You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
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Sleight of Hand
The greatest illusions begin backstage.The once-white stripes of the tent moldered into yellow, sun-bleached bone between slices of black void. The space around the tent remained empty, dust and mud and rot. Posters littered the ground, crumbled up and decayed, an accurate portrait of the magician within.Percival Creepe stood bent and withered, his thin frame hunched, his hawk nose as sharp as his eyes were dark. The man on the posters was younger, not quite so bat-like or scarred, but never could he be considered handsome. He stared at himself in the dingy mirror, at the decades etched on his face, unblinking, unfazed as he held the dove trap before him, clasped between long, twisted fingers. They sprang open.The white bird vanished along with the cage.
He removed the wire trap from his left sleeve and shook the feathered corpse out before offering the cage a new victim. It fluttered its wings, blood dyeing its white feathers.
Vera sat across the room, long legs crossed, studying the dirt caked under her fingernails. She wore last night’s makeup and a blonde wig that bared her ratty brown curls beneath. She flicked the dirt away with a penknife, one of the same Percival would hurl at her on stage. Her sequined get-up glinted abominably. Percival hated it. The flash, the drama, the cheap, pathetic gimmicks.
The stage crouched darkly in the small tent, rusted stains splattered across the old wood. The knots stared up like so many demonic eyes, watching, waiting, eager. The pit yawned, chairs like so many teeth prepared to gnash.
Vera strode to the curtain and pulled it back. Percival growled, but watched all the same. The chairs began to fill, a trickle of sticky children covered in candy floss dragging decrepit stuffed animals and bored-looking mothers and fathers, all filthy false-pressed trousers and dull dresses topped with sagging feather caps and snarled woolen hats. Cigar smoke added to the musty stench of the tiny tent.
His assistant turned, lips pursed and eyebrow raised. He held up a hand to stay her, stuffing a deck of cards into his jacket with the other. Vera crossed her arms and tapped her foot, click click click.
“Patience,” he rasped. “Magic cannot be hurried.”
The spotlight hit the stage with a familiar zap of electrical currents firing, the loud pop of switches thrown. It shown through the threadbare curtain and Percival shoved Vera aside, stepping out into the murky glow. A cough.
“Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. I am the Prestigious Percival Creepe, Master of Magic and Sorcerer of Sleight of Hand. Thank you for choosing to take part in tonight’s act. Vera and I are delighted to have you.”
Vera stumbled out from behind the curtain and inclined her head. Percival’s brow arched at her nonchalance. She click her way to stand beside him, offering the audience a half-hearted wave. He signaled for her to begin the first trick and she removed the deck of cards from his pocket.
He unwrapped the gray silk and tossed it into the air. Slowly, carefully, he spread the cards, a full fan in his skeletal hand. Then his fingers flew. The hiss of sliding cards, the mark—the Ace of Spades, signed by a disinterested A. G. in the audience—, the vanish, the transformation—the Eight of Hearts, A.G. in the same slanting letters—, and the reveal. He snapped his fingers and the Eight of Hearts became the Ace of Spades, still baring the initials.
He plucked the gray silk out of thin air and bound up his cards, picking up his wire trap dove cage. He invited a boy from the audience to inspect the cage, to make sure it was solid and sure. The boy reached for it and …it was gone. The boy pulled his hand back, eyes wide. Percival grinned with one side of his mouth, hoping the boy and his parents wouldn’t notice the blood on the boy’s shirt and fingers.The boy stuck the stained appendages in his mouth to clean off the taste of candy floss.
Percival’s grin faltered.
He raised the prop table, running a metal hoop over it to prove there were no wires.
He looked at Vera. Vera shrugged. He cleared his throat.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, changing veins, my lovely assistant Vera will now bring out the tank. A 350-gallon contraption into which I will be thrown, chained and blindfolded, and from which I have a mere four minutes to escape.” Percival motioned to the hourglass sitting on the table. “Vera, chain my hands.”
Vera did as told, if a bit roughly. She tugged the metal links. She locked his ankles as well and ran a chain from his neck to his feet, a neat, snug, bundle ready for a cold isolation of a water tank. She helped him up the stairs to the edge of the water.
“Now, should I fail, I will drown unless Vera manages to shatter the tank,” Percival added. Vera awkwardly hefted an ax, listing to the side with its weight. “There is a large risk of death, but that’s the price of magic. Vera?”
