My favorite part of the night is drawing near. There are a few dozen carnival-goers still roaming around and screaming from atop the roller coaster. The place is lively enough, but calming down. Above us, the waxing crescent moon is shining brightly, casting a bluish tint over the darkened areas of Showman's Pier. The smell of funnel cakes, stickiness of cotton candy on the hard-gripped handlebars and the carnival music blaring from within the red and white-striped tents are all part of it - this wonderful, terrible world of the carney. At the end of the pier there is a ferry, often used by those wanting to have a romantic, candle-lit dinner on the way to the small island that sits to the East. The ferryman, Enoch, is a man of few words, but if you can put a grin under that salt and pepper beard of his, you’ve accomplished something rare. The last ferry ride out to the island is reserved for us - the freaks’ ferry, as our ringmaster, Jack Jones, so affectionately calls it. He views himself as the twenty-first century P.T. Barnum, but he is far from it, and the year-round carnival he has set up on this dilapidated pier is nothing like the Coney Island he had envisioned it being. We all were brought here full of hope. How foolish we were. All of us were told the same story. Mr. Jones was going to build the most grand, stationary carnival the world had ever seen. Some were pulled from their hidden caves and promised fame beyond belief, while others were talented performers looking to make a greater name for themself. Some came out of desperation for a life beyond the four walls that entrapped them, while others came simply out of greed. He knew the desires of each person he called to himself. He fed that desire with inflated promises that were nothing but lies to build his kingdom. And now, here I am, only minutes away from once again boarding that ferry. The freaks’ ferry. My ferry. Unlike some of my cohorts, my freakish qualities are merely a done-up performance for the squeals and dropped jaws of the guests that enter my domain. This story is not about my act, however. I am here to tell you of a murder - one that has already happened, and one that is about to, just off Showman's Pier.
Some of the lights are shutting off now - the Ferris Wheel first, followed by the Merry-Go-Round as it stops turning and the Spooky House strobe lights suddenly go black. I see Mr. Jones giving a dramatic bow at the entrance of the Big Top and laughing his disingenuous chortle with some of the guests. I can't help but see it every time now. And as I look at him, the carnival music quickening in sinister merriment from the Big Top, I see the blood on his hands as he stands over her. I try to shake the image from my mind and notice he’s casting glances at me. Before he makes his way toward me, I pick up my torches and stride as casually as I can toward the end of the pier. Enoch is waiting at the gate of the ferry and opens it with his usual grim look, nodding as I step aboard. "Carl," he grunted in his less-than-cordial manner. "Enoch," I replied, matching his enthusiasm. There were several performers already prepared to leave, sitting quietly on the white, worn seats. The candles were no longer lit on the few linen-covered tables that graced the ferry. The water gushes and slaps the sides of the ferry as we head out, traveling further away from the carnival music, still playing in the background. The lights go out on the rides, one by one, and it is usually as the very last light fades that we arrive on the far side, the hidden side, of the island. Here we live and wait until the next day when the ferry picks us up to take us back to the carnival where the same routine, the same deafening shrieks from children and awed faces of men and women alike play out. My thoughts are interrupted by Esperanza, the fortune teller. Although she has no shame in denouncing her profession in front of guests, I've warned her of doing this in front of Mr. Jones. I told her not even one month ago, "I see danger in your future if you make any more cracks about your job and Mr. Jones finds out about it." She merely smiled and said, "Oh, I do know what will come of him. I’m not afraid." There was a flash in her eyes as she said this and I knew it then. She knows, too. And now as she sat down beside me on the cheap, plastic bench running along one side of the ferry, she gazed into my eyes and nodded before she squeezed my hand and stood to walk over to the other side of the ferry, looking out upon the dark waters. When Enoch announced that we had arrived, as though this was our first time, we gathered at the gate to depart the ferry. My feet had no sooner passed over the ledge and onto the ramp when Esperanza took my hand and led me down through a grove of river birch to a fire already blazing in the firepit. "Tomorrow," she whispered, "there should be plenty of fog on the water. Wait for my signal and then we will set the rest in motion. You're still with me?" Her eyes were pleading. "Absolutely. Always." I said, pulling her close and holding her head against my chest. I could feel her heart beating against my ribs. I took the royal blue turban from her head and let her dark, hickory brown hair flow down to her shoulder blades. "For Victoria." She said firmly, swiping at a tear that rolled down her cheek. The Wheel of Death was the act Victoria was known for, and it was an ironic twist of fate - or, should I say, cruel irony in her murder - that she met her end at the edge of a blade. It was rumored that Mr. Jones had more in mind for her than a simple knife-throwing act, and when she rejected his pursuits of her he simply fired her. I know better though. I saw it with my own two eyes. She’s dead. Esperanza was her best friend, so she has more than a few reasons to avenge her. Me? I have my reasons as well. We only have to wait for the fog to rest over the water - that is key.
