OCTOBER 30, 1976.
The brang of the refrigerator-green phone jolted Arthur out of a black sleep.
The claw of hangover pain clutched his skull, though he hadn’t had alcohol for months. He shook his head, regretting it, not able to get out dreams of war and fire and men he served with. Most of them were gone now – the men, not the wars or the fires. Even Jimmy Carter couldn’t do anything about that.
He pulled the handset onto the futon near his head.
“Sensei,” came Blade’s voice, on what must have been a cross-country call, full of bad switching station static, or mountain weather… or dreams.
He fumbled for the light, and it took him longer than it should have to swim awake. There had been ashes in his lungs, and choking, and a dragon in the skies, devouring the stars above … London?
Japanese was too much for Arthur to manage, “Yes.”
“Sumimasen, desu … fire at John Anderson’s work … … know how bad….”
So the fires are starting outside my head now, too. He whacked the heavy handset against the wall and yelled into it.
Blade spattered on, “…contact Mr. Caldwell…” and then the drone of a dead line crackled with spirits trapped in the grid. Blade was a good soldier. If he was calling, things were bad. Hopefully, he wouldn’t lose this one too.
He dialed Caldwell’s number, the long spiral of his Louisiana area code never more annoying on the rotary phone. “…has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel -”.
“Oh, crap,” Arthur said, staring at the stucco-swirled ceiling. He tried calling Blade back. No answer.
Grinding his teeth with how old and pathetic he’d gotten, he let sleep drag him back under with its angry talons.
Someone put three neat, evenly-spaced knocks on his door. Arthur pulled on faded GI fatigues to answer it. The messenger waiting outside couldn’t be odder. He wondered which looney bin Caldwell pulled this one out of for his ‘special insights’: maroon velvet vest, forest green corduroy pants under a 50’s slicked pompadour. He delicately handed over a linen envelope that just said “Arthur” in the straight calligraphy Jacob Caldwell preferred.
The little messenger’s fingers lingered on Arthur’s hand until he glared them and their owner away. God, Caldwell, what the hell’s with the little Oscar Wilde clone.
At the round formica table in his modern apartment’s avocado-colored kitchen, he opened the envelope carefully. Nothing inside, just letter fragments painted onto the interior by an all-too steady hand. Christ, he sends me a Mad Magazine origami message, does he think I’ve got nothing but time?
Alone with dream-memories of flames, he figured the cipher, but it was painful and time-consuming. He kept thinking of John and Blade while he worked, and the others… trying to remember the names and faces of the men and the woman who were gone. He told himself that was the difference between him and Caldwell: to Caldwell they were tools and could be replaced from the overflowing bins of humanity. No, you cold shit, you can’t replace human beings. That’s the point of this whole thing, and you still don’t get it.
The message was “The Key is in danger and must be moved.” There was a location, and “behind the white mask.” Well, isn’t that just the rotten cherry on top?
The Emmet Kelley Circus Museum in Sedan City, Kansas was exactly the faded little place Arthur imagined it would be. The old opera house bore the sun-bleached tattoo of a striped big top in mauve. The girl in the orange turban selling tickets inside was mild and clear-skinned and milky. Arthur matched her bland for bland, faking a generic good ole boy twang and a shy smile, buying a ticket for just himself with a sad little, “mah girl wouldn’t come”.
Two cramped rooms back, he found what he was looking for. Next to the bad mannequin of P.T. Barnum in his Edwardian Tuxedo & Tails, there was a small wall-mount makeup display. There it was, the white mask. A little gold key was painted like a teardrop from one eye. There was a small family with well-behaved children cruising the place.
Distraction needed. Check.
Arthur slipped into the bathroom and set a small fire in the metal trashcan. He admired the orange glow of his handiwork as it took life, comforting, warming him like the memory of a lover. There were other ways to do this, of course, but he always came back to fire.
He sauntered out to futz with the machine that took four quarters to flatten a penny into a long, narrow clown’s face.
While security and the tourists were abuzz with smoke and fire, he slipped out past old P.T. and shoved the mask under his jacket on his way out.
