“Gee, thanks, Mr. Jordan.”
“Call me Jelly now that you’re one of us.”
“Thanks, Jelly, but I’ll let you carry me for just one week. After that I’ll be on my feet. Now, should I go straight on up to the high-striker from here? I know where it is, and I know you have an eleven o’clock show call today, which means about ten minutes until the gates open.”
He was still squinting at me. The fat bunched around his eyes, and his plum nose wrinkled up as if it might turn into a prune. He said, “You have breakfast yet?”
“No, sir. Wasn’t hungry.”
“It’s almost lunchtime.”
“Still not hungry.”
“I’m always hungry,” he said. “You have dinner last night?”
He frowned skeptically, dug in his pocket, pulled out a pair of one-dollar bills, and came around the desk with his hand held toward me.
“Oh, no, Mr. Jordan—”
“—Jelly. I couldn’t accept it.”
“Just a loan,” he said, taking my hand and stuffing the money in it. “You’ll pay me back. That’s an absolute fact.”
“But I’m not that broke. I have some money.”
“Well . . . ten bucks.”
He grinned again. “Show me.”
“Liar. How much, really?”
I looked down at my feet.
“Really, now? Tell the truth,” he said warningly.
“Well . . . ummm . . . twelve cents.”
“Oh, yes, I see. You’re an absolute Rockefeller. Good heavens, I am definitely mortified to think I tried to loan you money. A wealthy man at seventeen, clearly an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune!” He gave me two more bucks. “Now you listen to me, Mr. Filthy Rich Playboy, you go to Sam Trizer’s grab-joint by the merry-go-round. It’s one of the best on the lot, and he opens early to serve carnies. Get yourself a good lunch and then go see Rya Raines at her high-striker.”
I nodded, embarrassed by my poverty because a Stanfeuss never relied on anyone but another Stanfeuss. Nevertheless, humbled and self-reproachful, I was also grateful for the fat man’s good-humored charity.
When I reached the door and opened it, he said, “Wait a minute.”
I looked back and saw that he was staring at me in a different way than before. He had been sizing me up to determine my character, my abilities, and my sense of responsibility, but now he was looking at me the way a handicapper might examine a horse on which he intended to place a bet. “You’re a strong youngster,” he said. “Good biceps. Good shoulders. You move well too. You look like you could take care of yourself in a tight situation.”
As some answer seemed required, I said, “Well . . . I have, yeah.”
I wondered what he would say if I told him that I had killed four goblins so far—four pig-faced, dog-fanged, serpent-tongued things with murderous red eyes and claws like rapiers.
He regarded me in silence for a moment, then at last said, “Listen, if you can get along with Rya, that’s who you’ll work for. But tomorrow I’d like you to do a special job for me. There probably won’t be any tough stuff, but the potential’s there. Worse comes to worst, you might have to duke it out with someone. But I suspect you’ll just have to stand around and look intimidating.”
“Whatever you want,” I said.
“You ain’t going to ask what the job is?”
“You can explain it tomorrow.”
“You don’t want a chance to turn it down?”
“There’re some risks involved.”
I held up the four dollars he had given me. “You’ve bought yourself a risk taker.”
“You come cheap.”
“It wasn’t the four bucks that bought me, Jelly. It was the kindness.”
He was uncomfortable with the compliment. “Get the hell out of here, grab your lunch, and start earning your keep. We don’t like deadbeats on the lot.”
Feeling better than I had felt in months, I went out to the front office, and Cash Dooley said I could leave my gear with him until they found trailer space for me, and then I went to Sam Trizer’s grab-joint for a bite of lunch. They call these places “grab-joints” or “grab-stands” because there’s no place to sit, so you just have to grab your food and eat on the fly. I had two perfect chili dogs, French fries, a vanilla shake, and then headed up the midway.
As county fairs go, this was better than average, almost large, but not nearly as big as the important fairs in places like Milwaukee, St. Paul, Topeka, Pittsburgh, and Little Rock, where paid admissions could top a quarter of a million on a good day. Nonetheless, Thursday was getting close to the weekend. And it was summer when the kids were out of school, and a lot of people were on vacation. Besides, in rural Pennsylvania the fair was as much excitement as there ever was—people came from fifty or sixty miles around—so even though the gates had just opened, a thousand marks had come onto the midway already. All the hanky-panks and other games were ready for business, their operators beginning to pitch the passing tip, and many of the rides were running. The scent of popcorn was in the air, and diesel fuel, and cookhouse grease. The gaudy fantasy was just cranking up its engine, but in a few hours it would be running at full-tilt—a thousand exotic sounds, an all-encompassing blaze of color and motion that would eventually seem to expand until it had become the universe, until it was impossible to believe that anything existed beyond the carnival grounds.
