Mystery Walk

Chapter 11

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33

Dear Mom and Dad,

Hello, I hope everything is all right and you're doing fine. I'm writing this letter from Dothan, where the carnival is set up at the fairgrounds. We'll be here until the first of September, and then we go to Montgomery for a week. So far business has been good, Dr. Mirakle says, and he thinks we'll do real good when we get to Birmingham the first week in October. I hope all is well with both of you.

Dad, how are you feeling? I hope your reading is still getting better. I had a dream about you a couple of nights ago. We were walking to town on the highway, just like we used to do, and everybody waved and said hello to us. It must have been springtime in my dream, because there were new buds in the trees and the sky was the soft blue of April, before the heat sets in. Anyways, we were walking just to get out and see the sights, and you were as fit as a new fiddle. It was good to hear you laugh so much, even if it was just in a dream. Maybe that means you'll get better soon, do you think?

Mom, if you're reading this letter aloud to Dad you should skip this next part. Just keep it to yourself. About two weeks ago a new ride called the Octopus joined the carnival. I found out the man who runs the Octopus is named Buck Edgers, and he's been traveling around with it for the better part of four years. A couple of the roustabouts told me there've been accidents on the Octopus. A little girl and her father died when one of the gondolas…that's the part you ride in – broke loose. Mr. Edgers took the Octopus down to Florida for a while, and a teen-age boy fell out of that same gondola when the ride was moving. I don't know if he died or not, but another roustabout told me a man had a heart attack on the Octopus two years ago, in Huntsville. Mr. Edgers changes his name when he applies for a permit from the safety inspectors, I hear, but it seems the inspectors always pass the Octopus because they can never find anything wrong with it. Mr. Edgers is always working on something or another, and I hear his hammer banging late at night when everyone else is asleep. It seems he can hardly stand to leave it alone, not even for a whole night. And when you ask him what he's working on, or how he got the Octopus in the first place, his eyes just cut you dead.

Mom, something's wrong with that ride. If I said that to anybody around here, they'd laugh in my face, but I get the feeling that a lot of other people stay their distance from the Octopus too. Just last night, when we were setting up, a roustabout helping Mr. Edgers got his foot crushed when a piece of machinery fell on it, like he did it on purpose. There have been a lot of fights lately, too, and there weren't before the Octopus joined us. People are irritable, and spoiling for trouble. A roustabout named Chalky disappeared just before we left Andalusia, and a couple of days ago Mr. Ryder got a call from the police because they found Chalky's body in a field behind the shopping center where we were set up. His neck had been crushed, but the police couldn't figure out how, I heard tell. Anyway, there's a bad feeling in the air. I'm afraid of the Octopus too, probably more than anybody else, because I think it likes the taste of blood. I don't know what to do.

Dr. Mirakle and I have been talking after the Ghost Show closes up for the night. Did I tell you he wanted to be a dentist? Did I tell you the story he told me about the machine Thomas Edison invented to try to communicate with spirits? Well, Edison drew up the blueprints for it, but he died before he could build it. Dr. Mirakle says nobody knows what happened to the blueprints. Dr. Mirakle drinks a lot and he loves to talk while he drinks. One thing he told me that is interesting: he says there are institutes where scientists are studying something called parapsychology. That has to do with your mind, and spirits and stuff. I've never told Dr. Mirakle about Will Booker, or the sawmill, or the black aura. I've never told him about Gram or the Mystery Walk. He seems to want to know about me, but he never comes right out and asks.

Well, I'd better get to sleep now. Dr. Mirakle is a good man, and he's been right about one thing: the carnival does get into your blood.

I know you can put this thirty-five dollars to good use. I'll write when I have time. I love you both.

Billy

34

Wayne Falconer sat with his mother in the backseat of the chauffeured Cadillac limo. They were on their way to the Cutcliffe Funeral Home in downtown Fayette. Jimmy Jed Falconer had been dead for two days, and was going to be buried in the morning. The monument was already picked out, ready to be put in place.

Cammy had been sobbing all morning. She wouldn't stop. Her eyes were red, her nose was running, her face was bloated and blotchy. It disgusted Wayne. He knew his daddy would've wanted her to carry herself with dignity, just like Wayne was trying to do. He wore a somber black suit and a black tie with small red checks on it. Last night, while his mother was drugged and sleeping, he'd taken a pair of scissors and cut his silk shirt and trousers, both of them stained with grass and lake mud, into long strips of cloth that he could easily burn in a trash barrel behind the barn. The stains had gone up in smoke.

Wayne winced as his mother cried. She reached out and grasped his hand, and he gently but firmly pulled away. He despised her for not getting the ambulance to the house soon enough, despised her for not having told him about his father's weak heart condition. He had seen his daddy's dead face in the hospital: blue as frost on a grave.

