Mystery Walk

Chapter 12

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37

Being drunk, Billy thought as he staggered down the midway, was a lot like being in love. Your head spun like a top, your stomach lurched, and you knew you'd done crazy things but you couldn't quite remember what they were. The last couple of hours were all blurred in his mind; he recalled leaving with Santha, carrying her makeup case to her trailer for her, and then going with her to somebody else's trailer where there were a lot of people laughing loud and drinking. Santha had introduced him as Choctaw, somebody had put a beer in his hand, and an hour after that he was seriously contemplating Leona's bald pate while she told him her life story. The trailer had overflowed with people, music blared into the night, and after his sixth beer Billy had found himself on the wrong end of a stubby cigarette that had set fire to his lungs and, strangely, reminded him of the pipe he'd smoked with his old grandmother. Only this time, instead of seeing visions, he'd giggled like an ape and told ghost stories that he invented off the top of his ripped-open head. He remembered feeling a green burn of jealousy as he saw Santha being embraced by another man; he thought that the man and Santha had left the party together, but now it didn't matter. In the morning, it might. When he'd finally left, Barbie the black contortionist had hugged him and thanked him for coming, and now he was trying to keep from walking in circles and right angles.

He was not so drunk that he didn't take a long detour around the Octopus. A pale mist lay close to the earth along the midway. He wondered vaguely if he was a fool for being in love with a woman like Santha, older than he was and more experienced by a country mile. Was she playing with him, laughing behind his back? Hell, he thought, I hardly even know her! But she sure is pretty, even with all that glop on her face. Tomorrow he might just wander by her trailer to see what she looked like palefaced. Never fucked an Indian. He had to stop thinking like this now, or even the beers wouldn't help him sleep.

"Boy?" someone said quietly.

Billy stopped and looked around; he thought he'd heard a voice, but . . .

"I'm over here."

Billy still couldn't see anyone. The Ghost Show tent was just a few yards away. If he could make his legs cross the midway without folding on him, he'd be okay. "Huh? Where?"

"Right here." And the entrance to the Killer Snakes sideshow slowly opened, as if the painted reptile had yawned its jaws wide for him.

"I can't see you. Turn on a light."

There was a pause. Then, "You're afraid, aren't you?"

"Hell, no! I'm Billy Creekmore and I'm a Choctaw Indian and know what? I can see ghosts!"

"That's very good. You must be like me. I enjoy the night."

"Uh-huh." Billy looked across the midway at the Ghost Show tent. "Gotta get to sleep. …"

"Where have you been?"

"Party. Somebody's birthday."

"Well, isn't that nice. Why don't you step inside, and we'll talk."

He stared at the dark entrance, his vision going in and out of focus. "No. I don't like snakes. They give me the creeps."

There was a soft little laugh. "Oh, snakes are wonderful creatures. They're very good at catching rats."

"Yeah. Well" – he ran a hand through his tousled hair and started to walk away – "been nice talkin' to you."

"Wait! Please. We can talk about . . . about Santha, if you like."

"Santha? What about her?"

"Oh, about how lovely she is. And innocent really, deep in her heart. She and I are very close; she tells me all her secrets."

"She does?"

"Yes." The voice was a silken whisper. "Come in, and we'll talk."

"What kind of secrets?"

"She's told me things about you, Billy. Step in, and then I'll turn on the lights and we'll have a nice long talk."

"I . . . can only stay a minute." He was afraid of crossing that threshold, but he wanted to know who this man was and what Santha might've told him. "Are any of those snakes loose?"

"Oh, no. Not a one. Do you think I'm crazy?"

Billy grinned. "Naw." He took the first step, and found the second one easier Then he was moving into the clammy darkness and he thrust out his arms to touch whoever was standing there. "Hey, where are . . ."

Behind him, the door slammed shut. A bolt was thrown. Billy spun around, his beer-fogged brain reacting with agonized slowness. And then a thick rope was coiled around his throat, almost choking him; the weight of it drove him to his knees, where he gripped at the rope to pull it loose. To his horror, it undulated beneath his fingers – and grew tighter. His head was pounding.

"Boy," the figure whispered, bending close, "there's a boa constrictor around your neck. If you struggle it's going to strangle you."

Billy moaned, tears of terror springing to his eyes. He grabbed at the thing, desperately trying to loosen it.

"I'll let it kill you," the man warned solemnly. "You're drunk, you stumbled in here not knowing where you were – how can I be at fault for that? Don't struggle, boy. Just listen."

Billy sat very still, a scream locked behind his teeth. The snakeman knelt down beside him so he could whisper in Billy's ear "You're going to leave that girl alone. You know the one I mean. Santha. I saw you tonight at the show, and I saw you later, at the party. Oh, you couldn't see me – but I was there." The snakeman gripped his hair "You're a very smart young man, aren't you? Smarter than Chalky was. Say yes, Mr Fitts."

"Yes, Mr. Fitts," Billy croaked.

"That's good. Santha is such a beautiful girl, isn't she? Beauty." He spoke that word as if it were exotic poison. "But I can't keep all the men away from her, can I? She doesn't understand how I feel about her yet, but she will . . . she will. And when she does she won't need scum like you. You're going to leave her alone, and if you don't I'll find out about it. Understand?"

Red motes spun before Billy's eyes. When he tried to nod, the boa tightened.

"Good. That machine whispers to me at night, boy. You know the one: the Octopus. Oh, it tells me everything I need to know. And guess what? It's watching you. So whatever you do, I'm going to know about it. I can pick any kind of lock, boy – and my snakes can get in anywhere." He released Billy's hair, and sat back on his haunches for a moment. Over the ringing of blood in his ears, Billy heard small hissings and slitherings from elsewhere in the tent.

