The traveling vampire sh.., p.32
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       The Traveling Vampire Show, p.32
 

           Richard Laymon

  All around me, people moaned and whispered.

  Rusty was one of those who moaned.

  To say that Valeria was gorgeous would be like calling Mount Rushmore a nice piece of sculpture. Rusty won our wager by a landslide. I would get my head shaved by Slim.

  Valeria’s head turned toward the front again.

  She sat motionless. The audience was dead silent.

  “Valeria, arise,” Stryker commanded in a low, firm voice from the top of the cage.

  She glided upward, rising to her feet with the elegance of a ballerina. Standing upright inside her casket, she must’ve been well over six feet tall. She spread her cape wide open like the wings of a bat and slowly began to turn.

  When she turned toward us, I saw the outfit she was wearing beneath her cape: a top that looked like a bright red leather bra, a very short skirt of matching red leather, and red leather boots. The coffin blocked my view of the boots except for their very tops, which came up nearly to her knees.

  All around me, people were murmuring. I heard Rusty say, “Holy shit.”

  I might’ve said it, myself. I don’t know what I said, if anything. I only know that I gazed at Valeria, stunned.

  Gazed at her amazing, beautiful face.

  Gazed at her deep cleavage.

  Gazed at the magnificent globes of her leather-encased breasts.

  Gazed at her flat belly and the swell of her hips and her smooth, solid-looking thighs.

  Then I saw her in profile. Then I saw only her back: the wide-spread cape and her thick, raven hair.

  Completing her full turn, she lowered the cape and wrapped it around herself. As she walked toward the foot of her casket, I heard the jangle of spurs and glanced up at Stryker. He stood motionless on top of the cage, staring down at her.

  She stepped out of the casket. The spurs were on her scarlet boots. She halted and stood motionless, staring straight ahead.

  Stryker raised the microphone to his mouth. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, VALERIA HAS BEEN ENCLOSED IN HER COFFIN SINCE OUR LAST PERFORMANCE SEVERAL NIGHTS AGO.” He paused for a few moments, then said, “AND SHE IS HUNGRY.”

  Murmurs swept through the audience.

  Lee glanced at me and grinned.

  “SHE IS HUNGRY FOR BLOOD.”

  Laughter, cheers and applause.

  Stryker raised his arms, signalling for silence.

  When the audience settled down, he announced, “THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW IS MORE THAN A PERFORMANCE BROUGHT HERE FOR YOUR EDIFICATION AND ENTERTAINMENT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. IT IS ALSO OUR METHOD OF SUSTAINING VALERIA’S EXISTENCE.

  “BEFORE BEING TAKEN INTO CAPTIVITY, SHE ROAMED THE NIGHT AND SUPPED AT RANDOM, DRAINING HER PREY OF THEIR BLOOD—TAKING THEIR LIVES. SHE NO LONGER KILLS. NOW, IN THE COURSE OF EACH PERFORMANCE, SHE GAINS HER NOURISHMENT NOT FROM ONE SOURCE BUT FROM SEVERAL…MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE!”

  The people in the stands went wild with cheers, applause, whoops and whistles.

  When the noise subsided, Stryker continued. “WE MAKE A CONTEST OUT OF IT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. A CONTEST OF STRENGTH, COURAGE AND ENDURANCE. AUDIENCE MEMBERS MAY VOLUNTEER TO ENTER THE CAGE OF VALERIA. ONE AT A TIME, OF COURSE. AND ONE AT A TIME, SHE WILL DRINK THEIR BLOOD…OR PERHAPS NOT. THOUGH SHE POSSESSES UNCOMMON STRENGTH AND AGILITY, HER CHALLENGERS FROM THE AUDIENCE ARE SOMETIMES ABLE TO RESIST HER.

  “RESIST HER FOR A PERIOD OF FIVE MINUTES…PREVENT HER FROM DRINKING SO MUCH AS A SINGLE DROP OF YOUR BLOOD DURING A BOUT OF FIVE BRIEF MINUTES…AND YOU WILL WIN THE SUM OF FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. THAT’S FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS CASH MONEY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN—HALF A THOUSAND DOLLARS.”

  Someone in the grandstands on the other side of the arena called out, “You mean we gotta fight her?”

  “ONLY IF YOU VOLUNTEER, SIR. BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN. VALERIA IS VERY HUNGRY. SHE’LL WANT THE BLOOD OF ANYONE WHO STEPS INTO THE CAGE WITH HER—SHE’LL WANT IT BADLY. WHOEVER TAKES HER ON WILL HAVE A DESPERATE FIGHT ON HIS HANDS. OR ON HER HANDS. WOMEN ARE WELCOME…EVEN ENCOURAGED…TO CHALLENGE VALERIA.” He chuckled in a way that sounded very phony, then said into his microphone, “FIVE HUNDRED BUCKS WILL BUY A LOT OF GROCERIES, WON’T IT, LADIES?”

