The traveling vampire sh.., p.7
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       The Traveling Vampire Show, p.7

           Richard Laymon
 

  My mouth jumped open, but I managed not to gasp. Instead, trying to sound calm, I said, “What’re you doing?”

  “We came to find Slim and Rusty. That’s what we’re going to do.”

  “But these people!”

  “We’ve got every right to be here.”

  “Hope they see it that way.”

  “No sweat,” she said, bravado in her smile but a flicker of worry in her eyes.

  She drove slowly. Over the sound of the engine, I heard glass crunching under the tires.

  “You sure about this?” I asked.

  “Sure I’m sure.”

  “What if we get a flat tire?”

  “I don’t get flats.” She gave me another one of those smiles. Then she added, “And if I do, we’ll just have a couple of these strapping young chaps change it for us.”

  As she drove closer, a few of the workers stopped what they were doing and watched our approach. Others continued to go about their business. I counted twelve, in all. (There might’ve been more, unseen.)

  Though I saw a variety of trousers on them—blue jeans, black jeans, black leather—they all seemed to be wearing shiny black shirts with long sleeves.

  Studying their outfits, I noticed that all the workers weren’t men. At least four seemed to be women.

  I wondered if one of those might be Valeria herself.

  Maybe they’re all Valeria, I thought—and take turns playing the role. Or maybe the real Valeria is whiling away the afternoon in the bus.

  Or in the hearse.

  As Lee eased her pickup to a stop, I looked over at the hearse. I figured there might be a casket inside, but the rear windows were draped with red velvet. Lee shut off her engine.

  A man was walking toward us.

  Lee opened her door. It seemed like a bad idea.

  “You getting out?” I asked.

  “You don’t have to,” she said.

  “What about the dog?”

  She looked back at me. “Where is it?”

  “I don’t know, but it must be around here someplace.”

  “Maybe it decided not to stick around when it saw what was coming.”

  “Maybe that’s what we oughta do,” I said.

  “We’re fine,” she told me, and climbed out.

  I threw open my door, jumped to the ground and hurried around her truck. I came up behind Lee and halted by her side. The man stopped a few paces in front of us. He glanced at me, seemed to decide that I didn’t matter, and turned his eyes to Lee.

  He was so handsome he was creepy.

  His long, flowing hair was black as ink, but he had pale blue eyes. The eyes might’ve looked wonderful on a woman; on him, they seemed unnatural and weird. So did his slim, curving lips. All his facial features were delicate, and he had smooth, softly tanned skin. Except for the slightest trace of beard stubble along his jaw and chin, he might’ve easily passed for a beautiful woman.

  At least from the neck up. The rest of him was a different story. He had broad, heavy-looking shoulders and arm muscles that strained the sleeves of his shirt. The top few buttons of his shirt were unfastened as if to make room for his massive chest. He had a flat stomach and narrow hips, and wore black leather trousers with a sheath knife on the belt.

  After sliding his eyes up and down Lee a couple of times, he smiled. I’ve never seen such white teeth. Even though the vampire was supposed to be Valeria, I couldn’t help but check this guy’s canines. They looked no longer or more pointy than anyone else’s.

  Sounding friendly enough, he said, “If you’re here for tickets, I’m afraid we don’t open the box office until an hour before show time.”

  “I can’t buy any in advance?” Lee asked.

  “Not until eleven o’clock tonight.”

  “But what if I come back tonight and you’re sold out?”

  “Oh, that won’t happen. Not here. We sell out at some venues, but this arena isn’t gonna fill up. Nice if it does, but it won’t.” He glanced at me, then said to Lee, “There is an age restriction, you know. The show’s meant for adults, so no one under eighteen gets in. I think your brother’s still a little on the young side.”

  “But he’s the one who wants to see it,” Lee protested.

  The man flashed a grin at me. “I’ll bet he does.”

  “A couple of his friends, too,” Lee added.

  “Well, if they’re no older than he is…”

  “Maybe they’re around here someplace. They came out ahead of us, so they should’ve been here by now. Teenagers? A husky boy and a slender blonde girl?”

