Twilight Eyes Page 8

The goblin that strolled by the high-striker shortly after two o’clock was comfortably ensconced in the body of a mark: a big, towheaded, open-faced, good-natured farm boy, eighteen or nineteen, dressed in a tank top, cutoff jeans, and sandals. He was with two other guys his age, neither of whom was a goblin, and he was just about the most innocent-looking citizen you ever saw, joking and cutting up a little, enjoying himself. But beneath the human glaze a goblin peered out with eyes of fire.

The farm boy did not stop at the high-striker, and I kept my spiel un-spooling as I watched him pass by, and not ten minutes later I saw a second beast. This one had assumed the appearance of a stocky, gray-haired man of about fifty-five, but his alien shape was grossly apparent to me.

I know that what I see is not actually the physical goblin itself encased in some sort of plastic flesh. The human body is real enough. What I perceive is, I suppose, either the spirit of the goblin or the biological potential of its shape-shifting flesh.

And, at a quarter of three, I saw two more of them. Outwardly they were just a pair of attractive teenage girls, small-town gawkers dazzled by the carnival. Within lurked monstrous entities with quivering pink snouts.

By four o’clock, forty goblins had passed by the high-striker, and a couple of them had even stopped to test their strength, and by that time my good mood had finally vanished. The crowd on the midway could not have numbered more than six or eight thousand, so the monsters among them far exceeded the usual ratio.

Something was going on; something was meant to happen on the Sombra Brothers’ midway this afternoon; this extraordinary convocation of goblins had one purpose—to witness human misery and suffering. As a species, they seemed not merely to enjoy our pain but to thrive on it, feed on it, as if our agony was their only—or primary—sustenance. I had seen them together in large groups only at scenes of tragedy: the funeral of four high school football players who had been killed in a bus accident back in my hometown a few years ago; a terrible automobile pileup in Colorado; a fire in Chicago. Now, the more goblins I saw among the ordinary marks, the colder I became there in the August heat.

By the time the explanation came to me, I was so on edge that I was seriously considering using the knife in my boot, slashing at least one or two of them, and running for my life. Then I realized what must have happened. They had come to see an accident at the Dodgem Car pavilion, expecting a rider to be maimed or killed. Yes. Of course. That was what the bastard had been up to last night, before I had confronted and killed him; he had been setting up an “accident.” Now that I thought about it, I was sure I knew what had been intended, for he had been tinkering with the power feed to the motor of one of the small cars. By killing him, I had unknowingly saved some poor mark from electrocution.

Word had gone out on the goblin network: Death, pain, horrible mutilation, and mass hysteria at the carnival tomorrow! Don’t miss this stupendous show! Bring the wife and kids! Blood and burning flesh! A show for the whole family! Responding to that message, they had come, but the promised feast of human misery had not been laid out for them, so they were wandering the concourses, trying to figure out what had happened, maybe even looking for the goblin I had murdered.

From four o’clock until five, when the relief pitchman showed up, my spirits rose steadily, for I saw no more of my enemy. Off duty, I spent half an hour searching through the crowd, but the goblins all seemed to have gone away in disappointment.

I returned to Sam Trizer’s grab-stand for a bite of supper. After I had eaten, I felt much better, and I was even whistling when, on my way to the carnival headquarters to see about my trailer assignment, I encountered Jelly Jordan by the carousel.

“How goes it?” he asked, raising his voice above the calliope music.


We moved beside the ticket booth, out of the swarming marks.

He was eating a chocolate doughnut. He licked his lips and said, “Rya doesn’t seem to’ve bitten off any of your ears or fingers.”

“She’s nice,” I said.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Well, she is,” I said defensively. “A little gruff, maybe, and certainly plainspoken. But underneath all that, there’s a decent lady, sensitive, worth knowing.”

“Oh, you’re right. Absolutely. I ain’t surprised by what you say—just that you saw through her hard-bitten act so quickly. Most people don’t take time to see the niceness in her, and some people never see.”

My spirits rose further when I heard his confirmation of my vague psychic impressions. I wanted her to be nice. I wanted her to be a good person under the Ice Maiden act. I wanted her to be a person worth knowing. Hell, what it came down to—I just wanted her, and I didn’t want to be wanting someone who was genuinely a bitch.

“Cash Dooley found trailer accommodations for you,” Jelly said. “Better settle in while you’re on your break.”