"Don't move, now," Fitts said. He slowly worked the boa free from Billy's neck. Billy pitched forward onto his face in the sawdust. Fitts stood up and prodded him in the ribs with his shoe. "If you're going to puke, do it on the midway. Go on, get out of here."

"Help me up. Please. …"

"No," the snake-man whispered. "Crawl."

The bolt was thrown back, the door opened. Billy, shaking and sick, crawled past the man, who remained a vague outline in the darkness. The door closed quietly behind him.

38

Wayne Falconer was awakened when something began slowly dragging the sheet off his body.

He sat up abruptly, sleep still fogging his brain, and saw an indistinct form sitting at the foot of his bed. At first he cowered, because for an instant he thought it was that dark and hideous shape he'd seen in his dreams, and now it had come to consume him; but then he blinked and realized it was his father, wearing his bright yellow funeral suit, sitting there with a faint smile on his ruddy, healthy-looking face.

"Hello, son," J.J. said quietly.

Wayne's eyes widened, the breath slowly rasping from his lungs. "No," he said. "No, you're in the ground. … I saw you go into the . . ."

"Did you? Maybe I am in the ground." He grinned, showing even white teeth. "But . . . maybe you did bring part of me back to life, Wayne. Maybe you're a lot stronger than you thought you were."

Wayne shook his head. "You're …"

"Dead? I'll never be dead to you, son. Because you loved me more than anybody else did. And now you realize how much you needed me, don't you? Keeping the Crusade going is a hard job, isn't it? Working with the businessmen and the lawyers, keeping all the accounts straight, pushing the Crusade forward . You've hardly begun, and already you know there's more to it than you thought. Isn't that right?"

Wayne's headache had come back again, crushing his temples. Since the funeral a month ago, the headaches had gotten much worse. He ate aspirin by the handful. "I can't … I can't do i' alone," he whispered.

"Alone. Now isn't that an awful word? It's kind of like the word dead. But you don't have to be alone, just like I don't have to be dead . . . unless you want it that way."

"No!" Wayne said, "But I don't . . ."

"Shhhhh," Falconer cautioned, with a finger to his lips. "Your mother's right down the hall, and we wouldn't want her to hear." The shaft of silver moonlight that filtered through the window winked off the buttons on his father's coat; the shadow that was thrown from his father was huge and shapeless. "I can help you, son, if you let me. I can be with you, and I can guide you."

"My . . . head hurts. I . . . can't think. …"

"You're only confused. There's so much responsibility on you, so much work and healing to be done. And you're still a boy, just going on eighteen. No wonder your head aches, with all that thinking and worrying you have to do. But there are things we have to talk about, Wayne; things you can't tell anybody else, not in the whole world."

"What kind of . . . things?"

Falconer leaned closer to him. Wayne thought there was a red spark in his eyes, down under the pale blue-green. "The girl, Wayne. The girl at the lake."

"I don't want to . . . think about that. No, please. …"

"But you have to! Oh, you have to take the consequences of your actions."

"She didn't drown!" Wayne said, tears glittering in his eyes. "There was never anything in the paper about it! Nobody ever found her! Nobody ever found her! She must've . . . just run away or something!"

Falconer said quietly, "She's under the platform, Wayne. She's caught up underneath there. She's already swelled up like a balloon, and pretty soon she'll pop wide open and what's left will sink down into the mud. The fish and the turtles will pick her clean. She was a wild, sinful girl, Wayne, and her folks probably think she's just run away from home. Nobody would ever connect you with her, even if they find her bones. And they won't. There was a demon in her, Wayne, and she was waiting there for you."

"Waiting for me?" he whispered. "Why?"

"To keep you from getting home, where I needed you. Don't you think you could have saved me, if you'd known?"

"Yes."

Falconer nodded. "Yes. You see, there are demons at work everywhere. This country is rotten with sin, and it all festers from a little run-down shack in Hawthorne. She calls dark powers to do her bidding. You know who I mean. You've known for a long time. She and her boy are strong, Wayne; they've got the forces of Death and Hell behind them, and they want to destroy you just like they destroyed me. They weakened my faith in you, and I reached out for you too late. Now they'll work on your faith in yourself, make you doubt that you could ever heal at all. Oh, they're strong and wicked and they should go down in flames."

"Flames," Wayne repeated.

"Yes. You'll have the chance to send them into Hellfire, Wayne, if you let me guide you. I can be with you whenever you need me. I can help you with the Crusade. So you see? I'm not really dead, unless you want me to be."

"No! I . . . need your help, Dad. Sometimes I just … I just don't know what to do! Sometimes I . . . don't know if the things I've done are good or bad. …"

"You don't have to worry," Falconer said, with a gentle smile. "Everything'll be fine, if you'll trust me. You need to take a drug called Percodan for your headaches. Tell George Hodges, and make him get it for you."

Puzzled, Wayne frowned. "Dad … I thought you said medicines were sinful, and those people who took medicines were doing the Devil's bidding."

"Some medicines are sinful. But if you're in pain, and you're confused, then you need something to take the burden off you for a little while. Isn't that right?"

"I guess so," Wayne agreed, though he could never remember his father talking about drugs like this before. Percodan, had he said?

"I'll be here when you need me," Falconer said. "But if you tell anyone, even your mother, then I can't come back and help you anymore. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir." He paused for a moment, then whispered, "Dad? What's being dead like?"

"It's . . . like being in a black hole, son, on the blackest night you can imagine, and you try to crawl out but you don't know which is the top and which is the bottom."

"But . . . haven't you heard the angels sing?"

"Angels?" He grinned again, but his eyes were still gelid. "Oh, yes. They do sing." And then he put his fingers to his lips, glancing quickly toward the door.