  The man frowned slightly and shook his head. “Haven’t seen ’em. Nobody’s here but our crew.”

  Turning her head in the general direction of the snack stand, Lee shouted, “SLIM? RUSTY?”

  I watched the roof. Nobody popped a head up.

  “If they do come along,” Lee said to the man, “would you let them know we were already here?”

  “I’d be glad to.”

  “Thanks. I told them that they were too young for a show like this. But they’re so fascinated by the whole subject of vampires…” She shook her head. “You know, teenagers.”

  “I know exactly,” the man said. “I was one myself a few years ago. And fascinated by vampires.”

  “They just had to come out here and see what it was all about. I’m sure they were hoping I’d somehow be able to work magic and buy tickets for them. They seem to think I can do anything.”

  “I’d like to be able to help you…”

  “Lee,” she said, and offered her hand.

  “Lee,” he said. He took it gently in his long fingers. “Pleased to meet you, Lee. I’m Julian.”

  “And this is my brother, Dwight.”

  Though I wished she hadn’t used our real names, I smiled and held out my hand. Julian let go of Lee’s hand and shook mine. His fingers felt warm and dry.

  After releasing my hand, he faced Lee and asked, “Are you aware of what happens in our show?”

  “Not really.”

  He performed a mock-embarrassed cringe and shrug. “Well, there’s always a certain amount of blood-letting. Generally, quite a lot. In fact, it can get very gory. It looks worse than it is, but it can be shocking for people who aren’t used to it.”

  “I see,” Lee said, nodding slightly, a concerned look on her face.

  “Also, clothing often gets torn in the heat of battle. It’s not unusual for private parts to…become exposed.”

  Lee broke out a smile. “Sounds more interesting all the time.”

  Julian chuckled softly. “Well, I just want you to understand why we try to keep kids away from the show.”

  “I’m almost eighteen,” I said, almost telling the truth.

  “How old are you?” Julian asked me.

  “Seventeen.” I blushed as I said it. I hate lying.

  “And your friends?”

  “They’re both seventeen, too,” I said, and blushed even hotter because Slim, though sixteen like me and Rusty, looked more like fourteen.

  I’m sure Julian knew I was lying. But he turned to Lee anyway, and said, “I might be able to make an exception for them if they’ll be accompanied by an adult.”

  “Oh, I’d be coming with them,” she said.

  “Then I suppose it’ll be all right.”

  “Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you, Julian. Let me get my purse.” She ducked into her truck and snatched her purse off the seat.

  This has to be some kind of fake-out, I thought. She’s not really going to buy tickets.

  Standing beside me again, she asked Julian, “How much will that be for four tickets?”

  “They’re ten dollars each.”

  “So forty dollars,” she said. She hung the purse from her shoulder, reached in and took out her wallet. Head down, she flipped through the bills.

  I caught Julian staring at the front of her shirt.

  He has the hots for her, I realized. That’s why he’s breaking th
e rules.

  “Shoot,” Lee muttered. “I don’t seem to have forty in cash.”

  So that’s it, I thought. She never did plan to buy any tickets.

  I felt relieved, but also a little disappointed.

  But then she said, “You wouldn’t happen to take checks, would you?”

  “From you,” said Julian, “of course.”

  So she hauled out her checkbook and a ballpoint pen. With a smile at me, she nudged my arm. I realized what she wanted, so I turned around and bent over slightly. She braced the checkbook against my back and began to write.

  Pausing, she asked, “Who should I make it out to?”

  “Julian Stryker,” he said. “That’s Stryker with a y.”

  “Not to The Traveling Vampire Show?” she asked.

  “To me. That’s fine.”

  “You won’t get in trouble?”

  “I shouldn’t think so. I’m the owner.”

  “Ah.”

  She stopped writing on my back. Straightening up, I watched her rip the check out of the book.

  Her home address was printed on it, of course.

  She handed it to Julian.

