Twilight Eyes

Page 23



The storm abruptly worsened, became a downpour, a deluge. Rain drummed on the earth, snapped and thudded against the walls of the tents, struck a dozen different notes on a variety of metal surfaces, and the wind shrieked.


We ran across the carnival, through the mud, breathing air tainted with ozone and with the scent of wet sawdust and with the not entirely unpleasant odor of elephants, off the midway and down to the meadow, into the encampment of trailers. On many spider-quick, crab-hinged legs of electricity, a monster pursued us and seemed always at our heels. We did not feel safe until we were in Rya’s Airstream, with the door shut behind us.


“That was crazy!” I said.


“Hush,” she said.


“Why did you keep us up there when you saw the storm coming?”


“Hush,” she repeated.


“Did you think that was fun?”


She had taken two glasses and a bottle of brandy from one of the kitchen cabinets. Dripping, smiling, she headed for the bedroom.


Following her, I said, “Fun, for God’s sake?”


In the bedroom she splashed brandy in both glasses and handed one to me.


The glass chattered against my teeth. The brandy was warm in the mouth, hot in the throat, scalding in the stomach.


Rya pulled off her sopping tennis shoes and socks, then skinned out of her wet T-shirt. Beads of water glimmered and trembled on her bare arms, shoulders, breasts.


“You could have been killed,” I said.


She slipped off her shorts and panties, took another sip of brandy, and came to me.


“Were you hoping to get killed, for Christ’s sake?”


“Hush,” she repeated.


I was shuddering uncontrollably.


She seemed calm. If she had been afraid during the climb, the fear had left her the moment she had touched ground again.


“What is it with you?” I asked.


Instead of answering, she began to undress me.


“Not now,” I said. “This isn’t the time—”


“It’s the perfect time,” she insisted.


“I’m not in the mood—”


“Perfect mood.”


“I can’t—”


“You can.”


“No.”


“Yes.”


“No.”


“See?”


Later we lay for a while in contented silence, on top of the damp sheets, our bodies tinted gold by the amber light of the bedside lamp. The sound of rain striking the rounded roof and sluicing along the curved metal skin of our cocoon was wonderfully soothing.


But I had not forgotten the wheel or the petrifying climb down through the storm-lashed girders, and after a while I said, “It was almost as if you wanted lightning to strike while you were hanging up there.”


She said nothing.


With the knuckles of my folded hand, I lightly traced the line of her jaw, then opened my fingers to caress her smooth, supple throat and the slopes of her breasts. “You’re beautiful, smart, successful. Why take chances like that?”


No answer.


“You have everything to live for.”


She remained silent.


The carny’s code of privacy restrained me from coming right out and asking why she had a death wish. But the code did not prohibit me from commenting on plainly observed events and facts, and it seemed to me that her suicidal impulse was far from secret. So I said, “Why?” And I said, “Do you really think there’s something . . . attractive about death?” Unfazed by her continued taciturnity, I said, “I think I love you.” And when even that drew no response, I said, “I don’t want anything to happen to you. I won’t let anything happen to you.”


She turned on her side, clung to me, buried her face against my neck, and said, “Hold me,” which was, under the circumstances, about the best answer I could hope for.


Heavy rain was still falling Monday morning. The sky was dark, tumultuous, clotted, and so low that I felt I could touch it with the aid of just a little stepladder. According to the weather report, the skies would not clear until sometime Tuesday. At nine o’clock, the show call was canceled, and the start of the Yontsdown County Fair was postponed twenty-four hours. By nine-thirty, card games and knitting circles and mutual misery societies had sprung up all over Gibtown-on-Wheels. By a quarter till ten, the revenue lost on account of the rain had been exaggerated to such an extent that (judging by the moaning) every concessionaire and pitchman would have been a millionaire if only the traitorous weather had not brought bankruptcy instead. And shortly before ten o’clock, Jelly Jordan was found dead on the carousel.


Chapter thirteen


LIZARD ON A WINDOWPANE


By the time I got to the midway, a hundred carnies were crowded around the carousel, most of whom I had yet to meet. Some wore yellow rain slickers with matching shapeless hats, and some wore black vinyl coats, a few with plastic babushkas, boots or sandals, galoshes or street shoes, and some were barefoot, and some had thrown coats on over pajamas, and about half of them carried umbrellas, which came in a variety of colors yet failed to contribute a note of gaiety to the gathering. Others had not dressed for the storm at all, rushing out in disbelief at the dreadful news, unheeding of the weather, and these now huddled in two kinds of misery—dampness and grief—soaked to the skin and spotted with mud and looking like refugees lined up at a border crossing on some war-torn frontier.


