Page 17


In spite of the silence, regardless of the late hour, I had the hair-raising feeling that I was not alone.


Squinting into the impenetrable gloom, I stooped and withdrew the knife from my boot.


Having the blade in my hand did not make me feel more secure. It was of little use to me if I could not see from which direction the attack was coming.


The sideshow was on the perimeter of the midway and within easy access of the fairgrounds’ public power lines; therefore, it was not tied to the carnival’s generators, and I did not need to start a diesel engine to turn on a light. I felt through the darkness to the left and then to the right of the entrance, searching for either a light switch mounted on a stanchion or a pull chain dangling from the ceiling.


My psychic sense of danger grew stronger.


Attack seemed more imminent by the second.


Where the hell was that switch?


I fumbled, found a thick wooden pole along which snaked a flexible, segmented power cable.


I heard rough, ragged breathing.


I froze.


Listened.


Nothing.


Then I realized the breathing had been my own. An inconvenient feeling of foolishness briefly incapacitated me. I stood in lumpish stupidity, awash in that chagrin familiar to anyone who, as a child, had lain awake for hours in fear of the monster under the bed, only to discover upon courageous inspection that the monster did not exist or was, at worst, only a pair of old, worn tennis shoes.


However, the clairvoyant impression of impending violence did not lessen. Quite the opposite. Danger seemed to coagulate in the humid, musty air.


I blindly traced the segmented cable with trembling fingers, found a junction box, a switch. I flicked it. Overhead, along the roped-off walkway and in the stalls behind the ropes, bare bulbs brightened.


Knife in hand, I proceeded cautiously past the empty stall where Jack-Four-Hands had displayed himself yesterday afternoon and where his pathetic history was still recorded on a canvas backdrop, from the first room to the second, from second to third, and finally to the fourth chamber, to the last stall, where Joel Tuck usually took up his station, where now the threat of death was oppressive, a menacing current in the air that electrified me.


I stepped up to the rope at Joel Tuck’s stall.


The patch of sawdust-sprinkled earth in front of the platform was, to me, as radiant as a mass of plutonium, although it was not deadly gamma particles that streamed from it. Instead I was exposed to uncountable roentgens of death images—and smells and sounds and tactile sensations—which were beyond the apprehension of the five senses I share with other human beings but which registered and were read upon the Geiger counter of my sixth sense, my clairvoyance. I sensed: open graves in which darkness pooled like stagnant blood; time-bleached bones in piles with spiderweb monocles in the empty skull sockets; the scent of moist, newly turned earth; the heavy grating of a stone lid being slid laboriously off a sarcophagus; bodies on slabs in rooms that stank of formaldehyde; the sweet stench of cut roses and carnations that had begun to decompose; the dankness of a subterranean tomb; the thunk of a wooden coffin lid dropping shut; a cold hand pressing dead fingers to my face . . .


“Jesus,” I said, my voice shaky.


The precognitive flashes—which were, for the most part, symbolic of death rather than representative of real scenes to come in my life—were much stronger and much worse now than they had been yesterday afternoon.


I raised one hand and wiped my face.


I was sheathed in cold sweat.


Trying to marshal the jumble of psychic impressions into some meaningful order, yet struggling not to be overwhelmed by them, I swung one leg over the restraining rope, then the other leg, and stepped into the stall. I was afraid of losing consciousness in the clairvoyant storm. That was unlikely, but it had happened on a couple of other occasions, when I had encountered particularly powerful charges of occult energy, and each time I had awakened hours later with a severe headache. I dared not pass out in this place, filled as it was with so much malignant promise. If I lost consciousness in Shockville, I would be killed where I fell. I was sure of that.


I knelt on the earthen floor in front of the platform.


Go, leave, get out! an inner voice warned.


Gripping the knife so hard that my right hand ached and my knuckles popped up in bloodless white points, I used my left hand to brush away the layer of sawdust from a yard-square area. Underneath, the dirt was stamped down but not hard-packed. I was able to dig into it easily with just my bare hands. The first inch came up in chunks, but farther down the soil was looser, precisely the opposite of what ought to have been. Someone had dug a hole here within the last couple of days.


No. Not a hole. Not merely a hole. A grave.


But whose? What body lay below me?


I did not really want to know.


I had to know.


I continued scraping the soil aside.


