By A.L. Godfrey
Yuri Karpov sat on the wooden step to his trailer, meticulously honing the broad blade of his machete. He wore his boots and the black bell-bottom pants tied at the waist by a red sash, remnants from the night's final show. In deference to the evening's humidity, however, he had stripped down to his undershirt. Yuri was a big man, but not a young man. Nestled among the jet black hairs of his head and beard were thick streaks of silver. The flesh around his eyes was furrowed with age.
Age and more than age.
He worked in the pale glow of the half-moon and with what little light escaped his way from where the roadies were closing things up for the night, though even the spotlights illuminating the brightly coloured sign proclaiming 'Mr. Anszwerikolop's Amazing Carnival' had long since been extinguished. But he did not need his eyes to keen the blade anymore than a mother needs light to scrub the face of her only child.
Feet rustled on the dry, packed ground. He looked up to spy two figures approaching. One was easily identified, since he rose only to the thigh of the second man and walked with a rolling gait, aided by a cane. But the other? Yuri squinted, trying to carve the blurry image into a familiar semblance, feeling a knot tightening in his stomach as his eyes betrayed him, denied him this little thing. The feeling was only slightly relieved as the men stopped before him and he realized he did not know the second man.
The dwarf, dressed in an expensively tailored dark-grey suit, his ebon features unblemished by streaks of sweat, looked up at the bearded man. "Yuri," he said, smoothing his pencil-thin mustache with a thumb. "Nice night."
Yuri shrugged. "Is all right, Martin. A little hot, but, then, we all use to discomfort, no?"
Martin just nodded, not seeming to really absorb the words. "You've been throwing the knives a little wide these days, Yuri. Not very close at all." He shrugged his little, malformed shoulders. "The rubes pay to see death defying acts, not how much air you can put between the target and the knife."
Brushing an oiled rag across the sheen flat of the blade, Yuri grumbled, "I haf receifed no complaints in all the years I throw the knifes." He lifted up a thick, index finger. "Not one."
"Of course," Martin said coolly. As if changing the subject he nodded his head toward the man behind him. "Yuri, this is Scott Salwensky."
No need to squint at this distance. Yuri could see him clear enough; his short blonde hair and clean cut features, his good clothes. A college man, no doubt; young, cocky, ready to take on the world. Yuri hated him on sight, hated what he represented. Hated what he knew the younger man was about to represent. Martin would not be introducing just anyone to him.
Salwensky grinned a lop-sided, slightly unctuous grin and said, "A great pleasure, Mr. Karpov - or do you prefer the nom de profession, 'the Mad Butcher'?" He held out a lean, pale hand.
Yuri hesitated, then shook it grudgingly. "I am Yuri. To the rubes only am I the Mad Butcher."
"I've been a great admirer of yours for many years, Mr. Kar - sorry - Yuri. Ever since I was a boy in fact. I can't tell you how pleased I was to hear that you were still at it, going strong."
With a little too much force, Yuri sheathed his machete in its leather case and laid it deliberately beside him on the step.
"Mr. Salwensky will be joining us," said Martin.
"And what you do, Mr. Salwensky?" As if he did not know. As if he could not help but recognize the way the man walked, the way he held his arms slightly out from his sides; a slender twin to the image that stared back at Yuri from the mirror. As if the big man could not already feel the fresh- faced, blonde-headed tapeworm burrowing into his bowels.
"I throw knives, just like you. And please, call me Scott." He grinned again.
"Mr. Salwensky will be part of your act. You can spare each other off. You take the first show, he the second, and so on."
"What?" Yuri barely murmured the word as his eyes grew wide. He had been anticipating something like this for some time. He had expected someone like Salwensky to be thrust upon him as an apprentice, someone to whom he was to teach the ropes. But a full partner? "No!" He rose to his feet, his muscular dimensions impressive, made more so by the clenched fists which quivered at his sides. "I will not stand for it!"
Salwensky took a step back, his eyes growing wide as saucers. Martin, though, remained unimpressed. Glancing out over the grounds, not even deigning to look at Yuri, Martin said, "I think it will be good for the show and good for you. Give you a chance to stagger yourself, not wear yourself out." His dark eyes came back to the big man. "You will naturally continue to receive top billing."
A barely controlled finger stabbed downward. "I refuse. I forbi-"
"It is not a request, Yuri," Martin said with finality. "Mr. Anszwerikolop thinks it will be good for the show. It's done." He stopped, opening his mouth as though to say something more. What? An apology? Then he closed it without issuing a sound and limped away.
Yuri glared at Salwensky, saw the younger man grin, then watched helplessly as he hurried after the retreating manager.
