"In this coffer is the sign of the Mystery of Tiersius, Tiersius the Seer and Prophet, handed down from sage to sage in Greece for two thousand five hundred years until it reached me, the most humble of initiates into the ancient Mentalist's art. Now, I shall reveal the wisdom of Tiersius to you."
When you're working the crowd, everything seems brighter, sharper, and closer to you than usual. I've always wondered if this is what battle feels like, but Count Goran says not and he should know. He's with me now, on the platform in front of them all, his voice a low rumble that makes our audience quiet down because they want to hear him, not just because he's asked them for silence. They watch his fat, graceful hands as he opens the olivewood case bound with brass strapping, eager to see what's hidden inside it.
He shows the golden mask with no eyeholes---it's gilt paint on tin, really, but it looks like gold from a distance---to them and then to the middle-aged woman that he's picked out of the audience. She's a good choice for the job of checking it for tricks. Her tailored white shirtwaist, its high collar buttoned right up to the top button, hints that she's the town librarian or a teacher, someone respectable out for a lark. She even has a souvenir, a slip of tuberose done up with pink ribbon, that someone has pinned crookedly onto her blouse. Her face is strong but has a look around the eyes and mouth that I've come to know over the past three years. She wants this to be real. Whether she knows it or not, she's yearning to be bamboozled.
Some people believe in magic here at the end of the twenties in the mid-west of the U.S. of A., and even more people would like to believe. I don't, or at least I don't believe in magic any more than I believe I'll find a flock of wild penguins waddling through the local train station. We're about as far from fairies and dragons as you can get, here in this small town, and I think that's fine. Unlike a lot of folks, I don't think that I'd somehow be different if the world was full of magic, turned into a prince instead of a part-time carny and part-time truck driver. The way I figure it, I'd still be the same if someone parachuted me down into Bangkok or Pekin, still fighting the same battles and searching for the same amusements. Goran told me once that my attitude's a gift that most of our audience members don't have. All I know is that my way of thinking makes it easy for me to do my job, spinning dreams for the crowd out of sleight-of-hand and paint on tin.
Count Goran, with his years of experience at this game, is a ways ahead of me with our mark. His white-gloved hand is gentle on her shoulder, formal as a servant's as he directs her across the stage, escorting her into our mysteries. I'm glad he's decided to be polite. The audience knows her and is pleased she's up on the stage with us, enjoying herself. The weary faces of the farm women are relaxed and the jokes the men are making around their chaw are friendly, if a little rough. They're being careful to spit towards the corners of the canvas tent and to swallow their worst language. All of them are hoping for something, probably either a miracle or a horse laugh at Goran and me, and they're willing to wait and see what we've got for them. They'll have to settle for getting a good show.
"You must secure the mask over the face of this youth of Macedon, young Ionnus," Goran tells the lady, gravely. Greek names are good for a Midwest crowd; it reminds them of the Bible but also hints at pagan days, odd ways, and mysteries.
Kids have eeled up to the edge of the platform close to me, which is kind of a pity. Youngsters are harder to fool than adults. They have less to make them cautious, I guess, less to worry about when they make a mistake or say what they think in front of a crowd. Or maybe not: I remember words I said that came back to haunt me later, when I was just a kid.
I decide to ignore them, and yank my mind back to business. It's about time I paid attention. Goran and the woman are standing in front me. I gaze into her eyes, my expression bright and friendly, giving no sign that I see that, even though she's young, her looks are already fading. She may not care, though. The stare she gives me in her turn is amiable but sharp, reserving judgment. She's a school teacher, all right. Her hands are steady and competent as she fits the mask over my face.
It's dark. I really can't see a thing. She knows how to turn her hand to a task, not that it matters. The tricks we use don't depend on my being able to see. Goran has patted my shoulder and moved away. I'm ready.
"Hear, O Ionnus, and let the Unknown God guard thee as thou seeketh that which..." The Count is using the patter he reserves for towns where he's not sure how churched they are. King Kole the Midget, behind the canvas dividing us from the rest of the Ten-in-One show, has put the needle down on the wind-up gramophone. Wailing music played on strings and flutes fills the tent, drowning out some of the noise from the carnival midway outside. I know the tent is dimmer, too, with the power to the bulbs reduced, even if I can't see it.
I tilt my head some, as if I'm listening to a voice very far away. My upraised palms quiver a little, like my fingers are receiving radio waves. I added the gestures to the dressing myself. They're corny but the crowd eats them up. They make a nice contrast to my gangling milk-fed self, pretty obviously American even under the fake Macedonian costume and wig.
Now Goran calls on other members of the audience. They hold up items from their pockets and purses for me to name. Some I get right off, some I drag out guessing at a little, to build suspense. Then he brings up more people from the crowd and he and I read their minds, me behind my blind-eyed mask of gold and him tearing out the answers from sealed envelopes, producing them from the air, conjuring them from puffs of smoke. Finally, a member of the crowd writes a quotation and shows it to the audience, where neither Goran nor I---if I could see at all---can read it. Goran places his hands to his temples and concentrates, concentrates. Then, seemingly without a cue, the two of us recite the quote together our voices blending and pitched to carry over the small noises of adenoidal breathing, gasps, and chewing from the crowd. The quote is about the Duke and Dauphin from Huckleberry Finn, which is really funny if you think about it.
The applause they give us is good and loud. I take the mask off myself and shake my head a little, like I was coming up from diving deep beneath the surface of the sea, before I give the audience a shy smile. It's no time for my real grin. Goran has told me what that looks like. Crowds don't like it when you're cocky and they have ways to let you know their opinion.
We bow and bow again before Goran says he will be available for private consultation in a half of an hour over at his own tent. He stays to talk briefly to the last volunteer, a skinny guy with a big Adam's apple that keeps bobbing up and down, before he waves him away. I wonder if the man will be by later for some of Goran's private blend of attitude, mumbo-jumbo, and horse sense. With a show of great respect I put the mask away in its fancy wooden box while Goran wraps his cape about himself and broods for a while over the crowd filing out of the tent. When he does that, it looks like Santa Claus' scary younger brother is considering putting coal in everyone's stocking, what with his fat, his height, and his keen, dark eyes. Then, seeming to come to himself, he goes into the little enclosure at the back of the tent, behind the platform. I wonder what caught his attention. His face gave nothing away but it never does when he's not working.
I pack up the rest of the props and go down the steps from the platform to join him in back, shooing away a couple of kids on the other side of the canvas. He glances at me when I come in and the corners of his lips turn up just a little. "Did you have any difficulty with the mask slipping?"
"Nope. You were right about replacing that cord. Any problems with the last fellow?"
"No. I was offered twenty dollars to explain our final trick. He said he knew that it was phony, but wanted to know the exact methodology for his own amusement. I conjecture he was shaken in his disbelief."
We exchange a look. "Did you tell him he could get the secret through the mail for five bucks from a guy in Philadelphia? Not that he'd understand even when he got it, the way you've set the trick up."
Goran grunts. "It is not my job to shore up the skepticism of small-town apothecaries, no matter how useful the social function that such men undertake." He is folding silk scarves, his big hands deft and efficient at their familiar task. He'll leave it to me to lug the gramophone back to the truck, but at least he packs up his own equipment.
We hear a noise. I turn, already knowing that it's the school teacher. I'm wondering how she got through the heavy canvas without either Goran or I noticing, when his hand settles on my forearm, gentle but strong, like a steel moth. Then I see what he saw before me.
Her eyes, the eyes of a washed-out blue, are stretched wide, and when she tries to talk, blood comes out of her mouth. Before we can catch her, she falls. Through the old-fashioned shirt-waist blouse, between her back ribs, protrudes the bone handle of a knife.
I'd been sleeping under a truck for about four months when Count Dunstan Goran, Mystic Master of the Mysteries of the Mind, made me his offer which I figure is why I said yes.
When a carnival is on the road there's no room left over for hangers-on, so I'd had to take what I could get. This year I'd started out lucky. I owned some old canvas that a showgirl had coaxed out of the boss canvasman for me and I'd bundle up in it and sleep beneath the truck that hauled the bumper cars. It was okay unless it rained so hard that the ground turned to mud or unless George, who drove the truck and ran the ride, came back from town drunk and puked too close to where he had parked. Since the weather that spring was pretty dry and since George had quickly drunk through all of his savings, most nights I'd been getting my fifty or sixty winks in before the lot stirred.
Still, it wasn't like I loved how I was living. The ground was hard beneath me and I was getting tired of going like a bear in the woods whenever the donickers were full and washing in an old bucket the fake unicorn used for his drinks. I dreamed about pot roast, potatoes, and ice cream, soft cotton sheets, hot tub baths. All in all, I was ready to hear Goran's pitch.
He had his own rig, Goran did, with a compartment in the back of his truck for his show tent to fold into. There was furniture, a stove, and a water tank in his trailer. I hadn't seen it myself, but King Kole, who'd never told a lie in all the time I knew him, had described it to me and I was prepared to take his word on the matter.
"Nice and neat back there, Sunny. He even cooks for himself and, boy, can he cook." King Kole smacked his tiny lips. It made him look like a baby catching sight of the bottle, although I'd never tell him that. "You should talk to the Count about a job. Zack, that pony punk who was working for him part-time, signed on as a ranch hand two towns ago and left him doing his own driving, which he doesn't much like. He needs some help. It would mean good grub, I can tell you that much."
"Nah. I figure if Goran can shake off a bone-head like Zack in three months, he'd only need a week to get shut of me."
Kole shrugged and let it go. The freaks were good at that, which was one reason I liked them so much. They were just about the nicest folks on the lot and the smartest, too, easy to talk with if I had a hankering to exercise my mind a little. I was social enough that my thoughts seized up if I kept them to myself for too long, so it was fun to sit around and chat with Miss Margaret the World Famous Fat Lady, or Jonesie the India Rubber Man, or King Kole the Mellifluous Midget, and work some of the stiffness out of my brains. It bucked me up for my usual round of pitching and tearing down canvas with the roustabouts or running errands for the concessionaries in order to earn some grub and java at one of the cook fires.
About the only man on the lot I'd never worked for was Count Goran. He was our mentalist and he put on a special show in the Ten-in-One tent. I'd caught his bally---the routine he'd run through on a platform next to the midway to gather a crowd---once or twice. It was really good. He didn't oil up his audience the way the magician in my first carnival had done. To tell the truth, he sometimes lost his temper with the marks but he'd be rude in so many twisty words that they were too impressed to complain. No matter the state of his temper, he'd fake reading their minds and reveal their secrets until they were putty in his hands. Goran could make some hick tell him about his girl, his hound and his Tin Lizzy, parrot it all back, and convince both the farm boy and the audience that they were hearing a revelation. By the time he went into the tent, he'd have persuaded them that he was a noble lord of the Balkans exiled from his homeland, just like it said in his ballyhoo outside, and they'd surge after him, hungry for more. Later a line would form outside his own tent of straw-hat-wearing matrons and gum-snapping girls waiting to pay for advice to the lovelorn where no one else could overhear. About all he lacked to perfect his routine was a sidekick to shield his air of arrogant mystery from the hecklers and wowsers, feed him cues, and keep his mind on his work. But, none of that was anything to do with me since I was avoiding him.
Something about his manner reminded me of the men my Uncle Jeremiah the banker used to invite to supper back home, tall elegant characters in tailored suits who would gaze coolly across Aunt Hildegard's mahogany dining room table at the bad, orphan boy before their mouths said good evening and their eyes said reform school. They were the big men of our small town and I knew that, unlike just about anyone else I ran into, their kind of trouble couldn't be bluffed or bulled through. I was careful around the men in dark suits although it did me no good in the end. The day I finally got sloppy, a State Senator I'd dined across from caught his offspring with me in his summerhouse. As a result, when I'd joined up with this show the past spring and saw Goran's silver-handled Malacca cane and clean fingernails, I'd flinched and decided to keep my distance. I should have known my wariness wouldn't stop the others in the Ten-in-One show from telling him all about me, just like they told me all about him.
Mind you, I had a more practical concern than his fancy clothes and refined ways. I'd also formed notions about his private life. You meet all sorts in a carnival and I had Goran down as one of a particular kind. I'd seen him looking and thought I knew what it meant, but four months under a truck had done a lot to change my opinion of myself.
It may have been the Jazz age, the years of the roaring economy, but that chicken in every pot and Model T in every garage had somehow overlooked my carnival and its hangers-on. No one starved but no one got rich, and the bums and runaways who followed the show missed even the handful of change that the true roustabouts got paid for all their hard work. I was the lowest of that lowly lot. I was seventeen, growing fast, and every one of my ribs stuck out. The last time we had enough piped water on our lot for me to take a bath in, we were in a town with a paper mill and even the unicorn wouldn't touch his bucket. I mulled it over.
King Kole had said the Count had a water tank and could cook. Even though Goran was big, fat, and twice as old as I was, at least he was clean and that bulk had to be built from something edible. The way he dressed, his grouch bag was as plump as he was. Fancy capes and canes don't grow on trees. Maybe I could get paid. I figured if he was really nasty someone would have said something to me. Fair folk like to gossip as much as anyone else and bad news gets around. Thin as I was, I couldn't stand to get much thinner and I had a sneaking suspicion that I smelled, although the Freaks were too nice to tell me so. How awful could it be? The last few weeks, whenever he got a snoot full, George had taken to singing Steven Foster songs off-key before upping and dumping his load next to the truck for a grand finale. It would take some doing for the Count to beat that for a disgusting half hour. What with one thing and another, by the time Goran actually spoke to me, I had finished deciding and had determined to sell my honor at a good price.
That Saturday in June we were spending the week in a town that enforced its blue laws, so the show had closed early and the lot had cleared around midnight. Now it was, strictly speaking, Sunday morning and the air was hot and still. There was almost no illumination except for the little provided by a thin moon and the occasional ripples of heat lightning in the clouds building over the hills to the west of town. My clothes were sticking to me and I was wondering if it was worth the trouble to sneak down to the brook at the bottom of the acres we were pitched on and try for a skinny dip. You could watch the green pin-point glows of the lightning bugs arc up and drift down against the trees and it looked soothing and mysterious. I thought about the cool water on my skin. More likely, though, on my way down through the bushes I would trip over some couple from the lot or, worse, some drunken would-be sheik from the town who might decide to take offense. I already knew enough about boxing to hate a fight in the dark. Also, there were likely to be mosquitoes to be reckoned with. So I was still sitting on the grass, working on a plate of gristly second-hand stew and considering the matter, when Goran came over to me, unfolded the chair he was carrying, plopped it down, and sat on it. His expression was sour, maybe because he was overflowing the chair around the edges. I chewed and watched him. It was interesting to try and guess how he'd turn his one-man tip.