The last word J.J. Falconer had spoken in the hospital, before he went into a deep sleep that he never came out of, was a name.

Gammy was puzzled over it, had racked her brains trying to remember what message it might carry – but Wayne knew. Demons had been afoot in the darkness that terrible.night; they had been grinning and chuckling and drawing a net around Wayne and his daddy. One of them had appeared to him as a faceless girl on a lake's diving platform whose body – if indeed she had existed as flesh and blood at all – hadn't yet emerged from the depths. Wayne had checked the newspaper, but there was no account of the drowning. Terry Dozier had called yesterday to give his sympathy, but again there was no mention of a girl named Lonnie found floating in the lake. And Wayne had found himself feverishly wondering if she had existed at all . . . or if her body was caught in a submerged tree limb down on the muddy bottom . . . or if his daddy's death had simply eclipsed that of a poor white-trash girl.

The second demon had come creeping in the darkness to steal his father's life away; it had been sent by the Hawthorne witch-woman in revenge for his father's urging a few Hawthorne men, in a secret meeting, to put a scare into the Creekmores and get them out of the county. It was for the best of the community, Wayne remembered his daddy telling the men, their faces washed by candlelight. If you rid Hawthorne of this corruption, Falconer had said, then God will see fit to favor you. In the darkened, shadowy room Wayne had imagined he'd seen movement over in the far corner, beyond the ring of listening men; he'd had the impression – just for an instant – of something standing there in a place where the candlelight couldn't reach, something that looked almost like a wild boar that had learned to walk upright, seven feet tall or more. But when Wayne had stared into that corner the thing wasn't there at all. Now, he thought it might've been Satan himself, spying for the witch-woman and her son.

There were scores to settle. Wayne's hands were curled into fists in his lap.

The Crusade, the Falconer Foundation, the radio station, the magazine, the real-estate holdings in Georgia and Florida, the stocks and bonds, the Airstream trailer, and all the road equipment had become his, Henry Bragg and George Hodges had told him yesterday. He'd spent the morning signing papers – but not before he'd read them over several times and knew exactly what was happening. Cammy was to receive a monthly allowance from J.J. 's personal account, but the remainder of the estate, and the responsibilities that went with it, had fallen to Wayne.

An evil voice hissed through his mind like the noise of wind through lake reeds: You can't get it up. . . .

Reporters and photographers were waiting in front of the funeral home when the limousine pulled to the curb. Cameras clicked as Wayne helped his mother out of the car, and she still had enough presence of mind to lower the black veil of her hat across her face. He waved the questions aside as George Hodges came out of the funeral home to meet them.

The interior was cool and quiet and smelled like a florist's shop. Their heels clicked on a marble floor. Many people were waiting for Wayne and Cammy outside the memorial room where Jimmy Jed Falconer lay; Wayne knew most of them, and began shaking their hands and thanking them for coming. Women from the Baptist Ladies' League came over to comfort Cammy. A tall, gray-haired man in a dark blue suit shook Wayne's hand; he was, Wayne knew, the minister of a nearby Episcopal church.

Wayne forced a smile and a nod. This man was one of his father's enemies, he knew – one of the coalition of ministers who had questioned J.J. Falconer's passionate approach to the gospel. Falconer had kept files on the ministers who opposed the tone of his Crusade, and Wayne planned to keep the files in good shape.

Wayne went to his mother's side. "Are you ready to go in, Momma?"

She gave a barely perceptible nod, and Wayne led her through a pair of large oak doors into the room where the casket was displayed. Most of the people followed them in at a respectable distance. The room was filled with bouquets of flowers; the walls were painted with a pale mural, in soothing blues and greens, of grassy hills where flocks of sheep were watched over by lyre-playing shepherds. From concealed speakers "The Old Rugged Cross" was played on a mellow-sounding church organ – it was J.J. Falconer's favorite hymn. The gleaming oak casket was back-dropped by white curtains.

Wayne couldn't stand being at his mother's side for another second. I didn't know he was sick! he screamed mentally. You didn't tell me! I could've healed him and then he wouldn't be dead right now! Suddenly he felt terribly alone.

And the whispering, leering voice said, You can't get it up.

Wayne stepped toward the casket. Three more steps, and he'd be looking in at the face of Death. A tremor of fear shot through him, and again he was a little boy on a stage, not knowing what to do, as everyone stared at him. He closed his eyes, put his hands on the casket's edge, and looked in.

He almost laughed. That's not my daddy! he thought. Somebody's made a mistake! The corpse, dressed in a bright yellow suit, white shirt, and black tie, was so perfectly made up it looked like a department-store mannequin. The hair was combed just so, every curl in place; the flesh of the face filled with lifelike color. The lips were tightly compressed, as if the corpse were trying to hold back a secret. The fingernails, on the hands crossed over the body, were spotless and manicured. J.J. Falconer, Wayne realized, was going to Heaven like a dime-story dummy.