Like a marionette whose strings had been severed, the big man slumped against the doorway frame, hearing the wood creak and groan beneath his weight.
* * *
"He does his job," said Katarina testily as she poured herself a drink.
Katarina. So beautiful and still so young, thought Yuri. When he had first come upon her, back in the old country, she had been barely a teen-ager and had practically worshipped him. He, in turn, had been intrigued by the beautiful, flaming-haired peasant girl. He had taken her in, made her part of his act, the so-called target. They had become lovers.
And when he finally left in the dead of night, crossing the ocean as he had been promising himself he would do for so many years, he took her with him. He had never even considered otherwise. And he watched, over the years, the beautiful girl become, almost impossibly, an even more beautiful woman. And his lover become his wife.
Yes, she became more beautiful and he, well, he just became older. In recent years her temper had become quick to fan to flame and her patience short and thin. In her growing, they had grown apart. The road was his life, but she was restless for other opportunities, other experiences. The peasant girl was no longer content with the simple life. She read and had ideas and, though she never said it, Yuri knew she found him boorish. When they made love, now, she did it as though it was a chore.
Her English was even better than his.
Here, now, alone, they did not speak English, so he still had some confidence, some control. She could not muddle him with words and phrases he did not understand. More, every word she uttered in the old tongue was a reminder to her to whom she owed everything, who it was who had got her out at a time when getting out had not been so easy.
"Salwensky is a simpleton," Yuri growled, reclining on the bed at the back of the trailer. "A dandy who makes all the girls and probably the boys too."
Katarina threw back her drink and coughed, then drew the sleeve of her robe across her mouth. "The crowd likes him, which is all that's important. I don't know why you complain so much. We still get paid the same, you still get billed the same - and all for half the work. Martin is being more than generous."
"We don't need Salwensky. I am the one the crowd comes to see, I am the one with the eagle eye."
"Are you?" Katarina turned to regard him coldly from where she stood by the sink. "Are you really?"
Yuri scowled. "And what does that mean, eh? What?"
She shrugged. "You've been squinting lately. I've noticed
it, so have others. You don't recognize people when they're far away,
Yuri pushed himself suddenly to a sitting position and leaned forward. "You don't know what you're talking about," he growled. "I can still see as well as you."
"Maybe," she conceded, taking an instinctive step back. "But can you still see better?"
"Yes!" he barked. Then, glancing at their thin walls and the small window that stood propped injudiciously open beside her, he said in a quieter voice, "Yes."
"As you say."
And that was that. At least for now, and only on the surface. Because once the question had been raised it could only be buried again and left to fester beneath the feigned innocence. Not a pleasant feeling.
"Come to bed," he said after a moment, holding out his hand, trying desperately, though he would not show it, to mend the bridge that separated them.
"It's too hot to sleep."
"We don't have to sleep."
She grabbed her tattered beige towel that lay crumpled on the counter and pulled her robe tighter about her body. "I'm going to have a shower."
"At this hour?" he demanded.
Without bothering to respond she turned and pushed open the trailer door. It gave with a stubborn cough and then Yuri heard her footsteps on the step, then on the dusty ground, fading. Fading.
Leaping to his feet, Yuri let out a strangled roar and swiped a big arm across the table, raining his precious blades across the floor like hail. He collapsed to his knees. It was true! The bitch knew it was true! His eyesight was fading. Not surprising at his age, nor greatly worrisome - were his profession any of a thousand others. But a knife thrower needed his precision. How much longer could he keep at it when even Katarina's face was beginning to blur across the tent? He was in no danger of missing, no danger of hitting her. Not yet. But someday he would have to give it up. What then? What could he do with no pension and little savings? What trade could he learn with fuzzy vision and at his age?
And what of Katarina? Would she stay with him when he could barely keep her now, when he still had his health?
Struggling to his feet, Yuri stepped across his scattered blades to the basin and splashed grainy water onto his face. Katarina was right about one thing: it was too hot. And the carnival would be touring this part of the country for the next month, so no doubt the heat would stay with them, haunting them. He scooped water onto the back of his neck and across his chest, then straightened, letting what little breeze there was sneak in through the open window to cool him. Looking out at the darkness he stopped and felt a shadow pass over his soul.
You are not in such a hurry now, are you, my precious? he thought grimly.
Katarina stood by the strong man's trailer, laughing in an uninhibited way he had not seen in many years. With her were a few others; Poncho, the clown, a couple of the female strippers, some others. And at her elbow, sharing her humour, was Scott Salwensky.