  Another audience member, a woman this time, yelled, “Ain’t enough groceries to die for!”

  “VALERIA’S CHALLENGERS RARELY DIE, MA’AM. SHE KNOWS WHEN TO STOP. HAVING YOUR BLOOD SUCKED BY VALERIA IS NO MORE DANGEROUS THAN DONATING A PINT TO THE RED CROSS…BUT MUCH MORE PLEASURABLE.”

  Laughter and murmurs came from the crowd. A man shouted, “All right!” Another man yelled, “Sounds good to me!” Someone else, “I’m in!”

  “BEFORE I ASK FOR VOLUNTEERS,” Julian continued, “I MUST WARN YOU THAT THOSE WHO CHALLENGE VALERIA DO RUN A RISK OF INJURY. OVER THE YEARS, A FEW HAVE EVEN SUCCOMBED TO THEIR INJURIES.”

  Lee leaned toward me and I felt her upper arm against mine as she said in a quiet voice, “They died.”

  I nodded.

  “SHE IS VERY POWERFUL. THOUGH I’VE TAMED HER TO SOME EXTENT, SHE IS A VAMPIRE AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. I MUST ASK EVERY CHALLENGER TO SIGN A WAVER BEFORE STEPPING INTO THE CAGE…RELEASING US OF LIABILITY FOR WHATEVER MISFORTUNES MAY OCCUR IN THE COURSE OF THE STRUGGLE.”

  He looked down through the bars at Valeria. She still stood motionless just past the end of her coffin, staring straight forward.

  “VALERIA, ARE YOU HUNGRY?”

  She flung off her cape, threw her arms wide open as if to embrace the night, and roared.

  “AUDIENCE, DO WE HAVE A VOLUNTEER?”

  Chapter Fifty-two

  We did.

  Scattered throughout both grandstands, maybe twelve or fifteen people stood up. Those of them who were timid or polite raised one hand like a school kid, while others waved both arms overhead. A couple of them even shouted and whistled. Though I didn’t get a good look at everyone who volunteered—including some who had their backs to me—they all seemed to be men.

  They had friends in the audience who cheered and yelled.

  Stryker, from his perch atop the cage, pointed toward someone on our side of the stands and said, “YOU, SIR!”

  The man punched both fists at the sky as if he’d already won. He was nobody I recognized. As the audience cheered, he sidestepped through a crowded row, reached the cleared area of stairs, and hurried down to the arena.

  He wore a plaid shirt, blue jeans and work boots.

  The shirt and jeans fit him snugly. He looked handsome and rugged. His haircut was a flat-top, brushed straight up so it looked like a bristly triangle. I figured he was probably some sort of construction worker.

  When he got to the ground, however, he shoved both fists at the air again and shouted, “Semper Fi!”

  A United States Marine!

  Back in those days, with fathers who had fought in World War Two and Korea, we all knew about places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and the Chosin Reservoir. To most of us, every Marine was a hero. We held them in awe. Some of us still do.

  Realizing that the volunteer was a leatherneck, I think I muttered, “Wow.”

  The audience went crazy, cheering and whistling.

  He took off his shirt. He had a dark tan and the sort of muscles that made guys like me want to keep our shirts on forever.

  I looked over at Lee. She was leaning forward slightly, staring down at the volunteer. She must’ve caught the motion of my head, because she turned to me and smiled. “This should be good,” she said.

  “A Marine,” I said.

  Leaning way forward, Rusty said, “Anybody know this guy?”

  “Not me,” I said.

  Lee shook her head.

  “Good thing I’m not a homo,” Rusty said. “I’d fall in love.”

  Lee swatted his leg, but not very hard.

  Down in the arena, Vivian walked up to the Marine with a clipboard. She took his shirt, spoke to him, and handed him the clipboard. He signed, then gave it back to her.

  As she led him toward the cage, Stryker
leaped to the ground. The microphone cord came down after him like long black rope. When he landed on the ground, his spurs jangled. They jangled some more as he stepped up to the volunteer.

  Stryker said into the mike, “AND YOUR NAME IS?”

  “WALLACE, SIR.”

  Vivian skidded the fingernails of one hand down his spine. He squirmed a little and smiled.

  People in the audience laughed.

  “CHANCE WALLACE,” the man said.