The full realization of what he'd done – lying in sin with a scarlet Jezebel while his father lay with Death pressed close to his chest – hit him like a shriek. His daddy was gone, and he was just a little boy playacting on a stage, mouthing his healing rites, waiting for the same bolt of lightning he'd felt when he had placed his hands on Toby. He wasn't ready to be alone, not yet, oh Lord not yet. . . .

Tears filled his eyes – not tears of sadness, but of livid rage. He was shaking and couldn't stop.

"Wayne?" someone said behind him.

He whirled upon the strangers in the memorial room, his face a bright, strangled red. He roared, "GET OUT OF HERE!"

There was a shocked stillness. His mother cowered, as if afraid of being struck.

He advanced upon them, "I SAID GET OUT OF HERE!" he shrieked, and they retreated, stumbling into each other like cattle. "GET OUT!" Wayne was sobbing, and he pushed George Hodges away when the man reached for him. Then they were all gone, and he was alone in the room with his father's corpse.

Wayne put his hands to his face and moaned, the tears leaking out between his fingers. After another moment he walked forward and locked the oak doors.

Then he turned to face the casket.

It could be done, he knew. Yes. If he wanted to hard enough, he could do it. It wasn't too late, because his daddy wasn't in the ground yet! He could lift up J.J. Falconer, the South's Greatest Evangelist, and all the doubts and torments that had ever plagued him about his healing powers would fly like chaff in a strong wind. Then he and his daddy would march upon the Creekmores, and send them to burn in Hell forever. Yes. It could be done.

Someone jiggled the doorknob. "Wayne?" a voice asked meekly. Then: "I think he's locked himself in!"

"Lord, let me do it," Wayne whispered, as tears ran down his face. "I know I sinned, and that's why you let the demons take my daddy away. But I'm not ready to be alone! Please … if you let me do this one thing, I'll never ask you for anything else again." He trembled, waiting for electricity to charge through him, for God's Voice to speak through his mind, for a sign or an omen or anything. "PLEASE!" he shouted.

Then he reached into the coffin and was grasping his father's thin hard shoulders. Wayne said, "Get up, Daddy. Let's show them what my healing power is really like, and how strong it is. Get up, now. I need you here with me, come on and get up. . . ."

His hands clamped harder; he closed his eyes and tried to summon up the raw healing power – where was it? Had it been all used up, a long time ago? No lightning struck him, no blue burn of power surged from his hands. "Get up, Daddy," Wayne whispered, and then he threw his head back and shouted, "I COMMAND YOU TO GET UP AND WALK!"

"Waynnnne!" Cammy screamed from beyond the locked door. "Don't, for God's sake . . . !"

"I COMMAND YOU TO THROW OFF THE CHAINS OF DEATH! DO IT NOW! DO IT NOW!" He shook like a lightning rod in a high wind, his fingers gripped tightly into yellow cloth, sweat and tears dripping from his face. The flesh-toned makeup on the corpse's cheeks were running, revealing an undercolor of whitish gray. Wayne concentrated on bringing up the power from deep within himself, from a place where volcanoes raged in his soul, where wild flames leapt. He thought of nothing but pumping Life into this casket-caged body, of willing Life back into it.

Something ripped in his brain, with a sudden sharp pain and a distinct tearing sound. A startling image whirled through his mind – the eagle and serpent in deadly combat. Black pain beat at Wayne's head, and drops of blood began leaking from his left nostril to spot the casket's white satin lining. His hands were tingling, now itching, now burning. . . .

Falconer's corpse twitched.

Wayne's eyes flew open. "YES!" he said "GET UP!"

And suddenly the corpse shook as if plugged into a high-voltage socket; it contorted and stretched, the facial muscles rippling. The hands with their perfect fingernails began rhythmically clenching and unclenching.

And then the eyelids, sewn shut with flesh-colored thread by the mortician, ripped themselves open. The eyes were sunken deep into the head, the color of hard gray marbles. With a violent twitch the lips stretched, stretched . . . and the mouth tore open, white sutures dangling; the inside of the mouth was an awful oyster gray, and cotton had been stuffed in to fill out the cheeks. The head jerked as if in agony, the body writhing beneath Wayne's hand.

Someone hammered wildly at the door. "WAYNE!" George Hodges shouted. "STOP IT!"

But Wayne was filled with righteous healing power, and he would atone for his sins by bringing J.J. Falconer back from the dark place. All he had to do was concentrate a little harder, sweat and hurt a little more. "Come back, Daddy," Wayne whispered to the writhing corpse. "Please come back. …"

"Wayne!" his mother screamed, her voice on the raw edge of hysteria. "He's dead, he's dead, leave him alone!"

