Sneak peek: Heather Cassidy and the Magnificent Mr Harlow

Heather Cassidy and the Magnificent Mr Harlow
By Mitchell Tierney

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Prologue

HARLOWECOVER.jpgThe thick, grey smoke drifted into the winking twilight of early night. The fires still blazed red across the mountains. Their flames licking the air, burning yellow and hungry for more. Where the mountains met the searing ground, hordes of soldiers had fought. The clanging of blades had sparked silver. Enchantments had been spoken with dying words, sending crimson energy across the dying fields.

There was an explosion and a cloud of bright green erupted into the air, sending a firework of cobalt and scarlet into the sky. A mother, clutching her infant son, ran barefoot across the broken and cracked clay, her heels bleeding and trailing red. Behind her, a black horse rode, its nostrils steaming with white breath. Its hide was as dark as midnight and as shiny as newly polished silver. On the enormous beast’s back was a man, his limbs crooked and deformed, his eyes full of menace and determination. He yelled at his steed to fasten its pace, and it did so.

The woman dodged landing debris from the blast, taking shelter in a small, abandoned storehouse. A large, fiery ball of metal came crashing through the window and she screamed, holding her child to her chest. Towards the back of the empty house was a doorway, its frame hanging off and burning red from the fire. She crawled through the archway, holding her boy under her. On the other side were rows upon rows of shelves holding glass jars, most of them smashed and dripping their contents onto the floor. She found a dark corner and huddled tightly against the wall. Her lip and nose were bleeding, but if it concerned her, she didn’t show it. Slowly, she unwrapped the small child and examined him for injury. The child giggled at his mother’s touch, smiling. His lime green skin was clean, unlike hers. She smiled at his innocence. If he only knew what was happening outside these walls. Suddenly, she heard the heavy pounding of the horse as it stopped in front of the storehouse. She gasped, wrapping her child up in his blankets. He started to cry, having found the cool air comforting. She hushed him, but he would not subside. She scanned the floor for something to use. A long jagged piece of glass lay in purple liquid that bubbled and hissed gently. She wrapped her sleeve around it and hid it.

The raven-black horse grunted and stomped its hooves. Its eyes burned red, reflecting the amber ash falling around them like flaming snow. The twisted figure slipped from its back and landed like a bundle of broken sticks on the ground. It raised its head up and stared at the footprints in the ashen residue left on the ground. It looked to its left, as if beckoning, or calling to something, or someone. There was no one there, only the dead, lying in pools of their own blood. He walked forward and entered the storehouse. The brick work was crumbling; the fire had made it weak by melting the foundations used to construct it. The cloaked figure sniffed the air and went through the walkway and into the rear of the room. There was no noise, only the dead silence of death and destruction.

‘I know you’re here, little one.’ Its voice was croaky and splintered.

The shelving was built from ancient wood, old and strong enough to hold the bottles of aged magic. They were built up into the high ceiling where the bottles were all missing from their encasements. They were all smashed onto the floor in piles of shattered glass and fumes. A baby’s cry echoed off the walls and the figure smiled, his teeth sharpened and yellow.

‘Ah,’ he whispered. ‘I hear the voice of the young. So gentle and new…’ He licked his lips and followed the path from where the cry had come.

Huddled against the wall, covered in blood, ash and tears was the mother and her child. She held him in her left hand and held the jagged chunk of glass out with the other.

‘Don’t come near me!’ she screeched, her hands shaking.

The baby howled in fear. Its mother’s eyes were relentless and locked onto the figure before her. The twisted man was wrapped in filthy scarves and cloth, all soaked in blood and burned from fire. From beneath his wraps he pulled a blade, a foot long and serrated down one side.

‘You are all that is left of your kind. You don’t want to be the last…do you?’

The mother didn’t say a word, she pushed her back against the hot wall and held the shard of glass out before her.

‘Very well, have it your way,’ the man marched forward.

