First time I laid eyes on Mickey Flynn, I felt liquid fire pour through my veins.
At the time, I’d been with the Cirque du Swell for about ten years. I had a nice scam going as Madam Natalia Bukowska. I was supposed to be the impoverished daughter of an exiled Polish aristocrat, forced to earn my living reading cards and telling fortunes in traveling shows.
Well, I was no more the daughter of an aristocrat than our two-bit circus was ‘swell.’ But the scam’s the thing when you’re part of a traveling show, and every Jill and Joe who’s willing to lay down a couple of bucks is just a sucker begging for a little make-believe… and who was I to burst their bubble? If the suckers wanted a Polish aristocrat, I gave ‘em one.
The aristocrat scam was actually Pops Slawinski’s idea. Pops was the nasty old s.o.b. who owned that traveling fleabag. As for me, I grew up in Arkansas, and Annie Goldfarb’s the name. My daddy rode a sanitation truck for a living and my mama cleaned toilets – that’s about as far as you can get from Polish aristocracy. Working for the Cirque du Swell was a step up for me.
Every night I crammed my short blond hair into a black, waist-length wig. I’d glue on fake eyelashes and, with the aid of an eyebrow pencil, dot a ‘beauty mark’ under my right eye. A flouncy peasant skirt and lots of bangles and beads – and voila! Madam Natalia Bukowska was ready to face the public. Scamming suckers with a deck of cards and a crystal ball sure beats cleaning toilets.
I don’t mind fooling suckers, but I never fool myself. You always have to keep the facts straight in your own head.
And one of the facts is that I fell hard for Mickey Flynn. Pops hired him as our barker after he fired Billy Barrows. Mick was an improvement over Billy, a mean drunk who used to insult the suckers. Like Pops said, you don’t insult the paycheck.
Mick was a rooster of a man, always strutting around like he was something special. He wasn’t handsome like a Brad Pitt or a Johnny Depp… but that man had something. Irish green eyes, carrot colored hair, and a cute pug nose. He was Mickey Rooney on steroids. The top of his head reached just below my nose, but I didn’t care. He was big where it counted. The real McCoy, if you wanna know the truth.
Pops figured out I was sweet on Mick, and never lost an opportunity to point out the stupid broads on the midway who practically wet their pants every time Mick winked at them. Pops called Mick ‘the barker with a bite.’ I guess that was so because he sure took a bite out of my heart.
The circus life is a lonely one. We’re like an invisible nation. People only see us when they want to; the rest of the time they look right through us, like we aren’t even there. After all, who are we? Just a bunch of scam artists, geeks, freaks, and exotic dancers…
The town people would tolerate us for a few weeks, and we’d take in a little cash. Then, after a time, the sheriff would show up and say, “Okay, folks, you had your run… move along now.”
Then the tent poles came down, the midway closed up, I packed my cards and crystal ball, and we all headed to the next town.
There’s always a next town when you’re circus folk.
Life became less lonely for me once Mick and I got together. He was always full of plans. I was full of heart.
“Life’s there for the taking, Annie… you just gotta want it bad enough. And I want it! I’m not always gonna be a hustler. This is just a temporary stop along the way.” He ran his hand along my thigh, sending a shiver of delight through me.
He frowned suddenly. “Don’t get too attached to me – don’t try and hold me back, understand? I’m not letting anyone or anything hold me back. No one owns Mick Flynn.”
“I won’t hold you back, baby,” I’d croon, smothering his neck and chest with kisses. Trying to love a man like Mick is like trying to rope in the wind. But what could I do? He owned me, heart and soul.
Mick brought passion and excitement into my life.
But he also brought something else: jealousy. He was a flirtatious man, and it infuriated me. But it was my bed he came to in the night, so I learned to look the other way.
Just as summer turned to autumn, Pops hired a new act, an exotic dancer.
Queenie was 20 years old, and with all the arrogance of youth, she’d undulate on stage each night, dressed in a barely there costume of strategically placed rhinestones. Mick took to calling her the Queen of Diamonds.
That’s also about the time he stopped showing up in my bed. It didn’t take long to put two and two together.
Soon, Queenie began taking the wrong tone with me. She’d flirt with Mick in my presence, and make fun of my scam.
“Annie, I thought acts like yours went out with parasols and bustles. It’s getting a little long in the tooth, ya know? Maybe you need to come up with something new and not so corny.”
Hell! I’m the first one to admit I run a scam, but I didn’t need the ‘Queen of Diamonds’ poking fun at my expense…
One night, very late, I saw her walking the grounds. She was alone, and so I went up to her.
“So, Diamond Girl, how would you like a free reading?”
“Yeah, like I believe in that stuff,” she said.
“Well, the cards don’t lie. C’mon, I’ll do it for free.”
She stared at me, taking my measure. Finally, she smirked with amusement. “Why not? It’ll be good for a laugh.”
Inside my tent, I lowered the lights and placed the deck of cards on the table. “Cut them,” I said.
She did and grinned. The Queen of Diamonds was facing up.
“Cut them again.”
This time the Jack of Spades appeared.
“One more time.”
That’s when the Ace of Spades showed up.
I looked at her and shook my head.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Never mind,” I replied, scooping up the cards. “You’d best go now.”
She looked at me, suddenly nervous. “You were gonna read my cards – so read ‘em!”
I slammed the deck down on the table. “Okay, you want to know what the cards said? They said you’re going to die. You’re the Queen of Diamonds. The Ace of Spades is the death card. That means you’re going to die.”
“What about the other card?” she cried. “What about the Jack of Spades?”
“He’s the reason you’re going to die!”
“What? Who is he? Please, I need to know.”
I enjoyed the terror on her face. “It’s Mick, you silly bitch. He’s the Jack of Spades.”
Queenie laughed then, and leaned back in her chair. “You really had me going for a minute, Annie. Madam Bukowska – what a joke! You wouldn’t know the future if it rose up and bit you in the ass. Mick? That man would never hurt me!”
“I never said he would,” I replied, pulling the knife from the pocket of my skirt.
Plunging a knife into the throat of an enemy isn’t the best way to take care of things, I’ll admit. It was damned sloppy, and I ended up wiping blood spray from my face and arms.
That was a month ago, and I’ve since put hundreds of miles between me and that sleazy little circus. You’d think the cops might have caught up with me, wouldn’t you? But like I said, we circus people are invisible. No one gives a rat’s ass if there’s one less exotic dancer.
Sometimes I think about getting in touch with Mick, but I’m not that stupid. Best to let it rest. Besides, I have new life growing inside me and I gotta think about that. Mick’s not exactly daddy material.
I suppose I’m not what you’d call mama material, either, but I aim to do better.
As for Queenie, she got what she deserved. I’ll never forget those glazed eyes staring stupidly at me as the life drained out of them. Before I left that night, I tossed the Queen of Hearts card at her lifeless body.
After all, everybody knows the Queen of Hearts always trumps the Queen of Diamonds.
The cards don’t lie.
Author’s Note: The idea for this story rose out of a challenge to write a story of indeterminate length based on any of a variety of phrases that are part this week’s ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog BeKindRewrite. The phrases I used are: ‘invisible nation;’ ‘the wrong tone;’ and a very slight variation on ‘barker and biter.’ Thanks to BeKindRewrite for the inspiration prompts for this week!