The tent was dark.
The only actual light filtered through gaps where the flaps didn’t quite meet, and it flickered as the tarps waved back and forth with the breeze. It was quiet too, except for the rustling of the canvas, and the muffled sounds of the nearby crowd.
The show had ended fifteen minutes ago, but the carnival surrounding the big top was usually enough to keep the venders in business for a few more hours, and anyone who wasn’t helping with that was busy with the post-show clean-up. That meant they wouldn’t have to worry about interference for a while yet.
Still, Clint better turn up soon.
Barney had promised that he could handle his little brother, and he didn’t want to look like an idiot who couldn’t get a sixteen-year-old to cooperate. Besides, he wasn’t sure if he would get a second chance to make good on his end of the bargain. Russians were known to be hardnosed, and when he’d arranged the meet, his Bratva contact had warned him that these guys were serious players.
He’d questioned that when he’d first seen the guy he was supposed to be dealing with. The slim, gray-haired man with a charcoal business suit and glasses hardly seemed like someone the Russian Mafia would be wary of. But none of that mattered to Barney as long as the guy was interested, and he was. He’d come to watch the show three nights in a row. He must have been satisfied by what he’d seen because he’d called Barney to make an offer right after that.
Hashing out the contract had been the easy part. Figuring out how to pull it off had been a little more difficult, but in the end, Barney had gone with the direct approach:
"Meet me in the supply tent right after the show.”
Clint frowned. “Why?”
"I’ll explain later. Just do it.”
Clint had agreed, saying he’d head straight there as soon as Trickshot cut him loose. Kid had an annoying habit of screwing up whatever good thing Barney had going, but that, at least, was a gonna change after this.
If he actually showed his face.
Barney’s scowl deepened at the thought, and he shifted his position on the crate he was leaning against. He regretted it a moment later when the Russian standing next to him - he never had given his name, and Barney had known better than to ask - turned to look at him, glasses glinting faintly in the dim light.
“You seem restless, Mr. Barton. Should I be concerned?”
Barney muttered a curse in his head but kept his voice purposefully even. “No. Trickshot probably just has him resetting targets for tomorrow. But, he’ll be here. And anyway, you’ve seen what he can do. It’s worth the wait.”
The other man was apparently satisfied with that and silence fell once more.
Long minutes passed, and Barney resisted the urge to shift again, not wanting to field another question about his “restlessness.” He concentrated instead on the dark shapes he could just make out across from him. Dressed in all black, the three men were almost invisible and they were all crouched down low. He wondered who they were - military, maybe. Mercs. Russian, too, from what he could tell. Either way, they’d been there when he and the suit had worked out the final details for tonight, and they’d taken up their positions in the tent without a word.
They hadn’t moved since.
The suit himself hadn’t moved either, though once or twice, he’d pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to polish his glasses before replacing them on his nose and carefully refolding the handkerchief. Just what that was supposed to accomplish in the dark, Barney wasn’t sure, but whatever. If the man had the cash to make this whole thing worth the while, he could pass the time tap dancing for all Barney cared.
A stronger breeze hit the tent, making the tarp snap loudly, pulling at the stakes anchoring it, and few happy shouts from the carnival carried with the wind. The sound was an unwelcome reminder that they didn’t have forever to get this done, and Barney immediately started debating the best way to make his little brother pay if this went south.
But, just when it was looking like he’d have to hunt the kid down, footsteps could be heard on the gravel outside and Barney could make out Clint’s silhouette through the canvas.
Clint’s shadow hesitated. “Barney, you around?”
“Yeah,” he called. “I’m here.”
Clint obviously knew that something was up - he was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. Still, Barney had been careful never to give the kid a reason not to trust him, and a moment later, the tent flat was pushed back and Clint stepped inside.
He heard Clint reach for the tent’s makeshift light rig. The moment the space lit up the mercs were on him.
