Breathless by Thomas Joyce
Carmen flicked the lighter and waited impatiently for the lying magician’s time to run out. His pounding on the lid of the air-tight trunk grew less forceful, less frequent, but he was hanging on.
Where was all this stamina and longevity before, she wondered with a smirk. Then her face darkened as she realized he probably saved it for her.
With a growl, she threw the lighter down on the dressing table, among the fire-breathing equipment and shards of mirror. “The Great Patricio” specialized in escapology–hence the practice session with the metal trunk before the show–but he liked to give the crowd variety. And most crowds liked fire. The Great Patricio liked fire. So long as he could control it.
Carmen was fire of a different variety.
She stormed over to the trunk and opened the small hatch on top. “Tell me where it is,” she began, ignoring his desperate gasps. “And I may let you out in time for the show.”
The cacophony of the crowd out front of the theatre floated in through the open windows. But she already warned the manager not to interrupt The Great Patricio before curtain-up. She gave him that look her mother used to call her “stone-cold bitch face”.
“I can’t,” he panted, still sucking down lungfuls of sweet oxygen. “I don’t know where she hid it.”
Carmen slammed a fist into the grate of the hatch, mashing the pink flesh of his lips in the metal grid, producing a pathetic yelp from within. “You son of a bitch!” The noise from outside seemed to quieten. She lowered her voice. “You may have started this con with her, but she is out and I am your partner now. You owe me.”
“It’s not that simple,” he whined. “If you let me out...”
“I will let you out when I get my share, Patrick.” She stomped back to the dressing table and snatched up the lighter, grabbed her cigarettes.
“Betty needs the money...”
Carmen immediately regretted kicking the trunk but it was the closest she could get to kicking the lying, cheating toad. She hopped over to the couch, put her cigarette in the ashtray and rubbed at her swollen toes. Then stopped.
He was laughing.
“What’s so funny, shithead?”
“I can’t believe you thought this would work,” he said. “It isn’t your best idea ever.”
“Well, it sure as shit ain’t my worst, either,” she fired back. “That’s still answering your ad.”
His laughter ceased, but another’s laughter took its place.
Her mother laughed in her face when Carmen brought home the ad from the supermarket noticeboard. A week later, she watched her only daughter get into the motor-home of The Great Patricio, waving with one hand, a vodka in the other, still laughing.
Carmen was under no illusions; she knew if she stuck around, she’d only end up a lush like her mother, lucky if she made it to checkout supervisor, end up married to the manager and with a couple of brats of her own. Not yet twenty-one, but she already knew a dead end when she saw one.
She also knew being assistant to a travelling stage magician wouldn’t lead to happiness either. Patrick Mullane was just her way out of a bad situation.
That he was wanted for burglary in Boston and Raleigh had come as a surprise.
Those escapology skills helped him get out of the homes of old, rich, white people. The money he made from years of fencing their stolen jewelry would be her way out of a dead end life with Patrick. A fresh start. Alone.
“So, you’re telling me Betty has it?” She sat on the edge of the couch, toying with the lighter again.
“Yeah,” came Patrick’s quiet reply. “If you let me out, I’ll take you to her. Get your share.”
He couldn’t see her, but she grinned anyway, shook her head at the trunk. “You stupid son of a bitch. I already went to see her. Yesterday. When you thought I was visiting momma. She told me everything. She told me you had it squirrelled away somewhere.”
The cheap, plastic clock hanging on the wall ticked audibly. Seconds became minutes.
“Look, Carmen.” She couldn’t believe he was still arguing the point. But his tone was more serious, more pleading. He wasn’t laughing now. “I didn’t mean for you to find out this way. I’m sorry.”
It was her turn to laugh. “You think I give a shit that you’ve been fucking your ex?” She tried to keep the tremor out of her voice; if she really didn’t care, she wouldn’t have done what she did to Betty. She took an unsteady drag of her cigarette. “I just want my money.”
“Well, obviously there’s more to it than that.” The magician sighed. “I never meant to get her pregnant. But I’ve been wanting a kid. Well, you know. And I can’t let her get rid of it. So, she needs the money. I really think I’ll be a good dad, you know?”
Carmen tuned out. Everything after “pregnant” was like white noise, static playing over the nightmare film rolling in her mind. Radiant Betty, all sunshine and light, the smug expression on her face when she opened her front door. Offering Carmen a drink, but opting for water herself. She wasn’t even showing. Then the film in Carmen’s head cut to the end - so much blood. Carmen didn’t know Betty was bleeding for two.
“Come on, Carmen,” he chuckled. “I know we could never have any. But ain’t you gonna let me out? Congratulate me?”
She came out of her daze, standing next to the trunk, holding the kerosene in one hand, lighter in the other. The Great Patricio screamed when he recognized the smell of the liquid pouring through the hatch, covering him.
Carmen flicked the lighter and waited patiently for the lying magician’s screams to die out.
About the author:
Thomas Joyce lives in his hometown near Glasgow, Scotland with his wife and daughter, and is a reviewer for thisishorror.co.uk. His short stories have appeared at thehorrorzine.com, in Unnerving Magazine, and Lost Films, an anthology published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing in 2018. When not writing, he stalks the passenger trains of Scotland, demanding payment for safe passage.
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