"Your ma can't still be takin' that nap, Gabriel." Samson frowned at the young man whose bulk blocked the trailer steps.
Gabriel looked miserable, but he repeated the line he'd stuck with all day and into the evening. "I told you, Samson, Mama wants to sleep. She don't want no one botherin' her."
"You gotta be hungry. Neither one o' you has come over for a meal since last night!"
Gabriel said stolidly, "We got food in the trailer."
"No one's seen you eatin'. An' if Ruthie's havin' meals inside, she can't be asleep."
The mentally retarded youth had to ponder that for a minute before he came up with an answer. "I didn't say we was eatin', I just said we got food."
"Right you are," Samson said kindly. "But, Gabe, I'm worried about your ma. If she's been sleepin' this long, she may be sick. Won't you let me take a look at her, so we can get her feelin' better an' things can get back to normal?"
"Mama ain't sick."
No? Then why do you look like you're tryin' hard not to cry?
Samson edged a little closer. "If you'll just let me in, let me hear her say that, I'll stop buggin' you."
"No!" Gabriel screwed up his face in thought, then said, "It's true Mama ain't feelin' so good. But that's just 'cause she had too much to drink last night."
Samson found himself remembering Carnivale's first defiance-of-Prohibition party, back in 1917. I never did figure out where the rousties got all that booze. He and Ruthie were the only two carnies who'd stopped after a single drink - he, because he'd been forced to recognize that his small size made alcohol hit him hard and fast. Ruthie had apparently sensed that he felt self-conscious. She leaned over and confided, "One's been my limit since I had Gabriel. He's the light of my life, but if I ever get pregnant again, I don't want it to be like last time. I want to know who the proud papa is!"
Samson had been stunned into speechlessness. Until then he'd taken for granted that Gabriel was the product of a real relationship, either with a married carny Ruthie was protecting, or with a roustie who'd taken off when he learned she was pregnant. Instead, it had been a drunken one-night stand that she didn't even remember?
He wondered now, Could she have started drinkin' more when she knew she was past childbearin' age?
No. He was sure she'd stopped after one drink at the end-of-Prohibition party, just last year.
But what he said was, "She's sleepin' off a bender? Well, you're finally makin' sense. Why the hell didn't you tell me that in the first place?"
"I'm sorry, Samson!"
Damn, I overdid it. The poor kid's about to start bawlin'.
He leaned close enough to pat one of Gabriel's huge hands, and assured him, "I'm not mad at you, Gabe. Glad you leveled with me. It's OK."
Can't wait no longer, he thought as he walked away. Time to find out just how not-OK it really is.
"I'd do this alone if I could, Jonesy." Samson hated having to ask for help because of his size, but he couldn't see an alternative. "Problem is, I'd need a stepladder. An' even if I could get it in place myself, Gabe'd hear me draggin' it."
Jonesy was frowning. "Hey, I'm with you. But why all this sneakin' around? You're the one runs the carnival! It would take four or five men to overpower Gabe - maybe fewer on account of his havin' a bum arm, but we'd want to be on the safe side. We'd restrain him, an' you could walk right in."
Samson sighed and shook his head. "Nope. That would be the way to go if you an' me could handle it ourselves, an' do it without reinjurin' Gabe's arm. But there are strange things goin' on. I can't risk involvin' more men. You're the only one I can trust to keep your mouth shut."
"All right." Jonesy thought for a second, then said, "Are you thinkin' Ruthie ain't in there at all? That she ran off with young Hawkins - or even that he took her against her will? Everyone knows they've had the hots for each other, an' the law's closin' in on him -"
"No, no! Ruthie would never leave Gabe. An' I can't believe Hawkins would put her in danger. I'm sure they ain't together. In fact, I wish it was that simple."
"So...you think there's somethin' seriously wrong inside the trailer." Jonesy paused, as if hoping Samson would say no. After a brief silence, he continued. "There's no need for both of us to go. You can't do it alone, but I can. I'll be able to reach the window by standin' on a chair, an' I can carry that without makin' any noise -"
"No way," Samson said firmly. "We're in this together. No chair needed - you can boost me up. If I decide to go in, there'll be less of a drop on the inside. Most of the height is in the trailer wheels.
