. . . the still sad music of humanity . . .
Humanity ain’t always what’s pretty. Some of the worst killers are pretty. Humanity ain’t always what sounds nice and falls smooth on the ear, ’cause any pitchman can charm a snake, but some pitchmen ain’t too humane. A person shows humanity when he’s there if you need him, when he takes you in, when he has a genuine kind word, when he makes you feel not alone, when he makes your fight his fight. That’s what humanity is, if you want to know. And if we had a little more of it in this world, maybe we could get ourselves out of the handbasket we’re in . . . or at least stop carrying that handbasket straight to Hell, the way we have been for so long.
—an anonymous carnival pitchman
That was the year they murdered our president in Dallas. It was the end of innocence, the end of a certain way of thinking and being, and some were despondent and said it was the death of hope, as well. But though falling autumn leaves may reveal skeletal branches, spring reclothes the wood; a beloved grandmother dies, but as compensation for the loss, her grandchild enters the world strong and curious; when one day ends, the next begins, for in this infinite universe there is no final conclusion to anything, definitely not to hope. From the ashes of the old age, another age is born, and birth is hope. The year that followed the assassination would bring us the Beatles, new directions in modern art that would alter the way we viewed our environment, and the beginning of a refreshing distrust of government. If it also contained the germinating seeds of war, this should only serve to teach us that—like hope—terror and pain and despair are constant companions in this life, a lesson that is never without value.
I came to the carnival in the sixth month of my seventeenth year, in the darkest hours of the night, on a Thursday in August, more than three months before that death in Dallas. During the following week, what happened to me would change my life as profoundly as assassination could transform the future of a nation, though upon my arrival the shuttered and deserted midway seemed an unlikely place for destiny to be waiting.
At four o’clock in the morning, the county fairgrounds had been closed for almost four hours. The carnies had shut down the Ferris wheel, Dive Bomber, Tilt-a-Whirl, and other rides. They had closed up their hanky-panks, grab-joints, pitch-and-dunks, pokerino parlors, had turned off the lights and killed the music and folded up the gaudy glamour. With the departure of the marks, the carnies had gone to their travel trailers, which were parked in a large meadow south of the midway. Now the tattooed man, the midgets, dwarves, hustlers, the women from the girly shows, the pitchmen, the bottle-pitch and ring-toss operators, the man who made cotton candy for a living, the woman who dipped apples in caramel sauce, the bearded lady, the three-eyed man, and all the others were asleep or fighting insomnia or making love as if they were ordinary citizens—which, in this world, they were.
A three-quarter moon, sliding down one side of the sky, was still high enough to shed a pale wintry glow that seemed anachronistic in the hot, humid, graveyard hours of an August night in Pennsylvania. As I strolled through the lot, getting a feel for the place, I noticed how strangely white my own hands looked in that frosty luminescence, like the hands of a dead man or ghost. That was when I first perceived the lurking presence of Death among the rides and hanky-panks, and sensed dimly that the carnival would be the site of murder and much blood.
Overhead, lines of plastic pennants hung limp in the muggy air; they were bright triangles when touched by sunshine or splashed in the dazzling glow of ten thousand carnival lights but were bled of color now, so they seemed like scores of sleeping bats suspended above the sawdust-carpeted concourse. As I passed by the silent carousel a frozen stampede was halted in mid-gallop—black stallions, white mares, pintos, palominos, mustangs—charging forward without proceeding, as if the river of time had parted around them. Like a thin spray of metallic paint, traces of moonlight adhered to the brass poles that transfixed the horses, but in that eerie radiance the brass was silver and cold.
I had jumped the high fence that ringed the county fairgrounds, for the gates had been closed when I arrived. Now I felt vaguely guilty, a thief in search of booty, which was odd, for I was no thief and harbored no criminal intentions toward anyone in the carnival.
I was a murderer, wanted by the police in Oregon, but I felt no guilt about the blood I had spilled out there at the other end of the continent. I killed my Uncle Denton with an ax because I wasn’t strong enough to finish him with my bare hands. Neither remorse nor guilt pursued me, for Uncle Denton had been one of them.
The police, however, did pursue me, and I couldn’t be sure that even three thousand miles of flight had won me any safety. I no longer used my real name, Carl Stanfeuss. At first I had called myself Dan Jones, then Joe Dann, then Harry Murphy. Now I was Slim MacKenzie, and I figured I would stay Slim for a while; I liked the sound of it. Slim MacKenzie. It was the kind of name a guy might have if he were John Wayne’s best buddy in one of the Duke’s Westerns. I had let my hair grow longer, though it was still brown. There was not much else I could do to alter my appearance, other than stay free long enough for time to make a different man of me.