Down the street, behind a Union 76, he left his ‘Cuda idling and took a rag to the whitewash on the inside of the mask. It looked like there were words papier-mâchéd around the eyes. He finished cleaning it up carefully. Cut-out Bible quotes strung together in a word-puzzle? That was a new level of tacky for Caldwell.
Something about the word puzzle stirred the guts of his brain. It was a Louisiana addresw.
His handsome Plymouth was going to earn her tires today. She just started stretching out at about 90. Somewhere in Oklahoma, on Interstate 40, he was planning on finding out what she did around 120.
October 31, 1976.
Just after Midnight.
A nameless parish graveyard in western Louisiana spread out around him. Even in late October in the middle of the night, it was hot in this god-forsaken State, and his shirt had gone soaked with stink and sweat about an hour ago. He was 3 feet down in a 1932 child’s grave, and $100 lighter for bribing the caretaker. The handle of the shovel seemed to be made entirely out of splinters, and grit from the loose, sandy soil (grave dirt) kept getting into his mouth, which was just about the most disgusting thing in the world right now.
Shovel met wood.
A half hour later and he cleared the lid of a disturbingly child-sized coffin. He took a minute to brace himself, knowing there was no possibility of … any flesh being left after 40 years in the wet ground, but still not looking forward to seeing inside.
He took a deep breath and yanked the lid, which came off like balsa, thudding into the ground behind him. The inside of the coffin was lined with faded yellow wallpaper. Black, still-frilly, strangely Quakery or Victorian grave clothes clung to a red-haired doll laying alone in the middle of the coffin. Somehow it came across as more disturbing than the skeleton he’d been ready for. What’s gotten into Caldwell? She held a small book, the cover inked with a small, black eye.
He carefully pulled the little book out of the doll’s hands, wiping grimy fingers on his already-destroyed shirt. The first diary entry inside was dated 09-32 and talked about a feeling of being locked up. What a disturbing/cute way to pass on a lock combination. Really outdoing yourself, Jacob Caldwell, he thought sarcastically, admiring the detail.
The second, undated entry talked about missing her home outside New Orleans where her family barn had been turned into a warehouse, and the plantation demolished to make way for the levy. There must be a Plantation street or something near the river levies outside of town. There was a spiral key for a signature, which was actually made of tiny numbers that must be the street address.
He slid his grimy ass out of the grave, stripped off his ruined jeans and t-shirt and left them with the doll. He’d towel down and change into black gear back at the ‘Cuda. Maybe he was getting his old life back. Maybe the dullness of taking up as a truck driver would be over now.
He was right. A light industrial area was scattered along Plantation road outside New Orleans. The area obviously saw light regular use. Tired as he was, he knew he had to get this the hell over with before morning deliveries or whatever started. There were high windows, and a front entrance with a shiny new deadbolt. Around back, his work-smooth calluses slipped on the lock as he dialed in the code. Caldwell, this better be the last stop in your Vincent Price clue circus.
Arthur slipped inside the barely-opened big-panel sliding doors and gave his eyes a second to adjust. The warehouse was rotting where it touched the bayou-damp ground. Swimming up out of the dark, pale metal and porcelain shapes of old hospital equipment revealed themselves to him. There were huge Soviet-looking medical machines, rusting bed frames leaned together, long trough basins stacked unsafely, and rows and rows of stamped-aluminum sheeting.
Somewhere in the moldy dusk of the warehouse, the buzz of cheap AM radio was serving up the Carpenter’s latest greatest, made even more syrupy by no sleep. The twist in his guts told him not to turn on the lights. He listened.
He stalked between the rows of basins and urns and child-size beds and past a tilting junkpile of parts. Arthur was sweating from tension and internal heat. He was trying to be slow, to be careful, to stay softly awake. His body was re-teaching itself the instincts of smoke.
Beyond a stack of wheelchairs, piled as though in tribute, someone (Caldwell presumably) had rigged bedsheets into a stained tent in the middle of the warehouse. The entrance was marked with the same eye symbol as the buried doll’s diary. He was definitely going to punch Jacob Caldwell in the mouth the next time he saw that Rube Goldberg bastard.
His exasperated sigh came out a lot louder than he’d wanted. He checked the surround, all the corners he could see. Nothing but the sighing breathing of morning and the river. Giving in to absurdity, he pushed through into the tent, into the dark, hot and insubstantial feeling. The gloom was almost total, and the mildew must was overpowering.
