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Chapter Eight

High Tide 10:14 p.m. EDT

Sunset 8:21 p.m.

Early Season Fridays are usually slow days, and this Friday wasn’t any exception. With an hour ’til closing, the ticket box wasn’t quite half full. Not going to Vegas on that. Hell, not going to the grocery store on that.

At least I’d had time to savor the cashew chicken sent over from Tony Lee’s at supper-time. The Lee Delivery Service on the day had been Jason, a strapping high schooler, who had given it as his opinion that tomorrow the park would be hopping.

“But there’s a school rally tonight,” he said, “and most of the kids are there.”

“You’d think the school would check the park schedule before deciding when to hold a rally,” I said, not really serious about it.

He looked doubtful. “I don’t think our principal really approves of the park—at least, not the arcade. Might be just as well if we’re off his radar.”

“I take your meaning,” I said, slipping the plastic fork out of its protective napkin. “So, why aren’t you at the rally?”

“I have to work.”

It was said matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity or irritation. The Lee ethic bred true.

“Well, if you gotta work, don’t let me keep you! Tell Anna, please, that supper looks absolutely delicious. Thank you for bringing it over.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, nice and polite, and took himself off, leaving me a little too alone with my meal.

I’d been so thin of company that I couldn’t get a reading on how the rooster was doing on the popularity scales. When there’s only one or two customers per ride, they’ve got the whole menagerie to choose from, and tend to mount the flashier critters. The unicorn got good play, and the hippocampus; the dolphin, the bronc, and the Indian pony. The poor, fleabitten bear didn’t get much love; neither did the subtly misshapen bobcat. The lion caught attention, off and on, and the giraffe was a clear favorite with certain of the very young set, as was the ostrich, but the rabbit might as well have been invisible.

Well. No accounting for taste.

So, anyway, at nine-ten on the last Friday night of the Early Season, I stepped into Baxter Avenue, and looked around me. Summer’s Wheel, next door, was turning, slowly, advertising its existence to any who cared to look, I guessed, since I didn’t see anybody in the gondolas. Across the way at Tony Lee’s, Anna was braced, palms flat on the counter, leaning out and looking down the avenue. I raised an arm and waved. She caught the motion, straightened and waved back.

I considered the aspect before me. A gaggle of middle-agers came ’round the corner from Fountain Circle, which was my cue to call out—

“Carousel’s open, ladies—gents! Two tickets a ride!”

Talking among themselves, they didn’t even turn their heads. I sighed, and shook mine.

People flock to carousels, even in this day and age, which is the reason I don’t hire a barker. Some of the rides need them—the Terminator looks so damned scary, the barker’s job is basically to dare the customers on to it. Carousels—even my carousel—look friendly; they call up memories more glad than sad; they don’t demand any particular courage or bravado, just…choose a mount to your liking and relax while the music plays, and the wheel goes ’round and ’round.

Problem was, even a barker can’t produce riders from an empty midway. Which was pretty much what I had. A couple was coming up the empty avenue from Dodge City: A skinny old man bent over a stick gamely followed a stout woman of about his age. She kept a uniform two steps ahead, like she was breaking trail. I sang out an invite—she didn’t look, but he turned his head and smiled.

“Evenin’, dear,” he called, his voice high and sweet, and kept on with the task of walking.

“Evenin’,” I murmured, and fell back a step, watching them round the corner into Fountain Circle. My sight flickered, and for a moment I saw a slender, bookish young man on the arm of a sturdy young woman, heads together, yellow hair and brown, matching steps, and matching smiles…

I shook my head; the image faded, and here was another potential customer, coming up from Dodge City. He was wearing a grey hoodie with the hood pulled up, head bent, hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans. His sneakers were eye-piercingly white, and his shoulders were hunched up into his ears. He might have been alone on the midway—alone on the planet, for all of that.

Kind of a tough sell for a ride on the merry-go-round.

Still, I stepped up to the plate, filling my lungs for a good yell. If I couldn’t get him to fork over two tickets and climb on the back of a critter, at least I might be able to wake him up.

Except that, just a few feet away, he lifted his head, stared around like he’d just woke up, focused on the carousel, then on me, and walked toward us both, taking his hands out of his pockets, to reach up and yank the hood back and down.