The man closest to the entrance tried for a tackle, aiming to bring Clint to the ground, but the kid was quick on his feet, and he managed to dodge. The next man who rushed Clint got a wild punch thrown at him, and he actually staggered back from Clint’s blow. Apparently, “The Amazing Hawkeye” had worked up some pretty good muscle with that bow of his.
If things were different, Barney might have been proud.
Clint was drawing back his fist again when his gaze met Barney’s, and well, the kid’s eyes had always been too sharp for his own good. Barney stared back evenly, his arms folded over his chest, letting that, the lack of reaction, speak for him.
Different emotions swam through Clint’s gaze so fast that Barney couldn’t name them, though they settled pretty quickly on betrayal. Still, it wasn’t quick enough because it was all the soldiers needed to get the upper-hand.
Two of them lunged and grabbed Clint’s arms, pulling them roughly behind his back. He thrashed in their grip, letting loose a string of curses, kicking out with his legs, hitting the third man; Clint got a backhand to the face in return. He was dazed long enough from the hit that they managed to get a gag on him, though he started struggling again as soon as he realized what they were doing.
The suit next to Barney snapped a quick, irritated command in Russian and produced a syringe. He tossed it to the merc whose hands were still free, and he wasted no time in using it. He grabbed a fist-full of Clint’s hair, forced his head back, and jabbed the needle into his exposed neck.
Clint grunted in pain, growling something unintelligible through the gag as the man pushed the plunger down. Whatever was in that thing must have been strong though, because Clint’s eyelids started fluttering almost immediately, his struggles turning sluggish and uncoordinated until they stopped altogether.
His bleary eyes found Barney one last time before they finally slipped shut, his head lolling as he slumped over bonelessly in the soldiers’ grip.
Barney glanced over at the man in the suit, frowning. “What was that stuff?”
“Merely a sedative. He’ll be unconscious for several hours.” The man paused, studying Barney critically. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you, Mr. Barton? I was hoping it would not be necessary to renegotiate the terms of our arrangement.”
Barney shrugged. “I’m just protecting my interests. The deal was that he leaves here in one piece. I don’t care what you do with him afterwards, but there’s no sense giving him to you if you’re just gonna kill him. If you’re willing to pay for his skills, someone else could be too. I don’t wanna get short-changed.”
The Russian man’s lips quirked. “I suppose I can appreciate your…how do you Americans say it? Business savvy?”
Barney didn’t answer, just watched as the soldiers got to work, binding Clint’s wrists and ankles. Kid must have made an impression, because even sedated, his hands were tied behind his back and they didn’t skimp on the rope.
“So,” Barney said at last, turning to the Russian in the suit once more, “as promised, ‘The Amazing Hawkeye, World’s Greatest Marksman,’ is yours. You gonna hold up your end?”
The man nodded succinctly. “The equivalent of $35,000 U.S. dollars will be transferred to your account immediately. I must say that our meeting was most fortunate, Mr. Barton. Your brother shows incredible potential. I have no doubt he will be of great use to my organization.”
“Uh-huh,” Barney agreed absently, his mind already on how to divide up the money he was getting. He had plans - a lot of plans, none of which included the stupid freak show he and his brother called “home.” He frowned again and waved a hand at his brother. “You gonna need my help to get the kid out of here? Can’t really see you walkin’ out the front door with Mr. Circus Star trussed up.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Barton. We have our own methods, and we’ll be gone long before anyone grows curious. That is, if your timetable is accurate.”
Barney didn’t miss the challenge in the words. “It’s accurate,” he assured. “Like I said, right now, everybody’s got their hands full with the clean-up and that crowd out there. You’ve got at least a couple hours before that changes.”
“Excellent. Then we certainly don’t require your assistance.”
Barney nodded and looked down at his brother again. Clint was still wearing his costume from the show - black pants with a black and purple vest, covered front-to-back with sequins. He always looked ridiculous dressed that way, but the crowds seemed to like it. The crowds had always liked Clint. A gold mine, Trickshot had called him.
Well, Barney thought, that much at least had turned out to be true. Word on the street had been that some Russians were looking for anybody skilled with weaponry, and after all, a bow was a weapon, though the kid hadn’t used it as one yet. But, that aim of his was enough to make him deadly.
