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Hidden Moon (Chapter 15)

By evening, dozens of discarded flyers tumbled down the sidewalk and dozens more blew up against the buildings. On my way home I snatched one and read:

Come one, come all, to the greatest performance

in the world. Live animal acts! Different show

every night! Come twice, come thrice!

Bring your friends.

Tonight's show began at 9:00 p.m. After running home to change and eat dinner, I drove the familiar route to the lake.

Rows of cars spread across a medium-sized grassy area. Not a huge turnout, but not a bad one, either. If the performance was all the Gypsies had promised, the crowd would increase with each subsequent night. Everyone would make more money, and good word of mouth on the Lake Bluff Full Moon Festival would increase traffic for this year as well as the next.

A ring had been set up, surrounded by portable grandstands. The menagerie wagons curled in a semicircle, bars facing the seats so the audience could view the animals during the show. The conveyances used for living quarters had been moved halfway around the lake; I could barely see their roofs from where I stood. Twinkle lights graced the nearest trees, and spotlights illuminated both the ring and the area surrounding it.

A ticket booth stood in the center of the path that led to the performance. An elderly man sat within, while two younger men flanked either side, scowling at everyone, daring them to try to slip by without a ticket.

One was big, bulky, with thick dark hair and a fierce expression. The second had lighter hair, nearly brown as if bleached by the sun, and he was so thin and tall he hunched over as if trying to disguise his height, or perhaps his prominent Adam's apple.

A tall young woman with a white streak through her black hair galloped past carrying a bushel of apples. She handed them to a squat middle-aged man with large, curious eyes and a beaked nose who began to dip each one into a vat of caramel. Balloons bounced in the hands of children. The scent of popcorn and cotton candy filled the night.

I handed my ticket to the burly bouncer type, and he growled what might have been a thank-you, but I doubted it. Beyond him, tables had been set up for the sale of trinkets. I trailed past, glancing at the items on sale. A sign caught my eye.

AMULETS. TALISMANS. CHARMS.

Interesting.

I'd left the swastika-marred wood at home, figuring the Gypsies might be understandably testy about a Nazi symbol. Even though the war had been over for sixty-plus years, that didn't mean they should forget. No one should.

I examined everything on the table but didn't find a single item that resembled the one Grace had found nearby.

"Do you have anything in wood?" I asked.

The ancient Gypsy's face was so wrinkled and brown it resembled a dried-apple doll. Her hair was covered with a brightly colored, coin-fringed scarf, and huge hoops swung from her ears. Every finger sported a ring, and ten bangles dangled on each of her arms. Whenever she moved, a cacophony sounded.

She stared at me for so long, I wondered if she spoke English. I'd started to turn away when she reached under the table and pulled out a box. I took the offering, nearly dropping it when something moved inside.

"Uh, no thanks." I tried to give it back; she wouldn't take it. Instead encouraging me with nods and motions to open the lid.

I did, but the container was too shallow and the night too dark for me to discern what was inside. I upended the box, and a shriveled paw fell into my hand.

I didn't shriek. Instead I said something like, "Glurg. Blah," and threw the thing away.

The old woman snatched it nimbly out of the air, cackling, and tossed it back inside.

"What was that?" I demanded.

I didn't expect her to respond. I truly didn't think she spoke English.

"A joke, dearie. Didn't you ever hear the tale of the monkey's paw? Ancient curse? Three wishes?"

I forced myself to take a deep breath, then another. My heart, which had been pounding far too fast and too loud, slowly settled. "Sounds familiar."

"We like to give the people what they want."

"I didn't ask for a monkey's paw!"

"What monkey's paw?"

"The one in the box!"

"This box?" She picked up the container and upended it. Nothing came out.

A spattering of laughter, then applause erupted behind me. We'd drawn a small crowd.

"If any of you are interested in having your fortunes told," the old woman said, "I'll be doing readings after the show."

I'd been set up for an advertisement. I didn't think I liked it, but since we both needed the festival to do well, I couldn't complain.

I hurried to the performance ring. Joyce waved at me from the middle of the crowd and I waved back. Most of the seats were taken, but I managed to squeeze onto the last one in the first row just as the lights dimmed and a drum began to beat a rhythm that sounded as if it had come out of Africa.

The mountain lion snarled; the grizzly growled and somewhere out in the forest, the same something that had howled the other night answered.

I glanced around, but everyone was focused, fascinated, on the center ring.

Suddenly one of the lights flared, illuminating Sabina. She seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. One minute the ring had been shadowed, empty. The next, there were lights and a girl wearing a snake.

Theoretically, I knew she'd slipped through the shadows while the music and the animals had distracted the crowd, but with the night settling gently around us, I could swear I felt the magic; I almost believed in it, too.

