’t move for at least a couple of minutes. Slowly he stood up, walked away from his control booth, and approached the three wrecked cars at the starting line. It appeared as if they hadn’t moved at all. Turning to the luxury boxes near the starting line, Mike turned on his neck microphone and announced, “Let the races begin!” As he stepped back to let the crew push the wrecked cars off the track, he thought he felt someone pat him on the back. Of course, he knew without turning around that he wouldn’t see anyone.
After twenty-three years practicing law with the California Attorney General’s Office in San Francisco, Michael Ellis Banister retired in 2011 and began writing the kind of stuff he really liked—fiction. His first opus was a novella, My Brother’s Keeper, loosely based on the circumstances of his younger brother’s murder. Next came a novel, Stolen Identity, published in 2015, and its sequel, Unfinished Business, in 2017. The short story Michael wrote for Vice-Versa came about after a dream in which a bloody race-car driver told Michael to write a story about him. So he did.