Bill was becoming unbearable, telling off-color jokes in the presence of the ladies and whistling at every pretty girl they passed. When Susan escaped with Judy for another ride on the Ferris wheel, Lauren, alone with the boorish clown, felt unfairly burdened. She had liked him two hours before, his joviality and playful spirit and, most captivating, his resemblance to one of those muscle-bound barbarian warriors who sometimes appear on the covers of romance novels holding entranced damsels to their lips. But one too many sips at the beer sampling contest had turned Susan’s new boyfriend into a lout. Amid the smell of grilled pork chops and the cloyingly folksy sound of an accordion polka band, he grabbed her by the wrist. “Come on, baby! Let’s see what this magic stuff’s about!”
“I’m not your baby!” Lauren snapped.
A few bystanders turned in their direction, detecting her distress. She deflected their attention with a happy smile. What good would making a scene do?
Between gaily colored beer tents, pushcarts and concession stands, he towed her through a sea of fairgoers toward a large, rectangular tent. Its sloping roof held up by a line of sturdy poles down the center, with canvas sides the color of brown clay drawn taut by hempen ropes pegged to the ground, it looked like an army tent. Above the folded-back entry flaps, a prominent sign proclaimed COLLETTE’S MAGIC SHOW.
At least they’d be in a shaded place, thought the 27-year-old freelance writer. It struck her how much she missed the air-conditioned library and the professional look she favored—nylons, a skirt and high heels. Attending the fair had meant dressing for July in Iowa, which meant a white cotton blouse over her bra, cut-off shorts, bobbysocks and the tennis shoes that she hadn’t worn in over a year. The undulating brim of a lemon-yellow beach hat shielded her face from the ultraviolet rays. Sunglasses protected her eyes.
Intended to hold souvenirs, a large handbag hung from her shoulder containing a ballpoint pen and notepad. Planet Earth may have succumbed to handheld electronic gizmos with Internet connections, but she still preferred to jot her thoughts down.
After paying for their admission, Bill looked at her, giving her a moment, obviously expecting thanks. She gave him a lady’s equivalent of a punch in the nose: a cold, blank face. “Be miserable, if you like,” he shrugged. “I, for one, am going to enjoy myself.” He lifted a red plastic beer cup to his lips and quaffed the icy brew.
She sat down in the rear, the buffoon next to her, and reflexively reached up to push back her hair before realizing that she’d woven it into a French braid that morning. Despite the summer heat, she’d been loath to cut the strawberry-blond locks which, when unbound, would cascade luxuriously down her back. A woman’s hair, her grandmother said, was her crowning glory.
She removed her sunglasses. Facing the stage were a dozen rows of fold-up chairs, the front rows occupied mainly by young people, probably college kids. Some of the guys were clutching cups identical to Bill’s. A trio of young women were pressing their faces into swirls of pink cotton candy. The crowd’s older members looked less enthusiastic. Victims of the heat wave, Lauren surmised.
A loud whistle made her jump. She looked to her right.
Bill had two fingers in his mouth, having just expelled a shrill gust inches from her ear—his way of showing admiration for the two women who had just appeared on stage. Translation: he found them sexy.
At the same time, a brawny fellow with a crewcut stood up in the row just ahead, repeatedly slamming the palms of his hands together in applause. Catching a whiff of aftershave, she found herself staring into the seat of his pants. Men!
One of the women, the shorter, more delicate one, padded silently to the center of the stage in bare feet. Sheathed in a black skinsuit covering her from neck to ankles, she looked like an acrobat. Lauren could picture her swinging from a trapeze with monkey-like agility. Held together by a tortoise-shell clip, her blazing red hair arched up and down in a lush ponytail.
Somewhat taller and more robust, her partner strode behind her, resembling a comic-book superheroine with glossy black hair trimmed in a bowl cut, a shimmering sable cape edged in crimson, and a black miniskirt and nylons. Coming up to her knees, patent leather boots glinted and flashed like polished anthracite.
“I’m Collette Sullivan,” she announced with a cool smile, as if she neither desired nor needed the crowd’s support. “And this…” she nodded at her partner, “is my gifted assistant, Miss Paige Michaels.”
Dutifully, the audience applauded.
“I’d like to see you in a bunny outfit!” Bill shouted, raising his beer cup in some kind of vague salute.
Lauren jabbed him in the ribs. “You’re not funny!” she hissed.
He looked at her, grinning, and shrugged.
