Advent: Collected Shorts

Roderick sat down in front of Thaddeus' desk in the management trailer. He pulled out his cigarette case and chose one of the sweet smelling cigarettes. He closed the case, put the cigarette between his lips, and struck a match. Thaddeus looked up from the books, and Roderick just smiled and lit his cigarette. He took a deep drag, and then exhaled the smoke through his nose. "Jack says there isn't enough scratch in the kitty to hire on the extra help before we hit the shore?"

"That's right," Thaddeus murmured. "Sales have been down, and the midway's been quiet. Unless you lot manage to draw in a decent number of marks in Burlington and Charleston, we won't have anything to get down into Atlanta with, and that means no work during the winter."

"We have to work this winter." Roderick drew on his cigarette, considering. "Burlington's going to be hard, but Charleston should be decent. I know the boss wants us to make it to Atlanta by Thanksgiving, and if we don't..."

Thaddeus' jaw twitched. "There will be hell to pay," he muttered, his blue eyes intent on the books.

Roderick smirked. "You could say that."

"Load 'em in, Roderick. Make sure Amelia has the girls on the high wire, and tell Joseph we'll set up the trapeze tent in Burlington."

"Trapeze?" Roderick chuckled and stood, straightening his coat and snuffing out his cigarette in the ashtray on Thaddeus' desk. "That should be quite a draw."

"That's the plan. Make sure you gussy yourself up." Thaddeus lifted his head. "I want the cooch show in Burlington, and I want you to ensure your availability to the men who don't prefer pussy."

Roderick paused at the door, glanced back at Thaddeus. "Of course." He flicked his fiery hair out of his face and offered Thaddeus a seductive smile. "I'm always open for business, after all," he murmured, and then left Thaddeus and the management trailer behind, his boots soundless in the dust as he crossed to the cook tent and the other waiting carnies.

They had a jump to ready themselves for.

***

The midway had always been a magical place for Lee. There was something decadent about it, the lights and sounds, the scent of three dozen different concessions melding into something greasy that he could almost taste on the back of his throat. If he were to come back to this location in the light of day, all he would see was a dingy, empty place with the appeal of an outhouse in disrepair. But now, with the carnival in full swing, the crowds pushing him about like pop bumpers of a pinball machine, he could appreciate the darkness. Nothing brought darkness to life like a carnival in autumn.

Lights swirled and blinked around him, and the bustle of people in the concessions area gave way to the Alley of Games. He smiled as he watched some guy betting dollar after dollar that he could tip a bottle upright without it falling back over. Cheap tricks, all those games, but they always drew crowds as people got hooked into trying their luck. Lee wasn't the kind for those games; he always saved his money, waiting for that one attraction, that one game that would be worth it. Maybe an act or two that he could pay to see in the tents. The thought sent him away from the games and down the lot to the siren calls of the barkers he could hear over the din of the crowd.

He walked slowly, taking in the spectacle with his hands deep in his trouser pockets, keeping tight hold of his money clip, just in case.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the thrill of your life lies just behind this curtain!"

Lee eyed the poster for the attraction as the man went on about weak hearts or stomachs and children having nightmares. Too terrifying, too horrific for all but the bravest souls, he said, but Lee just chuckled at the painted demons on the poster. There were even a few people in the back giving pretty convincing screams, but he just wasn't interested. He moved on, stand after stand, listening for a few seconds and considering before declining. He was nearly at the end of the midway, considering turning around and taking his chances with the horrors of the demon tent, when another voice caught his attention. He turned his head and stopped in his tracks so suddenly that a couple slammed into him from behind, and he stumbled, mumbling hasty apologies before stepping out of the center of the alley toward the stand.

The man in front of the tent was... well, he was stunning. There was no other word for it. His orange-red, wavy hair looked like flames in the low light, stopping just below his jawline, and his eyes—the color of honey—smoldered out at the crowd as he called out to the men specifically and twirled a scantily clad dancer with a gloved hand, pointing the tip of an elegant cane out over the gathered men, whose hoots and hollers only seemed to invigorate the dancer as she riled them up. Lee was standing at the foot of the raised platform before he even realized he had taken another step.

"Gentlemen! Le Carnaval du Diable is proud to offer you the chance to see the lovely Laurel, Eve, and Apple dance the sinful dances of the East! One dollar gets you in for thirty minutes of the most sinuous, tantalizing moves, taught by the scintillating Sultana Razia of India!" The man grinned out at the audience, and Lee stepped closer. The barker's voice was almost hypnotic as he lowered the volume of his pitch, speaking to only those two dozen men who had gathered around him. "The Sultana Razia taught my girls to dance in such a way as to make a man's loins burn without even a touch. Just one dollar, gentlemen, and you, too, can experience the delights of the East!"

Lee watched as the men handed over their dollar bills, the barker encouraging them at every turn, and then a scantily clad woman opened the tent flaps and smiled brilliantly. He barely paid attention to her, his eyes quickly drawn back to the barker. After the throng had been ushered into the tent, Lee took a breath and approached the man, his palms sweaty. Even before he could open his mouth, the barker was talking to him, though the man never looked up from counting the money.

"We only have room for twenty-five men per show. Come back in forty-five minutes, and I'll guarantee you a spot."

"No, thank you," Lee said, his cheeks flushing. "That's... not really my thing."

The man looked up at that, and his eyes were even more beautiful and unusual up close. "It's not? Laurel might take offense to you not wanting to see her tits."

Lee could have sworn his face lit up like a beacon. "I mean no offense... I just..." Lee shook his head for a moment, trying to clear it enough not to come across as a bumbling fool. "Do you dance as well?"

The man's eyebrow arched, and Lee couldn't look away as something sparked in the deep, golden gaze. "A performance of mine would cost more than a dollar."