“Take my hand,” Bishop said.
Elena raised her eyebrows and glared at him.
She held an indifferent hand out to him and he grabbed it. They swung their arms gently between them as they walked towards the midway. In the afternoon sun, the flashing lights of the joints on either side were shut off. The only things enticing people to stop were the amplified voices and garish flaking paint.
“One takes a gun. Two takes anything blue. Knock three and you win anything on the tree,” the caller chanted, trying to entice someone to come play his game.
With a glance, Bishop spotted a bunch of kids making their way down the lane. The games of chance were set up in a tight alley between the rides and the concessions. That way, kids had to run the gauntlet every time they wanted a burger or a coke between rides.
Elena knew what Bishop wanted to do, even before he tugged her hand and dragged her to a stop.
“Win a necklace for the lady,” the caller said. “She’ll thank you later.”
Elena understood her role as the caller plucked a necklace down from the tree and draped it over his wrist to display it to them. She didn’t like her role, but she understood it.
With a sharp intake of breath and a hand to her chest, she said, “It’s beautiful!”
“It’s fake,” Bishop said. His voice was a little too loud. Subtlety wasn’t his forte.
“It’s no fake, friend,” the caller said.
“Of course you would say that,” Bishop said, shaking his head. “You want me to spend twenty bucks trying to win a two dollar plastic necklace.”
“It’s not plastic,” Elena said. She kept her voice soft. If the kids were interested, they would move closer to hear what she was saying. Bishop still hadn’t mastered this nuance.
“It’s fake. This is a scam. How do you think they stay in business?”
“May I?” Elena asked the man.
Gently, the worker handed the necklace to Elena. She had met him once but couldn’t remember his name. It didn’t matter. For this role, he was supposed to be a stranger to her. Holding the necklace up, she pretended to examine it in the sunlight. The fake gem dazzled. It was perfectly lovely, and was probably worth every bit of fifty cents, or whatever the carnival had paid for it.
“I love it,” she said.
The kids were beginning to move a little closer now. Elena handed the necklace back to the worker so he could put it back up on the tree before the kids got close enough to really inspect it. If the kids really believed that the necklace was worth anything, it was because they had seen it through Elena’s eyes. Bishop had explained to her the difference between a Shill, a Plant, and a Stooge. She was the Shill—at least she would be in a second.
“Fake,” Bishop said. He was the Stooge.
“Friend, we keep a certain number of high-value prizes on the tree. Granted, it’s not easy to win them, but the lady has a good eye. That’s the best prize on the tree.”
“Nope,” Bishop said. He started to turn away. “The game isn’t winnable. If it was, you would go out of business.”
As Bishop turned and started to pull her hand, Elena knew what she was supposed to do now. She was supposed to beg her boyfriend to at least try to win her the necklace. He could get three throws for two dollars. Wasn’t it at least worth a try? After cajoling, Bishop would try and he would come very close to winning the necklace. Then, after some back-and-forth with the worker, Bishop would negotiate some small advantage. It was a whole script that had twists and turns designed to capture the imagination of the group of teens who were inching closer and closer to the drama.
Elena was already tired of this whole charade and it was just starting.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
For a moment, both Bishop and game operator were stumped. This wasn’t part of the script. To his credit, the worker picked up quickly.
“One throw for a buck, three for two,” the man said.
Elena dug in her pocket and pulled out two dollars.
“I’ll take three, but I won’t need them,” she said.
The man handed over the balls. With her first throw, she sailed it wide and high, appearing to have only the feeblest understanding of how to throw a ball. Squeezing one eye shut and sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth in concentration, she cocked her arm back with the second ball.
“Come on, lady!” one of the kids behind her said.
“Take your time,” Bishop said, folding his arms across his chest. He had desperately wanted to be the hero. She was ruining it for him, and she knew it. When he got sullen later, she would play dumb.
The worker was staring intently at the stack of wooden blocks. He was ready to collude if she would only get the ball close enough.
Elena let it fly. It was a damn good throw, in her opinion. She liked to think that it would have knocked over at least the top two rows, even if the operator hadn’t worked his magic. The ball hit the middle of the stack. Normally, some of the blocks would fall and the rest would teeter but stand fast. It was rigged somehow—probably magnets. But, with some secret help from the operator, a cascade took down the whole stack. Elena threw her hands in the air and whooped while she jumped. The result had been faked, but her elation was real. She felt like she had really beaten the system.
The worker shook his head and looked legitimately both dismayed and impressed.
“Lady wins the prize,” he said. He handed the necklace down from the tree and she kissed it before she clutched it to her chest. Elena practically skipped as she moved fast to distance herself from the booth. Her job now was to make sure that the group of teenagers didn’t get a good look at the cheap jewelry. If they wanted to see one up close, they would have to knock down the blocks themselves. Before Elena was around the corner, they were already fighting over who would throw next.
Elena smiled and leaned back against the metal wall of one of the game stalls. She was still smiling as Bishop came around the corner with a sour expression that he was trying to color as bemused.
“Give me that,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’ll make sure it gets back to Stamp.”
“Is that his name?” she asked. “I thought it was James, or Jason, or something.”
“Everyone calls him Stamp,” Bishop said.
Elena looked at the necklace again. It was cheap, but it was something she had won. Sure, Stamp had cheated for her. It was still hers.
“Why do I have to give it back?”
“Because you can’t hand over a percentage of a necklace. That’s why we never take anything but cash. If someone wants to trade food or something, it has to be done as a gift.”
Elena wrinkled her nose. The carnival people had too many superstitions and customs and Bishop seemed more than happy to dive into all of them. He wanted the whole experience.
“What happens if I don’t hand over a percentage of it?”
“We give a pinch of every dollar. It’s a bribe to the Deuce to stay away. Otherwise, he will sabotage every rig.”
Elena sighed and shook off the chill that passed through her. Bishop loved talking about the Deuce. The carnival people were convinced that the Deuce was following them from town to town, just waiting for an opportunity to bring misfortune.
“You’re an idiot,” she said.
For a moment, he looked genuinely hurt.
She handed the necklace over to him and Bishop rapped twice on the door. After a second, it popped open. Bishop handed the necklace over to the guy who appeared. She and Bishop clasped hands again and stepped over the big power cords and ducked under the ropes that gave tension to a nearby tent.
“The girls ended up fighting with the boys over who would go next, so I think it was a good move,” Bishop said.
She glanced at him. He was rarely that generous. Most of the time, the things that he said to her made her wonder if he still even liked her. She knew that he loved her, but that was a different thing.
“You could let me know next time,” he said with a squeeze of her hand.
“There won’t be a next time,” she said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, if Madame Vadoma retires tonight and…” She put a hand to her chest and adopted an accent. “…Madame Elena takes over, people might recognize me. I can’t be a Shill anymore, right?”
“Technically, you were the Stooge in that little drama.”
“What?” she said, laughing. “You were the Stooge.”
He shook his head. “I was the Plant.”
Elena rolled her eyes.