AS NIGHT FELL over the festival, conundrum of the news had finally begun to fade. A group of roustabouts assembled a heap of logs just off the dance floor and lit them on fire.
Laila found herself alone on a bench beside the bonfire, attempting to warm her icy limbs. At a summer solstice festival, she hadn’t anticipated the need for a jacket. She had eaten dinner alone, picking over the boxed food cart meal, wondering where Ryan, Dex, and Seth had gone. They had all mysteriously vanished. Just moments after meeting with her friends following Robbins’s announcement, Laila had returned to the pagoda from the bathrooms to find it deserted.
Shivering, she scooted to the edge of the bench and held her hands out near the fire. A trail of goose bumps spread across her exposed forearms
“Here, put this on.”
Turning, she saw Dex standing behind her bench, proffering his black jacket—he must have returned to his carriage to fetch it, for he hadn’t been wearing it earlier.
She stood and slipped her arms into the sleeves he held open for her. “Thanks,” she said, pulling her hair from the collar and drawing it close to her chest. The scent of burning embers filled her nose, overpowering the calming fragrance she knew would cling to the fabric.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
He paused, studying the dancing flames as his eyes narrowed in thought. Suddenly, his gaze renewed and he sank onto the bench beside her. The cool breeze of his movement swept across her, leaving a trail of goose bumps running down her back; no longer caused by the cold.
“Where are Seth and Ryan?” she asked.
Where were you? she wanted to ask, but didn’t. Dex was, after all, not her date to the festival. He was free to roam the grounds as he saw fit. Still, his unannounced absence had bothered her more than she cared to admit. She felt a prick of resentment building in her gut. He certainly made a habit of living up to his stage name.
“The sideshow,” he said. “A couple of friends are fighting and they ran off to play mediator.”
“So that’s the trick, isn’t it?”
His head snapped up. In a flash, his granite eyes were upon hers. “Trick?”
“Your magic act in the sideshow. That’s how you’re able to disappear… One of you hides while the other slips into the box.”
He sunk forward, resting his elbows on his knees as a sharp laugh escaped his lips. “We’re not magicians,” he said. “No white rabbits, no playing cards. We just disappear.”
“So you’re a gaff?”
“We’re all gaffs.”
“How can that be? I’ve seen them for myself.”
“They pour hot tar on David and cover him in black sheep’s wool. Suddenly, he’s the Wolf Man. They sewed a fish tail on a monkey and branded it a Caspian Mermaid. The Dubai Princess is a merely midget with a Napoleon complex. And the lovely Chupacabra’s a river otter with severe mange. They have to replace the damn thing yearly.”
“But the Elephant Man… I’ve seen him up close—”
“Elephantitis,” Dex said. “He was bitten by a bad mosquito back in Africa.” He ran a hand through his thick hair, leaving disheveled strands jutting across his forehead.
“And the two-headed man?”
She sighed. “I’ve been duped…”
“If you were the only one, the sideshow would be out of business.” A smile played at the corners of his lips.
“Aren’t these trade secrets?”
“Not if you keep them to yourself.”
“Safe with me,” she whispered.
A couple fresh from the dance floor passed the flames and made to sit on the bench beside Laila. Just as the girl’s eyes met Dex’s face, the flush of her cheeks darkened and her face turned indecipherable. She tugged the hand of her escort and together they scurried away.
“People need a villain,” Dex said, cold eyes following the nervous girl as she and her companion settled for a bench across the fire. “And we make it simple for them.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish