I will soon be publishing an e-book of my novel, Buster Bungle’s Big Top. As a teaser to those who might be interested, I’m including the fifth chapter below.
A clown in a blue fright wig and an orange fluorescent vest was out in front of the circus directing traffic. He was really working it too, spinning, and kicking, and throwing his arms as though he meant to be the act that was remembered at the close of the evening. Neal turned the Hellcat and bumped up over the curb into the stream of cars and trucks that were headed toward the back, behind the enclosure created by the circus vehicles that were parked at the rear of the big top. Three young Hispanic men were sitting in the bed of the battered old pickup ahead of him. They were laughing and joking and calling to the chicas who passed. One of them was openly puffing on a joint, even though a cop who was working security stood just a few yards away.
Several bikes were parked next to the motor home that served as the ticket office. Neal pulled in among them, turned off the Hellcat’s motor, and removed his helmet. Five other bikes, and not a one of them came up to his. That made him smile. He dismounted and dug the ticket out of his wallet. This wasn’t his sort of a crowd. With his white dress shirt, cargo pants, and Nikes, he stood out like an interloper. No one seemed to notice though. They were too busy having a good time, the kids in particular. What with the way they were swarming the rides, that rickety ferris wheel might well have rivaled the London Eye, and the old merry-go-round, which squeaked and squealed as it turned, could have passed for Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel at Disney World.
A snack trailer was parked midway between the big top and the rear of the motor home that served as a ticket office. Neal was drawn to it by the smell of cotton candy and popcorn, but he only bought a Coke. It was watery and full of ice, but he didn’t care. It was cold, and that was all that mattered. He tugged at his shirt. It was hot, too damned hot, and sweat was already making his shirt stick to his body.
It was worse in the tent, and the only available seats were up near the top. Neal cursed to himself and mounted the stairs. He spotted a place on the aisle in the second to last row, the only one he could see. It was next to an enormous fat man. He was wearing an Hawaiian shirt and tan shorts. His head was shaved, he had no eyebrows, and his forearms were like those of a buttery baby. On the floor between his elephantine legs was a tub of popcorn and a 64-ounce soda. A couple of candy bars were sticking out of the pocket of his shirt.
It was clear why no one had sat there. The fat man was eating a corn dog and its crumbs were all over the seats on either side of him. Neal glanced around, again looking for an alternative, but the few empty seats were faraway and filling fast. The fat man grinned up at him, bits of hot dog and cornbread showing in his teeth. Neal brushed off the seat and sat down. He put the helmet on the floor between his legs. Jesus Christ, he thought. He could actually feel the heat
emanating from the fat man’s body. He finished his drink and signaled to one of the vendors who were selling Cokes.
“Seems like they could at least open up the sides of the tent,” he muttered.
He was speaking to no one in particular, but the fat man answered. “They are open.”
He was right. The top three feet of the tent had been rolled up to expose a mesh screen. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t seem to be doing much good.”
The fat man reached over to the empty seat on the other side of him, and came back with a folded fan that he offered to Neal.
“No, that’s all right,” said Neal.
“I’ve brought extras.”
Neal let the fat man put the fan in his hand. “Well, okay. Thanks.”
He opened the fan, only to be confronted by a full-face portrait of a preacher, the Reverend Burton Chaser. He was an older man with a full head of well-styled white hair. A studied expression of sincerity was on his face and his right hand was at his chin, giving prominence to the diamond-studded ring on his little finger. His slogan was printed below the portrait, “Keeping Satan on the run.”
“That’s my pastor,” said the fat man.
“And he approves of the circus?”
“Nope. He says that Selena Sable couples with Satan.”
“Couples, huh? And yet you’re here.”
“I can’t help myself.”
Neal glanced at the tub of popcorn, which was now in the fat man’s lap. He nodded. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Right?”
The fat man sighed, but it didn’t keep his hand from plunging into the popcorn. “Something like that.”
