Mr. Leery’s hot dog stand greeted the visitors of Chameleon’s Circus with the mouth-watering smell of hot dogs and the eye-catching and colorful disarray of a dozen flags, all hung haphazardly along the cart. Mr. Leery was as colorful as his props, with a dazzling shock of white hair, mismatched socks, a protruding belly, and parachute pants that looked as though they might carry him away. Beyond him, Madam Cyris’ Fortune Telling Tent lay closed against the summer heat, occupied by Madame Cyris herself and one paying guest. I watched as the paying guest (my math teacher, Mr. Henry) ducked out of her tent, muttering something unsavory as his hairpiece flapped in the freeze. I’d been staring for nearly a half-hour, daring myself to go in.
I glanced back at Mr. Leery, whose meaty hands held a pair of silver tongs meant for fishing out hot dogs for his customers. He peered down at me, eyebrows raised, and said, “just go in, boy! She doesn’t bite!” I ducked my head and propelled myself in the direction of the tent, fingers slipping into my jeans pockets where I kept my allowance money. Dad was out of town on business, and Mom was showing a house on the south side of town. Tonight was the last night Chameleon’s Circus would be in Hamilton, and Ace and I had planned to come together, only Ace’s mom had grounded him at the last minute. I’d nearly stayed home, but I’d heard of Madam Cyris, and I needed her to tell me my fortune.
My fingers had only brushed the tent flaps when her voice floated out to meet me, gravelly and slow, like the stones in a riverbed.
“It’s about time you paid me a visit,” she said, laughing at her own joke. “Come in, before I get another customer!”
I shoved aside the tent flap, feeling a blast of cool air and incense. There was no air conditioning in the tent, and the summer heat was in full force, but Madam Cyris sat poised on a pile of jewel-toned pillows, surrounded by pottery and candles. I hesitated, second-guessing my decision to consult a gypsy. Mom said fortune-tellers were intrinsically evil, and dad called them swindlers. Looking at Madam Cyris, I couldn’t be sure of either. Though I suspected her age to be greater than her late forties, she had a full head of raven hair, curling and shiny and cascading down her shoulders like ivy on a tree. Her skin was tanned from the sun and slightly wrinkled, and her eyes were a piercing blue. She quirked an eyebrow and I stumbled in, lowering myself onto the pillows opposite her, drawing the dollar bills from my pocket.
“H-how much for a fortune?” I stuttered, feeling like an insect in a spider’s web.
“Normally I charge twenty dollars a fortune, but for you, I think we will make an exception,” she said, grinning like a cat.
She nodded once, and something swooped down from the tent top, nearly brushing me with its wings before settling on Madam Cyris’s left shoulder.
“This is Kieth, my familiar.”
I gulped and laid the money across the table with shaking hands. My mother would kill me if she found out that I’d been here, but I only had one more day to get the answers I needed.
“W-why make an exception?” Her bird- Kieth- eyed me from his perch, his shrewd expression matching his owner’s.
Madam Cyris began shuffling a deck of cards, each with a strange symbol on its face. The candles burned in their pots, tiny flames dancing to inaudible music.
“Because if you find what you are looking for, it will be better that you owe me,” she said with a wink. I could feel my face pale under her scrutiny, and if I hadn’t been convinced of her legitimacy before, I was, now.
“You know about the pirate’s treasure,” I breathed. Madam Cyris erupted into a raucous cackle, joined by her bird, the two of them sharing a laughing at my expense. I supposed it did sound rather funny, a twelve-year-old searching for pirate’s treasure, but this was not your average childish fantasy.
Sobering, Madam Cyris flipped three cards over in quick, practiced movements, and the bird eyed them cautiously, deciphering their meaning before I could. She nodded and rubbed her chin, her eyes darting between them, and she and the bird exchanged a curious glance, silently consulting one another.
“What does it say?” I asked quietly.
“It says, boy, that the treasure you seek isn’t buried at all. It’s packed within the walls of the crypt of an angel.”
I stared at the cards, curious how she had concluded such specific information from a jester’s hat, an angel, and a cat. The bird dove down onto the table and snatched up the bills I’d laid out, depositing them into a large clay pot behind Madam Cyris.
“That’s it, then?” I asked, partially relieved. Though I yearned for more information, Madam Cyris and her bird were unsettling, and I was eager to forget the visit altogether.
“When you find it, we’ll find you,” she promised. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I scrambled up and out of the tent, tripping over my shoes on the way out.
I wandered the circus for a few minutes with empty pockets, trying to calm my nerves. As a rule, my family didn’t believe in fortune tellings or astrology or anything like it; but when Mary-Anne Winkle had told me about Madam Cyri’s skill in helping her find her lost dog, I’d resolved to set aside my prejudice in favor of my curiosity. As the sun dipped lower beyond the horizon, I left the circus the same way I’d come in, passing Mr. Leery’s empty hot dog stand, carefully averting my gaze from Cyris’s tent.
The next morning, I showered and ate quickly, packing a map, an old compass I’d gotten in a kids meal, a pair of sunglasses, a box of crackers, and a water bottle in the old, green backpack I’d used last year. Mom was pacing the kitchen, her phone fused to her ear, discussing net value and profit margins and things that I didn’t care to understand. Dad would be returning home tomorrow night, and he tended to notice when I stayed gone from the house for too long. Today would be the best opportunity I would have to locate and recover that treasure, and once I’d succeeded, my parents would surely forgive me for the rest of my transgressions.
