The Clown and the Carnival
I followed Karen’s flight instructions for the helicopter to the letter. Lucky for me the gal had a gift for description. That and the chopper had autopilot. I set the destination for the GPS coordinates in the instruction manual and settled in the pilot’s seat. We flew against the setting sun, so I figured we headed east. The growl of the engine and whine of the blades almost drowned out the noise of Ed’s snores. I glanced over my shoulder, he was out, slumped over with the folded magazine in his lap. Who falls asleep reading Hustler?
I landed the bird in a small pond of water on the rooftop of a Publix grocery store. Once the blades stopped spinning, I shook Ed awake and stepped out to scope out the landscape.
“Where are we?” Ed rubbed his eyes and blinked. As usual, Ed was useless as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. I’d hoped he at least knew where we were headed.
“East, somewhere.” I scanned the horizon. “I don’t know where we are, but I know where we’re going.” I grabbed the backpack and pointed behind us, where a multi-colored glow lit up the night. “To the carnival.”
It must have rained there recently, we splashed through puddles dotting the asphalt grounds of the carnival. The rides were running — a skeletal Ferris Wheel turned lazily in the night, no more than four of its cars occupied. Either the customers were scared off by the weather or something wicked was in the air.
“Why a carnival, Stark?” Ed asked.
“It’s where this whole caper began, where I found the first real clue,” I said. “I was too late for the first one, they’d packed up and moved on by the time I got there.”
We wandered past the clatter coming from the games of skill — the shooting gallery, the ring toss, the plastic ducks floating in a wading pool. The barkers were doing their best to lure in the rubes, but there were only a handful of soggy customers strolling under the lights.
I pulled Ed away from the food vendors. The greasy stink of rancid cooking oil wafted from the stand where a fat man in a stained apron offered up corn dogs and Belgian waffles.
“No more food, Ed. I’m out of Pepto.”
We’d reached the edge of the lot when I spotted him, leaning against a white panel van. I’d last seen him beside us on the highway in New Mexico. He’d finished his makeup, but it wasn’t much of an improvement. A blood-red grin stretched across his mouth, the lines wavering at the edges like the lipstick on a drunken bar-fly. His black-rimmed, bloodshot eyes matched the red paste on his face, and he’d topped it off with a fluorescent orange wig. An over-sized white jumpsuit with blue and green polka dots covered his body. He looked like something dreamed up in a Stephen King- Ray Bradbury mashup nightmare.
The clown spotted us, and before he took off in a trot toward the Ferris wheel, he tucked a rectangle-shaped object into one of the pockets on his suit. Karen’s journal?
“Let’s go!” I grabbed Ed and pulled him along behind.
“A clown?” Ed asked.
“Yeah, isn’t there something about if you write a clown into the script in Act One, he better go off before the play ends?”
“I think it was a gun.”
“Well, we don’t got any guns now, Ed. So follow that clown!”
The orange wig lit up under the carnival lights like it was on fire, which made it easy to follow the guy as he weaved past the House of Mirrors and raced alongside the rumbling cars on the roller coaster. I stumbled in front of a poster advertising “The Last Dinosaur — See a Live Triceratops!” and lost him when he ducked past the carousel.
“Which way did he go?” I spun around, shouting over the shrill calliope issuing from the galloping painted horses.
“That way!” Ed pointed over my shoulder. I turned around and caught a glimpse of one of the clown’s over-sized, black shoes as he dipped into the Fun House.
I paid for our tickets. Ed conveniently had lost his wallet back at the George R.R. Martin cabin. We crept inside, into a dark tunneled maze of plywood walls.
“Maybe I should wait outside,” Ed whispered.
“No way, you’re my backup when we catch up with the guy.”
We shuffled along, dodging shrieking skeletons that dropped from the ceiling. I noticed words carved into the walls and highlighted with glow-in-the-dark paint.
“Don’t get it right, just get it written — James Thurber”
“Write drunk, edit sober — Ernest Hemingway.”
The hallway shrunk until we had to squeeze through sideways. I could hear heavy breathing ahead, as though the building itself were alive. At last, the passageway opened up and we spilled out onto a railed bridge over a flume of rushing water. Empty cars floated past below us as we crossed and at last reached a door marked “Exit.”
Together we charged through a spinning barrel at the end of the maze and emerged in a sort of anteroom. The clown stood in front of the double doors leading outside. On the wall beside him, I spotted the scrawled phrase — “I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to….” The words trailed off in what I hoped was red paint.
“It’s the end of the line for you, Bucko.” The clown brandished a baseball bat in one hand. In the other hand, he waved a long-barreled pistol.
“Hold on,” I said. I eased the backpack off my shoulders and held out my hands to the clown to show him I was unarmed.
“I can’t take it anymore!” Ed collapsed with a thump. “This boy’s life is over!”
“HA!” shouted the clown as he raised the pistol.
I reached into the backpack and grabbed the heaviest tome there — the Wilderness Living and Survival Skills, and chucked it at the clown. I hoped Karen’s prediction would be right, that the book would save my life.
The book landed with a thunk on the clown’s arm, and he jerked the pistol into the air. The gun sounded a loud pop, and Ed passed out. His head knocked against the floor.
“Now look what you’ve done,” the clown said. He slumped against the double doors. “I never meant to hurt anyone.” He brought up the gun and leveled it at me. A white flag hung from the end of the barrel, I read the word “Bang” printed on it.
“Next time you’ll think twice before messing with a man armed with literature,” I said, stepping over the clown and pushing open the door. I tugged the baseball bat out of the clown’s limp hand and tapped Ed on the side. “Wake up, sleeping beauty,” I said.
I frisked the clown, hoping to find the object he’d stuffed into the enormous pockets on his clown suit. My fingers brushed across the smooth leather of a book and I pulled it out into the dim light of the Fun House. There was something tooled in gold script on the front — “The Ultimate Seafood Cookbook.” Damn, another red herring.
Ed crawled out of the Fun House behind me. We stepped out into the night as a hooded figure blocked our path.
“You’ll never give up, will you Stark?” Karen Fayeth waited under the neon light. A glint of gold flashed at her chest — the locket.
“No, and neither should you, Karen.”
“You’re starting to grow on me. I like my men like I like my eggs, hard-boiled and tough to crack.”
“I read something in there I think you should hear.” I paused then told her, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club — Jack London.”
I handed her the baseball bat. “You know what you need to do.”
Many thanks to Lon Shapiro and Karen Fayeth for starting us on this journey, and my eternal gratitude to Mark Starlin for tagging me into the melee. Wonderful writers P.G. Barnett, Dan Leicht, and John K Adams brought us to this point, you should check out their stuff.