THE TRADITION began when Alphonse Hunzinger owned the Mechanical Circus. On the first of November, the final day of the carnival’s season, peddlers, spiritualists, amateur entertainers and entrepreneurs, spreaders of cultish fervor—anybody who hungered for attention or had something to sell—were allowed to gather at no charge beyond the circus’s main grounds and take advantage of the crowds.
The entire city of Purinton looked forward to this chaotic spectacle, for there was much to anticipate. Solemn men and women conjured ghosts in makeshift tents. Mr. Dullhorn sang operatic arias for the sheer satisfaction of having, finally, an audience other than his collection of indifferent cats. Politicians and preachers stood on boxes and shouted their evangels, hoping the messages would lodge in at least few listeners’ ears. Whittlers sold carvings, housewives sold pies, gypsies sold fortunes.
Even rain could not dampen the day’s excitement.
Will Marchman had decided to take advantage of the crowd too, by setting up a sales stand outside rather than inside the circus proper. His permanent platform was on the boardwalk, but that wasn’t where opportunity lay today. “Make hay while the sun shines,” Uncle Penrose had always advised, and Will hoped to make a good deal of hay indeed.
As dawn broke, he steered his borrowed one-man transport to Caravan Park at the southwestern corner of the carnival. Known as the Gutter, it was where a good number of vendors and performers stayed throughout the season—and where Will used to stay before moving in with Fanule Perfidor. He’d had his living wagon returned to Caravan Park in the spring.
The wagon had done him no good sitting on Fan’s property. Now he had a place to keep his stock as well as spend the nights on busy weekends. The trip between Taintwell and the Mechanical Circus had proved so tiring and time-consuming, he hadn’t been able to keep to a regular schedule last year.
Like children unable to sleep on Christmas morning, the Gutter’s residents were already up and about. Those who would profit from the day’s business were in high spirits. Those who would merely be worn down by it were more choleric. Will exchanged hurried greetings with the people he passed. His awakening stomach grumbled as he jogged past scattered campfires. Bacon sizzled and cornbread baked in cast-iron pans. Coffee simmered in tin pots.
On impulse, he pulled up short beside the fire of Hans and Helena, a husband-and-wife team of tumblers who called themselves the Bouncing Bunstables. Helena sat on a stump near the fire.
She smiled up at him. “G’morning, Will. Dear me, you already look frazzled. Didn’t you sleep here?”
Breathless, Will tipped his hat. “Morning, Hellie. No, I didn’t—which was very shortsighted of me. So I’d be eternally grateful if I could buy one of those sausages. I didn’t have time for breakfast.”
A tent of sticks ringed the couple’s fire pit. Impaled on their ends, plump wursts popped and dripped fat as they roasted.
“You poor man.” Helena reached into a basket on the ground beside her. “You’ll do no such thing as pay me.” Using a crumpled sheet of newsprint, she slid not one but two sausages from their rustic skewers and handed them to Will. Patched black and brown from the lick of the flames, they made his mouth water.
“Bless you, Hellie. I was beginning to fear my sales pitch wouldn’t be heard over the caterwauling of my stomach.” Will silently vowed to wrap one of the baubles he sold and leave it at her wagon’s door before he headed back to Taintwell.
As Helena’s laughter tinkled at his back, he dashed to his nearby caravan, a banger thrust in his mouth. He smiled around it. The shape felt quite familiar to his lips.
Inside the caravan, Will quickly doffed his long brown overcoat and the high boots into which he’d tucked the lower third of his worsted trousers. Traveling from Taintwell to the Mechanical Circus could wreak muddy havoc with one’s clothing. As soon as the first half of his breakfast was finished, Will grabbed the second from his overcoat pocket and made short work of it. After thoroughly wiping his hands, he put on a pair of black kidskin congress gaiters, straightened his shirt and cravat and frock coat, ran a comb through his hair, donned a gray top hat, and snatched up the silver-tipped baton he used for pointing out products and making eye-catching flourishes.
Will smiled in approval as he cut his pointer through the air. He always had extras at his sales stand, for he’d once waved a baton so vigorously, he’d snapped it in half against a pole. Fan had teased him mercilessly about it. Then, one night, Will turned the tables, and the incident went from a minor embarrassment to an ongoing private joke. As his lover delivered a particularly enthusiastic fuck, Will looked over his shoulder and gasped out, “For gods’ sake, Fan, don’t break your baton!”