Back up on stage, Miss Michaels assumed the posture of a champion swimmer, shoulders squared, palms at her sides, feet together, as if poised to bounce off the high dive. With the smartness of a ballerina, she cocked a foot up behind her and pivoted 45 degrees, presenting her trim profile to the audience. Simultaneously, Collette raised a coil of rope above the young woman’s head and proceeded to unwind and tug at it at separate points along its length to demonstrate its strength and integrity. Just before getting to the end of it, she stopped.
“You!” she nodded at someone in the audience.
A balding, middle-aged man in bib overalls with a slightly hunched back stood up hesitantly, pointing to himself.
“Yeah, you!” she said. “Come on up here, big guy.”
Less a volunteer than a conscript, the timid fellow made his way between two rows of chairs toward the main aisle and stumbled up the three steps to the stage. Collette handed him the rope. “Wrap this around your hands,” she commanded.
Carefully, tentatively, he wrapped the silvery-white nylon cord first around one hand, then the other, leaving a little slack in between, while Collette smiled knowingly at the audience. Then he looked up at her for further instructions.
“Pull!” she ordered.
He tugged and tugged while she stood watching with a bored smile. She’d probably done this a hundred times, Lauren thought.
“You could hogtie a bull with that, couldn’t you?” Collette asked.
The man swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He must be an Iowan, Lauren thought—wary of replying with anything but an honest, verifiable answer. “I… I don’t know if I could, Ma’am.”
The crowd burst out laughing.
From the rear of the tent, a jolly whoop went up like a crazed duck flushed out of a bush. It was Bill again. “I’d like to hogtie you!” he shouted, his eyes riveted on Collette.
Ignoring the heckler, she directed the man on stage to sit back down. As he returned to his seat, relieved no doubt to be out of the spotlight, recorded music turned on, inducing an air of suspense, smacking of a tournament about to begin.
Collette folded the rope in half while Paige, facing away from her, bowed her head. The rope was laid over the back of the young woman’s neck, two equal segments hanging to the floor, one on either side of her. With her hands moving almost too fast for the eye to follow, Collette worked one segment around her partner’s left arm, then the other around her right.
Pivoting again, Miss Michaels presented her back to the audience to exhibit the rope work. Looped around the back of her neck, the rope spiraled down each arm like a snow-white snake around a pole of black velvet, the excess hanging limp to the floor. Collette now drew the limp ends up, lifting the young woman’s forearms toward her shoulder blades, passed the rope ends neatly under the loop at the back of her neck, and swiftly, deftly, tied a knot just below the nape.
The music acquired a darker hue, drawing the audience in like a vortex toward the center. The young people especially looked excited, leaning forward, eyes wide, no one munching or sipping anymore but all riveted to the action on stage.
Her back displayed to the audience, Miss Michaels, twisting her wrists and curling her palms upward, tried and tried again to reach the knot. Just an inch below it, her fingers fluttered in vain. With her forearms bound perpendicular to her upper arms, she then tugged downward, left and right and down again, straining in every conceivable way against her bonds. Alas, to no avail! Having made the point, she ceased her efforts, cocked a foot behind her, and pivoted 180 degrees to face the audience again, mute, expressionless, a model of elegance.
Collette addressed the crowd with a smug smile. “How much time do you think she’ll need to get out of that?”
People looked at each other, everyone at a loss. Could anyone get out of it? In any length of time?
Houdini maybe, Lauren thought. But was that young woman in the black skinsuit the equivalent of Houdini?
“Well?” Collette prodded.
“Five minutes?” a man joked, grinning foolishly at his neighbors. Even Houdini would need more time than that.
“Way too long,” Collette replied.
The crowd looked incredulous.
“Two minutes?” someone suggested.
“Too generous,” Collette smiled.
“Half a minute?” proposed another.
Collette laughed. “You don’t need that long, do you, Paige?”
A faint smile appeared on Miss Michaels’ lips—the first hint of an expression to be seen on her face.
“Ten seconds,” Collette announced. “We’ll give her ten seconds, and not a single one more.”
The announcement made a sensation. People looked at each other, alive with expectation.
Bill snorted. Sticking his tongue out, he made a farting sound. “Hoax!” he shouted. “It’s all a hoax!”
Like a child’s top spinning on the edge of a table, the music increased in tempo and daring, throwing out swirls of colorful chords. Collette’s cape whirled over Miss Michaels, covering her like the wing of a giant vampire bat that left visible only her face and bare feet. “ONE…” the magician began the fateful count: TWO…
The crowd joined in. THREE…
“Hooey!” Bill shouted. But no one heard him. He took another gulp from his red cup.
