In the late-early hours of the night, the carnival is full of ghosts. Litter tumbles along the lanes, and the scaffolding rattles with a thousand remembered footsteps.
Horst sits on a barker's platform, his elbows on his knees and his hands over his mouth, watching the horizon as it begins to glow.
It’s been a particularly long night. The Ghost Train had stalled on its tracks for almost ten minutes, and a few passengers had almost been lost to the psychic wilderness after they inadvisably decided to get out and walk. A few unauthorized pickpockets had tried to ply their trade, and Horst had popped a button off his favorite waistcoat while engaged in discouraging them. And of course there was the inevitable scramble as various barkers left their positions unattended for overlong smoke breaks. Not that any of the carnival employees were dependent on tobacco. They just went off to the back of the tents, far too often and for far too long, and smoked, the vapor rising from them and dirty black clouds and ash collecting around their feet.
Johannes took three souls this night. An unusual string of success. Horst had helped with two of them. How long have they been doing this, a week? Horst can already feel the carnival settling into a predatory routine.
The sky begins to radiate a deep purple-pink. Horst's fingers reach up to rub the bridge of his nose.
There is a crow preening itself in the tangle of an old, dead tree. It pauses to look at Horst, its head cocked with interest.
“Go away,” mutters Horst.
The crow launches itself out of the tree, and circles tightly overhead. Horst groans into the cavern of his hands. “Go away.”
“Kronk!” exclaims the bird. “Kronk!”
“Go away before he sees—“
But there are already footsteps drawing close, and Horst presses his lips together and doesn’t bother turning around. He feels his brother's hand hovering for several long moments before Johannes finally takes the plunge and grasps Horst's shoulder. There’s no warmth to it. Johannes is wearing gloves, after all.
"Time to come in, I think?"
"Oh, five more minutes, mama." Horst catches Johannes' sour expression in the corner of his eye and smiles with all of his teeth.
"In five minutes the sun will be up."
Does Johannes think Horst doesn’t know? But perhaps it is better to pretend, to leave it unsaid. There is so much unsaid between them, and Horst thinks both of them are unwilling to see what foul water would flow out if the dam were to break.
He hadn’t wanted to talk. He’d only wanted to sit and watch the sunrise.
Johannes prods Horst’s side with his cane until Horst grasps it to make him stop. The ensuing tug of war is a brief stalemate, ended when Horst loses his temper, rises to his feet, and rips the cane away. He walks quickly away from Johannes as his brother pesters for the return of his property, and seeks refuge in the dark sanctuary of the office when Johannes follows him. It’s only when Horst is pulling the lid closed on his blanket box that he realizes he’s done exactly as Johannes wanted. Again.
Fine. At least Horst has the bloody cane.
Horst has always been an organizer. It simply bothers him to see things done poorly. When he was a boy, he organized a marbles league amongst the lads, and took home the trophy more often than not. It was fitting, since he had made the trophy.
When he was at school, Horst ran the debate club, the boxing club, and the trivia nights. He briefly considered consolidating them into the ultimate recreational activity, but fortunately he'd been too drunk at the time to complete the necessary paperwork.
When he was in the crypt, Horst organized bones by shape and animal of origin. It was soothing, in its way.
Now Horst organizes the carnival, making sure every booth is in its place, every demon at its work. It's an odd job, easier yet harder than running a real carnival. No one needs to be paid, so it hardly matters how much money they make. They just need to draw the punters in, give them a show so their hearts can be lightened of their burdens.
Literally, if the soul rests in the heart. If the soul can be called a burden.
At least it gets him out in the fresh air.
Horst smiles at a woman who's trying to decide whether to waste some of her money on over-salted popcorn. She's about his own age, his real age, and he enjoys it when she catches his eye and flushes happily at being admired. She buys far too much popcorn, caught up in the moment.
Horst would like to linger, but there’s so much to do.
A child has lost his balloon, so Horst procures another from the balloon vendor. A young woman doesn't have enough money to enter the house of horrors, so Horst has a word with the barker. An elderly man is trying to find the arcade, so Horst takes his elbow and gently guides him in the right direction.
They smile and thank him, and Horst beams, pleased they're pleased. Horst likes to be helpful. He likes keeping everything moving as it should.
It's best when he can forget he's just drawing them deeper into Johannes' clutches. When Horst can forget Johannes is waiting for them, eyes devoid of either malice or compassion, simply in need of signatures.
The problem with being good at organization is that Horst is very bad at forgetting.
"Why are you looking so bleak? There hasn't been another Ferris wheel accident, has there?"
Horst blinks and pastes a smile back on his face. He's wandered near Johannes' stand, unfortunately. "I don't know what you mean, dear brother! The Ferris wheel is perfectly safe, and fun for the whole family!"
Johannes rolls his eyes. "Of course, of course."
"Just do your job." Horst glances over the tableau of the House of Medical Monstrosity entrance, and his eyes catch on Johannes' bare head. "Where's your hat?"
Johannes produces it from under his coat. It’s crunched, but still just recognizable as a hat. It sits on Johannes’ head with the same uneasy disdain as Johannes stands on his platform.
"Roll up." Johannes sounds resentful at first, but he starts to regain enthusiasm when he remembers he enjoys shouting at people. "Roll up! See mysteries your provincial minds are unable to comprehend, due to your lack of education and innate incuriosity!"
Horst steps to one side and lets Johannes work. His brother is unexpectedly good at barking. Horst had assigned him the job primarily to annoy him, to be honest, but Johannes' clear contempt draws people in just as cats are attracted to a black suit. His voluminous speech seals it—most punters are too busy reading the signs by then to realize that Johannes is both carelessly and surgically insulting them. They just like the noise, the hint of the exotic from Johannes' accent.
Horst lost his accent within six months of public school, aping his friends' well-bred drawls. The charitable explanation for Johannes' accent is that he didn't have any friends in school. The uncharitable explanation is the same thing, but said with a sneer.
"See! The man with three extra toes, which is in fact a remarkably common and benign mutation! See! The bearded lady, who proudly wears her natural hair growth instead of shaving it like a normal person! See! The dog boy, who actually looks a little more like a seal!"
The question is whether it would be better if Johannes actually tried. If he cared. Could he be a better barker? Could he speak English like the native son he almost is?
Sometimes Horst thinks Johannes' genius is in achieving results without changing himself to suit others. Horst's always found it easier to bend than shove.
"What do you do?" asks a small child.
Johannes chokes on a word and has to cough into his sleeve a few times before he recovers. "What do I do?"
Johannes glares. When the child seems content to wait indefinitely for an answer, Johannes curls his lip and raises his chin. "I don't do anything."
"I—" Johannes searches for a response. "I sell tickets. To the sideshow."
The child considers, but ultimately finds this unsatisfactory. "Don't you do any tricks?"
Johannes contrives to look a shade more disgusted. "No."
Horst watches Johannes formulate and discard at least three responses. God in heaven, he’d sell tickets to this but he’s probably the only one who would buy any. And mother, of course, but mother thinks Horst dead and Johannes worse than that.
Which is more or less right, to be fair.
Johannes leans forward, having settled on something sufficiently clever. “I do have the power to make small annoying children disappear.”
"Cool," says the kid, completely misreading the situation, and Horst finally decides to step in.
"Let's go for a walk, Johannes."
"Can you write yet?" Johannes asks the child. "I have a simple waiver for you to sign–"
Horst slings his arm across his brother's shoulders and drags him away.
"Who will sell tickets?" Johannes is trying to resist, but it's hard for him to stop moving if he wants to keep his upper body in one piece.
"Who cares?" Horst gestures expansively. "Maybe people will just wander in on their own. It's not like we're in this for the money."
Johannes grunts, still fighting Horst's arm. Horst relents and lets him go as they near the arcade. It's safe, now. If Johannes is still feeling the urge to take subscriptions, there's about five irredeemably lost souls in sight.
Characteristically, however, Johannes is distracted by his own ego.
"Who did that creature think it was?"
"A child," suggests Horst. "Prone to asking adults rude questions."
"I know several tricks," says Johannes. "They're simply not for public display."
"No," agrees Horst. "Perhaps you should learn to juggle."
"Anyone can juggle."
Horst raises his eyebrows.
"It's just throwing. You throw them in the air and keep them from falling."
Horst leans over and retrieves three balls from the milk jug toss. Its attendant looks on with the indulgent air of someone anticipating a disaster. Horst proffers the balls, and Johannes seizes them.
Johannes' attempt looks good for about three seconds. Then one ball is under the milk jug booth, the other ball is rolling away as fast as it can, and Horst has to catch the third ball before it hits him in the face.
Horst hands the ball back. "You start with one."
"I know how to throw one ball," says Johannes. "I don't have time to—"
"You start with one." Horst resists the urge to pick Johannes up and shake him, but finds pleasure in recalling he could do it one-handed if he liked. "You work your way up to two, and then three. One step at a time."
Johannes takes the ball with ill grace. He's always liked shortcuts. He hasn't learned that cutting corners results in a shoddy product.
"I'm not sad," Johannes mutters.
Horst looks at his brother. Johannes' clothes are dusty black, and his hat looks like something attempted but was ultimately unable to digest it. His face is pale and a little unhealthy looking. His mouth is hard, beset by frown lines. He tosses the ball from one hand to another, overshoots, and hits a woman playing skeeball in the back of the head.
"No," says Horst, once apologies and complimentary passes have been rendered and Johannes thus rescued. "Not sad, per se."
Johannes continues tossing the ball, deftly combining grim determination with a complete incomprehension of what his hands are supposed to be doing. "You sound as if you have a better description."
"I could go on at length." Horst glances around the busy, happy, sinister carnival. "It's probably not suitable for the present company. Or any company, for that matter."
"Tricks." Johannes catches the ball in his fist and squeezes. "I'll show them tricks."
Sleep during the day, work through the night. Keep the candy floss and root beer flowing, keep the stalls upright, watch Johannes try to convince the crowd to part with their souls. Horst finds he tires easily, not used to such variety of experience anymore.
Horst had kept himself constantly awake for the first few years in the crypt. In the dark there was no distinction between day and night, and what if Johannes came back while Horst was dozing? What if Horst missed his rescue?
After hope had finally died, Horst had slept. And when he grew bored of sleeping, he’d sat and looked at the walls and thought…
No time for thinking, in the carnival. Horst looks in the mirror, adjusts his tie and smooths his waistcoat. Only time for work.
This town is large and filled with the usual complement of deplorable thrill-seekers. Horst spends most of the evening trying to make sure the Ferris wheel won't collapse in a pile of poorly-maintained ball bearings.
"You can't jerk the lever like that," he tells Lucien, who looks like every other ride monkey in the world except for the scales running down the back of his neck. "You have to pull it firmly but gently."
"That's what he said," mumbles Lucien, sullenly.
Horst manfully resists the urge to crush Lucien's windpipe. "You're shaking the entire structure, you dunce. Someone will fall."
Lucien's eyes gleam. "Adds a bit of excitement, don't it?"