Chuckling, Will redirected his thoughts to the products he’d stocked for today. Had he chosen the best ones? It was too late to replace them, but he couldn’t help second-guessing himself. Selling one brand of patent medicine had been so much simpler a proposition. The crates of bottles were heavy, of course, but they required no shopping for inventory, no fussing over what to display and how to display it.
Will no longer sold patent medicine. Dr. Bolt’s Bloodroot Elixir had put him off all bottled cures. When he’d abandoned that product line, he’d also abandoned the bright hues and bold patterns of his former salesman suits. Throughout this season and last, richly colored satin vests were the only remnants of his old pitchman image.
Before leaving the caravan, he assessed himself in a full-length mirror. Will had decided, based on a sensible suggestion Fan had made, that he should dress to flatter his form as well as convey elegance. After all, he was now a “purveyor of personal enhancements, for discerning ladies and gentlemen”—jewelry, fragrances, soaps, skin creams, dentifrice powders, hair dyes and oils, and whatever else might appeal to buyers’ vanity.
“Your appearance should bear testimony to the quality of your products,” Fan had told him. And then, drawing Will close, he’d added in a rumbling purr, “I remember how impressed I was the first night I saw you in a handsome set of clothes. But the irony was, as fine as they looked on you, I wanted to rip them off the lovely body I could tell they were concealing.”
A faint current shivered through Will at the memory of those words… and what had so heatedly taken place after they’d been spoken.
“This isn’t the time,” he whispered to his errant mind. Gods, when did he not crave Fan’s touch?
Heading outside, Will licked a savory residue of grease from his lips and immediately thought of another kind of salty tang that often slicked his mouth.
“Stop it, right now,” he muttered through clenched teeth as he strode to the rear of his caravan. He dared not nudge the sensitive thickness buried within his underclothes; any touch might encourage its growth. The swelling would have to go down on its own.
Will opened the padlock on a chain that secured a painted, four-wheeled cart to his living wagon. Carnal urges dissipated as he lifted its hideaway handle. Grunting softly, he pulled then pushed the cart onto a littered pathway that led out of the Gutter and onto the circus grounds. The park hadn’t yet opened to visitors, but beyond its perimeter, excited noise had already begun to fill the crisp autumn air.
Cart before him, Will trundled across the promenade that ran between the carousel and concert hall, then cut in front of a seemingly interminable line of food stalls. The teeth of a mean wind had shredded last night’s overcast. A creeping, golden glow washed over the carnival’s attractions, making them more charming than tawdry and promising a glorious day. As the sun rose higher, downy white streamers floated against a clear blue sky.
Fueled by optimism, Will moved faster. Within minutes he reached the main gate of the Mechanical Circus: an ornate, arched entryway outlined with electric lights. Flanking it were two ordinary doors used only by carnival personnel.
Continuing to guide the cart with one hand, Will pulled his watch from his vest pocket, snapped open the lid, and checked the time. Paying visitors would not be admitted to the park for another hour and twenty-three minutes. But judging by the din that cascaded over the whitewashed walls and fences, the large plaza that fronted the Mechanical Circus and the broad walkways around the train depot were already flooded with people. More had undoubtedly gathered elsewhere—near the observation tower to the north, on the beaches to the south and east, even on the low dunes to the west.
“You look in fine fettle today, Mr. Marchman,” said George Kickens, a wide whale of a man with impressive whiskers, who was stationed at one of the employee doors.
“Thank you, George.”
“You sure you want to go out there?” Smiling, he pulled a ring of keys from his uniform pocket.
“I’m actually rather excited about it,” Will said as Kickens unlocked the door.
“Expecting to make big money, are you?”
“I wouldn’t say expecting.” Being presumptuous, Will felt, invited bad luck. “Hoping is more like it.” He began maneuvering his cart through the doorway.
“I wish you well today. And an easy winter ahead.” George held up a staying hand to the people milling about outside the main gate, although they’d be hard-pressed to squeeze in past Will’s cart and the guard’s bulk.
“And I, you,” Will said over his shoulder.