I ran up the street and turned right onto Everett Road, which stretched north and south and intersected with Carrington, where the old cemetery lay. Though it was only eight in the morning, the summer heat was oppressive, the humidity causing beads of sweat to slide down my temples. When I reached the cemetery, I scanned it, searching for the angel’s tomb. While her fortune had confused me at first, the meaning of her words had become apparent last night as I was trying to fall asleep. Of course, the pirates would have stowed their treasure somewhere where no one would ever think to search for it. Dead men tell no tales, I thought wryly. I walked the length of the cemetery, reading a few of the headstones as I passed them, eyes trained forward in search of an angel. I nearly screamed when I saw her- tall, elegant and entirely made of stone, guardian of the resident souls.
I peered up at her, studying the sword in her arm, extended out as if leading a charge, her stone eyes blazing. This was the second disagreeable thing I’d done in two days, but when I brought home the treasure, no one would much care for my methods. Beyond the angel was a crypt, tall and imposing and covered in ivy. The exterior was constructed of stone, like the angel, but inscribed with lovely, swirling artwork. The gate was locked with a rusted padlock, but upon closer inspection, I realized that it hadn’t been locked at all.
The iron gate squeaked as I pushed it open, and I glanced around nervously as I pushed my body inside. The inside of the crypt was silent and dead, devoid of the flowers and colorful trinkets left at the gravesides of others. The family buried here was an old one, and not likely to have any living, local relatives. I studied the heavy stones and ran fingers along the walls, which were inscribed with the same artwork as the exterior. No, not artwork- words. Disregarding the Latin phrases, I bent down to peer beneath the disturbed stonework, gasping as I caught sight of what appeared to be a burlap sack tucked beneath it.
When the notorious, traveling gang (dubbed the ‘Pirates’) had conducted their last heist, they’d chosen the county bank, stealing millions from its vaults. The police had investigated and come up dry, and rumor had it that the gang had nearly been caught during their escape. Fearful of being apprehended, the trio (suspected to be two men and one woman) had hidden away their loot with plans to retrieve it when things had calmed down. Drawing it out from the stonework, I tugged at the cords in a frenzy, gaping at the contents of the bag. Stacks of bills protruded from the bag, crisp and fresh.
I shoved both hands in, relishing the feeling of the bills between my fingertips. I’d always craved adventure, and what had begun as a silly summer excursion had become something greater. I, Russell Princeton, was the wealthiest boy in town.
“Good work, boy,” a gravelly voice called. I yelped and scrambled back, spilling the money in my haste. Cyris’ eyes scanned the crypt floor, assessing the stacks as if she were counting them. Kieth the crow sat perched on her left shoulder, his beak pointed at me, eyes accusing. Stepping into the crypt, Cyris closed the squeaking iron gate behind her, trapping us both inside. My stomach flipped as I realized my predicament. Neither of my parents knew where I had gone, or knew of Madam Cyris. The only person I had told of my pirate treasure was Axel, and chances were, he had already forgotten. Axel only listened half of the time.
I stood, my back scraping against the wall as I considered my escape routes. A pair of meaty hands shot through the holes in the stone wall, ensnaring me in their grip. I struggled against my captor, and Madam Cyris crouched down and began shuffling the money back into the burlap bag. Kieth watched her moves closely, and the arms that restrained me tightened their grip. I hissed and glanced down at those hands- I recognized those fingers! I recognized the familiar smell of Mr. Leery’s hot dogs, and horror set in as I recalled that the gang- the pirates- consisted of three bandits. Where was the third person?
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said, and Madam Cyris held a stack of bills out to her bird, who leaned in closely, as if to smell it.
“I know you won’t,” she said, tucking the money back into its bag. “Kieth said the same thing, so I took him under my- wing!” She erupted into a fit of cackles, and Kieth and Mr. Leery joined her, all of them sharing the private joke. My eyes widened in horror and Kieth dove to the ground beside Madam Cyris, landing on the stone floor. A dark smoke began to curl up from the grout lines, dancing like the flames of her candles, and soon the crow was obstructed from my view, cloaked in the oppressive smoke that smelled suspiciously like hot dogs.
Then, as if bursting from the soil, the crow transformed into a tall man dressed in black clothing, his beady eyes narrowed at me. His hair was jet black and jelled into place, his thin lips arranged in a smirk. Never had a man resembled a crow as much as he did.
“Kieth, take care of this please,” she said dismissively. Kieth shouldered the bag and turned to go, leaving me alone with the fortune-telling witch. Mr. Leery’s grip tightened and Cyris’s eyes blazed, her fingers dancing in the air in front of me and her mouth silent. I groaned as my body contorted suddenly, my human form dissolving like sand through a grate. My heart pounded in my chest as every muscle spasmed and every bone snapped, assuming new forms. When it was done, I looked up from my place at Madam Cyris’s feet, my new body trembling from the exertion. Cyris squatted down to my level, twitching her slender fingers.
“Come, Russell. It’s time for us to go.”
I followed her in spite of myself, my tiny paws picking their way through the overgrown cemetery grass, preceded by a crow, a hot dog vendor, and a fortune-teller.