Circus Games

My wife and I had missed the train, the last one of the day. That was fine by us though, because we were in no hurry to bring our western adventure to an end. That’s when we met him … Mr. Dulf Zug, a “simple purveyor of curiosities”.

“Too bad about the train,” he said, his mouth bending in an exaggerated frown. “But, as luck would have it, we are presenting a very special show tonight!” He rolled his bowler hat down his arm and snapped his elbow, sending it spinning in the air. Annabeth — that’s my wife — clapped with delight when it landed squarely atop his head. He winked at her before taking a quick bow. “Bring the Missus to the world’s only four-ring circus!” He pressed an advertisement into my hand before sauntering away.

The bill showed a man in a suit and top hat, gesturing toward the words “A show you’ll never forget!” His grin was wildly exaggerated and fire rose from his hands, forming the words: “Tonight only! A rare and grand performance from the amazing Ivor Hawley!”
We both agreed it would be a splendid way to spend our last evening in Gomorra. A real live circus show! How excited we were …

We dressed up for the occasion, and Annabeth looked radiant in her favorite blue evening dress. She wore a studded purple brooch near her shoulder, a wedding gift from my mother. Her crystal blue eyes gleamed in the moonlight as we walked to the fairgrounds.

We were caught up in the spectacle as soon as we arrived. Tents and coaches littered the landscape, each more colorful than the last. Over a span of several hours, we marveled at an array of curiosities: a bearded lady from Tuscon, an Indian sword swallower, even a clown who juggled knives. When a heckler shouted that the blades were fake, the clown — Micah, I believe his name was — let one drop to the floor. We all gasped with delight when it buried itself into the wooden stage.

As the evening drew to a close, we found ourselves in the largest tent of all, ready for the main event. The same Mr. Zug who had invited us to the show approached the stage in the center, set up quickly in sections that intersected the four circus rings. “Ladies and gentleman, tonight you are in for a special treat! Here to dazzle you with feats of magic unheard, I present to you the one … the only … Ringmaster Ivor Hawley!”

The lights dimmed, and the man in question entered in a puff of green smoke, swinging a black cane in a broad circle. He stopped mid-stage, offering a deep bow to the house that was met with thunderous applause. We clapped, too. What a showman! I thought, before he even spoke a word. For the next hour, he dazzled us with a variety of acts — hypnosis, levitation, teleportation, mind reading — each trick more impressive than the last.

As the show drew to a close, he walked to the center of the stage and took a deep bow. “Thank you, thank you all! What a splendid audience you’ve been for this old showman! Alas, I fear we have almost come to our end…” He tipped his top hat, awaiting the boos and groans he knew would follow. “But not just yet! I wonder if you would indulge me in one more act before we part company!?” The cheers of the crowd gave him his answer, as if he didn’t already have us all in the palm of his hand. “Yes, indeed! I have one last feat in store … one that will require a volunteer! Who among you will play assistant to your humble ringmaster!?”

Nearly every hand in the audience flew to the sky, and shouts of “Me! Me!” echoed through the tent. I nudged Annabeth gently and gave her a wink, prodding her to join the chorus with me. She smiled, her blue eyes sparkling as she raised her hand and played along. The ringmaster’s eyes scanned the crowd, savoring the cheers and cries. Before long, they came to rest on the seat next to mine and his lips parted in a devilish smile. “Yes! Yes! The lovely young woman with the purple brooch!”

Annabeth gave me a kiss before walking to the stage. Hawley spun her for the audience, making a grand show of there being no ropes, trap doors, or trickery. When he was through he backed away slowly, leaving her alone in the middle of the stage. “And now, my dear,” he said, raising his arms in the air, “walk with me in the shadows!”

His gloved hands glowed a fine green, and a soft mist rose from his fingertips. With a snap of his fingers, they both disappeared in a puff of smoke. The crowd gasped, and everyone sat up in their seats, myself among them. What a trick! I had never seen anything so authentic. The only sight on the stage was a thin wisp of purple smoke where Annabeth had been. Slowly, a human figure began to take shape, growing darker and darker, as if it was materializing from thin air. When the shadow was almost completely black, it began to spread its arms. Then, the lights rose and the smoke abruptly parted, revealing the figure of Ivor Hawley, standing with arms outstretched, his cane in one hand, his top hat in the other.

Whistles and cheers erupted from the crowd as the ringmaster took a deep bow. He raised his head slowly and looked directly at me, the smile returning to his face. As I stared into those eyes, my heart skipped a beat. As my smile began to fade and my hands ceased clapping, he spared me a quick wink and the lights went out abruptly, leaving only the sounds of the cheering crowd in the darkness.