An instant afterward, there was a soft knocking. "Wayne?" Cammy's voice carried a tremble.

"What is it?"

The door opened a few inches. "Wayne, are you all right?"

"Why shouldn't I be?" He realized he was alone now; the yellow-suited figure was gone, and the room was empty. My dad is alive! he shrieked inwardly, his heart pounding with joy.

"I . . . thought I heard you talking. You're sure you're all right?"

"I said I was, didn't I? Now leave me alone, I've got a long day tomorrow!"

She looked nervously around the room, opening the door a little wider so the hallway light could stream in. The mounted airplane models and large wall posters of military aircraft took up a lion's share of the room. Wayne's clothes were strewn on a chair. Cammy said, "I'm sorry I bothered you. Good-night."

Wayne lay back down as the door closed. He waited for a long time, but his father didn't come back. You bitch! he seethed at his mother. You killed him a second time! But no, no . . .his father would return to the world of the living when he was needed; Wayne was sure of it. Before he drifted to sleep, Wayne repeated the word Percodan ten times to burn it into his mind.

And in her room down the hallway, Cammy Falconer lay in bed with all the lights blazing. She was staring at the ceiling. Every so often a shiver passed through her It was not Wayne's voice, in the middle of the night, that had been so bad.

It had been the guttural, harsh mumbling that Cammy had heard faintly through the wall.

Answering her son.

39

The game booths, rides, and sideshows had sprung up from the mud covering Birmingham's fairgrounds. The rain fell in drizzles and sheets for three days, blasting the state fair business to hell. Still, people continued to slog through the sawdusty mud; drenched to the bone, they sought refuge in the arcades and enclosed shows, but they left the rides alone as light bulbs and wires sputtered under the rain.

That was for the best, Billy knew. Because people wouldn't be riding the Octopus in the rain, and it would be deprived of what it needed. This was the last stop of the season. If whatever presence, that controlled the Octopus was going to strike, it would have to be in the next four days. At night, even while the rain pattered on the Ghost Show tent's roof, Billy could hear Buck Edgers working on his machine, the hammer's noise echoing down the long ghostly corridor of the midway. While setting up the Octopus on the slippery field, a roustabout's shoulder was broken by a piece of metal that toppled from above. Word had gone out about the machine, and now everyone avoided it.

Billy stood outside Santha Tully's trailer, in a light drizzle that had washed away the last of the night's customers. He had been here twice since the carnival had reached Birmingham: the first time, he'd heard Santha laughing with a man inside there, and the second time he'd come out through the rows of trailers to find a short, balding figure standing in the shadows not ten feet from him. The man had instantly whirled toward him, and Billy had gotten a quick glimpse of his startled face, wearing dark-tinted glasses, before the man had run away. Billy had followed him for a short distance, but lost him in the maze of trailers. He'd told no one about the incident at the Killer Snakes tent, fearing that the man would find out and put his snakes to work, perhaps on Santha or Dr. Mirakle. But he still desired her, and still needed to see her.

He screwed up his courage, looked around to make sure no one had followed him, and then walked up a couple of cinder-block steps to the trailer's door. A curtain was closed in a single oval window, but light leaked out around it; he could hear the scratchy whine of a country singer. He knocked at the door and waited. The music stopped. He knocked again, less hesitantly, and heard Santha say, "Yeah? Who is it?"

"Me. Billy Creekmore."

"Choctaw?" A bolt slid back, and the thin door opened. She stood there in the dim golden light, wearing a black silk robe that clung to the curves of her body. Her hair was a dusky halo, and Billy saw that she wore practically no makeup. There were a lot of lines around her eyes, and her lips looked sad and thin. In her right hand there was a small chrome-plated pistol. "Anybody else out there?" she asked.

"No."

She opened the door wider to let him in, then bolted it again. The room was a cramped half living area and half kitchen. The bed, an unsteady-looking cot with a bright blue spread, was right out in the open, next to a rack of clothes on their hangers. A dressing table was cluttered with a dozen different kinds of creams, lipsticks, and various cosmetics. On a tiny kitchen table was a battered record player, next to a small stack of unwashed dishes. Posters of Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen decorated the walls, along with a rebel flag and a Day-Glo Love poster. A door led into a tiny bathroom and shower stall.

Billy stared at the pistol. Santha flicked the safety on and put it away in a dresser drawer. "Sorry," she said. "Sometimes I get jumpy late at night." Santha stepped past him and peered out the window for a moment. "I was expecting a friend of mine. He was supposed to be here about thirty minutes ago."

"Anybody special?"

Santha looked at him, then gave him a little crooked smile. "No. Just a friend. Somebody to pass the time with, I guess."

Billy nodded. "I'd better go, then. I don't want to – "

"No!" She reached out and grasped his arm. "No, don't go. Stay here and talk to me until Buddy gets here, okay? Really, I don't like to be here alone."

"What'll he think if he finds me with you?"

"I don't know." She didn't release her grip. "What would he think?"

Her eyes were luminous in the weak light from a single table lamp, her fingers cool against his rain-dampened skin. Billy said, "Maybe he'd think . . . something was going on between us."

"Do you want something to go on between us?"

"I … I hardly know you."

"You didn't answer my question, Choctaw. Is it you who's been sneaking around my trailer at night?"

"No." Tell her about the man, he told himself; but what good would it do? It would only scare her more, and the police couldn't prove the snake-man had had anything to do with Chalky's death. No. In four days, the fair would be over and she'd be leaving, and then that man couldn't bother her anymore.

"Well, I think it has been you. I think you've been sneakin' around and spyin' on me! Naughty, naughty!" She grinned and let go of him. "Sit down. Do you want a beer?"

