Clouds the color of soiled wool and urine threaded past a gibbous moon. The atmosphere may have produced them but the city had tinted them.
For Fanule Perfidor, the city was too close. Lying just to the west, that packed jumble of flaking bricks, weathered clapboards, and belching chimneys was a gritty distraction. Fanule sensed the pulse of life there. When the mania seized him, as it had tonight, he craved the city’s humid crush of bodies, the revelry that made them sweat and steam.
Wind slithered in from the sea and caught Fanule’s cloak, turning it, he imagined, into a black sail fluttering on a sturdy mast. He was the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship plying moonlit seas and portending doom. He was at the mercy of the wind yet he was one with the wind.
He was a freak of nature and a force of nature. Perfidor, der Hundkönig. The Dog King. The epithet and the image it conjured made him laugh aloud.
The air’s agitation suited his mood. He strode rather than strolled down the boardwalk, his boot heels thudding with satisfying aggression on the planks. The crowd had thinned, but the remaining visitors made a wide berth around Fanule. Their aversion both amused and angered him. He considered sucking the light from the white globes atop the lampposts, just to see the silly humans’ reactions.
No, no, no. Can’t play. Must stay on task. Gods, look at that man’s legs; they could bind a body better than tarred rope! And then… No, must stay on task. But where to start? Where, where, where?
Fanule’s gaze darted along the overdone facades of the buildings he passed, all strung together like a lineup of gaudy, aging whores. Colorful pennants snapped above their roofs. How absurd to see elaborate cornices and quatrefoil windows, little gargoyles and square cupolas on structures so squat, so grayed by the hammering salt of sea spray. But, he supposed, fancy was the stuff of Hunzinger’s Mechanical Circus, the permanent carnival that stretched along and beyond the boardwalk and included whatever attractions were tucked behind those fancy fronts.
Look at the signs; look past the blazing and burnt-out bulbs and read the signs.
With effort, Fanule slowed his steps and studied the painted words above each entry. THE HIVE. Poseidon’s Playground. LOVE’S BOWER. Soon, he was aware of shadowed, lifeless eyes staring back at him from beneath some of the signs.
Ticket booths. Yes. Some were veiled in drapery on the inside, which seemed to indicate the exhibits were closed. Such was the case with Love’s Bower and The Pugilists and several others. Fanule approached one that was still open.
A couple, exclaiming quietly, exited the building. A sigh and hiss of hydraulics followed them through the door. Then, a stuttering metallic snap. The exhibit within had likely just begun or ended its cycle.
The couple glanced at Fanule. Startled, they looked again. He nodded a greeting as they hurried past him, then he turned his attention to the ticket booth.
A life-sized homunculus stared sightlessly through the glass. No doubt it was voice-activated. Alphonse Hunzinger had certainly been thorough in remaining true to his carnival’s theme.
These booth tenders would do Fanule no good. Neither would fabricated fauna and flora. Only intelligent, living beings could answer his questions. If Hunzinger was indeed guilty of committing atrocities against Mongrels, Fanule’s only hope of uncovering those misdeeds was by talking to someone familiar with the Circus from the inside.
The music pouring from somewhere, everywhere along the boardwalk waffled as the wind caught it. Laughing, Fanule twirled. The gaslights atop iron posts and the electric lights outlining the buildings delineated his stage. As pedestrians cast him sidelong glances, he thought he heard a human voice, a robust voice, but the music had captured his attention now. He waltzed with an invisible partner—a man somewhat smaller than he, comely, graceful. When their dance was through, they would descend to the strand, shed their clothing, and dive into the dark sea…
Little by little, the coil that had sprung within him began to wind back on itself. Little by little, the energy released by the mania withdrew into his cells. Fanule’s steps slowed.
Swaying slightly, he lapsed into dazed stillness. The cloak began to feel heavy on his shoulders. He was crossing the bridge—that was how he thought of his shifts from wild to mild—and there was always this moment when his mind paused in the middle to reorient itself. Slowly, he blinked. Then his mind crept forward, to the mild side. Being calm was good, it was very good. It led to the clarity that came with serenity. But falling off the bridge was very bad. Beneath it lay a chasm, an echoing void.
Must visit Lizabetta soon. Must get more powder. Can’t forget. Must write it on the walls.
“Labor no longer beneath the ponderous chains of lethargy! Shuck off your dyspeptic despair!”
Fanule turned his gaze to the man with the booming voice, the one who stood behind a framed counter on a low platform. A semicircle of onlookers had gathered in front of it.
The sight of him made Fanule smile. The man was dressed quite ridiculously, in trousers and coat patterned in a large black-and-yellow plaid. A watch chain made a gleaming arc near the bottom of his green vest. His yellow cravat seemed to throttle his neck.
In spite of his flashy suit and commanding voice, the pitchman was young and sweet-faced. Fanule liked the look of him; would’ve nibbled him like a peach if given half a chance.
A gust snatched at the young man’s top hat, but he seemed accustomed to the wind’s stealth. He quickly clamped a hand to the hat’s black tower and kept it in place.
His pitch continued. Brandishing a wand in one hand and a corked bottle in the other, he extolled the miraculous qualities of Dr. Bolt’s Bloodroot Elixir. A signboard above his platform advertised the product in waves of scarlet lettering outlined in gilt.
Fanule drifted closer and stationed himself at the back of the small audience. He felt grounded now, and fully capable of appreciating this tender cutlet with the wind-rouged cheeks and inviting, unstoppable mouth.
Copyright (c) 2010 K. Z. Snow