For the longest time, I sat waiting … waiting for the lights to return, waiting for my Annabeth to wander back to me. “What a story we will tell our friends back home!” she would say. I must have sat for minutes, replaying that image in my mind. Before I realized it, the crowd was gone and I was sitting alone in the tent, the other seats empty, the stage being disassembled before me. She must be backstage, waiting for me, I thought.

I asked several of the workers where I would be able to find her. Most didn’t answer me, walking by as if they didn’t hear a word. The few who acknowledged my queries met me with head shakes and simple shrugs.

Upon leaving the tent, I accosted a squat, ugly man in purple pinstripes and a bowtie. He was closing down the side booths when I demanded his name. “Name’s McCadish,” he said in a thick, Irish brogue. “You’d best be on yer way. Show’s over.” I demanded that he take me to see the ringmaster immediately. “You sure you wanna do that? Mr. Hawley don’t like to be disturbed after the show.” I insisted, threatening to come back with the sheriff if he did not comply. With a roll of his eyes he led me through the fairground to a small tent. Just outside, Hawley stood, his back to us.

“I’m afraid, sir, you will find the circus closed for business,” he said, without turning.

“Where is my wife?” I asked, the last of my calm dissipating.

“You mean the lovely girl who assisted me with my grand finale?” he said, slowly turning to face me. “I’m sure I don’t know. She left shortly after the show ended … off to find you, I imagine.” He came closer and put a gloved hand on my shoulder. “You’d better hurry off now,” he said, his voice barely a whisper in my ear, “before you miss her.”

They must have done something to me, because I can only remember bits and pieces after that. I remember his eyes, those pale green eyes … they danced like fire. I remember walking down the road in the moonlight … some flashes of trees. I’m sorry I can’t be more descriptive …

* * *

“And then you … woke up in your hotel room and couldn’t remember how you got there?” Tommy Harden asked, his eyebrow arching upward. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat, stifling a yawn. The sun had barely risen, and it was way too early for this. Most of the crazy stories didn’t start popping up until after noon, and they almost always seemed to land in his lap. Sure enough, shortly after he had arrived to relieve Clyde Owens of his overnight post, there came a furious knock at the office door.

“That’s right … just like I told you,” said the man in the chair. He ran his fingers nervously through his hair as he shuffled in his seat. “She was gone. Everything was gone … her clothes, her personal effects, everything.”

“Yet all of your items remained in the room?” Tommy spared a sideways glance at Clyde, getting only a shrug in return. Part of him thought Clyde had stayed just for the entertainment value.

“Yes, yes. Everything was there. I see the way you two are looking at each other, Deputy, and I know how this sounds.”

“Mister, I don’t know that you do.”

“No! Deputy, please listen!” the man pleaded. “There’s something going on out there! That Hawley fellow … if you had seen the way –”

“Right!” Owens interrupted, taking a quick sip from his flask as he leaned back in his chair. “Let’s see if we got this straight. The circus kidnapped yer wife with a magic trick and stole all of her belongings out of your room before you magically got back to it. Oh, and of course they left all your stuff behind, including a gold watch and a Colt revolver that’re worth more than everything in this whole damned office!” He mopped his brow with a handkerchief and turned his glance to Tommy. “Let’s put an end to this one now, Harden – the poor bastard’s wife probably just ran out on him!”

“My Annabeth would never!”

Clyde waved him off with a grunt. “ ‘Bout time you found out life ain’t fair, kid! There was this girl in Tulsa once –”

“Clyde, that’s enough,” Tommy said, trying to keep his voice level.

“Her name was Maribelle, and she –”

“Go home, Clyde.”

“Oh, come on, Harden –”

“Go … home.”

Clyde lurched to his feet and grabbed his coat with an angry flourish. “You can’t believe a word of this — what is it you Irishmen call it again? — blarney? Yeah, that’s what this is, a bunch of –”

“Out.”

Red faced, Clyde slowly lowered his eyes from Tommy’s gaze and lumbered out the door, slamming it shut behind him.

“Sorry about that,” Tommy said, shaking his head and turning back to the man in the chair. “That one can hold his liquor, but his tongue’s a whole ‘nother story. And you know that was … ah … quite a tale you just told us.”

“I know,” the man said, nodding his head reluctantly. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if collecting himself. He pursed his lips and looked up at Tommy, his eyes much more calm than before. “Deputy please, I know how it sounds. I know how I sound, but you must believe me. There is something going on at that circus. Please … just have a look around. See for yourself.”

Tommy slowly drained the last of his coffee and took a quick measure of the situation. As unbelievable as this man’s story was, it did have a certain ring of desperation to it, not to mention an incredible amount of detail for something made up in the moment. Maybe it was too crazy to be true, but he had seen plenty of things that would have been too crazy to be true before he found his way to Gomorra and a lawman’s badge. “Can you describe her for me?” he asked finally, resigning himself to a busy morning.

