Previous: Episode 7
“Austin,” Hank said. “Rural enough to pull in the yokels, urban enough to have a large population. This is your city.”
Folley had been quiet for an hour, maybe more. Leaned down, elbows cocked and shoulders strained. Staring through the window. Long enough that Gaspard had become uncomfortable, and then bored.
Now, finally, the man moved.
“Beautiful,” Folley sneered. Slammed his fist on the window sill. “Perfect.”
“I still don’t like this,” Hank said. The man’s eyes were baggier than usual. He looked exhausted.
Folley pulled on his red coat, adjusted his cuffs and tails. “It does not matter if you like it. If you have a problem, you’re welcome to leave my office.”
Hank didn’t move.
“Gaspard!” Folley pulled a sheet from beneath his ledger, handed it over to Gaspard. “Hand this off to Dr. Fagan. Have a thousand of these made.”
“A thousand. Okay.” The flyer was bombastic, a bucking cow in its center. A crudely drawn harness was wrapped around it.
“And, one more errand, Gaspard. I want our people in the highest spirits. We’re going to prepare a feast before this show.” He turned to Hank. “Did you find them?”
Hank was resigned. “Farmer, two miles east of here. He’s expecting us in the morning.”
“Two cows?” Folley asked.
“Thank goodness for small favors.” Folley pulled a roll of bills from his pocket. “If our last show hadn’t been so good, we wouldn’t be able to afford this. See, Hank. Everything is falling into place.”
Hank shook his head. He pulled on his cabbie and left Folley’s office.
“I need you to pick up the cows. First thing in the morning.”
“And the…” Gaspard didn’t know the word in English, so he flicked the image on the flyer. “I mean, we can’t just buy that at the grocer.”
Folley wrapped an arm around Gaspard, guiding him toward the door. “That part is already taken care of. We found a few crates in a shed. When we passed through Oneida.”
“A few crates?” Gaspard said, surprised. “What are you going to do with a few crates of the stuff.”
“We only took one. Didn’t want to bring too much, that wouldn’t be safe.”
None of this sat well with Gaspard, boss or no. “And where is the…” He still didn’t know the word. “They’re in a safe place? No one is going to get into them?”
Folley’s smile got impossibly larger. He removed his hat, wiped his brow and re-slicked his hair. “The crate is in the one place in the carnival no one wants to visit.”
Francine swung the steel bar, slashing through imaginary pirates. She hopped, dodging the pirate captain’s attack, and stumbled when she did so. Her knee hit the ground, soft dirt covered with wood chips. She brushed her knee—no blood—so she pushed on, finally forcing the pirate captain from the plank.
“Francine! What are you doing with that pole?” It was Frank, her brother. He was wearing an unmatched shirt and pants, and carrying a sack over his shoulder.
She lowered the bar, leaned on it in a way she hoped looked casual. “I’m just…playing.”
“You better be careful. You’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.”
“Am not! See, I’m being careful, and I’m all the way out here. No one comes out to this part of the backyard. It’s just the trailers for the tents.”
“I’m back here,” Frank insisted.
“Because you were looking for me.”
Frank sighed. His big brother sigh that meant conversation was over, and now he was going to tell her what to do. He lowered the sack to the floor. “Here. It’s our costumes. I sewed up the holes, but they need to be washed.”
“And why don’t you wash them yourself?” She moved her free hand to her hip, realized it was a pose her mother used to make.
“Francine!” Frank paused, controlled his voice. “I’ve got prep to do at the Freaks’ tent. Ringmaster Folley wants everything ship-shape. Everyone is painting and cleaning, greasing up the rides, grooming the animals.”
“Why? Is it spring cleaning?” Both she and Frank winced at the shared memory.
“No. Nothing like that. It’s…there’s rumors around the carnival—”
“Frank, you’re not supposed to listen to rumors! Rumors get people into trouble.”
“No, you aren’t supposed to listen to rumors. And listening to rumors has kept us ali—together.”
Francine puffed her chest and tried to cross her arms while holding the steel bar in place. He always bent the rules in his favor.
“Everyone’s saying he’s setting up a big show. The Ultimate show.”
“That’s good! Everyone will get paid a lot of money!”
“But a lot of people are worried. Something isn’t right, but Gaspard and Grandma Babushka won’t say anything about it.”
“Have you asked Le Petit? He’s always so nice.”
“Francine, now’s not the time for games. Look. Wash our costumes. Twice. Get ‘em real clean. But when you’re done, pack a suitcase. Clothes, spare costumes, any money you have—and don’t pretend like you don’t have money.”
Francine tilted her body, trying to subtly obscure her right boot.
“Pack light. Be ready to go.”
Francine pouted. “Frank! We have friends here—”
“Anyone here would sell you out for a Nickle.”
“That’s not true! We can stay, Frank! We’ll be safe here until mom comes for us!”
“Mom’s not—” Frank stopped. All the anger in his face drained out. He scrunched his lips and hands, the way he did when he felt bad. The way he did when he was trying to hide something.
“Frank?” She worried she had upset him.
“Be careful, Francine. With the pole. I have work to do.”
Francine watched him walk away. She didn’t know what that was all about, but by the slouch in Frank’s shoulders, she knew she had said something wrong. She fought more pirates, but kept looking back the way Frank had gone. She let the pirates overrun her, decided it was time to go.
No one around, she made sure. Frank surely wouldn’t be looking for her. She snuck, truck to truck, toward the clearing. Pole in hand, she dashed as best she could toward the Black Cart.
