Hands shoved into the pockets of his trench coat, Special Agent Darnell Barrett, master detective, trudged across the carnival grounds for what felt like the umpteenth time since he'd arrived this morning, heading for the fortune teller's wagon. What a strange day it had been. But then, he supposed he could hardly expect otherwise while investigating a murder that hadn't even happened yet.
Darnell was in upcountry England on vacation. He'd been in the country last year on assignment as a special favor for the queen after work he'd done indirectly for her in New York recovering a diamond stolen from a gem show. The British operative he'd debriefed with in London after the Blackpool case had invited him back to actually see more of the country, at his leisure, and Darnell had finally taken him up on the offer. He had been doing all the typical tourist stuff - and taking advantage of a local's knowledge and suggestions - when he'd stumbled on an old-time carnival. Feeling a little playful, he'd decided to stop for a bit before continuing to his next destination. Something had drawn him to, of all places, the fortune teller's wagon first, where he met Madame Fate, the owner of the carnival . . . and a legitimate, truly-capable fortune teller, something she had proven by telling him things only those closest to him could have known. Madame Fate had been exceptionally glad to see him, believing his visit to be no coincidence but rather an omen of hope for her. Only a little while earlier, she'd foreseen her own death at midnight that very night, suspected it to be one of her "miserable lackeys", and implored him to find her killer. If he did this for her, she promised in turn to answer his most haunting questions by looking into his own future. If he were honest, she wasn't the most pleasant woman herself, but the fear in her eyes was real, and he couldn't say no.
As the crime hadn't actually been committed yet, there wasn't much for Darnell to go on. Well, except for the way that the fortune teller had learned of the murder in the first place - her crystal ball, which was mysteriously just as much the real deal as she was. Darnell had spent all day and into the evening poking around the carnival, familiarizing himself with all of its aspects and how it was run. He chatted with the carnies, getting to know them a bit, and returned to Fate periodically with items from each of them for her to read. As an outsider and a neutral party, he had a focus and a perspective on things that Fate could use to help her get a clearer picture of where each of her employees would be at midnight. Through her power, Darnell too could see the visions. Unfortunately, none of those visions turned out well for anyone.
Larry the magician would saw himself in half. Lucy the bearded lady would slit her own throat by mistake while shaving. Marlena the so-called mermaid (it was an elaborate act) would get caught in a net and drown. Art the mechanic would almost have to be cornered and suffocated by someone because who would voluntarily try to smoke forty cigarettes all at once? Twyla the contortionist would get herself too badly compressed into a locked container with no key. Bianca the daredevil human cannonball would die in an explosion. Fabiano the strong man's neck would be broken by a falling weight. Lance the sword swallower would swallow a real sword by mistake. Armando the ringmaster would be poisoned. Tabitha the lion tamer would be killed by one of her own lions. Franco the inhumanly ravenous fat man - and Fate's own son - would try to eat a whole horse and choke to death. Dr. Goodwell the crackpot "medicine" man would be strangled by one of his snakes. Puddles the clown would shoot himself by accident with a real pistol. And Dante the tattooed man would get hung by his own tongue. It wasn't just the fortune teller who would die if nothing changed. No one would survive the night!
Madame Fate had cackled and taunted at each carny's misfortune - it was easy to see why one of them might wish her harm, to say the least. For himself, Darnell had tried to warn them. Some took him seriously, others had laughed him off. Several of them had left a bad taste in his mouth, but most seemed like decent folk, and the detective sincerely hoped he had managed to deter at least a few of their bizarre deaths.
The last ones to clear were the acrobats Mao and Amber Tan, a husband and wife team who were also suspected pickpockets. Darnell didn't trust them, but as they'd not actually done anything yet, it wasn't his place to decide if they were - or rather, would be - guilty of Fate's murder. That was the crystal ball's job.
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It was late, nearing midnight, and Darnell was tired. All he'd had to eat all day was greasy carnival food, and it was sitting as poorly in his stomach as everything else he'd "digested" today. He climbed the steps to the wagon's door, knocking. "Madame Fate, it's Agent Barrett." He didn't wait for a response before pushing it open to reveal the lavish, gypsy-decorated interior.
"Come in, Master Detective!" The grizzled old fortune teller looked at him eagerly as he approached. On a chest against the wall next to her, her ever-present black cat regarded him with sharp, yellow eyes that seemed far more discerning than they should be.
Darnell settled into the chair opposite Fate and set an amulet with a yin-yang symbol on the ornate tablecloth next to the Ball. "I found this in the tattoo parlor. Dante said it belongs to Mao."