"Mr. Finn." Good start: at least he hadn't called me Sunny, a lot nickname that I was very tired of. Back home they'd called me Red, but in this show that handle belonged to the gal who sold the pink lemonade without any lemons in it. "I am sure you have noticed my attention these past few days and have conjectured that I wished to make you a proposal." I took one last considering look. He was brown all over: hair, eyes, and tanned face. He had to be over two hundred pounds, but all the fat wasn't as bad as it could be, spread out nice and even like a layer of padding on his big frame. His eyes were deep-seated, bright but a little tired looking. His voice had that slight hint of Exotic Speech from Beyond the Seas that drove the farm wives wild. I'd thought it was a shuck, but, on closer hearing, maybe not.
I finished chewing my mouthful, which was quite a project, before I tried to talk. When manners have been beaten into you, they don't disappear just because you spend part of your days scooping up fake unicorn shit. "Yes, sir." Not much of a response, only enough to put the ball back in his hands.
His expression didn't change---I'd find it never changed much unless he was being paid to change it---and he sighed. "I dislike machines."
I scanned his face. Now he'd lost me. "Machines? That doesn't seem right." I thought I'd better elaborate, since he hadn't bothered to, himself. "You drive that truck and trailer all over the place."
"Yes, but I dislike it." He considered and added, "I profoundly dislike it. Machines are treacherous objects, Mr. Finn, and not to be trusted in any sort of crisis, especially when in the hands of one with no propensity for dealing with their vagaries. For that reason I prefer to pay someone else to drive me. However, none of the men I have employed thus far have proved proficient, so this past month I have been reduced to taking on the job myself. It frets my nerves, I find, and I am unable to deal with some of the caprices of the engine of the truck. I have noted that you are able to cope with mechanical whims with some flare and dispatch."
If he meant I could coax a balky engine into doing what I told it to, he was half right. I had been picking up mechanics from George in exchange for my few cash tips but I was still in the Gee-I-wonder-if-the-plugs-are-fouled stage of my education. "I know something about engines. A little something. Real little."
"That little something is more than I know, Mr. Finn. I also need an assistant for my act."
I'd finished my stew and wanted to hurry him along. It was too hot for much thinking. "Wouldn't it be more usual to get a girl to help you out?"
He just looked at me, his expression barely visible in the moonlight. Even so, it was what you'd call a speaking look. He was polite enough to women---treated them better than most of the showmen did, really---but his views on the subject were widely known and tolerated by the girls only because they considered them a cover for something else he couldn't help. I wasn't able to stop my mouth. Heck, I didn't want to stop my mouth. After all, I needed to know if we could stand each other. The grin spread out all over my face as I waited for his reaction.
He snorted. "Don't attempt sarcasm, Mr. Finn. You wouldn't wish to injure your wits, unaccustomed as they are to such sudden bursts of activity."
Not bad, but I'd heard him do a lot better atop that platform next to the midway. Still, it was a pretty mild response given what I'd just implied. He had a tight rein on himself, all right. This might be manageable. I pulled my shirt off my neck to try and let the faint breath of a breeze cool me off a little. "You thinking of paying me?"
"Ten dollars a week, along with your board, a place for you to sleep, and, if you train to earn it, a percentage of the gate based on how useful you turn out to be to the show. If it doesn't work out after a month, I'll give you twenty dollars to walk away."
I liked the fact he was keeping it business-like. It was a fair offer, even with what I assumed was the unspoken clause. "All right," I said, and stuck out a hand. He gave it a glare like I'd been cleaning an outhouse but then took it and gave it a shake. I was surprised that his soft palm was also dry and strong. I didn't know then about all the work that any magician, even a mentalist, had to do with his hands.
The breeze puffed harder, as if it had something to say about our agreement, and I frowned. Its touch was moist. "Storm coming. You got someone to pack your tent?"
His voice was dry. "George, whom I had been temporarily employing, met a scrap yard owner this evening outside the Posed Pageant of Feminine Pulchritude throughout the Ages." Goran was referring to our girlie show, one of the biggest draws of the carnival. "The man owns a still. They have retired together to the wide acres of junk and moonshine to further their acquaintanceship, which is why I decided this would be a good time to approach you." He sure liked the sound of his own voice, but I could sympathize with his mad. It's irritating to spend money and get nothing.
I stood up. "Okay. Let's go get your tent put away before you have a blow down." More physical labor wasn't what I wanted at the end of a long day, but now I had what you might call a proprietary interest and it never pays to delay packing up when a squall might be coming. Goran stood and folded his chair before picking it up and following me through the dark. All around us the lot was stirring from its post-show torpor as people noticed the horizon and got ready for the thunderstorm. We stopped for a minute to make sure the Ten-in-One folks, which included the freaks, were awake and then went on to the painted canvas tent behind his truck and trailer, easy to spot even on that dark night, with the stars and planets painted on it glinting faintly in the dim moonlight. His spot was always right on the edge of camp, almost on its own. It would have killed any other show, but since his tip was turned by his show tent performance, the privacy won customers for his readings rather than lost them.
I found out in the next half hour that he was stronger than he looked, not at all clumsy, and not averse to making his life easier by using his brains. It was purely clever the way all his tent's canvas, poles, and signs folded up to slide into the back of the truck and I didn't mind telling him so. It made the work go smooth and fast. We had everything packed up before the first strong gust of wind hit.
Goran clambered up the steps to the door of the trailer and paused to scowl at me. "What are you doing?"
"Seems to me I'm taking my clothes off, since it's coming on to rain and I need a scrub before I'm let near your furniture." That wasn't all I was doing, of course. Thus far he'd played it straight with me, so it seemed only fair to let him get a peek at what he was getting in exchange before the deal was finally closed. I was skinny, gawky and freckled, no prize. "You got any soap?"
"Yes, I do have soap." Joy: my new boss was a school marm in disguise. I was going to have to watch my grammar. He went and got his soap, which was smooth and smelled of cinnamon, and then unfolded his chair and sat himself down to scowl at me some more in the last of the moonlight.
The first few heavy drops of rain plopped on me. "You're going to get wet."
He grunted. "Mr. Finn---" A strong gust of wind blew some water on him just like I told him it would. "Mr. Finn, are you laboring under a misapprehension?"
The rain felt wonderful, cool against my skin. "You'd know that better than I would, sir."
"True. Mr. Finn--" he started again, only to be interrupted by a bright flash followed almost at the same moment by a crack of thunder. The first big wave of water hit and he was forced to retreat back into the trailer. I gave myself a fast scrub before I followed him, washing in the rain beneath a night sky lit up by lightning. A bolt struck close by, in the woods down slope, and I laughed at it. I'd made my choice, and it seemed like a fine night to be alive.
I shook some of the water out of my hair before I pulled the trailer doors closed, draped my clothes over the iron box next to me, and followed him into the much larger front room. My hair had grown too long, sissy long, and I badly needed a trim. Maybe Goran could wield a pair of scissors. He seemed like the kind who would know how. I stubbed my toe on some of the stuff piled on the floor in the dim and cussed, but I could see light around the door jam ahead of me. Goran must have a lamp lit behind the divider panel.
When I got up front, I had to stop and stare for a moment. I'd been thinking cabin and this was getting on towards resort. The upper stretch of wall was covered with cabinets, all of golden wood that glowed like buttered toast in the light from the brass lamp, and a real Turkey carpet was giving my feet a treatment. His small bed was covered by a woven silk spread and the sort of pillows you saw at the picture palace when they showed you the Sorcerer's chambers. Along one side of the tiny space I saw an ice chest and a stove, a scrap of counter, and---glory be---a hinged seat that probably covered a Necessary. In the bits of room left over, there were books on shelves. Well, we'd never die of boredom, or freeze, for that matter.
"Sit," he said to me, and pointed at the big armchair wedged in next to the foot of the bed.
"Arf," I said obligingly, sat down, and took the chance to estimate if the bed would be big enough for the both of us. I'd just decided it would depend on how much he thrashed around in his sleep when he spoke.
"You can call me Tom, or Tommy, or Red. Just not Sunny, please."
"Don't interrupt. You are not, in any case, a redhead. Your hair is auburn." He stopped and shook his head at himself, maybe an eighth of an inch in either direction, before he continued. "Tommy, I am not employing you for carnal purposes."
"Yup. I know. I'm driving and stowing, and you're going to teach me mentalism. It shouldn't be too hard: three of my aunts told me I was the spawn of the devil."
"They have my sympathies. I have the distinct feeling you do not believe me." The breath puffed out of him. "You could help by putting your trousers back on."
"They're wet. I left them in the back, so they wouldn't drip on your living quarters."
"I appreciate your consideration. I would also appreciate your showing some faith in my consideration. You are, perhaps, sixteen years of age?"
"No, seventeen." I was indignant, but it wasn't entirely his fault. Like I've noted several times, I hadn't been eating well that year. I thought it would speed matters up if I prodded him a little. "I'm not a virgin, if that's what's worrying you."
His eyes squeezed shut, and his lips pushed out a little as if he'd tasted something sour. "You amaze me not at all. However, the details of your private life are yours alone. You may hoard them to amuse yourself with in your old age; there is no need to waste them on me now." He was well underway. When I tried to reply, he pointed one finger at me and wiggled it. The resemblance to Miss McCreavy, my Sunday School teacher, was close enough to stop me dead. "Perhaps additional details of my plans will convince you. If we store my props correctly in the back of the truck, enough room should be cleared to fit a small mattress into the trailer's rear area. Laying out the mattress on two trunks turned on their sides and adding a lantern will give you an approximation of a room of your own, and spare me the necessity of discovering if you snore."
"No, sir, I don't. Do you?" I tilted my head at him, looked through my lashes, and wondered if he was serious.
He squeezed his eyes shut again. Even then, so soon in our acquaintanceship, I had some notion of what he was thinking. Show tent. Trailer. Truck. Machines. "It is possible but unlikely. Do you need something to eat before we consider how best to rearrange my props?"
That was the magic question, all right. I figured things would take care of themselves when the time came and turned my attention to more important matters, possibly something nice in the way of a sandwich. It was early days, so I underestimated him. He lit the tiny stove and fixed me up a well stuffed omelet. I almost argued when the jam went in, but was glad I'd kept my mouth shut when I tasted the results. He made a second one for himself and we split the third. The way I tackled my food mellowed him considerably, and he got downright cheerful when I lugged the dishes outside to take advantage of the rain before it quit. By the time he'd shown me how the tank on the trailer could collect rain water as well as water from a hose, and we'd finished shifting his stuff, I was too tired to care what happened next. As it turned out, it was a cleaned-up me curled up in the back of the trailer on some cushions with a couple of blankets, a darn sight better than dirt, canvas, and the ground, any way you look at it.
I spent Sunday morning sleeping and Sunday afternoon with my butt sticking out of the engine compartment of the truck. Goran wasn't there to appreciate it. He'd gotten a ride into town to go shopping. When he returned it was with more food, a mattress, and some toiletries. He surveyed me lightly basted in grease, widened his eyes, and shuddered. No appreciation to be found there. I have to admit I didn't much care. He loaned me a dollar and a dressing gown, so I could get my clothes cleaned by one of the jointees who did laundry, showed me how to rig the outside shower, and cut my hair. It was his contribution to a serene and sanitary life, he said. Late that evening, he sat us down and started teaching me how to read minds.
Rough doesn't begin to describe what I went through in the days that followed. It's a matter of professional ethics among magicians not to broadcast specifics, so I can't go into too many details except to say that Goran showed me his tools and tricks and patiently explained how they worked several times over. Then he gave me my first drills: exercises for my hands, eyes, wit, and memory.
Working my brains harder than I ever thought I could, I learned just enough to keep him teaching me and tossing me the tiniest occasional bits of praise. He was relentless and fussy, but I didn't grudge it. I didn't ever want to be standing on a stage with nothing to help me out but a stupid grin on my face and a sick feeling in my belly. Growing up with folks like our audiences, I knew how little it took to make them turn carnivorous. Only practice would save me then, the kind of practice that would give me three solutions to any problem.
I told Goran this and he snorted. "Nothing can safeguard you against sheer bad luck but you are correct in assuming that knowledge and skill can minimize the damage that follows hard upon disaster." He leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes at me. "You'll never be a truly great technician. You began too late and you don't have the temperament. That doesn't really matter, though. How a trick is received depends as much on a magician's presentation as his content." His chin bobbed slightly. "You think well upon your feet and you are shameless. Eventually it will suffice you."
Some of what went into being a mentalist's assistant was obvious, like having to go into town the morning we arrived to pick up as many back dates as I could find of the local newspaper, but some of it was surprising. A few of the things I had to do were both surprising and annoying.
I hadn't contemplated having to wear a costume, for example. Magician's assistants always wear silly clothes on stage, but somehow I'd assumed I'd get to skip that part of the job because I was a boy. I was wrong, of course. From one of his cupboards Goran came up with a puffy-sleeved linen shirt, a green leather vest cinched with black silk cords, black velvet pants, pointy shoes, a long, hooked knife in a scabbard on a belt, a black cap, and a wig. I could cope with the clothes, and I liked the knife, but the wig was ridiculous. When I tried everything on and caught a good look at myself in the mirror in the trailer, I balked.
"Why do I have to wear this?" Goran may have been the boss, but I'd never worn a wig in my life and I wanted a good reason why before I started.
"There are three justifications that you should find sufficient. First, the wig is part of your costume. As you well know, our customers pay as much for spectacle as skill, and this garb is both exotic and appropriate for your coloring. Second, you will be loitering in the crowds before shows to gather information, and the wig distracts onlookers from remembering your ordinary appearance. Third and last, while the wig may offend your sense of what is appropriate, it is not otherwise burdensome, and I, who pay you, have requested that you wear it."
I rolled my eyes. "I have to admit I can't argue with any of that but the first part of the third reason." I put the wig on and perched the cap on top of it. It itched. I'd known it would. I scratched, then tried walking around and almost tripped over my pointy shoes when I caught the knife on the armchair.
Goran allowed himself to sigh. "Would you like for me to teach you something of how to manage a knife?"
Well, that was fair enough payment for me shutting up about the clothes. "Yes, sir."
"It may keep you from accidentally amputating a limb."
"You're just worried about having to drive the truck again."
"Of course. I see we understand each other, Tommy." His tone was bland but the corners of his lips quirked up just a touch.