And he realized, with a sickening certainty, that he had failed. All he was doing was making a dead frog jump. His daddy was dead and gone. "No," he whispered. Falconer's head twisted to one side, the mouth yawning wide.

Wayne unclenched his fingers and stepped back. Instantly the corpse lay still, the teeth clicking together as the mouth shut.

"Wayne?"

"Unlock the door!"

"Let us in, son, let us talk to you!"

He stared down at the drops of blood on the marble floor. Numbly, he wiped his nose on his sleeve. It was all over, and he had failed. The one thing he'd asked for, the most important thing, had been denied him. And why? Because he had plummeted from the Lord's grace. Somewhere, he knew, the Creekmores must be celebrating. He touched his pounding forehead with his bloody hand, and stared at the opposite wall with its mural of sheep and shepherds.

Outside the memorial room, Cammy Falconer and the assembled mourners heard the terrible crashing noises begin. It was, as a Methodist minister would later tell his wife, as if "a hundred demons had gotten in that room and gone mad." Only when the noises stopped did George Hodges and a couple of men dare to force the doors open. They found Wayne huddled in a corner. Vases of flowers had been thrown against the walls, scarring the beautiful mural and slopping water all over the floor. The corpse looked as if Wayne had tried to drag it out of the coffin. Cammy saw her son's bloody face and fainted.

Wayne was rushed to the hospital and checked in for nervous exhaustion. He was given a private room, pumped full of tranquilizers, and left alone to sleep. During the long night he was visited by two dreams: in the first, a hideous shape stood over his bed, its mouth grinning in the darkness. In the second, an eagle and a snake were locked in mortal combat – the eagle's wings sought the open sky, but the snake's darting fangs struck again and again, its poison weakening the eagle and dragging it to the earth. He awakened in a cold sweat, before the dream combat was finished, but this time he knew the snake was winning.

He chewed on tranquilizers and wore dark glasses as he watched the South's Greatest Evangelist enter the earth at ten o'clock in the morning.

His duty was crystal-clear.

EIGHT

Serpent

and Octopus

35

Dr. Mirakle was slightly drunk and exuded the aroma of Dant bourbon like a cheap cologne. A flask full of the stuff sat on the table near his elbow. On a plate before him was a soggy hot dog and baked beans. It was lunchtime, and the air was filled with dust as the trucks and cranes set up the sideshows at the Gadsden fairgrounds; in another week the carnival would be heading into Birmingham, and the season would be over.

Billy sat across from Dr. Mirakle beneath the wooden roof of the open-air cafe. The Ghost Show tent was already up, ready for tonight's business. Dr Mirakle looked distastefully at his food and swigged from the flask, then offered it to Billy. "Go ahead, it won't kill you. God, to eat this food you need a little antibiotic protection! You know, if you expect to stay with the carnival you'd better get used to the taste of alcohol."

"Stay?" Billy was silent for a moment, watching as the trucks rumbled along the midway with various parts of rides and sideshows. The Octopus was being put together out there, somewhere in the haze of dust. "I wasn't planning on staying after we leave Birmingham."

"Don't you like the carnival?"

"Well … I guess I do, but . . . there's work to be done at home."

"Ah yes." Mirakle nodded. He was unshaven and bleary-eyed from a long night of driving and then raising the Ghost Show tent. "Your home. I'd forgotten: people have homes. I had thought you might be interested in seeing my workshop, where I put together all the Ghost Show figures. It's in that house I own in Mobile – a house, mind you, not a home. My home is this." He motioned toward the midway. "Dust and all, I love it. Next year the Ghost Show will be bigger than ever! It'll have twice as many ghosts and goblins, twice as many optical effects! I thought . . . perhaps you'd like to help me with it."

Billy sipped at a cup of hot black coffee. "Something I've been meaning to ask you for a long time. Maybe I thought you'd get around to telling me, but you haven't. Just exactly why did you want me to be your assistant this summer?"

"I told you. I had heard about you and your mother, and I . . ."

"No sir. That's not all of it, is it? You could've hired anybody to help you with the Ghost Show. So why did you search so long and hard for my mother and me?"

The man looked out at the billowing yellow dust and swigged from his flask. His nose was laced with bright red and blue veins, and the whites of his eyes were a sad yellowish color. "Can you really do what . . . people have said?" he asked finally. "Do you and your mother have the ability to communicate with the dead?"

Billy nodded.

"Many people before you have said they could, too. I've never seen anything remotely resembling a ghost. I've seen pictures, of course, but those are easily faked. Oh, what I'd give to be able to see . . . something that would hint of life in the beyond -  wherever that might be. You know, there are institutes devoting their whole resources to exploring the question of life after death . . . did I tell you that already? One is in Chicago, another in New York – I wrote the Chicago people once, and they sent me back a questionnaire, but by then it was too late."

"What was too late?" Billy asked.