The tenth second was reached. The music ceased. The audience froze. Only the muffled din of passersby marred the spellbinding silence inside the tent. Behind the cape, still as a statue, the bound woman appeared not to have moved at all.
Suddenly, the cape was whisked away, and lo! The rope lay on the floor, not in a tangled mess either but neatly wound, while Miss Michaels shifted her hands to her hips and planted a foot on the inert coil, triumphant as the Statue of Liberty.
Thunderous applause, studded with exclamations of astonishment, filled the tent. Women and men, young and old, sober and tipsy, exchanged looks of amazement, many rising to their feet to clap.
“It’s all hooey!” Bill yelled, annoyed that no one was paying him any attention. “That chick’s got no more strength than a…” He spluttered something unintelligible and flung his cup to the ground.
“Bill!” Lauren hissed. “Shut up!”
The applause, having attained a crescendo, began to subside and, as it did, heads began turning. “Magic, my foot!” Bill shouted at the stage. “You’re just exploiting the gullibility of these…” He waved his arm. “…these ignorant yokels.”
Lauren cringed. He’d gone beyond bad taste. If he went much further, there’d be a fight—or a riot.
“Hey, man,” a black fellow in the second row stood up. “Who you callin’ ignorant?”
“Who you callin’ a yokel?” asked a man just three rows away. He looked like a farmer.
At least a dozen guys were craning their necks around now, glaring at Bill. “You mind toning it down, mister?” one advised.
“You might considering leaving,” another suggested.
Back up on stage, Collette raised a hand. The ruckus subsided immediately. “Maybe,” she suggested, “the gentleman in the rear would like to come up and show us his own skills.”
The idea had a stunning effect. It took the crowd from front to back. Dozens of heads nodded in agreement.
Bill rose, beaming in his new-found attention.
“Come up here!” Collette smiled, waving him forward.
Spurred on by the hoots and boos that greeted him along the way, Bill strode up the main aisle with a rolling gait, raising one fist, then the other, putting his biceps on display. According to Susan, he pumped iron three times a week at a local fitness center. Nimble as a young lion, he leapt onto the stage. “Give me that!” he snarled, eyeing the rope at Miss Michaels’ feet.
“And what are you going to do with that?” asked Collette, playing with him, smiling wryly at the audience.
“Tie ‘er up,” Bill stated.
Collette frowned. “That’s not a very courteous thing to do, is it—tie up a lady?”
The crowd bellowed with laughter. Collette cast a scolding look at the troublemaker. In blue jeans, white T-shirt and cowboy boots, he grinned stupidly back at her.
“However,” she went on, “I do think you deserve a chance—a chance to match Miss Michaels, that is, to duplicate her feat.”
“Duplicate her feat?” Bill squawked. “I’d like to kiss her feet!”
The crowd groaned. Two or three of the men pretended to vomit.
“Of course,” Collette continued, “you have a right to decline the challenge. You might not feel up to it. Miss Michaels, after all, is a trained and gifted artist.”
“Artist!” Bill sneered. “And I’m a monkey’s uncle.” He folded his arms across his chest amid a tsunami of catcalls and gibes. The more the crowd booed him, the more brightly he shone.
“So you’d like to try to match Miss Michaels?” Collette asked.
“Do it! Do it!” the crowd began chanting.
Lauren felt her stomach sink. Collette had laid a trap for the soused fool, and now the crowd was luring him right into it. And then the unthinkable happened.
Folding his arms behind his back, Bill turned and presented his backside to Collette. “If that chick can escape in ten seconds,” he eyed Miss Michaels, “I’ll bust out in five. Tie me up!”
Miss Michaels, who throughout these raucous exchanges had maintained a sphinxlike deportment, inserted her toe underneath the rope, lifted the coil off the floor and held it there, her foot extended like a ballerina’s. The coil hung there, suspended in air, like a hat on a hook. Collette snatched it.
At that instant, the music came on again and the talented duo sprang to action, roping Bill’s arms behind him like a pair of spiders spinning around a hapless fly, binding him as Collette had bound Miss Michaels, only in half the time. Collette finished the job, jerking his forearms up behind his back, threading the rope ends through the loop below the neck, and fastening his arms into place with a single, unreachable knot. The women stepped neatly away, Miss Michaels to the left, Collette to the right, leaving Bill in the center.
He faced the crowd now, sporting his trademark grin, like a race horse eagerly awaiting the sound of the starting gun. Over him flashed the sable cape.
