The Magnificent Bastards
There was a single, sharp tap of the drums followed by a rapid succession of beats as the crushed velvet curtains spread and the audience gasped: for Tran had taken her position in the box and was even now being secured as Williams struck a gunfighter pose and his hand hovered next to his weapon.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think it goes without saying,” said the announcer over the speaker system, “Do not try this at home.”
Williams relaxed his entire body even as his mind cycled through the calculations—altitude, the breeze, humidity, temperature, the curvature of the earth, the spinning of the earth … It was, like music, a largely mathematical proposition; a cold equation he’d had a gift for ever since he could remember, ever since he was a boy with a Daisy BB gun in the backyard of their southern California home.
He focused on the knife blade as the balloons to each side of it warbled in the breeze. It was a funny thing, sharpshooting, so utterly unlike music, in that each time he did it he felt like he was doing it for the first time, felt like he was starting over from scratch. With music his fingers just automatically found the frets, just instantly knew where to begin and where to end; he never felt as though he were lost in a vortex of potentialities, never doubted his ability to perform. But sharpshooting was a different beast altogether. With sharpshooting he had to call on something outside of himself as well as from within—something which was not his to control. Something which either kissed him with its ghostly lips or turned away with perfect indifference—like love itself, he supposed. Or God.
And then the drum taps stopped and he was alone with the breeze, and it was time to make the intuitive leap which would set the bullet in motion. And as he breathed out and drew his revolver and squeezed its trigger softer than he would a daisy, he knew, even before the crack! and the ka-chink! and the pop of the balloons, that the projectile had found its target. That it had found the slim blade and split like an atom—becoming two loaves rather than one—two soft but lethal slugs, which had spread like shrapnel in the Fresno heat and ruptured the red balloons—releasing their air in a vacuum-like rush and causing the audience to gasp and to cheer.
And then his wife was there, having loosed her mock bonds and scrambled out of the tall wooden box (with its crushed velvet curtains and bulletproof glass), and she’d bowed to the audience before embracing him like the wind, and he had kissed her as he always did after completing their final act—when air raid sirens sounded and he looked at the sky, which had darkened with a storm front as fast-moving as it was inexplicable ...
Silently, he picked up his mask and swung its loosened strap over his head, allowing the demon-faced façade to dangle at his back. Then, taking up his oar, he began assisting them downstream ... toward the next archway and Cuniculum Amoris ... and beyond.
Somewhere above them, a raven called. And an instant later its shadow appeared ov……