"But I want you to be clear about this, Jonesy. What I'm askin' you to do is risky. Gabe's normally a big teddy bear. But if he thinks he's protectin' his mama, he could kill any man with his bare hands."
Jonesy didn't flinch. "Then we won't let him hear us."
"We'll be as quiet as we can. Just in case...do you, ah, have a gun?"
Jonesy's eyebrows shot up. But after a beat he merely said quietly, "No, I don't own one."
"I do." Samson patted the bulge in his pocket. "Understand this. If necessary, I'll wave it around. If absolutely necessary, I'll fire some shots in Gabe's general direction, to scare him. But I will not, under any circumstances, shoot him. If I have to use the gun, I want you to take advantage of the distraction an' get away. You hear me?"
Jonesy said, "Sure, boss."
Samson sighed. He hears, but he won't do it.
Let's hope we don't need the gun.
Five minutes later they were under one of the windows of Ruthie's trailer. Samson had picked the side where they were least likely to be spotted, by Gabriel or anyone else. The shadows were rapidly deepening, but he didn't want to wait till they'd need a flashlight.
Jonesy hoisted Samson onto his shoulders and held him steady. The window was locked, as Samson had expected; he proceeded to jimmy it.
Also as he'd expected - or at least hoped - the entire window, a four-paned square, was designed to open outward. That was a precaution in case of fire. Come to think of it, though, Gabe could never fit through the damn thing. I should give more thought to fire preparedness, for the whole carnival.
He pulled the curtain aside - and knew at once that to be sure of what he was seeing, he'd have to go in. He wiggled one foot as a signal to Jonesy to let go of him, then slipped through the window and stealthily lowered himself to the floor.
Two minutes later he scrambled back up, and Jonesy lifted him out. His hands were shaking as he rearranged the curtain and closed the window. But by the time Jonesy set him on the ground, his emotions were under control. He reclaimed his cane, signaled Jonesy to hold his questions till later, and led the way back to their truck.
"C'mon," Jonesy was prodding as they settled themselves more or less comfortably in the rear of the vehicle. "Tell me what you saw. How bad is it?"
"Worst case scenario," Samson said bluntly. "Ruthie's dead."
After a moment's reflection, Jonesy sat up straighter and said, "Hey, are you sure? Sometimes a person who's stopped breathin' can be revived -"
"I know what you mean, but there's no chance o' that here. She's been dead for hours. Rigor mortis is settin' in."
"Dammit." Jonesy was scowling now. "Any sign o' what killed her? It's gotta be foul play - a woman her age, with no health problems, don't just die for no reason! Maybe she had a fallin'-out with the Hawkins kid, an' he did somethin' to her. We've seen that he's jealous, an' he ain't been around all day -"
"No, no," Samson said dismissively, "it wasn't nothin' like that. Her right arm is swollen, an' there are marks on it. It was a snake bite.
"But that don't necessarily mean it was an accident." He was deep in thought. "Ruthie knows snakes better'n anyone else here. She could pick up the wrong kind an' get bit - that can happen even to an expert. But it woulda happened while she was out collectin' them, not in her trailer! An' if she didn't collapse out in the field, she woulda told someone else, someone besides Gabe, before she went back to the trailer. Even if she was with Gabe an' passed out, an' he carried her home, he woulda told someone along the way.
"So I'm guessin' this was foul play. But not the sort o' thing Hawkins would do, even if he was mad at her. Which he wasn't.
"My money would be on Ruthie's one enemy. Lodz."
"Huh." Jonesy nodded thoughtfully. "You may be right. It does sound like a stunt he'd pull, if he hated someone enough to commit murder." He sighed, then heaved himself to his feet and prepared to hop down from the truck. "In any case, we'll have to get some men together now, go back over an' try to talk sense to Gabriel -"
"No. Sit down."
"Wh-what? Samson, she's dead! We have to do somethin'!"