“Go!” Collette yelled.
The crowd began chanting. ONE… TWO… THREE…
Lauren closed her eyes, feeling nauseous. Was this really happening? At the county fair?
The five-second mark passed. Then ten seconds. “ELEVEN!” shouted the crowd.
The count went on.
With the numbers pulsing in her ears, she opened her eyes. It was as bad as she’d imagined. Bill was gritting his teeth, his pectorals hard as marble slabs, his biceps bulging against the rope work that only ensnared him all the more tightly, the more he strained and struggled.
At these higher numbers, the pace of the count slowed noticeably, as if the crowd were pedaling toward the crest of a hill after a long, arduous climb.
“FORTY!” they gasped.
Collette held up her hand.
The music stopped. Bill relaxed, panting, nostrils flaring, brow slick with sweat. He looked disoriented, dazed, like a boxer who’d taken a sucker punch.
Collette looked nonchalant. She lifted her nose, studying him, as if she were evaluating a prize bull. “Give up?” she asked. He glared back at her, his eyes throwing fire.
“Looks like them two little ladies got you beat, big guy!” someone in the crowd cried out.
A number of men laughed. Women blushed, two or three hiding their faces behind handheld fans.
“Should we go into extra innings?” Collette asked, cool as a mint julip.
“Extra innings!” men shouted.
“Extra innings!” others concurred.
She turned to Bill. “Extra innings, sir?”
Too proud either to surrender or to request more time, Bill stared dumbly back.
He probably wished he could run right out of the tent, Lauren thought. But where would that get him? She pictured him running wildly amongst the circus tents, arms bound behind him, fairgoers following him with perplexed stares. And if Susan spotted him…
“Very well,” Collette concluded. “Stay as you are.” She picked up a broom and pretended to sweep him away, nudging him off to the side.
Hearty laughter filled the tent.
Meanwhile, Miss Michaels was wheeling out the equipment for the next act—a table on which she would be “sawed in two” while lying inside a coffin-sized box, her head protruding from one end, her feet from the other. The acts that followed were equally captivating, yet eyes kept wandering toward Bill who, hunched over, his muscles swelling against the ropes, kept up his herculean struggles.
Lauren never saw exactly when it was. While Collette was pulling rabbits out of a stovetop hat perhaps? Or conjuring up silver dollars from a tin cup? Or making a seven-inch long wood turtle disappear, reappear, and disappear again? She never knew. At some point, though, Bill lapsed into stillness.
Like a dehydrated sunflower, he seemed to droop, capable of no more than staring down at the floor in glum silence. Not at the floor, really, but through it. Even as Collette held up her assistant’s hand and, together, the ladies took their final bow, he maintained that pose, arms behind him, still in the grip of the bonds the women had fashioned.
Exiting the tent, men savored a last look at him, some grinning, others casting derisive smirks. Women mainly lowered their eyes, although a few took curious peeks. Some of the young people, while trying to suppress giggles, snapped pictures with cell-phone cameras. No doubt, titillating images were already circulating in cyberspace.
Lauren paid little attention. Thrilled by an idea perfectly suited to the aspirations of a young writer, she ran up to the stage. “Ms. Sullivan!” she called out. “Ms. Sullivan!”
Collette, who’d been heading toward a side exit, turned around, surprised.
“May I have a minute?” Lauren asked.
The magician glanced at her watch. “Okay,” she said. “A minute.” Wearily, she leaned back against the table on which Miss Michaels had been “sawn in two.”
“I’m a writer,” Lauren smiled up brightly.
“I’d like to do a story, ‘Women in Magic’ or something like that—about you and Miss Michaels.”
Collette scratched an eyebrow.
“I’m even thinking of writing a book. Eventually, I mean. I could start with a—”
“What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” the young writer blushed. “My name’s Lauren—Lauren Belmont.”
“Never heard of you,” Collette replied, looking down at her fingernails.
“I’m a graduate of the University of Iowa, majored in English Lit, have a master’s degree in fine arts—”
Collette held up a hand. “Cut the résumé. I don’t put much stock in formal education anyway. You’re asking for an interview, I suppose.”
“Well…” Lauren looked up hopefully, her heart thumping against the foot of the stage. “If you don’t mind.”
“Ms. Belmont,” Collette heaved a sigh. “It’s been a long day…”
“Oh!” the young writer exclaimed. “It doesn’t have to be today. It could be any time. And anywhere. A coffee shop. The library. The park. The—”
Collette held up her hand again, a gesture as effective as a gag. Lauren’s mouth clamped shut.