"Things," Mirakle replied. He looked at Billy for a moment and then nodded. "If you can see apparitions, doesn't that fill you with a hope that there is an afterlife?"

"I never thought there wasn't."

"Ah. Blind faith, eh? And how do you arrive at that conclusion? Your religious beliefs? Your crutch?" Something angry and bitter flared behind Dr Mirakle's rheumy eyes for an instant, then subsided. "Damn," he said softly. "What is Death? The ending of the first act, or the final curtain? Can you tell me?"

Billy said, "No sir."

"All right, I'll tell you why I sought you out. Because I wanted desperately to believe in what I heard about you and your mother; I wanted to find someone who might . . . help me make sense of this preposterous joke we refer to as Life. What's beyond all this?" He made a wide gesture – the cafe, the other workers and carny people sitting around talking and eating, the dusty midway.

"I don't know."

Dr. Mirakle's gaze fell to the table. "Well. How would you? But you have a chance to know, Billy, if what you say about yourself is true. My wife, Ellen, had a chance to know, as well."

"Your wife?" It was the first time the man had mentioned his wife's name. "Is she in Mobile?"

"No. No, not in Mobile. I visited her one day before I found my way to Hawthorne. Ellen is a permanent resident of the state insane asylum in Tuscaloosa." He glanced at Billy, his lined face tight and tired. "She . . . saw something, in that house in Mobile. Or did she? Well, she likes to fingerpaint and comb her hair all day long now, and what she saw that pushed her over the edge is a moot point, isn't it?"

"What did she see?"

Mirakle took out his wallet and opened it to the photograph of the young man in the service uniform. He slid it across the table to Billy. "Kenneth was his name. Korea. He was killed by mortar fire on . . . oh, what's the date? I carried the exact day in my head for so long! Well, it was in August of 1951. I seem to remember that it happened on a Wednesday. I was always told that he favored me. Do you think so?"

"In the eyes, yes."

Mirakle took the wallet back and put it away. "Wednesday in August. How hot and final that sounds! Our only child. I watched Ellen slowly fall into the bourbon bottle, a tradition I have since clung to wholeheartedly. Is there such a thing as ever really letting a dead child go? Over a year after the burial, Ellen was taking a basket of clothes up the stairs in our house, and right at the top of the stairs stood Kenneth. She said she could smell the pomade in his hair, and he looked at her and said, 'You worry too much, Ma.' It was something he used to say to her all the time, to tease her. Then she blinked and he wasn't there. When I got home, I found she'd been walking up and down those stairs all day hoping she could trigger whatever it had been that had made her see him. But, of course . . ." He looked up at Billy, who'd been listening intently, and then shifted uneasily in his chair "I stay in that house for most of the winter, in between seasons. Sometimes I think I'm being watched; sometimes I can imagine Ken calling me, his voice echoing through the hallway. I would sell that house and move away, but . . . what if Ken is still there, trying to reach me, but I can't see him?"

"Is that why you want me to go to Mobile with you? To find out if your son is still in that house?"

"Yes. I have to know, one way or the other."

Billy was pondering the request when three women, laughing and talking, came in out of the dust. One of them was a lean black girl, the second was a coarse-looking redhead – but the third young woman was a walking vision. One glance and he was riveted; it was the girl whose picture he'd admired outside the Jungle Love sideshow!

She had a smooth, sensual stride, and she wore a pair of blue jeans that looked spray-painted on. Her green T-shirt read I'm a Virgin (This Is a Very Old T-Shirt) and she wore an orange CAT cap over loose blond curls. Billy looked up into her face as she passed the table, and saw greenish gold eyes under blond brows; her aroma lingered like the smell of wheatstraw on a July morning. She carried herself with proud sexuality, and seemed to know that every man in the place was drooling. She was obviously used to being watched. Several roustabouts whistled as the three women went to the counter to order their food.

"Ah, youth!" Even Dr. Mirakle had tried to suck in his gut. "I presume those ladies are dancers in that exhibition down the midway?"

"Yes sir." Billy hadn't been inside yet. Usually after a day's work it was all he could do to fall onto his cot at the back of the Ghost Show tent.

The three women got their food and sat at a nearby table. Billy couldn't keep his eyes off the one in the CAT cap. He watched as she ate her hot dog with a rather sloppy abandon, talking and laughing with her friends. Her beautiful eyes, he noticed, kept sliding toward two guys at another table. They were staring at her with a silent hunger, just as Billy was.

"She's got ten years on you, if a day," Dr. Mirakle said quietly. "If your tongue hangs down any farther you could sweep the floor with it."

There was something about her that set a fire burning in Billy. He didn't even hear Dr Mirakle. She suddenly glanced over in his direction, her eyes almost luminous, and Billy felt a shiver of excitement. She held his gaze for only a second, but it was long enough for wild fantasies to start germinating in his brain.