“You said that I won’t have to worry about him, right? A few years from now, he’s not gonna come after me with a score to settle?”
The Russian smiled coolly. “I assure you, Mr. Barton, that won’t be a problem.”
Barney spared his brother one last glance before he headed for front of the tent, pushed the flaps out of his way, and kept walking.
He didn’t look back.
He debated about heading to his trailer to start packing, but he turned towards the carnival instead. It was probably better if he kept up appearances, at least for tonight. He’d never liked working the crowds, but he was less likely to get questions about Clint there, since the kid usually spent most of his time in the big top after a show. Trickshot encouraged that, figuring the audience would be more in awe of “The Amazing Hawkeye” if they didn’t see him counting ticket receipts or handing out popcorn.
Barney got the majority of the grunt work…had gotten it ever since the circus figured out they had a “prodigy” on their hands.
The $35,000 Barney had coming would make up for a lot of that, even if he wished the number were higher. He’d certainly been tempted to hold out for more. After all, Clint’s skills were valuable, not something you could get just anywhere. But, Barney knew he was really just due a finder’s fee and hadn’t wanted to push his luck.
Still, $35,000 was a whole lot more than he’d had before, and that included what he’d have to spend to get out of town. He’d need to hide his trail too, just in case. If anyone bothered to ask, the Barton brothers had taken off for greener pastures, and that was all there was to it. It wasn’t really a stretch. Clint had gotten offers from a few of the bigger traveling shows, though the kid had turned them all down out of some idiotic sense of loyalty.
’Course, even if the cover story fell through, chances were still good that no one would come looking. The circus world was a small one, with quite a few people who lived just this side of legal. None of the carnies would risk bringing the authorities down on their heads, even to track down their precious rising star.
Barney reached the outskirts of the carnival and stopped, watching the crowds for a minute, trying to decide where to go. Anna usually needed some help with her fortune telling gimmick, but she liked to fuss over him and Clint, and Barney didn’t want the old lady getting curious. Marcus was probably his best bet - guy never said more than two words about anything, and his booth was usually busy, so no one would think twice about Barney lending a hand.
Barney started in that direction, but a sharp pin-prick of pain erupted at the base of his spine, and he grunted, stumbling in surprise.
The words caught as his throat seized suddenly.
He blinked rapidly and tried to take another breath, but it was like sucking air through a straw, and he coughed, his shoulders hunching. That only seemed to make it worse, and Barney doubled over, gasping.
A deep ache flared in his chest, a strange feeling of warmth following it, and the world spun abruptly.
Realization settled in about the same time that the muscles in his throat spasmed.
Barney knew, he knew, what this had to be, but the rage was short-lived because he couldn’t get enough oxygen, and his focus was quickly narrowing to that and only that. His chest was tight, like it was being squeezed by a vise, the pressure building fast enough that his vision started to blur around the edges. This time, when he stumbled, his hands and knees hit the dirt.
The stinging in his back throbbed, and he struggled to raise his head to see if anyone had noticed what was happening, but no one was looking in his direction, and any noise he’d made was lost in the happy din of the carnival.
His muscles shaking, his gaze darted around, searching for something, anything, anyone.
That was when he finally saw her.
She was small and skinny, with fiery red hair that fell around her shoulders in loose waves. She couldn’t have been older than twelve, and she was just standing in the shadows, watching him.
Barney tried to draw in enough breath to tell her to go get help, but black spots swam in front of his eyes. His arms gave out and he landed on his side, chest heaving uselessly.
The girl waited another minute before she walked forward silently, her stride oddly purposeful. Barney could only watch hazily as she reached behind him to pluck something from his back, and a small, metallic needle shown briefly in the light before it disappeared up her sleeve.
She stared down at him for a moment longer with cold green eyes, then turned and disappeared into the carnival beyond.
Barney’s heart stuttered once, twice, and then stopped.
After that, there was nothing but darkness.