He bulled his way toward the spot where he wanted to set up, dodging voluminous skirts and open parasols, knots of conversing men who seemed rooted to the pavement, darting children and slowly rolling baby carriages, even a wicker bath chair. Bits of trash already skidded around shoppers’ feet. The voices of early-bird hucksters collided in the air, making Will eager to add his voice to the chorus.
Situated, finally, near a rather rough-looking fellow who dozed beneath a small folding table, Will slanted a glance at what the rickety table held. Ah, stacks of handbills and fliers, and two different playbills from local theaters. The man, apparently hoping to make a few pennies, must have gone around to Purinton businesses and offered to display their advertising materials on this busy day.
Just as Will reinserted his cart’s handle into its slot, a sudden, sharp glare made him flinch and squeeze his eyes shut. The rays of the rising sun must have glinted off some reflective surface: a jewel on a woman’s hat, perhaps, or a pane of glass, or some other salesman’s wares. He stepped to the right and cracked his eyelids open. Surprised by what he saw, he opened them wider.
A gleaming mirage shimmered into view at the far end of the plaza. Blinking against its celestial shine, Will paused for a moment to regard it.
The circus must be in town, he thought. What other explanation could there be for the presence of an enormous, largely gold wagon decorated with telescoping tableaux and other fantastical relief carvings? A centered cartouche on the wagon’s side bore a peculiar inscription in scarlet:
Whether part of a currently traveling circus or purchased from a liquidated circus, the wagon obviously housed a flimflam man. And there he was now, setting a tall stool on the ground beside his “Spiritorium” and taking a seat.
What the devil was he wearing? And where were the horses that had pulled the wagon? The man must have paid some boys to take them to the public stable. Plenty of urchins loitered outside the circus every day, hoping make a bit of pocket change.
“Another bleedin’ spiritualist, huh?”
Will started at the voice, which carried the yeasty odor of stale beer. A gaunt, ill-shaven man in a shabby suit stood beside his left shoulder. Dust coated his hair as well as the dented derby he held. He slapped the hat against his thigh, pushed out its depression with his thumb, and carelessly set the hat on his head. As an afterthought, he gave a few desultory swipes to the sleeves of his jacket.
“It appears that way,” Will said.
The man, who must’ve been the one sleeping beneath that wobbly table, nodded and spat off to the side. “The country’s lousy with ’em. But I gotta say, this ghosty man knows how to draw crowds.”
He was right. People had already begun to gather round the wagon. But none of the gawkers approached the man who kept watch, like a sinister sentry, beside it.
“Where the hell does a person get rags like that?” asked Will’s temporary neighbor.
Will raised and lowered his eyebrows. “Maybe he had them specially made. Or bought them from a theatrical troupe.”
“Could be. ’Cause they sure don’t look proper for this part of the world.”
A flurry of goose bumps covered Will’s arms as he studied the wagon’s keeper—an older man, possibly in his late fifties or early sixties. Defiant black curls tinseled with silver escaped from beneath his headwear. It wasn’t a conventional hat but more like a black velvet pie, slightly rounded at the crown, with thick gold-and-purple braiding circling the edge. Hanging from either side were lengths of the same fabric. They draped, scarf-like, over the man’s ears and across the broad shoulders of an equally dark, unusual jacket.
His clean-shaven face seemed to have an unusual tint—pale lilac?—but that was likely an illusion caused by light playing over the hat’s purple rim. Will couldn’t make out his features very clearly, but shadows suggested chiseled bones beneath a taut sheath of skin.
His eyes were black hollows. Fathomless.
“I just might wander over there and see what he’s about. Name’s Ernest Muggins, by the way.”
“Oh, uh….” A few seconds went by before Will saw the hand that was thrust toward him. Only then did he realize to whom the name Ernest Muggins was attached. “Will Marchman.” The proffered hand was rough and dry, but Will didn’t mind. Three of the four men he’d been with in his life had workingman’s hands, Fan included.
“You sell here regular?”
“Yes. On the boardwalk.”
“Thought so. You look soft.”
Will didn’t even wonder, as he normally might have, if the remark carried scorn. At the moment he was wondering what “siphonings” and “cleansings” meant. And why that ostentatious wagon made him uneasy.