Neal bought himself a Coke, and the houselights began to dim. Four sets of risers, each with twenty rows of seats, were arranged around the tent’s ring. The entrance was to the right. Opposite it was a raised platform that was wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting. The sound-and-light man was visible in silhouette atop the platform, working his boards. An anonymous, amplified voice welcomed them to the evening’s performance, as “The March of the Gladiators” began to play, signaling the start of the promenade. A spot came up on the clown who was riding a unicycle out of the passageway that was behind the sound-and-light platform. It was the dwarf he had met out in front of the circus, and here he was, in his element. He made a little jump, taking the unicycle with him, as he maneuvered his way over the curb and onto the black floor of the ring. His face was painted with a big, red smile, and he wore a pork-pie-hat wig that had yellow, sausage curls hanging from either side of it. He was juggling three plastic balls that were lit from within by orange lights that made it seem as though the moving balls were on fire.
The spot dilated as the other performers filed out of the passageway behind the clown. Led by the ringmaster, a large man in a top hat and tails, they proceeded around the perimeter of the ring in a counterclockwise direction as the performers smiled and waved. The dwarf stopped in front of a chubby young woman with a round face and blunt features who was sitting in the first row. He bowed and put on a little show for her, juggling the fiery balls while perched on the seat of his unicycle.
Neal’s eyes were on the mouth of the passageway. He didn’t much care for all of this. He just wanted to see Selena Sable, but she didn’t appear until right near the end of the promenade.
“That’s her?” he said when she finally emerged. She was dressed just as she had been on that sign out front, in a top hat, tails, leotard, fishnet stockings, and knee-high boots. She wasn’t the hag that he had expected. In fact, she was about his age, but she looked cheap, real cheap, like something from out of a horny adolescent’s wet dream.
The fat man nodded and Neal glanced at the pastor’s face on his fan. “And she’s what’s got your boy here all worked up?”
“Just wait,” the fat man croaked, his mouth full of popcorn. “You’ll see.”
“What do you mean, I’ll see? Have you been here before?”
The fat man drank from his soda and cleared his throat. “This is my third time.”
“You really are flirting with Hell and damnation, aren’t you?”
He grinned sheepishly and raised his cup of soda in a mock toast. “It ain’t gonna be her that takes me to Hell.”
Neal wiped his brow with his hand and flicked the sweat to the floor. He took a drink of his soda and plucked at his shirt. It was already sopping. He moved the fan in front of his face and watched the dwarf clown make a paper rose bloom from his fist. He presented it to the chubby woman, bowed with a flourish of his arm, and returned to his position at the head of the promenade.
The performers had completed their entrance, and they were all standing there waving to the audience. Neal was staring at Selena again, but he could look as much as he wanted, and it would still be the same. She was a disappointment.
“You’re sure that Selena’s act is worth waiting for?” Neal asked the fat man.
“Just wait, you’ll see.”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” Neal replied, mocking him in a high-pitched voice, but the fat man didn’t react. He was too busy with his popcorn.
The ringmaster moved to the center of the performance space, and activated the mike that he wore. He welcomed the audience to the show, and invited them to give the performers a big hand. The response was tepid at best, but the performers were waving and grinning as though it were a standing ovation. They bowed as one, and filed on out of the ring under the proprietary eye of the ringmaster.
“That’s Buster Bungle, right?” asked Neal, and the fat man nodded. His mouth was stuffed with popcorn, its butter shining on his lips.
Buster was a tall man with broad features and a barrel-like build. His voice was so deep and loud that he didn’t really need the microphone, and though he wore the top hat and tails that were expected of a ringmaster, he looked like he would be more comfortable in overalls, sitting on a tractor.
He introduced the Green Family and turned the ring over to them. They were contortionists, and there were three of them, father, mother, and twelve-year-old daughter. They wore leotards of forest-green with hoods that clung tightly to their heads, and their faces were painted to match. Given the proper headpieces, they would have made perfect stalks of broccoli in one of those public television shows that encouraged kids to eat their vegetables. but as contortionists, they were overmatched. The girl was talented enough, but her parents were stiffs. It was no wonder that they hid themselves behind costumes and face paint.
The slackwire act came next. It featured the slender, black-haired Antoine in what looked like a toreador’s outfit. He was undeniably effeminate and he did nothing to conceal it. If anything he flaunted it, and he mounted the slackwire with an extravagant flourish. Neal didn’t really see the point of his act though. The tricks were nothing to get excited about and the wire wasn’t all that far up off of the floor of the ring, so there was no sense of danger at all. Neal found himself yawning.
The Roman rings were next, and at least the woman who worked them was worth looking at. She was introduced as Ramona, and she was a smoldering, black-haired beauty with almond-shaped, brown eyes, and a body that was so full of sexual electricity that it probably glowed in the dark.
“Now, there you go,” said Neal. “This circus could use more like her.”
“That’s her husband who’s spotting her,” said the fat man.
The husband was standing beneath the rings to catch her should she fall. He was classically handsome with dark hair and a slender build. He reminded Neal of a Ken doll. “You couldn’t just let me have that, could you?”
“The truth will set you free.” He was tearing the paper from a Baby Ruth bar. The expression on his sweat-beaded face was like that of a junkie who was about to shoot up.
“The truth is that you don’t need that candy bar.” The fat man pretended that he hadn’t heard him, so Neal went on. “Have you ever noticed how much a Baby Ruth looks like a turd?”
“What are you trying to say, that I’m a shit eater?”
“I’m not saying anything. Draw your own conclusions.”
A gaggle of clowns burst into the ring to open the comic interlude. The house lights were brought halfway up, and the vendors swarmed the aisles, most of them with trays of 32-ounce sodas. Neal bought himself two, and drained one in a single, gulping swallow. What with the price of the drinks and the way he was sweating, he was going to end up spending as much as he would have had he paid for his ticket. Old Buster was nobody’s dummy. He knew where the real money lay.
As the lights went down again, Neal fell into a heat-induced daze, and though he watched, he no longer really saw. There was an act on a trapeze, but the swing was mounted on a metal frame, with a crossbar that hung just ten feet above the floor, making it look more like something that might be used to train for the real thing. Next came a dog act, featuring an aging Marge and her six yapping toy poodles. A bicycle bit followed, and then another comic interlude, that led into an act that was all about swords. A balding, middle-aged guy in black pants and a loose-fitting, silver blouse was introduced as Zorro. He juggled the swords, placed them on the floor and danced around them. That done, he whirled them over his head and about his body in what were apparently martial arts’ routines. In his grand finale, he swallowed one of them. Neal wasn’t really watching though. His eyes were on the area behind the sound-and-light platform where people were moving away from the passageway that opened into the tent. They probably didn’t want to be there when the cats entered, though Neal couldn’t see any cats.
“Where’s the cage?” Neal asked the fat man.
“She doesn’t use a cage.”
“You’re shitting me.”
A sly look came to the fat man’s face. “It’s like I told you. Just wait, you’ll see.”
The sword swallower got a nice round of applause, but it wasn’t really for anything that he had done, and he knew it. He made a quick bow, raised a hand shoulder-high in meek acknowledgment, and hustled on out of the ring as Buster entered, smiling like the proverbial tom that had finally caught the canary. The spotlight focused in tight on him, while six circus workers in the shadows behind him rolled three platforms into the ring and set them up in a row. The platforms were black, but for the image of a leaping cat that appeared in silver on the front.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the expansive Buster. “This is the moment that you’ve all been waiting for.” He was interrupted by the loudest applause of the night, and he let them clap until the circus workers had left the ring. He raised his hand to signal for quiet. “I could tell you all about the Sable family and their worldwide reputation, and I could tell you about how well-received Miss Sable’s act has been by audiences and critics alike, but I’m not going to do any of that, because I know that you don’t really care to hear it. You want to see for yourself.” He extended an arm toward the passageway by which the performers entered. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Selena and the Sable cats.”
The spot that was on Buster faded and died as he departed the ring. At the same time, another one found Selena, who was striding out of the performers’ entrance. This spot was a deep and disturbing shade of purple, a shade unlike any that Neal had ever seen before, and it fell upon her in such a way that it made her seem insubstantial. She was more like a ghostly hologram than a true, living presence.
“Where are the cats?” Neal asked the fat man.
“Just wait,” he replied, and then in a husky whisper, “just wait.”
He was brushing his puffy hands together to remove the crumbs that were on his palms. It was the first time all night that he hadn’t been preoccupied with food.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the miked Selena, “I give you Aisa.”