"I am doin' somethin'," Samson said quietly, "an' you're gonna do it with me. I needed to understand what's goin' on. But now that I've found out, we're gonna do exactly what Gabriel's doin'."
"An' what the hell is that?" There was fear in Jonesy's eyes now. He clearly thought the boss had lost it.
Samson looked up at him and said, "Wait for Ben Hawkins to set things right."
"You ain't makin' no sense at all, Samson." Jonesy was trying to keep his voice steady, but he wasn't having much luck. "We got a carny dead. You said so yourself. Her retarded son has been sittin' like a lump for a day or so, refusin' to admit she's gone. An' you want to wait for Ben Hawkins?
"Hawkins is on the run from the law! When he took off today he may've had no intention o' comin' back. But aside from that, why the hell do you expect an 18-year-old kid to step in an' take charge o' the situation? Just because he was Ruthie's lover? That's a crock!"
Finally managing to get a word in edgeways, Samson said, "It would be, if that's what I had in mind. In fact, the kid's bein' Ruthie's lover - if he was - has nothin' to do with it. Now calm down, sit down, an' let me explain."
"Uh - all right." Jonesy sat, but he still looked ready to bolt at any moment.
"May as well begin at the beginning," Samson said quietly. "How much do you know about Hack Scudder?"
Taken by surprise, Jonesy had to think for a few seconds. "I've just heard rumors," he said slowly. "He was Ben Hawkins' pa, right? An' he used to be with Carnivale in some capacity, an' may or may not have had an affair with Ruthie." He frowned. "An' there's also been talk that he started the strangeness in Babylon, by murderin' someone."
Samson shook his head. "I dunno about Babylon. That woulda been after he left here. An' for what it's worth, I don't think he was ever that close to Ruthie. Lodz was just tryin' to stir up trouble by tellin' Ben that.
"But Scudder was Ben's pa. An' his role with Carnivale is important. He had a geek act."
"Yuck." Jonesy made a face. "Bitin' off small animals' heads? I've always thought that was disgusting - and cruel. I'm glad Carnivale ain't had a geek act since I've been here."
"I think it's disgusting an' cruel too," Samson replied. "That's why we ain't had one since I've been in charge.
"But Hack Scudder's act was...different. He was billed as The Gentleman Geek. As far as the advertisin' was concerned, all that meant was that he wore a tuxedo an' top hat. But in the act, he put on a show o' bein' this super-polite gentleman. As such, he'd say he couldn't leave the animals he'd killed dead. So he'd apparently restore them to life."
Jonesy's jaw dropped. "H-how...oh, come on. It wasn't real, was it?"
"He told us carnies that of course it wasn't real," Samson continued. "It was a magician's trick. He said that was why he never advertised it - so he couldn't be accused o' deceptive advertisin'. But everywhere we went, the word spread, an' he was our hottest attraction.
"He never allowed any carny to watch his act. What he said in private was that all of us, even the lowliest rousties, knew enough stagecraft that if we saw it, we'd figure out how he did what he did. The facts would leak out, reach the public, even reach other performers who'd copy him. That seemed to make sense. He was a fanatic about keepin' us out - knew everyone in the trade, includin' spies for other outfits, an' refused to start the show till they left. Audiences supported him, without understandin' why he was doin' it."
Jonesy was caught up in the story, though at this point he couldn't have guessed where it was leading. "What about talkers?" he asked. "The guy must've needed talkers. Couldn't they demand to see the act, as part payment for pluggin' it?"
"Could have, but they never did." Samson shook his head in grudging admiration. "He had a way with women, always used a girl who had a crush on him.
"I was young at the time, burstin' with curiosity." He gave a rueful smile. "My size was a drawback just now, when I wanted to break into Ruthie's trailer alone. But there have been plenty o' times when it's been an asset, gotten me in off-limits places where a larger man woulda been spotted.
"I must've sneaked in to spy on Scudder's act a dozen times. Never got caught. I was able to hide backstage - saw the act from every angle, an' from real close up.
"Scudder was tellin' the truth about one thing. Even from the vantage point o' the audience, any carny woulda learned his secret.