"No, thanks." He sat down on a faded blue sofa while Santha rummaged through her small refrigerator and popped open a Miller's.

"Excuse the mess in here. Sometimes I'm as lazy as a leaf." She sipped from the can, walked to the window, and looked out again. "Damn! Rainin' harder." The drops sounded leaden on the trailer's roof. "I've been meanin' to come by that Ghost Show of yours." She let the curtain fall and stood over him. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

He nodded.

"Yeah, I do too. I was born in New Orleans, see, and that's supposed to be the most haunted city in the whole country, did you know that? Spooks just come out of the woodwork. 'Course, I've never seen one, but . . ." She sat down beside him and stretched out her long bare legs. Her thighs showed through a slit in the robe, and Billy saw a fine light down like flecks of copper on them. "Jeez. I don't think Buddy's corning, do you? Bastard lies like a rug. Told me he'd get me a job here in Birmingham after the fair closes up."

"What will you do?"

"I don't know, maybe go home. My kids live with my mother Yeah, don't look so surprised! I've got two little girls. I don't look like I've had two kids, do I?" She patted her flat belly. "Sit-ups. How old do you think I look?"

He shrugged. "Maybe . . . twenty-two." He was being kind.

Her eyes glittered with pure pleasure. The drumming of the rain on the roof was hypnotic and soothing. "Do you think I have a good body?"

He shifted and cleared his throat. "Well . . . sure I do. It's nice."

"I'm proud of how I look. That's why I like to dance. Oh, maybe someday I'll open up my own dance studio and give lessons, but right now I love being on that stage. You feel important, and you know that people enjoy watching you." She sipped at her beer and watched him mischievously. "You enjoyed watching, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I did."

She laughed. "Ha! Choctaw, you beat all I've ever seen! You're sittin' there like a priest in a whorehouse!" Her smile faded a fraction, her eyes darkening. "That's not what you think, is it? That I'm a whore?"

"No!" he said, though he wasn't exactly certain she was or wasn't.

"I'm not. I just . . . live my own life, that's all. I do what I please when I please. Is that so bad?"

Billy shook his head.

"Your shirt's wet." She leaned toward him and began unbuttoning it. "You'll catch a cold if you keep it on."

He shrugged out of it and she tossed it aside. "That's better," she said. "You have a nice chest. I thought Indians didn't have any hair on their bodies."

"I'm just part Indian."

"You're a nice-lookin' kid. How old are you, eighteen? No, seventeen, didn't you say? Well, I don't guess that bastard Buddy is coming tonight, do you?"

"I don't guess he is."

Santha finished her beer and set it on the table before her, then returned her gaze to his. She stared at him, a smile working around her lips, until Billy felt his face flaming. She said in a soft voice, "Have you ever been with a woman before?"

"Huh? Well . . . sure."

"How many?"

"A few."

"Yeah. And the moon is made of green cheese." She leaned closer, looking deeply into his eyes. He was such a handsome boy, she thought, but there were secrets in his eyes; secrets, perhaps, that it was best not to know. Buddy wasn't coming, that was for sure. It was raining and she was lonely and she didn't like the idea of sleeping alone when somebody who'd sent her a bunch of rose stems was out there somewhere, maybe lurking around the trailer. She traced a finger down the center of his chest and watched the flesh tighten. "You've wanted me all along, haven't you? You don't have to be shy about it." Her finger stopped at his belt buckle. "I like you. Jeez, listen to me. Usually I have to fight the guys off! So why are you different?"

"I'm not different," Billy said, trying to keep his voice steady. "I just . . . respect you, I guess."

"Respect me? I've learned a long time ago that respect doesn't keep your bed warm on a cold night. And, Choctaw, I've lived through some very wintry ones. And will again." She paused, running her finger along his belt line; then she grasped his hand and drew it closer to herself. She licked his fingers, very slowly.

He squeezed her hand and said, "I . . . don't know what to do. I'm probably not any good."

"I'm going to turn off that light," Santha told him, "and get into bed. I'd like for you to get undressed and come to bed with me. Will you?"

He wanted to say yes, but he was too nervous to speak. Santha recognized the glassy gleam in his eyes. She stood up, let the robe fall, and walked naked to the lamp. The light went out. Billy heard the sheets go back. The rain drummed down, punctuated now by the boom of distant thunder Billy stood up, as if in a dream, and unbuckled his belt.

When he was ready, he approached the bed and saw Santha's golden hair on the pillow, her body a long S-shape beneath the pale blue sheet. She reached out for him, softly whispering his name, and when he touched her electricity seemed to jump between them. Trembling with excitement and shyness, he got under the sheet; Santha folded her arms around him, her warm mouth finding his, her tongue darting between his hps. He was correct in that he didn't know what to do, but when Santha scissored her legs around his hips he very quickly learned. Then there was heat, dampness, the sound of hurried breathing, and thunder getting closer. Santha summoned him deeper, deeper, and when he was about to explode she made him lie motionless, both of them locked together, until he could continue for a while longer.

Carnival lights filled Billy's head. She eased him onto his back, and sat astride him with her head thrown back, her mouth open as if to receive the rain that pounded on the roof. She impressed upon him the varying sensations of rhythms, from a hard pulse that ground them together to a long, slow, and lingering movement that had the strength of a tickling feather. He lay stunned while Santha's tongue played over his body, like a soft damp brush tracing the outlines of his muscles; then she told him what she liked and gave him encouragement as he first circled her nipples with his tongue, then her navel, then her soft belly and down into the valley between her legs, where her thighs pressed against the sides of his head and she gripped his hair as her hips churned. She moaned softly, her musky aroma perfuming the air.

