The puff of smoke dissipated and Tracy slowed her clapping. As the surrounding crowd ringing the open-air stage descended into hushed anticipation, she rose on her toes and whispered in Donald’s ear. “Do you see him?”
“Relax.” Donald gave her shoulder a pat. “The kiddo’s fine.”
Shrugging him off, Tracy eyed the curtains blocking backstage from view until a sweep of a scarlet sleeve drew her back to Rodini.
In the center of the stage, the magician took another bow amid the fading haze, the buckles of his suspenders reflecting the fair’s brighter lights. He popped on his top hat, hiding dark curls, and waggled his wand at a pedestal his assistant, a busty redhead he’d named Lucky, carried through the slit in the curtains with the help of suggestively sequined spandex. They shared a nod and wink, then Rodini returned to the audience.
“And for my next trick—”
“Where’d Benny go?”
At the stage’s lip, Freddie Henderson peered up at the performers, his pout replaced by wide-eyed wonder. His question started a round of chuckles and Rodini’s mouth spread into another bleached smile, the same toothy grin Tracy recalled him shooting when selecting Benny as his disappearing act’s volunteer.
“He’ll be back at the end of the show, my fine fellow, don’t you worry about that.”
“He better be back,” murmured Tracy.
Donald’s voice trailed as he watched Lucky whipping a silken sheet off the pedestal. An orange box with brass stars attracted Freddie’s attention. The rest, including Donald, followed Lucky to stage right where the redhead curved into a thigh-flexing pose while Rodini resumed the show.
During his split of one rabbit into two, Tracy dragged the golden band threading her necklace back and forth. The endless water glass didn’t fool her either, and she ground her thumb on the ring’s edge during the applause for Rodini’s card trick, the impossible guess of a license plate number, the mental bending of a spoon. Despite his previous slight, even Freddie seemed entranced by Rodini until the magician vanished in a second puff of sparks and smoke.
The crowd hooted and clapped at the finale, plunked coins and cash into Rodini’s abandoned top hat, and then began dispersing.
Freddie tugged his father to the table of Rodini-inspired souvenirs a beefier assistant managed. Others debated food trucks, a last Ferris wheel ride, or the night’s forthcoming shows.
Beside her, Donald checked his Rolex. “Hungry?”
Tracy didn’t answer, didn’t move, didn’t release her hold on her threaded ring or quit her stare at the curtains.
The dark green drapes billowed against movement on the other side.
Rodini, she suspected, and Lucky would be packing, their performance at the carnival complete.
Clutching her ring, Tracy waited for one or the other to appear, or better yet, for Benny to come bounding out with stories of where he’d been, what he’d seen.
Lucky poked out first. After a toss of her unbound hair, she beamed at the cluster of teenagers and too-old men looking for an autograph or something more. She indulged them, perching on the stage’s lip and replying to stilted conversation with a deep-throated laugh.
The performer’s darting gaze, however, irked instincts deeper than Tracy’s maternal impulses.
Slipping her phone from her pocket, Tracy shoved it into Donald’s hand. “Call Madder. Tell him to get his ass down here.”
“Hoping for better company?”
“Just do it, Don.”
While he dialed and grumbled about dinner, Tracy padded around the dwindling audience.
“Afraid I can’t,” Lucky rocked with an innocent sway, “we’re on our way out.”
Chagrin claimed one young man and deflated the remainder.
“Excuse me.” Tracy slipped between them and cleared her voice in the awkward silence. “Where’s my son?”
Lucky fluttered her long lashes. The blinks, though, couldn’t hid her alarm, her seek of the beefier assistant, or smooth her stutter. “He’s fine…ma’am.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Tracy tapped the stage. “I want him back.”
Lucky’s cheeks reddened around a slathering of blush. “Of course.”
As she held her ground, Tracy felt anger leaking out of every pore. The heated waves warded off the lusty and the gawkers, leaving her alone with Lucky and the ripple in the backstage curtains.
Lucky rose, her frown flitting to the nearby parking lot, the rides, and the adjoining tents, before dragging across the table of souvenirs and settling on the drapes. “Let me get Rodini.”
“Why don’t we do that?” Tracy started up the two steps.
“Wait for me.” Donald followed her onto the stage.
At his arrival, Lucky’s smile returned like a flipped switch. With a pivot, she offered Donald her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Ah, you too.” Donald shook then retrieved his fingers.
Lucky plumped her breasts and managed another innocent sway. “You’re here for your son, right?”
Tracy squeezed her threaded ring. “Benny’s mine.”