This was nasty and dirty, and not in any way artistic. Now Caldwell was falling way out of character, maybe he’d been tired, too, when he’d set up all this ridiculousness.
He froze. Dead war nerves jolted alive. That doll, too, buried in the anonymous earth… now he knew why it’d creeped him out so. It reminded him of Emily, his guardian angel. Not right at all.
The kerosene lamp sputtered as a toothless man with a single rusted hedge clipper turned it up. A whole family of freaks clustered around the edges of the tent, all with sharp, broken things, and rotten inside. How could he have missed them all?
Like it’d been locked up behind a gate, his old discipline opened and rushed through him, slow with sleep and the laziness of the 70’s.
The wicked curved blade came loose from its sheathe across Arthur’s back—The Knife as he called it these days—and he lunged sideways, elbowing the long-haired thug reaching for his back. He spun a short arc, neatly slicing a new mouth into his throat. Fresh blood from the creep went hot on the nape of Arthur’s neck as he twisted back to parry a pair of pinking shears in the hands of a sag-breasted matron.
It was good to be fighting again. Hedge clippers, broken glass and rust-red wrench slashed and leered and gnawed at him. The fight was food to a hungry man, and the age in his bones gave way to a youth inside him that would never die. Part of him felt sorry for the asylum escapees, and another part heated up at the bloody way they were being spent. He kicked the fallen kerosene lamp so it broke open. The Knife didn’t have time for pity as it danced and slashed and stabbed, glinting orange in the free kerosene glare. The copper smell of blood overpowered the mildew and it was like he was back in the jungles again, in the dark and death. A little faux post-orgasmic silence and relaxation.
Then, perfectly incongruously, there was laughing. It bubbled up like pus somewhere outside the tent. He broke the neck of the screwdriver wielding hunchback who tried to get up. Favoring a pulled muscle in his groin, he lurched out into the warehouse.
There was another semi-circle of freaks. Not much question of the outcome, but this fighting with the blade was a little too intimate, and he was rusty for all his remembered warmth. It would’ve been simpler if he’d brought a gun.
The boom was house-shattering loud to his heightened hearing. The sick break of his kneecap was fire and ice as he fell, head gonging an iron lung on his way down.
Things always turn fast. Advantage, luck, life, marriage, fortunes, all of it was an act in a circus where the lights could always go out.
Blacking out didn’t dissuade the new freaks from beating him. A lot. With baseball bats – Mickey Mantles, made for real hitting. For no real reason, the sweet-sick of bones cracking reminded him of champagne.
In the crumbling reality of the warehouse, dark water seeped through the earth into his clothes, into his spirit, and his remembered hot defiance died. The lackeys made way for their coward of a boss. Even in Arthur’s broken self, it made sense, snapped neatly into place when the velveteen messenger stepped into view. It was the one who’d given him the envelope yesterday or a lifetime ago. He was painted up in black and white mime-face now, slick with sweat in the cold air.
The asshole cooed at him, “Hello, Arthur.”
That voice hadn’t belonged to the messenger yesterday morning. That voice didn’t belong at all. It was the Fool’s voice, the same he’d faced with Caldwell back in his Connecticut Barnum days.
“Oooch,” he spluttered behind teeth too broken for good conversation.
“Oh, yes. Me.”
Emily. Arthur tried to call to her, their guardian angel. He had to warn the others. This wasn’t possible.
“Of course it isn’t possible,” the little shit sang, guessing or reading his thoughts. To his freakshow, “Kids. Bring daddy the machete and the gasoline, now, would you?” He smiled like a Sunday School teacher.
“Ohn .. nawk,” he spat tooth bits out.
“Of course, I know you won’t talk,” hushed the Fool, yellow teeth between black lipstick. “That was never the point. We’ll have Caldwell for that. You… you need to be punished. You need to bleed. And you’ll like the last part – I know how you love fire….”
He hefted the blunt machete. “Have a nice death. See you in the next life.”
Emily! Arthur screamed in his heart, the last warmth there like a gateway, frantic. See this!
At last, he had drawn my attention, perfectly distracted as it was by John and the New Life. I was a mute witness to the death of our king: Arthur.