Outside in a driving rain, Fitts stood with a raincoat pulled up around his neck. He'd seen the boy go in, and he'd seen the light go out. His blue-tinted eyeglasses streamed with water, but he didn't have to see anything else. He knew the rest of it. His heart throbbed with rage and agony. A boy? he thought. She would even take a stupid boy into her bed? His fists clenched in his coat pockets. Was there no hope for her? Lightning streaked, followed by a bass rumble of thunder that seemed to shake the world. He'd tried everything he could think of, and now he felt defeated. But there was one thing left.

He would go to the Octopus, stand before it in the gray downpour, and wait for the voice that came out of it to reveal to him what he should do. He stood a while longer, staring at the darkened trailer, and then trudged through the mud toward the midway. Long before he reached the Octopus, he could hear its sibilant whisper in his tormented brain:

Murder.

40

It was the twelfth of October, and tomorrow night the State Fair would be closing down, the carnival season over until spring. The rain had passed, and for the last two nights business had been booming. Billy helped Dr. Mirakle clean up after the final Ghost Show of the night, simply grinning when Mirakle pointedly asked him why he'd look so happy lately.

Billy left the tent and walked down the midway as the lights started flickering out. He shut the noises out of his head as he passed the Octopus, and he waited around back of the Jungle Love show, where Santha had said she'd meet him. When she did come out, fifteen minutes or so late, he saw she'd scrubbed off most of the garish makeup for him.

In her trailer, Santha continued Billy's education. An hour later, he was as weak as water, and she was pressed as close to him as a second skin. Through the dim haze of sleep, Billy could hear Buck Edger's hammer, striking metal again and again out on the darkened midway. He lay awake, listening, until Santha stirred and kissed him deeply and sweetly.

"I wish things could stay like this," Billy said after a moment.

Santha sat up. A match flared as she lit a cigarette; in its glow she looked beautiful and childlike. "What are you going to do after the fair's over?"

"I'm going down to Mobile with Dr. Mirakle, driving his equipment truck for him. Then … I guess I'll go back to Hawthorne. It's been a good summer I don't think I'll ever forget it. Or you."

She ran her fingers through his hair and then said, "Hey! I know what would be real nice! A hot shower! We can just about both fit into the stall, and we can get real soapy and slippery and . . . ooh, I'm tinglin' just thinkin' about it! Okay?"

"Sure," he said, thrilled.

"One hot shower, comin' up!" Santha rose up from the bed and, still naked, went to the tiny bathroom. She reached in and flipped on the light. "I'll call you when I'm ready," she said, and giggled like a schoolgirl. Then she went inside and shut the door.

Billy was sitting up. His heartbeat had quickened, and there was a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach. He wasn't sure, wasn't sure at all, but just for an instant – as Santha had been silhouetted in the bathroom light – he though he'd seen a pale gray haze around her An alarm went off in the back of bis head, and he climbed out of the bed to approach the bathroom.

Santha, her body rosy, reached in through the green-plastic shower curtain and turned on the hot water It sprayed downward into the tub, but instead of the sound of water against porcelain there was a different sound – a wet, thickened noise. Santha drew aside the curtain and looked into the tub.

The water was hitting a large burlap bag, drawn closed at the top. She reached for it even as Billy said, "Santha?" from just outside the door.

She pulled at the bag. It came open. It was very heavy, and wouldn't slide.

"Santha?"

And then a triangular head with blazing eyes shot out of the burlap bag, the nightmarish thing stretching high through the hot-water fog. Santha threw her arms up instinctively, but the cobra struck her on the cheek and she slammed backward against the wall, striking her head on the tiles. Her scream gurgled away as she pitched forward, her legs dangling over the tub, the scalding water beating down on her exposed back.

Billy burst through the door, barely able to see because of the rising fog. The cobra came flashing out of it toward him. He jerked his head back, and the fangs missed him by bare inches. It was uncoiling out of the tub. Billy saw that Santha was being burned, and he reached forward to grasp her ankles. The cobra hissed, its hood spreading wide, and struck at him again. He backed away. The cobra reared up over four feet, watching him with its terrible baleful gaze as steam filled the bathroom.

Billy was still naked, but he didn't think about bis clothes. He ran to the door, threw aside the bolt, and tried to push it open … but it wouldn't budge. He slammed his shoulder against it, and heard the rattle of a lock in the clasp. But Santha had taken off the lock when they'd come in! He realized, then, what must've happened: the snakeman had gotten in here and put that cobra in the bathroom hours ago, to kill them both, and then while they were sleeping he'd put one of his own locks through the clasp. He hammered against the door, and shouted for help.

Steam was rolling out into the room. He fumbled with the lamp, knocked it to the floor, bent and found the switch. The low, harsh light spread out in irregular rays, and Billy saw the cobra winding out through the bathroom door in what looked like foot after foot. It reared up again, its gaze fixed on him, and now Billy could hear Santha's low, terrified moaning. The cobra hissed and slithered forward, trying to defend its newfound territory.

Billy backed up against the dresser. He opened the drawer, threw aside lipsticks and makeup until his hand closed on the chrome-plated pistol. When he turned, the cobra was only a few feet away from him, its head weaving back and forth. Billy picked up a pillow from the bed, and suddenly the cobra darted forward; its head hit the pillow with the force of a man's fist. He aimed the pistol and squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened. The safety was on! The snake was motionless, its tongue flickering out as it watched him. Billy would have to drop the pillow and push back the safety with his free hand. The cobra was still within striking range, and Billy had backed up as far as he could.