“I’ll do that,” I said.

I was feeling great as I started to turn away from him, but then I saw something out of the corner of my eye that brought me crashing down. I swung back on him, praying that I had imagined what I thought I had seen, but it was not imagination; it was still there. Blood. There was blood all over Jelly Jordan’s face. Not real blood, you understand. He was finishing his chocolate doughnut, unhurt, feeling no pain. What I saw was a clairvoyant vision, an omen of violence to come. Not merely violence, either. Superimposed on Jelly’s living face was an image of his face in death, his eyes open and sightless, his chubby cheeks smeared with blood. He was not just swimming down the time-stream toward injury but . . . toward imminent death.

He blinked at me. “What?”

“Uh . . .”

The precognitive flash faded.

“Something wrong, Slim?”

The vision was gone.

There was no way I could tell him and make him believe. And even if I could make him believe, there was no way I could change the future.


“No,” I said. “Nothing wrong. I just...”


“Wanted to thank you again.”

“You’re too damned grateful, boy. I can’t stand slobbering puppies.” He scowled. “Now get the hell out of my sight.”

I hesitated. Then to cover my confusion and fear, I said, “Is that your Rya Raines imitation?”

He blinked again and grinned at me. “Yeah. How was it?”

“Not nearly mean enough.”

I left him laughing, and as I moved away I tried to persuade myself that my premonitions did not always come to pass—(although they did)

—and that, even if he was going to die, it wouldn’t be soon—(although I sensed it would be very soon, indeed)

—and that even if it would be soon, there was surely something I could do to prevent it.


Surely something.

Chapter seven


The crowd began to thin out and the midway began to shut down at midnight, but I kept the high-striker open until twelve-thirty, snaring a last few half-dollars, because I wanted to report a HE-MAN (rather than a GOOD BOY) take for my first day on the job. By the time I closed the concession and headed for the meadow at the back of the county fairgrounds, where the carnies had established their mobile community, it was a few minutes after one o’clock.

Behind me, the last lights on the midway winked off when I left, almost as if the whole show had been for my benefit alone.

Ahead and below, in a large field ringed by woods, almost three hundred trailers were lined up in neat rows. Most were owned by the concessionaires and their families, but a score or two were the property of the Sombra Brothers and were rented out to those carnies, like me, who did not hold title to their own accommodations. Some called this caravan “Gibtown-on-Wheels.” During the winter, when there were no show dates, most of these people traveled south to Gibsonton, Florida—“Gibtown” to the natives who had built the place—which was entirely populated by carnies. Gibtown was their haven, their reliable retreat, the one place in the world that was truly home. From mid-October to late November they headed toward Gibtown, streaming in from all the shows in the country, from the big outfits like E. James Strates and from the littlest gillies and ragbags. There in the Florida sunshine they either had prettily landscaped lots waiting for their trailers or they had bigger trailers mounted on permanent concrete foundations, and in that sanctuary they remained until a new tour started in the spring. Even in the off-season they preferred to be together, separate from the straight world, which they tended to find too dull, unfriendly, and small-minded, filled with too many unnecessary rules. While on the road, regardless of where their business took them during their peripatetic season, they held fast to the ideal of Gibsonton, and they returned every night to a familiar place, to this Gibtown-on-Wheels.

The rest of modern America seems bent upon fragmentation: Year by year there is less coherence in every ethnic group; churches and other institutions, once the glue of society, are frequently said to be worthless and even oppressive, as if our countrymen see a perversely appealing chaos in the mechanism of the universe and wish to emulate it, even if emulation leads to obliteration. Among carnies, however, there is a strong and treasured sense of community that, year by year, never diminishes.

As I came down the hillside path, into the summer-warm meadow, with all the sounds of the midway stilled, with crickets singing in the dark, the amber lights at all those trailer windows had a ghostly quality. They appeared to shimmer in the humid air, not much like electric illumination but rather like the camp fires and oil lamps in a primitive settlement of an earlier era. In fact, with its modern details draped in darkness and distorted by strange patterns of curtain- and blind-filtered light, Gibsonton-on-Wheels had the look and feel of an assemblage of gypsy wagons drawn up against the disapproval of the surrounding natives in a rural nineteenth-century European landscape. As I approached and then walked in among the first trailers, lights were extinguished here and there as weary carnies went to bed.

