The traveling vampire sh.., p.33
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       The Traveling Vampire Show, p.33

           Richard Laymon
 

  Why didn’t I stop him?

  Slim would be shocked and outraged by what we’d done. And sympathetic toward Bitsy in spite of the names the girl had called her.

  “YOU! YOU THERE. YES, YOU.”

  Stryker’s tinny, amplified voice startled me, tore me out of my daydreams and planted me in the present.

  I saw a man climbing down the bleachers across the arena from us. He was a skinny guy, bald on top, and wearing glasses. He couldn’t have been more than forty years old, but he dressed like a codger in a white polo shirt, plaid Bermuda shorts, knee socks and loafers. He sort of laughed and waved at the crowd as he made his way down to the arena.

  “Here’s a sure winner,” Lee said.

  Rusty and I laughed.

  Down in the arena, he kept his shirt on and signed Vivian’s clipboard. Then she led him up the stairs and through the doorway of the cage.

  Stryker asked his name. The gawky man leaned close to the microphone in Stryker’s hand and said, “I’M CHESTER.”

  “Go, Chester!” yelled someone in the audience.

  Grinning, he nodded and waved.

  “READY TO TAKE ON VALERIA?” Stryker asked.

  “OH, WELL, SURE.” He shrugged. “CAN’T SEE WHY NOT.”

  “THAT FIVE HUNDRED DOLLAR PRIZE MUST LOOK AWFULLY GOOD TO YOU.”

  “IT AIN’T HAY,” said Chester.

  Rusty leaned forward. “This guy’s a goner.”

  “WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEAVE YOUR GLASSES WITH OUR BEAUTIFUL ASSISTANT?”

  Chester shook his head. Into the mike, he said, “I’LL KEEP ’EM ON, THANKS.” Stryker started to pull the mike away, but Chester grabbed it and pulled it close to his mouth. “YOUR GAL HERE, THIS VALERIA, SHE’S A FINE LOOKING WOMAN. A GUY’D HAVE TO BE NUTS TO GO IN THAT CAGE WITH HIS GLASSES OFF.”

  With that comment, he won the audience. The grandstands erupted with laughter and cheers.

  I looked at Valeria. She had her eyes on Chester, and didn’t crack a smile.

  Stryker was chuckling, though. He patted Chester on the back and said, “BEST OF LUCK, MY FRIEND.”

  Chester bobbed his head, grinning.

  “ANY QUESTIONS?”

  “NOPE. JUST LET ME AT HER.”

  Stryker walked out of the cage and trotted down the stairs, his spurs jangling. At the bottom, he hauled out his stopwatch. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,” he announced, “LET THE CONTEST BEGIN!”

  Valeria planted her hands on her hips and stared at Chester.

  He stood there, arms hanging by his sides, and studied her. He didn’t even try to be sneaky about it, just ogled her, his head moving slowly up and down. After doing that for a while, he wiped the back of a hand across his mouth.

  Nervous-sounding laughter ruffled through the crowd.

  Chester looked around, grinning at his audience. Then he leered at Valeria, raised both hands to chest level, and flexed his fingers as if honking her breasts.

  That bought him wild laughter and cheers…along with a chorus of boos.

  Smirking, Valeria walked toward him. She moved slowly, her back arched, arms by her sides, as if offering to let him squeeze more than just air.

  He pointed a finger at himself and mouthed, “Me?”

  She nodded.

  He reached out, actually clutched the red leather cups and squeezed them. He squeezed them a couple of more times, turning his head and mugging for the audience.

  “I bet he’s a ringer,” Lee said.

  “Huh?” I asked.

  “Someone they planted in the audience. He can’t be for real.”

  Rusty leaned forward. “I bet you’re right. She isn’t gonna let some stranger grab her…her you-know-what’s.”

  Lee chuckled and shook her head.

  Down in the cage, Chester had stopped making faces. He’d stopped pretending to honk Valeria’s breasts. Now he was stroking their bare tops while she stood there motionless, letting him.

  Lucky Chester.

  Then one of her hands glided forward and she rubbed the front of his Bermuda shorts.

  His mouth fell open and his back arched.

  Everyone in the grandstands probably couldn’t see where Valeria had put her hand—the angle was only right for some of us—but half the crowd went “EWWWWWWWWW” and so many shrill whistles ripped through the air that my ears cringed.

  Chester stood as if frozen.