She threw her arm toward the center platform and snapped her fingers. As she did so, a large, black cat appeared, sitting on its haunches on the platform.
“What the fuck,” muttered Neal. The beast had materialized from out of nowhere.
“Lotte,” said Selena and there was another cat, this one on the platform to the right of the other animal.
“How the hell did she do that?” asked Neal.
“I don’t know,” the fat man replied.
“It has to be the light. I’ve never seen a such a color. It kind of makes your head spin.”
The fat man didn’t answer, but Neal wasn’t listening anyway. He shouldn’t have been watching Selena. That was where he had made his mistake. It was part of the legerdemain, deflecting his attention like that. Well, okay, but he wasn’t about to be fooled again. He fixed his gaze on the remaining empty platform.
There was the third goddamn cat, and Neal hadn’t seen a thing. Not so much as the twinkling of a movement. One moment the platform had been empty, and the next it was occupied by the cat.
“My pastor calls it the work of Satan,” the fat man volunteered.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Selena said, “I give you my girls, Aisa, Lotte, and Nona.”
The cats rose up onto their hind legs in unison, and moved their right paws up and down. They seemed to be waving to the audience, and as they did so, their sleek, black bodies rippled and shimmered in that purple light as though they might at any moment dematerialize and vanish from the earthly dimension.
That which came next was a disappointment. Neal had seen the likes before, on a network TV special. A couple of coiffed and sequined pretty boys in Vegas had run their lions and tigers through the same paces, and the production values there had been a damned sight better. Now here he was, sweating and bored in a shabby tent, as he watched this Selena in B-movie drag coaxing her cats through the same hackneyed routines. They leaped through hoops, danced on their hind legs, bared their fangs on cue, and rolled over like dogs playing dead. And dead they might as well have been, for once Neal’s eyes had finally adjusted to the light, they seemed nothing very remarkable at all, except perhaps in their species. To the best of his inexpert knowledge, the only big cats that were black in color were panthers, but these three were larger than that, though still smaller than lions or tigers.
“Just wait, you’ll see, huh?” said Neal.
“It’s not over yet,” the fat man replied.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Selena said. “Now that you’ve seen what all circus cats do, I will show you what others cannot.”
The cats were back up on the platforms, sitting there with their eyes on Selena, awaiting her next command. She paced slowly across in front of them, as though to make sure that she had their attention, and slapped her thigh as she barked out a command. That brought the cat that she had called Aisa down from where it sat. She raised her hand, holding the cat where it was for a moment. When she finally let it fall, while calling out another command, the cat rolled over onto its back, or it would have, had it not suddenly disappeared, collapsing into an incandescent point of purple light.
“Whoa,” Neal muttered, and the sentiment was echoed by others in the audience, but no sooner was the word out of his mouth, than the cat was back, standing on all fours.
“I didn’t see that,” said Neal, shaking his head to affirm the denial. “I know I didn’t see that.”
The fat man was leaning forward with his forearms resting on his meaty thighs. His eyes were fixed on the ring. “Then you’re the only one who didn’t.”
“I can see that some of you are finding it hard to believe what you have seen,” Selena said to the audience. “Very well then, we’ll do it again, so watch carefully.”
One of the cats then jumped through a brightly glowing hoop that Selena held out at shoulder level, but as the beast moved into the plane of the hoop, it vanished. The only sign of its passing was in the hoop itself. It had begun to coruscate with twining, little flashes of lightning that flew around and around its circumference. Neal’s jaw dropped, and he rose from his seat as though that might give him a better look.
“No fucking way,” he said.
How could Selena hold the damned hoop without getting burned or electrocuted? She wasn’t wearing gloves or anything like that to insulate her. It was just the bare, naked flesh of her hand in contact with the hoop, and she was showing no signs of discomfort at all. She just stood there as casually as ever with a smile on her face, until the cat emerged on the other side, trailing sparks at the end of its tail as it drew the last of the energy from the hoop. At a snap of Selena’s fingers, it sprang on up to where it had been sitting.
Neal sank back down to his seat. The murmuring in the audience had died. If Neal’s own reaction could be taken as any indication, they were in a state of shock. This couldn’t be happening. It just wasn’t possible. He wondered if anyone had it on film. A sign at the entrance had stated that no video cameras were permitted, but it hadn’t mentioned snapshots.