"Let me put this in terms your morally-compromised mind can understand." Horst jerks a finger at the families in the Ferris wheel. "Every person who dies as a result of your incompetence is another soul your employer will be unable to deliver to the devil."
Lucien snorts, but his grip on the lever becomes infinitesimally gentler. Horst decides to count it as a victory.
After the irritation of that encounter, Horst is decidedly not up to dealing with the food tents. But duty calls.
"I dunno why they're complaining," says Scabies. The tattoos on her arms squirm, unhappy at being scolded.
"You rendered their dinner inedible," says Horst, patiently. He likes Scabies, in the respectful way a zookeeper likes a tiger. She's amenable to change, to a degree. Horst had to give up on making her wear gloves to handle the food, but at least she's washing her hands now.
"I didn't." Scabies snorts. "I gave them sausage in a bun. They said they wanted it on a stick. I gave them sausage on a stick."
"You took a stick from the ground and jabbed it into the sausage. And the stick didn't even go through, it just splintered into the meat."
"Adds fiber," suggests Scabies.
Horst takes a deep breath to calm himself, then regrets it. The smell of meat in the kitchen tent is dizzying, reminding him he hasn't eaten in several nights. It would be so simple to scoop a sausage from the grill, but he knows from experience that anything cooked will just taste like fire and ash.
He's not built for this anymore.
"Do we need to have the customer service talk again?" he asks.
"I gave the customer what they wanted!"
"The customer is not always right," Horst says gently. "You just have to let the customer think they're right. Without giving them any sticks."
"I dunno why," says Scabies. "I agreed with the mob on that one. Carnival food should be on a stick."
"I don't like having them around," says Horst. "Someone might hurt themselves."
It's late when Horst finally emerges from the food tent, and the crowd is dwindling down to its dregs. It would be a good time to feed. The lonely people, the drunk people, the gullible people are all still here, and their more attentive brethren have gone home to sleep. Horst could lure someone into an alley just by smiling at them.
Horst is desperately hungry, but he can't manage an appetite.
In a few hours the sun will be up. Horst wants to sit and wait for it, but he forces himself back to the office instead. After ignoring him for so long, Johannes seems determined to ensure his brother returns to his box every dawn. At least tonight, Horst prefers to return under his own power, rather than spurred by Johannes’ goading concern.
Horst expects Johannes to be out, working the crowd, but he's sitting at his desk instead. The battered straw boater is on the floor and Johannes’ dark spectacles are settled on top of his head. Tiredness is smeared in the circles of his eyes, and his jaw clenches spasmodically.
“No luck tonight?” asks Horst.
Johannes shrugs. He's trying to flip a coin across his knuckles. Horst settles into a chair and watches.
It's an overlarge coin, some piece of foreign silver a punter had tried to pass off as real money. Johannes can reliably transfer it from his index to his middle finger, but it becomes very dicey after that. Sometimes it falls through the crack between middle and ring finger, bouncing on the table until Johannes slaps his free hand on it to keep it from spinning away. Other times it flips easily over his ring and little finger, then keeps flipping off his hand and into the wastepaper basket.
Horst ate rats raw while he was in the crypt, one of the many disgusting possibilities he’d explored and exhausted. Every once in a while he feels that heavy weight on his tongue, fur tickling the back of his throat and the heavy crunch as his teeth cracked a spine.
He feels the sense-memory drifting across his tongue as he watches the clumsy movements of Johannes' fingers.
"Don't look at me like that," mutters Johannes.
Schau mich nicht so an. It takes Horst a few moments to decode the sentence after speaking English all night. Johannes always speaks German when they’re alone. Horst would like to know if it’s a calculated attempt to recall their kinship, or simply a matter of preference. Horst would like to know how long it’s been since Johannes had someone to speak German with.
The coin rolls across the desk again, and Johannes slaps it down with unnecessary emphasis. “I said—“
“I heard you,” says Horst. His own voice scrapes oddly across his ears. Horst closes his eyes briefly and tries to feel more human. It doesn't work, so he smiles instead. "Don’t look at you like what, dear brother?"
Johannes huffs and keeps struggling. The coin teeters uneasily across index and middle finger, and starts to slide as it reaches his ring finger. Johannes tilts his hand, trying to correct course, and the coin makes a break for it, eluding his grasp and diving for the floor.
It bounces and rolls, and Johannes swears viciously. That's one advantage of their mother tongue: German swearwords are just better, and they spill easily from Johannes' mouth though they stick in Horst's throat.
"Perhaps you should stick to soul-stealing," says Horst. "This doesn't seem to be working out."
"It's practice." Johannes peers under his desk, gets on hands and knees to check the floor. "You're the one who told me to learn a few tricks."
"I didn't think you'd be so bad at them," says Horst.
Johannes pokes him in the shin. "It's under your chair."
Horst lifts his legs, graciously allowing Johannes to squirm around them and retrieve his coin.
"I'm starving." Horst looks up at the ceiling, idly counting rivets. "It's been a long week."
"So go out and bite someone." Johannes tries to get up, but Horst uses feet and chair to trap him against the desk. "Horst—"
"But the sun is coming up." Horst glances down at his brother, watching the blood rise to Johannes’ face as he makes another useless attempt to escape. "And you're right here, so convenient..."
"And I've been working so hard..."
"And you did trap me in a living hell for eight years..."
Johannes kicks out, breaking one of the chair legs and sending Horst sprawling. Horst considers leaping to his feet, pinning Johannes to the wall, and possibly tearing off one of his ears. He lies on the floor instead, and continues counting rivets.
"Do you need help getting into your box?" asks Johannes.
"Perhaps I'll sleep on the floor tonight."
Johannes sighs and walks out. Five hundred and seventy-three rivets later he's returned, and he tosses a thick bag of cheesecloth on Horst's chest.
"What's this?" Horst prods the bag. It's warm.
"Pig's blood from the kitchens. Go on."
Horst starts to say something dismissive, but as soon as he opens his mouth he's stuffing the bag into it, letting his teeth sink in. The bag tears and blood gushes into his mouth. It's got an ugly aftertaste and it's not really filling, and yet, and yet—
Horst regains his faith in humanity, fraternity, and life itself. Funny how dire everything seems when you're hungry.
Johannes returns to his seat at his desk, and the restless thump of the coin falling through his fingers resumes.
To be honest, it's hard to have much faith in humanity once the flush of fresh blood wears off.
Horst watches them waste their money on petty amusements, waste their lives on meaningless drivel, waste their loves on people who will never truly care for them. In his blackest moments he thinks every person on earth might as well go to hell. Most of the time he retains enough discrimination to send Johannes after only the truly deplorable ones.
"What about her?" asks Horst. "She stole that child's lollipop."
The woman in question is grinning around a truly enormous sweet, while the child in question cries. Horst glances around for the child's mother, but after a few moments and a closer examination of the relative ages and family resemblances he is forced to conclude that the woman is the mother. Or at least an aunt.
"Mhm. Ah." Johannes peers at the woman. "Yes. Where to begin."
Horst raises an eyebrow. "Haven't you worked up a strategy yet?"
"Every case is different," says Johannes. "Unfortunately. In science, the same action creates the same result. Here, the correct action in one case gets me slapped in another."
"I'm sorry I told you to proposition that lawyer," says Horst. "In my defense, it was hilarious."
Johannes glares at him. "Where to begin."
Horst raises both of his eyebrows.
"I'm sorry, was that a question?" Horst buffs his nails, for good measure. "Isn't this your wager?"
"You've helped me before," says Johannes. "I don't know how one approaches a young woman who is rapidly becoming covered in sugar."
"Perhaps you could offer her a washcloth," says Horst.
"She won't sell her soul for a washcloth, will she?"
"The washcloth is merely a means of introduction." Horst plucks the handkerchief from Johannes' pocket, glances at the specks of blood and less identifiable stains, stuffs it back into Johannes' pocket, and produces his own handkerchief. Then he holds it under a nearby water fountain until it's appropriately sodden.
Johannes takes it between thumb and finger, looking dubious.
"Go talk to her," says Horst. "Find out what she wants. Go on."
Johannes pushes his smoked glasses a little further up his nose and goes.
The woman accepts the wet hankie with a garbled laugh. It soon becomes clear that the enormous lollipop is stuck to her teeth, and she's completely incomprehensible around it. Johannes, relieved of the onerous duty of having to listen to someone, relaxes and begins his pitch.
Ultimately the woman signs. Horst wasn't listening closely enough to know what she signed for, but she signs. Well done, Johannes.
The child is still crying.
Horst turns away and walks deeper into the carnival.
In Horst's dreams he lies in a field, grass looming over his face as the noonday sun fills the sky. He relaxes into the dirt as the sun burns him, his flesh smoking and hissing as it cracks. The pain rises in waves, until it is so great that it becomes meaningless. Just sensation pouring over him.
He feels at peace. He feels happy. He feels like he can rest.
Horst opens his eyes, and for a moment he thinks he's still dreaming. That the stale air and close walls of his box are part of some nightmare. But no—this is his life now, such as it is.
It's too early. Something woke him up.
There's an irregular clinking noise, just on the edge of hearing. Horst tries to find the pattern, then tries to ignore it, then finally gives up and bangs on the lid of the box.
"Stop that racket!"
A chair scrapes back, and there are footsteps. The lid creaks open, just a little, and Johannes peers in.
"I only dropped the coin," he says peevishly. "It's not a racket."
"I'm sleeping," says Horst. "Play outside, if you must."
Johannes frowns at him, but Horst's eye is drawn by the black curtains that envelop the train's windows, showing gray as a little sunlight shines through. He puts one hand on the lip of the box, preparing to lever himself out.
Johannes drops the lid.
It's heavy, and Horst swears as he feels his fingerbones crunch. Normally he would be fast enough to avoid it, but it's the middle of the day and he's tired. And he hadn't been paying attention.
"Go back to sleep." Johannes' voice is muffled by the box walls. Horst holds his hand, feeling the bone knit back together.
"Are you going to stop making noise?"
There's some stomping around, which Horst takes as a no. Then the lid cracks open again, just far enough for Johannes to toss in a pair of earplugs.
Horst doesn't use them. The occasional clack of coin on desk and floor follows him into unconsciousness.
On the last night in this town, Horst wanders by Johannes' post again. Just to see how he's getting on.
Johannes is arguing with another small child, bent almost in half to stare into her eyes, his disheveled hat hanging precariously over one ear.
"I can do tricks. I can flip a coin with one hand, look, or I can juggle two balls now—"
"Those aren't tricks! Anyone can juggle two balls!"
"Ah, you would think so, but I assure you it has taken me several days of practice."
"I want to see a real trick. I want real magic."
Johannes' glasses gleam dangerously. "That could be arranged. Do you have any dead relatives you particularly don't want to see again?"
"Time for a break, I think." Horst steps between Johannes and the child, steering him away. Someday he will think of a good way to manage Johannes' anger without physically removing him from the situation, but it's been more than two decades and Horst hasn't come up with anything yet.
"I don't have time for a break," says Johannes.
"Unless you were planning to steal that child's soul, you weren't using your time very productively."
"Do you think I could convince it to sign?" Johannes tries to look over his shoulder, but Horst moves his grip up to the back of Johannes' neck and keeps him faced forward.