Sabina appeared different in the spotlight. Her inability to speak didn't matter there. Her shyness gone, she danced as if she'd been born to; she no doubt had.

Her eyes appeared lighter than I remembered, more gold than green, not in the least bit brown, most likely just a reflection. Her hair was loose, swirling around her face and shoulders in time to the music, which had changed, becoming faster, more Oriental than African, although that drum still pulsed beneath the surface.

Her skirt swayed; brightly colored, it caught the light, playing hide-and-seek with the golden toe rings adorning her bare feet. From the waist down she was completely covered, but from the waist up she wore more snake than cloth. Her bare arms glowed beneath the lights, writhing up and down, back and forth, mimicking the cobra's movements.

The snake danced, yellow eyes glowing, seemingly as hypnotized by Sabina as the rest of us.

Someone gasped and I tensed, afraid the cobra had become aggressive; then I saw what made the crowd shift and mutter uneasily.

Close to a half a dozen snakes slithered into the ring, moving pretty quickly for snakes. If they wanted to, they could continue right across the circle, over the raised wooden edge, and into the crowd. Since I saw at least one rattler, that could be a problem.

However, the reptiles headed for Sabina, and once they reached her, they paused. She smiled, welcoming them, and when the music slowed, deepening toward the blues, she knelt, leaning backward until her head nearly touched the ground as she bowed her body like a gymnast.

The crowed went "ooooh." Then, when the snakes began to slither onto her as if she were a bridge, the crowd went "ahhh," although my personal response was "ew!"

Sabina lifted her body until she rested on her knees, then rose to her feet. Her entire torso was covered with writhing snakes, the cobra wrapped around her neck, two rattlers twined around her arms like bracelets, and she appeared to be wearing a python as a belt. She sashayed out of the ring to thunderous applause.

It wasn't until Sabina was gone and the lights had dimmed again that I thought to wonder about her hand. I hadn't noticed during her amazing performance any deformity at all.

Ta-da!

The band blasted a traditional "Wasn't she wonderful?" sally, followed by a single thud of the drums.

Bam. The lights went back on, revealing an empty ring.

The crowd held its breath. At first the staccato beat seemed to come from the band, but as the sound became louder, I distinguished the rhythm of a horse's hooves.

A ghostly shadow wavered, and then a white horse leaped out of the darkness, landing at the center of the spotlight. Atop the animal's back stood Malachi Cartwright. How had he stayed on the horse?

Cartwright was dressed in his usual black pants, his feet bare, the better to cling to the animal. His shirt red, the sleeves billowy, only a few buttons had been fastened, so that his chest played peekaboo with the fabric, blowing open and closed in the breeze kicked up as he put the horse and himself through their paces.

I'd never seen anything quite Like it, and from the silence of the crowd, neither had they. Cartwright and the horse appeared to be one being. I never saw the man direct the animal. I never saw the animal await instructions. Whether Cartwright stood, knelt, or lay flat on the horse's back, he never lost his balance, never faltered.

The music rose to a crescendo, signaling the big finish. Cartwright jumped off and perched on the edge of the ring. The horse circled, faster and faster, around and around.

I figured Malachi would do some fancy jump and land on top of the animal; instead he raced in the opposite direction, until he stood in front of the audience. He bowed low and everyone cheered. Then he turned to me and held out his hand.

I stared, uncertain of what he expected. The crowd went silent, waiting.

"Would ye be wantin' a ride then?" he asked, playing up his brogue shamelessly to the audience.

My gaze switched to the horse, which still galloped in a circle. "No thanks."

"I'll be with you the entire time."

I shook my head, but the crowd began to shout encouragement. "Go on, Mayor."

"Come on, honey."

"Try it; you'll like it."

Maybe I would. Curious, I put my hand in Cartwright's.

He snapped his fingers, and the horse stopped dead. Since there was no saddle and therefore no stirrup, Malachi boosted me up, then climbed on behind. I held my body rigidly upright, trying not to lean against him. His arms came around me, and the horse rose, pawing at the air.

My gasp sounded more like a shriek. I was thrown against Malachi, my back to his chest; my rear nestled into the curve of his thighs. He tightened his legs, and while I should have felt trapped, even threatened, all I felt was anticipation. What might happen next?

Benjamin's front hooves met the earth, and he began to run. Instead of skipping over the barrier with ease – it was only a foot high – the animal bunched his muscles and he leaped, as in the dancing-on-air performances of the Lippizaner stallions, clearing the ring with several feet to spare.

The three of us seemed to fly, and that sense of magic returned for just an instant before Benjamin returned to the ground, then carried us into the night amid the thunderous roar of an appreciative crowd.

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