"The secret was that there was no trick. Couldn't possibly have been one. What Scudder didn't want us to know was that the act was on the level - he really was restorin' dead animals to life."
Samson couldn't see Jonesy's face in the fading light. But the minute that passed before his friend managed a comment suggested he was stunned. At last he said, "Th-there must be some natural explanation..."
"I never found one," Samson told him. "An' I didn't settle for just seein' the act. I checked out all the waste Scudder disposed of, an' never once found a headless animal carcass.
"But I did find other things. Disturbin' things. Not in his waste, but nearby. Once I knew somethin' strange was goin' on, an' started payin' closer attention, I found that plants near Scudder's tent always wound up dead. Nothin' more than weeds would be growin' on carnival grounds - but that didn't change the fact that formerly livin' things were dead, even if they hadn't been trampled.
"I looked a little farther, an' found rabbits an' squirrels that were dead or maimed. It was as if...as if Scudder couldn't restore life an' health, once they were gone, without takin' them from somewhere else."
Jonesy muttered, "Jesus."
"I loathed the guy," Samson said quietly. "Doin' all that damage for the sake of a crummy carnival act? Tearin' animals' heads off with his teeth, even if he could put 'em back on? Revolting."
"I'm with you." Jonesy sounded sick. After a minute's reflection he asked, "But how does this tie in? Did Scudder ever do anythin' strange to humans?"
"Yes. I'm sure he did." Now it was Samson who had to fight to keep his voice steady. "There was an earlier time Ruthie got bit by a snake. Back in 1919 -"
"My God." Jonesy saw the tie-in, and his voice rose. "You mean she was dead, an' he brought her back to life? An' you think his son's gonna do the same thing?"
"Keep it down! I don't know whether she was dead, or he healed her before things went that far. But to revive her or heal her or whatever he did, he took somethin' from her little boy. That's why Gabriel's retarded."
Jonesy was dumbstruck. At last he whispered, "Does Ruthie know -?"
"No. She never even knew about Scudder's powers. An' Gabe was so young at the time, she assumed he'd been born retarded, an' she hadn't noticed the signs. What else would she think? He hadn't been ill, hadn't had a head injury.
"But I already knew the things I just told you about Scudder. So I was suspicious from the time Ruthie made that 'miracle recovery.' I saw things goin' wrong with Gabriel. An' I spotted Scudder noticin' them too, gettin' more an' more upset."
"He hadn't done it on purpose?"
"No, I'll say that for him. He'd always been a heavy drinker, but he got worse. An' right at the time people started sayin' openly that Gabe was retarded, he lit out."
"Coward," said Jonesy.
"I dunno. If he'd stuck around much longer I mighta killed him.
"But lookin' back, I have some sympathy for him. It's damned hard to imagine oneself in his place..."
After a long silence, Jonesy said, "So this brings us to Ben Hawkins. And...Tipton?"
Samson nodded. "Yeah, the business in Tipton made me suspicious. You said you didn't hear how the excitement in town got started?"
"That's right," Jonesy said ruefully. "By the time I realized what was goin' on, there was already a bunch o' people mobbin' Hawkins. I don't know who'd spoken up first, or what they said.
"Later, he told me they must've mistaken him for someone else. I figured there was a guy who resembled him, who went around claimin' to be a faith healer." He sighed. "I didn't take it as seriously as I should have, 'cause I didn't believe either Hawkins or some lookalike could really perform miraculous healings."
"An' o' course," Samson recalled, "once the rumor mill got started, there was a dozen different stories about what he'd supposedly done.
"But what sticks in my mind is the incident with Lyle Donovan's ma. I coulda swore that until she told Hawkins not to heal her, he was gonna try! There's somethin' fishy, in any case, about a dyin' woman's wantin' a healer to let her die. An' Hawkins had asked the folks around them to move back...
"That suggests that both him an' the woman knew Hack Scudder's use of his powers had hurt others."
Jonesy cursed under his breath.
"Then, this mornin', I was sittin' in the truck -"
Dammit, Samson realized, I can't explain this without runnin' up against Jonesy's disbelief in Management.