“Has anyone taken pictures of this?” Neal asked the fat man.
“My pastor has, to show the congregation.”
The fat man turned his face to Neal. He had stopped fanning himself, and his face was so wet with sweat that it looked like he had just gotten out of a swimming pool. “And what?”
Neal gestured toward the ring. “And you can see all that in the pictures?”
“You can’t see any signs of wires, or hidden compartments, or anything like that?”
Selena now had all three of the cats down from their platforms, and she was announcing the grand finale. She began by running them side-by-side around the perimeter of the ring. After they had made a few circuits, she called out a command and the two outside cats leaped up over the one in the middle. Instead of colliding though, the three of them merged into a single, hideous beast with a massively muscled body, sharp, dripping teeth, and eyes that burned into the soul, but no sooner had that image registered with Neal than the moment passed, and they were once more just three seemingly ordinary big cats of indeterminate species running side-by-side in a circle.
“Damn, Dorothy,” Neal said to himself, “we’re not in Vegas anymore.”
There was silence in the tent, a silence so complete that it seemed to stop time. Neal could hear the music from the rides outside, hear the children out there laughing, even hear the cars passing in the street. Selena directed the cats back up onto their platforms. She thanked the audience for coming, and asked for a big hand for her girls. There wasn’t much of a response. Given the looks on most people’s faces, they had yet to assimilate what they had seen. A middle-aged woman a few rows down had even started to pray out loud. She wasn’t the only one to so indulge herself. Neal could see others with their heads bowed and their hands together.
The house lights came up, and the fat man’s hand immediately went to the tub of popcorn that was on the floor between his legs. Buster was over by the sound-and-light platform, at the edge of the ring. He seemed ready to bring the show to a close, but Selena was motioning him away.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “This is normally the end of the evening’s entertainment, but tonight I would like to do something a little different.” She paused and waited for her words to sink in before continuing. “Tonight I would like to ask someone to come down and meet my girls.”
“Oh, Lord!” the praying woman wailed. “Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!”
“Wow, she hasn’t done that before,” the fat man said.
Buster was gesturing vigorously at Selena, but she made a point of ignoring him, so he entered the ring and strode in her direction. He didn’t get far though. The cat that was closest to him turned its head and hissed a warning. That brought Buster to a halt, and though he glared at Selena, he retreated.
“Do I have a volunteer?” asked Selena, but her microphone was dead. The man who was working the sound-and-light board had turned it off, so she said it again, speaking more loudly. “Do I have a volunteer?”
Neal was on his feet. He had dropped the fan, and he was waving his hand to get her attention.
“What are you doing?” the fat man asked.
“I don’t know,” Neal replied, and he was telling the truth.
“This is crazy,” the fat man hissed. “Sit down.”
“The gentleman up there,” said Selena, and she was pointing at him. Several other hands were up, but she wasn’t even looking at any of them. She had chosen him.
“Don’t go,” the fat man warned him. “You’ll be sorry.”
Neal was beyond listening. Something larger than himself was moving him. He stepped into the aisle and began to descend. Every face in the place had turned to him, as though drawn by a power that was emanating from his very presence. They were talking about him too, but the expressions on their faces said that they had judged him as mad. Not that it bothered him though. He was moving through the landscape of a dream, and there was nothing that he could do but let it play itself out.
When Selena took him by the elbow at the edge of the ring, Neal froze. Her touch was all too real, and for the first time, he realized what he had done. He was standing just feet away from the beasts.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Selena said. “They’re not going to hurt you.”
Neal was not reassured. Down there at ground level, they seemed even larger than they had appeared from where Neal had been sitting. They now loomed over him with their heavily muscled bodies, and their paws were easily as large as his spread hands, but it was their eyes that disquieted him. The jungle was still in them, and with the way the beasts were peering at him, Neal knew that when it came right down to it, he wasn’t much more to their feral minds than several dozen pounds of fresh meat.
“You’re going to shake hands with them,” said Selena. “When you’re offered a paw, rest your hand under it, then let it move up and down.”