* * *
"My father threw the knives. He was good at it. Got offers from all the best circuses - that's right, circuses. Not just the mud-shows. He could've been famous, maybe even the star of one of those TV variety shows that were so popular, but he didn't know how to manage himself, didn't know how to go after what he really wanted with both hands and how to hold on for dear life. He died a poor man. That's how I learned how not to flinch, when I was his target, as a girl." Seated on an overturned tire discarded from one of the big eighteen-wheelers, Marie DuMaurier inhaled of the cigarette and looked out over the darkened grounds, quiet now as the carnies had retreated to their trailers, struggling to find sleep amongst the tossing and turning and the heat. She breathed out leisurely. "I hooked up with Salwensky a couple of years ago in a college town. I hadn't forgotten how not to flinch, after all, and I figured he had what it took. I was wrong. He doesn't want it bad enough. He'll never be more than an opening act, and when his looks start to fade, not even that." She looked down at the older man crouched on his haunches, drawing patterns in the dirt with his knife. "Not like you. You're already famous, you could be a star."
Yuri looked up at the young woman. If he were to blur the lines of her face, look at her cross-eyed or something, he could almost picture Katarina. Not as pretty, but the same shape, the same colouring. The same determination. But whereas Katarina saw him as a dead weight, resented him even, Marie seemed to see other possibilities. "So you no think Salwensky great thrower?"
"His specialty is pinching girls' bottoms, nothing more."
Something flinched under Yuri's left eye. "What girls?"
"Mine for starters. He used to, anyway. But I told him I'd cut off his balls if he did it again."
"Any other girls? You see him touch?"
The cigarette stopped midway to her mouth. "Like who?"
Yuri looked down at the shapes he had carved. "No one. I just ask."
After a moment of hearing only the crickets chirp, she said,
"How long has your wife been your target?"
"Since the old country," Yuri muttered. "I got her out. She here because of me."
"She must be grateful."
Yes, thought Yuri, Katarina should be grateful. She should... Then he hesitated and, shoving the knife into its sheath, stood. Marie was too much like Katarina in another respect - she was too canny, too perceptive. Wiser to say his good-nights now, before the heat made him careless. "It fery late. I see you later, O.K.?"
"Good night, Yuri." Marie watched him go, the cigarette forgotten in her hand.
Earlier that evening had she not observed a party? A little wine, a little laughter, in Clarise's trailer? All very innocent, just some of the carnies kicking back. Katarina Karpov had been there, as had Scott Salwensky. Marie had not witnessed anything untoward and she would never say that she had. She was no liar. Yet neither was she her father, and if Yuri should draw his own conclusions, who was to say he might not in fact hit the nail on the head?
Crushing out her cigarette, she hurried after the big man.
* * *
The throwing knife imbedded itself in the target plank with a full, satisfying, thunk. It was morning, before the carnival would be opened for the day, and before the heat would fully collapse on them in its entirety. Those of the troupe with nothing better to do had gathered to watch the rehearsal, seated on dull green bleachers, some applauding, most not. Nora, one of the Siamese twins, waved at Scott Salwensky and tittered girlishly with her sister when the handsome young man returned the gesture.
Scott pulled back his arm, then threw forward, letting another blade bury itself less than a centimetre from its kin.
Scott jerked and spun around. "You scared the hell out of me."
"Apologies." Yuri approached, spreading his hands helplessly. "You seem timid soul - like rabbit." His teeth flashed in the mass of his beard. "I be more careful, O.K.?"
The younger man snagged his thumbs in the crimson sash about his waist and grinned. "Yuri, my friend, I don't know why you're so antagonistic. I've been here two weeks and the nicest thing you've said to me was by saying nothing. I'm here to stay, haven't you figured that out yet? You can bitch all you like, but you can't stop time rolling on. It's just a question of whether it rolls by you, or over you."
Yuri's dark eyes narrowed. "You not bad thrower, Salwensky. Not bad." With a whisper of steel on leather, he drew his machete. "But throwing throwing knifes is game for little children, yes? Easy. Try big knife, eh?" He held the weapon out in his open palm. "The balance is no efen, she arcs funny. Try."
"No thanks. I'm not ready for that yet."
Yuri shook his hand before the younger man's face, the blade reflecting the overhead lamps. "Show me, show us," his eyes alighted on Katarina lurking by the entrance, "show her. Show my Katarina how much better you are than me."
Scott glanced at Katarina who was engrossed in a discussion with Clarise, one of the exotic dancers, and seeming to be paying the two men no mind.
"Don't you want to impress Katarina with how good you throw knife?" Yuri demanded. "Don't you?"
The younger man stepped back, his smooth forehead creasing. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"What I talking about, is this-!" Taking barely a second to aim, Yuri sent the machete driving forward and Scott threw himself to the ground with a yelp.