"Johannes, you're a necromancer, not a party conjurer. You're an agent of the devil. You're a grown man. You don't need to impress a toddler."
Johannes purses his lips, and then admits to the ultimate insult. "She wasn't taking me seriously."
"Good," says Horst. "That's why I made you wear the hat."
loses his hat, snubs Horst, and spends the rest of the night learning card tricks from Bones.
It takes a day and a half by train to reach the next town, and Horst doesn't like the idea of riding in the office while his brother silently and pointedly tries to flip that bloody coin across his knuckles. Horst considers riding in the very back, where the tents and rides rattle emptily. Then he decides that it's too sad for words, and joins the staff in the dining car instead.
The dining car is so named because of the little gas stove and the tins of tea and cocoa on the shelves. Horst would prefer to sit at an empty table, but there are none—he takes a seat next to Jan the Horror Bunny, at a table containing Cromatty the Piebald Rat and Layla the Latex Lady.
Horst stirs his cocoa and tries to decide what his carnival title would be.
"Horst the Kill Joy," suggests Jan, when asked.
"That's a little unkind," says Cromatty.
"Three times I've had perfect little specimens," says Jan. "Three times! In the palm of my hand!"
"You don't have palms," says Cromatty. "You need fingers to have palms."
"Hanging off my every word!" Jan thumps his fingerless hands on the table. "Ready to sign their youthful, unblemished souls for nothing but a bit of tat! And who comes swooping in?"
"That crow thing?" suggests Cromatty. "I don't like it. You know crows eat rats?"
"It would have to be a very large crow to eat you, my friend," says Horst.
"It's the principle of the thing."
"Horst the Kill Joy!" finishes Jan, doggedly.
Horst shrugs. He doesn't feel very sorry.
"Horst never stops me when I have a punter," says Layla, smugly.
"If they're in your tent, they're almost certainly irredeemable," says Horst. "Or they will be by the time you're through with them."
"That's kinkshaming," says Cromatty.
"Mhm." Layla licks her lips. "I love shame."
"I'm just saying," says Cromatty, "that there's nothing wrong with the healthy expression of sexuality, when it involves informed adults who consent to the proceedings. Even if it also involves latex."
Layla slithers an arm around Cromatty's thick, plush neck, pulls him into her side, and gives him a brutal noogie. "Come off it, Cromatty. You're ruining my mystique."
"Help!" squeaks Cromatty. "I'm being attacked! Attacked!"
Layla relents, and smiles when she notices Horst hiding his grin in his cup. "See, Horst knows how to have fun. Even if he won't give me the satisfaction of his arousal."
"The mind is willing, my dear, but the flesh is completely inert," says Horst. It's true. In the crypt he'd tried to lose himself in daydreams, enduring solitary confinement using the same strategies with which he'd withstood his mother's garden parties. He'd soon found it was impossible to stir any physical interest unless there was a possibility of blood being involved. Daydreaming about blood felt sordid, in a way daydreaming about sex never had.
Layla would probably be happy to combine blood and sex in as many ways as Horst can think of, and about five more he'd prefer not to. Horst decides to keep this to himself.
"Horst the Pure of Heart." Layla props her chin on her hand and gazes deep into his eyes. "Well, maybe Horst the Invisible Libido would be more accurate. And more interesting to the townies."
"Only if they're confused about the meaning of libido," says Horst. "I imagine a man standing on a stage and not having sex with things would be a little dull."
"I mean, if you want something accurate and compelling," says Cromatty, "it has to be Horst the Vampire Lord, right? Horst the Terror of Night? Horst: Man Eater? Horst the Bloody?"
"Horst the Bloody Nuisance," mutters Jan.
"Horst the Bloody," says Layla. "I like that. You could do your shows stripped to the waist, covered in red fluids. Bite the head off a live chicken, all the old geek tricks."
"Yeah! I'd pay to see that!" enthuses Cromatty.
Horst in considering how to extricate himself from what is becoming an increasingly elaborate planned show when his brother pushes Cromatty off the bench and sits across from Horst.
"Hi, Boss," says Jan.
"Hello, Herr Cabal." Layla slides her arm around Johannes' shoulders welcomingly. Johannes twitches, but manages to remain calm.
"What the fuck!" whines Cromatty from the floor. This is easier for Johannes to ignore.
Johannes produces a deck of cards, and fans it in front of Horst's face. "Pick a card."
Horst plucks the ace of spades from the deck. "Are you talking to me again?"
Johannes rolls his eyes. "And put it back in the deck."
Horst slides the card into the middle of the pack. Johannes cuts and shuffles perfunctorily, and then splays the cards across the table. His finger taps the ace of spades. "There."
"I had the three of hearts."
"No, he didn't," says Jan. "You got him, boss."
Layla claps, politely. "Very smooth. But you could put a little more flash on it."
Johannes frowns. "Flash?"
Cromatty clambers back up onto the bench, unwarily close to Johannes. "I once saw a magician throw the deck of cards up in the air and stab his sword into the card the volunteer had picked! Amazing."
"But I found the card," says Johannes.
"Anyone can find a card," says Layla. "The important thing is to look good while doing it." She gathers up the deck and shuffles it. Her mouth is curved in a bow of pleasure, inviting the audience to smile with her.
Cromatty and Jan are physically incapable of the task. Johannes is a featureless mannequin, masquerading as a man. Horst feels almost obligated to smile and not leave Layla hanging.
"Pick a card," says Layla.
Johannes does so, looking suspicious. He glances at it, then slides it back in the deck.
Layla fans out the cards face-up on the table and begins to sort through them. Her fingers rest on the three of hearts. "What will you give me if I find your card?"
Johannes is inscrutable behind those ridiculous glasses. "Why should I give you anything?"
"It's a wager," says Layla. "I thought you liked those."
"You've been misinformed," says Johannes. "I loathe games of chance."
"But this is a sure thing." Layla's fingers tap the three of hearts, almost absently. "Either I know your card, or... well, or I don't!"
"Go on," says Cromatty. "Play along, boss."
"Don't be a spoilsport," says Jan.
They look at Horst, who simply raises his eyebrows. Cromatty sighs, and plays his own third instead. "Listen to the man! He speaks for us all!"
"What do you want?" asks Johannes.
"I want one production of Horst the Bloody's amazing chicken eating act," says Layla.
Cromatty and Jan talk over each other to explain. Horst glares.
"Surely I should be the one in control of my vaudeville career."
"Surely you are an employee of the carnival," says Layla. "Just as we are."
"My name is on the train," says Horst.
"His name is on the train," says Layla.
"Deal," says Johannes. "Don't worry, Horst, she doesn't know my card."
"Oh?" Layla reaches out and plucks the king of clubs from under the collar of Johannes' shirt, brushing his chin with the back of her knuckles as she raises the card to his eyes. Johannes grunts in surprise.
"I'll start working on your costume, Kill Joy," says Jan with enthusiasm.
"How did you do that?" asks Johannes.
"A lady never tells." Layla smiles, sweetly, and pats Johannes on the cheek. "But I suppose a demoness might."
"You idiot," says Horst, and Cromatty laughs, and for a moment Horst forgets he is in the company of evil.
The simultaneous debut and swan song of the Man Eating Chicken is a rousing success.
Bones does Horst the favor of barking for him, and the new banner is brilliant in shades of red, crimson, scarlet, and a little black to delineate the lettering. The crowd filters in, raucous and excited. Horst waits behind the curtain, smoothing the chicken's feathers as it shivers.
The Man Eating Chicken is an old, old carnival scam, playing on the ambiguity of English. Draw the punters in with the promise of a seven-foot tall carnivorous fowl. Send them back out the tent with the disappointing sight of a normal man sitting to a nice roast chicken dinner. Stung by the deception, they seek out their friends and send them to see the amazing Man Eating Chicken, salving their pride and coincidentally supplying more grist for the mill.
The joke doesn't quite work in German. Leaving aside the grammatical differences, it would be very rude to talk about a man using the same words that describe an animal. Anyway, Germans are a literal-minded bunch, and apt to demand their money back.
The chicken clucks nervously. Horst shushes it again, hands gentle. He has to eat, but it's unfair to a creature to make it spend its last moments in terror.
When Horst judges the tent sufficiently full, he steps out onto the stage. The crowd catches sight of the chicken and begins to titter, most of them already in on the old joke. Horst smiles with them, waits for the laughter to reach its peak, and then raises the chicken to eye level and delicately rips out its throat.
Blood splatters the shrieking front row. It covers the stage, and also Horst. He's very glad that he chose to wear a rubber apron, rather than the elaborate costume Jan had devised.
Horst chews, swallows, and tentatively the audience begins to applaud.
They filter out afterwards, talking to each other in either subdued or overloud tones. In a few minutes, the only people left in the tent are Horst, an intense-looking young man, and Johannes.
Horst drains the chicken into a jar for future use, and listens with half an ear as Johannes speaks to the man.
"You must be afraid of being caught," Johannes is murmuring. "Of course you're afraid. But if you only sign here—"
Horst's stomach turns. He wants to stop this, whatever it is, but this is what he signed up for. His hands are coated in blood.
"I'm sick," says the man. "I shouldn't."
"Why not?" asks Johannes.
Horst sets the remains of the chicken in a sack, to be delivered to the kitchens. Upon consideration of his dignity, he decides the visceral pleasure of licking his fingers clean outweighs any loss. What dignity does he have left, after all of this?
"You can use my pen," says Johannes. Horst doesn't watch the man sign. He cleans the saliva from his fingers with his handkerchief.
In a few moments, Johannes sits on the stage, carefully avoiding the splatter.
"Another soul damned?" asks Horst.
Johannes pats the paper in his pocket.
"And at what cost?"
"Very little," says Johannes. "He only wants to kill squirrels. He could get a job as pest control and do it legally, but don't tell him that."
"It's too late anyway," says Horst. "Now that he's signed."
Johannes smirks, and Horst thinks wistfully about throwing the blood in his face. But it would be a waste.
"Come back to the train," says Johannes. "I've met my quota for the night, and I want to show you a card trick. Someone else can clean the stage."
Horst gathers up the casualty of his performance, and follows his brother through the carnival.
Johannes always had beautiful eyes, the kind of eyes grandmothers clucked over and young women lost themselves in. Pale blue eyes, large and somehow deep. The young women liked to compare them to a pool.
Horst had been a little jealous, uncomfortable with the idea his little brother had anything Horst couldn't have. At least Horst's dull brown eyes weren't so sensitive to light. At least Horst's long lashes were just as fascinating to the young women.
But Johannes' eyes sparkled.
They're flat now, looking at Horst over his smoked lenses. They've been flat ever since Horst reemerged into the living world, underlying the subtle lack of Johannes-ness that's been worrying at Horst like a missing tooth. There's a certain range of being that Johannes can't seem to reach. A complete absence of empathy, to be sure, but that was practically normal. It was something else. A removal of limits? Of remorse?
"Pick a card," prompts Johannes, evidently bored of staring at Horst.
Horst plucks the jack of hearts out of the deck and gazes at it.