I passed the Dodgem Cars, half expecting to see police and a crowd of horrified onlookers, but the ticket booth was open, and the cars were in operation, and the marks were screaming but only at one another as they crashed their rubber-bumpered vehicles together. If anyone had noticed the fresh stains on the pavilion floor, he hadn’t realized they were blood.
I wondered where my unknown helper had taken the corpse, wondered when he would finally come forward and make himself known to me. And when he did reveal himself, what would he want from me for his continued silence?
The high-striker was two-thirds of the way along the first concourse, on the outside edge of the midway, tucked between a balloon game and a fortune-teller’s small, striped tent. It was a simple device that consisted of an eighteen-inch-square striking pad mounted on springs and designed to measure impact, a backdrop shaped like a twenty-foot-high thermometer, and a bell at the top of the thermometer. Guys who wanted to impress their dates had only to pay fifty cents, take the sledgehammer provided by the operator, swing it hard, and land a blow on the striking pad. This would drive a small wooden block up the thermometer, which was divided into five sections: GRANDMA, GRANDPA, GOOD BOY, TOUGH GUY, and HE-MAN. If you were enough of a he-man to drive the block all the way to the top and ring the bell, you not only impressed your girl and had a better chance of getting in her pants before the night was over, but you also won a cheap stuffed animal.
Beside this high-striker stood a rack of furry teddy bears that didn’t look half as cheap as the usual prizes in a game of this sort, and on a stool beside the teddy bears sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was wearing brown corduroy jeans and a brown-and-red-checkered blouse, and I vaguely noticed that her body was lean and excitingly proportioned, but truthfully I did not pay much attention to the way she was built—not then, later—for initially my attention was entirely captured by her hair and face. Thick, soft, silky, shimmering hair, too blond to be called auburn, too auburn to be blond, was combed across one side of her face, half obscuring one eye, reminding me of Veronica Lake, that movie star of an earlier era. If there was any fault at all in her exquisite face, it was that the very perfection of her features also gave her a slightly cool, distant, and unattainable look. Her eyes were large, blue, and limpid. The hot August sun streamed over her as if she were on a stage instead of perched on a battered wooden stool, and it didn’t illuminate her the same way it did everyone else on the midway; the sun seemed to favor her, beaming upon her the way a father might look upon a favorite daughter, accenting the natural luster of her hair, proudly revealing the porcelain smoothness of her complexion, lovingly molding itself to her sculpted cheekbones and artfully chiseled nose, suggesting but not fully illuminating great depth and many mysteries in her entrancing eyes.
I stood, dumbstruck, and watched her for a minute or two while she went through her spiel. She teased a mark out of the onlookers, took his fifty cents, sympathized with his inability to drive the wooden block above GOOD BOY, and smoothly enticed him into shelling out a buck for three more whacks at it. She broke all the rules for ballying an attraction: She never taunted the marks, not even a little; she hardly ever raised her voice to a shout, yet somehow her message carried above the music from the gypsy fortune-teller’s tent, the competing spiel of the balloon game pitchman next door, and the ever-growing roar of the waking midway. Most unusual of all, she never got off the stool, did not attempt to draw the marks to her with an energetic display of pitchmanship, did not employ dramatic gestures, comic dance steps, loud jokes, sexual innuendo, double entendres, or any of the standard techniques. Her patter was slyly amusing, and she was gorgeous; that was enough, and she was smart enough to know it was enough.
She took my breath away.
With a self-conscious shuffle that I sometimes had around pretty girls, I finally approached her, and she thought I was a mark who wanted to swing the hammer, but I said, “No, I’m looking for Miss Raines.”
“Jelly Jordan sent me.”
“You’re Slim? I’m Rya Raines.”
“Oh,” I said, startled, because she seemed like just a girl, hardly older than me, not the kind of canny and aggressive concessionaire for whom I expected to be working.
A faint frown reshaped her face slightly, but it did not detract from her beauty. “How old are you?”
“You look younger.”
“Going on eighteen,” I said defensively.
“That’s the usual progression.”
“After that it’ll be nineteen, then twenty, and then there’ll be no stopping you,” she said, a distinct note of sarcasm in her voice.