“Your pardon,” he said, in strongly accented English. “I look for Kate of the carousel.”

His voice was low, but smooth; face an inverted triangle—high, broad forehead half-hidden under a fringe of reddish brown hair. Pointed chin; long, decided nose; definite cheekbones; thin lips. Brown eyes set deep under high-arching eyebrows. Pale skin. Freckles.

“I’m Kate Archer,” I told him, and cocked a thumb over my shoulder. “That’s the carousel. And you are?”

He looked at the carousel, then back to my face, ducking his head slightly, maybe in embarrassment.

“I am Vassily Abramovich Davydenko. Manager Marilyn sends me to you. For work.”

I blinked, then nodded. He wasn’t what I’d been expecting, but thinking about it, I couldn’t exactly say what I’d been expecting.

“Have you ever operated a carousel?” I asked him.

“No,” he said flatly, and, as if he realized that sounded just a thought short, added quickly, “I am very fast to learn. The hours—Manager Marilyn said every day, four hours, contract rate, and lunch.”

Okay, so now I knew what was at the top of his mind. Fair enough. Hours and a meal every day weren’t luxuries everybody had.

“I’ll show you the details. Right now, if you’ve got time. Then you can decide if it looks like something you’d care to take on. All right?”

A faint crease showed between those high-arched brows.

“Four hours,” he repeated. “Every day. And lunch. I learn, so very fast.”

“You bet,” I agreed, a little taken back by quite so much desperation. “Let’s go inside.”

* * *

He wanted me to call him Vassily; he was from Ukraine; and he really did learn fast. By the time the five-minute warning sounded he had mastered the operator’s board, the emergency stop, and could thread the Violano paper through the orchestrion faster than I could, myself, so deft that I had no fear for the fragile paper.

He helped me close the storm gates, then, at my invitation, he mounted the machine and walked among the animals, studying each one with the somber seriousness that seemed characteristic of him.

“These are good,” he said. “I will like working with these.”

He walked deliberately, footsteps quiet and respectful against the old wooden decking. His fingertips trailed along the sides of each critter he passed, as if he were memorizing their tactile signature.

Unlike everybody else, he neither stared, nor checked, when he came to the rooster, he merely moved gently by, fingers tracing neck, saddle, and harum-scarum tail-feathers.

When he had finished the circle, he came to the edge by the chariot, his hand resting on the curved neck of the money-side swan.

“I will like this. I will work hard. Four hours a day. Every day. All Season. Will you have me?”

I considered him. He was weird, but who wasn’t? Clearly, he needed the work, and—to the point for both Nancy and me—he could do the work.

“Sure, I’ll have you. We still need to finish up training, though. Can you work for a couple hours tomorrow? I’d like you to have some real-time operating under your belt before we turn you loose by yourself.”

There was a longish pause, as if he had to work through the idiom, then he nodded. “I will come—at noon?”

“At eleven, if it fits with your other hours,” I said, thinking what the hell; might as well train him up proper. “You can learn how to open up, too.”

“Yes. I will come.” He hesitated. “Thanking you.”

“Nope, thanking you,” I told him. “You’re going to be a big help.”

* * *

I said good-night to Vassily at Fun Country’s gate, and watched him walk away, hood up, shoulders high, hands shoved down into the pockets of his jeans. He went straight down the walk, past Arcade Ka-Pow! My bet with myself was that he’d turn left on Grand, toward the motels that were the main reason for the Chamber’s employment contract, where surely there was a bed for him in a dorm room…

As it happened, I didn’t win my bet—or lose it. The gathering sea-mist hid him before he hit the corner.

The mist was a little colder than was absolutely necessary for June, but that’s the Maine coast for you—if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change.

I sighed, buttoned my denim jacket and pulled the collar up. High up on Archer Avenue, the street lights were bright and clean-looking. Mid-hill, they were a little diffuse. Close in, they looked like candle flames flickering behind a spun glass curtain; even the seven foot red letters that spelled out KA-POW! seemed a little tentative in the roiling mist.