Neal nodded dumbly. And if he couldn’t even raise his hand from his side? They were still a good ten feet away from the beasts, and Selena was urging him closer, but his feet didn’t want to move. Now, there was true intelligence, the intelligence of base instinct. He should be listening to it. Jesus Christ, what if he were to lose control of his bladder. He didn’t want to piss himself, and he wanted to tell Selena that he had changed his mind, but when he tried, he could only make noises. His mouth, tongue, and vocal cords just wouldn’t come together to form a coherent sentence.
It was a squawk that came from his mouth when the cat on the center platform jumped down to the floor. This wasn’t a part of the script. Neal was clearheaded enough to comprehend that, and the cat certainly wasn’t offering its paw, though it had an obvious interest in him.
“Aisa,” said Selena, her manner calm and casual. “What are you doing there?”
It’s always said that the worst thing to do in these situations is to run. Neal would have loved to test that advice, but his legs wouldn’t let him. They seemed filled with sand, and his knees were so weak that he would probably have collapsed to the floor had Selena not been holding his arm.
“She’s just curious,” whispered Selena. “Try to remain calm.”
Calm? Hell, that was several steps back, and the cat had moved closer. Its nose was just inches from his leg. Couldn’t she get it away? It should just be a matter of “Here, kitty” for her. And if the cat should smell the fear on him? Carnivores were said to do that. It ignited their blood lust. Oh, Jesus! There it went, rearing up onto its hind legs. Neal closed his eyes and screamed like a child as the cat’s paws came down on his shoulders. He staggered under the impact, his mind casting about for a last prayer as he clenched himself against the killing bite.
“See,” said Selena, who was at his ear.
Neal eased his eyes open to find the black beast looking back at him. He tried to read something in its yellow eyes, but the animal’s mind was opaque to him. He might as well have been staring at a blank wall.
“I do believe she likes you,” said Selena.
Neal was struggling with the weight of the cat, and though he was no longer so terrified of it, he still wanted to put a sensible distance between himself and the animal. As tame as it might be at the moment, no one could be certain that it wouldn’t revert and remember just what sort of beast it was.
“All right now, Aisa,” said Selena. “Time to go back to your place.”
That was the end of it. The cat dropped its paws to the ground and returned to its platform. The audience, which had been sitting there in slack-jawed silence, began to come to life. Neal had been so focused on his own fate that he had forgotten that they were there, but he could now hear them shifting in their seats and talking to one another in low voices.
Selena released Neal’s elbow and put a hand on his shoulder. “What’s your name?”
For a moment, it seemed an odd question, and Neal didn’t know how to answer. After what he had just been through, it seemed like he should have a new name, an initiate’s name, instead of the one that had been given him by his parents.
“Neal,” he finally said.
Selena smiled and repeated it to make sure she had it right. Turning away from the cats, she presented him to the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, how about a big hand for Neal. He’s been a real trouper.”
The response was weak and scattered. Neal could understand that. He hadn’t done anything to earn an applause. He had just stood there trying not to pee his pants.
“Thank you, Neal,” Selena whispered, as she patted him on the shoulder.
She led him to the edge of the ring and sent him back up to his seat. He made a point of refusing to meet the eyes of those that he passed, though he couldn’t help but hear the remarks. He was out of his mind, one crazy motherfucker, loco in the cabeza. He plopped down onto his seat, and pushed an audible sigh from his lips.
“What was it like?” the fat man asked.
“I wouldn’t even try to put it into words,” Neal replied, and he turned to meet the man’s milky, blue eyes. “But I can tell you this. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon.”
Selena had left the ring with her cats, and Buster was down there bringing the evening to a close. Neal’s hands were still shaking and his legs felt none too steady, so he stayed where he was as the tent emptied. The fan that the fat man had given him was on the floor. He picked it up and opened it. The Reverend Burton Chaser. Keeping Satan on the run. There seemed to be barest trace of a smile on the fatuous preacher’s lips, as though he knew something that nobody else did. Neal stared at his image for the longest time, but damned if he could figure out just what it might be that the Reverend Chaser knew.
“Son,” said a voice, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Neal’s head came up. A cop working security was down there at the foot of the aisle. Neal raised a hand to acknowledge him. He put the fan down on the seat next to him, picked up his helmet, and rose to his feet.