Hyattsville to Zanestown, Zanestown to Broken Creek, Broken Creek to Camberly: the show's trucks would arrive on the spot early in the morning, we'd pitch the canvas and raise the lights, put on three days or a week's worth of shows for the jostling crowds, and then tear down and drive through the night to the next town. Usually it's the move a Carny hates, but I got to like it. Goran's clever tent design let us pack up fast and get on the road early, where I'd watch the asphalt flow through the dim circles of the headlights and he'd watch first the dark and then me, back and forth. He was never altogether comfortable when we were driving, but he worked it out by talking to me about whatever caught his fancy: Greek poets, how to spot a card player cheating, the life cycle of nations, grifters who claimed to be psychics, or women's skirts and the stock market. There didn't seem to be a limit to what he could go on about. He'd never skip finding out what thoughts I had in my head if I hadn't already made my opinions clear while he was jawing. I knew, to his way of thinking, he was only making sure I stayed awake, but it was as good an education as the years of school I'd missed.
Not that he was easy to live with otherwise. He was a snob, self-centered, and almost as smart as he thought he was, all of which I found to be an ongoing torment to my temper. Sometimes we'd fight, and I'd stalk off and spend the day or the night at another tent, usually over with the Freaks at the Ten-in-One. Once in a while I had other opportunities, as well. Since he had ignored me, I considered myself at liberty to sweet talk the girls in the review. A couple of them took pity on my youth and I learned some things there, too. No matter what, though, I always made sure to be back in time for our shows. He'd grunt and pretend nothing much had passed between us if we were still mad, or make some long-winded but pretty acknowledgement of my presence if we'd both cooled off, and then we'd face another night's worth of the crowds surging down the midway.
When King Kole asked me how things were going I was forced to admit the going was good. It was another dead Sunday evening and we were all playing poker, Jonesie, Frank the head canvasman, Tex the trick roper, Robbie who talked for the girlie show, and I. Kole didn't play---his hands were too small to manage the deck to his satisfaction---but he liked to hang around for the company and the food. I had a standing invitation to the game, now that I had some cash to spare and could contribute my share of grub and bootleg beer to the table. I could enjoy the chatter and increase my savings by never drawing to an inside straight, both at the same time. At least, that was my theory of what should go on. Well, my grip wasn't getting much smaller and I got to hear all the show gossip sitting down.
"The new act working out?" Kole persisted, still looking up from his copy of the American Mercury.
"What, you didn't catch my stage début as The Sixth-Sense Kid? The crowd ate it up, if I do say so myself. The Count was pleased, too. I had steak for dinner the next day." In red wine sauce with mushrooms, roasted corn on the side, but there was no sense rubbing it in. Besides, Tex had the deal and I had a shot at filling out four of a kind. I scratched the table twice with my cards. "Draw, pardner."
"Two for the man with the x-ray eyes. Better not have them turned on, Sunny." Tex rolled the cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other as he dealt me my cards. A three of hearts and a seven of spades, darn it.
"You're mistaking me for the Count. I could have brought him along but he's too busy eating olives and cheese while snarling at some novel about Spanish bullfighters to reveal to you the Mysteries of the Unseen World. Besides, he'd clean you out and I want your money all for myself."
The guys hooted and jeered. Kole nodded as if I'd answered another one of his questions before he went back to his reading with an obscure little smile on his lips. I didn't pay much attention at the time. Jonesie had drawn one card, which, knowing him, meant he was trying to fill in either a flush or straight. From the way his eyelashes were flickering, he hadn't made it, and that was good news for me.
I ended the evening three dollars and a few too many beers ahead. When the game broke up, I went to the donickers, to relieve some pressure before I went home. The night was crisp and a fat, orange, harvest moon was rising. The moonlight made me feel lively, as ready to go hunting as a tom cat on a fence. I hummed a little song about the moon I'd heard on the radio in a drugstore a few towns back, then tried singing, filling in fa-las where I couldn't remember the words.
"Hey, Sunny." Kole's small shadow was unmistakable in the dark.
"Good evening." I reached to tip my hat before I realized I didn't have one any more. "Nuts," I added, vaguely. "Was I off-key?"
Kole chuckled. "Do you want to come over for a cup of coffee before you head back to your trailer?"
I felt sheepish. "Good idea, huh?"
"Yup." I slowed down so Kole wouldn't have to trot to keep up with me. He shared a trailer with Miss Margaret, our fat lady, which made sense in terms of space.
When we came in, she was knitting. She beamed at me but didn't bother to get up. It would have demanded too much of an effort. Kole bustled around and got the coffee. The counter was built low. I guess he did the cooking.
I took the steaming cup and sat down on Miss Margaret's foot stool.
"Good evening, Sunny," Miss Margaret said, her voice warm. "It's nice to see you again."
Maybe it was the beers that made me say it. "Would you mind terribly calling me Tommy? I never felt all that sunny, to be frank."
"Appearances can be deceiving, it's true," she said placidly. She checked her knitting, which looked to be a kid's sweater. It was probably meant for Kole. "Here's your coffee."
There was a pause while I sipped and waited for my head to stop swimming. Kole got out his copy of the Mercury again and leafed. Goran had taught me how to relax enough not to need to chatter, so I didn't talk until I'd emptied my cup. "Thank you both kindly, but I have to be getting along."
Miss Margaret smiled at me and Kole waved a hand. As I was about to leave, Miss Margaret picked up a ball of wool and said, "Tommy?"
"There was a man on the lot tonight, looking for someone who almost fit your description. No one recalled anyone quite like who he was searching for, though."
I felt my skin prickle. "Thank you, Miss Margaret."
She shrugged, massively. "We take care of our own when we can, you know that. But, I wouldn't rely on it to carry you past a serious monetary crisis or a shortage of bootleg liquor on the lot, if I were you."
"Yeah, thanks," I said, and left. Between the coffee and the news, my former mood was pretty much dead. I was so preoccupied that I got almost entirely across the lot before I realized that all the coffee had done was left me a wide-awake drunk. I didn't much like the sensation. It didn't help my balance, either. When I got into the back of the trunk, I kicked over a box, trying to light my lantern.
The door in the divider opened. "Tommy?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I had some beer."
His tone was dry. "Rather too much, I can tell. Apparently, you can tell that as well, so there is no sense in badgering you."
I stood up, stepped forwards, and tripped over the same darn box. He managed to catch me before I bashed out my brains on the divider wall. We lurched together and then he set me back onto my feet. I weaved a little, blinking, trying to sort out the mixture of messages: soft fat over hard muscle, fine cloth, a touch of bay rum.
For a long moment he stood there, but the light was behind him so I couldn't see his expression. "Good night," he said, finally.
"Good night, sir," I said, belatedly. There was something else I wanted to say, but I couldn't figure out what it was before he shut the door. I shrugged and then sat down on my bed in the dark to take off my shoes.
Between my new work and my active social life, time seemed to speed up. I hardly noticed when the days got shorter and the nights longer, and we turned the trucks south. Our show had a very long circuit that started early in March and went late into November, but even this route came to an end each year. Finally I realized we were about as far south as we would go and started wondering what I was going to do when the show closed for the winter. The previous year I had stayed with my first show when it barnstormed south of the border, but that had been very hard. At one point I thought I and the rest of the Carnies were going to be stuck in Mexico forever before a delegation led by our strong man called on the manager and convinced him his future lay with us and not with the local senorita he was romancing with the carnival funds. I didn't want to hook up with my old outfit again, but I didn't want to pick fruit, either, which is what I'd spent the final month of my last winter doing.
It never occurred to me that Goran would keep me with him through the off season. I don't know why since there were days when it seemed we'd been on the road together before I'd been born and that the rest of my life would be defined by the fierce focus of being fed answers in front of a wary crowd and the spice-with-a-touch-of-oil smell of the trailer. Even so, I was taken by surprise when he said, "I will loan you the book you need when we reach my house, and you can answer your own question. You do not read enough." I let it pass, though, thinking it might have been a slip on his part. Two weeks later, it came up again. "You may wish to replace your shoes this winter. There is an adequate shoe store in San Juan Patamos, where we will be living."
That time I asked. "You want me to winter over with you?"
He pursed his lips and his eyebrows went up, very slightly. "Do you expect me to overhaul this rig myself?"
It was as much of an invitation as I would ever get, I knew. "That would be pretty hilarious, yeah." I had to look to one side and blink a little to get the dust out of my eyes.
Later that night, as I lay in my cot absent-mindedly moving my fingers through one of my drills, I realized that my mood was getting between me and my sleep. I chased the unfamiliar emotion around in my head for a while, meaning to tell it to shut up so I could get some rest. In the dark, the door in the divider was open a little to let the night air circulate, and if I strained my ears I could hear Goran sleeping. I'd learned he didn't snore, he sort of breathed with character. Listening to him, I finally put a name to my feeling. I felt safe. After shaking my head and calling myself three kinds of a fool, I rolled over and dozed off.
When the camp finally broke up it was a melancholy evening for me. I had collected friendships, kisses, and poker winnings enough to feel sentimental about our outfit. I went to the Ten-in-One Tent and the Review to say my goodbyes before I returned to the truck. Goran was giving one last private reading in his mystic tent, and I passed a plump and thoughtful-seeming middle-aged lady on her way out. When I entered, he paused in taking off his turban long enough to snort, "Women," before he stood up and stretched. I'd never seen him do that before. He seemed to gain two inches in height.
When we hit the road that night, we turned west. By the time the night paled we were into the true desert, and the road beneath the grey light of dawn was a ruler-straight black line to the horizon. Goran's voice was almost dreamy as he discussed the men who had fanned out across the Bad Lands building the railroads and the mines, leaving their bones in the dry lakes and arroyos. We slept the next morning in a hotel in a small town strung out along a river lined with cottonwoods. I enjoyed the first indoor shower I'd seen in months. When we went out for our dinner at a nearby diner, the heat was like a blow with an Indian club. I tugged at my collar, and Goran looked me over and scowled. "Your...clothes."
I flushed. He didn't have to sound like that, but he did have the right of it. "I know. I have the money now, but we've never been in one place long enough for me to buy anything decent."
He dipped his chin about an eighth of an inch and said, "I should have taken that difficulty into account. I know of a restaurant in this town that I would not mind trying again, and there are haberdasheries and department stores here, as well. We'll stay for a day or two."
He left me alone for most of my shopping but insisted on coming along to buy me a suit. It seems he'd decided it was too much trouble for him to park me each time he wanted to visit some fancy eating place, so I'd have to be dressed right to tag along. I refrained from pointing out that I was now an adult and could take care of myself. After all, my eighteenth birthday had come and gone unacknowledged, since I had never confessed the date to him, and this would serve in place of the present I could have gotten.
When we came in together, me commenting on his reaction to the two Model Ts and the sleeping dog that made up the traffic on the street outside, I noticed the soft-speaking man who sold suits smiled at us both sweetly for no good reason that I could see. I cast a look at Goran to inquire if I'd somehow gotten egg on my face but he ignored me, so I rolled my eyes and let him and the salesman show me how the suit jacket should rest across my shoulders and fit around my neck. Goran, with a wary air, let me pick out my own tie. I grinned at his surprise when I chose the sort of dark, striped item that the guests at my uncle's table had always worn. It struck me as dull, but I was learning you wear the costume that's right for the show you're putting on.
After an afternoon of his tutoring, with pencils substituting for knives and forks, he took me out to what he called an adequate restaurant. Looking back, I'm surprised I made it back to the hotel without falling forward flat onto my face. I never ate so much at a single sitting in my life, and half of it I didn't even have names for. When the food had worked down a little, and Goran had showed me how to stow my new suit with the minimum of damage, we hit the road again and drove through the night to miss the worst of the desert heat.
Two more day's driving brought us to the Pacific Ocean. I had never seen that much water in one place and I kept stealing peeks out the side window at it until Goran said, "Pull over."
"I can wait---"
"Every meeting has its moment and this seems to be yours. There is a turn-out up ahead."
I didn't blame him. The road was a tricky one, clinging to a narrow strip of man-made land between the cliffs and the sea. In places it jostled with the railroad tracks for the fifty feet of room available. For Goran, the drive must have been bad enough without me being distracted. He got out of the truck and strode to the edge of the rocks that fell off into the ocean, drawing several deep breaths along the way. I joined him, taking my time, gawping at the crumbling cliffs decorated here and there with the rocking wooden beams of oil derricks, the seagulls dodging and cussing and having a high old time, and the waves below us throwing themselves against the big slope of boulders, refusing to be intimidated by the Southern Pacific Railroad and its entire works. I peered into the wind.
"So...Nippon is, uh, that way?" I stuck a finger out towards the horizon.
He waved in a direction about fifty degrees off from where I had been pointing, between the coastline and the lowering sun. "No, that way. Your proposed route would miss both Japan and China and leave you adrift somewhere in the Dutch East Indies."
"Oh." When I'd been a boy, I'd always wanted to ship out on a tramp steamer and see Europe or join the navy and sail with the White Fleet beyond the western seas. What I'd seen instead was a lot of the U.S. of A., mostly the flatter and more boring parts. "I've never been overseas."
"I was born in Europe and have traveled---" Goran paused. He was usually about as forthcoming about his true history as a moving pictures star, and after the first few words that time was no exception. "I have seen a great deal of the world and I prefer this country."
I cocked one eyebrow at him. "I must have missed the really nice stuff."
"No doubt. Now that you have some salable skills you can correct that omission at your leisure."
He had a point: the last half year had made me something of an apprentice mentalist, taught me how to drive and tend a truck and trailer, and fixed my manners, my wardrobe, and my physique back up. Goran would probably write me a character reference. If I took off on my own, now I wouldn't have to choose between starving and rotting as some kind of hired hand or casual labor. I owed Goran a lot, but I figured there was no sense getting soppy about it. With my help, he hadn't had to touch anything more mechanical than a can opener in months---I'd even taken over refilling his precious stove for him---so it wasn't like this was a one-sided deal.
I squared my shoulders and took one last good look at the water stretching out towards the far side of the world, then went back to the truck. When I pulled us back onto the road, I kept my eyes strictly on the highway.
San Juan Patamos, sitting in a break in the Coast Ranges where a discouraged-looking river makes it from the desert to the sea, was built as a market town for the farms in the river valley and a handful of fishing boats that took advantage of the doubtful protection the hills and bluffs gave the beaches. When the railroad came through the summer people came with it, and the past few decades had added, to the original Spanish and Victorian buildings, a breakwater, a pier, seaside hotels, penny arcades, numerous speakeasies, and a lot of souvenirs made out of seashells. To the north of the town, the countryside seemingly hadn't changed since before the Spanish arrived. To the south of the town, all the dreamers and restless souls from the rest of the country were beginning to pile up into cities. San Juan Patamos was stuck somewhere in the middle of everything.