  I heard Rusty murmur, “Man, oh man.”

  Lee grinned at him and patted his knee.

  My mouth was dry, but I managed to say, “This guy has to be a ringer.”

  “Oh, yeah,” Lee said.

  I wondered how much time he had left. At least a couple of minutes must’ve gone by so far. If he really was a ringer, maybe the plan was to let him win.

  Valeria pulled down the zipper of his shorts.

  “Oh, great,” Lee grumbled. “You guys shouldn’t be…”

  Valeria reached into Chester’s open fly.

  “…seeing this.”

  The reaction of the audience was a wild mixture of joy, consternation and excitement. Through all the hoots and whistles and applause, I heard shouts of, “No!” and “Go for it!” and “All right!” and “Someone put a stop to this!” and several suggestions that were extremely foul and vulgar.

  Instead of doing what most of us probably expected, however, Valeria turned her hand upward and clutched Chester’s pants: not only the upper areas of the zipper, but apparently the waistband of his Bermudas and also his belt buckle. Then she hoisted him off his feet.

  He squealed, flapped his arms and kicked.

  With just her one arm, Valeria rammed him all the way up. Luckily (or due to plenty of rehearsals), his head missed the bars. It passed through a space between two of them and poked out the top of the cage. The bars stopped him at the shoulders.

  Letting go of him, Valeria twirled out of the way.

  Chester yelped and started to fall. Then suddenly he grabbed the bars. He pulled himself up until his head was again jutting out the top of the cage.

  “Help!” he yelled.

  Far as I could tell, nobody in the audience seemed very upset by his plight. A good many of us must’ve already suspected he was a ringer. And some of the audience, especially women, probably figured he was getting his just deserts.

  There was nervous laughter—and cheering—when Valeria reached out with both hands and jerked his Bermudas down. For underwear, he wore baggy white boxer shorts decorated with red polka-dots.

  This guy was definitely a ringer. His antics had been nothing but a stage performance.

  I felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment.

  Is it ALL fake?

  Most likely, I thought.

  Then Valeria jerked the boxers down to Chester’s ankles. From the waist down, he was naked.

  She pulled the Bermudas and boxers down over his shoes and tossed them across the cage. Now Chester was dangling there in nothing but his polo shirt, knee socks and loafers. He had a skinny, pale butt. He also, much to the shock and delight and amusement and dismay of the spectators, had a boner.

  It didn’t matter where you were sitting; the way he kicked and twisted, everyone in the bleachers got to see both sides of Chester.

  I was suddenly very aware of why they tried to keep kids away from the show.

  And I was suddenly embarrassed to be watching this with Lee sitting beside me. And glad that Slim had decided against coming.

  Chester’s groin area was just about level with Valeria’s face.

  She stepped up to him and opened her mouth.

  Some people screamed. Including Chester. Others cried out “NO!” and “Oh, my God!” and a few suggestions such as “Bite it off!”

  I figured the five minutes must be running out. Valeria had better do something fast or Chester would win the five hundred bucks.

  She slowly leaned closer, her mouth wide open as if ready to take him in…

  He squealed “No!” and kicked out, dri
ving his right shoe into Valeria’s midsection. She grunted and stumbled backward, bending over, hugging her belly. As she fell to the dirt, Chester let go of the bars and dropped.

  Huffing for breath, he stared down at her. He was standing at her feet. Her legs were parted, her knees up. Chester seemed to be staring up her short leather skirt.

  He swung around and looked toward the open door of the cage.

  Thinking about it.

  Wondering how much time he had left?

  Or maybe no longer caring about the time or about the five hundred dollars or about anything other than what was sprawled on the ground behind him.

  Pulling the polo shirt over his head, he whirled around. He flung the shirt away. Naked down to his knee socks, he dived for Valeria, arms extended, hands all set to grab her breasts. He would’ve landed between her knees in perfect position for thrusting into her body, but one of her feet shot up.

  In an instant of silence, I heard the jingle of a spur.

  Then Chester squealed. Braced up by Valeria’s right leg, he was thrown over her body. He flipped over in midair and landed on his back across her open casket.

  He’d been split open from navel to sternum.

  “Holy shit,” Rusty muttered.

  Lee blinked, shook her head and said, “Maybe he’s not a ringer” as Valeria, down in the cage, buried her face in Chester’s bloody abdomen.

