Flu Season

Illustration: Plunderpuss

Illustration: Plunderpuss

fiction by John M. Floyd

If he’s sick,” O’Neal said, “maybe he’ll die on his own.”

Patty shook her head. “He just has a cold. Sniffles and sneezes.”

They were crouching together in the shadows at the edge of the woods, watching Tom Tennison practice. For as long as Patty had known Tom, even before they were married, he practiced two hours a day, every day.

Tom Tennison threw knives for the circus.

“Colds can turn into pneumonia, my ma used to say. And he’s not so young anymore—”

“No,” Patty whispered. “I told you, I’m not waiting. He’ll outlive us both, unless we do something.” There was no need to whisper, of course, or to crouch. They were too far away to be seen or heard. But she was taking no chances.

“Then what’s the plan?” O’Neal flexed his muscles as he spoke. At 38 he was a little past his prime as a weightlifter, but his strongman act was still a good draw, and he knew it.

He was not, however, very strong in the brains department. Not that that mattered much, to Patty. She was smart enough for both of them. And it sure didn’t matter to O’Neal; he wasn’t smart enough to know he wasn’t smart.

“The plan is, we hurry things up a little,” she answered, her gaze fixed on her husband’s back, there on the far side of the clearing. He still looked good, she thought. As straight and tall as ever, despite his 60 years.

She would miss him, in a way . . .

His assistant, a young blonde named Carol Ann, stood beside him in the knee-high grass, shivering in the cool wind and handing him his knives like a surgical nurse. The blades thunked one by one into a nearby oak tree. Behind it, the main tent loomed dark against a blue sky.

“What do you mean, hurry things up?”

Patty turned to look at O’Neal, her thoughts interrupted.

“Nothing good happens, in this world,” she said, “unless you make it happen.” She rose to her feet and took a new bottle of decongestant from her jeans pocket. FOR COLDS AND FLU, the label said. “He asked me to get this for him today, in town. Tonight, after the show, I’ll lace it with rat poison.”

O’Neal stood also, his eyes glittering. “Why not now?”

“Because I don’t have the poison now, that’s why, and I don’t want a record of me buying any. I’ll sneak some from the supply truck tonight.”

“And if he needs a dose before the show?”

“He can wait.” She felt a twinge of anger, at both O’Neal and her husband. “A little head cold never hurt anybody. Everyone’s sniffling, it’s that time of year.”

O’Neal, still rippling his muscles, seemed to ponder that. “This is too complicated,” he said. “Why don’t I just twist his neck?”

“Because I don’t want you—or me—to go to prison, that’s why. We have to be cautious.”

He snorted. “If we were cautious, you wouldn’t still be part of his act. Here we are, together six months now, and you still let him throw knives at you every night.”

“That’s how I know we’re safe. He wouldn’t think I’d take that risk, if I were fooling around on him.”

“Guess not,” O’Neal agreed. Fifty yards away, Tom Tennison’s knives flashed in the sun.

“So stop your worrying. From this point on, we’re in control.” She tucked the bottle back into her pocket and studied the strongman’s face. She felt relaxed now, her anger gone. “He’ll take his first and only dose of cold remedy tomorrow morning. And then I’m free.”

O’Neal gave her a sly grin. “At least free of him.”

She giggled, folded herself into his arms. Together they moved deeper into the shadows.

That night the big top was almost full. Hundreds of people from three counties watched and ate popcorn and oohed and aahed as performers flew through the air and galloped in circles and juggled fiery torches in the name of entertainment and money.

One of the highlights was Texas Tom Tennison.

Conversations and breathing were momentarily suspended as Tom and his pretty assistant, who was wearing a cowboy hat and not much else, took center stage. Tom’s eyes were puffy and heavy-lidded, but no one seemed to notice. He blew his nose, put his handkerchief away, and beamed at the crowd. Within seconds his knives were dancing in the lights, spinning and whumping into a tall backboard 20 feet away. Balloons popped, candles were snuffed out. Carol Ann stood at his elbow, holding his knives and trying not to look bored.

Finally Patty Tennison appeared, dressed in a shiny leotard and boots. She bowed to the crowd, her forehead almost touching the sawdust, then blew Tom a kiss. He tipped his hat and grinned at her. The crowd loved it.

Amid cheers and whistles she took her place against the backboard. Everyone grew quiet. Patty stood with chin high and arms spread while the drums began to roll. Pulses quickened; trumpets blared. The air crackled with tension. Balloons and bullseyes and candles were gone now. This was the real thing.

And then Tom went to work, calmly tracing the outline of his wife’s body with perfectly thrown five-inch blades. Every knife was right on target, and Patty never blinked an eye. It was a stunning display of skill and nerves. After every throw the crowd roared its approval.

But on the 10th throw, which was supposed to plant a knife an inch to the right of Patty’s slender white neck, something went wrong.

The tent fell silent. Time seemed to stand still. An instant later the whole crowd—except for those who had fainted dead away—started screaming. In the center ring, Tom and his assistant stood and stared, eyes wide with shock.

“Gesundheit,” Carol Ann said.

John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 200 different publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner, an Edgar nominee, and the author of six collections of short fiction: Rainbow’s End, Midnight, Clockwork, Deception, Fifty Myseries, and Dreamland.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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