This is my response to Trident's Three Pronged Contest. But critiques on the story itself are always appreciated.
A cigarette dangled from the corner of Claude's mouth and smoke curled into the air, coalescing with the gasoline fumes oppressing the tent. He was hunched over a shop table, his massive shoulders pulled forward in deep concentration, humming cheerfully; like a child fashioning a new wooden toy. On the table, nestled among empty beer cans and shattered shot glasses, was a line of Matryoshka dolls, tallest to shortest, stair-step style. They were clowns. The Whiteface, the Auguste, the Pirouette, the Tramp, the Hobo, the Bum. All lined up like pretty maids in a row, their faces contorted in pain, or laughing, or crying, or smiling. Claude liked to think of the dolls as his family. His friends.
“Papa,” he said as he snatched a dirty rag from the table, addressing the largest doll, “You like the idea, no? Our good friends will be warm tonight, after all. I hear the generator broke. No more heat, no more stove, no more floodlights. Well,... problem solved.”
He stuffed the rag into an empty tequila bottle, filled to the neck with gasoline. Good stuff. The engine's drink of choice, Claude's weapon of choice. It always had been. It left no trace, after all. Only ash and smoke. The big man took a deep breath of the fumes, light-headedness stealing through his brain. His good friends would indeed feel the heat tonight. Pinstripes would burn. And nothing would be left of his new home.
Only ash and smoke.
He took a drag on his cigarette, tapping the ashes off perilously close to a jar of gasoline. Circus lights filtered through holes in the tent, illuminating in glimmering shafts the smoke he exhaled. “They shouldn't have, Papa. They had no right. I have kept to myself, no? I do my act, I come to my tent, I smoke, I sleep, I eat. They just don't like me. No one ever does. You know that Papa. So I kept to myself.” He nodded to himself, “They will pay now, though. Blood in my sheets, blood on my costume, blood in my tent. Too, too much. Yes, they will pay.”
Silent, the largest doll stared up at him with a leering grin, demonic in the half-light.
Of course, my boy. Just like the others. As our fathers would say, “May impure blood water our fields.”
“Ah. La Marseillaise. Very clever Papa.”
Only ashes, only ashes.
“Burning hair... I've never liked the smell much though, so I will leave eventually.
But burning flesh...
“Not tonight, Papa. Not tonight. The authorities come fast in these big cities.”
Claude stood, lifting the rag-topped bottle and made his way to a cracked mirror, hung over a barrel of water. Carefully, he set the bottle down, dipped his massive hands into the water, and scrubbed. Scrubbed the make-up and the oil and the gas from his skin. He stared into the mirror. The face of a clown looked back, white, nose a bulbous red, large fake tears streaming from his eyes. The face that children both laughed at and cried at. Such a study in contrasts, a clown. A philosophical quandary. To smile or to frown? To laugh or cry? Or in Claude's case, to burn or not to burn?
All determined by the make-up artist.
Humming La Marseillaise, Claude dried his hands, picked up the bottle again and walked back to his table to dip the rag into his jar of gasoline. As he left the tent, he slipped the larger Matryoshka doll into his trouser pocket.
The circus tent was still lit for the most part, even past one in the morning. Claude made his way through the “instant stadium” that the circus company lugged around from city to city; it's folding struts like spindly spider legs in the dimness. He entered the circus arena – shuffling through piles of candy wrappers and cotton candy cones – and made his way towards the announcers ring.
They will pay, a voice whispered from his pocket, pay everything.
“And only ashes left, no? I would like nothing better than to shake hands with Mr. Moltov.”
Stepping on top of the announcer's ring, Claude glared into the stadium, hand clenched around the neck of the bottle. A half-smile crept across his red-paint lips and his teary eyes narrowed. This would be quite the show.
“Ladiiiies and Gentlemeeeennn,” He bellowed at the empty seats, spreading his arms wide, “Tonight I brings you a special treat! So daring, no one has ever survived. So dangerous, no one has ever attempted it behind the hallowed flaps of a circus tent . I bring you the sensational, incredible, unbelievable: Cirque de feu!”
Circus of Fire.
An invisible crowd roared in anticipation.
Give it to them, Papa said.
Scanning the tent, Claude chose the elephant ring. Mounds of dry hay were piled like ready-made kindling near the tent walls. The Moltov Cocktail would spread like wildfire. Through the ring, up the walls, gnawing the wooden supports. Collapse was inevitable. Chances of survival for his good friends the acrobats and clowns and the jugglers and the lion tamers were small, if not zero. It would happen so quickly, the damage would be so complete.
“I will miss it though, papa. This job was more agreeable than the others. Good food, good bed. Seems such a shame to burn it all, no?”
There will be other jobs.
“I know, I know. You are right. As always.”
Claude took one last drag on his cigarette before drawing it from his mouth and touching it to the rag snaking from the bottle. Flames erupted from it immediately. Claude smiled softly and kissed the warm tequila glass.
Bon voyage, mon ami chaud.
And with all his might, Claude hurled the bottle towards the elephant's ring.