What I hoped to get from the carnival was sanctuary, anonymity, a place to sleep, three square meals a day, and pocket money, all of which I intended to earn. In spite of being a murderer, I was the least dangerous desperado ever to ride out of the West.
Nevertheless, I felt like a thief that first night, and I expected someone to raise an alarm, to come running at me through the maze of rides, hamburger stands, and cotton candy kiosks. A couple of security guards must have been cruising the fairgrounds, but when I made my entrance they were nowhere in sight. Listening for the sound of their car, I continued my nocturnal tour of the famous midway of the Sombra Brothers Carnival, the second largest road show in the country.
At last I stopped by the giant Ferris wheel, to which darkness brought a chilling transformation: In the glow of the moon, at this dead hour, it did not resemble a machine, especially not a machine designed for amusement, but gave the impression of being the skeleton of a huge prehistoric beast. The girders and beams and cross-supports might not have been wood and metal but bony accretions of calcium and other minerals, the last remains of a decomposed leviathan washed up on the lonely beach of an ancient sea.
Standing in the complex pattern of moon-shadows cast by that imagined paleolithic fossil, I peered up at the black two-seat baskets all hanging motionless, and I knew this wheel would play a role in a pivotal event in my life. I did not know how or why or when, but I knew without doubt that something momentous and terrible would happen here. I knew.
Reliable premonitions are part of my gift. Not the most important part. Not the most useful, startling, or frightening part, either. I possess other special talents that I use but do not understand. They are talents that have shaped my life but which I cannot control or employ at will. I have Twilight Eyes.
Looking up at the Ferris wheel, I did not actually see details of the dreadful event that lay in the future, but I was drenched in a wave of morbid sensations, flooding impressions of terror, pain, and death. I swayed and nearly fell to my knees. I could not breathe, and my heart hammered wildly, and my testicles drew tight, and for an instant I felt as if lightning had struck me.
Then the squall passed, and the last of the psychic energies sluiced through me, and there remained nothing but the low, barely detectable vibrations that could have been sensed only by someone like me, ominous vibrations emanating from the wheel, as if it were radiating scattered particles of the death-energy stored within it, much the way a storm sky charges the day with uneasy expectation even before the first bolt of lightning or clap of thunder.
I could breathe again. My heart slowed. The hot, thick August night had raised a greasy film of perspiration on my face long before I had entered the midway, but now sweat poured from me. I pulled up the T-shirt I was wearing and blotted my face.
Partly in the hope that I could somehow clarify those foggy, clairvoyant perceptions of danger and see exactly what violence lay ahead, and partly because I was determined not to be intimidated by the aura of evil that clung to the big machine, I shrugged off the backpack I had been carrying, unrolled my sleeping bag, and made ready to pass the last hours of the night right there in the faint patchwork of purple-black shadows and ash-gray moonlight, with the wheel looming over me. The air was so heavy and warm that I used the sleeping bag only as a mattress. I lay on my back, staring up at the towering amusement ride, then at the stars visible beyond the curve of it and between its beams. Although I tried, I sensed nothing more of the future, but I did see a humbling plenitude of stars and thought about the immensity of space and felt lonelier than ever.
Less than a quarter of an hour passed before I grew drowsy, and just as my eyes were about to flutter shut, I heard movement on the abandoned midway, not far from me. It was a crisp, crackling sound, as of someone stepping on discarded candy wrappers. I raised up and listened. The crackling stopped, but it was followed by the thump of heavy footsteps on hard-packed earth.
A moment later a gloom-shrouded figure moved out from beside a tent that housed one of the kootch shows, hurried across the concourse, slipped into the darkness on the far side of the Ferris wheel, no more than twenty feet away from me, reappeared in the moonlight by the Caterpillar. It was a man, quite big—unless the shadows, like voluminous cloaks, gave him a deceptively large appearance. He hurried away, unaware of me. I had only a glimpse of him, saw nothing of his face, but I shot to my feet, shaking, suddenly cold in spite of the August heat, for what little I had seen of him was enough to generate a current of fear that sizzled the length of my spine.
It was one of them.
I withdrew the knife hidden in my boot. As I turned the blade in my hand, lambent moonbeams licked along the cutting edge.