I came in T-shirt, jeans, and shoes that had not dried out from the previous night, and as I approached the crowd at the carousel, I was impressed and shaken, most of all, by their silence. No one spoke. No one. Not a word. They were doubly washed by rain and tears, and their pain was visible in their ashen faces and in their sunken eyes, but they wept without a sound. This silence was a mark of how deeply they had loved Jelly Jordan and an indication of how unthinkable it was for him to be dead; they were so stunned that they could only stand in mute contemplation of a world without him. Later, when the shock had worn off, there would be loud lamentations, uncontrollable sobbing, hysteria, mournful keening, prayers, and perhaps angry questions asked of God, but at the moment their intense grief was a perfect vacuum through which sound waves could not travel.


They knew Jelly better than I did, but I couldn’t remain discreetly at the crowd’s periphery. I shouldered slowly through the mourners, whispering “Excuse me” and “Sorry” until I reached the raised platform of the merry-go-round. Rain slanted beneath the red-and-white-striped roof, beaded on and trickled down the brass poles, and cooled the wooden horseflesh. I eased past upraised hoofs and enameled teeth bared in equine excitement, past painted flanks all of a piece with saddles and stirrups that could not be removed, wended through the herd on its never-ending journey, until I came to the place where Jelly Jordan’s journey had ended brutally amidst this eternally prancing multitude.


Jelly lay on his back, on the carousel floor, between a black stallion and a white mare, eyes open in amazement at finding himself recumbent in the middle of this trampling drove, as if he had been done in by their hoofs. His mouth was open, too, lips split, at least one tooth broken. It almost looked as if a cowboy’s red bandanna masked the lower part of his face, but it was a veil of blood.


He was dressed in an unbuttoned raincoat, white shirt, and dark gray slacks. The right leg of his trousers was bunched up around his knee, and part of his thick white calf was exposed. His right foot was shoeless, and that missing loafer was wedged in the rigidly fixed stirrup of the black stallion’s wooden saddle.


Three people were with the corpse. Luke Bendingo, who had driven us to and from Yontsdown last Friday, stood by the hindquarters of the white mare, his face the same shade as the horse, and the look he gave me—blinking eyes, twitching mouth—was a stutter of grief and rage momentarily repressed by shock. Kneeling on the floor was a man I had never seen before. He was in his sixties, quite dapper, gray-haired, with a neatly trimmed gray mustache. He was behind Jelly’s body, and he was holding the dead man’s head, as if he were a faith healer intent on restoring health to the afflicted. He was racked by unvoiced sobs, and each miserable spasm squeezed more tears out of him. The third was Joel Tuck, who stood one horse removed from the scene, his back against a pinto, one huge hand fastened to a brass pole. On that mutant face, which was a cross between a cubist portrait by Picasso and something out of one of Mary Shelley’s nightmares, the expression could not, for once, be misread: He was devastated by the loss of Jelly Jordan.


Sirens wailed in the distance, grew louder, louder, then died away with a moan. A moment later two police sedans approached along the concourse, their emergency beacons flashing through the lead-gray light and mist and rain. When they pulled up by the carousel, when I heard doors opening and closing, I looked over at them and saw that three of the four arriving Yontsdown officers were goblins.


I felt Joel’s eyes on me, and when I looked at him, I was unsettled by the unexpected suspicion both in his twisted face and in the psychic aura that enveloped him. I had expected him to be as interested in the goblin cops as I was, and he did glance at them warily, but I remained the focus of his attention and suspicion. That look—plus the arrival of the goblins, plus a cyclonic fury of terrible psychic emanations that blasted up from the corpse—was just too much to deal with, so I walked away from there.


For a while I wandered along the back of the midway, as far from the carousel as I could get, through rain that was sometimes a heavy drizzle and sometimes a flooding cloudburst, though I was drowning not in water but in guilt. Joel had seen me kill the man in the Dodgem Car pavilion and had assumed that I had committed that murder because, like him, I saw the goblin beyond the human glaze. But now Jelly was dead, and there had been no goblin in poor Timothy Jordan, and Joel was wondering if he had misunderstood me. He was probably beginning to think that perhaps I had not been aware of the goblin residing in my first victim, that I was just a killer, pure and simple, and that now I had claimed a second victim, this one innocent. But I had not harmed Jelly, and it was not Joel Tuck’s suspicion that burdened me with guilt. I felt guilty because I had known Jelly was in danger, had seen the vision of his face smeared with blood, and I had not alerted him.