"Put it back in the deck. No, not there. On top of the deck."
"Now you know where it is," Horst points out.
"Now I will shuffle," says Johannes, determined. He makes a great show of riffling the cards several times, then shuffling overhand until Horst's card is thoroughly lost.
"I'll have to make a new sign for you." Horst deepens his voice a little, parodying his barkers. "Come see the amazing card mixing!"
Johannes moves his mouth into the shape of a smile. His smile looks strange now too, but it's looked strange ever since the funeral. The day after, to be precise, when Johannes woke Horst up in the middle of the night by dropping a shovel into his bed and announcing they were going on a rescue mission.
Johannes directs his smile at the table as he lays out cards, shakily spelling H C.
"The C is backwards," says Horst. The smile disappears, and Horst feels a profound sense of relief.
"Pick a letter."
Johannes' eye twitches. Horst relents and gestures at the C.
Johannes deftly brushes the C away, then splits the H in half. He raises his eyebrows at Horst, who points at the left half. Johannes tidies it away, and they move on, half by half until only one card is left. Johannes turns the jack of hearts over, and his smile is momentarily a real one, triumphant.
It drains away before Horst can even say anything, leaving a shell in its place. Johannes can't seem to hold on to any of his emotions these days, not even spite. They seem to slide away without even leaving a residue, drifting off in the shallow puddles of his eyes.
"Is this your card?" asks Johannes.
"I’ve forgotten," says Horst.
Johannes gives him a look of pure hate, filling his eyes briefly with depth before it fades again. "Don't lie to me again. Do the thing properly."
Horst gives Johannes a smile, confident that Johannes won’t be able to tell whether it’s false. "What will you do when you have your soul back?"
Johannes leans away from him, fingers still touching the Jack. "I have some plans. I won't discuss them here."
He glances meaningfully at the demonic train they are sitting in. Horst ignores it.
"I mean, what difference will it make?"
Johannes finally picks up the Jack and shuffles it back into the deck, his long fingers running through the cards. "I need to be able to feel it again."
Horst remembers Johannes' wild-eyed look in the graveyard as their shovels hit the wood of the coffin. He remembers Johannes' increasing desperation as his every attempt failed to produce results. He remembers Johannes' fear as he ran from the crypt and sealed Horst inside.
Horst remembered that fear every day for eight years. It's twisted in his recollection now, worn from so much consideration.
"Is it worth it?" asks Horst. "Feeling?"
Johannes' hands stumble in the shuffling, and the cards fly out of his hands, across the desk. A few cards land on Horst's hair, and Johannes reaches out to brush them away. The jack of hearts lands on the desk, right in front of Horst's eyes.
It would be an exceptionally good trick, if Horst hadn't seen Johannes palm the card right before allowing the deck to escape. Still a little work to be done. Johannes was never very good at subtlety.
"All right," says Horst. "That's my card."
Johannes smiles his ugly smile and starts to gather up the deck.
There's a bottle of fresh chicken blood sitting on top of Horst's box. Horst doesn't want anything to do with it.
He puts hands on the arm rests of the chair, levering himself up. "I think I'll go out."
"It's getting early," says Johannes. "Why don't you turn in?"
"I'll be back soon." An itch is crawling across Horst's shoulders, and he can't imagine lying in that claustrophobic little box. He needs to be outside.
"Sit down," says Johannes. "I'll show you another card trick."
They speak English in public, German when they are alone. Outside, in English, with the crowd around them, Horst thinks he could have resisted. Ignored his brother and done what he liked. But in German Johannes sounds like their father.
Horst sits down. The second card trick is just as imperfect as the first.
To be honest, it's a surprise to Horst that it's taken three whole weeks for the officials to catch on. But they’re in a larger town now, and officialdom has caught on en masse.
It's giving Horst hives. The food safety inspectors, the labor standards inspectors, the fire inspectors, the police. Horst feels enormously overwhelmed.
One at a time, one at a time. Horst tours the food safety people around the kitchens, holding his breath that Scabies has actually tidied away the offal and effluvia as she promised. Fortunately, the kitchens look unkempt but not actually disgusting. Just about normal for a carnival.
"We've had reports about someone consuming raw poultry," says one of the inspectors. "Perhaps as part of a show?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," says Horst. "And here is where we make the candy floss..."
The food safety inspectors eventually give Horst a list of citations, ranging from 'clean your counters' to 'eliminate rats,' to 'candy floss is not really a food.' Nevertheless, they pass. Horst tosses the citations in a bin after they leave.
The labor standards people are eaten by Montague the dragon about fifteen minutes after their arrival. Horst makes an executive decision not to worry about it.
After about five minutes with the fire inspectors, Horst admits defeat. The carnival is a death trap, in some ways quite literally. It will always be a death trap. There's simply nothing to be done.
He gives the chief inspector a tenner and calls it a good deal.
The police are rather more difficult.
"We've had several complaints," says the constable.
Horst's not surprised. "I'm flabbergasted."
The constable flips through his notebook. "Five reports of assaults committed by various members of the carnival. One individual reports that you picked him up by his throat and tossed him into a midden heap."
The so-called individual had become belligerent when Johannes had enquired after his soul's asking price. Horst doesn't blame him, but it should be pointed out that the individual had also cheated at the ball toss and spent almost an hour at the Ferris wheel, trying unsuccessfully to look up women's skirts. Horst had been the one to suggest that the individual's soul might not be held very dear.
"We don't have any midden heaps," says Horst. And then, belatedly: "And I can't imagine I could pick anyone up. I hardly exercise."
The constable jots something down, looking dubious. "Morality complaints about licentiousness, language, corruption of the youth..."
"It's a funfair, officer, it's not meant to be a church."
"In particular, there are dozens of complaints about a particular tent inhabited by... Laylo?" The constable squints at his own handwriting.
"There's no one of that name here."
"And," says the constable, regaining confidence, "you don't have a license to sell liquor in this county."
"We don't sell liquor," says Horst, with genuine confusion.
"Says here that a young man gave an employee of the carnival five bob to take a pull from his flask, which was whiskey. The employee was dressed in a rabbit suit, if that rings any bells?"
"None at all." Horst is going to strangle Jan, for all the good it will do.
"The young man was underage," says the constable. "So that's another instance of corrupting the youth."
"Look," says Horst. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, but this all sounds very minor."
The constable is laboriously writing down every word from Horst's mouth. Horst reaches out and plucks the pencil from his fingers.
"Can we pay a fine?" asks Horst. "I'm happy to pay a fine."
The constable stares at him, mouth open, reaching futilely for the pencil Horst holds just out of reach.
"In cash." Horst is trying to make himself absolutely clear. "Directly to you. No need for a receipt."
"Is this a bribe? Are you trying to bribe me?" The constable flips to a new page on his notebook, then glares at it as he realizes he has no way to record this new misdeed.
"We'll be moving on after tonight," says Horst. "I merely want to resolve these problems as expediently as possible."
"You're not going anywhere," says the constable. "I want you to produce the rabbit man and this Laylo. I want full explanations of everything that's going on. And I'm impounding your train until I get them."
Horst's fingers twitch. "Do you have warrants?"
"I don't need warrants for carny trash like you." The constable smirks. "Always up to something, aren't you? Taking from honest, hard-working people, making them into fools."
"They start out as fools," says Horst, his patience snapping with an audible twang. "Listen, you knock-off Lestrade, you are picking the wrong battle."
"Is that a threat?" asks the constable. "What the fuck did you call me?"
"I'll be calling you dinner if you don't turn around and walk out the gates right now. You've never even read the classics!" Horst feels his lips pulling back into a snarl. It must look ghastly, because the constable blanches and pulls his gun.
Horst laughs at him.
"I will shoot you," says the constable. "It would be self-defense. I'm in fear of my life."
"You should be," says Horst. He reaches out, the constable pulls the trigger, and time slows.
Horst knows that this is just a matter of his perspective. From his point of view, he has all the time in the world to step out of the bullet’s way. He has all the time in the world to take the little snub-nosed pistol in hand and crush it into uselessness. But somehow he doesn't have enough time to stop Johannes from driving the steel spike through the constable's skull.
From the constable's point of view, one moment there is a terrifying carny vampire thing attacking him. In the next moment, his brains are attempting and failing to adapt to their new metal roommate. His consciousness flickers out, and his soul departs for wherever it's headed.
"That was supremely unnecessary," says Horst.
"I was tired of listening to your futile discussion," says Johannes. "And I had the spike handy."
"I disarmed him," says Horst.
"And what were you going to do next?" asks Johannes. "Tie him up? Bite him? Mesmerize him? Can you do that?"
"Wouldn’t you like to know," says Horst. Certainly Horst would. "You didn't need to kill him."
"It was faster this way." Johannes' eyes are flat.
Horst can feel something boiling inside of him. He knows it's irrational. He probably would have killed the constable himself, if it came to it. If the man had kept pushing. If it became obvious that there was no other solution. It's no worse than anything else Johannes has done so far.
Montague had eaten three people.
But the man lies at their feet, dead. Horst hadn't had to look Montague's victims in the eye as they passed. Also, Montague is a dragon of the underworld, and Johannes is Horst's brother.
"I don't like killing people," says Johannes.
"But you don't mind it, do you?" asks Horst.
Johannes tilts his head up, thinking about it. "It's a waste," he says finally. "Life is a gift." Then he kneels and prizes the spike back out of the constable's ruined skull with the little hammer he'd used to drive it in. He wipes blood and brain matter onto the grass.
He's at the perfect height for Horst to kick him in the teeth. Horst's leg muscles spasm as he fights the urge.
"Why did you have the spike?" asks Horst.
Johannes brightens infinitesimally as he straightens up. "I learned a new trick. I'd show you, but I need to sanitize this first."
"What trick requires a railroad spike?"
"You gently insert it into your nostril," says Johannes, miming the action. "Then you tap it with the hammer until it's fully seated in your face."
"And then you start bleeding internally, I presume?"
"Oh, no. There's a lot of empty space in the skull."
"Certainly there is in his." Horst looks down at the corpse again.
Johannes glances at it. "Are you going to eat him? It's a cool night, the blood will coagulate soon."
"I hate you," says Horst, surprised by how much he means it.
Johannes looks a little surprised. "Me?"
It doesn't seem to occur to Johannes that people could be angry at him, or pleased with him, or that they could think about him at all. Johannes himself is filled with grudges, spite and pettiness brimming from his toes to his eyeballs. But he can't fathom the idea that people might think about his actions and judge them according to a standard. That people might react to him as a person, rather than simply a force of nature.
"You." Horst takes a step forward, over the corpse. "My dear brother. But you're not my brother at all, are you? You're just his mind and his carcass, and nothing else."
"I think you're overreacting." Johannes fingers the bloody spike, clearly considering using it again.
"Overreacting?" Horst screams, and Johannes takes half of a step back before Horst catches him by the wrist and stops him. The spike drops as Horst squeezes. "You locked me in a crypt for eight years, eight bloody boring years, and only let me out when you needed someone to talk to people. You're stealing people's souls for Satan and giving them broken trinkets in return. And you purposefully lost your barker's hat, I know you did."
