Sparks bloomed where his incendiary words dropped to the ground, erupting in tiny bursts of orange, red, and gold, searing a path through the tall grass. Heat trailed after him, a tsunami of shimmering wildfire in his wake.
Harlan Beaumont’s nefarious nature, a residual natal nuance, was a family trait that had passed through the males since time immemorial. The evil within him as much a genetic inheritance as his blue eyes and brawny stature. He masked it well, only letting loose the fire of his cruelty when his conquest was near complete.
As ringmaster for the Gallatin Bros. Circus, Beaumont was akin to a matinée idol. Moving from town to town, he was perceived as worldly and sophisticated. Women were easy prey for him. Lonely and trapped in boring lives, Beaumont promised them excitement and a little bit of danger.
From her vantage point, Mariel watched the ripple of Beaumont’s fiery ambiance advance across the field. Women – young, old, married, single – there for the evening performance of the circus were shameless about their infatuation with the handsome compère. He would have his pick of any of them, using them until they were burnt out and withered, then move on to the next town.
“He fancies you, girl.” Egbert Duxford stood beside his daughter Mariel watching the crowd as it filled the main tent. “He’d be more rousing than Parker, that milksop husband of yours.”
Mariel kept her distance from her father since the death of her mother. Egbert, always a harsh man, had become more callous over the intervening years. His dislike for Mariel’s husband, a man who Egbert believed stole his daughter, verged on obsession.
“You’re disgusting and you’re drunk.” She began to walk away, only to be jerked backwards when Egbert grabbed her arm.
“Mind your tongue girl,” Egbert hissed, his foul breath bringing tears to Mariel’s eyes. “I’m still your daddy, and I can still break a switch across your backside for sassing me.”
“I hope you rot in hell,” Mariel pulled away then hurried across the field towards the circus Big Top.
“You’ll burn a’fore I do,” Egbert yelled after her.
Beaumont called to the crowd from a small podium outside the main tent. Exhorting them into the cool darkness, he winked and pointed to several women he hoped to spend the night with before the end of the circus’ stay in Pepperidge. A smile froze on his face when he caught sight of Mariel heading towards the midway. He tried to call out to her, but the crowd was too boisterous for her to hear him.
Mariel Endicott was the only woman to turn down his advances, which made her the only woman he pursued, unlike the others who threw themselves at him. Looking passed Mariel, Beaumont saw Egbert, barely making out his yelled word, “burn,” as she hurried away from him.
Beaumont climbed down from his perch, doffing his hat to Mariel as she approached the tent entrance, joining Grace Leighton, her mother’s once closest friend.
“So good to see you again this evening Mrs. Endicott,” Beaumont said, his eyes lingering too long on Mariel’s décolletage. “Mrs. Leighton. I hope you both enjoy the show.”
Once the women were inside, Beaumont looked back over the adjacent field to where Egbert Duxford was waiting. In the waning light, the flare of Egbert’s cigarette lighter’s flame was clear. As he turned to enter the tent, Beaumont stopped to listen to the muffled rumblings of the circus animals and the growing crowd. Over the din, he was sure he heard Egbert repeat that one ominous word, “burn.”