"Before oil was discovered, this land we now drive through was all owned by spiritualists who intended to build a community in which the dead would be truly welcome," Goran told me. "They finished their city on a hill but it ended up welcoming oil derricks instead of old souls. The next stretch of coastline still belongs to the children of a manufacturer---of pneumatic bicycle tires I believe---who came west and married the sole survivor of the oldest and stubbornest of the local Spanish ranching families. He has preserved the citrus and cattle on his thousands of acres, and added grape vines and olive trees. My fellow town folk insist that his children are all pagans, but I think they may only be half Cypriots."
"Foreigners." We were stuck behind a farm truck filled with crates of lemons. It was making me thirsty.
"Yes. Like myself. All this is typical of the entire county. You will find, in San Juan Patamos, that the usual small town mentality is diluted by equal parts corruption, artistic pretension, and a wide-spread determination to obtain the most from a short vacation. I trust this description will assist you in your usual quest to simultaneously defy all available authority and romp through the meadows of Arcadia." He was being snide, so he was probably enjoying himself. "My property is paid for and I am considered to be a respectable, tax-paying citizen. Please attempt not to free any of the locals from this delusion. You may mention my name to the police if it proves necessary. I will give you the addresses of a few of the safer bootleggers. The fishing in the streams of the coast ranges is said to be especially fine."
I sighed dramatically as the wheels of our rig riffled over the bridge towards the town on the other side of the river. It annoys him when anyone but him sighs. "Gee, I already feel right at home."
His voice was dry but the corners of his lips were slightly pulled back. "Good. Then you can clean out the bedroom I have in mind for your use and dispose of the resultant mess."
It was my need to concentrate on getting the truck and trailer safely through the traffic along the waterfront and past the pier that shut me up, not my failure to annoy him. In any case, he didn't give me much else to work with but driving directions. About half a mile past the harbor, where the town's main street began to climb and curve away from the beach, we turned onto a road built along a stream course meandering up into the hills. He took me around a few bends and then told me to pull over to the side of the pavement and park.
I slid down the side window, took a good look, and then looked again. It was a necessary effort. "Holy smokes. Who built that?"
It was like nothing I'd ever seen in my home town. The garden was jam-packed with leafy trees, fuzzy trees, fronded trees, and huge masses of cascading shrubs that I would later learn to call bougainvillea, hibiscus, and jasmine. The house was crazier than the garden. Too much was going on in too small a space. All in all, the place seemed to have been designed for Zorro by Maxfield Parrish after his fourth or fifth shot of bad hooch in a speakeasy just outside of Baghdad.
I think my jaw dropped. Goran noticed my reaction, of course. "The house was commissioned by a disgruntled, if newly affluent, refugee from the spiritualistic community down the coast. It was a female, of course. She claimed the architect was her spirit guide, a medieval Spanish gypsy minstrel named Paco." I don't know how he kept a straight face over that one. "She died just before I arrived in this town and her house and its furnishings were auctioned off by the executors. The property was amazingly cheap."
"Yup, I bet it was." What was that on the roof at the far end of the left wing-a summer house? No, a gazebo with a widow's walk. And that object on the central tower, on top of the turret, was a weather vane with an iron chicken on it.
"Because of the space, it is easy to rent out parts of the property without constantly tripping over the year-round residents." His tone was getting petulant, so I stopped sharing my amazement and asked him where to put the rig, instead.
After leaving the truck and trailer parked next to a well-used Model A on a big slab of macadam behind the former stables of El Cid, I got out, picked up our bags, and followed Goran past the orange trees in pots without another word. When we rounded the building, a little man with a set of clippers was meditatively chopping away on a glossy green shrub in front of a statue. I blinked at the petrified naked guy caught having fun on the pedestal and then turned my attention to the gardener. At least, I took him for hired help until Goran said with what was, for him, exuberant warmth, "Saul. I see you are well. Thank you for lending a hand with the pruning."
Putting the bags down, I wondered how Goran could tell anything had changed in the middle of this jungle.
Saul was middle-aged and as wrinkled as his suit, with skin like leather and features that could have been purchased down at any five and dime. All that stuck out about him was the big nose. Goran actually shook his hand, though, so Saul was more of a force to be reckoned with than he'd seemed at first glance.
"I enjoy working in the garden, Mr. Goran. It helps me think. Everything go well on the road this year?"
"Yes, thank you. Saul, this is Tom Finn, who I have employed as my assistant and driver." Saul's lips twitched a little at my name, but he murmured something polite. "Tommy, this is Saul Panzer. He is a photographer and leases the former stables for both his studio and living quarters."
Now I understood why he seemed to fade into the background. It must help him at weddings, funerals, and fires. Saul and I shook hands and took the chance for a second, closer look. He had a good grip and his grey eyes seemed even sharper near to than at a distance. He smiled a little, let go, and told Goran, "Marko Vukcic has been watching for you to return." His gaze flicked over to me and he added for my benefit, "Marko's the other resident here."
"A friend from the old country, a chef, and the owner of a local bistro, who has lived here for many years," Goran elaborated. "He recommended San Juan Patamos to me and then moved into my house when his latest wife ejected him. You may enjoy each other's company."
I opened my mouth. Then, conscious of the presence of someone who was, at least to me, company, I settled on, "Mmm," uttered in a nice, interested tone of voice like I'd use to one of Goran's lady customers outside of his tent.
"He's installed those extra bookcases in the great hall and wants to know what you'll be putting on them," Saul said.
"Tommy will be cleaning out the nearer bedroom for his use," Goran said placidly, in a tone about two-fifths of the way to earning him a kick in the keaster. "What time is it, Tommy?"
I had been reaching for the bags, but I stopped and pulled up my new sleeve to examine the wrist watch he had given me just so he could drive me crazy by refusing to check his repeater. "Half three."
"Humph. Time to start dinner, I think. Good afternoon, Saul." He marched off into the jungle, leaving me to scramble after him. I took enough time to make it dignified and nearly fell into the lily pond as a result.
We'd made it into the entrance hall, which stretched idiotically and impressively all the way up to the top of the central tower, before Goran said, "The left wing is ours, the right wing is Marko's and the tower, as you can see, is shared by all the residents." There wasn't much in the tower to share but banners, tiles, a minstrel gallery, the new bookcases, and a grand staircase at the back. Goran headed left, through a large archway into a hall lined on one side by bottle glass windows and on the other side by doors. There was another nice carpet underfoot for the entire length of the hall, and I wondered if Goran had made some of his money as a rug merchant.
Half way down the hall we climbed a more sensible staircase to an ordinary-looking hallway along the upper story. We had doubled back towards the central tower and passed two doors before Goran paused and opened a third. I went inside, snorted, and set down the bags. It was mostly books, of course. The room was jammed with them, balanced in teetering piles on the furniture, the floors, and the trunks full of god-knows-what. I slowly turned in a complete circle.
"My rooms are next door," Goran said, moving his chin about a half-an-inch to the right. It was intended to be a diversionary maneuver.
He knew darn well what he was pulling. If there was a man happier to let someone else do the chores outside the kitchen, I'd yet to meet him. He'd probably only given me that particular bedroom so I'd be the one to shift his precious books onto the new cases he'd had built for them, rather than some hired help he didn't know well enough to badger properly.
I heaved up most of the bags, ignoring the connecting door since it was barricaded by the fat leather-bound volumes of something called the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and stomped back into the hall. Outside of his bedroom door, I set the bags down on the hall carpet and gave him a stare.
"Where are the cleaning supplies, sir?"
His eyebrows raised a touch. "You do not need to scrub. There is a man, Mr. Sanchez, who comes in every day with help to take care of such matters. We share his services with Marko and Saul."
"That's not going to do me much good this evening."
"If you shift the books off the bed, will that not suffice you for the one night?" He pursed his lips. "You may have to drive me into town to purchase vegetables, milk, and bread, unless someone was kind enough to gift us with such necessities."
"I'm going to have to shift most of the books in that room before I can get any sleep tonight. They look shaky to me and, as a certain someone described to me at great length on the road between Wolftrap and Prairie Rest, the Pacific Coast is earthquake country. If I'm crushed to death, let me remind you, I can't overhaul the truck this winter." I took a deep breath. "Okay, forget the cleaning supplies. How about a shovel?"
His glare was almost worth it.
All things taken together, I'd have to say that winter was about the happiest of my young life. Goran continued my training in mentalism, dispatched me on errands, and raised his eyebrows at me whenever he could find an excuse to do it. Otherwise, he spent most of his time, except for the four hours every day that he practiced in his workroom, reading or eating. Now I knew why he was fat, which I had wondered about, given all the work to be done on the road. Saul taught me how to use a camera and helped me with the truck. Marko, who turned out to be something of a chaser under his jolly European exterior, took me around to the kind of places my mother would have regretted seeing me in and showed me where trout could be found in the ranges stacking up behind the town.
I learned plenty although there were still lots of mysteries left to puzzle over as I stood with my rod and my reel, thigh deep in those cold, mountain streams. Neither Goran nor Marko was telling any stories about the past, and I was too worried about some of my own memories to dig. Something about the household was askew. I never saw a woman on that property, but I never saw anyone else visit for fun, either. I couldn't make all the contents of the house cost out equal to the sum of money I knew the Count earned, even though that was a goodly amount. And, finally, I didn't know why I was lingering. It was a big world outside of San Juan Patamos, and I hadn't seen nearly as much of it as I wanted. More important, there was the danger that I hadn't told Goran, or anyone else, about. It was still out there, hunting for me. The smart thing to do would have been to break my trail again.
I was a carny and I knew all about leaving. It wouldn't have been out of character to say I wanted to sight-see for a month or two and then just not come back. There were days when I was nervous enough to wonder why I didn't pack up and go. There were other days when I knew darn well what was penning me up inside that crazy household.
He sure got on my nerves. Some days, he annoyed me merely by breathing, even before he unpacked any of his unlimited conceit. I'd storm out of that Spanish Influenza of a house and walk the two miles down to the beach, cussing under my breath the whole way. The other dancers at the ballroom on the pier must have wondered why I showed up so mad so often, even though an evening on the floor, flirting with the gals and jostling with the guys would cure me every time. But, however much I loved the movement and what the music whispered to me, however much I enjoyed what could happen afterwards on summer porches turned cool in winter or in the backseat of jalopies parked on dirt roads high in the hills, it wasn't enough to satisfy me.
Ever since I was a kid I'd hungered for something dangerous to break the chains my home town wanted to put on me, something to free me from the sensible, decent life they claimed I should desire, something that wouldn't steal my liberty. At the same time, another part of me yearned for something unswerving and close, something dependable I felt I'd lost early on, maybe when my folks died. Finally, during a thunderstorm, I'd found the secret I'd been looking for. But, all the excitement and the rigor, all the color and the care, all that magic swirled around the fat, obnoxious showman next to me in the center of the storm. And neither Count Dunstan Goran, Mystic Master of the Mysteries of the Mind, nor I, Thomas Finn, Masked Macedonian Youth and carny extraordinaire, wanted to be the one who admitted what was happening.
Not that I was fool enough to break the sweet deal I'd found, just because I didn't want to jaw it to death. I still had a problem, though. I'd known back at the beginning the best way to cinch our bargain. It had been easy for me to blab about back then, when it meant nothing. Now it wasn't easy at all.
He knew what we were avoiding, too. Twice in the middle of one of our after-dinner conversations and once during an argument he'd stopped and considered me, his brown eyes half-shuttered. I'd seen him almost tell me something, and I'd seen him swallow it whole. I'd also seen him pick out other words, ones that would make me go away and leave him alone with whatever truce he'd signed with himself. He never managed to get those words out. Instead, he'd fall silent and look at me, and I'd look back at him as mute as he was. Sure, I thought he'd signed about as smart a treaty as the one the Allies came up with at Versailles, but it was his choice to make. At least, that was what I told myself in the night, when I lay awake in my bed staring up at the ceiling.
When I finally got up the nerve to ask about Goran, I didn't go to him and I didn't talk to Marko. Instead, I went and found Saul. He was by the fountain, walking back and forth between a big box camera on spindly wooden legs and a rose bush. After tweaking a blossom, he'd go and put his head under the cloth hanging off the back of the camera, pull it out and squint, and walk over to fuss with the bush some more. I sat down on the rim of the fountain and waited until he was satisfied and squeezed the shutter bulb. Then, still frowning at the roses, he asked, "So, what brings you down here today, Tommy?"
All right, I admit I might have squirmed a little. I know I cleared my throat, just once. It was enough to make him pivot and study me until a sardonic expression spread across his features. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out his cigarette case, removed one of the Pharaohs within, and lit it with a match from a box emblazoned with the name of Marko's restaurant. He didn't offer me one, and I didn't ask. They smelt like something you put on a field to help the corn. He'd taken a couple of puffs and blown two long streams of smoke from his nostrils before I finally got my voice working.
"Saul, how long have you known the Count?"
"Long enough not to take the title seriously, bud."
"Yeah, I figured that one out." My shoes were pretty interesting. They could use a shine.
"Okay." He came over and perched on the fountain rim next to me. "We met during the Great War when I was with the A.E.F. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I don't know." I didn't have to check to see how he took that. I got a grip on my nerves. "How come he isn't married?"
He took another puff and blew out more smoke, from his mouth this time. "He doesn't like to be touched. You've noticed that. It's kind of hard to be married and not touch someone."
I took a deep breath and got it out. "Is it that he don't like being touched, or that he don't like women touching him?" Christ, I'd blurted it out like some kid and mangled my grammar to boot. Why didn't I just fall over backwards into the fountain and cap my performance by drowning? I could feel myself flushing.
"Tommy, he doesn't trust anyone that way, especially not himself. As for the touching---" he paused to sigh and crush out his cigarette before he field-stripped it and put the remnants in a pocket. It was a very long pause and, by the end of it, I was giving him a side-long look. "Do you know why you're asking me this and not Marko?"
Now I did. I nodded my head.
"All right. If we're talking 'like', it's women he runs from. If we're talking 'trust', it's everyone he runs from. Understand?"
"Good, because there's a long, a very long, chance that you might be able to hunt him down. I assume that's why you're asking?"
"Yup. Maybe. I don't know."
He looked at me and shook his head. "That grin of yours is going to get your face rearranged some day, you know that."
"Not if I see them coming first, it won't." Another worry struck me, right between the eyes. "Hey, Saul?"