  Chapter Fifty-four

  The black-shirted crew hustled into the cage and lifted Chester onto the gurney. As they rolled him away, Valeria took a wet towel from one of the helpers and started to wipe the blood off her body. Stryker spoke into the microphone. “LET’S HEAR IT FOR CHESTER, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! A REAL SCRAPPER!”

  Down beside him in the cage, Valeria raised her right leg and propped her boot on an edge of the coffin.

  Bending down, she used the towel to wipe the blood off her spur. As she did that, I stared at the red mark across her back…the wound inflicted by Stryker’s spur.

  Hers was just a scratch.

  She’d really opened up Chester.

  “AND HOW ABOUT THAT PHYSIQUE!” Stryker went on. “IF ANY OF YOU LADIES ARE INTERESTED, I’M SURE YOU’LL HAVE NO TROUBLE FINDING CHESTER LATER AT THE LOCAL EMERGENCY ROOM.”

  Here and there, people were making their way down the bleachers. Mostly women. Several towed men along behind them.

  Apparently, they’d had enough.

  Ignoring the exodus, Stryker studied his stopwatch. “CHESTER LASTED A GRAND TOTAL OF FOUR MINUTES AND FORTY-THREE SECONDS. CAME UP ONLY SEVENTEEN SECONDS SHORT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.”

  Vivian hurried over to Stryker and leaned in close to his side. As she started speaking into his ear, he lowered the microphone. Whatever she was telling him, we couldn’t hear it.

  “Maybe we should be going, too,” Lee said.

  Rusty blurted, “No! We can’t!”

  “This is worse than I thought it’d be. You boys shouldn’t be seeing this sort of thing. I shouldn’t either.”

  “Please, Mrs. Thompson.”

  She shook her head. “I don’t know what I was thinking, bringing you boys to a show like…”

  “It’s not so bad,” Rusty said.

  “That man was naked.”

  “So? It was just a guy. I mean, maybe you didn’t like to see that, but it wasn’t any big deal for me and Dwight. It ain’t pretty, but we see that sorta stuff in gym class all the time. Right, Dwight?”

  I just shrugged.

  “You don’t see guys get ripped open,” Lee said.

  “It’s just a show, Mrs. Thompson. You said so yourself. I’ll bet Chester didn’t even get a scratch on him. It was probably all a big fake-out. They can do that sorta stuff, magicians and people like that. It’s easy.”

  Lee frowned and shook her head, but I noticed she was still sitting down. In my opinion, she felt that she ought to take us away from the evil show, but she didn’t much want to miss the rest of it, herself.

  I finally opened my mouth. “Why don’t we just stick around for one more bout and see what happens?”

  Lee frowned and sighed. “I suppose we can stay for one more.” Glancing from Rusty to me, she said, “But you guys have to promise you’ll never breathe a word about any of this to your parents.” To me, she added, “Or your brothers. If they find out I dragged you guys to something like…”

  “I’ll never tell,” Rusty said.

  “I sure won’t,” I said. “I promise.”

  “Okay. Well, I guess we can stay a little while longer.”

  Rusty grinned and clapped. “You’re the best, Mrs. Thompson.”

  “Yeah, sure.”

  Just about then, Vivian got finished whispering to Stryker. As she hurried out of the cage, he raised the microphone to his mouth. “I’VE JUST BEEN ASSURED THAT CHESTER WILL NEED A FEW STITCHES, BUT HE’LL BE FINE. LET’S HEAR IT AGAIN FOR HIM!”

  Some applause came from the crowd, but not much.

  “PERHAPS HE DESERVED WORSE THAN HE GOT.”

  With that comment, Stryker won over a good portion of the remaining spectators. They laughed and cheered.

  “BUT THE SCRAWNY LITTLE BASTARD CAME WITHIN A MERE SEVENTEEN SECONDS OF WALKING HOME WITH FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS CASH MONEY IN HIS POCKET! HE LASTED THAT LONG, FOLKS. IF HE CAN STICK IT OUT—NO PUN INTENDED…”

  Laughter, groans, applause.

  “IF CHESTER CAN LAST THAT LONG, WHY NOT YOU? OUTLAST HIM BY A MEAGER SEVENTEEN SECONDS AND YOU’LL WIN THE BIG PRIZE. NOW, HOW ABOUT IT, FOLKS? DO WE HAVE A VOLUNTEER?”

  “I’ll take her!” shouted someone behind me.