The next day the sun rose and set, leaving Showman's Pier again trickling gleeful guests out it's mouth. Esperanza stood at the entrance of the Big Top, which was now empty save for Mr. Jones. Nodding to me and signaling with her tattooed hand, she disappeared behind the flap of the Big Top. The sole lantern that glowed behind the entrance was not yet snuffed out. The night before, we reviewed the details one last time. She told me the glass of water that is always brought to Mr. Jones at the end of the final performance would be treated, you could say, by the time it reached his hand. "Mr. Jones, you called for me?" She would say, fabricating an excuse to enter the Big Top after everyone else left. My eyes were still trying to adjust, but I was at least close enough to make out the words being spoken inside. "And I just thought if you needed a replacement, I would like a shot." I didn't hear a response at first. I held my breath. "Step up here, Esperrrrza," Mr. Jones finally slurred. Through the slit in the opening of the Big Top, I saw Mr. Jones clumsily tripping over the raised stage near the Wheel of Death. Realization seemed to hit him. His popeyed expression turned into a sneer and then his glazed eyes rolled back and he slumped onto the stage. Even passed out, he had an ominous expression resting upon his boney face. The transporting of the body from the Big Top to the pier proved to be easier than expected. "Ready?" I asked her, but needed no response. She was already dragging cinder blocks out from her booth, the very last attraction on the pier. "Hurry," she breathed, "just in case." The ferry would be back soon. Enoch would have noticed we never got onboard, though it didn't seem to faze him to leave anyone who wasn't there on time. Esperanza slipped on a latex glove, grabbed the Spirytus Vodka bottle by the neck and rushed back into the Big Top. "Done," she panted when she returned, no longer holding the bottle. I fastened the ropes and nodded my head toward the equipment room. "In there, hurry." I said. Mr. Jones' keys jingled in my pocket as we rushed toward it. I withdrew the keys and cursed my shaking hands, pushing through the door once the bolt clicked back. The clown costumes and painted faces that lined one whole side of the shack were all smiling at me, their heads cocked from hanging lopsided. The large purple and white clown suit with a mask sporting bright orange, curly hair above it and huge, red shoes beneath the suit began to ruffle as a large rat scurried between the shoes, knocking it's long tail against the leg of the suit. I snatched up the flashlight and binoculars resting on the dusty windowsill, locking the door behind me before racing back to the pier. Esperanza was on my heels the whole time, breathless. There were six small boats tied to the side of the pier, opposite of where the ferry would dock. Untying the sixth boat in the row, we rolled Mr. Jones' slack body into it where it dropped with a nauseating thud. The only means we had to see the ferry approaching was the large fog light on it's deck, but the fog rising above the water hid us perfectly from Enoch's view. As we pushed off the pier, quietly dipping the oars into the water, we rowed further and further from the pier until the lamp post at the edge was nothing but a small shimmer in the distance. The ferry appeared to be back at the pier. "Are y- are you ready to do this?" Esperanza stammered. I shook my head. There was a loud splash and sinking bubbles gurgled on the surface of the water, then it became calm once again. The moonlight brightened Esperanza's marbly, dark eyes. We carefully made our way back after seeing Enoch limping from the pier to the small cabin where he stayed. When we reached the edge of the pier, Esperanza's ice-cold hands gripped mine as a lantern, held up by Enoch, emerged from the cabin. He was in a ratty, gray undershirt and dirty overalls. Rounding to the backside of the cabin, he entered through a tall, narrow door with a crescent moon on it. We scampered along the pier until we reached Esperanza’s booth and closed ourselves into the safety of the aromatic, cramped backroom. The next morning when all the others would arrive and Enoch would question our whereabouts and ask if we had seen Mr. Jones, a sheepish grin and love-given beauty mark on the side of Esperanza's neck would be our alibi. "I'm sorry we missed the departure last night. I'm not sure where he is. Last I saw him he was stumbling around, cursing about debt collectors. Figured I'd leave him be." Esperanza could claim she had not seen him. A loud crash from Enoch’s cabin caused us to freeze. Peering through the curtains, we saw Enoch hop in his '58 rust bucket and speed off into the night, leaving a trail of dust behind the sputtering truck. When the dust settled and his taillights vanished, we glanced at each other and, with a shrug, hotfooted it to his cabin. The door was unlatched and a strong odor enveloped the entire cabin. If the stench hadn't been so powerful, I would have chuckled at Esperanza's beautiful face contorted in disgust. When I glanced around the pitiful, lonesome cabin something caught my eye that caused my heart to jump