Twilight Eyes Page 37

Halfway through dinner, when the conversation finally moved on to other topics, when it seemed the Tucks had reluctantly accepted the inevitability of our crusade, Joel suddenly put down his knife and fork, banging them on his plate, shook his grizzled head, and reopened the debate: “It’s a damn suicide pact, that’s what it is! If you go to Yontsdown with the idea of wiping out a nest of goblins, you’re just committing suicide together.” He worked his craggy steam-shovel jaw, as if a few hundred important words had gotten caught in that imperfect bony mechanism, but when at last he continued, he merely repeated, “Suicide.”

“And now that you’ve found each other,” Laura said, reaching across the table and gently touching Rya’s hand, “you’ve got every reason to live.”

“We’re not going to walk into town and announce ourselves,” Rya assured them. “This isn’t the shootout at the OK Corral. We’re going to proceed cautiously. First we need to learn as much as we can about them, about why there’re so many of them in one place.”

“And we’re going to be well armed,” I said.

“Remember, we have an enormous advantage,” Rya added. “We can see them, but they don’t know we can see them. We’ll be phantoms, waging guerrilla warfare.”

“But they know you,” Joel reminded her.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. Her glossy black hair rippled with midnight-blue highlights. “They know the old me, when I was a blonde with a slightly different face. They think that woman’s dead. And in a way . . . she is.”

Joel stared at us in frustration. The third eye in his granite-ledge forehead was a mystical muddy-orange and seemed full of secret visions of an apocalyptic nature. The lid slipped shut. He closed his other two eyes and sighed deeply, a sigh of resignation and profound sadness. “Why? Why, damn you? Why do you feel the need to do this crazy thing?”

“My years in the orphanage, when I was under their thumb,” Rya said. “I want revenge for that.”

“And for my cousin Kerry,” I said.

“For Jelly Jordan,” Rya said.

Joel did not open his eyes. He folded his huge hands on the table. He almost seemed to be praying.

“And for my father,” I said. “One of them murdered my father. And my grandma. And my Aunt Paula.”

“For those kids who died in the school fire in Yontsdown,” Rya added softly.

“And for all those who will die if we don’t act,” I said.

“To redeem myself,” Rya said. “For all the years I worked on their side.”

“Because if we don’t do it,” I said, “we’re going to feel no better than those people who stood at their windows and watched Kitty Genovese being cut to pieces.”

We all sat and thought about that for a moment.

The night air streamed through the screened windows with a soft hiss like breath expelled through clenched teeth.

Outside, a greater wind moved through the night as if it were a creature of enormous dimensions, stalking something in the darkness.

At last Joel said, “But, Jesus, only two of you against so many of them...”

“It’s better if it’s just two of us,” I said. “Two discreet out-of-towners won’t be noticed. We’ll be able to poke around without drawing attention to ourselves, so we’ll be more likely to find out why so many of them are gathered in one place. And then . . . if we decide we should wipe out a bunch of them, we can do it stealthily.”

In the deep sockets beneath his massive and misshapen forehead, Joel’s brown eyes opened; they were infinitely expressive, filled with understanding, worry, regret, and perhaps pity.

Reaching across the table to take Rya’s hand, reaching catercorner to put her other hand upon my arm, Laura Tuck said, “If you go back there and find yourselves in trouble too big to handle alone, we’ll come.”

“Yes,” Joel said with a note of self-disgust that I sensed was not entirely genuine, “I’m afraid we’re just plain dumb enough and sentimental enough to come.”

“And we’ll bring other carnies,” Laura said.

Joel shook his head. “Well, I don’t know about that. Carnies are people who don’t function well in the outside world, but that sure doesn’t mean they’ve got concrete between their ears. They won’t like the odds.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rya assured them. “We’re not going to get in over our heads.”

I said, “We’re going to be just as careful as two mice in a house with a hundred cats.”

“We’ll be all right,” Rya said.

“You don’t have to worry about us,” I told them.

I think that I actually meant what I said. I think I actually felt that self-assured. My unjustified confidence could not even be explained and excused by drunkenness, for I was entirely sober.

In the lonely hours of Tuesday morning, I was awakened by thunder rumbling far out in the Gulf. I lay for a while, still half asleep, listening to Rya’s measured breathing and to the grumbling heavens.