"I would guess that your . . . uh . . . love life has been rather limited," Dr. Mirakle said. "You're almost eighteen and I have no right throwing in my two cents, but I did promise your mother I'd look after you. So here's my advice, and take it or leave it: Some women are Wedgwood, and some are Tupperware. That is the latter variety. Billy? Are you listening to me?"

"I'm going to get some more coffee." He took his cup to the counter for a refill, passing right by her table.

"Live and learn, son," Dr. Mirakle said grimly.

Billy got his fresh cup of coffee and came back by the table again. He was so nervous he was about to shake it out of the cup, but he was determined to say something to the girl. Something witty, something that would break the ice. He stood a few feet away from them for a moment, trying to conjure up words that would impress her; then he stepped toward her, and she looked up quizzically at him, her gaze sharpening.

"Hi there," he said. "Haven't we met somewhere before?"

"Take a hike," she said, as the other two giggled.

And suddenly a flask was thrust under her nose. "Drink?" Dr. Mirakle asked. "J.W. Dant, finest bourbon in the land."

She looked at them both suspiciously, then sniffed at the flask. "Why not?" She took a drink and passed it around the table.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Dr. Reginald Mirakle, and this is my right-hand man, Mr. Billy Creekmore. What Mr. Creekmore meant to offer you lovely ladies is an open invitation to visit the Ghost Show at your convenience."

"The Ghost Show?" the redhead asked. "What kind of crap is that?"

"You mean that funky little tent on the midway? Yeah, I've seen it." The blonde stretched, her unfettered breasts swelling against her shirt. "What do you do, tell fortunes?"

"Better than that, fair lady. We probe into the world of spirits and speak to the dead."

She laughed. There were more lines in her face than Billy had thought, but he found her beautiful and sexually magnetic! "Forget it! I've got enough hassles with the living to screw around with the dead!"

"I . . . I've seen your picture," Billy said, finally finding his voice. "Out in front of the show."

Again, she seemed to pull away from him. "Are you the bastard who's been stealin' my pictures?"

"No."

"Better not be. They cost a lot of money."

"Well . . . it's not me, but I can understand why. I . . . think you're really pretty."

She gave him the faintest hint of a smile. "Why, thank you."

"I mean it. I really think you're pretty." He might have gone on like that, had Dr Mirakle not nudged him in the ribs.

"Are you an Indian, kid?" she asked.

"Part Indian. Choctaw."

"Choctaw," she repeated, and her smile was a little brighter "You look like an Indian. I'm part French" – the other women hooted – "and part Irish. My name's Santha Tully. Those two bitches across the table don't have names, 'cause they were hatched from buzzard eggs."

"Are you all dancers?"

"We're entertainers," the redhead told him.

"I've been wanting to see the show, but the sign says you have to be twenty-one to get in."

"How old are you?"

"Almost eighteen. Practically."

She gave him a quick appraisal. He was a nice-looking boy, she thought. Really nice, with those strange dark hazel eyes and curly hair. He reminded her, in a way, of Chalky Davis. Chalky's eyes had been dark brown, but this boy was taller than Chalky had been. The news of Chalky's death – murder, she'd heard – still disturbed her, though they hadn't slept together but two or three times. Santha wondered if this boy was involved in any of the creepy things that had been happening to her in the last few weeks; somebody had put a half-dozen dead roses on the steps of her trailer, and she had heard strange noises late at night as if someone were prowling around. That's why she didn't like to sleep alone. One night last week, she could've sworn that somebody had been inside her trailer and gone through her costumes.

But this boy's eyes were friendly. She saw in them the unmistakable sheen of desire. "Come see the show, both of you. Tell the old bat out front that Santha sent you. Okay?"

Dr. Mirakle took the empty flask back. "We'll look forward to it."

Santha looked up into Billy's eyes. She decided she wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers. He seemed nervous and shy and . . . virgin? she wondered. "Come by the show, Choctaw," she said, and winked. "Real soon."

Dr. Mirakle almost had to drag him out.

Santha laughed. The two cute roustabouts were still eyeing her. "Virgin," she said. "Bet you twenty bucks."

"No takers," the black girl told her.

And in the swirl of dust spun up by the heavy trucks Dr Mirakle shook his head and muttered, "Entertainers indeed."

36

"Last show of the night!" the platinum-blond female barker was bellowing through a microphone. "Hey you in the hat! How about a thrill, huh? Well come on in! It's all right here, five lovely sensually young girls who just loooove to do their thang! Hey mister, why don't you leave your wife out here and come on in? I guarantee he'll be a better man for it, honey! Last show of the night! Hear those drums beat? The natives are restless tonight, and you never can tell who they're gonna do … I mean what they're gonna do, ha ha!"