  “CHANCE, IS IT? WELL, DO YOU THINK YOU STAND A CHANCE AGAINST VALERIA?”

  “YES, SIR!”

  Vivian patted his rear end through the tight seat of his jeans.

  “GOOD LUCK TO YOU.”

  “THANK YOU, SIR.”

  Stryker stepped away from him and swung open the door of the cage.

  Valeria continued to stand motionless just past the foot of her coffin, her back to the door, the cape wrapped around her body.

  “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN…WE WILL LEAVE THIS DOOR WIDE OPEN SO THAT THE VIC…THE VOLUNTEER…WILL BE ABLE TO MAKE A QUICK ESCAPE IF THE NEED SHOULD ARISE.” He nodded at Chance. “ARE YOU READY?” he asked.

  “MAY I ASK A QUESTION, SIR?” Chance asked into the mike.

  “FIRE AWAY.”

  “WHAT ARE THE RULES, SIR?”

  “YOU DON’T HAVE A WEAPON, DO YOU?”

  “NO, SIR.”

  “THEN FEEL FREE TO DO WHATEVER YOU DEEM NECESSARY IN ORDER TO PREVENT VALERIA FROM SUCKING YOUR BLOOD. LAST FIVE MINUTES IN THE CAGE WITH HER AND YOU WIN FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. ARE YOU READY?”

  “YES, SIR!”

  Stryker gestured for Chance to enter the cage.

  Chance climbed a couple of wooden stairs and stepped through the doorway.

  Stryker removed a timepiece from a pocket of his leather pants. From where I sat, it looked similar to the stopwatch that always dangled around the neck of my high school track coach. Also like my track coach, he wore a silver whistle around his neck. He glanced at the stopwatch, then spoke into his microphone. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LET THE CONTEST BEGIN!”

  Chance moved forward, eyes on Valeria. He walked slowly, hunkered low but keeping his head up, his arms open and his knees bent like a wrestler approaching his opponent.

  Valeria still stood motionless, her back to him.

  With one foot, Chance shoved the coffin out of his way. Another couple of strides took him within reach of Valeria. He halted.

  The audience watched in utter silence. All I could really hear were the sounds of the wind.

  I don’t know why, but it struck me just then that somewhere in the audience were the two degenerates who had tried to take Slim—the Cadillac twins. They might be sitting directly behind me…or in the stands on the other side of the arena…or anywhere.

  Peering across the arena, I started to look for them.

  And missed Valeria’s first move. As gasps exploded from the audience, I jerked my eyes back to the cage.

  Already, Chance was draped from head to waist by the black shroud of Valeria’s cape. While he struggled to get rid of it, she twirled away and raised both her arms in triumph, her spurs ringing out with each stride. She looked glorious, her raven hair blowing, her skin golden under the stadium lights, her red leather outfit gleaming.

  Chance flung the cape aside. The wind caught it, carried it across the cage and pinned it to the bars.

  Facing Valeria, he smiled. Then he shook his bead and said something, but I couldn’t hear what.

  They started circling each other.

  Chance might’ve been happy just to circle her for whatever was left of the five minutes. Plenty of us in the audience might’ve gone along with it, too. If Lee’s reaction meant anything, the handsome and shirtless Marine was a real treat for the gals to watch. And every guy in the audience could’ve sat there all night watching Valeria. She would’ve been fine to watch if she were simply standing still. In motion, though, she was spectacular. The way the muscles moved under the smooth skin of her thighs and calves, the way we kept getting different views of her leather-harnessed breasts, and how they wobbled and shook.

  She was a wonder to behold.

  But Chance would be winning five hundred dollars in the next couple of minutes unless she did more than circle and prance and look gorgeous.

  She had to know it, too.

  We all knew it.

  What’s she waiting for? I wondered.

  Maybe she’s afraid of him. Who wouldn’t be? A Marine, for godsake.

  She attacked.

  Went straight at him, roaring, leaping, reaching out with both hands.

  People in the audience gasped. Others yelped with fright.

  Must’ve been Judo.

  Suddenly, Chance twirled and bent, took Valeria down across his hip and threw her. I glimpsed her red boots high in the air. An instant later, her back slammed the dirt. Dust rose around her.

  She lay sprawled on her back, apparently stunned.

  Chance stared down at her for a few seconds as if not quite sure what to do next. If she’d been an enemy soldier, he probably would’ve finished her off. But she was a beautiful woman. And he didn’t need to finish her off; all he had to do was remain unbitten for a while longer.

  The audience, sensing Valeria’s defeat (and maybe fearing that her loss might put an end to the entire performance), started cheering her on.

