Authors: Jeffrey Thomas
But melancholy can be beautiful, and Del liked the carnival all shut down. It was a fantasy people had, exploring an abandoned carnival, like the fantasy of exploring a shopping mall all alone, or being the last survivor of a war and having a city to yourself, because a carnival was a shopping mall
a city. Del heard the far off radio of one of the crew. The morose drawn-out low of a cow. He could smell the livestock. Birds waddled around, picking through scraps. Up ahead through the shiny plastic horses of the miniature carousel Del saw a ghastly, skeletal bluish hairless dog. A snipe. They could be dangerous, the more so because their minds were a bit more than animal, but they showed a healthy fear toward the carnival people because a number of them had been killed by security. Still, as this one proved, they weren’t totally deterred, and Del almost hesitated, wishing he had his gun, but he seldom wore it. The snipe had seen him also, though, and bolted away out of sight, leaving the trash can it had knocked over. Del continued on. They were pack animals, and being caught alone on a quiet street or subway platform by a pack of snipes was one of the scariest things Del could imagine, but in the day they generally split up as lone scouts or scavengers and were as fleeting and peripheral as ghost hounds. Their blood, when they were wounded or killed, turned instantly to a noxious black gas when it hit the air–superstitious types said this was their souls fleeing. They were not native to Oasis and no one knew where they had come from or how they had gotten here. Mutants, thought Del, glancing sharply over his shoulder as he quickened past the quiet merry go-round. He wondered where their pack nested.
Over the tops of the central cluster of kiddie rides loomed the rides for older kids and adults, towering like abstract sphinxes and idols built of dark metal and bright plastic, blistered and rusty from careless workmanship though plastic, metal, and paint that could survive thousands of years unblemished was available. Oh well, it added to the melancholy, nostalgic character of things, and to the delicious fear that the machinery would come apart and hurl you to your doom. A few times it had. Rearing above some treetops on the edge of the carnival, in the distance, was the Dreidel, not one of the more dangerous rides but last night a murderer. They were gargantuan robots that usually tolerated the foolish swarming humans and other beings but would sometimes, irritated, swat them or ping them away or crush them like insects.
The rides fell behind, mostly; the aisles of games were long and still mostly shuttered. A few people; Del waved or nodded or exchanged a smile and a few words. He kept on. It was a second coffee he was in quest of. Finally, the sprawling central carnival proper behind, ahead lay the many food stands and little trailer and booth shops that sold cheap toys, buttons, clothing, hideous bright paintings on black velvet. A few trailer shop operators were now setting out their wares. Gypsy-like, they either followed Sophi’s carnival when it moved or affixed themselves lamprey-like to another carnival or opened up on the side of a highway or blended into a large flea market.
“Mornin’, Mr. Kahn,” said a skinny old man with leathery, weather-blasted skin and sleeked-back yellowish-white hair, setting out the black velvet paintings painted by his wife and daughter.
“Mornin’, Andy. Always getting an early start.”
“I haven’t gotten up later than six in forty-nine years, Mr. Kahn.” Del had stopped to scan the paintings, hiding his disgust. Sophi, as a joke, had given Del a painting on black velvet by Andy’s daughter for his last birthday. A portrait of himself. It hung in the bedroom, on the wall behind the door they left open. Paintings of tigers, of flowers, oriental dragons, huge-eyed hideously cute children. Several paintings of Lotto-ichi, the Tikkihotto hero Sophi had urged Del to write a song about on
, but he had resisted, wanting to keep to more obscure subjects. Lotti, as they called him, sort of a cross between Elvis and King David, had started his career as a singer and in becoming a political figure had continued to spread his words in song. Naturally, like any good revered figure, he was assassinated. For the birthday before last Sophi had given Del a plastic bust of Lotti, again bought at the carnival, with realistic moving Tikkihotto eye tendrils, which played one of his songs like a music box. Again, hideous. But lovable, in its way. It was on a bureau in the bedroom. “See anything you like, Mr. Kahn?” smiled Andy.
“All of it, Andy.”