into my throat. It was a shrine of pictures with elegant candles scattered amongst them, and the bright, sea-green eyes that shone from the smiling young woman in each of the pictures were none other than those of Victoria Rothbury. The flashes of what I saw that night - Mr. Jones standing over her lifeless body, blood dripping from his hands, the arguments I heard earlier that week between Mr. Jones and Victoria about pay and not doing this for free and the danger involved - it all rushed into my mind's eye, in a confused, distorted jumble. Esperanza's outstretched hand and pointing finger shook as she tried speaking, but faltered. In the corner of the small room, sitting in an old, wooden rocking chair was a figure, covered up to her collarbones by a multi-colored quilt. Long, once-flowing blonde hair rested on the grim figure. The rumbling of Enoch's truck caused Esperanza to scream. We bolted from the cabin toward the Big Top. "What have we done?" She kept saying fervently between ragged breaths. Blood was pounding in my ears. If Enoch was the one who killed Victoria, why was Mr. Jones standing over her? And why would he have not reported it? I had my reasons. I was already on the run. Another crime to rid me of a severe, unabashed manager who deserved - or so I thought - to taste his own medicine seemed reason enough for me. Esperanza had her revenge. Victoria was her best friend, but what was Mr. Jones hiding? Or was it- my mind slowed as realization grew hauntingly clear. He was not hiding anything. Everyone knew how he was, and the rumors that spread like wildfire about him pursuing Victoria for more than an act was enough reason to point the finger at him if she turned up dead. Perhaps he was trying to save her after he stumbled upon the scene. Did he know of Enoch's involvement? If everyone believed, as they did, that she simply was fired for rejecting Mr. Jones it would leave him in the clear. She would simply be another act passing through. One thing still did not make sense. If Mr. Jones knew Enoch was her killer, is Enoch aware of it? The answer came to me - quite literally. Drawing the flap back from the Big Top entrance, the purple and white clown with bright orange hair and a grimace painted onto it's mask, appeared. In a voice that sounded not quite human, it asked, "Who you hiding from?" Enoch then appeared next to him, a shockingly similar expression on his own shadow-darkened face. The clown repeated the question over and over again, and Enoch’s lips were mouthing the question in sync with it as they stepped toward us. Grabbing Esperanza's hand, I ran as fast as my feet could take us to the only other opening in the Big Top. Carnival music began to blare and the lights shuddered on with popping sounds, illuminating the pier. "You can run, but you can’t hide," the voice bellowed. As we reached the Ringmaster's Cabin, slamming through the door, I swung Esperanza around and locked the door behind us. I noticed three locks had been added onto the doorframe. Glancing at the moonlit windows of the cabin, I saw they also had been secured with additional reinforcements. Esperanza called my name. She stood next to Mr. Jones' desk, which was lit by a small lamp. There were letters written in scarlet ink, signed Anonymous on each. Curiously, pictures of Mr. Jones were sprawled out on the desk, each one having one common thread. The purple and white clown was in the background of each, watching Mr. Jones. Esperanza held out one of the letters. 'We know what you have done, Jack Jones. We are watching you. Leave the money at midnight - the ticket booth at the main gate, same as before. And return to your cabin, drawing the curtains. He will wait outside while the money is retrieved to make sure instructions are followed. It's a pleasure doing business with you. Until next time.' Loud snapping outside the door caused me to drop the letter and grab Esperanza's hand. "They're unlocking the doors," Esperanza breathed. I turned to her. I had only locked the main deadbolt. They were not unlocking anything. We were getting locked inside. The carnival music became deafeningly loud. The windowsills pulsed with the vibrations and a yellow glow flickered against the cabin walls. Flames leapt up outside the windows and enveloped the cabin, the music drowning out our screams. The following month.. Reports had been taken, the scene thoroughly examined and crime investigated. And now it was the evening of Showman's Pier's re-opening. The ferryman who had been doing the same job tirelessly for eight years closed the gate and announced they were heading out to the island now. The carnival cafe that had opened on the island was having it's grand opening. These passengers would be the first to experience it. The female bartenders all wore jester costumes and the waiters donned their clown suits. When the passengers departed the ferry, Enoch tipped his hat toward them with a snicker. The first couple to be seated looked over the menu. The young woman had dark blonde curls that bounced as she looked up at their clown waiter, dressed in purple and white with bright orange hair. "Good evening, madam. My name is Alastor. I'll be your waiter today."