Someone hammered at the door. The cobra's head whipped to one side, toward the vibrations, and Billy threw the pillow at it with a guttural shout. He flicked off the safety, and the pistol was ready as the cobra's head started to wiggle free from beneath the pillow. Billy fired at it – one, two, three, four, five. The air stank of powder, and now the cobra was twisting madly, its head almost severed from the thick body. It started to rise, but the mangled head was out of control and the body snapped and writhed, the tail clenching around one leg of the dresser. Billy stood over the thing, and stretched his arm down. He had a glimpse of one single terrible eye, burning to his soul, and then the head exploded with the force of the sixth bullet. The body continued to jerk.

The door burst open, and two men who came in recoiled from the sight of the writhing snake. Billy was already in the steamy bathroom, pulling Santha out of the hot water; her back was a mass of blisters, and she was sobbing hysterically. He saw the snakebite, and saw the gray aura darkening. "Call an ambulance!" he shrieked to the men. "Hurry! The snake bit her!"

They wrapped her up in a sheet, and Billy struggled into his pants. A knot of people had gathered outside the trailer, trying to find out what had happened. When the ambulance came, Billy told the attendants that Santha had been bitten by a cobra, and if they didn't hurry she was going to die. He watched them roar away, and he heard someone say that the police were on their way.

He realized he still held the pistol. He went back into the trailer, avoiding the blood and mess, and found another box of bullets in the dresser drawer. He loaded the pistol, and then walked put through the gawking carnival people toward the midway. He could hear approaching sirens, but their noise neither increased his pace nor slowed him. As he passed the Octopus, he imagined he heard a high shriek of laughter. Buck Edgers, hammer still in his hand, looked up from his work through dark-circled, disturbed eyes. Billy paid him no attention. His heart was pounding, a fever of revenge burning in his brain as he reached the Killer Snakes sideshow and flicked the safety off his pistol. He pushed at the entranceway and was not surprised when the door – the reptile's mouth – noiselessly opened.

"Come out of there, you bastard!" Billy shouted.

Darkness lay thickly within. Nothing moved, but Billy thought he could hear the soft slidings of the man's pets. "I said come out, or I'll drag you out!" He aimed the gun into the darkness. "I've got a gun, you bastard!"

He steeled himself and stepped into the darkness, his hand almost melded to the pistol. "I've got a gun!" he warned, tensing for an expected attack. Nothing moved, and now he could see the vague shapes of the cages, set in orderly rows. A few feet away and above, a light bulb caught a speck of reflected light; Billy reached up, found the switch and turned it on. The bulb flickered, slightly swinging back and forth to throw huge and distorted shadows.

A short, balding man in a brown suit was lying on his back, on a mattress at the rear of the place. His hands were clamped around the grayish green boa constrictor that had strangled him to death. His glasses were off, and his face was bluish white. There was a note safety-pinned to the man's checked shirt. Billy approached the body, and ripped the note away. It said MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER. And then, at the bottom: SUICIDE. Billy stared at it, wondering what madness had prompted this man to wrap the boa around his own throat and lie down to die. He returned the note to the body, where the police could find it, and then a wave of anguish crashed over him. He'd seen a gray aura enveloping Santha, not a black one: what did it mean? Tears searing his eyes, he left the sideshow and looked out to where he could see red and blue police lights spinning amid the trailers.

A cool breeze had kicked up, breaking his flesh into goose-bumps. Bits of paper wheeled along the midway, spinning in miniature tornadoes. Billy's cold gaze fell upon the Octopus. Buck Edgers was working like a machine.

"Billy? My God, what's going on!" Dr. Mirakle, in an old undershirt and his pajama bottoms, had staggered out of the truck parked behind the Ghost Show, next to the Volkswagen van. His eyes were swollen with heavy sleep, and he exuded the aroma of bourbon. He looked down at the pistol and stopped. "Billy?"

"It's all right. They took Santha to the hospital. The cobra bit her, it was there in the bathtub when she . . ." His voice cracked.

Mirakle eased forward and took the pistol from his hand. "You look like death warmed over, boy. Come on, I'll pour you a drink and you can tell me – "

"No. Not yet." Oblivious to the commotion, Edgers was driving his hammer up and down on a bolt that had probably never been loose in the first place. It dawned on Billy that the Octopus was wearing Edgers down, commanding all of his time and attention, using him as its puppet. There were revenants caught within the Octopus, crying out in their confusion and terror. Perhaps now, Billy thought, it possesses some part of the snakeman as well. He could hear the faint screaming, and he knew the Octopus wanted him too. It wanted to consume him, to draw his spirit and power into its black, greedy gears and pistons.

Are you strong? Are you strong in your heart, where strength counts?

Billy's hand had gone into his pocket. Now he brought the hand out and looked at the nugget of coal in his palm. He didn't remember putting it in these pants; he'd thought it was still with his belongings, in his suitcase under the cot at the rear of the Ghost Show tent. It reminded him of the strength he possessed, the risks he must take if he was to continue his Mystery Walk. If he backed down, if he failed to trust his own inner will, then whatever inhabited the Octopus would win, and in some terrible way it might even grow stronger still. He clenched the coal in his fist and returned it to his pocket.

"Billy?" Dr. Mirakle said. "Where are you going?"

"You can come with me, if you like. But don't try to stop me. I have to do this right now. Right now."

"Do . . . what? My God, have you lost your mind?" But he was following along, holding the pistol out to his side as if it were a dead fish.

Before Billy reached the Octopus, Edgers stopped hammering. He straightened up from his work, and turned to face the boy. Across his features was a hideous grin that stretched his mouth wide in eager anticipation. The Octopus had him, Billy knew. It was not Buck Edgers grinning.

When Dr Mirakle saw that grin, he was shocked motionless for a moment. He said in a nervous voice, "Billy, I don't . . . think you should …"

"Step right up, pard!" Edgers boomed, shuffling forward. "Thought you'd never come!"

"I'm here. Start it up."