"Yeah?" I'd learned his smile could be deceiving, as falsely tender as he was truly tough, but I liked it anyhow. I could admit that, now.
"Am I trying to shoot your fields, here?"
I got the sardonic look again. "Not at all, bud. You're not my idea of the Sunday venison on a big China platter and neither is he." His eyes on me were approving but cool. He wasn't trying to hide anything. "There's enough overlap that no one has to worry, but I'm hunting in a wilder part of the forest."
So, I had reasons to be grateful and I was. It was still time to settle one thing, though. "My name's Ar---Tommy, not bud, Saul."
He hiked up one corner of his mouth.
"I didn't end up liking the last fellow who called me that."
"Fair, and discrete, enough. You're going to fit right in to this house of secrets, Tommy."
"Nuts. That's what I'm worried about."
He snorted a laugh, reached over, and mussed up my hair. I let him have it in the ribs in exchange but not hard. After that, he made me wait while he fetched a sheet of silver-painted cardboard and taught me on how to tilt it around, so it changed the way the light fell on the rosebush. The information came cheap at the price.
Now that I had my advice, what was I going to do with it? As it turned out, I ignored it. A few more weeks passed and the days got longer. I finished overhauling the truck and had my work double-checked by a mechanic from town. Goran called me into his workroom to watch his latest tricks and to learn my part in their presentation. Marko gave me a sealed deck of clean cards and a hunting knife for myself and a bottle of real brandy to keep for Goran. Soon it was time to go back on the road, and I still hadn't made up my mind. I'm not one to dither, but I was one to leap without looking, usually straight into trouble, so my hesitation was unusual. I'm still not sure if I was being chicken or if I had finally learned some common sense. In the end, it made no difference either way.
When we rejoined our show, the first spot was a rolling field of mud still blotched by patches of dirty snow. The air had enough of a bite in it that I was glad of my new jacket. While Goran went off to talk with the lot manager, I wandered around to see who was with the outfit this year. I didn't try to hide my pleasure when I learned that King Kole and the rest of the Ten-in-One gang had decided to come back. I was a lot less pleased when I found that the posing show was a new outfit, which meant starting that part of my social life all over again.
I resumed my routine tending the truck, chasing the girls half-heartedly, and playing poker on Wednesday nights. When we went to town, I shopped and saw pictures or dropped by the post office to pick up our mail forwarded by The Billboard. I enjoyed all of it as I did it. But, it was the times with Goran, up in front of the crowds, that made my heart beat faster.
Our last day in Carlyle, I picked up a letter addressed to my new name in a familiar handwriting. Her return address had changed. I opened it up and started reading through the sheets of fancy stationary. She had gotten married and would have to stop writing; he was ever so jealous, even of her own dear relatives. I shook my head at that and skimmed through the gossip from my home town. Then I hit a passage that made me suddenly feel the chill. I went back and re-read it slowly. He wanted to know everything about me. She'd tried to hold him off, but she'd finally admitted that I was on the carnival circuit although she couldn't quite remember the name of my show. Wasn't that funny? Men were so adorable when they got jealous. It wasn't funny, and I sure hoped that she was right and he was only being jealous. I sure hoped he wouldn't coax the name of our show out of her. When I left the small drugstore and post office, I'd left the torn-up scraps of the letter behind me.
I might have run then if we hadn't been on the road headed out of Carlyle when the late snowstorm hit. I don't like driving in bad weather at night under the best of circumstances, which this wasn't. All I could do, though, was squint past the white streaks flying towards us in our headlights and try to stay on my side of the road, cursing whatever county commissioners decided the faded paint of the white line would last through one more winter.
I thought Goran would throw a duck fit. I hadn't learned yet that he defers his reaction during a real crisis until there's time for a sufficiently artistic display of obnoxious behavior after it's all over. So, instead of yelling at me, he piped down and let me concentrate. After about an hour, I said, "Tell me about something. I need the noise to anchor me, and I don't want to have to talk back."
Taking me at my word, he didn't ask what I wanted to hear, he just talked. He told me about the War, the way men lived in the trenches, how the mud stank, and the kind of noises different shells made as they fell. He described for me what it was like to be part of a routed army and what it felt like to starve. He told me just how hungry you have to be to eat rat when you know what's it's been fattening on. I think it was the association of ideas. Looking back, given his attitude about machines, he probably thought we were both going to die, and it reminded him of what he'd gone through.
I didn't think we were going to die of course. I though we might end up in a snowdrift and get to hike to some farmhouse. Since that still wasn't anything I wanted to do, I kept my eyes on the road as he spoke and didn't interrupt him. Another hour went by, and my neck started hurting from my tensing as I drove. I rolled my head to each side, trying to ease the cramps, and, without stopping the flow of his words, he moved one big hand to the nape of my neck and kneaded. When he'd worked the cramps out, he left his hand on my shoulder, warm and strong, and didn't take it away until we had pulled off the state road and into Township Corners, where we had to puzzle out exactly which strip of snow-whitened pavement lead to our lot. Neither one of us discussed the trip, afterwards.
I don't know how much longer we would have marked time if it wasn't for the fact that half way along our route, in a small mill town on a sluggish river, the school-marm was murdered after our show. Miss Buckley: that was her name, Miss Buckley. Even after spotting the knife in her back we checked her, of course, but it was no good. Not that we had much time to do anything about it. A middle-aged female pushed through the canvas into the back and said, "Caroline, are you---," caught sight of the tableau, and opened up like a factory whistle at noon.
The Count glanced sharply at me, Miss Buckley still held in his arms. "Do not be impulsive. Do not resist," he said under her noise in the clipped tone that means he's giving me an order and he means it. I wasn't sure what he was on about, but I nodded anyhow.
They threw us in jail of course. After all, we were carnies.
Two deputies took us away, following the instructions of a Sheriff McCrea, who looked like the last time the brain beneath his thinning, brown hair had been lubricated was back before the war. The entire time we were telling our stories he just shook his head and, every so often, sighed. He didn't bother with taking notes. No one else took notes, either. They didn't even separate the two of us before listening to our tale. It didn't make me more confident about the prospect of any of them solving this murder. When we were done answering his questions, which had been lobbed about as effectively as the darts a drunken mark throws at a balloon board, he heaved one last heavy sigh and said, "Hell, I can't sort all this out until I've had a chance to look around some more. Take 'em down to the courthouse and lock 'em up."
The two cops who actually put the handcuffs on us were a real treat. The first uniform stretched over a big, red-faced man with hands like hams and the build of a steel worker. He might have drifted down from the mills since he had the tiny red burn scars they pick up there. The second uniform graced a thin, short character with smooth features and golden blond hair that should have been atop the local beauty queen, not him. The wrinkles around his eyes spoiled the effect. Either he needed glasses or he had a mean temper stowed away somewhere, and, for some reason, I was betting on the latter.
As they ran us across the lot, there were a scattering of cops in various local uniforms standing around under the lights, and I could see why. The carnies were gathered in small, tense groups in the shadows thrown by the canvas and trucks. They obviously knew there might be heat but weren't being allowed to leave. Around the fringes of the lot, an ugly crowd was gathering. Like I wrote earlier, Miss Buckley had her fans, and some of them had gathered to mourn her in one of the ways that crowds like best, by hunting for someone else's blood to spill across her grave.
It wasn't going to be our blood, not just then, although I wondered for a bit. One wiry woman lunged towards us shrieking, but the Ape caught her by one arm and wrapped her up, all the time saying, "Now, Vera Ellen," in an indulgent voice, as if this was something she did every weekend for entertainment. Three or four farm hands were sidling towards us but backed up after a glare from Blondie.
I did fine buttoning my mouth throughout the entire show until I saw them emptying Goran's wallet onto the scarred-up wooden front desk and not putting all its contents into the brown paper envelope.
"Excuse me," I said, only meaning to ask. Maybe Goran's right when he claims that I convey more than I intend to if my temper's in a twist.
The Ape cuffed me, once, hard. My ears rang and I saw lights for a second, but it also turned my brains back on. I let the blow rock me to one side but didn't try to defend myself. The Ape looked at me for a second under knotted brows, to see if I wanted another dance, and then let his big hand fall with a faint air of disappointment. Blondie grinned nastily, his grip still tight on Goran, whose dark eyes were narrow with warning.
Blondie and the Ape took us down into the cell block in the courthouse basement. Along one side of the corridor there were two small cells and, at the corridor's end, a big, empty cage that I took to be the drunk tank. Since a colored man was snoring beneath a thin blanket on a cot inside the first cell, I thought they'd put us into the second one. Instead, they marched us all the way down to the drunk tank and locked us in. The Ape went away without a word. Blondie lingered for a minute in the doorway, smirking, as if he wanted to add a few words. He left, instead. He hadn't taken our cuffs off.
I surveyed our new home. It was fairly primitive. There was a concrete floor with stains, three concrete walls with stains, and a ceiling with little black specks on it that I hoped weren't bugs but probably were. There was a light fixture mounted flush to the wall up high, I guess to make hanging yourself harder. We had a barred window, also way up high, making the fixture kind of pointless. We had a door of iron bars. We had a bucket and a truly nasty smell, two-thirds disinfectant to one-third what the disinfectant hadn't succeeded in cleaning.
Goran looked around, peered through the bars at the other cells, grunted, and went over into a corner and started twisting himself laboriously around. It took three minutes for the first click.
"Tommy." His voice was pitched low. I went over to him. With his one hand free, it only took him a minute and a half to get my cuffs off. He snorted. "They should not obtain police equipment from C.O.D. catalogues." He loosely re-cuffed one of my hands, leaving the other cuff open and dangling by the chain. Then he unlocked his second cuff and had me do the same to him.
On his instructions, I used the honey bucket and so did he. Then, with our hands behind us, we both backed up against the far wall beneath the barred window. There was an air of tense expectation about him that kept me quiet, and he didn't seem inclined to say anything.
Maybe two hours passed before the iron door at the end of the corridor opened, and Blondie herded three huge men, two in overalls and one in brown jacket, pants, and a white t-shirt, down the jail corridor in front of him. Goran watched, eyes narrowed, as they trampled along the concrete floor. Blondie opened the door to the tank. The three of them all jostled inside. They sure didn't look drunk. They looked more like they were sizing up the greenhorns in their favorite riverside hooch joint.
"Now, you boys behave yourselves," Blondie said, his voice pitched to carry. He almost managed to suppress the snigger. I felt my heartbeat pick up. As he locked the cell, as he walked back down the corridor, as he slammed the final door behind him with a crash and the keys rattled definitively in the lock, everything seemed to slow. I had all the time in the world to catch Goran's glare out of the corner of my eye and to hear the two dry coughs that had signaled me on the platform in the Ten-in-One tent so often.
They sure were big. The curly top in brown was the biggest. He was the one who pinned me against the wall while the other two heaved up Goran and threw him against the bars so hard that he made a noise like a sack of grain hitting a silo floor. Goran slid limply to the ground looking like he was out before the count. The biggest one stood back and the other two grabbed me, one to each side. No one had yet said a word.
Biggest stared at me, and then his smile got wider. His massive hands moved, and I expected them to come up into fists in order to commence my beating. Instead, they went down to the big iron buckle on his belt and tugged.
I faked a whimper and sagged. The sudden shift of weight made my captors turn to haul me back up, so they didn't see Goran's two joined fists descend like a ball-peen hammer between Biggest's meaty neck and shoulder.
It was like an oak tree falling. I swear, when he hit the floor, the jail shook. One of the characters with a grip on me let go in his astonishment, so he got a momentary break. I pivoted to the other side and gave it to that one in the brisket, and then, when he doubled over, in the face. I have to report, an open handcuff clutched correctly in the fist makes a dandy substitute for a set of knucks. He wouldn't be bothering us any more, either.
The last one was more of a problem, but there were two of us and we were both mad. Goran fought dirty for a Count. Like most real fights, it was all over inside of a minute. I stood panting, trying to shake loose the blood surging around in my head, while Goran checked to make sure that we hadn't killed any of them. We hadn't. He looked up at me and growled. "Stop that. Your nose is bleeding."
I hadn't even felt it until then. That's the way a fight will take you sometimes. My hand flew up, and, sure enough, it hurt like the dickens when I checked it. "Crap. Is it broken?"
He came over and touched me gently. "No."
Well, it had sure felt like it was broken when he prodded at it. He had me staunch it while he heaved our late opponents over to the other side of the cell and arranged them artistically. I let him do it all by himself, mainly in order to engrave the sight of him undertaking solo physical labor onto a special corner of my heart.
Then I went over to our cell door and took another look around. To my surprise, the colored man was standing at the door to his cell, clutching the bars in both hands. He was a tall, skinny character, grizzled and missing a few teeth. When he saw me, he said, "You from Ohio?"
"Yeah," I said, keeping it curt.
"I thought I knew those saw-toothed tones. I also know them who you were bruisin' with. You know what this means?" He let go of the bars and tented his two hands so that they formed an inverted V, then held them up over his head.
I sure did. I swallowed. "Uh-huh. Thanks, Uncle."
"I'm not your uncle. I jus' don' like them more than I don' like you. With enemies like yours, there may be somethin' to you, but it ain't my business to find that out."
Goran grunted agreement from just behind my shoulder. "Indeed. Thank you, sir. Come along, Tommy."
We went back to the wall underneath the window and kept an eye on the slabs of beef over in the other corner. Aware of our company, I only broke the silence once. "You've been in jail before?"
"Three times, most recently in Algeria. Then, without resources." That last was curt even by his standards.
"Oh." I shut up. It sure explained---well, it explained why a mentalist had taken the trouble of getting so good at a cuffs routine, for one thing. Anything else, I didn't want to contemplate in my current surroundings.
I thought we'd be there all night, but it was only an hour before we heard the keys rattling in the corridor lock again. Each of us clicked the loose cuff shut on the other one's free hand.
To my surprise, it was the Ape. He came in fast, with a big frown on his features, but he stopped dead when he caught sight of the pile-up in the tank. Very slowly, he pushed his hat back and scratched his head. Then, also slowly, he grinned. "You gents having a nice night?"
"Yes, sir," I said, making sure it was polite.
"I believe the others were rather intoxicated," Goran said primly, stating, not asserting.
"Hunh." He stood there for a few more seconds, and the grin got wider. "Hunh. Well, we can't be mixing poor, unfortunate drunks up with murder suspects. We'd better move you." And he did, too, into the empty cell that I thought we'd occupy in the first place.