“Let’s see,” Collette said. “The fair ends Sunday. Would Monday evening be okay?”
“Monday evening?” Lauren repeated. “That would be great!”
The magician chuckled. “My place ain’t awesome, honey. It will do for an interview, though.” She gave the address. Lauren jotted it down.
She watched as Collette stood up. Stepping toward the edge of the stage, the magician towered above her. “You better untie your boyfriend,” she nodded at Bill. “I don’t think he’ll want to go home like that.”
Lauren blushed. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
Collette raised an eyebrow.
“He’s just a…” She groped for the right word, a label, anything that would identify Bill without embarrassing him more than he’d embarrassed himself.
Collette raised her hand. “No need for words, sweetie. Who am I to care anyway? You might tell him, though, not to shoot his mouth off so much.” She cast a final glance back at the bound man and then left.
The effects of the alcohol had begun to diminish, imparting an increasingly keen edge to his misery. “Hurry up!” he growled.
Standing behind him, Lauren was struggling. What with all his tugging and pulling and twisting and turning, the simple two half-hitches knot had hardened into a dense nugget.
“They tricked me,” he pouted. “They tricked me!”
Lauren sighed. “You deserved it. The way you sounded! You should have heard yourself. You acted like a total idiot. Now hold still.”
She removed a ballpoint pen from her handbag, inserted the tip into the heart of the knot, loosened it a bit, and then gouged it from another angle. As she worked, her eyes fell on his muscled arm around which the rope still clung like a constricting vine.
“They didn’t play fair,” he pouted on. “There’s no way that girl got out of this.”
“She’s a woman, Bill, a woman, not a girl.”
“Girl. Girl. Girl,” he sneered. “Woman. Chick. Bitch. What’s the difference? She’s a cheater. And that other one, that black-booted bimbo—she’s the greatest deceiver of them all.”
Lauren laughed. “She’s a professional magician, Bill, not a bimbo. And, in case you failed to notice, it was a magic show. Magic is deception. Now hold still—unless you want to be tied up here all night.”
He quieted down. The prospect of remaining bound really scared him.
“I’m of half a mind,” she went on, “to call Susan. Maybe she could untie you. How’d you like that?”
Subdued, he remained perfectly still, allowing Lauren to concentrate on attacking the knot.
At last, it began to yield. Carefully, wary of cracking a fingernail, she unthreaded it and, magically as it were, the rope work came undone. Shedding his bonds, Bill straightened his arms, groaning in relief.
“I bet that feels good,” she said, returning the pen to her handbag.
“Ohhhhh!” he groaned again, savoring the relief. Suddenly, though, he looked worried. “Where is Susan?” he asked, remembering that attending the fair was supposed to be their first real date after having met online.
“She called about an hour ago.” Lauren held up her cell phone. “I told her we’d left the fair.”
“I told her we might get something to eat but weren’t sure where.”
“You told her that?”
“She’ll think it odd that we would disappear together like that, won’t she?”
“You didn’t want her to come here, did you?” Lauren replied.
He stared sullenly at the floor of the stage. Of course he didn’t.
“Listen,” she murmured, patting him on the shoulder. “We’ll keep this our secret. No one ever need know what happened here today. I won’t say a word to Susan—or anyone.”
“I need to take a leak,” he said.
No doubt he did. Who wouldn’t, given all that he had drunk since noon?
“As for Susan…” he added thoughtfully.
Lauren waited. What could he say? What would he say?
“Just tell her, if you care to, I’ll try calling her tomorrow—or something.” He sounded anything but convincing.
Lauren lingered at the entrance to the tent, watching him dive into a crowd as he sped toward the portable toilettes lining that corner of the fairgrounds. Oh my, but he was a handsome man! She felt her heart thump. If only he’d learn to curb his drinking—and treat women with respect. Then something else caught her eye.
Beyond the toilettes, separate from the main body of fairgoers, a man and a woman were standing behind a circus tent. They were holding each other, the woman with her head slightly bowed toward the man’s chest, he hovering above her, arms around her shoulders. Even at that distance, she recognized Miss Michaels. The black skinsuit had come off, replaced by short pants and a blouse, but the trim, lithe, flexible figure and the blazing red ponytail were unmistakable. Who, though, was the man?
Startled, Lauren recognized him too: the burly guy who’d stood up clapping and blocking her view of the stage before the show. Tingling with curiosity, she squinted to sharpen her vision. But just then the lovebirds slipped away, leaving the space they had occupied vacant.