"Come on, then! Yessir! Oh, you're a special guest, you don't even need a fuckin' ticket! Been savin' a ride just for you." He moved to the shrouded gondola and tugged at the tarpaulin until it tore away. There were holes in the rusted metal, and faint streaks of bright orange paint. He pulled the warped metal-mesh canopy open, exposing the rust-riddled interior. "Perfect fit, I'd say."

"I wouldn't get in that rust-bucket if I were you," Dr. Mirakle said, tugging at Billy's arm. "No, I forbid it! I told your mother I'd take care of you, and I forbid you to do it! Now listen, come on back to the tent and we'll – "

"Shut your mouth, you old cocksucker," Edgers said softly, his eyes blazing into Billy's. "The boy's grown up now. He's a man. He's got a mind, and he knows what he wants to do. Show's about to start!" He gestured toward the open gondola.

Billy pulled free of Dr. Mirakle. He had to do this now, while there was still a rage burning in him. He moved forward, but suddenly Edgers's wife stepped out of the shadows, her round-cheeked face pasty with dread. She said, "No, please . . . don't do it, boy. You don't understand it. You don't see – "

"SHUT UP YOU GODDAMNED BITCH!" the man howled, brandishing the hammer at her. She flinched but did not step back.

"That machine," she said, staring at Billy, "is Satan's handiwork. Buck bought it out of a junkyard in Georgia, and from the first day he couldn't do anything but work on it, trying to put it back together. It slashed his face, and broke both his legs, and – "

"SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!"

He hobbled toward her, raising the hammer, and she screamed, "Please Buck, don't!" and dodged a vicious blow that might've broken her shoulder. She slipped and fell to her hands and knees; her husband stood over her, panting like an animal. She looked up at him, an awful pleading expression in her eyes, and said, "I love you, Buck. …"

Billy saw the man's face change; he blinked uncertainly, and his terrible grimace slipped a few notches. For an instant, he resembled nothing more than a tormented man who'd been down on his luck for most of his life; then the savage grin came back, and his eyes flared. He put his booted foot against his wife's side and pushed her down into the sawdust. He said, "Now you stay right there, like a good little girl."

"Come on!" Billy said. "I'm waiting for you!"

"Oh, yes. Of course. The master speaks, the servant obeys. Of course, of course!" He giggled and watched as Billy climbed into the gondola. The seat was a hard mass of cracked vinyl and Billy could see the ground through a few quarter-sized holes in the metal. He stretched his legs out into the gondola's nose, his back straight against the seat. There was a seatbelt, and Billy drew it tightly across his lap. Edgers rushed forward and clanged the mesh canopy down, drawing a small metal bar through a safety clasp. He grinned in through the mesh. "All comfy-cozy? Good. Then we're ready to begin, aren't we?"

Edgers scuttled to the generator that powered the Octopus and switched it on; it hummed, sending electricity through cables as thick as a man's wrist. The ride's lights flickered, flickered again, and then blazed brightly. The remaining bulbs that spelled out OCTOPUS buzzed like angry hornets. Edgers stood over a small control board and turned on the ride's engine; it hooted and moaned, gears and wheels spinning. "I've got you!" he shouted. His face was ruddy and demonic as he let off the brake's foot pedal and slowly pushed forward the lever that engaged the drive-train.

"Billy!" Dr. Mirakle shouted, stepping back as the Octopus began to move.

The gondolas slowly gained momentum. Billy's head was forced back by centrifugal motion. Edgers bore down on the lever;

Billy's cheeks rippled with the rising g-forces. The gondolas began rising – five feet, ten feet, fifteen feet.

And then a garble of screams, moans, and sobbings – agonized sounds, some high-pitched and others so low Billy felt them in his bones rather then heard them – began to rise up around him, faintly at first, then with increasing intensity. He could hear a cacophony of voices, cries for help, sudden shrieks that seemed to pierce him. This gondola was the evil heart of the Octopus, Billy knew, and within it were the disembodied revenants of its victims – God only knew how many.

The gondola pitched upward suddenly, then fell with a frightening speed. It stopped with a squeal of cables and pistons, then jerked upward again. The Octopus was spinning faster, the world beyond the gondola a dizzying blur. Billy, his face twisted into a rictus, tried to force his concentration on the voices, tried to focus his energy on drawing the revenants to him.

No fear, he thought. No fear. I can help you. I can . .

A roar filled his head: No you can't! You can't reach them! I won't let you reach them!

The gondola was rising and falling, faster and faster, Billy's head brushing the mesh canopy with its upward sweep. He shut his eyes, his hands gripping the cracked vinyl armrests. There was a coldness in the air, gradually creeping up his body; he let it overtake him, and suddenly his brain was crackling with the last thoughts and images of perhaps a dozen people the Octopus had destroyed.

"No fear," Billy breathed. "Just touch me . . . no fear. . . ."

And suddenly electricity seemed to sear through him, and there was something else in the gondola with him, something laughing and shrieking.

The voice came in a triumphant cackle: "You're mine now, boy!"

Billy shouted, "NO!" The voice rippled and faded, and he knew he'd touched the pulse of wickedness in this machine. "I know you! I know what you are now!"

Do you, boy? Then come join me.

Billy heard something grind and rip. He opened his eyes, and saw with horror that the long bolts securing the mesh canopy in place were slowly unscrewing. Smaller screws that held the safety bar were being ripped out. The canopy assemblage tore away and flew into the air. Wind screamed into Billy's face, forcing his chin backward. Another bolt clattered loose down around Billy's knees. The quarter-sized holes tore open still wider, like rotten cloth. The gondola was coming to pieces around him, and when it pitched him out to his death the entire machine would break loose, off-balance, and go spinning down the midway trailing live electric cables.