Billy stood with the rest of the interested males grouped around the Jungle Love show. He wanted to go in there, but he was as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rockers. A man wearing a straw hat and a flashy printed shirt drawled, "Hey, lady! They dance nude in there?"

"Does a big bear shit in the woods?"

"You don't dance nude do you, big mamma?"

She let out a husky laugh that shook her rouged cheeks. "Don't you wish, little boy? Last show of the night! Fifty cents, fifty cents! Half a dollar'll get you in, you provide your own sin! Come on, step in line!"

Billy paused. Dr Mirakle had told him that if he absolutely insisted in coming to the "strip show," then he should put his wallet in a place where light fingers couldn't get to it, and he shouldn't sit next to anybody who put a hat in his lap.

When Billy had passed the Octopus he felt a rush of dread through him, and thought he heard awful distant shrieks emanating from the covered gondola. But no one else seemed to hear them. Buck had given him a baleful glare, warning him to stay away. In motion, the Octopus cluttered and groaned, the tired engine snorting steam; the green tarpaulin covering the scabrous gondola cracked in the wind. As far as Billy knew, Buck never took the tarpaulin off; the gondola itself had to be attached to the machine, otherwise the Octopus would be off-balance and would go pinwheeling across the midway like a huge, deadly top. Buck was trying to keep riders out of that gondola, Billy knew, because the man must be fearful of what might happen should anyone get inside it. Maybe Buck was trying his best to keep it muzzled, Billy thought. What if, for lack of steady victims, it was feeding on Buck's soul and body – taking an arm, slicing a finger or an ear -  while the dark ripples of its power strengthened and spread?

"Fifty cents, fifty cents! Don't be shy boys, come on in!"

At least in there he could lose himself, Billy thought. He moved forward, and the barker motioned toward a cigar box. "Fifty cents, hon. If you're twenty-one I'm little Orphan Annie, but what the hell! …"

Inside, in a smoky haze of green light, a dozen long benches faced a stage with a garishly painted backdrop of twisted jungle foliage. The drumbeats bellowed from a speaker hidden off to the left. He sat in a center row as the place filled up with hooting, shouting men. They started clapping in time with the drumbeats, and there were hoarse yells for the show to begin. Suddenly the blond barker was up on the stage, and the drumbeats ceased. She said through a microphone that buzzed and warbled with feedback, "Okay, hold it down! We're gonna start in a minute! Right now I want you to take a look at these playing cards I hold in my hand, but don't look too close unless you want your eyebrows burned off! Yessir, straight from Paris, France, showing the kind of pictures that make a man want to get up and crow! You can't buy these in the local Woolworth's! But you can buy 'em right here, for only two dollars and seventy-five cents! Yessir, they know how to play cards in Paris! . . ."

Billy shifted uneasily in his seat. Cigar smoke drifted in front of his face. Somebody shouted, "Get off the stage or strip nekkid, baby!" He had the vague and unsettling sensation of being watched, yet when he looked around toward the back he saw only a mass of leering faces daubed in green light.

The show began. To a blare of rock music, a fleshy redhead in a black bikini – one of the women who'd been with Santha that afternoon, Billy realized – came strutting out on stage with a large stuffed chimpanzee doll. Her thighs quivered as she rolled her hips, letting the chimp sniff around her barely covered breasts and moving it slowly all over her body. The men were suddenly very quiet, as if mesmerized. After a minute or two of gyrating, the woman rolled around on the floor with the chimp and pretended dismay when her breasts popped free. She lay on her back, thrusting as the chimp sat astride her crotch. She began to moan and writhe, scissoring her legs into the air; her hips bucked faster and faster, her bare breasts trembling. Billy was sure that his eyes were about to pop from their sockets. Then the green lights went out and when they came back on again the barker was there, offering for sale something called Tijuana comic books.

The next dancer was the thin black girl, who contorted herself into positions that would've snapped any ordinary backbone. Most of the time her crotch, clad in flimsy panties with a cat's-eye strategically placed, was aimed toward the audience while her head was resting on the floor. The music hammered and roared, but the girl moved very slowly, as if to her own inner rhythm. Billy caught a glimpse of her eyes once, and saw they were blank of all emotion.

After the barker had tried to sell a Pecker Stretcher, a tall, big-boned girl wearing a bright yellow gown came out to dance; she had a huge mane of yellow hair that flowed down her back, and halfway into her act, when her huge breasts were peeking out from the material and it was obvious she was totally nude underneath, she suddenly whipped off the mane to show she was bald-headed. There was a collective stunned gasp, and then she made sure everybody could see that something else was bald, too.

The lion-girl was followed by a harsh-looking, slightly overweight brunette in a tiger-skin bikini; she mostly stood in one place, making her breasts bounce, flicking the nipples with her fingers, or clenching her buttocks. Then she did a few deep-knee bends that were obviously torturous for her and left her face sheened with sweat. After she'd gone offstage, the barker hawked a set of "French ticklers," and then she said, "Okay, are you ready to fry? You ready to have your eggs scrambled, boiled, and turned sunny-side up?"