"I can get the hat." Johannes tries to pull away, and succeeds only in twisting his wrist until his face is white with pain. "It's in a drawer in my desk."
"It's not about the hat!" Horst's grip tightens, and Johannes yelps. "It's about you. You dried-up little toad. You bloodless sociopath. You killed a man and now you ask me if I'm going to eat him? Like he's a bit of left-over meat?"
"Well, when was the last time you ate?" asks Johannes in a strained voice. "I have noticed that you get tetchy when you're hungry."
"That's an easy problem to solve," growls Horst.
"Good, I'm glad you agree with me. If you'll just let go of my hand—"
Horst pulls Johannes closer. "I don't want to eat something dead. What do you think I am, a ghoul? Do you think the undead are all the same?"
"No, you're obviously not like a ghoul at all." Johannes is sweating, his hair disheveled into thin damp strands across his forehead. His eyes are still blank. "What do you want, Horst?"
"My life back. Peace. More than you can give me."
"Then stop shouting at me," says Johannes.
"Good idea." Horst grabs Johannes' hair, baring his throat. There's a scar there from the first time Horst fed, when Johannes finally let him out of the crypt. If Johannes can't give Horst what he wants, Horst will take what he needs.
"Horst," gasps Johannes. "Horst! Horst!"
"Shush, dumb-nut," says Horst. "I still have some self-control. I probably won't kill you."
Johannes shoots him in the heart. There's a moment of blinding pain, and Horst curses himself in one long wet gasp for not paying attention to Johannes' free hand or the truly massive gun Johannes apparently had in his pocket. His fingers loosen from around Johannes' wrist.
"Horst?" asks Johannes.
Horst dreams of a beach. He is lying in the shallows, feeling the water wash over him, weakly trying to pull him out into the ocean. The sun beats down, and his skin roasts. Horst smiles.
Horst knows if he waits long enough, he will die. He won't have to do anything. He can just sit here and slowly pass from this world, burning away until the only thing left is ash.
Horst opens his eyes and stares at the sun as the water covers his legs and laps at his fingers. The bright yellow light descends into his brain, burning away all doubt. He's been dead for eight years, and it's finally time to let go.
Johannes slaps him, and Horst reflexively grabs his wrist.
The world slowly swims back into focus. Horst is lying in a round metal bath, the warm water tinged pink with blood. He is in the train, in Johannes' office. It is raining outside. Lightning flashes through the window, the curtains open so that the light illuminates Johannes' pale, bloodless face and the implacable gun in his free hand.
"Let go," says Johannes. "I will shoot you again, if I must."
The memory of that first bullet comes flooding back, and Horst releases Johannes so that he can use both hands to make sure he's still in one piece. The entry wound is a mass of raw pink skin, uneven and swollen, but closed. The exit wound (thank God there's an exit wound) is a spongy dent next to Horst's spine.
"You shot me."
"You were hysterical," says Johannes.
"You fucking shot me." Horst feels this bears repeating. "You twit. You ungrateful bastard. You—"
Johannes picks up a flask from his desk and hands it to Horst. Horst can smell its contents even through the steel, and his claws scrabble to unscrew the top. His eyeteeth extend uselessly in anticipation.
Out of the corner of his eye, Horst can see Johannes putting the gun back into his pocket. He could spring now and catch Johannes off-guard, except that he is tilting head and flask back and drinking the blood in thick gulps. He shakes the flask when it’s empty, striving for the last couple drops.
"Better?" asks Johannes.
Horst sets the flask down and considers. The wound on his chest is now almost invisible, and he assumes his back is similarly healed. His mood has returned to resigned equanimity. He's not hungry anymore.
"I'm assuming that came from your victim?" Horst asks, even though he knows the answer and wishes he didn't.
"Waste not," says Johannes.
The urge to rip out Johannes' throat is remarkably diminished. Horst is disheartened to learn how much of his life depends on his stomach. And how much Johannes seems to know it.
Horst needs to relearn regular mealtimes. In the dark he had merely hungered until desperation overcame distaste and he tried the next horrible thing on the list. Corpses, rats, spiders. Here, Horst is surrounded by the living, breathing and warm. He doesn’t need to hunger until he loses control.
A problem for tomorrow. No one comes to a carnival when it’s raining, anyway.
"This water is disgusting," says Horst. "I suppose my clothes are a total loss?"
Johannes produces a large fluffy towel in response. Horst sighs and levers himself to his feet, the tainted water sheeting away from his skin.
"I wasn't just upset because I was hungry, you know," says Horst, as he rubs at his hair. "Certainly that's why I lost control, I can admit that. But I have real concerns about your behavior, especially the murdering parts."
"I know it was a waste," says Johannes. "My first instinct was to remove the threat to the carnival. I should have given my reason time to second-guess that instinct."
"Very good," says Horst. "That almost sounds like an apology."
"I should have talked to the man," continues Johannes. "We could have worked something out."
Horst smiles encouragingly and wraps the towel around his waist.
"Probably he could have been induced to sign a contract. I missed an opportunity."
Horst closes his eyes. In his mind, he envisions leaping out of the bath, pinning Johannes to the wall, and forcing him to understand what an arse he is being. It would be a wasted effort. Johannes is incapable of remorse, and anyway Horst would probably slip on the wet wooden floors.
"Put on a shirt," says Johannes. "You're indecent."
Horst opens his eyes and accepts the light green shirt from Johannes, which he suspects and Johannes soon confirms is the only shirt in Horst's wardrobe Johannes could bear to be seen holding. He puts on shirt and pants and trousers, and with each article of clothing he feels a little more human. In style, if not in substance.
Two more towns, several more nights of performances. Another policeman comes to inspect them, and Horst finds that if he thinks hard enough, the officer simply walks away without looking at anything. Horst files that for future study.
If he'd known he could do that a week ago, he wouldn't have another life on his conscience. Johannes would have a little less of a stain on his absent soul.
Horst doesn't remember hating Johannes when they were children. He doesn't hate him now, not really. Not when his belly is full. He did hate him in the crypt, in the dark, rat blood down his chin and fingernails grown long enough to curl.
It passed. Most things did, down there.
Horst does remember something, he's not sure what to call it. A pressure. He had a five year advantage on Johannes, and he had to make the most of it. His little, annoying, pedantic, unsettling brother must not be allowed to beat him in anything. Not school, not friends, not personality...
When Johannes did inevitably begin to surpass Horst in their studies, Horst decided to simply devalue school as a metric of success. Baby Johannes might be able to solve complex calculus equations, he'd point out to his mother, but Horst had never been chased by an angry mob armed with pitchforks. It was obvious which was the superior accomplishment.
The pressure is gone, drowned by Horst's complete failure to keep up. In the carnival he is relegated to Johannes' lackey, in truth if not in appearance. The demons listen to him, indulgently or begrudgingly, but if Horst was truly in charge the carnival would never open again.
Horst is more personable than his brother, and he's using his skills to lure townsfolk into the devil's clutches. Horst is more of a person than his brother, and he loses a bit of his advantage every time he eats someone.
He's been doing that more often, in an attempt to regulate his mood. Animal blood may fill the stomach, but it doesn't sate him, and his apparent mental powers open new realms of possibility. He walks the carnival at night, and waits for someone to catch his eye. If Horst is careful, his victims walk away dizzy but largely unharmed, with vague memories of a man in an alley with a beautiful smile.
He's had his dinner already tonight, so Horst is watching Johannes bark for the Medical Monstrosity again.
"See! The tattooed man, who has converted a lifetime of drunken decisions into a viable career! See! The—"
"Do a trick!" calls a small child. Horst should really put up a sign. 'Unattended children will be strangled by the management' would get at the severity of the danger, if not the substance of it.
But Johannes is smiling fixedly, and producing a set of juggling balls from his pockets.
Horst is prepared to play defense for the crowd, but Johannes has been practicing. He can keep three balls in the air now, throwing in a steady and determined pattern. The child claps, earning a twist of triumph in Johannes' lips, but then the seconds wear on and Johannes continues the same simple pattern.
"Is that it?" asks the child.
"I'd like to see you do better," says Johannes, and drops two balls as he loses the attempt to juggle and talk at the same time.
"I don't know how to juggle," says the child.
"Then you have no right to complain," says Johannes. "Some of us have wasted weeks learning."
"But I've seen juggling," continues the child. "Real juggling. With knives!"
"I have a knife." Johannes reaches again for his pocket, and Horst decides the amusement is no longer worth the risk.
"Allow me." Horst stoops and picks up the erstwhile balls from the ground, plucks the third from Johannes' hand. He hasn't practiced recently, but Horst once spent a term at university trying to impress a barmaid with singular tastes in entertainment. And then of course there was the crypt. So many uses for rat skulls, which are very nearly round!
Horst hardly has to think about the simple cascade, each ball falling exactly where it should. Next he adds a few overhand tosses, which converts into a reverse cascade. Once the child starts clapping again, Horst throws underhand, his hands crossing as he keeps the balls moving in a tight pattern.
"Show-off," hisses Johannes, but Horst ignores him and the child doesn’t understand the many connotations of Aufschneider. Juggling is actually quite easy now, easy to do and easy to lose himself in. A good juggler doesn't need to think about where the balls are going—they will go where they are put. But a juggling vampire has so many options. Horst slows down his perception, just a little, and is able to snatch the balls out of the air faster than human reflexes would allow. He briefly balances one on his chin, then throws it back into the pattern with a toss of his head. He juggles the three balls in one hand, slicking his hair back into place with the other, and winks at the child, who grins.
By the time Horst runs out of ideas, he's gathered a small crowd. He bows for the applause, feeling elated and substantially more human than he has in weeks. It makes such a difference to be appreciated.
"Keep practicing, Johannes." Horst passes the balls back to his brother and murmurs in his ear. "You're improving! You'll catch up with me soon."
"I don't want to catch up." Johannes glares at the crowd, still hanging around in case something else interesting happens. "Roll up," he snarls. "Medical Monstrosity."
"I know," says Horst, relaxed enough to remember fondness. "Don't worry, you won't."
It's probably a lie, but it's worth it to see the look on Johannes’ face.
In the morning, every morning, Horst falls asleep to the sound of a coin falling from Johannes' fingers to the table. At night, every night, Horst wakes to find Johannes writing in his diary.
Johannes must sleep in between, forced to the same nocturnal schedule as Horst by the nature of the carnival. But Horst suspects he doesn't sleep much, because the circles under Johannes' eyes etch deeper with every passing day.
Whenever Horst wakes during the day, he thumps his lid, just to check. Invariably, Johannes opens the lid a crack. He peers in at Horst, outlined by daylight.
"Why aren't you asleep?" asks Horst.
"I'm busy," says Johannes.
"There was a station," says Johannes.
"Someone keeps thumping on his damned lid," says Johannes.
"Sorry," says Horst. "Get some rest!" And Johannes drops the lid, returning Horst to oblivion.
Horst has only worried about Johannes once in his entire life. It feels a little late to start again.