He swung the knife from left to right, it hit the glass and broke the tip off it. A second strike and she felt the blade cut into her, she held her child away, ignoring the pain. Blood spilled onto the floor in large droplets. She cried out, but never took her eyes off the man. The whole time, he grinned manically. She grunted, saving her energy for her attack, and drove the glass forward. It dug in under his ribs and he stumbled backwards.

‘You dare cut me? I have killed your king and your queen.’ He touched the place where the glass had sunk through his rags and skin, his fingers were red and gleaming. He smiled and then started to laugh.

‘The Holy Mountains where you serve your greater gods now belong to us. Your statues all burnt and crumbled to dust. All your crops… gone. Your lands are now ours and you have nobody left… except your child.’

The mother lunged forward, carving the shard sideways and cutting him again and again. The twisted man laughed, sending spittle down his chin. He stepped forward, his motion like liquid and buried his blade deep within her stomach. They embraced for several seconds, the child quiet, the room dead silent. Ash flakes fell outside, onto the beast. Its skin steaming hot. The mother’s last heartbeat echoed like the dying breath of her city, her race. She stumbled, momentarily blind, and fell back in to the dark recess of the room. Her eyes blinked no more.

The child, still gripped tight in his mother’s arms squirmed and cried loudly. The man towered over the him, clasping the blade in his bony fingers, dripping with its mother’s blood. The figure held the knife outwards.

‘You are the last.’ He held the knife up, his face a grimace of anger and disgust.

‘Stop!’

The figure spun around. Standing in the doorway was his master. A short man with a curled moustache and slicked, jet-black hair.

‘Leave him.’

‘But –’

‘I said leave him.’

The man looked back at the child. Its lilac diamond eyes stared up at him, forging its mother’s killer into its memory.

‘Come, we have much work to do.’

The figure pushed the wraps back over its small body and stepped away. The deadly, cloaked killer strolled past its master and mounted his horse once more. His heart was pounding and he had a sickly feeling in his stomach.

The master stood in the room for several moments, listening to the child cry. He stepped towards it and felt a hot iron stake sear his mind. He struggled to keep from falling.

‘I fear we will meet again, young one. Perhaps I should have let him kill you?’

He turned and left the infant in the dark room. Its cries only heard by the shadows and the blood soaked walls.

Chapter One:  A Rotten Tomato

There was a loud puff! followed by a cloud of smoke. The audience gasped, then there was dead silence. Mr Harlow stood centre stage holding his top hat upside down. Smoke poured gently from its rim and faded into the bright fluorescent lighting. The crowd waited in opened-mouthed awe. A child that had been screaming and weeping throughout the entire act was now silent, its eyes wide open in trepidation.

Mr Harlow looked down at his hat; he knew something was wrong. He reached one white gloved hand into the top hat and searched around. There was supposed to be a white rabbit, but there was nothing. He slowly pulled his hand from the top hat and placed it to his side. He looked out at the audience and saw hundreds of faces now watching him, waiting, expecting. He felt nervous prickles slither up his forearms, then his fingers began to shake madly. He swallowed with difficulty and felt sweat moisten his armpits and collar. He bowed and placed the hat back on his head.

From the side of the grandstand stood Heather. Her hair was a washed out red from dye many months ago. She green eyes and long lashes. She had always imagined her mother had long lashes, but the photos she had of her were too hard to tell. Heather had a healthy sprinkle of freckles running from one cheek, over her button nose, to the other. She had been watching Mr Harlow’s entire act with her fingers crossed. Inside her head she was praying for Mr Harlow, praying that his magic would work. During the last act, which was normally his best trick, and most magical, she had closed her eyes, too scared to watch. When she didn’t hear a round of applause and the hooting and cheering of a happy crowd of customers, she knew it had happened again. Mr Harlow stood dead still, looking defeated and mournful. He stood like a statue that had been left in the elements for a hundred years. He took one step back, out of the spot light and bowed again. He kept his head down for some time. The audience attendees looked at one another in confusion, one by one they began to boo and hiss.