I still didn't lie down. The blanket on the cot looked pretty doubtful to me, and I was already starting to itch. We didn't talk, either, not after that last exchange, not in front of an audience. After a few more hours one of the men in the tank woke up and, from the sound of it, vomited, which must have been fun for the other two. Eventually they all came around and provided us with entertainment by telling us what would happen when we couldn't sneak up on them. Neither Goran nor I said anything in reply. Some of their threats, though, confirmed in my own mind what our good neighbor had told me.
Breakfast was something best left unremembered, as was lunch. I didn't have to see Goran's reaction to dinner. Our lawyer had arrived before that.
He was a very tall man who resembled Abraham Lincoln without the beard and with a better suit. His name was actually Franklin Kilgariff. He hung around chinning with the desk sergeant while our paperwork was filled out, doing everything except poking the cop in his stomach and snapping his suspenders. I could tell he was quite the local character, which was a good sign in a hick burg like this.
I was surprised, when Goran counted out his cash from the envelope, that only half as much was missing as I'd thought there would be. It was someone's idea of an apology, and I'd bet the penitent wasn't blond. Neither Goran nor I said a word about the missing cash or watches, of course.
"My offices are right across the way. If you gentlemen would accompany me?"
We followed him through a small town square, studded with huge, ancient hickories and a cenotaph, over to a two-story brick building with a drugstore downstairs and his offices upstairs. I, for one, would rather have been heading towards a bath. I still itched and was wondering if I'd picked up passengers. When we got into his chambers, which were all bookshelves in mahogany, winged armchairs, and leather bound law texts, Goran asked the secretary for a newspaper before he sat down. I chimed in since I thought it was a good idea. When she came back in with copies of the previous day's local rag, Goran shot her a look from under his eyelids and then said, "I commiserate with you on your loss, madam. I met her only briefly, but Miss Buckley struck me as a woman of both cogence and sense."
I took another look. Sure enough, the resemblance was unmistakable. They looked like---probably were---sisters although this lady was a bit younger, spruced up and modernized underneath the signs of strain.
"Thank you, Mr. Goran," she said briskly, spreading out half-sheets. Her tones were the same, too, school marm. "Caroline will be very much missed. I'm afraid your latter statements need to be qualified, though." She paused to blink once or twice, but that was brisk, too, and she got it under control without any trouble.
"Sit down, Miss Buckley, would you please?" Kilgariff was sprawled out in his swivel chair behind his desk, with his long legs stretched out, but he sat up straight to frown at her. Some touch of pain behind the down-home voice told me she had the halter on him. I wondered if she knew it. He wasn't wearing a ring. It was none of my business. She went and sat in a chair to one side of his desk and picked up a notebook and fountain pen from the small table next to it. "Miss Buckley insisted on being here today to emphasize our understanding that you gentlemen had nothing to do with the murder of her sister. In fact, she was the one who suggested I call Judge Pickering to have you cut loose."
"I taught both his daughters high-school biology before I was forced to change employers after the recent legal conflict over in Dayton," Miss Buckley said, dryly.
"Now, I already talked to your lot manager and called the number of the bank he gave me in New York City." Kilgariff gave us a cracker-barrel grin. "Based on what those folks had to say, I was wasting my time at law school. In any case, I'm under retainer as your attorney of record, but we can shift you elsewhere if you so desire."
Goran looked sour but shook his head no. I glanced over at him and then shrugged.
"That's fine. I'll try to make this brisk since I can see you both want to meet some kerosene and a tub bath. There shouldn't be much of a problem with your case. Our town druggist and two of the local boys, one of whom is the off-spring of a county commissioner, watched a stranger pull that tent flap aside for, and then lay hands upon, Miss Caroline Buckley, supposedly to keep her from falling after tripping while stepping down into your back-stage area. Her friend, Mrs. Etkins, saw her stagger and was almost knocked down by the man leaving the tent. The sheriffs have a good description of a foreign-looking individual, dark with a mustache and a scar, and are searching for him." He sprawled back again, steepled his fingers, and looked at us inquiringly with his eyebrows hitched. Neither of us said anything. He seemed smart enough to know that the dark hair and scar had probably been removed soon after the knife went in. His smile, this time, was wry. "As I said, there shouldn't be a problem but there is. Miss Caroline was walking out with a Mr. J. J. Bedford who, among his many other charming attributes, is a big stick in one of our local fraternal organizations. For some reason he has taken a pure and passionate dislike to you two gentlemen, sight unseen. Does either of you know of any reason why that might be?"
I was proud my voice was steady when I asked, "Would those be the fellows who really like the letter 'k'?"
"Those're the ones, son."
"It might be me he doesn't like, then, but I can't say why. I really can't."
Allow me to observe that getting examined by three sets of keen eyes is an experience to be avoided if at all possible. After a pause that seemed to stretch, Kilgariff said, "We'll have to work with what we have, then. Our local minions of the law don't want you going back to your show, but I am acquainted with the owner of the White House Hotel, and he'll take you in. I think it will suit your purposes, and it's the finest establishment in town. They have indoor plumbing in every room." I liked the touch of sarcasm in the last sentence. "A friend of yours, a Mr. Kole, has already sent over some clothes."
"Thank you, sir," Goran said. "Would you like for me to have Tommy telephone Miss Buckley with our room number after we have checked in?"
"If you would, yes, sir." He stood up but didn't offer to shake hands. It might have been the chance of bugs, but it might have been a fast briefing on Goran, too. Instead, he escorted us out of the office himself. On the way out I asked Miss Buckley for more newspapers, and she gave me what was left of yesterday's edition along with a couple of copies of that day's extra.
The hotel was a four story building along the side of the square between the block of stores and the big Victorian pile of a county courthouse. The news about the sinister stranger must have gotten out because, when we went into the lobby, the loungers buzzed but didn't seem too hostile. Goran ignored them, in any case. He marched us across the carpets to the front desk as if he'd been his usual natty self, not rumpled, unshaven, and stinking of jail cell, and said, "I believe you have a room reserved under the name of Count Goran."
"Yes, sir," the desk clerk said and then looked startled, as if the sir had come out without his permission.
"Is the reservation for a suite?" Goran was using the tone that snapped like a whip.
The clerk swallowed. It made his Adam's apple bob. "Ah, no sir, but we do have a suite available."
Goran grunted. "We'll take it, then. After that disgraceful interval, I want space."
The clerk fetched the key from its slot and slid it across the counter before adding, "There's a package for you, Count." As Goran signed the register, he dug around behind the mail rack. What he came up with was actually one of our valises, wrapped up in brown paper and string. Having caught the direction Goran was going in, I didn't pick it up when the desk clerk put it on the front counter.
"Good," Goran said, and then glared, first at the valise and then at the clerk, who gulped again and rang his bell. Goran ignored the bellhop, who did a pretty good job of not gagging at our stench in the elevator, until we got inside our suite. He gave the hop a long list of foodstuffs to cart up to the room and raised his eyebrows at me until I dug out a quarter and tipped the fella.
We spent the time until the bellhop returned closing all the curtains and spreading out newspapers in one corner of the sitting room. When the boy had come and gone, we took turns standing on the papers and stripping down, then bundled up our clothes and threw them away. I was going to protest, but one look at Goran's set expression told me not to bother. The maids would scavenge our outfits anyhow, I knew. At least I was able to persuade him to let me put the shoes outside the door to be cleaned, even if it meant ducking back into the room like a rabbit into its hole when a door farther down the corridor started to open.
Goran used the bathroom first, while I built myself a ham sandwich from the contents of the tray. Then he came out and I headed for the bathroom. I paused for a moment in the doorway, though, when he started searching the room, dressed in nothing but a scowl. There was a grim concentration to him, and a thoroughness to the way he was checking, that would have told me, if I hadn't already known, that he was a Man With A Past.
I made my scrub comprehensive, but I made it fast. When I came back into the sitting room, Goran was coming out of the bedroom, still scowling. He switched the scowl to me. "If you do not tie that with more care, it will fall."
I mimed someone listening.
"No, although there are no guarantees, of course. At least the walls of this establishment are thick."
"Then, you're one to talk, sir. At least I have a towel."
"Do you think the ones this establishment provides would fit me? I did not take you for such an optimist." He had a point. I dropped the subject. While I cut the string with my pocketknife and got the paper off the valise, he wandered over to the tray and scowled at that. Then he got an intent look and picked up a piece of the ham. He held it up to the lamp and then sniffed it. Finally, he put it in his mouth, worked it around, chewed, and swallowed. "Amazing. Palatable, even exceptional."
"If you give the hop a dime, he'll get you the name of the pig it came from."
"Don't be droll. The type of feed is more important than the name of the swine, in any case."
I'd gotten the valise open. Goran's razor and silver-backed brushes were right on top. He came over to fetch them, and his eyes narrowed. "Sit down. Over there."
I sighed. "Yes, sir." The bathroom mirror had informed me of the raccoon mask I was developing, so I knew what he wanted a closer look at.
After shifting a floor lamp so more light fell on my face, he checked my nose again, but he took his time and it hurt worse than before.
"Dang." The fingers moved. "Ow, heck." He traced my cheekbones, pressing lightly. That hurt, too. "I don't care what you do, I'm still not talking."
He froze, his big hand still on my face. Then it suddenly shifted to roughly cup my jaw, and he asked in a voice as flat as the Texas panhandle, "Why did you say that, Tommy?"
I would have cocked my head if he hadn't had such a firm grip on me. "No reason, really. Why, were you a cop?"
Goran's eyes narrowed in annoyance before he grunted, but I think it was at himself. "Confinement seems to stimulate your thought processes, an interesting phenomenon. You could say that I was. At least, I was an agent for one of the European governments."
"Is that why you were in jail in Algeria?"
"No, that was later, after the War." The hand on my throat shifted a little. Since I also needed a shave, maybe I was giving him a rash.
Or, maybe not. Our eyes met and there was another one of those unmistakable moments. I smiled, slowly. As is usually the case with the very best moments, the timing was terrible. He released me abruptly, straightened up, and took a step back. I stood up myself, looked him up and down, and let him see me doing it. Lots of fat with muscle underneath it. Good, strong hands with long fingers. Plenty of brown hair on pale skin, a little wrinkled. The lips were sure promising, as was the territory that should have been swaddled in a towel. His eyes were narrowed, but their pupils were wide, making them wary and warm at the same time. The breath came out of him in a rush. "Bah," he said with the last of it.
"I consider it part of the deal, remember?" I spread my arms out wide. "The ribs aren't so dangerous anymore." Slapping the side of my chest, I said, "Padded now, see?" I flexed my muscles like the fella in the Charles Atlas ad. "I am no longer a ninety-eight pound weakling. Go ahead. Kick sand in my face and see what happens."
The corners of his mouth tucked back a tiny bit. "Tommy, stop pestering me. We need to ascertain exactly what from our pasts has reappeared and destroyed a bystander."
I snorted. "We can draw straws for that. Saul said you had a house of secrets, and he wasn't kidding." My hands dropped to the knot on my towel. "I've seen you looking, right from the beginning."
He said, through gritted teeth, "As I've told you before, those looks did not indicate that I was contemplating seducing you, at least not then." I nodded brightly and tugged. His hand shot out, and he grabbed my towel, holding it up.
I grinned. "I'd bet the whole pot that you're just putting off the inevitable unless that," I let my gaze drop, "is your idea of how to fire me."
"No, it is not although it would probably be in your best interest to send you on your way as soon as possible." I started to say what I thought of that idea, his eyes narrowed, and he wiggled his free forefinger at me. "Shut up. I agree we need to discuss the matter, but I hardly think that it is a conversation best held over the grave of an innocent. Right now we need to concentrate on Miss Buckley's murderer."
That sobered me up. "Okay, fair enough. But, can we have dinner first?"
In Goran's world, there may not be enough time for peek-a-boo, but there's always enough time for food. We cleaned up the tray before we got dressed. I let what had happened go without further comments, not because I didn't have any but because I now knew, no matter what he thought, which way we were heading.
However, as he'd said, this really wasn't the time and place. Too bad we didn't figure that out a little earlier. While he shaved, I walked around the sitting room, full of pep and nerves, before I decided to clean up. I put the tray out in the corridor and neatened the room, picking up what was left of the newspapers Miss Buckley had given me. On the front page of this morning's extra was the account of the Horrific Tragedy, and I started scanning the article. Then I sat down and read in earnest.
Goran got done with his shave, came back in, and saw what I was doing. He picked up the other copy of the front page from the table and read it through, holding spread it out at arm's length while making the occasional noise. Then he went still, and his lips worked for a minute or so. Abruptly, he folded the newspaper with a rustle. "Tommy?"
"Yes, sir?" I had given up on frowning over a leering description of the "gypsy show people" some local columnist had written when I'd glanced up and seen his lips moving.
"Have you called Miss Buckley?"
"No, sir." He knew darn well I hadn't called her. He was just being irritating.
"Telephone the office of Mr. Kilgariff and see if they have departed. If they are there---possible, this evening, given the circumstances---inquire if they will consent to meet with us in a half-hour, whenever that might be." There was a carriage clock right behind him over the mantle, but it was too much trouble for him to check it, of course. "If they have departed, we will attempt to arrange a meeting with them first thing tomorrow morning."
He was right about Kilgariff. I caught him at his office, and he was willing to come over with Miss Buckley and talk. In about five minutes I was back up in the room watching Goran fuss with his tie. To my surprise, he didn't set right in dredging up my past. Instead he asked me, "Tommy, when you referred to the 'fellows who really like the letter "k",' I assume you were referring to the Klu Klux Klan?"
Sometimes he reminded me that he'd started out a foreigner. "Yes, sir. When I was a kid they were all over the country, out on the Pacific coast, up in New England, and running parts of the Midwest. There were millions of them back then. Mayors, state officials, congressmen, a bunch of politicians were Klan, too. From what I've heard, since the scandals in Indiana and Pennsylvania and the laws against masks a couple of years ago, they're losing numbers fast, but they're still powerful here and there. For one thing, they're scary. They torture all sorts of folks they don't like, brand them, and kill them sometimes. For another, the ones who did leave mostly don't want anyone knowing they used to be members, so the Klan has some leverage on them." I paused and then added, "They were big in Ohio."
"I see." He shook his head just a little. "It is a peculiar alliance of disparate interests that has formed."
I didn't think he was referring to us although I guess we're a fairly peculiar alliance, too.
"Some day we must talk, you and I, about secret societies." He left it at that although I knew it meant he wanted to hear what I'd done to get on the bad side of the Klan. I was more than happy to postpone that day when, after a knock on the door, Mr. Kilgariff and Miss Buckley came in.