"Goddamned psycho!" he screamed as he gained his feet. "You tried to kill me! Goddamn it, you tried to kill me!"
"Look there," said Yuri, pointing past Scott's shoulder. "Look there and say you better than me."
Still shaking slightly, the blonde turned, unwillingly, to face the length of the tent and the target board at the far end.
In the fraction of a centimetre between Salwensky's two throwing knives, Yuri's blade was buried practically up to its hilt. Dora, Nora's sister, applauded enthusiastically.
* * *
A tusk was a tooth. Like a smile. Which elephant was always smiling, that was the question.
Yuri had developed a little test for himself recently, as he noticed the weakness in his gaze. Animals were not normally part of the mud-show, nor were the elephants expected to be around for much longer, only until they received an offer from one of the circuses. Until that time, they served another purpose entirely, a private purpose. Yuri would walk away from the elephant pen till he was at such a distance that the mighty pachyderms had dwindled to the size of one finger. Then he would identify the males from the females by the fact that the former had tusks. This was not as easy as it might seem, since their tusks were trimmed and not as pronounced as they would naturally be. Despite this, Yuri had never failed to distinguish.
He squinted, then cocked his head; he closed his eyes, resting them momentarily; he tried focusing on something nearer and then something farther before coming back to the grey shapes swaying in the dusty sunlight. All to no avail. He desperately felt the need to take one of his fists and put it through something, anything.
"What are you doing?" demanded a voice in the old tongue. Katarina.
Yuri looked around and saw her standing behind him, her brows knitted in concentration, or a scowl. "Where were you last night?" he demanded suddenly.
She hesitated, then a guarded look came into her eyes. "I was walking." And, as if to demonstrate, she turned and started away.
The big man hurried after her. "Walking? Who were you walking with, eh? And who the night before that? And two nights before that?"
"None of your business."
Yuri stopped. He had expected an argument, a denial. At the very least repentance. But this? "None of my business?" he repeated. Leaping after her, he closed a massive hand about one of her slender arms and jerked her around to face him. "I am your husband. It is my business when you run about like a whore in the night!"
"You know nothing, you old fool," she hissed, her dark red hair flying about her features as she tried to twist free.
Yuri gripped harder, his black brows knitted together. It would be so very easy, he thought, to break the bone beneath his palm. "People have seen things. They've told me." Marie, for one, had noticed when Katarina came back late. "I will kill you if ever you betray me. You understand?" He shook her. "Do you?"
"What is going on here?"
The voice was matter-of-fact, but had an edge to it, like one of Yuri's own knives. Not a voice that was generally ignored.
Yuri glanced over at the impeccably attired dwarf. Behind him stood Carlos, the strong man, arms folded across a broad chest. "Go 'way, Martin," said the knife-thrower in English. "Is family business."
"Let her go, Yuri," Martin said quietly. Carlos hovered over the dwarf like a shadow, an embodiment of the little man's spirit, with arms that were as thick as Yuri's thighs. The strong man dropped his hands to his side and flexed his fingers casually.
Yuri hesitated, glancing from Martin to Carlos and then at Katarina. Slowly, his grip slackened. She pulled free and, issuing a curse in the old tongue, turned and stormed away.
Martin glanced down at his arms and straightened the cuff on his left sleeve. "Mr. Anszwerikolop will not like any trouble, Yuri. I don't want Katarina coming to me with any complaints, do you understand?" He looked up.
Yuri glared at him, his chest rising and falling in rapid heaves.
"Will you two be ready for the show tonight? Yuri?"
"We be ready," the bearded man said in little more than a whisper, no longer looking at the little man, but in the air beside him.
"Good." Martin turned and started limping away. After a moment, Carlos followed.
Yuri glanced over at the elephants and wondered, which one was smiling? And was it smiling at him? Laughing?
And then a figure appeared at the edge of a tent, hands on hips, long hair about her face.
* * *
With a grunt, Yuri rolled off of the panting form of Marie DuMaurier and settled beside her, pulling the sheet over his broad chest.
Marie glanced about the knife-thrower's trailer. "Won't Katarina be back?"
"She hardly come here anymore," Yuri muttered, rolling so that he faced away from his companion. "She has other to keep her company now. I save her from the old country, bring her here, to new land, new opportunities, and she betray me. She is slut. She will leave me, one day. Perhaps soon. And take you precious knife-thrower with her."