Horst is happiest on the odd night when the train is still moving, the trip too long to be completed in a day. When he doesn't wake in twilight to find that the tents need to be erected, the demons martialed into place and Scabies convinced that lizards may be edible, but they are not food. When the train is moving, Horst has no responsibilities and no one to fail to protect. He can simply watch the landscape shuffle past, quiet and dull against the chuffing of the locomotive.
Tonight he's sitting with Dennis and Denzil, nominally with intent of making sure they don't feed each other into firebox, but primarily in the hopes that Johannes won't find him here.
Horst wants to think. Also, dawn is coming earlier and earlier, and if he just sits here by the window...
Well, it would be even nicer not to have to think ever again.
Dennis and Denzil are playing a game of slap-hands. Properly speaking, the goal of slap-hands is to pull your hands away before you can, in fact, be slapped. But Dennis and Denzil have reaction times measured in minutes, rather than seconds. Thus, there is a lot of very deliberate slapping, and no one seems to be winning.
They laugh all the time, creaking and guttural. They fall over each other to shove coal into the firebox, and then gleefully slap each other's hands again. Their grins are broad, made broader by their shrunken lips and protruding jaws.
"How are you so happy?" asks Horst.
Dennis and Denzil swing around to face him, heads cocked in incomprehension. Why shouldn't they be happy?
"You're dead," says Horst, gently. "Johannes did this to you. You should be resting, not shambling around in a meaningless parody of life."
Dennis and Denzil look at each other. They look at their hands, battered from their game. They look at the beautiful train, and the landscape rushing by, and the gradually lightening night.
They shrug. They’re happy anyway.
Horst sighs. "I suppose it's easier when your brain has mostly rotted away."
"Their brains are very well preserved," says Johannes. Horst doesn't flinch.
"Are they still in their heads?"
"Oh, yes." Johannes reaches to pat Denzil's shoulder, and thinks better of it just in time. The zombies have been overdue a change of clothes for at least a month. "Anyway, what's easier?"
"Hm?" Horst tosses a loose bit of coal into the firebox.
"What's easier when your brain has mostly rotted away?"
Horst thinks of and discards several answers. "Being dead," he says at last.
Johannes looks at him. The tracks slip away under the train, bringing them ever closer to the next town. Another twenty minutes, Horst thinks, and the sun will be up.
"You're not dead," says Johannes. "You have a condition, which I believe I can cure when I have more time to research—"
"Would you have turned her into a vampire?" asks Horst. "If it hadn't gone wrong, in the crypt? If we'd come out together?"
"I was merely exploring the possibility," says Johannes. "I have to try every possibility to find the solution."
"And there are so many dead ends, aren't there?" Horst flicks a glance at Dennis and Denzil, back to slapping each other happily. "Am I a dead end, Johannes?"
"You can't make a dead person into a vampire. Only a live one."
"You tried?" Horst feels cold.
"I explored the possibility," says Johannes. "I think it's time to retire, incidentally."
"You tried on her?" presses Horst.
Disgust twists Johannes' mouth. "I wouldn't try anything on her until I knew. Until I was certain."
"Found a handy corpse, then? Raided a graveyard?" Horst remembers digging, the day after the funeral. The loose ground, wet from the rain.
"You're overtired," says Johannes. "You should go to sleep."
"I'm glad it failed." Horst allows himself to be pushed away from the window, shepherded out of the locomotive. Dennis and Denzil wave goodbye, fingers flopping brokenly.
"I should probably splint those," mutters Johannes, still pressing Horst through the cars toward the office.
"She doesn't deserve this," says Horst.
"Have you eaten recently?" asks Johannes. "It sounds like you're in a bit of a metabolic downswing, very understandable—"
"None of us do," mumbles Horst. He isn’t hungry. He’s being very careful, very thoughtful about who he eats and how much. But God, he is tired, his eyes already slipping closed as Johannes helps him into his box. His body knows that the sun means it’s time to rest.
"Sleep well," says Johannes.
Horst does. He doesn't dream.
The new town looks very similar to every other town they've visited. It has a declining factory and young people dreaming of moving away. It has an elderly church and a post office badly in need of shingling. It even has a town clerk who hates carnivals.
"I'm sure they don't all hate carnivals," says Horst, feet propped up on Johannes' desk. "Only the ones who have met you."
"I simply want a permit." Johannes paces, only able to make five or six steps before he hits a wall and has to turn around. "In fact, I don't want a permit, but the clerk says I must have it and then refuses to give it to me. Applications must be processed! A week!"
"We get a week off? How nice."
"I tried bribes, favors, and threats," says Johannes. "Everything! The man won't budge."
"I'm surprised you didn't kill him," says Horst. "Isn't that how you normally solve your problems?"
“I’ve been trying to defer to your sensibilities,” says Johannes, which is either a lie or a misunderstanding. "I did a card trick. He didn't like it."
Horst covers his mouth in mimed horror.
"Deal with this." Johannes glares. "We need the carnival. I need signatures."
"When are his office hours, dear brother? Does he make evening appointments?"
"Now," hisses Johannes. "Find him, convince him. Now."
Horst sighs and goes.
He's not going to burst into the man's home—well, not as a first resort—so Horst tries the pub first.
(Does he really want to solve this problem?)
The bartender serves Horst a pint which Horst won't really be able to digest, and directs Horst to a quiet table in the back.
(No permit, no punters. And a few more souls safe from Johannes.)
"Hello, Mr. Forsythe." Horst smiles down at the clerk, who is engrossed in steak pie. "Mind if I sit down?"
("No luck, Johannes, you'll have to give up and let Satan win.")
Forsythe looks up at him, baffled at the interruption. Horst chooses to interpret his silence as invitation.
("Ah well, Horst, such is life. I will devote the remainder of my time on earth to smelling the fresh grass and watching the animals play.")
"I'm Horst Cabal." Horst offers a hand. "I believe you've met my brother. We're with the carnival?"
(No, it doesn't sound very likely to Horst either.)
Forsythe transfers his stare to Horst's hand. He makes no move to take it, and eventually Horst coughs and picks up his pint instead, taking a sip.
(Might as well stick with what he knows. Horst doesn't want to see Johannes desperate.)
(That’s a lie, he does. But Horst’s humanity rests on not getting what he wants.)
"I'm here to see if we can expedite the permit process," says Horst.
The word 'expedite' seems to shift Forsythe's brain back into gear. "Hm." He grunts. "Ah. Hn. No."
"Really?" Horst plants his elbows in the table and leans forward. "We have a strict schedule, and every day counts. Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Ha. Tsk. Pah. No."
"Do you know any other words?" asks Horst. He'd really expected the man to be disyllabic at least.
"Piss off," suggests the clerk. So much for the standards of the civil service.
Horst directs all of his mental powers at Forsythe, willing the man into obedience. Forsythe stuffs a bite of pie into his mouth and glares back.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" asks Forsythe, when Horst begins to squint in concentration.
"Let's go outside," counters Horst, and drags Forsythe from his seat when he doesn't move.
Outside the stars are shining, the air whispers with a cool breeze, and Horst slams Forsythe into a wall until Forsythe has discovered a new vocabulary, primarily consisting of 'please' and 'don't.'
"I want that permit." Horst pauses to smooth his thumb along Forsythe's jugular, feeling the man's pulse pounding through his skin. "I don't want to wait a week, I want it tonight."
"I have a family," moans Forsythe.
"So do I," says Horst. "Really, that's why we're in this situation."
"I don't want to hurt you," says Horst gently. He does, but he's trying hard to keep his appetite in check. "All I want is the permit. If you sign the permit, I will go away, do you understand?"
Forsythe's head wobbles in a nod.
"I suppose you haven't got one on you?"
Forsythe's head wobbles laterally this time. Horst sets him down on his feet and puts a friendly arm around his shoulders to prevent him from running.
"Let's go to your office, then. The sooner it’s done, the sooner I’m gone."
True to his word, Horst gets the permit and goes away. The permit is written in a shaky hand and Horst is itchy with wasted adrenaline, but it was all very amicable, in the end. Horst is about ninety percent sure that Forsythe won't run to the police, if only because Horst had patted Forsythe on the shoulder and told him that if the police became involved he, Horst, would kill him, Forsythe.
And then Horst had walked out.
His body doesn't like that. His body would like him to remember he hasn't eaten in three nights, since the carnival was last open. His body would like him to consider his newfound dedication to eating regular meals. His body doesn't like letting go of a warm whimpering animal, blood pulsing under the skin, pressure waiting to burst from just a light puncture...
Horst was a good person, once. He’s probably not a good person now, but he doesn't do bad things to people who don't deserve them.
What a ridiculous line to draw. As if Horst doesn’t cross it every night.
The light's still on in the office, but Johannes is half-slumped over the desk, only barely awake as he tips a coin from knuckle to knuckle. His glasses are folded on the table, and without them Horst can see Johannes' bruised-red eyes, the circles around them deep and heavy.
"Your permit." Horst drops it on the table. Johannes flinches as he belatedly registers Horst's presence, but the coin keeps flipping, back and forth.
Horst sits down and considers his brother. "If I quit," he says, "what would you do?"
"You won't," says Johannes. He transfers the coin to his left hand, which is only a little clumsier than his right.
"But if I did."
"Do you want me to flatter you?" Johannes hides a yawn behind his hand, head tipping back and exposing the line of his throat.
Horst tries to ignore the provocation, but his body has had enough. Hunger curls tight in his belly.
"I couldn't possibly do this without you." Johannes leans back in his chair, eyes hooded, almost slipping closed. "I'd never have persuaded the clerk to part with the permit, never talked my way into his good graces—"
"I threw him against a wall," says Horst.
"Well, I'm not sure I could have done that either," says Johannes. "I'd need some kind of lever to really fling the man."
What Horst would like to know, what he would really like to know is: is he necessary?
If he's necessary, then he could collapse the whole wager by simply going away.
If he's necessary, then that's the only reason Johannes bothered to let him out of the crypt.
Horst doesn't think he is necessary. The whole situation feels more like an affectation, like Cabal Bros. Carnival looked better on the train than anything else. Johannes wanted him here.
Horst's not sure how he feels about that. Why now, after eight years in the dark?
Johannes' chin jerks and his eyes widen, like he's just caught himself from falling asleep.
So vulnerable. So good that his brother is here to take care of him.
"When was the last time you slept?" asks Horst.
"On the way here," says Johannes.
"No," says Horst. "You can't sleep in a moving vehicle."
Johannes tries to glare, but it comes out muzzy and cross-eyed. "I can't sleep when you're driving. Fortunately this train is on rails and unlikely to make a dive for the ditch."
Probably, although Dennis and Denzil might make a try for it. "You didn't sleep for two days when we went to Moscow by train."
"I'm fine," says Johannes.
"I don't think you've been sleeping much the whole time we've had the carnival," says Horst. "Guilty conscience?"
"I don't have a conscience, guilty or otherwise."
"Just stress, then." Horst reaches across the desk to pat Johannes' hand. "Well, anyone would be stressed with Satan breathing down their neck."
"Take your hands off me," mutters Johannes.
"I think we can help each other," says Horst, and yanks Johannes forward by the wrist.