‘Get off!’ someone yelled.

‘I want my money back!’

‘You’re not a magician!’ a woman called out, throwing a rotten tomato towards the stage.

Mr Harlow was hit by the rotten vegetable. It struck him on the shoulder and exploded, sending mushy red gloop down his perfectly ironed jacket and landing at his feet. One by one, more things were thrown. A box of half eaten popcorn hit his hat and knocked it to the side, but it managed to stay on. The audience members got to their feet and slowly headed for the door, yelling abuse over their shoulders. The lights in the grandstand were turned on and the spot light that was shining on Mr Harlow died slowly. In the dark, he stood and watched the people leave. They waved their hands dismissively towards him and shook their heads. He took his hat off, turned on his heels and headed for the exit.

Standing just inside the curtain was Guntha, the Belgian muscle man. He looked at Mr Harlow with sad, watery, blue eyes. Guntha was still wearing his spandex tights from his show; they displayed his enormous belly and barrelled shoulders. He placed one giant hand on the magician’s shoulder.

‘Never mind, Harlow,’ Guntha said in his thick accent. ‘There’s always next time.’

Mr Harlow looked up at the giant and saw his burly, black moustache. He saw his kindness in his eyes. Whenever people saw him lift weights or flex his muscles, they would cheer and laugh and take photos, not throw rotten vegetables at him. Mr Harlow looked back down to his feet and continued walking to the rear of the tent.

Heather ran underneath the grandstand. She went past the bearded lady, the lizard man, and their son, a young boy with fleshy crab claws for hands named Bounty. They were standing just to the side and had been watching the show as well.

‘Heather!’ Bounty called out, waving his claws. ‘Do you wanna play checkers before we pack up?’

Heather turned her head, but kept at a steady pace. ‘Sorry Bounty, I gotta see Mr Harlow real quick. But I’ll come back.’

Bounty watched Heather zoom past him, heading towards the back of the tent. She disappeared through the thick, velvet curtains and into the back room. Mr Harlow was walking briskly now, as if he knew Heather was trying to catch up with him.

‘Mr Harlow!’ she called out.

‘Stop right there missy!’ came a booming voice.

Heather spun around to see her father standing right beside her. She looked down.

‘Stop right where you are. You leave Mr Harlow alone, he doesn’t need someone like you screaming at him and following him to his carriage. Hasn’t he had a bad enough night as it is?’

Heather’s father was four foot, five inches tall. He wore a specially tailored suit that was wine red with huge lapels and long jacket tails that ran along the ground.

‘Dad!’ Heather whined.

‘Don’t Dad me. Leave him alone… he needs his time.’

Guntha walked past carrying his weights on his shoulders; he saw Heather was worried about something and gave her a smile.

‘What will happen to him, Dad?’ Heather said, her shoulders slumping forward.

‘I don’t know, Heather,’ her father said, hugging his daughter, even though his head only reached her hips. ‘He’s had a bad couple of months now. His performance hasn’t been up to scratch. There is no magic anymore in Mr Harlow… so we best…’

Heather looked down at her father. ‘Don’t say it Dad. Please don’t. He’s been with us from the beginning. You can’t let him go.’

A tear broke from her eye and travelled down her cheek. At first she didn’t feel it, but she knew it was there. The hurt inside her chest was too great to ignore.

‘I’m sorry, Heather. A lot of people pay to see magic and when they don’t get to see any… well, it’s bad for business.’

Heather nodded, understanding what her father was saying. He kissed her on the hand and turned around to instruct the drivers as they were getting ready to take the tent down and roll it up. Heather stood looking out to the rows of caravans and people wandering around, getting out of their performance uniforms and packing their personal items away for the next town. She saw Mr Harlow’s caravan; a light shimmered on for a moment and then was turned off. She stood, wondering why he had lost his magic.

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