"You've done it!" Fate cried, her accent the thickest, most stereotypical Romani he'd ever heard. "Now we must use the Ball to reveal the suspect's location at the stroke of twelve! Gaze upon the window of Yet to Be. Unfasten the window to the puzzling future!" She leaned forward and curled her thin, gnarly fingers over the smooth crystal on the table between them.
Darnell didn't respond. After all the strange and often violent deaths he'd witnessed throughout the day - even if only in visions - he was reluctant to do this yet again. But he had a case to see through, so he obeyed, leaning in, forcing himself to relax and his gaze to soften the way Fate had taught him.
As it had done more than a dozen times before, the Ball challenged their minds, forcing them both to focus deeper and cut through its enigmatic tricks before it deemed them worthy of the knowledge they sought. But finally, the swirling mists cleared, and Darnell winced at a close-up vision of the acrobats' frightened faces as they plunged from the highwire, clinging helplessly to each other.
Fate laughed that wicked laugh of hers. "The Tans, also? I guess they've learned the hard way that greed does not come with a net. There is some solace for them, however: At least they had the comfort of dying in each other's arms. How romantic!"
The old woman sat back just then with a frustrated noise, pulling her focus from the Ball and breaking Darnell's concentration. Jarred, the detective blinked his vision clear as the old woman fretted. "It's almost midnight and my killer has not been revealed! I will surely join the others in my fate!"
Darnell didn't know how to answer that. He'd covered everyone. The carnival had technically been open but had not had any visitors except him all day. He'd found no evidence of anyone besides the carnies in the vicinity, and the nearest town or settlement was miles away. He glanced up at the grandfather clock next to the window behind Fate. Eleven-thirty-five. He needed to figure this out, and soon. What had he missed?
He heard Fate suck in her breath as she gazed into the Ball again. "I was wrong. It wasn't them. It was you…" She looked up at Darnell. "This is all YOUR fault!"
"What!?" Darnell rocked back in his seat. "My fault? What are you talking about?" He'd been here all day, on his own time, trying to prevent her death!
Fate stared at him, her voice low and foreboding. "I can feel the presence of a great and terrible darkness...its ancient heart beats slowly as it approaches. This tormented soul has followed you here." Her tone turned threatening. "It wants you to share its suffering."
Darnell gaped at her, dread coiling in his stomach. What in the world could this crazy old woman possibly be going on about?
"There is no hope for me, but I will honor my promise to reveal your future! Glare once more into the Ball and LET FREE THE VISION OF YOUR OWN FATE!"
With Fate cackling madly at him, Darnell glanced down at the Ball between them on reflex and felt its swirling depths yank him in. He fought to concentrate as creepy carnival music and the ghostly laughter of children filled his mind. "His presence grows ever closer." Fate's fearful voice sounded distant in his ears as a pair of magnifying glasses appeared in the shifting mists. Each had the reflection of a disembodied eye filling the round glass. Then, they faded, and an old, leather-bound book replaced them, with the word DIARY embossed on the cover, as Fate mournfully lamented, "No hope remains." Darnell tried to ignore her as he fought to clear his mind. Why did that book look so familiar? Before he could grasp the memory, it slipped away into the mists, and a raven perched on a tree branch took its place. "I should have been a better person," he heard Fate lament. Yes, you should have! he thought. He was tempted to say as much aloud, but just then, the mists parted completely to reveal a building of some kind, mostly likely a mansion. The view was badly blurry, but by the general shape and color scheme that he could make out . . .
No . . . that's . . . it can't be!
The detective fought to bring the vision into clearer focus, but before he could, a long, horrific dying scream split his ears and shattered his concentration. Madame Fate!? Shuddering and blinking as his vision returned to the real world, he gasped when he saw the fortune teller slump over her table, knocking the Ball from its stand. Still leaned in close himself, Darnell caught it on reflex before it rolled off the table. Within its crystal depths, he could now very clearly see the image of ruined Ravenhearst Manor, the site of his Blackpool case from last year. His heart stopped for an instant, and he swallowed in mounting dread. In the corner, Fate's cat was growling low in her throat.
"You…you stole her." A dark, unearthly male voice breathed above him. "My first love. You took her away from me."
Darnell dragged his gaze up from the Ball and then threw himself back in his chair with a cry, gaping in terror at a baleful figure in a cloak of literal shadows looming from behind Fate's chair. He could just make out the indistinct features of a human face within the hood. The air in the wagon was thick, vibrating with the entity's fury. The grandfather clock read midnight.
"By what right do you invade my home and take that which is MINE!?" the specter demanded.
