by T.S. Mallow
And the highway’s haunted by the carnival sounds
— “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” Bruce Springsteen
“Twister?” Henry asked. Henry was one of the resident little people. He could be meaner than a badger with a rash. “Whatta they say Magda?”
Magda, she of the requisite exotic gypsy looks, flipped through her deck of worn tarot cards, snapping them to the table. She could be mean, too. But different mean: teasing, self-centered mean.
“No twisters,” said Magda. John wondered if that was her real name.
She gathered up the cards, leaning over further than necessary, giving the four men (five if you included the unconscious one) a provocative view. Magda caught John checking her out and gave him an inviting smile. John blushed and Leon elbowed him hard in the ribs. Leon worked with the big cats, had the scars to prove it. Leon was a stage name.
“Jesus, it’s hot,” Leon said.
“It’s always hot when I’m around,” Magda said.
Leon pulled off his T-shirt.
“See, Leon’s so hot and bothered he’s stripping,” she said, “and the fire-eater’s lyin’ in a pool of sweat.”
“He’s lying in a pool of somethin’,” said Henry, “not sure it’s sweat.”
The fire-eater – John didn’t know his name – had been passed out on Magda’s bed when they arrived. He had yet to move. Magna said he needed to recuperate, didn’t say from what.
Jonesy (rigged games) passed over the bottle of cheap tequila and John took a drink, hoping to God the alcohol would kill whatever contagions might be floating inside.
He knew for a fact Jonesy’s name was fake. He’d helped name him right after the robbery went wrong and fucking Perry had shot the cop and they’d gone into hiding. The circus had been Jonesy’s idea, transient people that didn’t ask too many questions. Hide out for a year or so, constantly on the move, that was the plan.
Then Perry disappeared. Disappeared without his cut. What were they supposed to do about it, call the cops? Perry had been spending a lot of time in Magda’s trailer. He’d even started to smell like her, that heavy, spicy smell. Magda told them she’d broken it off and Perry must have been despondent. John figured you’d have to be pretty fucking despondent to forget about one-point-two million dollars.
The trailer’s tin door banged open and in walked six and a half feet of muscle in all of its reptilian tattooed glory. Magda wrapped herself around the man like Eve embracing the serpent.
“Salvador,” she cooed.
The man studied first John, then Jonesy, over her shoulder. His forked tongue flicked out and John shuddered.
“What happened to the fire-eater,” Salvador asked.
“Tired himself out,” Magda said.
Henry reached over and smacked the prone man. “Get up, jerk-off. The whole gang’s here.”
The fire-eater sat up yawning, his mouth a gaping hole. One side of his face was covered in sweat, the other in black soot.
John nudged Jonesy and tilted his head toward the door. They stood.
“We’re outta here Magda, thanks for having us,” Jonesy said.
Salvador towered over Jonesy’s slight frame. “Stay for a while,” he said.
“We’re tired, man.”
John quickly sat and Jonesy threw him a dirty look.
“Maybe a couple of minutes,” he said.
“Magda, why don’t you deal out your cards. Tell us what the future holds for our new boys,” Salvador said.
Henry and the fire-eater laughed and John felt the blood leave his face. Magda dealt the cards with an entertainer’s flourish.
“Doesn’t look so good, boys,” she said. “Seven of Swords: the thief.” She looked at them knowingly. “Could mean you stole something, could mean somethings going to be taken from you.”
“The Tower: sudden, not-so-pleasant change. Ten of Wands: failure of plans. Pain.”
“And you might be familiar with this guy.” She held up a card. Death stared back at them.
“This is bullshit. I’m outta here and you’re full of shit,” Jonesy said, pointing a finger at Magda. She smiled serenely back.
“Sit down,” Leon said. “We know about the money and we’re taking it. If you’re nice, we won’t turn you in. If you don’t, well…” He jabbed a finger at the pain card.
“Look you guys can have Perry’s share, over a mil,” Jonesy said.
“We’re thinking more like all of it,” Henry said.
“Yeah, well, fuck you.”
Salvador took a step forward and lifted Jonesy by the throat until his feet were kicking in the hot air. John watched in horror as the man and his tattooed scales dissolved into a slithering undulating mass of muscle. It wrapped itself around Jonesy.
“What the…” John gasped.
Leon growled and John wheeled around. The man’s eyes were yellow, his hands claws.
“Nice kitty,” said Magda stroking his head, “do you want to play?”
Leon-cat slashed at Jonesy’s throat, ripping it to shreds. The body crumbled to the ground and the serpent slithered away.
“My turn,” the fire-eater said. His hand erupted into flames. “Where’s the money, John?”
John took a step back and tripped over the huge snake. The bottle in his hand splashed across the trailer, caught a stray spark from the fire-eater, and ignited. Magda and Henry screamed as their clothing caught fire. John opened the door, shaking out the rest of the tequila as he went. He rigged the door shut with one of the fire-eater’s long staffs. The trailer went up like tissue paper.
The Seven of Swords sticks to the shadows. A ragged suitcase in his hand, he steals silently away from the circus grounds. And the highway’s haunted by the carnival sounds of yesterday and the shrieks of tonight. Tarot card ashes fall like grey snowflakes.
T. S. MALLOW is currently snowed under in the Great White North, actively seeking a talented agent for her thriller, Butterflies in a Hurricane. She spends hours each day finding creative outlets for her dark, twisted imagination. Usually, this involves endless cups of green tea and her laptop. She abhors serif fonts (especially Times Roman) and wishes that more agents and editors would accept Tahoma.