There was a roar of assent.

"Meet Santha … the Panther Girl. …"

The lights went out for a few seconds. When they came back on, there was a black shape curled up at center stage. The drums started beating again. Slowly, a shaft of red light strengthened across the stage, like the red dawn on an African veld. Billy found himself leaning forward, utterly entranced.

From the black curl a single bare leg lifted up, then sank down again. An arm reached up, stretching. The figure stirred and slowly began to rise. She was wearing a long robe made of sleek black fur, and she kept it tightly around her as she surveyed the audience, her blond curls a shining red halo. Billy saw the dark in her hair where the real color had grown out, and she seemed to have on an inch of make up, but there was a challenge and a defiance in her glowing eyes that made the Pecker Stretcher obsolete. She smiled – faintly, with a touch of dangerous promise – and then, though it hadn't appeared she'd even moved at all, the black robe dropped slowly lower and lower until it was resting on the full rise of her bosom. She clasped the robe with one hand, and now as she began to move slowly and sinuously to the drumbeats the robe would part to show a brief glimpse of stomach, thigh, or the dark and inviting V between them. She kept her eyes on the audience, and Billy knew she loved to be looked at, loved to be wanted.

And Billy, though he knew lust was a terrible sin, wanted her so badly he thought he would burst apart at the seams.

The black robe continued to drop, but slowly – at Santha's pace, not the audience's. There was a heavy silence but for the drumbeats, and smoke swirled in layers like a jungle mist. Then the robe was off and kicked aside, and Santha was naked but for a brief black G-string.

Her hips moved faster. Santha's face radiated hot need, the muscles of her smooth thighs tensing; she reached out, her fingers rippling through the currents of smoke. Then she was down on her knees, reaching for the audience, on her side, writhing with lust and desire. She stretched like a beautiful cat, then lay on her back and lifted her legs, slowly scissoring them. The drumbeats hammered at Billy's head, and he knew he couldn't stand much more of this. She curled her knees up toward her chin, and suddenly the G-string fell away and there was a liquid wink between her thighs. And then the lights went out.

Breath burst from several sets of lungs. A harsh white light came on, showing all the rips and seams in the painted backdrop, and the barker said, "That's all, gentlemen! Y'all come back now, hear?"

There were a few shouts of "More!" and assorted catcalls, but the show was over. Billy couldn't move for a few minutes, because he was as big as a railroad spike and he knew he'd either split his pants or burst his balls if he tried to stagger out. When he finally did stand up, the place was empty. He could just imagine what his folks would say if they knew where he was right now. He limped toward the exit.

"I thought that you was out there. Hey, Choctaw!"

Billy turned. Santha was onstage again, wrapped up in her black robe. His heart almost stuttered to a stop.

"How'd you like it?"

"It was . . . okay, I guess."

"Okay? Jeez, we worked our asses off for you boys! And all you have to say is 'okay'? I saw you out there, but sometimes it's hard to make out faces in that damned light. How'd you like Leona? You know, the lion-girl."

"Uh … she was fine."

"She just joined the show at the first of June. She had a disease when she was a little girl that made her hair fall out." She smiled when she saw the bewildered look in his eyes. "Not all her hair, dope! She shaves that part."

"Oh."

The bulky platinum-blond barker came out, coiling up the microphone cord. She was smoking a cheroot and scowling with an expression that might've shattered a mirror. "Christ! Did you ever see such a bunch of losers? Cheap bastards, too! Fuckers wouldn't even buy one set of ticklers! You goin' to Barbie's birthday party!"

"I don't know," Santha said. "Maybe." She glanced over at Billy. "Want to go to a party, Choctaw?"

"I . . . guess I'd better be getting back to – "

"Oh, come on! Besides, I need somebody to help me carry my makeup case and my wardrobe to my trailer. And I feel bad about jumping your case this afternoon."

"Better take it while you can," the barker said, not looking at Billy but rather examining something up in the lights. "Santha's never fucked an Indian before."

"Just a party," Santha told him. She laughed softly. "Come on, I won't bite."

"Are you . . . gonna get dressed?"

"Sure. I'll put on my chastity belt and my suit of armor. How about that?"

Billy smiled. "Okay, I'll go."

"You mean you don't have to sign out for that old ghost nut you work for?"

"Nope."

"Good. You can be my date, and get me past all the local horny old men who'll be waiting outside. Come on back to the dressing room."

Billy paused just for a few seconds, then followed her back behind the stage. His head was reeling with possibilities, and he thought how wonderful love felt.

The barker muttered, "Another one bites the dust . . ." and then she switched off the lights.

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