The death images intensified.


Likewise, the feeling that this excavation had the potential to become my grave grew stronger as I clawed at the earth. Yet that did not seem possible because, clearly, another corpse was already in tenancy. Perhaps I was misinterpreting the psychic emanations, a distinct possibility, for I was not always capable of making sense of the vibrations to which my sixth sense was attuned.


I put my knife aside so I could scoop the earth away with both hands, and in a couple of minutes I had made a hole about a yard long and two feet wide, six or eight inches deep. I knew I should go find a shovel, but the soil was quite loose, and I did not know where to look for a shovel, and besides, I could not stop. I was compelled to keep digging without even the briefest pause, driven by a morbid and crazy but undismissable certainty that the occupant of this grave would prove to be me, that I would pull the dirt off my own face and see myself looking up at me. In a rapture of terror caused by the unrelenting outpouring of frightening psychic images, I tore at the yielding earth in a frenzy now, dripping a cold brine from brow and nose and chin, grunting like an animal, panting, lungs afire. I burrowed deeper, snorting in disgust at the ripe psychic scent of death as if it were a real odor—deeper—but there was actually no reek of decay in the sideshow tent, only in my mind—deeper—because the corpse was too fresh to have undergone more than the earliest, mildest stages of decomposition. Deeper. My hands were filthy, my fingernails caked with dirt, and bits of soil flew into my hair and stuck to my face as my burrowing became wilder still. A part of me drifted back and up, looking down on the frantic animal that I had become, and that detached part of me wondered if I was mad, just as it had wondered about the stark and tortured face in the locker-room mirror the night before last.


A hand.


Pale.


Slightly bluish.


It appeared there in the ground before me, in a position of final relaxation, as if the dirt around it were a mortuary blanket on which it had been placed with tender care. Dried blood was crusted on the fingernails and in the creases of the knuckles.


The psychic death images began to fade as I now made contact with the real object of death from which they had flowed.


I had dug down perhaps a foot and a half, and now I carefully scooped more soil out until I had found a second hand, half overlaying the first . . . and the wrists . . . and part of the arms . . . until it became evident that the deceased had been laid to rest in the traditional position, with the arms folded across the chest. Then, alternately unable to breathe and hyperventilating, racked by spasms of fear that made my teeth chatter, I began to excavate more extensively above the hands.


A nose.


A broad forehead.


A harp-string glissando, not of sound but of cold vibration, passed through me.


I did not find it necessary to brush all the earth away from the face, for I knew when it was half uncovered that it was the man—the goblin—I had killed in the Dodgem Car pavilion the night before last. His eyelids were shut, both with a glaucous tint that made it look as if someone of perverse humor had applied eye shadow to him before committing him to the ground. His upper lip was curled back at one corner, in a rigor-mortis sneer, and dirt was packed between his teeth.


Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement in another part of the tent.


I gasped, snapped my head around, toward the promenade beyond the rope, but no one was there. I was convinced I had seen something move, and then, before I could even get up from the grave to investigate, I saw it again—dervish shadows that leapt off the sawdust-carpeted floor, onto the far wall of the tent, then back to the floor again. They were accompanied by a low moan, as if some spawn of nightmares had entered the last chamber of the tent and was shuffling toward me, not yet in sight of the fourth stall but only a few lumbering steps away.


Joel Tuck?


Clearly it was he who had spirited the dead goblin out of the Dodgem Car pavilion and buried it here. I had no idea why he had done it; whether to help me, confuse me, frighten me—I had no basis for judgment. He might be friend or enemy.


Without looking away from the open side of the stall, expecting trouble to appear there in one form or another at any moment, I groped blindly behind me for the knife that I had put aside.


Once more the shadows leapt, and once more they were accompanied by a soft groan, but abruptly I realized that the groan was only the threnody of the wind, which had picked up outside. The cavorting shadows were the harmless work of the wind as well. Each strong gust found a way inside the tent, and as it blew through the canvas corridor, it stirred the bare, dangling lights overhead. Those swaying bulbs briefly gave life to inert shadows.


Relieved, I stopped groping for the knife and turned my attention to the corpse once again.


Its eyes were open.