"STOP IT!" Billy yelled to Buck. He caught a quick glimpse of the man, bent over the control board like a hunchback, his hand pressed down on the lever. Above him more bolts unscrewed, in the central mechanism that held the gondolas to the Octopus, and a cable tore loose to spit orange sparks.

He could feel presences all around him, trying to cling to him. He forced himself to concentrate on their anguished voices again, and now he saw a faint mist taking form and shape, a figure with many heads and arms and legs, the faces indistinct, the whole thing reaching for him, clinging to him like a frightened animal. "Oh God," he whispered, "help me do it, please help me. …"

Bolts sheared off. A section of the flooring fell away under Billy's legs, and on the ground Dr. Mirakle ducked as the sharp metal sailed over his head.

Billy sank his arms into the mass of apparitions before him, like plunging into an ice-veined pond. His teeth chattered. "You can get away from here . . . through me!" he shouted into the wind. "I'll take your pain, if you give it up!"

No! I've got you now! I've got all of you!

"Please! I'll take it for you, I'll keep it so you can go on! Please let me! . . ."

The gondola shuddered and swayed, loosened from its supporting arm. Currents of terror ripped through Billy.

The misty shape undulated, a dozen hands reaching for him. A dozen terror-stricken faces writhed like smoke. A section of the gondola's side fell away with a shriek of torn metal.

I'm their master their keeper you can't win.

"No! You feed on them, you use their hurting to make yourself stronger!" The gondola fell and jarred, rose again with a force that clicked Billy's teeth together He gripped at the revenants, his arms inside a deep-freeze. "Let me help you get away! Please!"

And then the mass began to spread over him, to cover him up, icy threads of white matter racing over his face, into his hair around his shoulders. Many people, events, and emotions filled him up, almost to bursting, and he cried out at the force of a dozen life-experiences entering his mind. Spectral hands gripped at him, clutching at his face and body, as the cold mass began to move into him.

You can't! I won't . . .

". . . let you!" Buck shouted, his eyes bright with rage. He pressed the lever down as far as it would go, then threw his body against it. The wood cracked off, and Edgers flung it aside with a delightful grin. The machine was locked now, and would continue to spin until the gondola, hanging by only two bolts, was torn free. "I'll win! Look at the boy fly, watch him fall!"

Mirakle placed the pistol barrel against the back of his head. "Stop that damned machine or I'll put a bullet through your brain!"

Edgers turned his head; his eyes had rolled backward, just the whites exposed. He grinned like a death's-head, and whispered in a singsong, "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry – "

"STOP IT NOW, I SAID!"

"You won't shoot me, old man. You won't dare shoot me!"

Mirakle swallowed, and stepped back a pace. He saw that the gondola was about to break free. Snapped cables popped through the air. Mirakle said, "Damn you to Hell!" and swung the barrel against Edger's face. The man's nose splintered, blood streaming from the nostrils. The demonic face with its fish-belly eyes began to laugh. Mirakle struck again, opening a jagged cut over one eye. Edgers howled with laughter and spat blood out of his mouth. "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mul – "

Suddenly there was a sharp cracking noise, and sparks flew. The woman had picked up the length of wood, and was hammering madly at the generator, tearing the cables loose.

The thing that was inside Buck Edgers shouted, "NO! GET AWAY FROM THAT!" He started forward, pushing Dr. Mirakle aside, but then the last of the cables tore free with a blast of sparks, the wooden lever rippling with flames in the woman's hands. The rest of the live bulbs that said OCTOPUS blew out, and the lights that decorated the machine flickered and went dark. Mirakle put his foot to the brake pad and pressed down hard. Gears shrieked as the machine began to slow.

"NO!" Edgers whirled around, his face as yellow as old parchment. He took a staggering step toward Mirakle, as the gondolas slowly settled toward the ground and the machine's rotations weakened. Edgers whined, "It's not fair! Not fair!" His voice began to deepen like a record played at too slow a speed, as the Octopus continued to slow down. "Nootttt fairrrrr. Noooottttt fairrrrrr…" And then he fell to his face in the sawdust, drawing up like a fetus, and began sobbing.

The Octopus stopped. At once Mirakle was dragging Billy out. The boy was cold to the touch, was shaking and moaning. He put his hands under Billy's shoulders and pulled him away as the dead cables whipped and writhed all around. Something cracked in the guts of the machine; bolts sheared off, the huge central cylinder of the machine swayed, swayed as the four gondolas came free and fell to the ground. Then the entire machine was coming apart, collapsing in a haze of spark-smoke and sawdust. Its steel arms thudded down, as if the cement that had held the Octopus together had suddenly dissolved. Dust welled up, rolling across the midway in a yellow wave.

"No fear," Billy was saying, "please let me take it oh God I don't want to die let me out no fear no pain . . ."

Mirakle bent over him. "It's all right. It's over now … my God!" The boy contorted in some imagined pain, trembling, freezing cold. He moaned and whimpered, his head thrashing back and forth. Mirakle looked up, and saw the woman kneeling down beside her sobbing husband.

She clung to him, rocking him like a baby. "It's done," she said, tears streaming down her face. "Oh dear Lord, we're rid of that monster. We're finally rid of it!"

Mirakle saw that there was very little left of the Octopus that wasn't fit for a junkyard. He shivered, because now he had an idea of what kind of power Billy had; he didn't understand it, but it made his blood run cold.

Suddenly Billy gasped for breath and opened his eyes, as if emerging from a nightmare. His eyes were bloodshot, ruby-red. "Are they gone?" he whispered. "Did I do it?"

Mirakle said, "I . . . think so." He was aware of figures emerging through the dust. Mirakle gripped Billy's hand; it was as cold as what he'd always imagined death to be.

For both him and Billy Creekmore, the fair was over.

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