  He held it open in front of him, studied it for a few moments, then slipped it into a pocket of his shiny black shirt. He patted it there and smiled at Lee. “If it bounces, of course, we’ll require your blood.”

  She grinned. “Of course.”

  “Let me get your tickets,” he said. He turned away and walked briskly toward the open front door of the bus. Like the hearse, the bus’s windows were draped on the inside with red curtains.

  I waited for Julian to vanish inside. Then I whispered to Lee, “That check has your address on it. Now he knows where you live.”

  “No big deal,” she said. “While he’s gone, why don’t you take a look at the roof?”

  I scowled toward the snack stand. It was only about twenty feet away, and none of the workers seemed to be watching us any longer. So I walked over to it, jumped, caught hold of an edge of the roof and pulled myself up.

  Slim and Rusty were gone.

  They’d left behind nothing, not even my shirt.

  I dropped to the ground. No sign of Julian yet. I strolled back to Lee and reported, “They aren’t there.”

  “Probably ran off when they saw what was coming.”

  “But what’d they do about the dog?”

  Lee shook her head, shrugged, then smiled at Julian as he came out of the bus. In a quiet voice, she said to me, “They’re probably on their way home.”

  “Sure hope so,” I muttered.

  “Four tickets for tonight’s performance,” Julian said, raising the tickets and smiling as he came toward us. With each stride, his black hair shook, his glossy shirt fluttered, and he jingled. The silvery, musical jingling sounded almost like Christmas bells, but not quite.

  They sounded more like spurs.

  I looked down at his boots. Sure enough, he wore a pair of spurs with big, silver rowels.

  Had he been wearing them all along? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Maybe he’d put them on while he was in the bus.

  If so, why?

  Why would he wear spurs at all?

  I glanced around just to make sure there wasn’t a horse nearby, and didn’t see one. Of course, you could’ve fit half a dozen Clydesdales inside the truck and nobody’d be the wiser.

  But I doubted there were any horses at all. More than likely, Julian wore the spurs as fashion accessories to his costume.

  Maybe part of him longed to be Paladin.

  The jingling went silent when he halted in front of Lee. He presented the tickets to her.

  “Thank you so much, Julian,” she said.

  “My pleasure. We don’t have reserved seating, so come early.” His smile flashed. “And stay late. After the show, I’ll introduce you to Valeria. You, your brother and his friends.” He cast his smile in my direction.

  “That might be nice,” Lee said. “Thank you.”

  “Yeah, thanks,” I threw in.

  “The pleasure is mine,” he said to Lee. “I’ll look forward to seeing you tonight. All of you.”

  She blushed and said, “All four of us.”

  “Isn’t that what I said?”

  “Guess so.” Nodding, she said, “Thanks again.” Then she turned away and climbed into her truck. I hurried around to the other side and hopped into the passenger seat.

  As she backed up, Julian walked away.

  She swung the truck around and we started bouncing our way across Janks Field.

  “You didn’t have to buy tickets,” I said.

  “You want to see the show, don’t you?”

  “Well, yeah. I guess so. But Mom and Dad are never gonna let me.”

  “Maybe not.” She tossed me a smile tinted with mischief. “If they know about it.”

  “Anyway, what about Slim and Rusty?”

  “We’ve got four tickets and Danny’s out of town. All four of us can go, just like I told Julian.”

  Holding back a groan, I muttered, “I don’t know. I just hope they turn up. They were supposed to wait for me.”

  “I’m sure they’re all right.”

  Chapter Eleven

  As Lee steered us into the shadows of the dirt road, she said, “If I’d been up on that roof, I would’ve jumped down and run for the woods…probably before the Show even pulled into sight. A truck like that, it’d make a lot of noise coming through the woods.”

  “The bus, too,” I added.

  “They must’ve heard the engines in plenty of time to get away.”

  “But what about the dog?” I asked.

  She shook her head. “Maybe it was gone by then.”

  “What if it wasn’t?”

  “Might’ve been distracted by the new arrivals.”