The coin bounces away, and the edge of the desk catches Johannes in the stomach. His breath rushes out in a single surprised yelp. Horst pins Johannes' head, twisting it to the side to provide the best access. Johannes' free hand is clawing at Horst's arm.
It takes some maneuvering to get around the desk without letting Johannes up, but Horst moves fast and leaves Johannes little time to react. His mind is oddly quiet, now that he's doing what his body wants. His world has narrowed down to the thrum of blood in Johannes' throat.
Johannes arms are pinned behind his back now, Horst pressing him down as he tries to fight. Horst slips the gun out of Johannes' pocket and kicks it across the floor, where it joins Johannes' coin in the corner of the office. No need to make the same mistake twice.
"Verpiss dich," hisses Johannes, adrenaline making his pulse jump. Horst can almost feel it on his tongue.
"You're not the first one to say that to me tonight." Horst adjusts Johannes' head again, and then smooths down his brother's hair. "I seem to inspire it in people."
"Why didn't you do this to him, the clerk?"
"He gave me what I wanted." Horst rides out another of Johannes' attempts at struggling, and then sets Johannes' head back where he wants it. "And you need to rest, darling."
"Don't call me that, arsehole—"
"It's for your own good, treasure." Horst dredges another rarely-used term of endearment from their shared vocabulary, and twists Johannes' arm until Johannes yelps again. "You're no use to anyone when you're tired. I have to eat regularly, you have to sleep regularly. Isn’t it nice that we see each other’s weaknesses?"
"You just want to bite me." Johannes finally slumps into the desk, which is good because soon Horst would have had to decide if he really wanted to break Johannes' arm. "Stop talking and do it."
Horst does. It isn't kind to let any creature spend its last moments in terror.
Horst's teeth sink into Johannes' neck like a dull knife into cold butter. After more than a month of animal blood and dizzy drunk punters, it feels like the first sip of liquor after lent. Heady, cloying, and burning all at once. Horst tilts Johannes' head without thinking about it, baring his throat more fully.
Johannes sighs, once, and then his eyes slide closed.
For half a moment Horst is lost in the sensation, the heavy gulps of his throat as the hot blood fills his stomach. But he's not going to kill Johannes, not tonight. He forces himself to let go, withdrawing slowly so that the wounds will be clean instead of ragged. He wipes the blood from his lips, then sucks each finger of his shaking hand clean.
Johannes is breathing evenly, unconsciousness indistinguishable from sleep. Blood trickles from the puncture wounds, but that's easily mended with a sticking plaster. One of the drawers in Johannes' desk is locked, but in the other there is a half-empty tin of plasters. Horst wipes blood away with his thumb before putting the plaster in place. He struggles with himself for a moment, and then delicately licks his thumb.
There's a cot next to Horst's box, half-hidden from view. Horst considers it, but in the end he drops Johannes into his box instead, draping a blanket from the cot over Johannes before replacing the lid. Then he puts a heavy filing cabinet on top of the lid, just to make everything cozy.
Once that's done, Horst stands for a moment, enjoying the profound sense of relief that settles across his shoulders like a warm rug.
Then he picks open the locked drawer in Johannes' desk.
A misspent and idly indulgent youth was bad for Horst's education but good for other things, such as building up his alcohol tolerance, developing new sports with rules written on beermats, and learning to pick locks because your brother keeps locking the back door which you specifically asked him to leave alone and which you don't want to ask your parents to give you a key for because you're breaking curfew to go drink with your friends and come up with unadvisable sports. Ah, youth. The best one had been tackle fencing, of course. They’d actually played that one. The girls had been very impressed with Henry’s scars, as long as no one mentioned the circumstances of their acquisition.
Picking locks with a hairpin is generally tedious bordering on impossible, but it's much easier when you can concentrate and hear every click of the lock using your vampiric senses. The drawer slides open easily after only a few moments.
Inside is another gun, Johannes' diary, and a box. Horst leaves the diary, having learned that lesson when Johannes was five. The box is more interesting, and less likely to have a curse on it.
Inside the box are the contracts. Blank ones on top, signed on the bottom. Horst pages through them, feeling sick. He can't remember which of these victims he pointed out to Johannes himself, like a man holding a poorly-socialized hyena on a leash. Some of the names are probably innocents, simply caught in a moment of petty malice and vulnerability. Almost certainly almost none of them deserve to go to hell. Who does? Life is hell, sometimes interminably so, but life changes. You can escape the darkness, step into the light, even just for a moment. There are no such moments in hell, or so Horst has been told.
Horst realizes, for the first time in a long time, that he doesn't want to die. Not even in the idle, wistful way he's become used to thinking of as a good night. He has the opportunity to sit at this desk until the sun rises and carries him away, and Horst doesn't want to.
It's very inconvenient. It means he'll either have to let Johannes out of his box or find somewhere else to sleep. Horst can't decide which he'd prefer.
His fingers tap on the parchment, the signatures in crusted brown blood, too old to be appetizing. He's been living too long in his own head, still trapped in the crypt. Still letting Johannes decide where he belongs. It’s time, Horst thinks, to decide for himself.
Bones knocks on the door to the office, then opens it without waiting. If he's surprised to see Horst's feet on Johannes' desk, his thin face betrays nothing.
It’s a nice face, for all its thinness. Horst can appreciate a good cheekbone. But he simply can’t forget that this is a demon, that Bones is hiding inhuman malice under stretched skin.
Good turn of phrase, that. Horst never did well in poetry class before. Maybe the vampirism is giving him a finer appreciation for the fleeting beauty of life. Or maybe anyone could come up with one or two clever phrases if they sat in a crypt for long enough.
“Something on my nose?” asks Bones.
“You’ve hardly got a nose at all.” Horst picks up a piece of paper from the desk, pretending to study it just so he won’t stare anymore. The paper is covered in indecipherable characters, the product of both Johannes' fiendishly clever code and his deplorably awful handwriting.
Bones waits a moment, then decides Horst can’t be relied on to carry a conversation. "The head honcho here?"
"He's occupied," says Horst. "Something wrong?"
"Just wanted to make sure we were all clear," says Bones. "Permit sorted out? Ready to go?"
"Yes, you can start setting up." Horst spots Johannes’ coin on the floor, picks it up and idly lets it flip across his fingers. It’s so simple. He wonders how Johannes managed to occupy himself with it for so long. "Is that all?"
Bones stands there for a few moments, his eyes still searching the room, rolling like marbles in a tin cup.
If not for Bones, the carnival would probably fall apart, really and truly. If Horst really wanted this to end, he wouldn't let himself simply die. He would start by ripping Bones apart, and then graduate to burning the whole bloody mess to the ground.
"Where’s the boss, Boss?"
"I think he's in the town," says Horst. "Stalking the streets for victims, probably."
Bones nods vaguely. Horst is very glad he'd replaced the contracts and locked the drawer well before Bones decided to 'check in.'
What would the carnival do, without Johannes to animate it? Would it lapse into obsolescence, return to the woods where Horst first saw it, an old predator dying in its den? Or would it burst free, devouring without restraint?
Best to be safe. It will all have to go.
A thump rattles the lid of the box in the corner. Bones' head snaps around.
"What was that?"
Thump. Thump. The filing cabinet on top of the box falls sideways, still pinning the lid.
"Oh." Horst glances nonchalantly at the box. "Just a snack."
Bones looks at the box. The box thumps. Horst wonders how long it will take before Johannes gives up.
Ridiculous question. Johannes never gives up.
"You know," says Bones, "this carnival is a pretty good racket."
"On paper it's all over at the end of the year," says Bones. "But it doesn't have to be. We don't really need Mister Johannes Cabal, do we?"
"Do we," repeats Horst. The thumping of the box takes on a frenetic quality.
"Just think about it," says Bones. "We could work together. Have some fun."
Bones has totally misunderstood which part of the situation Horst finds the most objectionable. Horst thinks.
Would he be here if Johannes wasn't involved? Another ridiculous question. Horst would be alive if Johannes wasn't involved.
"I hate to be rude," says Horst, "but the sun's coming up soon."
"Think about it," says Bones.
The box shakes, the filing cabinet and lid too heavy to move, too light to muffle the sound of Johannes' rage.
Horst thinks about letting Johannes out, but there would be a scene and Horst is suddenly very tired. He steps outside instead, locking the office behind him.
It's easy to crawl up in the undercarriage of the train and hang there, upside-down and horizontal. Horst has a vague feeling that his body likes this. Gravity seems disinclined to dislodge him.
A few fingers of light begin to steal across the tracks, but they cannot touch the belly of the train. Horst closes his eyes.
At dusk Horst wakes up, still pressed to the undercarriage. He feels well-rested and comfortably sated. Also, Johannes has a knife pressed to his throat.
It's a long knife by the feel of it, though Horst can hardly see it. He wonders how long Johannes had to look before he found him.
"I don't think that will kill me," says Horst.
"I don't want to kill you," says Johannes.
The knife is very steady. It feels like it should be shaking.
"What do you want?"
Horst turns his head and meets Johannes' eyes, the knife nicking the throat as he moves. There's no blood. His meal has settled into a heavy weight in his stomach. There's nothing in Johannes' eyes.
He's taken the sticking plaster off his neck. The raw puncture wounds sit uneasily next to the pink-white scars of the old ones.
"I wanted this to be simple," says Johannes.
Horst snorts. The knife slips and cuts him again.
"I needed help," hisses Johannes. "I needed someone I could trust. I needed family."
"Family is simple?" Horst is stifling giggles now. Johannes' frown reminds him of the dignity of the situation, but Horst really can't help it. "Since when?"
"Blood is thicker—" begins Johannes, and Horst laughs outright. Johannes glares, the knife delivers another thin cut, and Horst would cry from the hilarity of it all if he still had the ability.
They've never understood each other.
It would be trite to say that when they were boys, Horst read King Solomon's Mines and Johannes read Faust. It's true, but only incidentally. Horst loved Haggard, but he also read The Sorrows of Young Werther and thought naively that he understood it. Johannes had a copy of Robinson Crusoe which was dog-eared from use.
Perhaps it is easier to say: Horst took after their father, and their mother loved him and their father was proud. Johannes took after their mother, and that was fine until the cracks began to show and someone else began to look out.
Or perhaps this: Horst has always been better at pretending.
"I hate you." Johannes begins quietly, but his voice rises with repetition. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate—"
"I hated you," muses Horst.
Johannes catches himself and takes a deep breath. "I know," he mutters. "You did say."
"But I've gotten over it." Horst reaches out and pats Johannes' cheek. The knife does not slip again. "I've exercised my maturity. It's not entirely your fault that you're a parasite on society. I'm sure I bear some of the blame."
Johannes drops the knife and goes for Horst's throat with bare hands.
Gravity catches on to Horst's presence at last, and he lands hard on Johannes, sending them tumbling across the tracks and out into the dusk. Johannes bangs an elbow on a train wheel and grunts, a strand of Horst's hair catches on the raised head of a rail spike and yanks his head back before it rips out. Johannes' thumbs press against Horst's windpipe until Horst stops trying to breathe.
