Another arrow flew, and another. While Oliver cried out in pain, the young reporter was smiling broadly for the camera, perhaps not understanding that the old man high above him on the platform was mortally wounded. Possibly this grinning child of the television era did not realize that all blood was not fake blood, that the arrows pinning the old man's legs were quite real.
The crowd was staring agape. Though uninitiated in the art of magic, they knew death when they saw it, when it came with the final arrow swiftly ripping a hole through Oliver's heart. The old man's screaming stopped. He dangled from his chains, not struggling anymore. His eyes were wide, unblinking-fixed in fear.
Malakhai had much experience with death. He knew that it never came in an instant. Perhaps, just for one moment, Oliver was aware of a few people in the crowd moving toward the platform, coming to help him-as if they could.
The newsman was laughing and waving these rescuers off, yelling and gesturing, no doubt assuring them that death was part of the show, a special effect for their viewing enjoyment. Then the reporter looked up at the chained corpse, and he lost his professional smile, perhaps realizing that trick photography was not an option here.
This was what death looked like.
The police officers, better acquainted with mortality, had already reached the top of the stairs. They unlocked Oliver's manacles and gently lowered the body to the wooden floor. Women covered the eyes of their children. The cameraman was ignoring the wild, waving hands of the reporter, who was mouthing the words to make him stop the pictures. But the lens was so in love with its subject, narrowing the focus, closing in on the fear-struck face of the dead magician and his true-to-life blood.
Louisa's sherry glass fell to the floor, and the dark red liquid spread across the pattern of the carpet.
Malakhai's hands were rising of their own accord. It was an act of will to keep one from touching the other, so as not to harm Louisa with a sound that aped applause. His lips spread wide with a silent scream, a parody of Oliver, whose volume had been turned off even before his life was ended. Then Malakhai's hands crashed together, slapping loudly, again and again, madly clapping as tears rolled down his face and ran between his parted lips in warm salty streams.
What a worthy performance-murdering a man while a million pairs of eyes were watching.
Sometimes he wondered why the children didn't cry to see such monsters in the world-a
giant blue hedgehog, a huge fat worm, a cat the size of a floating building. And there
were more fantastic creatures that Detective Sergeant Riker could not identify.
The morning air was freezing cold. All the boys and girls were swaddled in woolen scarves and down coats. They sent up soft choruses of oohs and aaaahs when the cat with a sixteen-foot bow tie emerged from a side street. Its stovepipe hat could house a bodega. The grinning helium balloon was bound to the earth by long ropes in the hands of marching Lilliputian humans. The wind was high as the great looming cat dragged his rope handlers along with him, and it was no longer clear who was tethered to whom.
The balloon was being sandwiched into the parade route between two earthbound attractions, a Conestoga wagon drawn by four live horses and a float pulled by a car and carrying the world's largest peanut on two legs. Other wildly fanciful floats were backed up to 85th Street. They awaited instructions to alternate with the helium giants held down by sandbags and corralled in the cross streets on either side of the Museum of Natural History.
Reprinted from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Carol O'Connell.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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