  “Get him, Val!”

  “Come on, honey, you can do it!”

  “Time’s a-wastin’, darlin’! Nail this gyrene’s hide!”

  She rolled onto her side. Instead of rising, however, she curled up as if she had a stomach ache.

  We clapped and stomped our feet and chanted, “UP! UP! UP!”

  Chance, assuming the victory was his, began to stride around Valeria, waving at the audience, smiling and nodding.

  And got too close to her.

  With a sweep of one leg, she kicked his right foot forward. Chance’s leg flew high. He yelped with surprise and waved his arms. It looked as if he would slam down on his back. In the moment before he hit the ground, however, he turned his body. He shouted, “YAH!” and slapped the ground and landed on his side.

  Unhurt, he rolled to get away from Valeria. But not fast enough. She hurled herself onto his back, hooked an arm across his throat, and darted her face down against the side of his neck.

  He let out a yelp of surprise and pain.

  Then he just lay underneath her, not resisting. Valeria no longer seemed to be struggling, either. She was sprawled on top of him, hands on his shoulders, her body squirming as if Chance were her lover, not her victim.

  I couldn’t see what was happening with her mouth, but I was pretty sure what must be going on.

  Stryker entered the cage, trailing the microphone cord. “AND THE WINNER IS…VALERIA!”

  The audience erupted with clapping, cheers, shouts and whistles.

  Valeria stayed on top of Chance’s back, face still down against his neck.

  Stryker frowned at her. “VALERIA! QUIT!”

  She didn’t quit.

  She went on with Chance as if they were all alone in the world.

  “VALERIA!”

  She ignored him.

  Stryker stepped over to her, raised his right leg and raked the rowl of his big silver spur across her bare back just above the waist of her skirt.

  Her head darted up and swung around. Glaring over her shoulder at Stryker, she roared. Blood flew from her mouth.

  As I gaped at her, shocked, she turned her head the other way to let those in the other bleachers get a good look.

  Silence.

  Nobody spoke or laughed or clapped…or moved. The wind blew, hissing through the forest and lifting the long black hair from Valeria’s shoulders.

  Into the microphone, Stryker said, “IT’S OVER, MY DARLING. YOU’VE WON.”

  Chapter Fifty-three

  After Valeria climbed off the Marine, several members of Stryker’s black-shirted crew came into the arena wheeli
ng a gurney. While they hurried toward the cage, Chance rolled onto his back and managed to stand up.

  Applause rippled through the crowd even before Stryker’s voice boomed out, “LET’S HEAR IT FOR A REAL CONTENDER!”

  The applause grew to a roar.

  Chance raised his hand in a game but embarrassed wave, sort of like a cowboy who has just gotten tossed off the back of a Brahma bull. Staggering out of the cage, he waved off the gurney in spite of the fact that he appeared to be bitten on the right side of his neck. He had blood all over his shoulder and running down his back and chest. He must’ve not considered it very serious, though. Not serious enough to merit a visit to an emergency room—or wherever the gurney crew had planned to take him.

  As he hobbled back toward the bleachers, Vivian came along with his shirt. She didn’t give it to him, though. Instead, she took hold of one arm and spoke to him. He nodded, then walked off with her.

  Maybe to get himself bandaged.

  Stryker proclaimed, “CHANCE WALLACE, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

  More wild applause. Chance waved again, then walked out of sight with Vivian.

  “CHANCE’S TIME IN THE CAGE WITH VALERIA…” Stryker glanced at his stopwatch. “THREE MINUTES, FORTY-EIGHT SECONDS! A FINE DISPLAY OF COURAGE!”

  Valeria, standing near Stryker in the cage, was using a wet towel to wipe the blood off her face and neck and chest.

  “THAT WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! CHANCE’S BLOOD DID LITTLE MORE THAN WHET THE APPETITE OF THE GLORIOUS…AND VERY THIRSTY…VALERIA!”

  She dropped the towel to the ground. One of the helpers hurried in to retrieve it.

  “WHO WOULD LIKE TO GO NEXT?”

  Leaning forward, Rusty looked past Lee and said to me, “Was that bitchin’, or what?”

  “Pretty cool,” I said, and suddenly wished Slim could’ve been here to watch it with us. She would’ve gotten a kick out of seeing this woman wipe out a Marine. Also, I would’ve liked to have her sitting beside me. Lee on one side, Slim on the other.

  I supposed she was probably sitting in her Pontiac, listening to the radio.

  Or maybe listening to Bitsy. I could just see the poor thing sitting in the front seat with Slim, crying her eyes out, sobbing her tale of getting pounded by her brother…

 
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