Donald puffed out his chest. “I’m his uncle.”
“Oh,” Lucky’s flush faded, “I see. Isn’t that…interesting?”
“Not really.” Tracy motioned at the curtain. “We were going to see Rod—”
The magician swept the curtain aside. “Who? Me?”
Tracy squared herself to the slender man and cocked her chin. “I’m here for my son.”
“Your son, of course. Why don’t you step into my office?”
Rodini chuckled at his turn of phrase. He quieted, however, when Tracy stormed through the gap he created in the drape.
Leaving Donald to Lucky’s wiles, Tracy stepped into a cluster of boxes and satchels, trunks and mirrors, cloth hung on rods, and the smell of wood, smoke, and powder. A white van sat to one side, doors closed, windows tinted.
Despite all the details of leather and fabric, reflective surfaces and stench, Tracy couldn’t spot one sign of Benny.
Behind her, Rodini rubbed his hands together. “Now where were we?”
“Where is he?”
“All in good time.” Rodini fingered a suspender as he sauntered around his gear. “What exactly are you willing to give to get the little fellow back?”
Tracy tracked the magician, the threat clogging her voice. “Are you ransoming my child?”
“Don’t think of it as a ransom, miss. Think of it as a donation to an entertaining cause.” Rodini tipped his head, encompassing the stage, the gear, and the van. “This doesn’t run on applause.”
“I wasn’t entertained by your tricks and am even less amused by these antics.” Tracy swirled to the curtain, but Rodini snatched her arm and yanked her against his spindly frame.
“We can do this nicely,” Rodini’s whisper rasped in her ear as his aftershave drowned her nose, “or you can make this harder on yourself and on your little fella, far harder than it needs to be.”
Tracy froze although the hip-check and toss capable of planting Rodini six feet underground surged through her limbs. Playing dumb instead, she kept him close and hoped her rage might come across as the fear he intended.
“You won’t get away with this.”
Rodini snorted. “You’re alone, miss, there’s no help, no security, no cops, on their way.”
“You’re wrong,” Tracy caught Rodini in the corner of her eye, “but that’s not the biggest of your problems.”
Rodini’s smirk faded a hair. “What is?”
“The fact the cops are already here.”
With a jerk and twist, Tracy freed her arm. She pulled her badge from within her jacket. Her field weapon came next, her aim on Rodini’s blanched face.
The magician raised both hands and sweat drenched his hairline. “Can’t you take a little joke?”
“You don’t joke with someone’s kid.” Without taking her eyes off Rodini, Tracy called out. “BENNY!?”
A thump and squirm came from the van and Tracy inched toward the magician. “Get one of your accomplices in here and that van open.”
Rodini raised his hands a little higher. “They’re both innocent.”
“And I was born yesterday.” Tracy bellowed for Donald.
He popped his head through the curtains. “What’s goi—oh shi…imminie.”
“Get a grip, Don, and bring me Lucky.”
After a glance at the stage, he darted through the curtains and closed the drapes. “She’s gone.” Creeping forward, Donald stretched out one hand. “Tracy—”
“He wanted money for Benny.”
“What?” Donald straightened to his full six-five, and Rodini shrank in his polished shoes.
“Open the van, Don.”
Donald’s knuckles popped. “This bast—”
“Is mine.” Tracy jutted an elbow at the van. “He’s got Benny inside.”
“Not for long.” Charging off the stage, Don flung the van’s sliding side door open. “Oh geeze.”
Tracy ratcheted her glare on Rodini. “He better be alright.”
Rodini licked his lips. “People don’t pay for damaged goods.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
A muffled cry peaked inside the van, then taped ripped and fabric ruffled.
Benny’s warble nearly melted Tracy’s knees. She stilled the flutter in her heart and hardened her glower. “Does this work often?”
The magician shrugged. “More often than you’d expect.”
Donald backed out of the van. “Come on kiddo. Someone’s waiting.”
“Mom?” Benny scurried forward then stopped short. “MOM!”
“It’s alright honey, mommy’s got everything under control.” Tracy pointed her badge at the curtain. “Take him outside and let Madder know where I am.”
“This way, kid.” Donald put a hand on Benny’s shoulder and guided him around their standoff.
Benny though, paused at the curtain and stared at Rodini.
The magician gathered himself enough to sneer back. “What kid? Are you waiting for an apology?”
Benny didn’t balk, didn’t whimper, didn’t even quake. He simply shook his head. “Just another magic trick.” A wail of sirens neared. “‘Cause my mom’s about to make you disappear.”