I should have been able to foresee the precise moment of his crisis, should have been able to predict exactly where and when and how he would meet his death, and I should have been there to prevent it. Never mind that my psychic powers are limited, that the clairvoyant images and impressions they bring me are often vague or confusing, and that I have little—and frequently no—control over them. Never mind that he would not have believed me even if I had tried to warn him of the nameless danger that I had sensed. Never mind that I am not—and cannot be—the savior of the whole damned world and every damned sorry soul in it. Never mind. I still should have been able to prevent it. I should have saved him.


I should have.


I should have.


The card games, knitting circles, and other gatherings in Gibtown-on-Wheels had become knots of mourners. The carnies tried to help one another accept Jelly’s death. Some of them still wept. A few prayed. But most of them swapped stories about Jelly because memories were a way of keeping him alive. They sat in circles in the living rooms of the trailers, and when one finished an anecdote about their chubby, toy-loving patch, the next in the circle would make a contribution, and then the next, around and around, and there was even laughter because Jelly Jordan had been an amusing and exceptional man, and gradually the terrible bleakness gave way to a bittersweet sadness that was more easily borne. The subtle formality of these proceedings, the almost unconscious ritual according to which they were conducted, made them seem remarkably like the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah; if I had been required to hold my hands above a basin and have water poured over them before being permitted to enter, and if I had been provided with a black yarmulke to cover my head, and if I had found everyone sitting on mourning stools instead of on chairs and sofas, I would not have been surprised.


I spent a few hours walking in the rain, and periodically I stopped at one trailer or another, participated in one shivah or another, and at each place I picked up another bit of news. First I learned that the dapper gray-haired man who had been weeping over Jelly’s body was Arturo Sombra, the only living Sombra brother, owner of the carnival. Jelly Jordan had been his surrogate son and had been in line to inherit the carnival when the old man passed on. The cops were making it even harder on Mr. Sombra by proceeding under the assumption that foul play was involved and that the murderer was a carny. To everyone’s absolute astonishment the cops were even insinuating that Jelly might have been eliminated because his position with the company gave him plenty of opportunity to dip his hand in the till and because maybe he had taken advantage of that opportunity. They were suggesting that the murderer could even be Mr. Sombra himself, although there was no good reason to entertain such suspicions—and considerable reason to reject them out of hand. They were grilling the old man and Cash Dooley and anyone else who might have known if Jelly was skimming, and they were as thoroughly rude and nasty in their interrogations as they knew how to be. Everyone in the trailer town was outraged.


I was not surprised. I was certain the cops could not seriously be contemplating accusations of murder against anyone. But three of them were goblins. They had seen the numbing grief of those hundred mourners clustered around the carousel; that anguish had not only delighted them but had whetted their appetite for more human misery. They would not be able to resist adding to our pain, milking it, squeezing the last drop of agony from Arturo Sombra and the rest of us.


Later, the word was that the county coroner had arrived, had examined the body in situ, had asked a few questions of Arturo Sombra, and had rejected the possibility of foul play. To everyone’s relief, the official determination was “death by misadventure.” Apparently, it was widely known that when he could not sleep, Jelly sometimes went to the midway, started the carousel (though not the calliope music), and went for a long ride all by himself. He loved the merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was the biggest windup toy of them all, much too big to be kept on a shelf in his office. Usually, because of his size, Jelly sat on one of the elaborately carved and intricately painted benches that boasted arms in the form of mermaids or sea horses. But once in a while he climbed onto one of the horses, which must have been what he did last night. Perhaps worrying about the revenue that would be lost because of the bad weather, perhaps concerned about trouble that Chief Lisle Kelsko might stir up, sleepless and searching for a way to soothe his nerves, Jelly mounted the black stallion while it was moving, sat in the wooden saddle, one hand on the brass pole, the summery wind ruffling his hair, gliding around in the darkness, with no sound but the thunder and pouring rain, most likely grinning with the unselfconscious pleasure of a child, maybe whistling, happily ensconced aboard a magic centrifuge that flung away the years as it whirled, flung away years and worries while it gathered in dreams, and after a while he began to feel better and decided to return to bed—but as he dismounted from the stallion, his right shoe wedged tight in the stirrup, and although his foot pulled free of the loafer, he fell. In the fall, even as short as it was, he split his lips and knocked out two teeth and broke his neck.