She dropped the axe with a thud and picked up another object. The burlap sack closed over Percival’s head. Vera, unceremoniously, shoved him into the water. She set the hourglass, inverted, on the table with a click.
The stage lights went dim, a single point illuminating the magician’s struggle. He wriggled free of the sack and set to getting his arms freed. The hourglass poured precious minutes, bubbles beginning to escape Percival’s mouth as he thrashed. One arm came free of the chains, then the other. The sand ran out as he tried to untether his feet. The lights went out. When the lit the stage again, the tank was empty, a rather apathetic-looking Vera holding her arms out in display.
Percival walked up to the stage from the back of the house, suit dripping. The weak sound of applause echoed through the theatre. The anger welled inside his chest, burning. He spun on his heel.
“Is that it? I present you with mystifying feats, illusions, magic and all you do is sit there? What is wrong with you?” he spat. “I’ve been at this for decades and I’ve never been treated so disrespectfully. You have no idea what magic is.”
“You escaped the box using a series of mirrors to make it appear as though you were underwater,” a voice calmly stated from the back. “The escape was simple. A child could do it.”
“I could see the stings on tha levi’tating table,” came another.
Percival glowered at the crowd, cursed the lighting that obscured the faces of his hecklers. He’d show them. Oh, yes. He mounted the stage, spoke sharply to Vera and turned to the audience.
“For our grand finale, I require a volunteer from the audience.” He voice rang out, smooth as an oil slick. A woman in a feathered cap snickered at one of her companions. A sharp gloved finger pinned her, the spotlight following. “You. Come on stage.”
The woman looked around, nose turned up. She approached at stage after an urging from her friend. Percival offered the woman a hand and she snubbed it. His mouth twisted into a lear, then smoothed as quickly as a flawless shuffle. Vera returned, pushing a rolling table with a large container on top. It was the size and shape of a casket, black, wooden and plain.
One by one, the lids flipped open. Percival motioned for his volunteer to come closer. She stepped onto the table and lowered her self down, smoothing her skirts before shoving her arms through the openings in the box. The lids slammed down and locked. Percival tucked a small handkerchief into her palm before reaching under the table.
Percival brandished four blades and a smile, moving around the box and plunged two into the woman’s chest and two above her hips. The one blade caught on her breastbone. He grabbed her head and pulled back, the blade slipping neatly into place. With a shove, the woman broke into three, hand still flailing, feet still twitching, handkerchief fluttering.
“She’s a plant,” a third voice called out. “Or one of them freak show people. Ain’t got legs or something.”
Percival narrowed his eyes. “Is that so?” He kicked middle box, sending the woman’s torso rolling off the edge of the stage. The box opened, spilling red. The audience leapt from their seats, horrified cries echoing in the small, tented space.
“Clean it up, Vera,” he snapped, a wicked smiled spreading across his face. She glared, walking off the stage to right the fallen box and tuck its contents back inside. The rest of the woman looked ill. Vera set a plank against the stage and wheeled the torso back up, spinning it around to connect it with the woman’s chest. She slid the dividers out and tossed them behind her, spatters of red joining the darker stains on the wood.
The woman thrashed her currently-detached legs, the wheels squeaking as the box moved. She spat curses now, long phrases of some foreign language mixed with English. Vera looked at Percival, who merely shrugged in response. Vera took the handkerchief and stuffed it in the woman’s mouth. She lifted one high-heeled foot and kicked the box over, latches breaking on impact.
“Now, ladies and gentleman, behold the real magic,” he pronounced, bringing his foot down on the box. The sides split open, revealing the woman’s body connected, except for her legs, still on the other side of the stage. She crawled from the wreckage, leaving a trail of viscera behind. Vera folded her arms and watched, a small smirk quirking up her lips.
“Well, looks like you were right,” Percival chimed, gesturing to the remaining box with one hand and motioning to Vera with the other. “I suppose her legs aren’t attached after all.”
Percival took Vera’s hand and the act shared a bow as the curtain dropped.
Meghan grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. Known to haunt local bookstores, Meghan has a taste for all things spooky, grimey and spattered with glitter. She currently writes freelance for CriminalElement.com and is working on her first novel, THE KILLING TYPE.
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