Francine threw the entrance door open, tucked herself inside.
“I brought it.” Francine brandished the prybar like a baton, even twisted her wrist a few times so it looked like it was spinning. She approached the locked door.
She had been in this cart several times, and had grown accustomed to the faint chemical smells of alcohol and formaldehyde. To the way the cart rocked on its wheels when the winged man spread his wings. To the give in the floorboards and the clinking of jars when she walked the cart’s length.
But now, when she approached the door, the cart was silent, and something had settled the floorboards.
A sealed wooden crate sat near, but not too near, the locked door. The crate was nearly long as she was tall. Heavy, too. Heavier than her, at least; the floorboards across the cart all seemed to sink toward it.
His face appeared from the shadow, framed in the barred window.
“Francine.” That voice, still unsettlingly calm. Something in it reminded her of her brother, her grandfather and mother, all the people she cared for. “I’m glad you’re here.”
How many weeks had she been coming here now? The things in the jars no longer scared her, not even the human ones. But this man—no, she knew he wasn’t a man—he still made her uneasy.
She pointed to the crate. “What’s inside it?”
“I do not know.” He groaned, stretching behind the door. She could hear his wings flexing as much as they could inside his small room, brushing against all four of its walls. “Folley left it here. He’s trying to entice my curiosity. Goading me.”
In the barred window the man’s mouth softened into a smile. “I was hoping you’d come today.”
Francine got a weird feeling in her stomach. The winged man was acting strange. He had never had this sense of…sadness? Loneliness?
“Melancholy,” he said. “That’s the word you’re thinking of.”
She stepped back. Whatever he had just done, she didn’t like it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I, won’t do that to you again.”
Francine had no food with her. The winged man had asked her, when she was able, to bring a prybar to the Black Cart. She looked at the crate, just out of his reach. Did he know this was going to be brought here?
“Should I open this?” She wanted to leave as soon as possible.
“In just a moment. What does the sky look like today, Francine?”
“It’s overcast. Big grey clouds on the horizon, though.”
“Clouds. I’d like to touch them again. Soon. When I leave.”
“Are we going somewhere?” she asked. “I thought the carnival was staying in Austin through the week?”
“Was that the plan? What was it the poet wrote, ‘The best laid schemes…’” A long, deep breath. “Francine, I have been here so long. But of all that have come and gone here, you are the one I’m going to miss the most.”
An inkling crossed Francine’s mind. “Are you…dying?”
“No, my dear. I am not dying.”
Francine sighed with relief. Surprised, she immediately put her hand over her mouth.
The winged man smiled again, and a brightness filled his eyes. He was acting strange—Francine had never seen that before, either.
“Francine, I truly am going to miss you. Before I leave, is there anything I can do for you?”
Francine had visited this man several times a day for months now. He had shared many stories with her: stories of fantastic beasts that used to roam the world, impossible towers built by long-ago civilizations. Stories about ‘hubris,’ the winged man had said. And punishment. The stories were captivating and horrifying.
This offer, this seeming kindness, scared her more than any of them.
She shook her head.
He closed his eyes and looked up, the way she did when it rained. “When you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
“I…I don’t want anything.”
“You will.” He sighed. “And my offer will remain, turning on the vine. Please do not wait too long. Well, let’s find out what Folley has left for me. Be careful, your ringmaster is none too fond of me.”
Francine had seen the roustabouts unpacking the carnival’s supplies. She had a harder time of it, finding where to wedge the prybar, leaning what little weight she had. But eventually the edge of a board cracked, and the nails squealed their release. She removed the lid.
“I can’t see inside,” the winged man said. “What is it?”
Francine didn’t know herself. “Sticks? Red sticks, kinda dirty looking. There’s strings coming out of the tops of them.”
Francine gently brushed the tops of them. A few rolled over as she did so. “Oh, there’s writing on them! Doo pont. What’s that?”
The winged man’s brow furrowed. “Please. Continue.”
“It’s smudgy here, um. ‘Special ghel-tin. Then four-zero, and a slash with more zeroes, one on top and one on the bottom.”
“Ghel tin? I don’t know what that is. Then, forty, and a slash with two, ah. Per centum. Forty percent. Of what? Is there more?”
“It’s an address, maybe? El doo pont dee…Nemours and Co? Wilmington, Deleware! That’s where I’m from! Oh, wait.”
She could see the upper edges of one more word, larger than the rest, hidden beneath the other sticks. She rolled them again, immediately pulled her hand away.
“Danger,” she read.
“What!” The winged man yelled, no, roared. His voice shook the walls of the cart.
Francine jumped away, the crate in front of her forgotten. The winged man was enraged. She could see him brace against the walls of his room, heard the wood groaning.
“Get out!” His face appeared, pressed against the bars in his window. “Get out! Folley, you fool!”
Francine was frozen.
The man shook the door with his fists, slammed his body against it. Thankfully, the seven chains and seven locks held. He reappeared at the window, eyes wide when he saw Francine was still there. He reached an arm out, took a lock in his hand. He yanked. The cart rocked so hard Francine thought it might topple over, but still the lock held.
“Folley, it’s one thing to threaten me. Your selfishness and stupidity! But you put this girl in danger!” His face appeared at the window again. This time his eyes pleaded. “Francine, go! Leave here and don’t come back, leave the carnival tonight!”
Next Episode: June 17