"Why is everything always about you?" Johannes' eyes are still dead, but his hands are very expressive. Horst grins at him, and Johannes digs his fingers in.
Horst would have bruises, if he could still bruise. He'd probably be unconscious, if he needed to breathe. How fortunate for his brother's monologue, that Horst is still lucid enough to hear it.
"It's my carnival," says Johannes. "It's my bet, my soul. She was my fiancé, and she died. And you bear some of the blame?"
Horst pries Johannes' fingers away and coughs, delicately. "All right," he concedes. "No need to fuss. You fucked it up all by yourself, is that what you wanted to hear?"
Johannes knees Horst in the stomach and that does hurt, the blood there sloshing unpleasantly. Horst doubles up protectively, and Johannes keeps kicking, like a child. Horst knows Johannes can fight properly. Horst had taught him, when the mood took him, shown him how to make a fist and take a stance. Johannes had been quite good, very focused.
Horst had beaten him all the same, when they would play at fighting. It did Johannes good to have something he couldn't win.
"Pay attention while I'm hurting you," rasps Johannes, already out of breath.
Horst lashes out and catches Johannes' ankle, dragging him to the ground. He falls badly, inexpertly. His head bounces on the rough gravel, and his glasses hang on one ear.
"Don't worry." Horst stands, planting one foot on Johannes' chest to keep him down. "I have been."
Johannes struggles, but it's even easier to pin him when he's weak with blood loss and Horst is flushed from feeding.
"How did you get out?" asks Horst.
Johannes is too busy tearing at Horst's trouser leg to respond, so Horst drops his knee into Johannes' solar plexus and catches Johannes' wrists in one hand. When Johannes has recovered his breath, Horst repeats the question.
"Bones decided you weren't going to take him up on his offer," snarls Johannes.
"And you came after me with a knife?" Horst smiles. "What did you think would happen?"
Johannes sighs, and his shoulders relax. His head drops back to the ground, less violently this time. "This, probably."
Horst releases his brother's hands and sits down next to him. Johannes doesn't move, looking up at the gray-dark sky. The lights from the carnival obscure any stars that are beginning to emerge.
"I want this to work." Johannes replaces his glasses, and there's the fine tremor in his hands. "I don't want you dead."
"I'm already dead."
Johannes waves that away with a curled lip and half of a laugh. "I don't want you gone."
Ah, there's the familiar longing. Odd how it comes back now, at night, when Horst could have done something about it just a few hours ago. Horst doesn't want to be dead, but he desperately wants to be gone.
"I want to live," says Johannes.
"You want her to live," says Horst.
"Yes." Johannes pauses, wheels audibly turning in his skull. "That’s what I said, isn’t it?"
A song begins to play in the carnival, tinny horns and an out of tune piano. Horst has never tried to correct the tone. There's something right about the wrongness of it, the sound a quarter-step too sharp, too vicious.
Horst played piano as a child. Johannes had too, actually. Horst hadn't the patience to practice; Johannes hadn't the depth of feeling to be truly good. Their music teacher often said that if she could only combine them she could make one good musician. She'd said it with a strained laugh, not really joking.
"Have you always hated me?" asks Horst.
Johannes closes his eyes. Horst can count every vein in his eyelids. "Do you remember when I was ten and you read my diary?"
"You punched me in the mouth," recalls Horst. "You cut your hand on my teeth."
"You laughed at me," says Johannes.
"You were very bad at fighting." The blow had hardly even jarred Horst. Johannes' hand had gotten infected.
Johannes doesn't ask when Horst began to hate him. He probably already knows, it's not hard to guess.
Horst brushes his fingers across his throat. The skin is knit together again, smooth and expressionless.
“Do you realize how long we’ve been doing this?” asks Johannes.
“Forever,” says Horst.
Johannes makes a face. “I mean the carnival.”
“Forever,” repeats Horst, because he hasn’t bothered counting the days and it feels like it.
“Less than two months.” Johannes probably has a calendar tucked in his diary, crossing off each day as it passes. “Not two months, Horst. Can we make it any further without biting incidents? Without locking me in a box? Without conspiring with my subordinates?"
"Can we be even?" asks Johannes.
"Oh, no," says Horst. "We'll never be even."
Johannes sits up. His back is covered in dead leaves and loose dirt. His hair is plastered to his forehead with cooling sweat. Horst wonders if he was too angry to bring a gun, or if he's been exercising unaccustomed restraint this entire time.
"It's exhausting to listen to you play the victim," says Johannes.
Horst wants very badly to pin him to the ground again, but what's the point?
"I made a mistake," says Johannes. "I was frightened. I thought you must be dead."
"I was screaming," says Horst.
"Nevertheless." Johannes smiles, suddenly. "I'm never frightened, now. Not like I was before. I think that's part of the problem."
Horst sighs. "Dear brother, what do you say when you make a mistake?"
Johannes frowns, first with puzzlement, and then with distaste. "Really?"
Johannes grimaces and forces the words out. "I'm sorry." Es tut mir leid, it does me harm. For once, Horst is viscerally glad of their shared language and heritage. The German is better than any weak English apology.
"For?" prompts Horst.
"For ruining your life, I think," says Johannes. "If you want me to go into details we'll be here all night."
Horst nods. "And I'm sorry that I bit you and locked you in a box. And I'm sorry that she's gone."
Johannes stands. He doesn't offer Horst a hand up. They're still not even. But Horst thinks they can make it through the year. He can keep his hunger to himself. He can help Johannes win his bet with as little harm as possible. He can keep himself out of the sun.
"Ready to go back to work?" asks Johannes.
"As I'll ever be," says Horst, and pushes himself to his feet.
"Step up, step up!" calls Johannes. He is wearing his hat. He is smiling, or at least performing a reasonable facsimile of it. He is standing on an actual soap box, which Horst found abandoned in the rail yard. He stands with misplaced confidence—Horst's not actually sure how long it will bear Johannes' weight.
"Step up!" Johannes throws out an arm, and begins to recite. "Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, within these walls are contained mysteries, marvels, and of course monstrosities of medical science. See! The walrus boy, with teeth much longer than the average tendency of mankind, but still within the expected standard deviation. See! The elastic girl, whose elbows bend in unexpected directions! See! The tattooed woman, who is exactly like the tattooed man, but a different gender and with slightly different artwork!"
"Boring," murmurs a child.
Johannes glares, but he is committed to his spiel now and unwilling to interrupt. "See!"
"Wanna see a trick," mutters the child, just at the grating edge of hearing.
Horst really does wish he could warn all children against engaging with his brother. He is constantly writing and rewriting the sign in his head. Danger. Will not humor you. It's not that Johannes particularly dislikes children, it's that he doesn't condescend to them. He treats them with the same hostility and contempt that he treats everyone else.
"Very well." Johannes reaches inside his coat and draws out a knife. More a machete, actually, with a long flat handle and a long flat blade. Horst is a little surprised by such a blatant display of hostility, but then Johannes produces another knife, and another. All matching, all gleaming in the carnival lights.
He can't mean to juggle them.
The House of Medical Monstrosity is adjacent to the squat and out of tune piano. It is staffed by a thin woman with even thinner fingers, who plays songs on request. If you’re drunk enough, you might even think that she’s actually playing the song you requested. Johannes gestures to her now, and her claws snap to the off-white keys.
It sounds like a military march played on a kazoo. Da da dadadada da da da-da...
Johannes raises the knives, looking the child dead in the eyes. Lowers them. Raises them again, and this time casts one after the other into the air.
There's a surprising lack of screaming or flying pieces of finger. Johannes has been practicing or, barring that, has used the dark powers granted by the devil himself to get better at juggling. The blades spin gently through the air, drawing 'oohs' from the gathering crowd.
Horst sees a man who is leaning a bit too close, eyes hungry for the glistening metal. He sees a couple who have paused in their argument to sneer at the juggler on his platform. He sees unalloyed pleasure in the crowd too, but it's his job to look for the weak ones, the mean ones, to stop Johannes from preying on the souls that are hale and hearty. He thinks. If they're to work together, then that's his job.
Johannes pauses the steady arc of metal to juggle two blades in his right hand, then in his left. He starts the three-knife pattern again by throwing the third blade behind his back and over his shoulder, hands returning to their places just in time to prevent a knife from sticking into his shoe.
The child, young and happy and at a carnival, begins to clap.
The smile on Johannes' face is prideful, not joyful. But it is real.
Horst can't remember when he last felt proud of Johannes' accomplishments. Certainly not in school, nor in the crypt. He thinks he feels proud now. That odd feeling in his chest is pride, or love, or something simpler and softer and warm. Horst finds he is joining the crowd's applause.
Johannes catches the knives and bows from the waist, straight-backed and still smiling.
"For my next trick, I shall need a volunteer!" Johannes steps off the box, still half-bowed, his eyes at a level with the child's. "Perhaps you?"
The child squeals in giddy excitement. The odd feeling in Horst's chest tightens and grows cold.
"Just sign this waiver." Johannes offers pen and paper. "And step up on the stage."
Horst pushes his way to the front, stepping on toes and making a judicious use of elbows.
"The box?" asks the child.
Horst grasps the hungry man's wrist and pulls him along, ignoring the weak human attempts at resistance.
"The box," agrees Johannes. "Just sign here."
Horst snatches the pen from the child's hand and presses it into the man's. "Dear brother," he says, voice loud and jovial. "We can't have children in your show! We're still finding bits of the last one!"
The crowd laughs, because it's a joke. Wouldn't it be awful if it wasn't a joke.
"We need a big strong man like this to be your volunteer," trills Horst. "He's not afraid of a little cut, is he?"
The man licks his lips and shakes his head, grins uneasily at the crowd. He signs. Johannes makes regretful noises at the child, who is happy to retreat into the crowd. Children are often better than adults at determining what is and is not actually a joke.
There are a few feet of tall fence here, to prevent punters from glancing into the House of Medical Monstrosity without buying a ticket first. Johannes carefully sets the soapbox against the fence, then prods the man into place on top of it.
"Press your back against the wall, please, and try not to move."
One knife goes into the fence a comfortable distance from the man's left ear. He breathes a sigh of relief, but the crowd sighs in disappointment. The next knife brushes the man's right cheek, and the crowd and the man gasp in unison.
Horst doesn't stick around to see where the last knife goes.
The drawer in Johannes' desk is easier to pick the second time. Horst looks at the little stack of papers. The signatures still mean nothing to him. If he was a better person, he'd remember every one.
If he was a better person, he would burn them. Burn them, burn this whole damned place, and sit in the ashes and watch the sun come up.
Horst takes a blank contract from the stack, folds it, and puts it in his inner breast pocket. He closes the drawer and locks it.
Outside, the moon is fully risen and the black shape of Johannes' crow is preening itself on top of the car.
"Well," Horst tells it. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Johannes deserves to win back his soul."
The crow blinks star-bright eyes at him. Horst half-hopes for a response, but it just sits. It's a bird, for God's sake. The most it can tell him is ‘kronk.’
"No, you're right," says Horst. "He doesn’t. But you have to hope."