“I can do better than that, Deputy,” replied the man, reaching into his coat pocket. He produced a folded picture and opened it gently, taking a moment to look at the likeness before handing it over. “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“That she is,” Tommy replied, as he studied the photograph. He stood and checked his pocket watch. “Alright,” he said, trying to sound upbeat, “let’s wake up the sheriff.”

* * *

Dave Montreal stopped for a moment and raised his black Stetson to wipe the sweat from his brow. He stood on a small patch of hill overlooking the tents and carriages spread out below. Just when he thought he might get his first moment’s peace of the morning, the smooth voice of Ivor Hawley sounded behind him.

“I trust you are satisfied now, Sheriff?”

Dave turned to see Hawley striding up to meet him, his purple coattails dancing in the wind. If being woken up at the crack of dawn and dragged into a wild goose chase wasn’t bad enough, having to deal with Hawley’s endless grinning and chiding manner would likely do him in.

“It would appear so,” Dave replied, taking a quick sip from his canteen. Indeed, he and a few of his deputies had been over every inch of the circus grounds, finding nothing out of the ordinary, if there was such a thing as “ordinary” in this place.

Hawley stopped and stood next to him, his already tall frame exaggerated by thick-soled shoes and a black top hat. “That poor fellow!” he said, looking down the small hill and shaking his head slightly. “I do wish I could be of more help to you, Sheriff.”

Just below them, Tommy Harden stood, one arm draped across the chest of the man who had brought them here. At first he had been docile enough, accompanying Dave and his posse without a fuss, but as the morning wore on, he became more erratic. Despite Dave’s warning to stay quiet and let them do their job, the man had nearly broken down on several occasions, going so far as to take a wild swing at the ringmaster before Harden restrained him.

“You’ve done more than enough, under the circumstances,” Dave replied. In truth, just standing next to the ringmaster made Dave uneasy, but while there was a certain oddity to Hawley’s manner, there was nothing criminal going on here. If anything, Hawley had been more than accommodating with all of his requests, as well as the search itself.

Dave started back down the hill and Hawley followed, letting his cane swing in a small arc as he moved. At the base of the hill, they passed a group of performers, each dressed in checkered costumes of purple, pink, and yellow. They juggled red balls slowly in unison, first with two and then three. Another clown stood in front of them, dressed more simply in faded patchwork pants, a plaid shirt, and a small brown hat. He made slow, exaggerated motions, as if to show the rest the correct form. The leader turned as Ivor passed, revealing a face painted with arched eyebrows, circular red lips, and deep black circles under his eyes. He tipped his hat to the ringmaster.

“Excellent form, Leonardo!” said Ivor, tipping his hat in return. “The newest additions to my family!” he said, turning his attention back to Dave. “They are learning fast.”

“Your family?” Dave asked.

“Oh, yes!” Hawley replied proudly. “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb, Sheriff. I care for my people the way any father would for his children, no matter how they found their way to me.”

Dave nodded and offered a quick smile. Though their morning search had turned up nothing, it had also done little to allay his growing uneasiness with the ringmaster and his “children”.

* * *

The man didn’t say a word as the sheriff silently passed him to leave, nor did he raise his eyes as Ivor Hawley approached. Still locked in Harden’s grasp, he continued to heed the sheriff’s warnings.

“I’m truly sorry that your search didn’t bear more fruitful results, my friend,” the ringmaster said, taking off one white glove and laying his hand gingerly on the man’s shoulder. “She was a beautiful woman, and I sincerely hope you find her.” As he pulled away, Hawley smiled and gently brushed the man’s neck with his ring finger.

With that, the man struggled to free himself. “You son of a –” he began, before a sharp, burning sensation in his neck cut him off in surprise. The feeling swelled in his skin, quickly rushing over his body. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow, and a sudden, hacking cough doubled him over as the deputy struggled to hold him.

“Alright boyo, that’s enough for one day,” Harden said. “I’ve got a place where you can rest awhile back at the office.” He adjusted his grip and turned to follow Dave from the grounds. The man shivered and shook, his feet kicking up patches of dirt and dust as he struggled.

The clowns ceased their juggling as Harden dragged the man past them. Their small, red practice balls fell from the air in unison as their heads turned, one by one, to follow him. Despite the fire rapidly spreading through his veins, a shiver ran through him as he met their unblinking stares.

Finally, his eyes fell with horror on the last performer in line, a woman. From behind its powdered makeup, a pair of familiar blue eyes stared back, swirling with a sadness that chilled him to the bone. On the left breast of her motley suit was pinned a studded purple brooch, gleaming in the sunlight.

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