Putting our cards on the table with Kilgariff was a risk, I supposed, but I didn't think it was a big one, not after I'd seen his attitude towards his secretary. Maybe Goran had made the same calculation. In any case, after everyone was seated and he'd offered drinks, Goran sat down in the largest chair in the room, which he'd saved for himself, and started talking.
"I hope that you, sir, and you, madam, will forgive me if I take the floor. As a showman, I am perhaps more accustomed than I should be to imparting information in a long, unbroken flow of words. In any case, I believe I know the identity of Miss Caroline Buckley's murderer and the motive behind her death although the two bits of knowledge have, on the face of it, little to do with each other. I can confirm my conjectures about the matter if you, Miss Buckley, will be kind enough to answer certain questions that could be, under more normal circumstances, construed as intrusive to the point of being crude." He stopped and waited.
She didn't leap right in with an answer. I could see her thinking it over. Then, without glancing over at Kilgariff, she looked Goran straight in the eye and said, "Mr. Goran, if you think you can solve my sister's murder, you can ask me whatever questions you wish. I may or may not answer, of course."
"Certainly, that is your prerogative. However, the more you are willing to sacrifice convention, the more suggestive the results will be." Goran leaned back in his chair and his eyelids closed slightly. "Was an autopsy performed, or will one be performed?"
"One was performed by Dr. Ellis this morning. My family physician tried to talk me into protesting, but I refused."
Goran's eyes narrowed even more. "Did your physician have a reason for this advice?"
"Yes." She took a deep breath. "You know, don't you?"
"I believe I do. At the time of her death, was your sister pregnant?'
Kilgariff didn't move, but his gaze flicked from Miss Buckley to Goran and back again. She folded her hands and stared down at them, but her voice was steady when she said, "Yes, she was about four months along. I hadn't known before the murder."
Goran's chin dropped maybe an eighth of an inch. "Again, my commiserations. Allow me to gift you with some information in return for your frankness. On the evening of your sister's death, immediately after my show, I saw her speaking with a tall, florid, dark-haired man who used a considerable amount of hair pomade and had ears that slightly protruded. Am I correct in assuming this man's description matches that of Mr. J. J. Bedford?"
This time, it was Kilgariff who answered. "Yes, sir, you are, but Mr. Bedford has an alibi. He went straight from your tent to the girly review, in company with a number of more-or-less respectable citizens."
"I was not implying that Mr. Bedford wielded the weapon since I saw him leave the tent myself. He had conversed briefly with Miss Caroline Buckley, and I observed him indicate the stage. Something about Miss Buckley's attitude had made me wonder if she would be seeking advice from me later in the evening, so I noted his appearance and actions with some care. He was behaving in a manner that I have heard described as doting, but there was a certain hesitation in her response." He heaved a sigh. "Miss Buckley, did your sister like tuberoses?"
She looked a bit bewildered at the change of subject. "I don't think I ever heard her express an opinion either way, but Caroline tended not to like strongly scented flowers. She thought them common."
"I would tend to agree with her. I believe it is safe to assume, then, that the tuberose she was wearing was a gift. Given the awkward nature of its pinning and the fact that its ribbon was poorly chosen, I will assume that it was a gift from a man, although Miss Caroline Buckley's female companion may be able to confirm this."
She pressed her lips together until they whitened before she said, "It was a gift from Mr. Bedford. He asked for it back so that he could press it, to remember her by. You believe it had some other meaning?"
"I believe it was a message and not to Miss Buckley. I believe it served to mark her as a target for her murderer."
"That's something of a leap," Kilgariff said, slowly.
"Not at all since, as I said earlier, the murderer and the motive had very little to do with each other. I recognized the bone-handled knife, or at least the species of knife, that was used for the murder, and I know of a man who favored such weapons. I would have shared that fact with your local minions of the law if I had felt any confidence in their abilities." Goran's tone was salt-pan flat. "In that case, later events confirmed my initial opinion."
Kilgariff snorted a laugh, but it wasn't a happy one. "As an officer of the court, I should criticize you for your omission, sir, but as a native of this county, I can not find it in my heart to do so. A change of political administration is badly needed hereabouts."
"It is true that intimate acquaintance does not sweeten dead fish, but that is neither here nor there." Goran sighed. "The man I knew always used a knife with a bone-handled hilt for his work. He claimed that it did not turn in the hand, as leather-wrapped metal will, if it glanced off of a rib. I always thought it an affectation on his part, but I was young when I knew him and less critical in such matters."
"But...why would he murder my sister? Did he even know her?"
"I doubt it. It is reasonable to assume that Mr. Bedford was the father of your sister's child and he, either through disinclination or inability, was attempting to evade taking on the joint responsibilities of paternity and matrimony. If I have gauged the mood of this community and their estimation of your late sister correctly, such a scandal would have seriously compromised Mr. Bedford and his organization. Thus, when my former acquaintance requested local assistance, he seized his opportunity and made your sister's murder part of the price of that aid."
Miss Buckley looked like someone had turned her to stone: granite, most likely. Kilgariff quietly reached over, placed a hand atop one of hers, and said, "I assume that the enmity between you and the murderer is a personal one. You believe, though, that there was some other price the man paid?"
"I believe it is a price yet to be paid. He will probably attempt to murder Mr. Finn along with myself since Mr. Finn is in the Klan's black books. That is quite evident from their attempt to take care of the problem of Mr. Finn in your county jail last night." His eyes shut for a moment, and his voice grew almost dreamy. "It would be interesting to know how my acquaintance first met these white-hooded ruffians and entered into their company, given their self-proclaimed intolerance of foreigners. He is a one-time fanatic himself, so they may respect his abilities and skills. Perhaps they do not consider Germans foreigners. He can appear to be a German although he is, in fact, of Serbian descent."
Kilgariff slowly scratched his chin. "It is not that I doubt your word, sir, but exactly how do you propose to use this information to bring Miss Caroline's murderer to justice? An accurate description may be useful to our sheriffs, but it will do little to force Mr. Bedford to account for his actions."
"That is true." Goran's voice dropped to a low murmur. "I do, however, have some ideas on the subject if you would care to hear them. I would need your assistance. With your status in this community, you can walk through doors that are closed against me."
By the time they left, two hours had passed, and I was exhausted. I had almost forgotten I had been up the entire previous night, but my body remembered, and it wanted to remind me. When I closed the door behind them, I yawned.
Goran glanced up at me. "Tommy, go to bed."
"Okay. What about you?"
His shoulders moved up and down slightly. I raised one eyebrow, then walked over and looked through the open bedroom door. I was grinning when I turned back around, and he scowled, ferociously. "No wonder they had this room available. It's the honeymoon suite, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't know," he snapped. I let the grin get wider. "I would assume so. Stop that grinning, you incorrigible wag."
"Don't worry about it, sir. It's late, we're both tired, and I'm not trying anything serious when the sheets are going to be washed by someone I'm not acquainted with."
He raised both eyebrows, probably thinking his pair would trump my one-of-a-kind. His tone was polite. "Tommy, you fill me with trepidation about the future." When he starts getting like that, there's nothing to be done with him. Not bothering to get rid of the grin, I sauntered into the bedroom.
I was asleep before he came in, but a few hours later the unfamiliar sensation of sharing a bed woke me up. He had migrated and was draping himself across me, breathing profoundly in my ear. I realized I was smiling dopily, wiped it off my face, considered poking him awake and pointing out what he was doing, considered seeing if I could start something interesting, and settled for going back to sleep. It was just as well I did since, when I woke up late the next morning, I was the one draped across him.
As Goran had requested, Kilgariff made arrangements for us to go back to the show site. Everything was still intact although, from what the freaks had to say, it had been touch-and-go late last night. About three in the morning the sheriffs had suddenly disappeared, and there had been noises in the woods to one side of the camp. The carnies, armed with tent pegs and a few shot-guns, had a running fight with a group of men in masks with cans of what smelt like gasoline. Just when things had threatened to get really ugly, two deputy sheriffs had shown back up and the last prowlers had disappeared, taking their wounded with them. After that, the carnies had set guards themselves and patrolled the area around the lot. Since then, the only problem had been Jukes, Kallikaks, and Babbits from the local town and countryside wanting to see the site of the Dreadful Slaughter. However, since none of us knew if we would be cut loose in time to make our next spot or if the local hoods would make another call, the mood on the lot was glum.
We were discussing that inside Goran's small tent the next evening as I packed his trunk and Goran fussed with a magic box set up in the doorway where it was well lit by the last of the sunlight. As always, our pitch was at the edge of the lot, which in this town meant being right up next to the woods. I kept interrupting what I was doing to glance around, as if I could somehow see anyone sneaking up through canvas. Finally, I forced myself to stop fidgeting and concentrate on my work. That may be why I didn't notice the deputy sheriff until he was standing in the doorway watching us, his thumbs hooked in his trouser pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels.
"Don't fold that silk, Tommy, it creases," Goran said, his tone petulant as he came over to check my work.
"Sorry, sir," I said, as I picked up the length of sky blue silk, shook it out, and began to roll it. It gave me a chance to look over our visitor as Goran's signal had prompted. Our one man audience took a toothpick from his shirt pocket, put it in his mouth, and chewed. He was a good looking, lanky guy in his late fifties, with sandy hair and a lot of laugh lines around his eyes. His revolver was holstered too far forward, within easy reach of his right hand. His uniform didn't fit him.
Before I could move, the revolver came out fast but stayed low, by his hip. He reached up and took the toothpick out of his mouth with his free hand. "Milosh," he said to Goran, "it's been a long time." There wasn't a trace of an accent in his voice, only the familiar mid-west tones that I'd grown up with. I'd have placed him as being from Indiana, at a guess, from around the Lake. The revolver pivoted to me. "Put that cloth down, so I can see your hands." I did. He came in to the tent, veering around Goran's box, and closed the tent flap behind him.
Goran said something extensive to him in a foreign lingo.
"Speak English in front of the young man. To do otherwise would be discourteous. Or haven't you told him about your past?" He paused, and then continued, almost unwillingly, "Yes, I had given up the hunt. But when the name of Count Goran was mentioned by some of the hooded idiots whose memberships fees paid for my family's fine, new house, I was intrigued enough to inquire."
"I was unaware that you had family in this country," Goran said, sounding irritated, probably because he'd missed something important at some point.
"Even back in the old days I knew enough not to tell you everything." The guy still sounded a little preoccupied. I thought I understood his hesitation. He'd been dreaming about this moment for so long that, now it was finally here, all the stories he'd told himself in his head were jostling with what was really happening. If I was right, he'd stall for a while and then, when he realized that this wasn't going to be as much fun as he'd expected, move fast and kill us both. "For a time before the war, hounds snapped at my heels in the old country, so I came here and spent three years working with my cousins in the steel mills where I polished my English and made friends. After Algeria, I decided to return and start my life over. You should have stayed dead." Something changed around his eyes.
I asked, quickly, hoping to keep him off-balance, "What about me?" I would have made it pitiful, if I thought that would do any good. Young but brave was about the right pitch for this character. Goran spared me a glance to let me know what he thought of my acting; what a great last memory.
"Sorry, 'Tom Finn'. I have already been paid for your death."
"Paid?" You couldn't tell if Goran was more surprised or disgusted.
"It was at your persuasion I gave up politics, but a man still has to earn a living. It was too bad about the schoolteacher, even if she was a---" He added a foreign word that made Goran's eyes narrow. "But, her boyfriend will join her, I promise." All at once he seemed to notice he was explaining himself to Goran. That's torn it, I thought. I back-pedaled, hoping to draw his aim away from Goran. His head moved, but his hand didn't.
"Drop the gun," said a rasping voice, seemingly from nowhere. I dove one way and Goran went the other. Our murderer was about to shoot Goran when the magic box popped open, and King Kole hit him behind the knees.
He lost the revolver and went down, but rolled to his feet faster than I would have thought possible with a knife in his hand. I jumped to meet him and he lunged. He didn't make it. He jerked, stopped, and jerked again with the second crack of noise. Now I've seen it twice: his eyes widened and he tried to speak but blood came from his mouth, instead. As he fell, there was more blood, blood all over the uniform he was wearing and blood on the canvas floor. Bullets are messier than knives left jammed into a corpse.
I was the one to unlace the Ape---his name had turned out to be Deputy Sheriff Pulaski---from his hiding place between two layers of canvas at the back of the tent. His uniform was covered with big, wet patches of sweat from the heat of his hidey-hole, and the narrow space stank of cordite, but he had a satisfied smile on his face. As we had hoped, both he and Kole had heard it all, so Pulaski had plenty of witnesses that he had shot Miss Buckley's murderer.
"That was good aim, given only those eye-holes to work with," I said. Goran was probably furious, given the work we'd gone to setting it up so that the murderer could be captured alive, but I wanted to give credit where it was due.
"You shouldn't charge a man with a knife, son," he told me, reproachfully. Goran had taught me to get in past the blade as quickly as possible, but there was no sense bringing that up now. Pulaski looked at his handiwork and then shook his head, slowly. "From the look of that uniform, someone was left running around in his skivvies after last night's emergency klonvocation. Bet the Sheriff isn't going to be too pleased with Parker, but it serves him right for calling me all the way back into town so the boys could play Cowboys and Indians in these woods."
Goran was busy helping King Kole move the magic box and ignored him.
Pulaski walked over to the body and flipped it over with his foot. He reached down with his handkerchief and took the bone handled knife before he spat hugely next to the body. "Almost exactly the same knife as the one that killed Miss Buckley. I'm glad I let Mr. Kilgariff talk me into helping with your cockamamie scheme. My folks came here to get away from this kind of character."
For a moment, Goran seemed about a million years old. "Theirs was an impossible dream, I'm afraid, but it was still an effort worth making." From outside you could hear the carnies reacting to the sound of the gunshots. King Kole shook his tiny head and went to tell everyone what had happened.
Pulaski stayed around until the local hearse had come and removed the body. Then he actually condescended to shake Goran's hand and thank him. Next he turned to me, and said, his voice kind, "I'm sorry I hit you, son." If he was sorry, it was only because I'd finally matched up to his standards for what a respectable citizen should do for his fellows. But, I learned a long time ago never to get between a man and his ideas of what was proper. At least Pulaski was learning to put himself on the list of those who should abide by his standards, which was some reason for gratitude I supposed. I settled for grinning at him, shaking his hand, and ignoring the slightly sardonic twist of one corner of Goran's mouth.