Darnell sat frozen, wanting to flee, unable to move. Who are you? What are you!? he wanted to yell, but no sound would come out of his tightened throat.
"Be warned," the specter growled at him. "You shall never take my TRUE LOVE. You will never, EVER…have my Rose…"
The image in the Ball had changed to a rose in full, blood-red bloom, with strange energy shifting and flashing around the crystal from both within and without. Then, the Ball flared with a blinding light, searing his vision. Even so, Darnell felt almost as if a spell had been broken. Whether that were true or not, he found his body finally obeying his desperate demands to move. The detective threw himself out of his chair and dove blindly for the door, Fate's yowling cat close on his heels. He nearly fell down the steps in his haste but managed to keep his feet and took off across the carnival grounds. As his vision cleared, he felt a series of digits burned across his mind's eye. A phone number? Darnell didn't understand, but he felt driven to call it. Panting, he slowed his mad dash and began looking around. "Pay phone . . . pay phone . . . " he muttered.
Claws and teeth dug into his right calf just then. Darnell yelped, jumping, and looked down. Fate's cat had wrapped herself around his lower leg, but as soon as she had his attention, she dropped back on her haunches, gave him a pointed look, and took off loping to his left, pausing only once to glance back at him. Still reeling from Fate's death and the looming specter - and figuring this couldn't get much weirder - he followed.
The cat led him toward the edge of the carnival grounds and hopped up onto a popcorn cart next to a telephone booth. Darnell gaped at her for a moment - she'd really led him to a pay phone! - then slipped inside, dropped coins in the slot, and dialed the number still vibrating in his mind. He pulled a pen and paper from his satchel to write it down before he forgot it while he listened to the phone ring. His hands were shaking badly.
"Helloooo," gushed a dramatic voice when the other end finally picked up, "this is the Queen."
Darnell stood stunned. Had he somehow called Buckingham Palace? "Seriously?" he asked, the word slipping from him almost of its own accord. It didn't even occur to him to wonder if he'd woken her up.
"Yes, SERIOUSLY." The queen sounded like she was used to that question.
Darnell stammered. "S-sorry! I . . . I didn't mean . . . " He swallowed, taking a deep breath to calm his rattled mind and racing heart. "Your Majesty, my name is Special Agent Darnell Barrett, master detective with the American investigative agency Mystery Case Files. I - "
The queen's gasp of recognition - and urgency - interrupted him. "Ah! Master Detective, I have been desperately trying to reach you. My sources have reported that something, most dreadful, was missed when you pieced together the last pages of Emma's diary at Ravenhearst manor. You must return there at once. I fear Emma's was not the only spirit freed from that awful place. You may have also unleashed the vengeful spirit of her murderer, Charles!"
Darnell's heart was in his throat, his legs weak. Charles . . . Charles Dalimar . . . i-it can't be! But it had to be. Who else - what else - could it be? Gulping, he finally managed a reply, forcing his voice as steady as he could get it. "Your Majesty . . . I know . . . "
Just then, he realized that his labored breathing was no longer due so much to frightened breathlessness at his flight from Fate's wagon but that the very air in the phone booth had gotten dense and oppressive. Outside, Fate's cat started hissing and spitting ferociously. Darnell spun around to look and cried out in alarm at the approaching, menacing dark mass. "I-I'll call you later!" He slammed the handset back on the phone and bolted from the booth.
His saving grace was that the dark entity - the spirit of mad murderer Charles Dalimar - was slow-moving, allowing him ample time to throw himself into his car, his car into gear, and send it careening down the road, leaving Fate's Carnival quickly behind.
As he drove, he knew he'd have to find a hotel for the rest of the night. It was after midnight, Blackpool was a few hours away from here, and he was in no condition, physically or mentally, for such a drive. Not, he guessed, that he'd get much sleep either, but he knew he should at least try. He'd have to be sure to call the queen back too, just so she didn't think he'd gotten axe-murdered or something.
The detective drew a deep breath, forced himself to relax the death grip he had on the steering wheel, and nodded to himself, his mind made up. He'd make the next town, get a room for a few hours' of shut-eye - if possible - and then . . .
He swallowed, suppressing a shudder and grimacing to himself.
Ravenhearst . . . here I come . . .
NOTE: If the dialogue sounds kind of stilted, I'd apologize, but…game dialogue, you know? Darnell's parts are all original, of course, but aside from "Come in, Master Detective!", all of Fate's, Charles', and the queen's is straight from the game, punctuation and all. LOL yeah, it kinda bugs me too a bit, but I decided not to change anything and just worked around it. XD