Gradually, as the cloudy currents of sleep faded and my mind cleared, I recalled that I had been having a nasty dream just before I woke and that thunder featured in the nightmare. Because previous dreams had proved prophetic, I tried to recall this one, but it eluded me. The vague Morphean images rose like wisps of smoke through my memory, sinuously curling away from me as real smoke will writhe and slither upward on a draft, dissipating with a speed directly related to my determination to form them into solid, meaningful pictures. Although I concentrated for a long time, I could remember only a strange and confining place, a long and narrow and mysterious hallway or perhaps a tunnel, where inky darkness had seemed to ooze out of the walls and where the only pools of light—inadequate and mustard-yellow—were widely separated by threatening shadows. I could not recall where the place had been or what nightmare events had transpired there, but even my dim and formless recollection generated a chill deep in my bones and caused my heart to pound with fear.

Out on the Gulf the thunder drew nearer.

In time fat drops of rain fell.

The nightmare receded even farther from my grasp, and gradually my fear faded with it.

The rhythmic patter of rain on the trailer roof soon lulled me.

Beside me, Rya murmured dreamily.

In the Florida night, only two and a half days from Yontsdown, lying in summery warmth but anticipating the wintry north toward which I was being called, I sought sleep again and found it as a suckling child might find his mother’s breast, though instead of milk I once more drank the dark elixir of the dream. And in the morning, waking with a shudder and a gasp, I was, as before, unable to recall what that strange nightmare had been about—which disturbed but did not yet alarm me.

Gibtown is the winter home for carnies from nearly every road show in the eastern half of the country, not just from the Sombra Brothers outfit. Because carnies are, to begin with, outcasts or misfits who can find no place in straight society, many shows (unlike the Sombra Brothers) do not ask questions when hiring new workers or contracting with new concessionaires, and among the honest misfits there are a few—very few—hard cases, criminal types. Therefore, if you know where to look in Gibtown, and if you are known to be a trusted member of the community, you can get almost anything you want.

I wanted a couple of good revolvers that packed a big punch, two pistols with illegal silencers, a sawed-off shotgun, a fully automatic rifle, at least one hundred pounds of any kind of plastic explosive, detonator caps with built-in timers, a dozen vials of sodium pentothal, a packet of hypodermic syringes, and a few other items not easily acquired at the nearest K-Mart or Safeway. Within half an hour that Tuesday morning, a few discreet questions led me to Norland “Slick Eddy” Beckwurt, a jam-auction concessionaire who traveled with a big outfit that spent the season mostly in the Midwest.

Slick Eddy did not look the least bit slick. In fact, he looked desiccated. He had brittle sand-colored hair, and in spite of the Florida sun, he was as pallid as the dust in an ancient tomb. His skin was parched, with webs of fine wrinkles, and his lips were so dry that they looked scaly. His eyes were a strange shade of pale amber, like sun-yellowed paper. He wore crisp khaki pants and a khaki shirt that crackled softly and whispered when he moved. His low but raspy voice made me think of a hot desert wind stirring through dead brush. A heavy smoker who kept a pack of Camels within reach of every chair in sight, he almost seemed to have been smoke-cured like a slab of pork.

In Slick Eddy’s trailer the living room was dimly lit and reeked of stale cigarettes. The furniture was upholstered in dark brown vinyl with an imitation leather grain; there were steel-and-glass end tables and a matching coffee table on which lay copies of the National Enquirer and several gun magazines. Only one of the three lamps was lit. The air was cool and dry. All of the windows were covered by heavy, tightly drawn drapes. Except for the stink of cigarettes, I could almost have believed that the place was a storage vault where temperature, light, and humidity were carefully controlled to preserve delicate art objects or fragile documents.

The rain had stopped near dawn, then started again as I reached Slick Eddy’s place. Now the sound of the drizzle was curiously muffled, as if the entire trailer were shrouded in heavy drapes like those at the windows.

Slumped in a brown vinyl chair, Slick Eddy listened impassively and without interruption as I reeled off my long and outrageous shopping list. He took deep drags on a cigarette held in a thin-fingered hand that was permanently discolored with nicotine stains. When I finished telling him what I wanted, he did not ask a single question, not even with his parchment-yellow eyes. He merely told me the price, and when I gave him half the sum as a deposit, he said, “Come back at three o’clock.”