An' if I remind him that he thinks I'm delusional on that subject, he's apt to doubt everythin' I've said.
"Yeah?" Jonesy prompted. "You were sittin' in the truck, and -?"
No turnin' back now. "I saw Hawkins in a very unusual place. Comin' outta the Management trailer."
After a beat, Jonesy said slowly, "You expect me to believe he'd been in there talkin' to Management?"
"He told me he'd been talkin' to Management!"
The silence was deafening.
"Listen to me, Jonesy. Of course Management ain't a recluse who lives full-time behind a curtain in less than a quarter o' that trailer, with no food an' no bathin' facilities. The idea is ridiculous on its face.
"But that don't mean he doesn't exist. Management is a being with magical powers. He comes an' goes at will, unseen. I suspect he's only there when he wants to communicate with someone.
"You know both Appy an' Lodz have powers that you an' I don't have. You know the population of Babylon couldn't have vanished the way they did if they weren't ghosts. An' dozens o' witnesses can confirm that Ben Hawkins asked the folks in that tent in Tipton to move back, an' then Miz Donovan told him not to heal her.
"If you can accept that much strangeness, why not a little more? Why not accept that some of us really have spoken with Management?"
"OK." Jonesy sounded as if the words were being pulled out of him. "I'll try to keep an open mind. Did Hawkins tell you what him an' Management talked about?"
"Not in detail. But the kid looked terrible, like he'd had a really bad night. An' he said Management had given him advice on how to help someone."
Jonesy whistled softly. "You mean -?"
"I'm guessin' now that Ruthie was already dead, Hawkins knew it, an' Management had told him there was a way he could bring her back. It's possible he hadn't known how to do it, not havin' been raised by his pa." Samson shuddered. "I suspected he meant to use his powers, 'help' one person by harmin' another. An' I wasn't gonna permit a repeat of what his old man did to Gabe! So I told him in no uncertain terms not to hurt anyone in my carnival.
"Maybe I shoulda made an exception for a no-good like Lodz. If killin' him would save Ruthie, I'd gladly strangle him myself.
"But it ain't my job," he concluded grimly. "Ruthie's a good woman, fine as they come. But more important, Gabe would be lost without her. An' Hack Scudder an' his goddamn family owe Gabe, big time!"
He'd spat that out with a vehemence he hadn't intended.
Jonesy said quietly, "You're damn right they do."
Samson noticed that Jonesy no longer seemed to be questioning anything he'd said.
After they'd sat in silence for several minutes, Jonesy said, "You seem to care a lot about Gabe. Sounds like you always did.
"An' I didn't miss the point of what you said earlier, about how you'd use your gun if he attacked us. You wanted me to get away. But then, rather than shoot an' even wing him, you woulda let him kill you."
Samson didn't answer immediately.
When at last he spoke, he knew he seemed to be changing the subject. "You didn't know me when I was young. I drank more'n I do now. Way more, till I had to face the fact that it don't take much to get me drunk.
"I was drunk a lot in those days. But you know what? I never blacked out. So I'd do silly things with friends who were as drunk as I was, an' later, I'd be the only one remembered the silliness.
"There's one night I remember as clear as if it happened last night, with me cold sober. It was actually long ago, an' I was so bombed that I couldn't get my fly unbuttoned. The person I was with had to do it, both of us gigglin' like 5-year-olds. But after we got the damn fly open, everythin' else worked just fine...
"Later, I never dared tell her. What we'd done was mutual, both of us equally drunk, neither one imaginin' we were in love. Just two friends havin' fun. But I was afraid that if I told her, she'd think I was boastin' about a score I'd never made...or that I'd taken advantage of her when she was drunk an' I was sober...or worst of all, that I'd raped her after she passed out."
"Christ," Jonesy whispered. "You're sure...?"
"Yep. I wouldn't have thought it possible I could father a kid who wasn't a dwarf. But based on somethin' Ruthie once said, there's no other explanation."
Samson closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he said the words he had never before spoken aloud, to anyone.
"Gabriel is my son."