I hesitated. I told myself to pack up and leave, get out, seek shelter elsewhere.
Oh, but I was weary of running and needed a place to call home. Weary and disoriented by too many highways, too many towns, too many strangers, too many changes. During the past few months I had worked in half a dozen gillys and ragbags, the bottom of the carnival business, and I had heard how much better the life was when you were hooked up with an organization like E. James Strates, the Vivona Brothers, Royal American, or the Sombra Brothers Shows. And now that I had walked this midway in the dark, soaking up both physical and psychic impressions, I wanted to stay. In spite of the bad aura around the Ferris wheel, in spite of the premonition that murder would be done and blood spilled in the days to come, the Sombra outfit gave off other, better emanations, and I sensed I could find happiness here too. I wanted to stay more than I had ever wanted anything else.
I needed a home and friends.
I was only seventeen.
But if I were to stay, he must die. I didn’t think I could live in the carnival knowing that one of them nested in it too.
I held the knife at my side.
I went after him, past the Caterpillar, around the back of the Tilt-a-Whirl, stepping over thick power cables, trying to avoid putting a foot down on any litter that would reveal my presence to him as it had revealed him to me. We moved toward the dark, quiet center of the carnival.
He was up to no good, but his kind always are. He scurried through the archipelago of night, rushing across the islands of moonlight, much preferring the deep pools of darkness and hesitating there only when he needed to reconnoiter, dodging from one bit of cover to the next, repeatedly glancing behind but never glimpsing or sensing me.
I followed noiselessly through the center of the midway, not on either of the parallel concourses but through the rides and past the backs of game stands and refreshment shacks, past the Whip, between the Tip Top and the Whirlwind, observing him from concealment provided by now dormant gasoline-powered generators, trucks, and other equipment scattered the length of the grounds. His destination proved to be the open-air Dodgem Car pavilion, where he paused for one last look around, then climbed the two steps, unhitched the gate, and stepped under the electrical-grid ceiling, moving among the small cars that were parked wherever their last paying drivers had left them, from one end of the wooden floor to the other.
Perhaps I could have hidden in the nearby shadows, there to observe him for a while, until I had some idea of his intentions. Perhaps that would have been the wisest course, for I knew less of the enemy in those days than I know now and might have benefited by even the most trivial addition to my meager store of knowledge. However, my hatred of the goblins—which was the only name that I could think to give them—was exceeded only by my fear, and I worried that delaying the confrontation would erode my courage. With perfect stealth, which was not one of my special gifts but, rather, a consequence of being seventeen and lithe and in excellent physical condition, I approached the Dodgem Car pavilion and followed the goblin inside.
The two-seat cars were small, only slightly higher than my knees. A pole rose from the rear of each car to the ceiling grid, from which power was drawn down to allow the driver to collide violently with the other maniacally piloted vehicles. When the marks crowded the midway, the area around the Dodgem Cars was usually one of the noisiest places in the carnival, the air rent with screams and cries of attack, but now it was as preternaturally silent as the petrified stampede of the carousel horses. Because the cars were low and offered virtually no concealment, and because the raised floor was wood with a crawlspace underneath that encouraged every footstep to echo in the still night air, an undetected advance was not easy.
My enemy unwittingly assisted me by concentrating intently upon whatever task had brought him out into the moon-ruled carnival, most of his caution having been expended on the journey here. He was on his knees at the rear of a car halfway across the long rectangular pavilion, his head bowed over the focus of a flashlight beam.
As I edged closer, the amber back splash of the light confirmed that he was indeed a large specimen, with a thick neck and broad shoulders. His wide back was visibly well muscled under the tightly stretched material of his yellow- and brown-checkered shirt.
In addition to the flashlight, he had brought a cloth tool pouch, which he had unrolled and placed on the floor beside him. The tools nestled in an array of pockets and glinted as errant rays from the flashlight found them and bounced off their smoothly machined surfaces. He worked quickly, with only a little noise, but the soft scrape and tick and squeak of metal against metal was sufficient to mask my steady advance.
I intended to steal within six feet of him, then launch myself on him and ram my blade into his neck, seek and sever the jugular, before he realized that he was not alone. However, in spite of the noises he made and in spite of my cat-soft approach, when I was still twelve or fifteen feet from him, he suddenly became aware that he was being watched, and he half turned from his mysterious task, looking back and up at me, astonished, owl-eyed.