Sensing that she was the type most likely to respond better to spunk than to subservience, I smiled and said, “I guess it wasn’t like that with you. Looks to me like you jumped straight from twelve to ninety.”
She didn’t smile back at me, and the coolness didn’t go out of her, but she gave up the frown. “You can talk?”
“Aren’t I talking?”
“You know what I mean.”
By way of an answer, I picked up the sledgehammer, swung it at the striking pad hard enough to ring the bell and attract the attention of the nearest marks, turned toward the concourse, and launched into a spiel. In a few minutes I brought in three bucks.
“You’ll do,” Rya Raines said. When she talked to me, she stared straight into my eyes, and her gaze made me hotter than the August sun. “All you have to know is that the game isn’t gaffed, which you’ve already proved, and I don’t want you being an alibi agent. Gaffed games and alibi agents aren’t allowed on the Sombra Brothers’ lot, and I wouldn’t have them even if they were allowed. It’s not easy to ring that bell; pretty damned hard, in fact; but the mark gets a fair shot at winning, and when he does win, he gets the prize, no alibis.”
“I got you.”
Taking off her coin apron and change-maker and passing them to me, she spoke as firmly and briskly as any no-nonsense junior executive at General Motors: “I’ll send someone around at five o’clock, and you’ll be off from five till eight, for supper, for a nap if you need it, then you’ll come back on and stay on until the midway closes down. You’ll bring the receipts to me, at my trailer, tonight, down in the meadow. I have an Airstream, the largest they make. You’ll recognize it because it’s the only one hitched to a brand-new, red, one-ton Chevy pickup. If you play straight, if you don’t do anything stupid like trying to skim the take, you’ll do all right working for me. I own a few other concessions, and I’m always on the lookout for a right type who can handle responsibility. You get paid the end of every day, and if you’re a good enough pitchman to improve on the average take, then you’ll get a slice of the higher profits. If you’re straight with me, you’ll get a better deal from nobody. But—listen up now and be warned—if you jack me around, buster, I’ll see to it that you wind up with your balls in a sling. We understand each other?”
Remembering Jelly Jordan’s reference to the girl who had started out as a weight-guesser and had worked her way up to a major concession by the age of seventeen, I said, “Uh, one of these other games you own—is it a duck shoot?”
“Duck shoot, one guess-your-weight stand, one bottle-pitch, one grab-stand that specializes in pizza, a kiddy ride called the Happy Toonerville Trolley, and seventy percent interest in a sideshow called Animal Oddities,” she said crisply. “And I’m neither twelve nor ninety; I’m twenty-one, and I’ve come a hell of a long way from nothing in a hell of a short time. I didn’t put it all together by being naive or soft or dumb. There’s nothing of the mark in me, and as long as you remember that, Slim, we’ll get along just fine.”
Without asking if I had any more questions, she walked off along the concourse. With each brisk stride she took, her small, firm, high ass worked prettily in her tight jeans.
I watched her until she was out of sight in the growing crowd. Then, with a sudden realization of my condition, I put down the change-maker and the apron, turned to the high-striker, picked up the sledgehammer, swung it seven times, one after the other, ringing the bell with six of the blows, not pausing until I could face the passing marks without the embarrassment of a very visible erection.
As the afternoon wore on, I ballyed the high-striker with genuine pleasure. The trickle of marks grew to a stream and then to a river, flowing endlessly along the concourse in the warm summer glare, and I pulled in their shiny half-dollars almost as successfully as if I had been reaching into their pockets.
Even when I saw the first goblin of the day, at a few minutes past two o’clock, my good mood and high enthusiasm stayed with me. I was accustomed to seeing seven or eight goblins a week, considerably more if I was working in an outfit that drew decent crowds or was traveling through a big city where there were lots of people. I had long ago figured that one out of every four or five hundred people is a goblin in disguise, which means perhaps half a million in the U.S. alone, so if I had not adjusted to seeing them everywhere I went, I would have gone mad before ever arriving at the Sombra Brothers Carnival. I knew by now that they were not aware of the special threat I posed to them; they did not realize that I could see through their masquerade, so they took no special interest in me. I had the itch to kill every one of them I saw, for I knew by experience that they were hostile to all mankind and had no purpose but to cause pain and misery on the earth. However, I seldom encountered them in lonely circumstances that permitted attack, and unless I wanted to learn what the inside of a prison was like, I did not dare slaughter one of the hateful creatures in full view of witnesses who could not perceive the devil under the human costume.