“You can get all this stuff in a few hours?”


“I want quality.”

“Of course.”

“The plastic explosive has to be very stable, nothing too dangerous to handle.”

“I don’t deal in garbage.”

“And the pentothal—”

He blew out a pungent plume of smoke and said, “The longer we talk about it, the harder it’s going to be for me to have the stuff here by three o’clock.”

I nodded, got up, and went to the door. Glancing back at him once more, I said, “Aren’t you curious?”

“About what?”

“About what I’m up to,” I said.


“Surely you must wonder—”


“If I were you, I’d be curious when people came to me wanting things like this. If I were you, I’d want to know what I was getting involved in.”

“That’s why you’re not me,” he said.

When the rain stopped, the puddles soon soaked into the earth, and the leaves dripped dry, and the blades of grass slowly rose from the humble posture into which the downpour had beaten them, but the sky did not clear; it hung low over the flat Florida coast. The eastward-oozing masses of dark clouds looked rotten, pustulant. The heavy air did not smell clean as it should have after a hard rain; an odd, musty odor clung to the humid day, as if the storm had blown some strange contaminant in from the Gulf.

Rya and I packed three suitcases and loaded them into our beige station wagon, the sides of which boasted metal panels painted to look like wood. Even in those days Detroit no longer produced genuine Woodies, which perhaps was an early sign of how thoroughly the age of quality and craftsmanship and authenticity was destined to give way to the age of shoddiness, haste, and clever imitation.

Solemnly—and sometimes tearfully—we said good-bye to Joel and Laura Tuck, to Gloria Neames, Red Morton, Bob Weyland, Madame Zena, Irma and Paulie Lorus, and other carnies, telling some that we were taking a brief pleasure trip, telling others the truth. They wished us well and tried to encourage us as best they could, but in the eyes of those who knew our true purpose, we saw doubt, fear, pity, and dismay. They did not think we would return—or that we would live long enough in Yontsdown to learn anything important about the goblins nesting there or to do any worthwhile damage to that enemy. The same thought was in all their minds, although none of them gave voice to it: We will never see you again.

At three o’clock, when we went to Slick Eddy’s trailer in a far corner of Gibtown, he was waiting for us with all of the weapons, explosives, pentothal, and the other items I had ordered. The gear was stowed in several faded canvas sacks with drawstring tops, and we loaded them into the wagon as if we merely were handling bags full of dirty clothes and were on our way to a Laundromat.

Rya agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the journey north. It was my responsibility to keep a good rock-and-roll station on the radio as the miles rolled past.

But before we had even pulled out of Slick Eddy’s driveway, he leaned down and put his papyrus-crisp face in my open window. With an exhalation of cigarette-soured breath that left his throat to the accompaniment of a dry rattle, he said, “If you get tangled up with the law out there, and if they want to know where you got what you shouldn’t have, then I expect you to act with carny honor and keep me out of it.”

“Of course,” Rya said sharply. She clearly did not like Slick Eddy. “Why insult us by even bringing it up? Do we look like a couple of sellout artists who’d throw our own people on the fire just to keep ourselves warm? We’re stand-up types.”

“I think you are,” Slick Eddy said.

“Well, then,” she said, but she was not mollified.

Still squinting at us through the open window, Slick Eddy was not yet satisfied. He seemed to sense that Rya had indeed once been a betrayer of her own kind. And her reaction to his suspicion might have resulted less from her dislike of him than from the guilt that she had not yet entirely purged from herself.

Eddy said, “If things go right for you—wherever you’re going and whatever you’re up to—and if someday you need me to do more shopping for you, don’t hesitate to call. But if things go wrong, I never want to see you again.”

“If things go wrong,” Rya said sharply, “you never will see us again.”

He blinked those burned-out amber eyes at her, blinked them at me, and I could have sworn I heard his lids moving up and down with a soft, metallic scraping sound like the rusted parts of a machine abrading one another. He let out a wheezy sigh, and I half expected dust to puff from between his scaly lips, but the only thing that washed over my face was another rancid wave of cigarette breath. At last he said, “Yeah. Yeah . . . I sort of suspect I never will see you again.”

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