I recoiled, then saw that they remained dead and sightless eyes, covered with a transparent, milky film that refracted the light from above and looked almost like frost. The dead man’s flesh was still slack, his mouth still set in a rigid sneer, dirt still wadded between his parted lips and caked between his teeth. His throat bore the ruinous knife wound—although it did not look as bad as I remembered it—and no breath entered or escaped him. He was most certainly not alive. Evidently the startling retraction of the eyelids was nothing more than one of those postmortem muscle spasms that often scared the bejesus out of young medical students and novice morticians. Yes. Surely. But . . . on the other hand . . . could these nerve reactions and muscle spasms be expected almost two days after his death? Or were such bizarre reactions limited to the few hours immediately subsequent to death? Well, all right, then maybe the eyelids had been held shut by the weight of the earth that had been packed on top of the carcass; now that the dirt had been removed, the lids had sprung open.


The dead did not come back to life.


Only crazy people sincerely claimed to have seen walking corpses.


I was not crazy.


I was not.


I stared down at the dead man, and gradually my wild breathing subsided. The rabbit-fast beat of my heart decelerated too.


There. That was better.


I began to wonder, again, why Joel Tuck had buried the body for me and why, once having done that favor, he had not come forward to take credit for it. And why would he have done it in the first place? Why make himself an accomplice to murder? Unless, of course, Joel Tuck knew that I had not murdered another human being. Was it possible, perhaps through his third eye, that he saw the goblins, too, and sympathized with my homicidal urges?


Whatever the case, this was not the time to think about it. At any moment the security patrol might swing past Shockville and see that the lights were on. Although I was a carny now, and not the intruder I had been two nights ago, they would nevertheless want to know what I was doing in a concession I did not own and in which I did not work. If they found the grave or, worse, the body, my status as a carny would not protect me against arrest, prosecution, and lifelong imprisonment.


Using both hands, I began to push the mounded earth back into the partially reopened grave. As the damp soil spilled across the dead man’s hands, one hand moved, flinging a few clods of dirt back at me, flicking it in my face, and the other hand twitched as spasmodically as a wounded crab, and the cataracted eyes blinked, and as I fell and then scrambled backward, the corpse raised its head and began to pull itself out of its less-than-final resting place.


This was no vision, either.


This was real.


I screamed. No sound escaped me.


I shook my head violently from side to side in adamant denial of this impossible sight. It seemed to me that the corpse had risen only because, moments ago, I had imagined this very same macabre development, and the insane thought somehow had the terrible power to make the horror a reality, as if my imagination were a genie that had mistaken my worst fears for wishes and had granted them. And if that were the case, then I could stuff the genie of imagination right back into its lamp, unwish this monstrous apparition, and be saved.


But no matter how hard I shook my head, no matter how desperately I denied what I saw before me, the corpse did not lie down and play dead again. With grub-pale hands it groped for the edges of the grave and pulled itself into a sitting position, looking straight at me, loose soil dribbling out of the folds in its shirt, filthy hair frizzed and tangled and spiked.


I had scooted along the floor until my back was against the canvas partition that separated this stall from the next. I wanted to stand up, vault across the rope in front of the stall, and get the hell out of there, but I could no more easily run than scream.


The corpse grinned, and chunks of moist earth fell from its open mouth, though dirt remained clotted between its teeth. The calcimine grins of fleshless skulls, the poison-wet grins of serpents, the leer of Lugosi in Dracula’s cape—all paled by comparison with this grotesque configuration of bloodless lips and muddy teeth.


I managed to get up onto my knees.


The corpse worked its tongue obscenely, pushing more damp soil from its mouth, and a weak groan, more weary than threatening, escaped it, a gaseous sound halfway between a croak and a bubbling rift.


I gasped in a breath and found myself rising somewhat dreamily, as if inflated by a foul gas expelled from the corpse before me.


Wiping away the salt-sting of cold sweat from the corner of one eye, I next found myself in a crouch, back bent, shoulders hunched, head held low, apelike.


But I did not know what to do next, except that I knew I could not run. Somehow I must deal with the hateful thing, kill it again, do the job right this time, Jesus, because if I did not deal with it, then it might drag itself out of here and find the nearest other goblins and tell them what I had done to it, and then they would know that I could see through their disguises, and they would tell other goblins, and pretty soon all of their kind would know about me, and they would organize and come after me, hunt me down, because I posed a threat to them that no other human being did.

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