“Now, I know all about what happened at the gate today,” he said in a wheezy baritone. “And I’ve heard a few of you hotheads talking about going into town and raising a ruckus. That wouldn’t be good for business, friends. Not ’tat all.”
The group, especially the “hothead” contingent that boasted three of Carlo’s rousties, or manual laborers, groaned at Flannery. Then, quite naturally, they all turned to Carlo, waiting for him to speak up.
Resigned to the ritual, he kept his tongue, gathering his words, having known all the while that it would come to this. The crowd would wait for anything he had to say.
For some reason, these people considered him their leader. “Prince of us gypsies,” they’d joke, even though he’d never asked for the honor or the title. He was just another one of them—a nomad, a thirty-year-old professional carnival worker who had flown the coop from his indifferent, widowed father upon turning eighteen. A rousty who just wanted to make it from one town to the next without incident or injury.
Not that Blossom County was making it easy.
“You’re all watching me like I have the answers,” he said, grinning as Flannery muttered about the “thick heads around this place” and took a seat. “I don’t know much. Just about that godforsaken Swindle. Because a few of you have talked with these townies, we’ve heard about their past troubles with other carnies.”
Here, he acknowledged Cherry Cooper, aka, Lady Pandora, the circuit’s contracted fortune-teller. Even though she was leaving the troupe after their time in Blossom ended—she was engaged to marry the town’s mayor, by some odd twist of fate—she was still one of them. Decked out in her costume, an airy gypsy skirt, white peasant blouse and a scarf covering her curly brown hair, Cherry sat on the opposite side of the fire, thoughtful as can be.
And who could blame her? She was caught in the middle of this thing, and so was her fiancé. As mayor, Jason Strong was forced to walk a line between the vocal CMB and his ties to the carnival.
Hell, even now, Carlo—a real keep-to-yourself kind of guy, too—wasn’t sure exactly what had made everything go from bad to worse today. While finishing up a safety check on the Ferris wheel, he’d noted the raised voices. Then he’d found Hudson, a rousty, trading playground insults with the one-in-every-town football stud. And woven in between it all had been the woman…
She’d caught his attention more than once outside the gates, but today had been different. There’d been something in the way they’d looked at each other, with her standing below the Ferris wheel, her beautiful face lifted toward him as a slight breeze caught the wavy golden hair tickling her back, as her white dress danced around her slender body. And when she’d crossed into the carnival itself, he’d been temporarily enraptured by the night-sparkle blue of her eyes. A gaze that contained strength, curiosity and vulnerability all at the same time.
Truthfully, Carlo wasn’t one to sample the local population. Aside from Cherry, who hadn’t meant to go and fall in love with Mayor Jason Strong, he and the rest of the carny community were too cautious, having been burned by town politics before. They’d learned the hard way to keep to themselves. When Carlo did seek out a woman’s wit and wiles, she was always a part of their group, a transient worker who wasn’t looking for permanency or promises.
But he could always fantasize about a waifish woman standing beyond the gates, couldn’t he? Wouldn’t do any harm.
Unthinkingly, he ran his fingertips along the cut on his cheek, right where she had touched him earlier. He could’ve cared less about that punk who had cuffed him with the sharpness of his ring. All Carlo could really remember was a sparking, sweet moment when the woman had stood in front of him, compassion in her eyes as she had searched his injury, her lips parted as she lifted her hand and…
The bonfire snapped, and Carlo came back to the moment. The carnies were getting restless, waiting for him to conjure up some pearl of wisdom. He’d been lost in thought for too long, his head scrambled by a townie who would be just a memory in two weeks when this show did its next “circus jump” to yet another destination.
“All I know,” he said, “is that we’d be wise to keep to ourselves, just as we always have. Move in, offer our wares, amuse the ladies with a wink or two, then move out. That’s the way it needs to go.”
Some of the carnies chuckled and nodded, but most of the young ones, who didn’t know any better, shuffled their feet and cleared their throats.
Hudson took off his hat before he spoke up. The skin around both of his eyes was black and blue from today’s scuffle. “Carlo, they took the fight to us this time. We’ve never had this kind of trouble before, but something’s telling me that maybe we need to give a little grief back to them.”
All Carlo had to do was stare at Hudson for a second too long. The smaller man nodded in understanding, then put his hat back on, silenced.
“Listen,” Carlo said, “there’s nothing in town that we don’t have here, so there’s no reason to cross over. We can slide out in a couple of weeks with our wallets bigger, our safety record intact and our reputation clean. True enough?”
A chorus of agreement was his answer and, after an awkward moment when nobody was brave enough to disagree again, the meeting ended. Harmon Flannery shook his head as he talked to himself on the way into his office. The rest of the group mingled, beginning to set up the beer, whiskey and lively music that would get them through another night.
As a makeshift band of a fiddle, acoustic guitars and an accordion tuned up, Carlo kept to his place, leaning against Flannery’s office. Hudson casually approached him, hands in his jeans pockets.
“I just thought I’d bring up a point, Carlo,” he said.
“It was a good one. But you know how things work outside.”
Everyone knew. Once upon a time, Carlo used to visit the towns. He’d been young and dumb, and one night, his loyalty to his carny community had resulted in a stint in jail for a crime he hadn’t committed. The story was near legend. It had bought him a lot of respect, a lot of gravity. Still, most times, Carlo did his best to charm his way out of having people recall it.
Hudson obviously had something else to say. Carlo waited until the young man was ready to talk. In the meantime, Cherry Cooper sidled up to them, placing a hand on Carlo’s forearm, then removing it.
No doubt she had just taken psychic measure of him. Soon he would hear some kind of prediction from her.
Finally, Hudson said, “I talked to Cherry about this already, just to see if she could give me some third-eye guidance, but…Well, you know I been through Blossom County before, Carlo, with that other carnival two years ago.”
“The thing of it is, some townies look more familiar than others. Like…” He furrowed his brow. “Heck. There was this picketer woman out there today. I still can’t place her, but…Ah, never mind. It ain’t important.”
Carlo considered his rousty, then decided to let it go. If Hudson wanted to talk more about it, he would. Carlo wouldn’t push. “Let me know if it becomes important.”
Hudson nodded. “Will do, boss. Will do.”
He left Carlo and Cherry as the band started to play. While the crowd lost themselves in the music, Cherry gestured for Carlo to follow her away from the bonfire, toward a quieter area.
“Walk me to the gates?” his friend asked.
Once there, both of them ended up leaning against the steel, gazing at the stars. In the color of night, Carlo imagined the CMB woman’s eyes. The shimmering stars became her smile.
“Reckless,” Cherry said.
He couldn’t hide his attraction to the town woman from Cherry, psychic or not. “It’s a passing thing.”