I was more interested when Kilgariff and Miss Buckley came by a few hours later to say their good-byes and give us our walking papers. On the fourth finger of her left hand, which had been bare, she was wearing a ring. Goran shook his head over it afterwards, saying it was always melancholy to see the strong give way before an irresistible adversary. Maybe I'm soft, but I thought it was nice to know they both had some sense about the company they chose, especially since they were going to need it, along with plenty of luck, if they intended to try and clean up their town. As far as I was concerned, they were welcome to the job, as long as it freed up Goran and I to go back on the road where we belonged.
"I am afraid that there may not be sufficient evidence to convict Mr. Bedford, given the death of M---my old acquaintance," Goran said gravely to Miss Buckley. It was about as close to an apology as I'd ever seen him give a woman. Given the expression on Deputy Sheriff Blond's face when, after conferring with Pulaski, he lit out to pick up Bedford for questioning, she wouldn't have to worry about revenge for long. Goran probably thought so, too, but saw no sense in discussing that probability with a woman who held strong notions about the right and wrong ways to resolve such matters.
She said, in practical tones, "My sister's murderer is dead and, as the story spreads, Mr. Bedford will be disgraced and our local principality of the so-called invisible empire will be gutted. I refuse to throw away my half loaf of satisfaction repining over the entire loaf beyond my reach, especially when I may need it to strengthen me against battles yet to come."
Goran grunted, conveying an interesting mixture of approval and wariness.
Kilgariff said, "Sheriff McCrea has gone to inform your lot manager that you have official permission to leave." He didn't really need to tell us that. All around where the four of us stood, you could hear the truck engines starting up and shouting back and forth as the show people gladly shook the dust of this burg from their feet. For once, I wouldn't be the only one ready to enjoy the night-time drive. "I wanted to deliver the news where it actually should arrive."
"I understand. For my part, I believe this is yours, sir," Goran said, handing Kilgariff a bank check.
"Thank you, sir." Kilgariff passed the check along to Miss Buckley, who briskly made it disappear. "And these, I think, are yours, gentlemen." He reached into his breast coat pocket and pulled out my wrist watch and Goran's repeater. Maybe he wouldn't need too much luck to scrub out the local stables, after all.
We were quiet on the road for a while that night, letting the sound of the engine and the wheels on the macadam wash away all the peril and chaos of our last stop. Even Goran seemed relaxed as his gaze went from the road to me, back and forth. It must have been an hour before he said a single word.
Finally, I asked, "Are you going to talk to me? It's been a long couple of days, and I'm still pretty bushed. I could use the help staying awake."
His snort sounded almost indulgent. "Tommy, don't try to rile me by implying we are in even greater danger than is usual while journeying within this perilous contraption. I am growing familiar with your most frequent tactics of nettling, and they are losing some of their sting." He was silent for long enough that I heard, through my half open window, the far-off whistle of a freight train somewhere out across the fields of corn. At last he asked, "Do you wish to explain what drew to you the attentions of the Klan, or is that knowledge you prefer to reserve to yourself?" From the sound of it, he was hoping I'd clam up so that he could do the same. Too bad that wasn't happening.
"A State Senator I'd met across my uncle's dining room table is finally running for the governor of Ohio. He's been maneuvering for the nomination for years."
"Surely, dealing with the Klan in order to arrange a murder is an undue risk to take, merely in order to revenge himself upon the despoiler of his child." Something in his voice told me he already suspected what I was going to say but was wondering how I would say it. He should have known by then I favor the direct approach, at least when I'm not trying to rile him.
"Despoiled is the correct term, sir, not despoiler. It was the despoilment by his offspring he was looking to erase. The offspring's name was George, he was two years older than me, and he was back on summer vacation and eager to show me all the new tricks he'd learned at the fancy military school his father had shipped him to, in order to make a man out of him. Not that I wasn't enjoying myself, you understand." I frowned at the pavement stretching out ahead of us in the light of the truck lamps. Whoever had the contract for maintaining this road sure had peculiar ideas about how to fill potholes. "When I was a kid, I was enough of a sap to tell George how much I worshipped him. Maybe I did, back then. He climbed the highest trees, threw the best curve ball, and always hit his mark at mumblety-peg. He could even dance without flushing and squirming around like most of us boys, and all the girls wanted him to fetch them lemonade at our church socials. He was also thick as a brick in a lot of ways that were starting to matter to me. I hadn't figured out yet, when we were so rudely interrupted, that I wasn't so much worshiping him anymore as enjoying him as a sporting partner."
"What became of him when you left town?"
"He drowned. He fell through the ice on the---our local river, and got swept away by the current. There's even a good chance it was an accident. He always skated the fastest and farthest, always leapt before he looked." I shook my head. "Knowing his father, though, I probably got the blame of that, to go along with his fear of whatever tales I could tell both about George and what George had told me. None of the stories would have done the Senator or his fraternity much good. The second Klan stands four-square for American values and healthy Christian living. It says so, right there in their manual."
He made that rare, grunting noise that served him for a laugh. "Worship is a dangerous hobby."
I snorted. "You sure don't have to worry about that, sir. I'm long cured, and a man would have to be crazy to worship you, anyhow."
"Good, for I would be no fit subject for it." He shifted on the seat, gazed at the road, then turned his gaze to me and kept it there. "I was a secret policeman, an occupation that is more soiling than exciting. When I was young, I though that all bad men should be killed and killed some. As I grew older, I reconsidered. When I left the employ of the Austrians in 1914, I took the results of my latest assignment with me, locking them away inside my head rather than passing them on to my superiors. I had obtained significant information about a fanatical band of Serbian nationalists who would soon after commit a successful assassination in Sarajevo."
"Now, that," I said, impressed, "is what I call bad timing."
"Indeed. I have come to the opinion, as the years have gone by, that I was but a pebble in a landslide triggered by one of history's earthquakes. However, a former acquaintance felt otherwise. His losses in the course of the war were quite severe, and he found it easiest to bear his pain by bundling the responsibility for it onto me."
"One of your old police buddies?"
"No, he was the informant who had given me the facts that I subsequently chose not to use. As is often the way of such things, we had grown to know each other quite well while locked in our totentanz." There were all sorts of implications to be teased out of that, but I left him alone, not wanting to shut him up. "We met again after the war, several times. He was persistent in his efforts and once came close enough to me in France to slay, in error, one of the few men I have ever personally esteemed. With some remnant of naiveté, I thought that mistake might dissuade him from further efforts. When he renewed his attentions in Algeria, after I had compensated myself for my time in jail at the expense of the individuals who imprisoned me and so secured a certain degree of fiscal independence, I decided to put into action plans I had made long ago and emigrated to this country."
"Okay, but why live on the road as a mentalist? Why not settle down some place with no machines and women, like a cave high in the Rocky Mountains?"
He ignored my jab. "I found that, given my years of wandering, confinement to one place made me grow restless. This was a perambulatory life that allowed me to live under any number of aliases while practicing one of my chosen hobbies. As well, I hoped if my enemy did not lose track of me, he would be forced to approach in an environment that I had shaped to my choosing."
"Nuts. You just found out that you liked all the drama, pulling answers from the ether and dazzling the crowds." He did, too, no matter how much he claimed otherwise.
"Keep your eyes on the road, Tommy. Is that a cow?"
"Behind that barbed wire fence? Why, yes sir, it is. It is several cows, in fact, intent on staying at least fifty feet away from the ditch between them and our vehicle." I couldn't take my eyes off the road long enough to watch, but I could feel when his gaze shifted huffily back towards the road.
When we pulled on to our next lot, it was Sunday morning again, and we were in another blue-law town. We could all have done the drive during the day on Sunday, I suppose, but I don't think a single show or concession did. None of us bothered to set up, though. Like Goran and I, the carnies chose to pretend respect for local law and wait to pitch canvas until early Monday morning. Around us while we found our place, you could see the contented torpor as our outfit, always strapped but never starving, always colorful but never ill-managed, enjoyed its day of leisure. I parked, got out and stretched, and then, instead of going to the back of the truck, turned to render him the payment due for all the comments about cows, potholes, and farm families driving slowly along the roads to church.
"So, sir, how long have you owned this carnival?"
His only response was a glare. Count Dunstan Goran, Mystic Master of the Mysteries of the Mind, hated the fact that I'd learned to read his mind. He'd have to put up with it. A deal's a deal, after all, and he missed the chance to break ours. He'd just have to learn to relax, lie back, and collect his due percentage.
"Have you decided yet, Tommy?" His hands are deft this indolent Sunday afternoon, moving with loving attention as he works at what he knows will bring me pleasure.
I twist around on the bed to shift one of the many velvet pillows and then smile at him. "Yes, sir. I would like extra mushrooms in that, thank you." He adds the almonds and mushrooms to the still-moist egg mixture, waits for it to be done, and then, his lips pursed judiciously, rolls it out onto a plate and garnishes it with parsley. After passing the plate to me, he constructs a second omelet for himself.
A few minutes later, suppressing a pleased burp, I pass the plate back to him to be stowed with the others on the counter until I take them outside for scrubbing. He finishes his own omelet, then arcs brows at me inquiringly. "Dessert?"
"Yes, please." I contemplate a hole developing in the toe of one sock, then lazily shift my attention back to what Goran is doing. He opens a cupboard and takes out two small red and yellow-streaked apples that he cups in a single hand, considering what magic he can work with them. My mouth waters, but I suddenly realize it's not at the sweet, crisp scent. I've looked enough. It's time to leap.
I sit up and start unbuttoning my shirt. He is so intent, contemplating his source of inspiration, that it takes him a while to notice what I'm doing. When he does, he puts down the apples on the counter and scowls at me. "Stop that."
"Why?" I've removed my shirt and am tugging off my undershirt. I pause, with it stretched out over my arms and elbows, up above my head. "Is something wrong?" I get it the rest of the way off, toss it onto the armchair, and pull my belt end loose from its buckle.
"Don't use rhetorical questions. They are inane. You know perfectly well what is wrong with what you are doing."
Offstage he sometimes confuses when he should talk with when he should act. By the time he's done rolling out the words, I've gotten my fly unzipped and my trousers and boxers shucked down onto the floor. True, it leaves me with my socks on, but I don't really think he'll mind. I lounge back against the pillows and look attentive.
"Tommy." From the way he growls the one word, I can tell he wants to storm at me or to leave. Instead, he sighs out about a bushel of air and then sits down heavily on the foot of the bed. Without speaking, I stop lounging and shift my legs to make room for him. Since he removed his suit coat and vest to cook, I can see that the top two buttons of his shirt are undone. The shirt, like all of his shirts, is made from yellow silk. "All right, if you must hear it, I will say the words. Yes, I want you."
"That's good. I didn't mind at all when you wouldn't take my offer at the beginning, but now it's starting to seriously annoy me. You do enough of that as it is."
"Believe me, your complaint is one I have every reason to share. You are, without a doubt, the most maddening individual I have ever dealt with."
"More so than your tips? More so than all your female inquirers after the mysteries of the unknown?"
He raises his eyebrows. "They are soon enough left behind. You, however, are still here, an intractable, unsolvable problem, all arrogance and impudence."
"Yes, well, I learned my arrogance from the very font, as you like to put it." He moves lightning fast, the way he did in the jail cell. "Hellfire!" It isn't really a protest, even though he has me down and pinned. I'm not that much of a hypocrite. However, it's enough to make him shut me up for a time while the lush, clever lips fulfill their promise.
Did I mention the yellow silk shirt? Or is that a rhetorical question?
He's heavy atop me, pressing me back into the mattress, but it feels good. My own legs are wrapped around his hips and legs, and I bet the way we're working against each other violates more than the local blue laws. Then he pulls back and shifts to one side, almost falling off the bed before he catches himself.
He stands and brushes himself off, grumbling. I snort. He doesn't look up, but the corners of his lips tuck in. I laugh, sit up, and reach over to unbutton his shirt.
"What do you want?" he asks me as I work.
"What about you?" I counter. To my surprise, he's wearing combinations. I'm not surprised that they, too, are silk. He has to shift so that I can get his trousers unbuttoned and down, but he gets the combinations off himself. Then he pauses, his expression both fond and wary, giving me one last chance to examine the situation and say no. I examine the situation and suggest something that makes his eyebrows go up.
"How remarkable the private military schools of this nation must be," he says, his voice a low, velvet purr. His chin dips a fraction of an inch towards the bed. "Very well. Since I prefer to spare my knees, it would be convenient if you resume your earlier, somewhat louche, position."
It's crowded, but I don't care. I'm only grateful I'm not ticklish. He adds a few flourishes to my previous experiences as his tongue moves across me that would have reduced me to helpless laughter, rather than to rolling shudders and twitches. My hunting buddies, until now, haven't been inclined to linger on the back of my knees, for example, or the scrap of skin between my groin and ass. There is sure something to be said for having a couple of extra decades of experience. By the time his arms are wrapped around my buttocks, holding me still as he confines me in warmth and wetness, I'm pounding his shoulders with the need he's feeding in me. Just before I give way, I close my eyes, grip my partner in crime, and groan. I'm betting, after all our time on the platform together, he can interpret my signal with ease and understand the thought behind it. It's about time.
I study him afterwards as he sits at the end of the bed again, his eyes narrowed and his tongue moving slowly, contemplatively, across his slightly swollen lips. When I've caught my breath, I say, "You're gloating."
He considers. "Perhaps. Do you object? I was uncertain, after my disastrous last meal and subsequent long fast, how well I would cope with such an abundant feast."
"If you're trying to say your interest isn't flagging, I noticed that already. So, I won't bother to ask, this time." I stand up, get the green glass bottle down out of the supplies cupboard, give it a suggestive shake so the contents slosh, and grin. "Do you need the garlic and oregano, sir, or will this alone be enough to cook the dish?"
When he's on me, in me, I tell him my real name. I want to hear him say it, and when he does it sounds good. Then he calls me Tommy, and that sounds even better. But, it's the edgy sensations of bulk and power above me, the forbidden male scents of sweat and sex, the chafe of skin and hair against me, the pounding pleasure I give and receive as I'm stretched and plundered, that are the best of all.
Still heavy over me, breathing profoundly from all the work, he tightens his arms and murmurs his own old name into my ear. As we clean up afterwards, we argue for a while about who got shortchanged the worst at birth before we go on to argue about dessert.
Magicians have clever hands, clever tongues, and clever ways of doing things. Magicians don't believe in magic, but they perform it every day, to the delight of those around them. This particular magician is also an arrogant bastard, but he's willing to teach me a certain set of mysteries, located between the heart and the groin, that I want to learn. If I can't tell what I know to outsiders, that's okay. It's enough that I know that I'm free to choose even though I choose to stay. After all, I'm smart enough to grasp that it's good to have company for the road, when you're a carny.