“Where’s your better half this mornin’?”
“In my pants.”
“Oh–ah, hah, hah!”
“See you around, Andy.”
Del crossed the dirt boulevard to a canvas-tented stand that sold coffee and pastries to raise money for missionary work on far colonies. The Canon nuns who ran it were here already to set up, their van parked behind. They wore secular clothes so as not to scare people off. A few of them Del found sullen and unpleasant, a few cheery and friendly. He said good morning to them all and bought a large Styrofoam cup of coffee with cream and sugar, and a large cinnamon-sugar doughnut on a napkin. He sat at one of the folding tables under their pavilion, where one of the friendly nuns was writing in a notebook, a tea by her elbow.
“Last day,” smiled the nun, without looking up.
“Mm-hm. I’m relieved, but it’s sad.”
“Yes. Where to now?”
“I’ll just kick back for a while. What about you, sister?”
“I’ll be heading out to Arbor, in the Rothman System.” Sister Brandy looked up now, glowing with enthusiasm. “It’s a beautiful planet, almost one continuous garden…tropical at the equator, more like forest elsewhere. The natives are peaceful beings evolved from plants. They don’t even have a word for ‘war’.”
“That might make it hard for them to understand parts of the Bible.”
Sister Brandy raised a scolding eyebrow but maintained her good humor as always.
“If their life is so beautiful why not leave them be? How are they going to relate to a religion that says man alone is made in God’s image, and all the animals and plants are only things put as his disposal?” Del smiled, sipped his coffee.
“God has many images, Del.”
“Says you, or the Bible? I’ve read most of it, and it seemed less generous than that.”
“The Canon has adapted the old views to address space and dimensional exploration, Del. Also, we can’t leave the Arbor beings alone–Earth industries are instituting lumber operations, other operations, and the Arbor beings are now exposed to humanity. Our presence will be relevant and vital to relations, to an understanding of human values and beliefs.”
humans’ values and beliefs.”
“Well, we could leave them to watch porno movies and drink beer with the lumber crews.”
“Now that sounds better!”
terrible, Mr. Kahn.”
“I’m just trying to ruffle your feathers, sis. My wife would have told me to fuck myself by now.”
“There have been those occasions I was tempted myself, Mr. Kahn.”
Del laughed heartily. “You’re lucky I’m already married, sister.”
“I thank you for the compliment, Del.”
Sister Brandy wasn’t a real beauty but she had a round-faced ingenuous prettiness, a nice figure, and natural red hair–a rarity indeed. Del had never had a redhead, even for all his encounters, and would have loved to press his lips and nose into red hair. But more, he had never had a nun. Sure, it was that fantasy of converting a nun or a lesbian with your irresistible male power, as some women fantasized about enlightening a priest or gay man, but the fantasy was admittedly a potent one. Del would have loved to gently undress Sister Brandy, who would be stimulated but still a bit unsure, torn; kiss her breasts wispily as he tenderly uncovered them for the first time to a man’s eyes, stare deeply into her scared and hungry and confused and yearning eyes as he slowly inserted one finger inside her. If only he had detected a sign from her, but he never had and didn’t expect to, and he couldn’t possibly make the first move. Bad karma.
He glanced at an older nun behind the counter, who seemed to be glaring at him but flicked her eyes away. A funny feeling. Was she a bit of a telepath or was his guilt simply squirming? Del decided to leave the nun to her work and bear his coffee along elsewhere. He rose and excused himself. “Have a good night tonight, sister. I’ll try to catch you before I leave, but if I don’t, good luck with the salad people.” He shook her hand, gave it a warm squeeze. He really did like her beyond the fantasy.
“You have a good night tonight, too, Mr. Kahn.”
“Del. And thank you and your wife for letting us set up our stand.”
“My pleasure. Hope to see you next year if you’re around.”
“I doubt it, since it’s a four year stint, but…one never knows.”
“Well, tell ya what, maybe we’ll head out that way, if the Arborites prove to be fond of corn dogs and black velvet paintings. God forbid.”
They both laughed, parted, waved.