To my right, the lights on Fountain Circle were pale, ghostly memories of lights, while the Pier showed as a multicolored smear against the thick air. I should’ve been able to hear the band playing at Neptune’s, and the waves crashing against the beach, but it was as if the mist stifled not only light, but sound, and I shivered, though not from the cold.

“Time to get home, Kate,” I said out loud, relieved to hear that my voice was crisp. I nodded, to let myself know I’d heard her. Damn fool thing to do, just stand around in the mist and get soaked. Past time to get home, is what it was. I was due for a shower and a glass of wine and a chapter of the latest book before I tucked myself up for bed.

My usual route home from Fun Country is up the beach, but tonight, with the mist coming on so thick, I decided to stick to the streets.

Hands in pockets, I trotted across Fountain Circle, the lights of the midway that occupied the asphalt on the other side of the Pier slipping eerily into being as I approached.

Technically, the midway is part of Fun Country, but Marilyn has nothing to do with the managing of it. In my day, the maze of carny games and concessions had been run by a woman named Phyllis Savage. She’d retired, so Nancy told me, and been replaced by the fella who had been her assistant for a good few years, name of Jens Torbin. Among his other skills, Jens apparently had a light touch with an accounts book, and at the end of last Season, Fun Country New Jersey had decided enough was enough, and fired his ass.

I had no idea who ran the place now, though my guess was nobody. It’d been locked up tight since I’d hit town in April; hadn’t even opened for the Super Early Season. I wondered if Fun Country had decided that it, like Jens, was too much trouble for too little return.

Tonight, though, the lights were on.

Even more interesting, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, was that the gate stood, just a little, ajar.

There wasn’t much to want inside the midway—just a bunch of old games booths and concession stands tarped up for the winter. Still, it shouldn’t be standing open—somebody a little tipsy with music and beer, coming down the ramp from the Pier might see a shortcut to the truck, or to the house, trip over one of the tarp-covered games and break their fool neck.

Probably, I thought, going toward the swinging gate, the chain had rusted through, and the wind had jimmied the latch. Happened all the time. I’d just pull it to, latch it up and ask the land to pile up some dirt to keep it from swinging open again.

I reached for the gate—

A hand closed over mine.

I yelled.

Somebody else yelled.

The land leapt into action, showing me a woman with bright pink hair, purple eyes, a diamond chip glittering in one nostril, dressed, like me, in jeans and a denim jacket.

“Hold it!” I snapped. “Who are you?”

“Who am I?” her voice was low and rough—tailor-made for singing the blues. “Who the hell are you?”

“Kate Archer. I run the carousel, over the other side.”

There was a pause. The land helpfully showed me her face, which was round and slightly less pink than her hair, so I could see the moment when she decided that I could be telling the truth.

“Okay. I’m Peggy Marr, the new midway manager. I was supposed to start opening on weekends, but there was a problem at another park and Management shifted me in to sort it and fix it—” Her mouth twisted. “That’s what they call me, down Jersey. Peggy the Fixer.”

I grinned.

“Welcome to Archers Beach. Better late than never, right?”

“I guess, except—I just got in last night and I’ve literally been doing nothing else but going over the old files in that…office back there.” She shuddered. I guessed Jens hadn’t been tidy.

“I’m right up against it, aren’t I?” Peggy Marr said. “Season starts, what—Monday?”

“Next Friday,” I said, and heard her exhale hard.

“Well, that makes all the difference. All’s I have to do is come up with two dozen experienced operators and agents by Friday at…?”


“Noon. Great.”

“I might,” I said slowly, “be able to help. I can at least go over last Season’s list with you and see if I know how to get in touch with any of the operators.”

It would’ve been too much to say she got less tense, but she did look interested.

“That could be a big help, assuming they’re—well, we won’t know ’til we know, will we? When can you come by the office? I’ll tell you the truth, I gotta get something to eat, a shower and some sleep, but I can be back down here—say, seven? Tomorrow.”

The woman was driven, give her that. I nodded.

“Sure. I’ll meet you right here tomorrow at seven.” I stepped away from the gate, and turned left, toward Grand Avenue and home.

“See you then.”

“See you then,” she said behind me, and I heard a muted clang, as she latched the gate.

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