  I recognized the voice.

  As shouts and cheers erupted from the crowd, I twisted around and saw Scotty Douglas near the top of the bleachers. Though standing up, he wasn’t going anywhere yet. He stood there smirking, flanked by five or six of his hoodlum friends including a couple of tough-looking gals. Not letting the hot night get in the way of fashion, they all wore black leather jackets. I didn’t know any of the others, but I had no trouble recognizing Scotty.

  Even though I hadn’t seen him in a long time (he’d dropped out of high school after his junior year and moved to Clement), the sight of him gave me a sickish feeling in my stomach. It was pretty much the same feeling I’d gotten a couple of years earlier when he and his two buddies, Tim and Smack, went after Slim and Rusty and me when we were at Janks Field for archery practice.

  He looked about the same as always: greasy hair piled high on his head, long sideburns, black leather jacket, white T-shirt and blue jeans. He wore a familiar sneer on his face. A cigarette dangled from a corner from his lips.

  “YOU!” Stryker announced. “YOU UP THERE IN THE LEATHER JACKET!”

  Scotty nodded, winked toward Stryker, then turned to his friends. He spoke to them for a few seconds—probably cracking wise about how he would decimate Valeria. After that, he stripped off his leather jacket and handed it to one of the gals. Then he started to work his way across the row.

  He’d gained a scar on his left cheek since the last time I’d seen him. Also, he looked as if he’d gained about twenty pounds of muscle.

  Rusty said, “Jesus H. Christ, is that who I think it is?”

  “It’s him, all right,” I said.

  “The Douglas kid?” Lee asked.

  “Yeah.”

  “I knew his big brother. A real…jerk.”

  “Must run in the family,” I said.

  I watched Scotty make his way down the bleachers and enter the arena. He didn’t seem to have a limp anymore, but I bet he still had a scar from Slim’s arrow.

  He was wearing motorcycle boots, the same as always.

  Cigarette hanging off his lower lip, he took the clipboard from Valeria and signed it. Then he tossed his butt into the dirt, climbed the stairs and entered the cage.

  “NAME’S SCOT DOUGLAS,” he said into Stryker’s microphone. “I’M HERE TO COLLECT MY FIVE HUNDRED BUCKS.”

  The grandstands went wild
with shouts and hoots and whistles. The worst of the noise came from behind us. Looking over my shoulder, I saw what I expected: Scotty’s friends were on their feet, a couple of them waving and shrieking while three were busy giving out ear-splitting whistles with the help of fingers buried in their mouths.

  “THINK YOU CAN BEAT CHESTER’S RECORD?” Stryker asked.

  “DAMN RIGHT, SPORT.”

  “WELL, GOOD LUCK TO YOU.” Spurs jingling, Stryker walked out of the cage and trotted down the stairs to the ground. He raised his stopwatch. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LET THE CONTEST BEGIN!”

  For a while, Scotty and Valeria stood a few feet apart, looking each other over…Scotty smirking, Valeria glaring back at him with narrow eyes. Then they started circling like a couple of wrestlers.

  The crowd went silent.

  Scotty peeled off his T-shirt. Holding it in one hand, he swung it like a towel, sweeping it past Valeria’s face, snapping it at her bare midriff.

  Way off beyond the other bleachers, the sky flashed as if a monstrous light bulb had burst to life inside a thunderhead, shuddered and quickly died.

  Scotty whipped his T-shirt at Valeria’s face. She tore it from his hands and the wind tossed it across the cage.

  Thunder grumbled through the night.

  Here it comes, I thought. All day long, the sky had been grim with clouds, the air heavy and moist and hot. Now the storm would come…in time to spoil the show.

  It isn’t here yet, I told myself.

  Besides, Lee’s going to drag us out of here as soon as Valeria finishes with Scotty.

  Maybe.

  While I’d been busy worrying about the storm, Scotty had been busy pulling his thick leather belt out of the loops in his jeans. Now he was swinging it instead of the T-shirt, snapping it at Valeria as she circled him.

  She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to rush him. Nor did she seem very concerned by the belt. Though she dodged and feinted fairly often, she didn’t make any great efforts to avoid its lash. Every so often, the leather smacked against her skin with a sound like a face being slapped. Each time that happened, she flinched but just kept circling Scotty.

  Why didn’t she close in and put a stop to it?

  I started to wince myself each time the belt struck her.

 

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