Marie listened to the sounds of the carnival coming alive after the brief respite of supper, preparing for the evening rubes who would be arriving for the later shows; the dancers, the magicians, and, of course, the knife throwers. Then she said, "I'm sorry." It was not her fault, she felt, not really. Whatever was between husband and wife had been so before she arrived. She was merely helping it to bloom. And hoping to reap a harvest of sorts. "She doesn't deserve you, you know. It's terrible what she's doing." She hesitated, then pulled her body closer to his, letting him feel her. "You should get rid of her, forget her. Get a divorce and get on with your life. Perhaps you and I-"
Yuri was not a young man and he knew his future was bleak. Could he expect Marie to stay with him in his declining years without the binds of marriage that should have kept Katarina at his side?
Yes, Katarina had taken his best years, all he had to offer, and now was preparing to discard him for a younger man. And a knife thrower, yet. It was as if she wanted to rub his face in the humiliation, to mock him before the entire carnival. Yuri's fist knotted in the sheet. And was he just to take it? Was he to let her mock him, his eyes, everything he was, and not punish her? Suddenly Yuri said, in a dangerous whisper, "How you like Katarina's place, eh? Be target for Yuri, the Mad Butcher?"
Marie's arms came about him, tightly.
* * *
The crowd, the lights; the sights and sounds and smell of a few hundred people crowded under one tent, buttocks growing numb on splintered wood bleachers, pop corn growing stale and gummy between teeth, the swelling murmur of a hundred throats like water lapping on a beach. Yuri stood in darkness by the front flap, awaiting his introduction, his heart thundering in his chest. He was used to the excitement, the anticipation; his chest pounded for other reasons tonight. Katarina would be at the rear entrance, as always. He fingered the delicate throwing knives pinned to his red sash, then one hand came to rest upon the mighty machete sheathed in the knot at his hip. The knife that was the hallmark of his show.
She thought his eyes were going. Martin thought so too. He would show them what Yuri Karpov's eyes could do. Yuri, the
"-Mad Butcher, ladieez and gennelman," the Ring Master proclaimed from inside and Yuri shoved aside the flap, ran past the bleachers and into the centre of the tent, the broiling overhead lights making his sweat glisten like oil. He raised a hand to acknowledge the applause and grinned.
Tonight the show will be different, he thought. Tonight, a special presentation. One time only.
"And my lovey wife, Katarina!" the Mad Butcher announced. He recognized the mispronunciation as soon as he said it, but thought it oddly appropriate. Yes, his lovey wife. Lovey dovey.
At the far end of the tent, Katarina stepped into the spotlight, her red hair cascading like a waterfall as she bowed before the crowd's applause. Yuri watched with a curl to his lips as she straightened and took her place before the board. She raised her arms and froze. The crowd fell silent.
He drew one knife from his sash, aimed, and let go. It buried itself just under her right arm-pit. The crowd oohed. He let fly another and it settled between her legs. Then another and another and another, until his beloved wife was limned by silver sparkles like an angel in a church window. Yuri drew the heavy machete. It sounded alive in the tent, the sheath relinquishing its hold almost reluctantly.
He would never again be allowed to throw a knife after tonight, he knew, even assuming he retained his freedom at all. But it no longer mattered.
Yuri took aim, squinting. Yes, my love, he thought, I do need to squint, don't I? And then he hesitated, his grip on the handle becoming momentarily less sure. He remembered her as a young woman, when they had loved each other. Remembered her teaching him English, and reading over contracts late into the night to make sure he got the best deal, the best pay. He remembered her body, her lips.
And then he remembered Marie's words. "It's terrible what she's doing," she had said. And with another knife thrower, he reminded himself.
A savage grin on his lips, Yuri let his machete cleave the air, whistling like a Banshee as it went, and buried it in its target.
The crowd screamed.
* * *
The police officer did not much like carnivals; breeding
grounds for riff-raff and undesirables, he figured. And this one seemed
worse, or at least, murkier, less fathomable than some he had seen. He
sighed and flipped his note pad to another page, shifted his hips a
little on the now-deserted bleacher, and looked down at the
immaculately dressed dwarf. "You were saying?"
The dwarf shrugged. "Katarina Karpov, Mr. Karpov's wife, ran off earlier this evening with one of our dancers, a woman named Clarise MacKenzie."
"What? Another woman?"
"She had married Mr. Karpov when she was quite young," he explained quietly. "And we all do foolish things when young. Anyway, I did not tell Mr. Karpov so as not to rattle him prior to his performance. I arranged the substitution"
"So any idea how a professional knife thrower like Yuri Karpov could end up burying his knife in the heart of his assistant, uh," he glanced at his notes, "Marie DuMaurier?"
The dwarf shook his head. "None at all. He had been
squinting a little lately, but nothing to explain such a blatant
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