  “Yeah, maybe,” I said, but I pictured Slim and Rusty racing over Janks Field, the yellow dog chasing them and gaining on them and finally leaping onto Slim’s back and burying its teeth in the nape of her neck and taking her down. Rusty looking back over his shoulder…

  Wrong, I thought. Rusty’s slower than Slim. He would be dragging behind and first to get nailed by the dog.

  Unless Slim held back to protect him.

  Which she might do.

  Probably did do.

  So then, though she was the faster of the two, she would’ve been the one to get attacked.

  In my mind, I once again pictured Rusty looking over his shoulder. He watches Slim go down beneath the dog, then hesitates, knowing he should run back to help her.

  But does he go back?

  With Rusty, who knows?

  I’m not saying he was a coward. He had guts, all right. I’d seen him do plenty of brave things—even foolbardly things, every so often. But he had a selfish streak that worried me.

  Take for example how he snuck off, that morning, to eat his Ding-Dong.

  Or what he did last Halloween.

  Rusty, Dagny (later to be known as Slim) and I figured Janks Field would be the best of all possible places to visit on the spookiest night of the year. Maybe, as a bonus, we’d get to spy on a satanic orgy, or even (if we really lucked out) a human sacrifice.

  But what had seemed like a great idea during the last week or two of October turned suddenly into a bad idea at just after sundown on Halloween. Confronted with walking out to Janks Field in the dark, I think we all realized that the dangers were more real than make-believe.

  We’d gathered on the sidewalk in front of Rusty’s house and we were all set to go. We wore dark clothes. We carried flashlights. We were armed with hidden knives—just in case. At supper, I’d told Mom and Dad that I would be going over to Rusty’s to “goof around.”

  Which was not exactly a lie.

  As we left Rusty’s house behind and started walking in the general direction of Route 3, Dagny said, “I’ve been thinking.”

  “Hope you didn’t strain nothing,” Rusty said.

  “Maybe we should do som
ething else tonight.”

  “What do you mean?” he asked.

  “Not go to Janks Field.”

  “You’re kidding.”

  “No, I mean it.”

  “You wanta chicken out?”

  “It’s not chicken to be smart.”

  “Bwok-bwok-bwok-bwok-bwok.”

  “Hey, cut it out,” I said.

  “You gonna chicken out, too?” Rusty asked me.

  “Nobody’s chickening out,” I said.

  “Glad to hear it. I’d hate to think my two best friends are a couple of yellow-bellied cowards.”

  “Up yours,” I said.

  We kept on walking. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were well-lighted and had jack-o’-lanterns glowing on their porches. On both sides of the street, small groups of kids were making the rounds, walking or running from house to house with bags for their goodies. Most of them were dressed up: some in those flimsy plastic store-bought costumes (witches, Huckleberry Hound, Superman, the Devil, and so on); many in home-made outfits (pirates, gypsies, vampires, hobos, princesses, etc.); and a few (who probably lacked imagination, enthusiasm or funds) pretty much wearing their regular clothes along with a mask. Whatever their costumes, many of them laughed and yelled. I heard people knocking on doors, heard doorbells dinging, heard chants of “Trick or treat!”

  We’d done that ourselves until that year. But when you get to be fifteen, trick or treating can seem like kid stuff.

  And I guess it is kid stuff compared to a journey to Janks Field.

  Walking along, seeing those kids on their quests for candy, I felt very adult and superior—but part of me wished I could be running from house to house the way I used to in my infamous Headless Phantom costume, a rubber-headed axe in one hand and a treat-heavy grocery sack swinging from the other.

  Part of me wished we were hiking to anywhere but Janks Field.

  Part of me couldn’t wait to get there.

  I have a feeling Dagny and Rusty might’ve felt the same way.

  Regardless of how any of us felt, however, there was no more talk of quitting. Soon, we left town behind and walked along the dirt shoulder of Route 3. Though we had flashlights, we didn’t use them. The full moon lit the road for us.

  Every so often, a car came along and we had to squint and look away from its headlights. Otherwise, we had the old, two-lane highway all to ourselves.

 

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