She stepped onto the stage, high heels shouting echoes through footlights and dust. Hector was there, too, stage left. The dark of his jacket sank into the velvet walls, and he seemed protected by the theater’s gargoyles behind him. She had not forgotten their deal, but if she had, he meant to remind her.At center stage, mentally, Caralee began to find her balance. How could she not? She consumed the packed house’s anticipatory glee like a rattlesnake eating its own eggs. It gave her energy. It gave her power.
With an exaggerated sweep of her arm, she whisked her velvet hat off, barely brushing her powdered cheek and its convincing mole. She executed a reverent curtsy, tails from her jacket and sparkling fringe from her nude mini-skirt nearly brushing the floor. And looking up from below her penciled brow, she began:
“Madames et Monsieurs: the Skip Street Theater presents for your pleasure; for your appreciation; for your judgement,” and here, as always, she gestured widely, “The Circus of the Inferno.”
Dancers wearing grotesque masks and carrying blood-colored banners crowded the stage. Ash from above began to flurry down, darkening the glow of the orange flickering backdrop. Caralee rushed offstage, and winding her way between dancing devils and twisting victims, arrived through winding passages at the main dressing room. She threw open the door, startling Milly, who had been kneeling improbably on the hard wooden floor, playing with her dolls.
“Time to go. Now.”
“Mommy, I have to tell you a story…”
“Not now, sweetie. Time to go.”
“Turtle Fairy was in a race with Fish Fairy, and Fish Fairy died.”
Caralee flung her daughter over her shoulder. She had to get to the basement exit, her childhood secret.
Using as many back doors and quiet hallways as she could, she slowly made her way lower and lower, each floor of the tall building passing her like blades of a fan.
“Mommeeee! Fish Fairy died!!”
Then, in a whisper, Milly said, “Mommy. The cloud keeper killed her. He knows everything.”
She set her daughter down and looked at her, meticulous brow furrowed, the stomp of dancers jumping and falling above them. “What have you seen?”
The little girl looked past her right shoulder at a shadowy figure in gray approaching.
“It’s time, my dear. She’s mine.”
Caralee grabbed Milly and held her close. “You can’t have her!”
“I will have her. It was our deal.”
“You tricked me!”
“So many details. As they say, caveat emptor. You asked for my service, and payment is due.”
“You used to be a friend. Don’t do this.”
“That, too, was part of my service. As it is, I have spent far too long and invested too many resources getting ownership of this girl. She has talents that I need, and you are obviously not the parent she deserves.”
The sting of the insult was not enough to put her off her plan. But her daughter’s words rang through her head. Did he know everything? Thinking on her feet, she took Milly’s arm and yanked her behind a curtain. “You’ll burn before you get her. We all will.”
Hector drew a dagger, saying, “We are already burning.”
Caralee disappeared behind the curtain where Milly had been, and Hector followed. As he threw the black velvet back, there was nothing. “Don’t make me find you,” he called out. “You know I can.”
Above him, quick footsteps belied their location. If they got to the street, there would be more complications. He ran up a set of dark stairs he saw behind the curtain, but the stairs ended at a wall. By the time he’d found the hidden latch, he could hear them no more.
“Did you find them?”
“Yes. But they escaped.”
“Do you know where they are now?”
“I have people looking.”
“This sets us back, perhaps a decade, you know.”
“I have people looking.”
Caralee mussed Milly’s hair at the stoplight. Milly smiled until a look of surprise overtook her. She turned and pointed. “See that lady on the corner?”
The blinking red hand turned to a steady image of people walking, and the woman who had been waiting shuffled her way across. Halfway between the two curbs, her phone began ringing, and in her hurry to dislodge it from her purse, tripped over her feet and landed shoulder first into the asphalt.
Milly, not able to help herself, began to giggle.
“Did you do that?” Caralee demanded.
“No. But I saw it.” Milly’s smile broke out into short laughter again. Caralee watched her until their light turned green, and spent much of the rest of the afternoon wondering what to do with Hector’s daughter.