Del strolled on, aimlessly drawn toward the distant livestock smell, knowing that here there would be more activity to observe, people to talk with as the animals were tended to, their canvas blankets unstrapped, their hay or feed shoveled. But someone behind him, a man, called his name.
The man, Mitch Garnet, was walking at him fast, bouncing in his white running sneakers. Mitch had an energized swagger. He was, like Del, only medium height at best but muscular without being bulky, though more athletic and restless physically. He had short, curly brown hair and a serious, handsome face, blue eyes under intensely lowered dark brows. He didn’t smile much, his small mouth held with an almost arrogant solemnity. Even his words came over with a bitter, insolent edge. Del liked him, though–but didn’t feel close. Garnet was the chief of security under Sophi. The town had its own uniformed crew–this year they were trying a new outfit after last year’s last day riot. Sophi’s personal crew consisted of just Mitch, a human woman, a Choom man, and the two KeeZees–whose greatest effectiveness was as showpieces, but who still quelled a lot of trouble through direct action. They all wore street clothes to mingle, but for the black-garbed KeeZee duo. Mitch now wore faded jeans, a white polo shirt and a silver windbreaker.
Del sipped while he waited for him. “Mornin’, Mitch.”
“Mornin’.” Garnet had reached him. Straight to business. “I’ve got a body in the morgue you might wanna see. We found it this morning behind the Screamer.”
“Oh boy. How many does that make from last night? Four, now?”
“Yeah. This one was murdered. Real murdered.”
“I thought we’d do better than last year.” Del fell in beside Garnet and they walked off another way. “I’m waiting for a day in which we get away with not one fatality.”
“That kid that fell outta the Dreidel last night got picked up already. Nobody called after this one, though. And we don’t have any I.D. yet.”
“Can we post a photo around?”
“Not of the face. We can describe the clothes.”
“If this morning is any indication of the day to come I think I’ll hide in my trailer until it’s all over.”
“Last night,” Garnet consoled him. He was hard to keep up with.
With Garnet, Del had pretty much retraced his steps. One trailer toward the front of the trailer village was Sophi’s formal office, and Garnet’s large security trailer with its holding cells was beside it. Lost children, thefts, myriad problems were reported here. One of two secretary-dispatchers was always stationed, aided by a few unfancy robots. Next to this trailer was a large medical trailer, always adequately staffed, with two small helicars parked on the roof. The town also kept some vehicles on the site, plus a teleporter for real emergency cases having to be sent to a hospital without delay. The town security vehicles and temporary structure were here, and finally Sophi’s security team’s morgue, a large black trailer with the white-stenciled word MORGUE looming on the side. Sophi’s med team turned over the cases they couldn’t deal with on a long-term basis to the town med team, and her security crew turned over their arrests to the town, usually within a day or two, to deliver to Punktown’s police facilities. But the dead delivered even by the town’s hired security crew and medical team remained at the carnival morgue pending pick-up. If not identified upon discovery, the bodies waited there to be claimed. At the end of the season the morgue turned over its unclaimed collection to the town. Those bodies not claimed at the Paxton morgue in six months were then separated into two groups: those killed or first handled by the town teams, and those killed or first handled by Sophi’s staff. Thus were belongings and valuables distributed fairly. The town then disintegrated their bodies, but sometimes the carnival found innovative uses for their share…
Del waited for Mitch to tap the entry code into a small keyboard; the morgue door slid open. Del followed him inside. Mitch slid the door shut. No other living beings were in here. It was a little chilly, but much of that was in Del’s mind and in the sickly greenish cast of the lights.
“I haven’t been in here in a week,” murmured Del, scanning about. He sipped his coffee.
“You’ve missed some good ones.” Drawers with digital readouts for labels lined the walls; Garnet touched a master control and all the drawers slid open simultaneously (but for those containing victims of possibly contagious disease or radiation poisoning). Del hated when he did that. Macho indifference to death carried too far, flaunted. But after the initial shock he did feel his morbid curiosity kick in, and he stepped closer to one of the nearer drawers.