Having murdered the little Jew, he might have thought that the hard part was behind him, except that it hadn’t been hard. All it took was a twist of his neck, as though he’d plucked an apple from a tree; hardly an accomplishment of note for Piotr the Strongman.
The previous day at sunset, the wagons had arrived at the open fields outside Vbrusk. In the morning, while the crew was busy raising the red-and-white striped tents for the Glorious Pitikin Circus, Piotr readied the cart he would take into the hills to find small boulders for his act. Mikhail—the scum had the nerve to use a Russian name—was glad to help when Piotr asked for his assistance. He would help himself right into the grave that Piotr planned for him.
They chatted pleasantly enough, Piotr complimenting Mikhail on the sword cabinet he’d added to his act: Mikhail’s wife, Ekaterina, plunged ten gleaming blades into the cabinet, from which the magician emerged unscathed. Ekaterina, gorgeous Ekaterina… What right did a stinking Jew have to take a Russian woman as his wife? Well, he’d fix that soon enough. Then Ekaterina would be his, they would steal a couple of horses, and leave the circus behind for St. Petersburg.
After Piotr and Mikhail used the wheelbarrow to load several large stones into the cart—why not let the Jew be of some use, first?—Piotr snapped Mikhail’s neck. It was so quick, the Jew had no time to understand what was happening. His watery, gray eyes registered no surprise or fear, and no sound emerged from his thick, plump lips. Piotr expanded the hole left by the largest of the rocks until it could contain the Jew, and buried him.
Upon Piotr’s return to the camp, there was an air of apprehension spoiling the raw excitement that usually crackled among the circus folk when they raised the tents in a new town. Mikhail’s absence had been noticed and show time was but a few hours away. Piotr mentioned seeing Mikhail on the road with a bottle in his hand, and Ekaterina promised to do their act on her own if need be. And that was that.
That night, the show began with Ivan the Fool playing a drunk, stumbling over imaginary impediments and tumbling into the laps of the first-row spectators. The Saratov Brothers followed on the high wire, then the jugglers, the bare-back riders, the mimes, the quick-change artist, and more. Ekaterina performed a shortened version of the magic act. The show continued until the ringmaster announced: “Piotr the Strongman!”
The crowd went wild as it always did. Piotr would never perform before the Tzar, but here in the provinces he was a star. Artyem, the lad who assisted him during the act, brought three audience volunteers into the ring and seated them on a plank stretched across two saw-horses. Piotr crouched beneath them, fixed the plank across his shoulders, and slowly rose. His entire body trembled and grew red, he huffed and puffed—all for effect, as though he couldn’t do this in his sleep—and finally stood erect, in triumph, the volunteers high in the air, holding on to the plank for dear life. The crowd roared, the band played a patriotic march, and Piotr returned the volunteers to the ground and took deep bows.
Next, two Bashkir horses were brought into the ring, fierce creatures with nostrils flaring and fire in their eyes. Artyem carried two long ropes. He tied one end of each to one of Piotr’s wrists; the other ends were tied to the horses. Piotr stood defiant in the center of the ring, grasping the ropes in his ham-sized fists. A drum rolled, cymbals clashed, and each horse was whipped and ordered to gallop. Piotr held on to the ropes, straining against the pull of horses that would tear his arms off if they could. Ten seconds… thirty seconds… one minute. The horses admitted defeat, whinnied and were still. The crowd cheered again.
Now, Piotr lay on his back on the plank and Artyem and three of the roustabouts wheeled on one of the boulders, placing it on the strongman’s chest. Artyem went into the audience with a sledgehammer, looking for a volunteer. Piotr had already scored the underside of the stone, so almost anyone could deliver a blow strong enough to crack the rock in two. What the audience didn’t consider was that, with the stone absorbing the force of the blow, Piotr would hardly feel its impact.
A spotlight isolated Piotr on the plank; the rest of the circus lights were dimmed dramatically to black. Piotr could hear the audience lean forward on their benches, could hear their breath slowing, stopping, tension overcoming them as they waited for what could be his imminent death. Somewhere in the nearby dark, he heard Artyem finish his instructions to the volunteer and bring him forward with the sledgehammer. The volunteer stepped into the ring of light and raised the sledgehammer high over the stone.
Piotr glanced into the face of the volunteer—and turned to ice. The man’s face was smeared with fresh earth and he held his head at an impossible angle. His watery gray eyes now glowed bright, and his thick, plump lips were curled in a smile. Piotr was pinned to the plank by the boulder; he couldn’t jump off even if he had had any control over his body. He drenched himself in his sweat and urine. He screamed, but realized the sound exploding in his head had not gotten as far as his mouth. The sledgehammer plunged down and Piotr saw it wasn’t aimed at the stone.
It was aimed at his head.