The meadow was marked by a quietude born of the carnies’ universal respect for their neighbors: There were no loud radios or TVs, no crying babies left unattended, no noisy arguments, no barking dogs, all of which you might expect to find in a so-called respectable neighborhood out in the straight world. Also, daylight would have shown that the avenues between the trailers were free of litter.

Earlier, during my break, I had brought my gear down to the rental trailer that three other guys were sharing with me, and while I had been in the meadow I had wandered around until I had found the Airstream that belonged to Rya Raines. Now, laden with coins and with a thick sheaf of dollar bills in one pouch of my change apron, I went directly to her place.

The door was open, and I saw Rya sitting in an armchair, in a fall of buttery light from a reading lamp. She was talking to a dwarf.

I rapped on the open door, and she said, “Come on in, Slim.”

I went up the three metal steps and in, and the dwarf, a woman, turned to look at me. She was of indeterminate age—twenty or fifty, hard to tell—about forty inches tall, with a normal trunk, shortened extremities, and a large head. We were introduced; the little woman’s name was Irma Lorus, and she ran the bottle-pitch for Rya. She wore a pair of children’s tennis shoes, black pants, and a loose peach-colored blouse with short sleeves. Her black hair was thick and glossy and, like ravens’ wings, it had deep blue highlights; it was lovely, and she was evidently proud of it, for much thought had gone into the way it was cut and shaped around her oversize face.

“Ah, yes,” Irma said, offering her small hand, shaking. “I’ve heard about you, Slim MacKenzie. Mrs. Frazelli, who owns the Bingo Palace with her husband, Tony, says you’re too young to be on your own, says you’re in desperate need of a home-cooked meal and a mother’s attention. Harv Seveen, who has one of the kootch shows, says you look like you’re either dodging the draftboard or maybe running from the cops because they caught you at some small diddle . . . like maybe joyriding in somebody else’s car; either way, he figures you’re a right type. The pitchmen say you know how to draw the marks, and with a few more years under your belt, you might even become the best talker on the lot. Now, Bob Weyland, who has the carousel, is a mite worried ’cause his daughter thinks you’re a dreamboat and says she’ll just die if you don’t notice her; she’s sixteen, and her name’s Tina, and she’s worth noticing too. And Madame Zena, otherwise known as Mrs. Pearl Yarnell from the Bronx, our gypsy fortune-teller, says you’re a Taurus, five years older than you look, and that you’re running from a tragic love affair.”

I was not surprised that a number of carnies had drifted by the high-striker to have a look at me. It was a tight community, and I was a newcomer, and their curiosity was to be expected. I was, however, embarrassed by the report of Tina Weyland’s infatuation and amused to hear Madame Zena’s “psychic” impressions of me. “Well, Irma,” I said, “I’m actually a Taurus, seventeen years old, never had a girl even give me the chance to have my heart broken—and if Mrs. Frazelli is any good in the kitchen, you can tell her that I cry myself to sleep each and every night, just thinking about home-cooked meals.”

“You’re welcome at my place too,” Irma said, smiling. “Come meet Paulie, my husband. Fact is, why don’t you stop over about eight o’clock Sunday night, once we’ve set up at the next stop on the tour. I’ll fix you chicken chili and my famous Black Forest cake for dessert.”

“I’ll be there,” I promised.

In my experience, of all carnies, dwarves were the quickest to accept a stranger, to open up, the first to trust and smile and laugh. Initially I had attributed their apparently universal friendliness to the combative disadvantage of their size, figuring that when you were that small, you had to be friendly in order to avoid becoming an easy target for bullies, drunks, and muggers. However, as I had become better acquainted with a couple of the little people, I had gradually realized that my simplistic analysis of their extroverted personalities was ungenerous. As a group—and almost to an individual—dwarves were strong-willed, self-assured, and self-reliant. They are no more afraid of life than are people of ordinary stature. Their extroversion springs from other causes, not least of all from a compassion born of suffering. But that night, in Rya Raines’s Airstream trailer, still young and learning, I had not yet attained an understanding of their psychology.

That night I didn’t understand Rya, either, but I was struck by the radically different temperaments of these two women. Irma was warm and outgoing, but Rya Raines remained cool and introverted. Irma had a lovely smile and made full use of it, but Rya studied me with those crystalline blue eyes that took in everything and gave back nothing, and she remained expressionless.

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